RP [Call the Banners] [I] Arrival

Vaskul

New member

Tarengard, Capital of Adelstahl
2,547 S.E.

Port Whitemane




It was a beautiful day in Tarengard. The sun shone down, bathing the city in warm light. Clouds drifted lazily by. A cool breeze blew in from the sea. And Port Whitemane smelled of birdshit.

Most people, mused Mannus von Hawken, don’t even know what birdshit smells like. They’ll see it on the street, or if they’re unlucky, get some in their hair, but never enough to actually notice the smell. They don’t know how lucky they are.

Indeed, no small number of birds circled in the skies above the port, the busiest of Tarengard’s three nautical points of ingress. As per usual, it was mostly gulls, alongside a smattering of other avians, all of whom had contributed droppings to the pungent melange now wafting about in the air. The birds, of course, had been drawn in by the fish, which were being brought into Tarengard in vast numbers thanks to the small fleet of fishing vessels, which went out of Port Whitemane every morning, and returned in the afternoon with their nets full.

All in all, Mannus was not an unlucky man. He’d been born to nobility, after all- even if he was only a member of a cadet branch of House Hawken. And despite being the third-born son of a cadet branch, he’d secured a well-placed position within the Royal Inquisition, the domain of his house. As First Inquisitor of Port Whitemane, Mannus ostensibly had the authority to inspect any vessel attempting to dock, and seize any cargo he deemed suspicious, or potentially heretical. In practice, this meant almost nothing. Save for merchant vessels from Chélidione, and smaller ships from the fractious kingdoms of Szel, which were an incredibly rare sight, there was almost never anything worth inspecting on an average day.

Shipping vessels that had set sail from Tarengard itself were unlikely to have somehow picked up any heretical texts during the time they spent at sea, and any ships that flew the flag of another Great House were typically off-limits, unless Mannus received orders to the contrary. Though House Hawken’s duties as stewards of the Inquisition meant they stayed out of politics, they remained a vassal of the Throne, and if a Blackacre ship was held up at customs by agents of the Inquisition, it would be taken as a veiled insult from House Marshall itself. Better to simply let them pass without incident.

All of that meant that Mannus spent his days in utter boredom, watching the horizon from the window of his small office, located within the customs house. The Inquisition’s presence at Port Whitemane was so vestigial that they no longer had a building of their own- the four-man team that Mannus oversaw had been relocated into a spare office in the customs house some years ago, and their old building given over to some more useful purpose.

By now, Mannus could recognize just about any flag from a distance, without even the use of the spyglass that sat, gathering dust, on his desk. Naturally, the most common was the green-gray of House Storm, owing to their naval supremacy. Then, of course, the smaller ships owned by House Provident, not armed for war, but carrying spies and propagandists, which they spread across the seas, delivered to enemies and allies of Adelstahl alike. Those always flew the copper-and-blue, proudly carrying the emblem of the fox, which symbolized their cunning, crafty nature. Chélidione ships, recognizable from their strange make alone, flew the silver-and-gold, with a pair of crossed spears and a knight’s helm. Their merchant vessels always came accompanied by a small detachment of imposing armored warriors. Mannus even knew the various flags of the kingdoms of Szel by heart, though he’d only seen each a handful of times in his years at Port Whitemane. That was why it took him completely by surprise when he spotted a pair of flags he didn’t recognize in the slightest.

Disbelieving, Mannus blinked, rubbed his eyes, and checked again. When the strange insignias failed to surface in his memory, he fumbled for his spyglass, knocking it against the windowsill to dislodge the layer of dust on its surface, before peering down the device to get a closer look. The nearer ship flew a flag that depicted a coiled serpent, scaled in green, against a background of bloody red. Behind was a flag of bronze, emblazoned with a silver sword. Perplexed, the young von Hawken turned to consult the tapestry hanging from his wall, which depicted the flags of the various Great Houses and assorted other polities in miniature- but found neither of the new arrivals represented.

Perhaps... mercenaries from Szel, flying flags of their own design?

Now determined to resolve this bizarre mystery, Mannus extended the spyglass again, studying the ships in more detail. They were some distance away, but unmistakably headed for Port Whitemane, and their make was unlike anything Mannus had ever seen. Low and long, with rows of wooden shields lining each side of the vessel, and a carved wooden figurehead at the prow. Clearly, they were not merchant vessels, as there was evidently scarce space to store any cargo in such a ship. Neither flew more than a single sail, yet both moved swiftly, as it seemed nearly every man on each ship was rowing, allowing them to outpace the more leisurely fishing vessels also making their way back into port.

Only once the strange ships got a little closer was Mannus able to make out the men aboard. They were clearly armed for war, but they were not soldiers- at least, not any sort of soldiers Mannus had ever seen. Each man wore a different set of armor from his fellows, to say nothing of their strange helms, which bore everything from feathered wings to animal tusks. Many seemed to sport impressive beards, the sort that were strictly forbidden amongst men-at-arms in Adelstahl. And the others, Mannus realized with slowly dawning horror... were women. Women, wearing armor, bearing weapons, and seemingly built with enough muscle to make even Mannus feel inadequate.

These strangers seemed familiar, but not because Mannus had ever seen them before. Not in person, at least. Instead, they brought to mind a tale one of his tutors had read to him, during his upbringing. In teaching the young scion of House Hawken about the world, he’d read him the history of the Kingdom of Chivalry, the nations of Szel, and even ancient myths about the Elves of the Far Continent and the savage Orks of Tagesh-Tul. But of all those stories, the ones Mannus remembered frightening him the most were those of the Northmen. The savage warriors who weathered an eternal winter. The bane of every merchant ship from Hangman’s Coast to the Worldspine.

“Vaskul.”

One of the Inquisition agents, who’d been napping in the hall just outside Mannus’s office, stirred at that.

“Eh? You say something, Lord Hawken?”

“VASKUL, YOU FOOL!”




“Tch. Smells like birdshit.”

Wrinkling his nose in disgust, Ivarr the Pitiless, Varl of Clan Scylûng, spat off the side of the dock as he stepped off the deck of his longship. The odor was offensive, but nearly so much as the group of spearmen lined up at the far end of the dock, barring his way into the city of Tarengard.

They’d had a good look at Tarengard from miles out. Some of the Skarn in Ivarr’s longship had murmured their amazement at the towering heights of Adelstahl’s capital, but he’d been far from impressed. They’d built their walls high, but for what purpose? To protect themselves from the Nightbreed? From Røtgar? No- for they were plagued by neither in these soft, southern lands. They’d raised their walls out of fear of each other. And that didn’t impress Ivarr in the slightest.

Nor, in truth, did the spearmen intimidate him. They were soft men, brought up on a diet of milk and honey. He saw more than a few whose weapons trembled in their feeble grip, frightened at the prospect of facing warriors of the North. But the colors they wore did inspire a different feeling entirely. Anger. For they wore the colors of House Storm, whose sea-borne warriors had clashed with the Skarn of Clan Scylûng for generations.

It was no surprise that men of Storm were waiting to greet the Vaskul at their capital city’s port. But if they thought they could continue to point their sticks at a true Skarn without arousing his ire, they were sorely mistaken. And if Ivarr was merely growing incensed, his warband was already furious. The Skarn disembarking from their longship behind him already hand their hands on the hilts of their weapons, ready to draw swords, hammers, and axes to meet the spearmen of House Storm in battle. All they awaited was their Varl’s command.

“Hold.”


The order came not from Ivarr, who continued to silently size up the Storm spearmen, but from Jökull, the Varl of Clan Eindell, whose longship had flown the red-and-green serpent flag. His own Skarn looked no less happy to be facing a host of men wearing Storm colors, but at their Varl’s command, they let go of their weapons’ hilts- about the closest to a gesture of peace any Vaskul was likely to make.

When he saw that Ivarr’s men still stood ready to strike, Jökull turned to address his fellow Varl. The Serpent-Slayer’s expression was hard to read from behind his helm, but his voice remained level, his words measured and reasonable.

“We came here armed for war, but our fight’s not with these men. Any blood we spill now will only serve to weaken us when the real battle begins.”


Ivarr turned the words over slowly. To brook such an insult was not the Vaskul way, but he could not deny the truth of what Jökull had said. Still silent, he held up a closed fist, a signal to his men, and they released their weapons’ hilts as well.

The gesture did little to calm the nerves of the Storm spearmen at the other end of the dock, but it did seem to provoke a reaction in someone else. From within the crowd of soldiers emerged a handful of black-clad men, in uniforms with silver trim, bearing the crest of a hawk. Evidently, the man at their head held some sort of authority, for with a few whispered words, he instructed the spearmen to lower their weapons, before he approached.

Unwilling to get too close to the Vaskul, the young nobleman took a position in the middle of the dock, equidistant between both armed parties. As such, he was forced to raise his voice in order to be heard clearly.

“Ahem. Greetings, Northmen! I am Mannus von Hawken, First Inquisitor of this fine port! On my authority, I welcome you to Tarengard! You have come a long way, but I am afraid I must ask you to wait a few moments longer, as I cannot permit--”

At that, the Vaskul bristled. Men drew weapons partway from their sheathes, or banged bracers together. A few spat half-intelligible curses at the Inquisitor, for daring to suggest that he could prohibit them from doing anything they so pleased.

“Erm, that is to say, I would politely request that you remain where you are, until a more appropriate authority arrives! It’s been, ah, quite some time since we’ve had a diplomatic visit from your kin-- aha, that is to say, from your noble people. That... is the purpose of this visit, is it not?”

Uncertainty trembled in the von Hawken’s voice, as if only not contemplating the possibility that the Vaskul had arrived here for some other reason. As Ivarr took a step forward, he flinched, but swiftly regained his composure, drawing up to his full height at the Varl’s approach.

“Aye. Or near enough. We’ve come to speak to your King. And if you can’t make that happen, I suggest you hurry along and find someone who can.”


However intimidated Mannus might have been by Ivarr’s stature, or the sword he wore on his back, his surprise at the Vaskul’s words clearly took precedence.

“An audience with King Marshall? Without so much as an invitation? My apologies, good Northman, but precisely who do you think you are?”

Had the other Vaskul been near enough to hear Mannus’s words, they would likely have drawn their blades and prepared to dismember him for the insult. Ivarr merely scoffed.

“It’s not I that you ought to be concerned with, boy. It’s him.”


Chuckling darkly, gestured back over his shoulder, where the last voyaged on Jökull’s longship was emerging. He was a strange sight in the company of the Vaskul- of similar stature, but with none of their impressive muscle. Nor did he wear armor, or sport a beard. Instead, this stranger wore robes of maroon and crimson, and carried an ornate staff with a crystal orb set atop it. He would have been the picture of an aged sorcerer in a children’s storybook, save for the fact that he was clearly no more than thirty years of age. His bearing was not that of a warrior, but nor did it have the haughty insecurity of a nobleman.

Passing through the ranks of the Vaskul warriors silently, the robed man approached Mannus, until he was close enough that the young nobleman could look him in the eyes. As soon as he did so, Mannus recoiled, for he’d seen that the stranger’s eyes glowed golden, shining with an unearthly light that made it seem as though he could stare right into one’s very soul.

“Wh-who is he?” Mannus demanded of Ivarr, who merely stood aside to let the stranger speak for himself.

“I am Yvain, last survivor of the Occluded Order... and I have come to claim my seat on the King’s Council.”
 
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Sir Griffth Blackacre wore a dark doublet with gold trim, the traditional colors of his house, and a sword at his hip. A guard pushed open the door to the King's Council chamber to permit him entry, and knight nodded at him as he passed, the air of nobility that emanated from him silencing the squabbling Councillors as he cleared the threshold. His footsteps rang out as he marched toward the table, eying each noble in turn, proferring each a small nod of acknowledgment, similar to the one he provided to the guard; only one protested his entry, whom he silenced with a flash in his eye and a slight vulpine grin.

"I am here in my goodbrother His Majesty's stead," he provided succinctly, taking his chair behind the middle of the table. Council was not held in the throne room, and he'd be put to death if he deigned to sit upon the Ninefold Throne. But here, he took Marshall's seat with the sublime confidence of a man practically born to sit upon it.

"By his leave," he added, eying councillor Woodrow Hudd, a gaunt man with graying hair who served as spymaster to the throne. He did not return Griffth's pleasant smile.

Griffth had been goodbrother to His Grace Byron Marshall for seven years, and he had not grown to like the man any more in that time. He found him tremendously dull, incapable of effective rule, and no one's match in swordplay. If it weren't for the crown on his head, the two men would never have associated. And to this day, they frequently did not - Griffth attended feasts and weddings, where he made acquaintance with him, but much of his time was dedicated to the King's sister, Mairwyn, who had married him by arrangement seven years prior. She was attractive enough, but while there was work to do, he had not the time to spend on love. They shared the same bedchamber, but seldom spoke.

Soon he would have his first child by her. That was of vital importance, he'd been told. It did excite him, thinking of names.

For now, there was business to attend to.

A traveler accompanied by a horde of Vaskul from the Great North claimed he was owed an audience with the King. Rather than deny him, Mannus Hawken saw fit to grant him entry to the port. He was thus either a liberal, a coward, or susceptible to bribery. In any case, the move would make him vastly unpopular with the smallfolk of Tarengard, who doubtless feared the savages, and would prefer to see them put to the sword.

The leader of the bunch called himself Yvain. Today Griffth would parley with him, on the behalf of the King, who had not been disturbed by news of the Vaskul's arrival. Griffth had been afforded great discretion by his goodbrother, at his asking - and His Majesty was terminally willing to pass the buck to others if it meant more leisure time for him.

Griffth's father, Lord Boldt Blackacre, told him that it was good practice to take the King's spot at council meetings, and that in so doing, he would hone his leadership the same way he honed his swordplay.

Hence his presence here.

I may have to deal with Woodrow Hudd sooner rather than later, he thought with a sigh. The way that man looked at him - it was as if he knew.

Spymaster indeed.
 
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Jökull recognized this place. Not the room itself, which was far grander a sight than anything he’d laid eyes on before. That seemed to be how they liked things in the South. Tapestries hanging from the walls, and carefully carved gold filigree on seemingly every other surface. The sheer scale of it all, the number of people- stonemasons, weavers, artisans, simple laborers -required to make such a thing, was nearly too great for him to comprehend. But he recognized this place nonetheless. It was a clan-hall by another name. He knew, because he presided over one of his own, many leagues away, in Eindell.

There, he’d have been seated at the head of the table, where the man in the black-and-gold jacket was now positioned. At his right would have been his blood-brother, Grimskell, who offered little advice save for on matters of war. And on his left would have been Dyrdis, who had an opinion on every subject, always reliably opposed to his own. Besides them, the heads of the clan’s families would have been present, all with their own needs and desires, many conflicting- but none truly willing to put what they wanted above the good of the clan. That was not the Vaskul way.

It didn’t take much for Jökull to surmise that the same was not true of the men and women in this room. The fact that the man sitting at the head of the table was not the King was proof enough of that. And in this moment, he sorely wished the Ghostblade- and perhaps even the Foebreaker, difficult as she could be -were here beside him. But it was for the best that they’d been left outside the chamber, along with their warbands.

Ivarr was the only other Vaskul who’d been permitted to enter alongside the Archmage. Undoubtedly, he was thoroughly unimpressed by all the finery surrounding them. In truth, Jökull would not have traded the practical, rustic clan-hall for this gaudy display, but it was enough to make him wonder what else these Southern men had accomplished, with so much time, and such vast resources at their disposal.

Neither he, nor his Skarn, had particularly enjoyed the march through the city, accompanied by armored knights as they’d been. But no blades had been drawn, no spears bloodied, and that was victory enough. Despite the vast, forbidding stone behemoths these men called buildings, despite the horrified stares of ordinary men and women, who hastened to shield their children’s eyes as the Vaskul strode past. The Skarn had restrained themselves, going against their instincts, for despite the long and bitter enmity between the men of the North and those of the South, they were here to make common cause at last.

The bored expressions and contemptuous sneers of the members of the King’s Council made quite clear that such an endeavor would be hard fought. But if the Archmage had spoken true, it was the least of the battles awaiting them. And if this one could not be won, there was surely no hope of winning any others.




Yvain knew this room well, though he’d seen it before only a handful of times, many years before anybody else present had been born. In his first year as an apprentice, bound by oath and blood to the Magus Fain, he’d imbibed an elixir of purest silver, and since that day, he’d possessed nothing short of a perfect memory, able to recall every last detail of everything he’d ever seen, no matter how long it had been.

Everything before he’d first tasted that concoction was now more than a faint blur in his mind’s eye. It mattered little. But this room… this was where the last Archmage before him had held court. Not officially, of course. There’d still been a King in those days, and one by the name of Marshall, no less. But his power had been subordinate to that of the Archmage Yr, he whose hands had raised Tarengard’s very walls, and placed the Tenfold Crown upon the first King’s brow.

For centuries, the Archmage- for there had only ever been one, before Yvain -sat at the right hand of the King, and advised him on all matters of any importance. His wisdom and sagacity had been beyond reproach, at least as far as the nobles of Adelstahl had been concerned. And when he was not available for a meeting of the Council, otherwise occupied with matters arcane, his seat had been left open, unmoved from its position at the King’s right hand.

Yvain surveyed the room slowly, unconcerned with the perplexed gazes of the Council’s members, comparing the sight before him to the perfect image in his mind’s eye, preserved for over two thousand years. Not everything was the same, of course. Too much time had passed for that to be the case. But there was enough for it to be recognizable. The tapestries had been replaced, but the carvings in the marble were unchanged, and the gold filigree, doubtless still polished regularly, shone no less bright than it ever had.

Even the table had been preserved, though it was showing signs of its age. There were blemishes, scars on its ancient, oaken surface, from where some furious Councillor had slammed a blade down, or perhaps spilled an errant glass of wine one late evening. The seats had changed- no doubt one too many had buckled and broken beneath the corpulent weight of an overfed nobleman. But more pressing was the fact that one seat was missing.

It seems some traditions are less enduring than others, Yvain mused, with only a hint of amusement. The lack of respect irked him, of course, but he was not Yr- he had not yet earned a seat at the King’s right hand.

Nor, of course, was the man seated at the head of the table a King of any sort. The details of Adelstahl’s Great Houses had been far from a high concern in Yvain’s thoughts over the intervening centuries since he’d last set foot in Tarengard- but he remembered well enough that House Marshall’s colors were not black and gold.

Whoever this man was, he clearly held sway with this Council, or at least some of its members. But he had not introduced himself, beyond that he was brother-by-marriage to the King. Nor had anyone seen fit to introduce Yvain and his retinue to the Council. Either protocol had grown lax since the First Age came to a close, or these noblemen simply did not think that the Archmage of the Occluded Order and two proud Varls of the Vaskul clans were owed any respect.

Rather than seat himself- for indeed, there was nowhere to be seated -Yvain chose to remain standing, squarely across the ancient table from the black-clad man at its head. His staff was held in one hand, but he did not lean upon it, for he had no need of such an implement to remain upright. And the Vaskul behind him remained there, silent and imposing, each man a mass of muscle, and armed with weapons so large that they dwarfed even the impressive long swords held by the plate-clad knights waiting warily outside the chamber.

Yvain reckoned that Ivarr and Jökull together could make corpses out of every man in the room before a one had the chance to cry for help, if he gave the order. The Vaskul were the only true Men left in this fallen world, least diminished by the Harrowing and the end of the First Age. But for the time being, they would do no such thing.

“I am Yvain,” the Archmage intoned, feeling no need to adjoin titles to his name. Unlike the common soldiers he’d addressed at Port Whitemane, these were men of noble birth, and education. They would know of the Occluded Order, the nine Magi who had made Tarengard their place of power in an Age gone by. And they would know that only eight of those nine had ever been counted among the dead during the Harrowing.

Reactions around the room differed. A man in yellow and black peered at him with undisguised fascination, either attempting to ascertain the truth of his assertion, or simply enthralled by the audacity of any man who would make such an outlandish claim. The man in bronze, whose cloak was fastened by a pin in the shape of a bear, openly scoffed, unwilling to entertain the possibility for a moment. And a thin, gaunt man in purple let his mask of an expression slip, just momentarily, but long enough to show that he was afraid.

“Precisely whom,” Yvain continued, his gaze making it unambiguous who he was addressing, “do I have the honor of speaking with?”

The Archmage’s eyes still glowed that unearthly gold, as ever they had, since his talent for the Art first manifested. To say that such a thing was uncommon in Adelstahl in this Age would be an understatement. The skeptics on the Council were already inventing explanations, ways such a thing could be achieved through fakery and prestidigitation. But the credulous, and the well-read, were beginning to suspect it was no trick at all.

The man in purple retorted swiftly, perhaps hoping to disguise his momentary lapse with a show of strength.

“You address Sir Griffith Blackacre, and it would do you well to show him the proper deference.”

Yvain had a perfect memory, that was to be sure, but that was only so much use when it came to subjects he’d deliberately ignored. Court politics had been of less than zero interest to him, when the Order had been at the height of its power. Only Yr had cared to meddle in that sphere, and as the youngest of the Order, Yvain had never been in any danger of having to take the Archmage’s place.

Casting his mind as far back as it could go, Yvain summoned the memory of a history lesson he’d had little patience for, part of a cursory effort on his master’s part to school him in matters of state, before returning to the study of the Art.

“Ah, yes. Blackacre. The… farmers, was it? Evidently you’ve come up in the world somewhat. My congratulations.”

This time, the reactions were far less muted. Half the Council roared in great fury at the insult- the other half laughed, if more at the audacity of the remark than anything else. The meaning behind the colors they wore was beginning to return to Yvain- the man who’d been fascinated by him was of House Goldbuck, and the gaunt man who his words had frightened represented House Duncannon. The precise disposition of each of the Great Houses was nowhere to be found in his memories, however, and had undoubtedly changed vastly since his day. Yet it was easy enough to determine who stood with the Blackacres, and who against them, based only on the way they’d reacted moments ago.

“State your aim here, ‘Yvain,’” growled a bearded man of House Vredefort, wearing red and silver, “before I have you clapped in irons and delivered to the dungeons.”

The Vaskul bristled at the open threat, but Yvain was unfazed. That pair would defend him ably, before he’d have to raise a finger in his own defense, let alone call upon the Art.

“My aim? I mean to gather the armies of Man once more, and lead them into battle against the evil that blighted this land long ago. I mean to bring this bleak age to an end, and usher in the return of Magick to the world.”

Stunned silence followed Yvain’s proclamation. The Blight? The Old Magic? An end to the Second Age? But before their shock could turn to anger or disbelief, the robed man smiled, in a manner that entirely failed to reach his ancient eyes.

“But before all of that, I intend to reclaim my seat on this august Council, as Archmage of the Occluded Order. Only, someone seems to have misplaced my chair. Perhaps one of you could enlighten me as to where it might have gone?”
 
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Sir Griffth sat quietly, as still as a statue, ever the image of an unfazed gentleman, apparently bemused by Yvain's impudence - he nonchalantly raised one hand to quiet the council, who awaited his reply with bated breath, either out of deference, or to criticize him. But those who looked down on him would do so no matter what - they recognized the influence that the Blackacres had accumulated in such a short time, and the accusation that they were an upstart house had taken root in many of their hearts. Yvain's congratulations on his family's status was well deserved - but his assessment of them as the farmers was a dated one. They were known as killers now.

"Queer Yvain, of the North," he began, with a quizzical look, "You and your Vaskul should have sent a herald ahead. We might have better accomodated you here," he chuckled, nocking his head back a little to eye the man with his aquiline nose rather pointed at the ceiling.

Yvain's golden eyes glimmered in an unearthly fashion, he noticed, and resolved that if this man were ever to become more trouble than he was worth, they would need to be put out immediately, lest he summon an army of superstitious peasants to his cause.

There were no shortage of guards beyond the walls who had already begun to surround the conference - though they did not breach the chamber, their filing through the corridors of Tarenhall would give the Vaskul pause before they attempted to bully anyone. This show of force was an embarrassment. An envoy would have been permitted access. An armed force should have been detained ruthlessly and quickly. Instead, Mannus had suffered a lapse in judgment that would see him demoted without delay.

Griffth's thoughts returned to the present. He shrugged.

Obviously, even if these outlandish, apocalyptic claims were true, no one here was in any position to entertain them. Nor would he. Griffth was not a credulous man.

"With all due respect: I am not here to listen to old wives' tales of fairies and goblins and such. Leave this Council to its business, my good man; make no trouble. You and your host are guests in this city. Any harm inflicted on its residents will be returned on you one hundredfold," he said earnestly and un-venomously; it was as matter-of-fact as discussing the weather. But those who sat on the Council with him knew he would make ruthlessly good on the threat. He was Boldt Blackacre's son, and the father's words echoed in the son's voice, even though the son smiled, and the father never did.

"You are dismissed, without prejudice. Go in peace."
 
Ivarr gave a humorless bark of a laugh, unamused by both the Blackacre scion’s condescension, and the perceived absurdity of his words.

“A herald, he says. A single Skarn? Pfah. He’d never have made it to shore. We know your kind better than that.”

Perhaps it was true, perhaps not. But for Ivarr’s salt, it was more likely that the bannermen of House Storm slay an envoy under a flag of peace, than allow him to step foot within Tarengard, if that man was a Vaskul. Expecting the Northmen to follow the forms and procedures of Adelstahl was little different from expecting a pig to stand up on its hind legs and dance a jig. They were not diplomats or negotiators, but warriors one and all- it was simply not in their nature.

And Ivarr would have been lying if he said he wasn’t satisfied to see the lords and ladies of the South tremble in their boots at the sight of four full Vaskul warbands.

Recognizing that the Varl known across the North as Pitiless was unlikely to improve the tone of the discussion by speaking further, Jökull interjected, his tone as measured as ever. He would not pay deference to these men, for he knew they had not earned it, but nor would he seek to disrespect them. They had come too far, on a quest far too important, to let two prickly men scuttle the entire thing in a single conversation.


“With respect,” the Serpent-Slayer said slowly, the words clearly taking some effort, given to whom he spoke, “there has been too much bad blood between our clans and your houses for us to trust you that easily. Yet we have come here, in spite of our ancient grudge, to make common cause in the face of a gathering storm. To dismiss us thusly, without due consideration, is... unwise.”

The Varl’s words were more articulate than most expected of any Vaskul. But Clan Eindell’s land was among the closest to the border with Adelstahl, and Jökull had been given more cause than most to parley with the men of the South before. Learning to speak their language, as unfamiliar as it was to his tongue, had been a necessary skill. Yet given the young Blackacre’s disposition, it seemed unlikely that any words, no matter how well-chosen, would sway him.

For his part, Yvain merely smiled, and held up a hand to calm his incensed companions. The strange staff he’d carried, he shifted in his grip, hand wrapped around the colorless crystal orb at the head, with the wooden tip pointed towards the ground.


“Do not judge the good Sir Blackacre too harshly,” Yvain said mildly to the two Vaskul. “He is young, and lacks perspective. That, I find, is something only age can bring.”

Disregarding Griffith’s casual dismissal, Yvain tapped his staff against the ground, and began to pace ‘round the length of the table. The ancient slab of oak was not made from multiple planks bound together, as modern woodworkers did, but rather a single great ring carved off of a fallen behemoth, the like of which no longer grew anywhere in Adelstahl. Lacquered and treated well, it nevertheless ought to have fallen victim to time long ago- but the oak remained.

“For instance. I may be old, but this table is older than all of us, put together. And unlike you, this table does not have a short memory.”

Again, the staff cracked against the marble floor of the Council chamber, making more than one of the men sitting at the table flinch.

“The table remembers a time before the Harrowing. A time of magic. The table remembers me, even if you do not.”

Another crack. Yvain’s pace remained leisurely, as he circled the table, staring down the members of the Council as they watched him. His tone was patient, akin to a tutor attempting to explain a difficult concept to a particularly dull student.

“This table remembers the face of King Marshall the First, which neither you nor I have seen, save for in portraits. The table remembers the great Yr, whose power dwarfed even my own.”

Finally, the Archmage came to a halt, precisely where he’d been positioned before. His companions watched him warily, for while they respected him more than the men of the South, they still did not trust the ways of the Occluded Order, any more than their ancestors had. Yvain touched the tip of his staff to the ground again.

“Most of all, and despite its great age, this table remembers... what it was to be a tree.”

For a single, terrible moment, the air in the Council chamber went perfectly still. A low hum reverberated in the ear of every man present, impossible to ignore. Then, the crystal orb atop Yvain’s staff glowed green, and dead wood began its return to life.

It would seem at first as though the table’s legs were multiplying, as roots sprang out from underneath its surface, burrowing into the polished marble floor, and seeking the nourishing soul far below. The table’s surface had shed the scars of its age in a matter of seconds, now appearing as though it had been felled just hours before. Then, it began to grow.

Centuries prior, when Yvain had been a mere apprentice of the Occluded Order, he’d focused his studies in the field of elemental evocation. Channeling the primal forces of lightning and flame through his hands. But the Order’s Magi had specialized in a great many fields. In the time since the Harrowing, Yvain had found himself with ample time to learn from the vast wealth of knowledge they’d left behind. This was a technique he owed to the Green Sage, whose mastery of the natural world had come from centuries spent studying with the Elves of the Far Continent. The Sage’s skills had gone beyond merely nurturing that which already lived, to even finding a spark of life within the long-dead. Not necromancy, but necrobotany. And it was that skill which Yvain now called upon.

Within mere moments, it was impossible to tell there’d ever been a table sitting in the middle of the Council chamber. In its place, a vast oak had sprung up, some twenty feet in diameter, and already piercing through the roof of the building.

It was fortunate the Council chamber was located in a building adjacent to the Royal Palace, rather than within the hallowed home of the King, else the rapidly-regrown oak would surely have intruded upon his bedchambers. As it was, the tree ceased its upward growth once it was twice the height of the Palace’s highest spire. That was when its branches began to expand, leaves springing up across each one, until the entire Palace was cast in its shadow.

While identifiable as an oak, it was a variety none had seen in living memory, far too large to be of ordinary origin, to say nothing of the speed with which it had grown out from within the Council chamber. And though none had yet had the opportunity to make the attempt, those who sought to fell the great tree would find its bark unnaturally tough, more likely to chip and shatter their axes and swords than to fall.

At this size, the tree was large enough to be seen from every corner of Tarengard. Already, the Royal Palace was positioned to be visible to as many of the common folk as possible, to provide a constant reminder of their position in relation to that of their betters. But the tree’s gargantuan height, and vast canopy of multicolored leaves, made it impossible to miss even from miles away.

While all eyes in the room were upon the tree, Yvain took a step back, and steadied himself with his staff. The glow in his eyes had dimmed for a moment, and inside of his robe, one of the five crystal orbs strapped to his belt had lost a great deal of its luster. Over a hundred years of mana drawn from the Earth and stored for this journey, expended in an instant. But though the decision had been made rashly, Yvain did not regret it. He’d been prepared to make a show of force, and this would do far better than a simple bolt of lightning. It would prove the truth of his words not only to the Council, but to the King and the smallfolk alike. This, it would be impossible for them to ignore.

By the time the Council’s eyes returned to Yvain, he’d regained his composure, as had the Vaskul, though they noticeably stood a greater distance from the Archmage than they had before. In moments, they were sure to begin shouting, and crying out in alarm, but for the time being, they remained in awed silence.


“How unfortunate- it seems this Council no longer has a place to meet. Until that situation is rectified, I move to adjourn this assembly. I trust someone will send word as to when and where we’ll next meet. And I expect that when the time comes, you’ll have the correct seat prepared for me.”

Without so much as a trace of a smile on his face, Yvain turned to leave. Some members of the Council might’ve been of a mind to summon guards and order them to seize him, but the Archmage remained quite confident that no man would be willing to risk placing their hands upon his person.

It is as my Master always said- to be feared by a few men is to be in grave danger, but to be feared by all men is to know total security.
 
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Yvain's unsanctioned jaunt around the council chamber was an unmitigated display of confidence. But it made him seem a madman, as rash as wiping his ass on the banners in front of him. Not so much out of fear did the various assembled lords withhold themselves from rearing at him, but out of shock. And by permitting this envoy to advance so far within their council chamber, without writ of meeting, this grotesque spectacle had been allowed to unfold. Griffth knew then that he was being undermined by Mannus von Hawken, either in his incompetence, or that he had deliberately allowed Yvain and his Horde this far into the city. He did not have complete control over Tarengard; of what use was a city watch who would hand over their capitol to invaders?

It truly was victory enough that no swords had been bloodied here - victory for the Vaskul. This performance had made a right cuck of the King, Griffth thought, though his eyes flashed as Yvain pranced closer. House Storm would be enraged enough as it were that they would fall in line with anything Blackacre suggested after this - to avenge the indignity of what had transpired. But now the others looked to him -

- as the table in their midst cracked and grew into a tree, one which punched through the stonework above and sent gnarled roots down below. Foliage pushed aside the councillors and muted their shouts of fear - for who could stand against such unknowable power?

Griffth leapt to his feet and drew his sword, Harvester; his chair clattered against the stone as he advanced around the wooden column that had come to dominate the room, deliberately approaching the robed man and seeking to sheathe Harvester in his chest. Fearless, they'd call him, if he died here, he thought - but only because his fear did not choke him. The Blackacres were a nefarious lot - cruel, ruthless - but here one stood between the Kingdom and a sorcerer. And every councilman who saw what he did would know that in the Hour of the Tree, it was Griffth who was first to rally against the Vaskul.

The fighting would begin thus:

First, Griffth would attempt to slay Yvain with Harvester - those with exceptional hearing would have heard him utter the words "Get thee hence, devil," or so the bards would say, but in the midst of the action, Griffth knew it was best to keep his mouth shut, lest he bite off his own tongue. His dialogue here was a later addition.

Next, the Vaskul in the corridors would be beset by the Royal Guardsmen, who had surrounded them. And though many would surely perish in the defense of their king, they ultimately outnumbered the Vaskul a thousand to one. And this was no siege - it would turn into a slaughter posthaste.

Diplomacy had failed in a matter of minutes.
 
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Perhaps my Master spoke too soon, Yvain mused, as he heard the unmistakable sound of a sword emerging from its sheath behind him. Or perhaps the men of this Age are simply more foolhardy. Yes, that seems the most likely- even when faced with evidence of my abilities, still he charges headlong into danger. Almost admirable, if it was not quite so... counterproductive.

Were this a different Age, Yvain could have dismissed Griffth summarily, with a simple flick of his index finger. He'd have evaporated into dust on the wind, or found his skin turned to fragile glass, soon to shatter against the ground. But this was not a time of magic, and there was precious little of the stuff left in the air, every last remaining scrap having been drained dry and poured into the creation of the Eternal Oak. Yvain was far from powerless, but he remained acutely aware of his limits, and expending more power simply to deal with this annoyance was not worthwhile.

Instead, he simply remained still, facing towards the door, and though none in the room could see, there was a slight smile on his face- as if he knew something they all did not.

Jökull and Ivarr, however, were far from idle. The latter gave a grim chuckle as his sword- both longer and wider in girth than any carried by a warrior of Adelstahl -slid out of its simple leather sheath. If Griffth's blade came close enough to strike at Yvain, he'd find it met with Ivarr's steel, the burly Skarn displaying shockingly quick reflexes for a man of his size. By contrast, the Varl of Clan Eindell displayed far less enthusiasm as he retrieved his weapon, Bleakfang, from his back. For a moment, he seemed only disappointed, with how quickly both the Blackacre heir and the Archmage had resorted to threats and violence. But that expression soon disappeared, and was replaced with a battle-hardened mask of fury- for while Jökull was known to the Vaskul clans as a reasonable man, he had not earned the title of Serpent-Slayer through honeyed words alone.

Beyond the Council chamber, four full warbands stood surrounded by a small army of Guardsmen, who were moments away from making their attack. They'd not yet been given a direct order, and while the coming of the great tree had not gone unnoticed, they could also not directly lay blame for it at the feet of the Vaskul. In mere moments, their fear and rage would take hold, and they'd attempt to strike down the men they saw as invaders- but they'd find it a more difficult task than anticipated.

At the command of their leader, the Dawnshield's warband took positions, their shields forming a protective wall around the rest of the Vaskul. At their head was Rannveig, who proudly bore the weapon that was her namesake on her right arm. It was a mighty and ancient relic, which once held the power to defend entire cities from external assault. Now, it held but a scrap of that power, but enough to strengthen the shields of the other Skarn. It'd be enough to hold out against the Guardsmen for some time- provided the other Vaskul didn't break the line first.

"What cowardice is this?" demanded Dyrdis, war-hammer already in hand, and evidently eager to crush the skulls of Southern men. Her warband roared in agreement, their ferocity alone enough to make the legion of Guardsmen take a step back.

"Not cowardice- prudence," Rannveig insisted, gritting her teeth as she strained to maintain the shield-wall from the angry, jostling warriors both before and behind her. "We came here to help these damned fools, even if they refuse to accept it."

As the Skarn squabbled in disagreement, a hooded figure from within the crowd worked his way through, 'til he had the Dawnshield's ear. Beneath his hood, the Farseer's eyes glowed pale blue, and a crooked smile crept its way across his face.

"And lo, the Dawnshield's faith was rewarded... Hark! Henceforth comes the Sower of Seeds!"


Orn's brief snippet of prophecy descended into mad cackling, but Rannveig scarcely had a moment to contemplate the meaning of his words, before something else captured her attention. A furious order, bellowed towards the Guardsmen, who- with more than a small amount of reluctance -lowered their weapons, and parted to let a single figure through the crowd. When that figure reached the wall of shields, he paused, perplexed, before the Dawnshield barked an order in the Vaskul tongue, and her own Skarn broke ranks, creating a path for the man in the crown to step through. Neither side appeared happy about having to postpone the bloodshed, but nor were they willing to resume hostilities after the King had passed. At the very least, not yet.

When King Marshall entered the Council chamber, it would be Yvain's face that first greeted him, with a benign smile that betrayed no knowledge of the chaos there in the chamber, or anywhere else in the Palace or its environs. An astute observer might have been able to conclude that he'd known the King was coming, and deftly maneuvered himself to be in this position, but that would be mere idle speculation. After all, even among the fantastic powers he'd already exhibited, surely the Archmage couldn't foretell the future... could he?


"Ah, Your Majesty. What excellent timing- I was hoping I'd have the opportunity to present my gift to you in person."
 
The clash of Griffth’s sword on Ivarr’s reverberated through the hallway, and guards moved to encircle them all, including Yvain, who had not free reign over the room. And though the killing strike had been averted by the Northman’s quick reflexes, Griffth’s features betrayed no fear – a vulpine snarl accompanied his stroke, withdrawing the blade in preparation for another swift attack. He was one of the Realm’s most skilled knights, well-practiced in swordsmanship, and what he lacked in stature compared to the gargantuan Vaskul, he made up for in courage and will. He had them at an advantage – beyond this room, they were utterly surrounded.

The slaughter was forestalled as a herald blew an iconic horn – and through sheer discipline that cut through the surge of adrenaline, Griffth took a half-step backward and dropped to a knee, the tip of his sword swirling into the stone floor with a quick flourish as he bowed his head.

“Your grace.”

King Byron Marshall I had entered the chamber. He bore the golden Ninefold Crown and had donned his armor. A long red cape flowed behind him. He looked more regal than he had in the past five years, by Griffth’s accounting. He was a large man, not fat, and had a blonde beard cropped short against his face – he opened his mouth and bellowed at the assemblage.

“Stop this madness in the name of your King!”

To his credit, he led the van, and his blade, though drawn, was yet clean. So too were the spears of his entourage. By presence alone, he had averted the bloodshed.

He brushed past Yvain and addressed Griffth with a simple command – “Arise, sir;” – and whirled to face the sorcerer.

“Silence!” he commanded, drawing out the first syllable, the booming voice cutting through the tension in the council chamber. He inhaled deeply, and looked at the enormous tree which now dominated the room; nay, the castle.

“We shall not meet this miraculous gift with swords,” he proclaimed, carefully, drawing out the word gift for emphasis, “Uninvited tho’ it was.”

The king's sword slid back into its sheath. Griffth mirrored his action obediently, though he kept his eyes on the Vaskul and Yvain; with but a quick flash, his glance seemed to say I’d have had your heads, though whether they could make that out, he would not know. The Vaskul were fearsome but not unkillable. And if anyone could best them, it’d be him.

“Yvain of the North,” the King began, whirling to face him now, “I am told you seek reinstatement ‘pon the Council...”

Griffth was not convinced the situation had been handled of yet. The political consequences of terraforming the fucking castle into a tree would be so far reaching that they alone could plunge the Kingdom into bloodshed if something were not done immediately. There was, perhaps, a narrow path forward –

“If so, then kneel, now, and swear your vow of loyalty to the Throne before sky, land, sea, and the gods. Your Skarn, too,” he said, chin held high.

Griffth’s lips pursed. His Goodbrother may have been more politically savvy than he gave him credit for. This was the only way to affirm that he was still in charge. Anything less and the wizard would have to be put to death for the sake of the Kingdom’s stability. If he declined, it was treason – an invasion in all but name. Obviously, remodeling a castle in one's own image was a traitorous act. If this fool kept his chin up, he'd be slain now or later. It was a matter of pride, which was real here, vital - it was political capital. It was the image of the King, which had to be preserved, or others would try to throw him down from his place.

In that moment, Griffth did not know what he wanted. A rare occurrence, for one as driven as he.
 
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