Disclaimer; Elemental Truth, the first of the Elemental Wars books, is in the final stages of editing. Hope you all enjoy it.*
It took them three weeks traveling along the southern trading route to get to the coast of Lorn. Another three weeks of travel, following the winding north road, brought them to the village of Dhaul. Once guarded over by the Fortress of Dhaul, a center of commerce, it had dwindled to a modest fishing village nestled between the ocean and the towering Dhaulation Mountains. The steep foothills looked, from a distance, blanketed by a sea of soft greens.
The village itself clustered around the old trading route road which switched from paved road to wide dirt path, winding through the southwestern territories of Nekar. In the center of the village was the market. Central hub of activity. Locals spread their wares to sell, hoping to catch the attention of the rare passersby. Tier stopped by a wagon filled with assorted fruits and vegetables, and glanced around. Though the villagers were continuing their usual activities, they were all watching him and Rale closely. Tier sighed. They were supposed to look for elementals here?
“Is that the fortress?” Rale pointed towards the southern granite face that towered over the valley. Tier could make out towers brushing the underside of dark clouds. He turned to the merchant, but the man was already speaking.
“We’ll have rain before nightfall, gracious lords.” He lifted a fruit, offering it to Rale. “Fruit’s the first off the tree, the very best!”
“What is that?” Rale took the fruit.
“Starfruit, only grows in this region.” Tier said absently. “How much?”
“For you, gracious lord, ’tis free.” The man bowed.
“I can’t take your wares without proper payment, good sir.” Tier pulled a coin out. “It’s not fair to you.”
The man’s eyes widened at the sight of the coin. “I will take no payment, gracious lord, but a donation would not be refused.”
“A donation then.” Tier handed him the coin and motioned toward the mountains. “Is there a pathway up to the Keep?”
The merchant frowned, tucking the coin into an inner pouch of his coat. “There is, but the way is dangerous, and overgrown. The imperials stopped patrolling that section of the road. There is a guide, though, he takes in travelers and takes people up the road. He’s never lost anyone.”
“Where would we find him?” Tier glanced around, the curious stares of the nearby villagers was unnerving, they needed to get out of sight before things turned ugly.
“Well, there is a dunurch up the road.” The merchant pointed. “The guide can often be found there. He’s a surly gossip, though.”
“I’ll consider myself warned.” Tier inclined his head as the merchant bowed, and steered Rale back towards the horses.
“A what?” Rale hissed as they walked away.
“A dunurch, it’s something like a restaurant or eating hall.” Tier said, glancing around the seemingly busy road. They had no guards, nothing to hint that they were more than just travelers passing through. The villagers sensed they were different. Eyes followed their every move. Tier untied his horse and motioned Rale to follow.
“They’re nosy.” Rale said.
Tier nodded. “We’ll stop at the dunurch and figure out where to go from here.”
“Do you have any idea what we are looking for?”
Tier shook his head and was several steps in front of Rale before he realized his cousin had halted. He half turned.
“Then what are we supposed to do?”
“We’ll discuss it over dinner.” Tier glanced around. “We’re drawing a crowd out here.”
He ignored Rale’s grumbles behind him. His cousin didn’t grasp the necessity of keeping his head down. He was far too used to the perks of his station. Tier doubted he’d ever traveled without an entourage or guard, except for the trip to the Oracle. In the outlaying provinces of the Empire, unless there was a guard, it wasn’t wise to announce your affiliation with the Imperial household. Resentment still ran deep. Though it had been over four hundred years since the storming of the fortress and the acquisition of Dhaul into the Empire, these people could relate the battle account as though it happened yesterday.
The dunurch was unnamed, probably a meeting place everyone knew about. They tied up their horses and Tier led the way. It was a wide, circular building, round low tables with cushions spaced in a circular pattern. The Dunurch Keeper hurried over, a thin aging man who bowed low, staring at Tier for an uncomfortable moment before his eyes widened and blood drained from his face.
“Please, no titles. We just need a table and light.”
“This way, most gracious lords.” The man bowed and turned walking stiffly around tables.
The cushions were worn and stained. Tier glanced at Rale’s dubious expression and settled on his.
“They don’t bite Rale.” Tier said. Rale started to say something then shook his head and cringed as he lowered himself to the stained cushion.
“I should have told her no thanks.”
“Do you think she would have taken that answer?” Tier asked. The Dunurch Keeper set a tray with an elaborate silver teapot and several little silver cups.
“The meal is a tasis over grain and steamed vegetables, is this acceptable?” The man was actually wringing his hands together.
“Sounds great.” Rale made a dismissal gesture and leaned forward, squinting at the shiny table top. “It looks clean.”
“Rale.” Tier scowled as the Dunurch Keeper stiffly walked towards the kitchen.
“Tier this place is filthy.”
“Do you want to sleep in the rain?” Tier asked, pulling a map out of his vest.
“No.” Rale said after a long pause. “I don’t want to die of sickness from bad food though.”
Tier poured tea into a small cup and handed it to Rale. “Then be nice to the people who give you food, here. The Empire isn’t exactly trusted in the outer territories.”
“Hmm. What next?”
Tier poured himself some of the tea, sipping it and glancing around the dunurch. They were the only guests, aside from the young woman and an older man sitting in the far corner of the room, speaking low in the local in the local rough dialect. No threat. He unfolded the map and set the tea to one side.
“She sent us here for a reason,” He said, tapping the map.
“Why?” Rale leaned forward, voice hushed. “Our likelihood of returning home alive is not good, Tier. There are no…” He sat back as several plates were deposited in front of them. “There are no more…”
“There were rumors around Jaktor that there were pockets of elementals hiding north of the mountains.” Tier said. “I didn’t give them much thought, until meeting the Seeress.” He finished his tea, folded the map away and motioned to the plates of food. “This doesn’t look half bad.”
They ate quickly and spoke little. Regulars began filing in, lightning lit up the sky, and each time the door opened a rush of cool moist air accompanied the new guests. As the Dunurch Keeper cleared the table Tier watched the young woman and old man in the far corner; both looked uneasy as the tables around theirs filled up.
“Good sir,” Tier lifted his hand, catching the attention of the Dunurch Keeper. “we’re looking for guides up the mountain.” Tier said. The Dunurch Keeper gestured toward the pair in the corner.
“Matau and his granddaughter know the mountain paths to the Keep, and beyond, better than anyone else.” He said. “You’d be wanting lodging too?”
“There’s an inn?” Rale said. The man shook his head.
“Matau.” The Dunurch Keeper waved him over and turned back to them. “He’s a gossip and Xin is a bit strange. But they have taken many up the mountain to the fortress and back safely and they take in lodgers. They’re the only ones who will.”
Tier nodded, watching the pair make their way over. The old man leaned heavily on his cane while the young woman followed behind at a distance. Her blue-gray eyes flickered over Tier and Rale, not quite meeting his gaze, before looking towards the Dunurch Keeper. Her dark hair was pulled back in a bun with two carved wooden hair-sticks in it. Though not very tall, there was something very peculiar about the way she stood, hands gripping the hem of her too-large tunic. She glanced back up, meeting Tier’s gaze then looked away. Oddly shaped blue eyes and the pale skin, Tier was intrigued. She didn’t fit in.
“Tis too late to go up the mountain.” The old man said, his words slurred. He settled on a cushion with a grunt, jabbing at the cushion between him and Tier. “Xin, sit.” She sat, keeping her eyes lowered.
“Shall I bark too, Matau?” She asked, her voice low.
“Hush, girl. The road to the fortress is steep, and dangerous.”
“Howso?” Rale asked.
“Bandits, spirits, wild animals.” Matau shrugged.
“How long do you plan on staying up in the Fortress?” Xin asked.
“A day or two,” Tier shrugged. “Then on to Delebeg.”
The Xin and Matau exchanged a dubious look. “There are outlaws in the forests beyond the fortress. Since there are so few Imperial Patrols in this area, they gather in those mountain passes, robbing those passing through.”
“Tier…” Rale began. Their perspective guides gasped in unison.
“Prince Tier?” Xin asked, staring at him with wide eyes. Tier inclined his head, shooting a dark glare at Rale. He was going to have some strong words with his cousin. She shook her head. “What is an imperial Prince doing in the backwoods sticks of the empire? Without a guard?”
“None of your business, girl.” Rale snapped.
“Personal curiosity.” Tier said. They needed these two, to guide them up the mountain. He’d rather have a guide than fumble through unknown, possibly hostile territory.
Xin’s eyes narrowed. “If we’re going to be guiding both your lordships up the mountain, knowing who we’re dealing with is my business, my lord.” She leaned forward, pinning Rale with an unfriendly stare. “I’m not going to risk my neck if you two are going to put us in danger, I don’t care who you are. Your highness.”
“Xin.” Matau rested his hand on her shoulder, knuckles white. “Go make sure the cots are prepared for our esteemed guests.”
She looked at him, her expression hard. She stood, gave a stiff bow, and left.
“Forgive my granddaughter, she has a sharp tongue.” Matau sighed. “However, she’s right, your lordships. Is the danger worth the coin?”
“Our business will bring neither you nor your people danger, good sir. ‘Tis a personal interest in the fortress that brings us here.” Tier said smoothly.
“It’s a day and a half one way. There is a small cabin on the side of the mountain we stay in overnight. The weather is changeable.”
“Your price?” Rale asked.
Matau named an amount and Rale made a noise that Tier wasn’t sure if he was amused or annoyed. Tier nodded.
“Half now,” Tier set the money on the table. “Half on our arrival at the fortress.”
Matau’s eyes narrowed. He hit the table with a fist. “Done.”
The next chapter will be posted Tues, June 10th.
Thanks for reading. 🙂
(c) 2014 Necia Phoenix
There might be some formatting adjustments as I figure this out, please bear with me.