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My name is Gailard, and I am a soldier. No matter what folk name me now, I consider myself nothing more.
I was born into the Devyn, which is one of the five clans dwelling in the Highlands that border the Bright Kingdom of Chaldor and, be the times and politics right, consider themselves subjects of Chaldor--or not, largely as the mood takes them. Clan folk are of independent mind, and swear their allegiance first to their chieftain, and only after to the king. Or now to the queen . . . But that takes my tale ahead of itself, so:
The Highlands encircle Chaldor's inland boundaries like a stern girdle around the well-fed belly of some fat merchant. Chaldor is rich in farmland, the Highlands bleak and barren--all lonely moors and hills that become mountains as they reach the vastness of the Styge or the bleak coasts of the great southern sea. The living there is hard-won and breeds a hard people, none more so than my father, who was chieftain of the Devyn. And I, had my father had his wish, his successor, save I'd not obey him.
He'd have wed me to Rytha, who was daughter of the Agador's chieftain, and thus blood-bonded our clans that we, together, be greater than any other. But I did not love Rytha, nor much like her, and so I took my sword and my shield and ran away, which prompted my father to pronounce me outlawed and forbidden to return ever again to the land of the Devyn. Nor did it much endear me to the Agador, and most surely not to Rytha. But, for all it pained me to leave behind the high hills of my youth, I did not then much care. I was young and headstrong, and I knew that great adventures lay ahead. So I went west to Chaldor and found employment in the army of Andur, who was then king, even though he was no older than I.
There were no few Highlanders in Chaldor's army--warriors of the Agador and the Quan and the Arran, of the Dur and my own Devyn--and did the lowlanders name us mercenaries, and sometimes look down on us as savages, still we swore our allegiance to the Bright Kingdom and gave our blood to Andur's cause. And got back the king's respect, and more besides: I learned to read and write in Chaldor; and how to fight in ordered ranks, where thousands massed on bloody battlefields (though it was always we Highlanders who led the charge); and how to conduct myself in the chambers of the civilized folk of Chorym, which was the king's city; and how to use a knife and fork, and suchlike niceties.
I rose through the ranks of Andur's army until I found myself commander of five hundred and known to the king. Indeed, I pride myself that we became friends, and I sat sometimes at Andur's right hand, and joined him on the practice ground with wooden swords, and drank with him in taverns. I spoke with his wife, Ryadne, who was, like me, from the Highlands, albeit of the Dur, for whom we Devyn bore little love. Indeed, we'd a saying: "Proud as a Dur," for they boast themselves magicians (though of nowhere near so much power as the Vachyn) and claim small sorceries, which we Devyn eschew. But I liked Ryadne. She was very lovely and, I thought, honest and surely Andur loved her more than anyone save, perhaps, his daughter, Ellyn.
Now Ellyn--who is so large part of this tale--was different as trout to salmon. She was but a child then, promising her mother's beauty but none of her mother's wisdom or calm. Perhaps I am unfair--she was, after all, only a girl--but she seemed to me arrogant and willful, selfish in her desires and petulant of temper. I did not like her, but she was the apple of her father's eye, and so I tolerated her displays of childish anger and avoided her as I could.
He was a great king, Andur, and wise beyond his years, and had he lived, I think this world of ours should have known peace sooner. But peace is often hard-wrought, and won only with shed blood, and Andur was not granted the time to see all his dreams made real. Even so, it was he began the construction of the Great Roads that now link the Highlands to the low, and spread compass-pointed across the kingdom. He forged alliances with the clans and brought peace to the kingdom, so that Chaldor shone like some bright jewel, and all enjoyed its bounty. It was a different world then, and unlike Andur I could not see it in its entirety. I lacked his vision, but I loved him fiercer than any brother born of blood--surely far better than my own brother, whose name was Eryk.
It was Andur first told me of the Vachyn sorcerers, of the threat he perceived in their machinations; and I hated them then for his loathing of their wiles. Now I hate them for what they are, and what they'd do, and they are proscribed in Chaldor.
I met them first in Danant, embodied in the form of Nestor, who was, for want of a better title, counselor to Danant's ruler, Talan Kedassian, though I and others who thought as I did, believed that Talan had sold his soul to the Vachyn.
Danant stood across the Durrakym from Chaldor, and for long years had vied for the lucrative river trade. Andur was content to take his share and no more; and did the Great Roads afford the kingdom better trade, then even so they were built to benefit all the populace, not to swell the king's coffers. Talan, on the other hand, was greedy and looked to own it all, to which end he emptied his coffers that he might employ a Vachyn sorcerer, and thus bought Nestor's loyalty--if the Vachyn have loyalty to any save their own dark ends--and began the war.
Pirate boats came first, swift river raiders that preyed on Chaldor's craft, and falsely vaunted Chaldor's flag as they assaulted the vessels of Naban and Serian so that both those kingdoms sent embassies of protest to Chorym, which was Andur's capital. Andur explained as best he might, but trade was lost to Danant, where Talan avowed his innocence and Nestor wove his dark magicks that the ambassadors went away convinced of Chaldor's guilt, and the Chaldor ports stood empty of commerce, so that Andur must sustain them from inland. Messages of protest were sent to Danant, and ambassadors, and the messages were ignored and the ambassadors insulted and sent home answerless, so that Chaldor stood alone, and open to Nestor's next fell move.
Direct attacks began, the river raiders assaulting the Chaldor shore, burning villages and towns, slaughtering folk and animals, venturing inland to destroy crops and vineyards. It was, Andur told me, as bad as the ancient days when the Sea Kings came upriver to pillage and rape. It was more than Andur could bear, and he determined to teach Talan the error of his ways. He did not seek war, but all the avenues of peace were explored and found empty of hope, and so Andur must make a terrible decision.
We formed a great army then, and called up all our rivercraft and sailed across the Durrakym to invade Danant.
Which was, had we only known it, exactly what Nestor had planned. We fell neatly and all willing into his trap, and there begins my story.