Sunday, 30 June 2013

Avan Weatherstrong and the Riders in Little Hill

Before the time of the Vanishing, when all the dragons went away, there were a number of realms that were ruled by, or living in symbiosis with, the Draconic races. These realms were governed by a treaty between the dragons and the folk known as the Ninefold Covenant.

In that dim and distant past Faerie had a greater geography than it does today, with three vast continents separated by two enormous oceans. The continents of Araby and Axis were connected by a thin spit of land marking a dividing point between the Trader's Ocean and the dark waters of the Ocean Incognita. The last continent, Terra Draconis, lay at the far end of the Crystal Ocean, its vast trenches and extensive underwater kingdoms make up most of the sub-oceanic shadows, even today.

The riches to be found in the Terra Draconis were many, the routes to cross the oceans few and fraught with dangers. One of the most detailed accounts left across the former continent of Axis (now home to the Hundred Kingdoms and the Crossway Realms) is the account of the adventures of Prince Avan Weatherstrong set down in the tenth volume of his adventures.

If one were to look at a standard edition of 'The Tales of Avan Weatherstronge Vol. X' purchased, for example, from a stall at the Patchwork Market of Bridgetown one would probably find the following tale set down there. However, if one were to visit some of the deeper stacks of the Faerie Archive of Levercastle one may find the events transpired a little differently in the 'Fully Annotated' edition of the same volume written in a special expanding binding with intelligent ink. Such refinements are only to be located in Faerie's only real library, probably because of the testing effect they tend to have on the surrounding reality.

In this tale Avan Weatherstrong emerged from the sea road through the undersea kingdom of Redkale to cross the border into the coastal kingdom of Bromo. This would be his first days in the Terra Draconis and he was excited to see the last of the lands of Faerie first hand.

The first sign of trouble in Bromo came when he climbed up the stairs cut into the rock of the Bromo Cliffs to find that his entry onto land was barred by a tall gate, a tower to one side provided enough room to house a few guards. Avan knocked upon the door and saw a face appear at the top of the tower.

"Who goes there?" challenged the Broman guard from above.

"My name is Prince Avan Weatherstrong," Avan explained. "I bear a Seal of the Hundred Kingdoms, I seek no more than to travel through your lands upon my great journey among the lands of Faerie."

Avan held up the golden circle, the seal of the Hundred Kingdoms but from the top of the tower it must have looked like no more than a small golden saucer.

"Wait there," the guard told him, "I'm coming down."

There was the scuffle of a number of boots against stone and a small hatch opened in the gate.

"Hold up your seal," the guard demanded, Avan complied.

There was the sound of a number of bolts and latches being undone before the gate finally opened. Across the threshold of the kingdom of Bromo was a small stone room and two nervous looking guards holding spears, regarding Avan with suspicion.

"I take it you were expecting something more troublesome than a travelling prince?" Avan asked.

"Kalers," one of the guards mumbled in response.

"They don't usually come in the day time, they've not been coming at night so often. They're probably up to something," the other one said. He scanned the stairway behind Avan, as if expecting to find an attack force that he had not previously noted, skulking among the jagged walls of rock to either side.

"You are at war with your neighbours?" Avan asked. "That is a great shame. Men like you should be building a kingdom, not waiting in fear in a damp gatehouse."

"You'd best come through," one of the guards said. "Not safe to have the gate open for too long."

Avan entered the gatehouse and one of the guards closed and locked the door behind him. The chamber beyond the gate was small and bare, there was a set of steps off to Avan's left and a larger wooden double door about eight feet further on.

"I'm really just passing through," Avan said to the guards. "I have come to see the wonders of the Terra Draconis. Maybe, if I talk with your ruler, then I could offer some insight into whatever is troubling this realm."

"You'll have to take the Caer Road," the guard said. "You'd be better on a horse, not long now until sundown."

"What's the problem with sundown?" Avan asked. There were often, in his experience, problems with sundown, the question was more an assessment of what kind of problem this might be.

"The riders come out, usually after night fall, sometimes at dusk," the guard said. "Take the road to Little Hill, that's not so far away, you can stay at the Inn."

Avan was curious about what a rider might be but he could tell that the guards were keen to send him on his way during the last few hours of daylight so he held his tongue. One of the guards went up the stairs, back into the watch tower, the other lead Avan through the double doors at the opposite end of the antechamber and out onto a broad courtyard. A simple four stall stable was set up to one side of the courtyard, there were a few wooden stakes to the opposite side that were probably used for combat practice. At the far end of the courtyard was a high wall and, in the centre, two tall wooden gates topped with spikes.

Without talking, or even looking at Avan, the guard lead the prince to the gates. He opened a wicket in the gate on the right.

"Little Hill road goes that way," he said pointing to a cobbled road that split north from the junction just beyond the gates. Avan noticed that the guard was stood away from the open wicket, his nervousness had increased with the little door open. "Town's just over the hill in the valley beyond," the guard said. "Don't stop, get to the inn as quick as you can, when evening bell rings close the shutters on your room. They'll tell you what to do."

Avan's curiosity was now raging but he did not think that this guard would appreciate a barrage of questions. Avan would have to find someone more talkative in this town, Little Hill. He thanked the guard for the advice before setting foot on the Little Hill road.

The walk into the town did not take long, he reached the town limits while the sun still had quite a distance to sink upon its travels. Avan had travelled a long way on his journey and so he was neither surprised nor disappointed that his first experience of the Terra Draconis was indistinguishable, in many ways, from his experience of anywhere else he had been.

The air was a little chilly, the sky was a light grey, Avan imagined that some rain could not be too far away. The local vegetation in Bromo was verdant but not exotic, all in line with a temperate autumnal season. The only unusual thing about Bromo was how quiet the roads were and how scared the guards had been.

Little Hill was no more reassuring. People rushed back and forth with a sense of urgency, most ignored Avan, those that didn't regarded him wide-eyed, appearing to assess him as they would a stray dog that may turn out to be rabid. Avan heard many people make remarks about wanting to get things done before curfew.

In the early days of his adventures Avan's curiosity at this odd behaviour would surely have got the better of him. When he had begun his journey his patience had not been tempered by so many brushes with death. He was confident that he could get some information from someone at the Inn, these establishments were always the hub of all the most interesting information to be gleaned in a particular place at a particular time.

Little Hill Inn was adjacent to the town's market square. By the time Avan arrived the stalls had all been removed or locked up, even though the evening bell was still a little time away. As Avan approached the inn he observed townsfolk heading indoors with some haste. Many of the houses that surrounded the square were shut up tight, blank faced shutters hiding the interior from view. To one side of the square there were three houses that had been burned out, a sign advised passers by to stay away from the ruins.

Whatever Avan's expectations had been of the inn they did not include the desolate tavern area that he stepped into. There were no more than ten patrons in the whole place, a bored looking draco stood behind the bar occupying his time with a bar-room skittles set. The green skinned inn keeper was the first draco Avan had ever seen so he tried his hardest not to feel underwhelmed.

Avan had experienced some difficulty separating out the draco, a race of dragon-people who walked on two legs like the folk, from lizard men. Now that he could see one to compare he understood that you could not mistake one for another. Lizard men were related to goblins, as such they tended to be wiry of frame, their heads were far more lizard than folk, their skin was scaled, their eyes had yellow irises and black slitted pupils.

The draco were smoother skinned, if anything their complexion looked as if it were made of some kind of soft fabric, tinted not just green but rather in a wash of colours including yellow, blue, purple and green. Their eyes were an odd china blue at the edges with large dark pupils that sometimes shone as they caught the light. Instead of having a steady iris the pupil gave the appearance of being on fire.

The draco also carried a natural bulk, even this small bar man appeared stocky, robust with health. Black hair sprouted from his head in a stripe that gave his pointed ears plenty of breathing room either side. At the back the barman's hair was gathered into a clip.

Avan approached the draco who was intent on knocking down the four badly spaced pins still standing on the board. The bar man made Avan wait until the ball had swung through its arc, narrowly missing two of the pins, clipping one so that it fell and going nowhere near the fourth. The bar man tutted at his failure and readjusted his focus to point in Avan's direction.

"The guards at the cliff stair gatehouse told me that I should come here and book a room for the night," Avan said.

"They must have liked you," the bar man replied. "Room's four florins."

Avan put down a crown.

"People round here appear to be frightened," Avan said. "Maybe while you show me my room we could talk about that."

"Your money," the barman shrugged, pocketing the crown. "Follow me."

The bar man lead Avan out of the main tavern area up a set of steps that wound round up to a second floor. He showed Avan to a small, functional guest room. Avan noted, upon entering the room, that the shutters were already closed and locked.

"Don't open them," the bar man said, following the direction of Avan's gaze. "I don't want any trouble."

"What's so troubling?" Avan asked. "I think you'll find I've paid for an answer."

"Wolf riders," the bar man said. "Mercenaries hired by Redkale. They have beseiged the whole of Bromo,"

"Why?" Avan asked. "Such a campaign must be ruinous for both kingdoms. Only the mercenaries would make any profit."

"Redkale's daughter, Princess Auriga and Bromo's son, Prince Lachlan, they are married," the barman said. "Redkale has never supported the mingling of land dwellers and merfolk. He was less than understanding on the matter."

"It's unusual for a Lord to jeopardise his people supporting his child's love match," Avan said. It was a remark that Avan hoped the barman would recognise as a diplomatically phrased question.

"There's enchantment involved," the barman said. "That's all you need to know for now. That and, don't open the shutters, until you hear morning bell. We'll bring you your supper after evening bell, there isn't a night bell."

With that the bar man withdrew, leaving Avan to get as comfortable as he could in his cell-like room. He took his heeding stone from its pouch in a boot pocket and set it up on the small dresser. He took his binding scarf from around his neck and laid it over the surface of the small mirror attached to the dresser. Only then did he remove some of his armoured travelling clothes and stretch out the tiredness in his muscles.

After a short time Avan heard the muted sound of the evening bell through the shutters. A draco woman, possibly the inn keeper's wife or sister, brought Avan a bowl of hearty broth and some unusual dense bread. Avan ate slowly and then talked with his heeding stone for a little while before retiring into the bed in his room. The complete dark and silence felt like a cocoon so the prince fell swiftly to sleep.

Avan had been travelling for too long to be a deep sleeper, so when the scream made its way through the muffle of the stout wooden shutters it awoke him. There wasn't much else in the way of sound and the scream had already died by the time he was conscious, to the point where most people would have been uncertain whether or not they had dreamed the noise.

In his travels Avan had cause to deal with the forces of the dream world, he had cause to know better than most what was real and what was not. The scream had been muffled but already Avan had recalled it to mind, it had been female, probably young, so close to the bleat of an animal in distress but that was another distinction that Avan had learned to pick apart.

Still, he couldn't be certain but where there was doubt there was also possibility. He crept to the shutters, unlocked them and opened them just a crack to peer out into the dark night.

The streets of Little Hill by night were not well lit. There was evidence that there were some lights here and there, low down to street level, mostly the view out of the window was dark, then there was the rainbow corona. A column of whirling rainbow light picked out the tiles of rooftops in narrow streets, approaching the market square. Every so often the column would collapse and the view would darken, before, once more blooming upwards shooting towards the sky.

With the shutters open a crack Avan could detect the sounds of snarling and shouting, no doubt the noise of the riders stalking whatever it was that formed the centre of the corona. Avan had to act, someone could be in danger and he had no confidence that anyone from Little Hill would risk involvement.

He quickly pulled on his armoured clothes and picked up his short sword and channeling staff. He wanted to be stealthy but had no time for a serious enchantment, he spoke a darkening charm that merely dimmed his form, making it less distinct and muting the noises he made. Then he stole out of his room and down into the tavern.

The door to the inn was locked up tight with a mortice lock, Avan muttered the words of a minor thieves' cantrip and touched his channelling staff to the lock and it sprung open. He was careful to close the door again behind him, he didn't want to think of the riders finding a house that wasn't secured. Once the door was locked Avan ran into the dark streets trying to locate the rainbow corona once more.

It didn't take long to spot it, the column of light was still blooming upwards, fading and blooming again, clear against the night sky. Avan's eyes were becoming used to the darkness now and he picked his way quickly across the market square avoiding the locked up permanent stalls, water butts and other obstacles that could have slowed him down.

As he drew closer to the corona it became apparent that its source was mobile, it was moving toward the market square, only a few streets distant. As Avan reached the western edge of the square he heard a sound from his left. He turned his eyes to see a shadowy figure emerge from between two buildings about forty feet distant from his position.

The figure was a giant wolf, it looked to be a large cousin of the dire wolf found in Axis, mounted on its back was a soldier in armour, one of the riders. Behind it came two more. Avan darted forward to gain cover at the corner of the street he was headed toward. Once he was behind the wall he carefully surveyed the approaching riders from his cover, trying to assess whether they had targetted him specifically or just happened to be headed in his direction.

From a quick glance it did not appear that Avan had been spotted. It was likely they were moving around to hem in the source of the rainbow corona. That meant that he had to head in towards the source quickly, before it was too late.

The source was only one street over now, around a corner about sixty feet ahead. It appeared to be travelling in his direction. Avan picked up his heels and ran towards it, determined to beat the riders to the prize.

The source and the prince reached the junction at the same time. Avan found himself looking into the furious face of a little girl wearing an almost comical lemon-yellow party frock under which could be seen the ominous black leather of a pair of stout boots. The corona centred on her illuminating her form and providing a glowing spear of light that pierced the night sky, betraying her location.

For a moment Avan and the little girl just stared at one another, neither certain which would move first. The little girl broke the deadlock, darting forward and kicking Avan soundly in the right shin.

She was three feet away from him, dodging around to his right, before he had recovered from the unexpected pain enough to move after her. He didn't want to draw attention to himself by calling out. Avan started after her, back up the street he'd come down originally, but neither of them got very far before the riders came down ahead of them. The three wolves spread out across the road to cut off their retreat.

The little girl spun on her heel and dodged back round Avan without even acknowledging his presence to run west further along the street. Avan quickly checked the southern approach where the girl had emerged from, there were more riders coming up that way. It was almost certain that there would be a third band of riders up the other street. The rainbow corona was too easy to pinpoint.

There was no time for questions, and equally little for subtlety. Avan had problems with works of sorcery, particularly in circumstances such as this, but the price of a one-off effect would be minor. He held out his hand and recited the summoning charm for his familiar. The tiny figure of an imp appeared in the palm of his hand.

"Long time no see, Princey," the little man said. "You must be desperate."

"The power of flight, until sunrise, how much?" Avan asked. He could hear the heavy lope of the wolves coming closer.

"One hundred hairs from your head, they will never grow back," the imp said.

"One hundred?" Avan asked, he was in a poor position to bargain but one hundred hairs was the potential for one hundred curses to be worked attached to him, one hundred death kisses, one hundred doppelshades, one hundred custom built mirror prisons. "Twenty, maybe."

"I'll do seventy," the imp replied. "Doesn't look like we can haggle any further if you want to keep the head those hairs grow from."

"Done," Avan responded and felt a smattering of prickles on his scalp as the hairs were extracted.

"A pleasure doing business, princey, don't be a stranger," the imp said before exploding in a puff of acrid purple smoke.

"I hate sorcery," Avan muttered as his feet lifted from the ground. He swooped forward just as the axe wielded by one of the riders swung through the space he had occupied until the very moment before.

The flight wasn't smooth, the power had been given with too much inertia, Avan would have to be careful about stopping and turning. Right now he had to aim for the rainbow corona and get the little girl out of harm's way.

The corona was still obvious, it had slowed to a stop about twenty feet further on, no doubt the girl had seen the other riders and was now looking for some avenue of escape. There was no time for anything clever. Avan soared down the street, gripped the little girl round the waist, eliciting another huge scream that rattled his eardrums, before finally shooting up into the sky.

Once he was far enough over the roof tops he flew towards the coast, where he knew the courtyard outside the cliff gatehouse would be open to the sky and locked down tight.

"Get off me!" the little girl shouted, squirming to get out of Avan's grasp.

"Stop struggling," Avan said. "I don't want you to fall. I'm not going to hurt you."

"Good for you," the little girl said. "I'm most definitely going to hurt you, as soon as I get the chance."

Avan was so surprised by the comment he nearly fell out of the air.

"I just saved your life," Avan said.

"How do I know that?" the little girl asked. "You're flying, that means you're a sorcerer, and sorcerers are mean."

"I might be an alchemist," Avan responded.

"Alchemists can't make people fly," the girl scoffed. "They just make things smell, or explode, sometimes both."

"Alchemists can work any magic, if they're skilled enough. I could be a druid, they fly," Avan said.

"I don't know anything about druids, if you mean witches they need a broomstick, you've got no broomstick, you're definitely a sorcerer."

"Well, currently," Avan said. "I'm a sorcerer who rescued you from soldiers on wolf back," Avan said. "So I think I deserve the benefit of the doubt. You can hurt me later, if I try to hurt you, deal?"

"I suppose," the little girl said.

Avan couldn't help but notice that when she made her last remark the halo of rainbow light faded a little.

"Where are we going?" the little girl asked.

"Guard house, on the coast," Avan said. "We can get you inside until morning, then you might not stand out so much."

"Will there be guards?" the girl asked.

"There usually are in guardhouses," Avan answered. The light instantly blossomed brighter. "Why are you glowing?" Avan asked.

"It's a punishment," the girl said. "From my stupid personal tutor. He makes me glow whenever I'm thinking of mischief. I've been glowing for three weeks now, almost constantly. He said it was so he could find me easily when I was up to no good."

"I take it your personal tutor is a trickster, then?" Avan said. He had heard of such sprites, they were attached to people the powers that be had deemed to be in need of a drastic lesson.

"He's a stupid, that's all I know," the little girl said.

Avan saw the light of the gatehouse tower, he curved round to make a landing.

"So how did you end up in Little Hill, after dark, alone?" Avan asked.

"It's a 'field trip', whatever that means," the little girl replied. "I told him I would do anything to get rid of the light, he said 'really, anything?' and I said 'anything' and he said 'even go on a field trip?', and I told him that if it would help me get rid of the light I would do anything at all. So he tapped me on the head with his stick and then I was in that town.

"I wasn't glowing at first, I was too amazed. Then I saw the wolf people and I couldn't help but wonder if I could steal one of the wolves, I mean, they're amazing. Then they spotted me, they were angry, that's a usual sort of reaction in anyone who's met me before, I didn't think they had. Anyway I ran, they came after me and you took me away to here."

The little girl finished speaking just as Avan touched down in the courtyard. The two guards from the tower, who were a different pair from the ones who had lead Avan through earlier, came running out, waving their spears.

"Which," the little girl concluded. "Looks really dull, apart from the spears." She turned to address one of the guards. "Hey, mister, that's a really good spear, can I have a go?"

The rainbow corona was still shining brightly. Avan held up his seal of the Hundred Kingdoms.

"Gentlemen," he said. "I will explain, inside, I think we need to contain this little girl before her light brings the riders down on this place."

The guards were confused but they weren't idiots, they hurried Avan and the little girl into the guard tower where Avan explained the situation to them. The little girl turned out to be called Anabyl Spireshine (which seemed odd as Spireshine was one of the hundred kingdoms that neighboured Avan's own home of Weatherstrong) and she identified herself as a princess. She found it hard to believe that Avan was who he claimed to be because she said he was 'from a storybook'.

Avan found out a bit more about Anabyl and how she had come to the Terra Draconis, why she was there and how he could return her to her home. All of this is a story for another time.

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