The City in the CloudsStarted by Kerowyn Wintersong at 03 Feb, 2020 12:41 PM
3rd Moon 22, 2020
Mind the Three-fold Laws you should, three times bad and three times good.
Annwyn Court had many names. However, the two most often used and that best described it was the City in the Clouds and Waterfall City. Like most Gwerin city-fortresses, known as courts, Annwyn had been built high in the mountains. From its highest towers, its residents could see the Burning Sea far below them and even the open expanse of the western sea on the other side. Looking across the expanse of the Burning Sea and up, ever-upward, one could see the more prosaic towers and walls of Siege Perilous, home of the dragons. Waterfalls cascaded from shining rivers and streams to join with the main watercourse far below. From there, they ended in the Buring Sea or to the open ocean, depending on which waterway they joined. In the early morning sunlight, Annwyn's towers glinted gold and silver from the mineral flecks embedded in the stone it was built of. As the Gwerin capital and oldest city, it was suitably amazing.
For those without the ability to travel to Annwyn's protected portals or sail to one of its many landing daises on dragon-back, traveling to the City in the Clouds was quite involved. The road to the city, although well-maintained, was quite formidable as it wound ever higher into the mountains. Its many switchbacks left some people wondering if they were going to meet themselves coming and going. Magnificent, ornate, and nearly earthquake-proof bridges spanned gorges and fast-flowing rivers. The views were stunning, the heights dizzying.
Annwyn Court was home to many people, mostly Gwerin, but there were artisans, crafters, traders, and diplomats from other races as well. The court was home to a spectacular Theurgy Mystica and one of the oldest Guilds of Airmid on Aereth. The only other major settlement on Bassilith Island was the bustling port of Duskhallow. It lay in a protected inlet just west of the mouth of the Burning Sea. Not only did it offer a deep natural harbor, but there were also markets, shops, extensions of the Theurgy and Airmid, and a well-armed contingent of the Dragonguard to keep the peace.
These shining and amazing places were the realm of the Danu, the ruler of the Gwerin. Oh, she did not command the dragons of Siege Perilous, no one beyond the siege's empress controlled them. Kerowyn Wintersong, Danu of the Gwerin, turned away from the window, putting the view of her beloved mountains behind her. Immediately, she felt the presence of the creature that pressed itself against her legs, and her mind traveled back in time.
Mind the Three-fold Laws you should, three times bad and three times good.
Flashback: Waterfall Mountain, Winter, 2013
Kerowyn tried to force her eyes open, but they seemed to be crusted over by something, and it hurt too bad to battle them for now. Sighing softly, she slid into unconsciousness again, unaware of the huge creature that lay by her side dealing with its own pain. Many hours later, a persistent chill and a bit of dampness brought her fully awake. She tried to move but was wedged in, something large and warm lay against her side, and there seemed to be a heavy white blanket over the top of her. It took a moment for her to realize that she was in a small rockfall, weighted down with snow, and the warmth next to her was...
Alive and furred!
Startled and suddenly afraid, Kerowyn wanted to frantically claw her way out of the snow. It was the fear that kept her still and as quiet as possible. Sabercats of all kinds, dire wolves and gray wolves roamed the mountains around Annwyn Court. There were also wyverns, but they were neither warm nor furry. Besides, had she been dragged into a wyvern's den, she would have been eaten by now. They were not known for holding back where prey was concerned.
Tentatively, she shifted. The crusted stuff in the one eye proved to be blood. She remembered now! Something large and golden had leaped across the trail and startled Torch, her big bay gelding. She must have been thrown, which told her how frightened the horse had been since she was an expert horsewoman. Through the blanket of snow, she could tell that Aereth's sun was high in the sky, which explained the dampness. The snow was melting. Now for the really frightening part. Kerowyn opened both eyes and looked to see what creature lay next to her. Her gasp was loud, but the animal did not move.
The creature was the stuff of legend and myth on Aereth. As the human and human-like races expanded, their kind had withdrawn to the highest mountains. Nowadays, they were rarely seen, and many thought they were extinct or, considering how fanciful the tails about their cunning and intelligence, had never existed at all. It was a barsk, a creature that seemed to be both canine and cat. Why was this one here, and why had Kerowyn not been torn from limb-to-limb?
In the dim light being filtered in through gaps in the snow, it was hard to see the animal. However, Kerowyn knew what she would see. There was a huge tapestry hanging in one of the halls that depicted an encamped gypsy caravan, and on a rocky rise, a barsk stood watching them.
Barsks were large animals, some standing nearly four feet tall at the shoulder. Since they carried their neck and head erect instead of in-line with their shoulders, they could be up to five feet tall from ears to ground. In comparison to the length of its long, slender, almost delicate-looking legs, the barsk's body seemed rather small. The animal's paws were cat-like, each one arched with three deadly retractable claws. Their tails were a short tuft of fur, similar to that of a lynx. The muzzle was not overlong and widened to a head that was almost perfectly wedge-shaped. The eyes, set aslant beneath a slight brow ridge, would be blue, amber, or topaz in color. They also resembled a cat's eyes in shape. The top of the head widened, allowing for large, upswept ears. The narrow muzzle carried an impressive set of curved teeth and fangs. The coats of a barsk, in times long past, had been highly prized in some areas on Aereth. Its head was covered by short, sleek fur that matched the base color of their mane. The mane itself, formerly cherished as short tunics or jackets, was thick, silken, and luxurious. The color of the mane would ripple with lighter shades of the animal's base color. The mane started at the back of the head and flowed to the barsk's shoulders and down the front of its chest. The body and legs were covered in a shorter, very dense fur and usually patterned in subtle stripes.
Sure that she was risking her life, Kerowyn pushed her way up and through the snow. She shivered in the morning sun, but that was due to where the snowmelt had dampened her riding clothes. She groped for the dagger at her waist and sprang away from where the barsk lay. The creature whimpered a bit and tried to raise its head but gave up and lay still, panting from the exertion. Kerowyn replaced her dagger but remained alert. Then, she saw the reason for the animal's distress. A short crossbow bolt protruded from the barsk's shoulder, and blood matted the beautiful red-gold fur of its mane. Had she shot it? No, she felt certain she had not. It must have been wounded and crawled into the same rock and snow cave for warmth.
Kerowyn turned to leave. She needed to find her horse and get back to the city. People would be looking for her. A soft whimper stopped her, and she turned around. The barsk had tried again to get up - to follow her or attack her? Kerowyn sighed. She could not bring herself to kill such a rare creature and end its pain, nor could she leave it to suffer. She returned and kneeled next to it, gently running her fingers through the mane, "Rest. I will try to find Torch and take you where you can be healed." Strangely enough, she felt as if the animal could understand her.
It had been no easy thing to get the barsk home. She had found Torch and used a calming spell so that she could hoist the animal over the saddle. Kerowyn had vaulted up behind the saddle so that she could steady the living burden. Once back at Annwyn Court and in her chambers, Kerowyn had found it even more difficult to locate a healer that would care for such an animal. However, one had finally come, and the barsk survived.
Now, Cerdd, as she had named him, was her companion, although he was free to come and go as he pleased. Sometimes, Cerdd disappeared and stayed gone for a few days or a few months. Once, he had left and stayed away for nearly two years, only to return and not leave again. These days, while he enjoyed being in the forest and hunting for a few hours, he seemed mostly content to stay by Kerowyn's side.
A shift in the barsk's alertness caught Kerowyn's attention. She looked down into the fiercely intelligent eyes of the animal and laid her hand on his head, "Friend or foe, Cerdd?" The barsk could not talk to her but seemed to understand the gist of her words. A faint feeling augmented her own, and she realized that the approaching visitor was not a threat. Seconds later, there was a tap at her chamber door, and a woman stepped into the room, "The Lord-General requests an audience."
"Very well," the Danu said, "show him to the forest tower."
The forest tower was not really a tower, but more of a garden bower and as close to a throne room as the Danu maintained. A section of forest that included a small rill and waterfall had been enclosed. Small wild things came and went, lizards, stream fish, and birds mostly, but openings to the outside let other animals in and out also. They had grown accustomed to people coming and going so that now it barely disrupted their daily routines. The larger, potential prey animals such as the tiny pudú, the smallest deer species on Aereth, which stood only fourteen-to-sixteen inches tall, were a bit warier when Cerdd was present.
Kerowyn walked down the stone path, her formal blue and silver robes making very little sound as she moved. Her goal was a wider "courtyard" and the large granite boulder that had been carved into a formal "seat of power." Next to it, the rill cascaded over the rocks and tumbled along next to the walkway. Standing to one side of the chair was the tall, lean figure of Lachlan Wolfhand, the Lord-General of the Dragonguard. The dark uniform accented his almost saturnine, handsome features and bits of gray sprinkled his dark brown hair and beard, lending him a distinguished look. Kerowyn paused in front of him, once again caught by his eyes, which were amber in color, like dark honey.
"My Lord-General," Kerowyn inclined her head in greeting before stepping past him and mounting the single step to the chair. "What brings you all the way up here this morning?" Cerdd settled in the underbrush nearby, alert and watchful.
"My Grace," the man answered in reply. The role of Danu was that of a ruler but not technically royal since the position was chosen by representatives of the people. Kerowyn did not like to use the honorifics in use by the royalty of the younger races. Lady or Grace suited her well. "We must talk about a replacement for Lord-Paladin Trystan Ironfall."
"We do not know for certain that he is dead," Kerowyn protested half-heartedly.
Lachlan dropped his voice and said wryly, "After two years, Danu? No sign of him or Ainirril? They are dead or worse than dead. The Seneschal cannot continue trying to command the Morrighan. There needs to be a Lord-Paladin."
"We can promote the Seneschal," Kerowyn answered, knowing the argument to follow almost by heart. This was not the first time they had discussed the issue.
"With all due respect, My Grace, you do not know if you can trust the Seneschal. You do not know who you can trust here," the Lord-General said with a bit of asperity in his deep voice.
"I can trust Breccan," Kerowyn said, bringing up the name of her younger sibling. "And, Trystan trusted the Seneschal, why should I not?"
"Breccan Windmaster is not ready to command the Morrighan, and your argument regarding the trust the Lord-Paladin had for his seneschal negates itself. After all, where is Trystan Ironfall?"
"I will assume that you come bearing a name?" Kerowyn raised her eyebrows, trying to look haughty and commanding.
"Yes, send for Windwalker. Whatever happened before, he would never betray you," the Lord-General uttered the name with some wariness.
The Danu's icy blue eyes widened, and she pushed at her long, heavy, silvery braid. "No, that is not possible. He is not wingbonded and certainly no longer of the character to lead the Morrighan."
"He served with distinction before his dragon was slain," Lachlan pointed out, the irony of defending the man that had been his rival for almost everything in their youth not lost on him. "Hawke Windwalker would not be the first Morrighan to come out of retirement and impress another dragon...not even the first Lord-Paladin to have to do so. He is your blood kin, Lady."
"Lachlan Wolfhand, do you know how much I hate it when you are right?" Kerowyn said without heat.
"As much as I hate to be wrong," Lachlan replied, "You will send to Siege Baishen for him then?" He named the siege in Xia that was Windwalker's last known whereabouts.
"I will send for him," Kerowyn acknowledged. "Let us hope that you are not mistaken, and he is not beyond redemption." After Wolfhand took his leave, the Danu summoned one of her staff to her, "Send a raven to find Breccan Windmaster. The message is that he will attend dinner with me tonight."
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
Breccan returned from his patrol duty in time to bathe and change into clean clothes before leaving for the mandatory dinner appointment with the Danu. He was mildly curious about the summons but relatively unconcerned. There had been no Shadowborn incursions within Siege Perilous's territories, and he had not, to the best of his memory, done anything lately that could get him into trouble. His workdays had been divided between lecturing at the Dragonflight Academy and out with Rhagarth patrolling or hunting. Most evenings, he retired to his aerie early, did a few chores, then rolled into bed, pleasantly exhausted. That left one possibility. The Danu's summons was a family summons. Aunt, not ruler.
Gwerin clan, blood kin, and familial relationships were complicated. It had not been known at the time, but the Sedayin's endless curiosity had unleashed the Shadowborn on Aereth. Subsequently, there had been the Shadow Wars on Bassilith Island and throughout the other lands on the continent of Vendia. The dragons' songs indicated that these incursions had occurred worldwide. As Uthuria fell and was destroyed, the cataclysm reverberated all over the globe. The aftermath, a volcanic winter, had precipitated an ice age that lasted nearly four-thousand-years. In response to the devastating losses caused by the wars and then the global catastrophe, the Gwerin had sought to rebuild their population as quickly as possible. Marriage and monogamy had been a luxury they could ill afford if they were to grow their numbers. This led to large, fragmented clans spread out all over the known lands of the world. Fortunately, like the dragons, the Gwerin possessed the ability to "sense" their blood kin and the innate knowledge of how close they were.
Disparate clan relations were not the issue between Breccan and his aunt, Kerowyn Wintersong, the Danu. Like most of the women born to Teàrlach Windmaster and Muire Wintersong, Kerowyn had chosen her mother's clan name on Naming Day. Her brother had been Conn Windmaster, Breccan's father. Since neither of his parents had been alive on his sixteenth birthday, Breccan had chosen his father's clan name. There was an uncle somewhere. But he had chosen to earn his clan name. The why of that was unknown to Breccan.
Instead of calling for Rhagarth to take him across the mountains to Annwyn Court, Breccan made his way to the citadel. There were a couple of stationary portals there, and one of the mages assigned to the siege took him through to the court. A few seconds and some dizzyness later, Breccan was in the portal room of the Court. He waved off the attendant, explaining that he knew his way around and was expected.
He reached the level that housed his aunt's apartments. Before the courtier could stop him, he raised and dropped the handle of the large, intricately carved door-knocker. Before the sound finished echoing around the antechamber, Breccan pushed the doors open, calling out loudly, "Auntie! It is I, your beloved neph..."
The words died in his throat as Breccan realized that his aunt was not alone. Seated with her were two people that he did not recognize. From their raiment, which was far richer than even the robes his aunt wore, Breccan guessed that they were Gwerin High-Born.
The Danu and her guests rose to their feet, "Breccan Windmaster, my brother's son. Isbeil and Artair Irontalon."
The introductions were short and sweet. Breccan inclined his head politely while sizing up his aunt's two guests. Both were tall and almost ethereally slender with dark hair and dark eyes, leading him to surmise that they were related and not a bonded couple. The man's face with its high cheekbones, narrow aristocratic nose, and fine-lipped mouth would probably be considered handsome by most. Yet, the look in his near-black eyes left Breccan feeling as if there was something very dark and cruel about him. The woman's face was a study in delicate beauty and dominated by her huge, cat-slanted dark eyes. He would have considered her stunningly beautiful were in not for the haughty tilt of her head as she openly appraised him with her eyes.
"I wish I had known you were entertaining guests, My Grace," Breccan said with a smile toward Kerowyn, "I would have dressed differently." As it was, he was in clean riding leathers and tunic dyed in soft earth tones.
Kerowyn's lips twitched. She knew that Breccan was lying. He would not have dressed differently. In fact, it was likely he would have come in smelling of dragons and the earth had he known the reason that she invited the Irontalons to join them for dinner.
Mind the Three-fold Laws you should, three times bad and three times good.
Before much could be said, a soft chiming sounded, and Kerowyn held up her hand toward Breccan, "Dinner is served." She rested her hand on Breccan's arm. The barsk rose from where he had been lying next to the Danu's chair.
A door opened on the far side of the room, revealing a small dining table set up in the courtyard. Moonglobes provided light while the songs of night birds and water fountains provided soothing music. The Danu gestured each of them to a chair. Breccan took his place behind his chair and waited. The Gwerin were not quite as connected to the natural world as was the Aelfyn, but they did hold a deep respect for that which graced their tables and nourished them. The Danu crossed the courtyard to one of the fountains, which was little more than a tall, rough-hewn slab of dark granite. A hole in the center of its flat top allowed water to burble up and run down its sides. Breccan knew that the water source was one of the many artesian wells found around the island. The Danu took a pewter cup from a niche in the stone and held it under the water. Once it was filled, she stepped over to where a riot of flowers grew. Tilting the cup, she spilled a few drops of water onto them, then on the dirt near them while murmuring a singsong chant of thanks for the meal they were about to consume.
"Corn and grain, meat and milk,
upon my table before me.
Gifts of life, bringing sustenance and strength,
I am grateful for all I have."
"So mote it be," Breccan said in unison with the two guests. The Danu returned and took her seat. The Irontalons and Windmaster followed suit. Immediately, attendants brought in pitchers of water, wine, and steaming bowls of soup. Breccan sniffed appreciatively as the smell of conchs, mussels, and various herbs and spices assaulted his senses.
The conversation was kept to general topics as the foursome consumed their meal. The soup course was followed by small salads and the main course of roasted and buttered quail and a haunch of smoked venison. After the meal, attendants brought a crystal carafe of spiced wine, and the Danu led Breccan and her guests to a sitting alcove in the courtyard's garden.
Kerowyn felt the mood shift slightly. She glanced at Breccan, wondering if her normally insightful nephew had picked up on her unease. She was not completely comfortable with the decisions she had made that day. However, for the sake of all, some things had to be done. There was no guarantee that her brother, Hawke Windwalker, would answer her summons or even acknowledge it. If he did, he still might refuse to take command of the Morrighan. She had never chosen a Dagda, a military leader for the Gwerin, a man that commanded both the Dragonguard and the Morrighan. This meant she needed to replace Siege Perilous's Lord-Paladin as soon as possible. There was also the unsettling gossip and rumors that kept finding their way to her ears that indicated a number of the High-Born were beginning to agitate for her replacement. Kerowyn's current plan might put delay any proceedings in that direction.
She held her breath as Ardair Irontalon raised his crystal wine goblet to her in a salute, gave a slight nod, and smiled. His daughter, Isbeil, also smiled, but it was a sly one and directed down at the toe of one of her Sidán silk slippers.
The Danu rose, indicating it was time to end the evening. Breccan also rose to his feet along with the guests. His gaze sharpened on his aunt when Ardair Irontalon said, "It is agreed then. The summer equinox?" Isbeil continued to keep her eyes turned demurely toward the ground, although the sly smile hovered on her lips.
"The arrangements will be made," Kerowyn answered, very aware of her nephew's blue-green eyes on her.
Just as Ardair stepped past them and out of the door, Isbeil looked up, her dark eyes locking with Breccan's. The expression appeared to be one of triumph as if she had just won a competition. Before he could figure out what had caused that look, she followed her father out of the door.
"Walk with me," Kerowyn said after Ardair and his daughter were gone. She looped her arm through Breccan's and began to stroll along the stone path that wound through the garden. "I will be direct, nephew. You will wed Isbeil Irontalon on the summer solstice."
Breccan stopped dead in his tracks. The sudden cessation of movement also jolted the Danu to a stop. He stared down at his aunt, his eyes more green than blue as his temper flared, "I will not."
"It was not a request," Kerowyn replied, her voice laced with steel, which caused Cerdd, the barsk, to growl low in his throat. "It is arranged. You should see about moving from your aerie to the citadel."
The argument that ensued was long and often heated. Breccan cited all sorts of reasons why he could not be commanded to wed. However, the Danu had the last word, "I am the Danu. It is done."