The sun was starting to set to the North, casting an orange glow on the Helvete Munn Mountains in the south. Colonel Niko Krigare, however, was too busy studying maps to take any interest in what was happening outside his study window.
The Harskare and his court had just recently decided to use this castle as their winter retreat and so had ordered Krigare to use his troops as security to accompany the residential servants that were sent on ahead. His main job at the moment was to organise the troops and ensure that they all settled into the new site so as to prevent any mistakes being made once the Harskare and his court were in residence. This meant having every soldier learn his way around like the back of their hand and ordering them to become acquainted with the locals in the town keep in order to get them on their side.
The march down had taken longer than Krigare and his men would have liked due to the need for them to keep a slow, steady pace to ensure that the civilian servants to be able to keep up. That and the constant need for the servants to stop for rest had dragged a three week march into a five week 'stroll' that hadn't left much time for the troops to patrol the keep's outer perimeters. This meant that when it was suggested they attempt to integrate themselves into the surrounding town his soldiers were more than happy to follow orders to the letter, even further if the mood took them. Many had gone to the local inns to scout out comfier temporary accommodation, tastier food and better looking company than the keep offered. Not that Niko could blame them; the castle's accommodation for the troops was even more sparse and uncomfortable than even he was used to. As the current commanding officer he had the opportunity to claim his own personal accommodation. Whilst not the most luxurious of the Officer's quarters, after all there were the Generals to think of, it did consist of separate study and sleeping areas. Sparsely decorated the study consisted of a writing desk, chair and planning table with a map of the surrounding area. The bedroom had a small, wooden bed and a wash basin with a small tarnished mirror hanging over it whilst a tatty, moth eaten hanging did its best to keep the two areas separate. With old curtains hung over the windows to try and prevent draughts Niko could not see himself spending too much time in his rooms however, with all the preparations and security measures he had to oversee, it didn't look like this would be too much of a problem.
There were still just over two months to go before the court arrived and Niko predicted that he should have everything in order by that time. With that in mind he took a moment's pause from poring over the map and turned the chair to face out the window. The main town, Zhin-po-munn, had been built within the keep's main walls however, over time the population had inevitably grown and so the lower class populace had been forced outside and created their own version of a slum town. They now lived on the edge of society, fearing and abiding by superstitions that they had created to replace the laws that didn't stretch beyond the walls. Many of these superstitions revolved around the ominous Helvete that overlooked the entire area. This mountain range spanned as far as anyone had ever managed to explore and it was even said that they go around and meet up again. Even Niko, brought up in the far reaches of the north, had been told the stories as a child. His grandmother had spoke of the Yenkeni and the Marchios, ancient races long since died out, sworn enemies who were constantly at war. As a child he had listened in awe to the tales of the final battle with the powerful sorcerers on both sides firing deadly spells and conjuring up mystical animals to attack from within the shadows. It was said that the amount of magic being used and the hatred emanating from within it had angered the land itself causing it to raise up and engulf all the sorcerers and all but a handful of the ancients on both sides, thus the creation of the Helvete Munn. Since that time none had dared to cross the dreaded mountains as it was said that the shadow demons were still roaming those lands and that the immortal ancients were still alive, trapped under the mountains, their dangerous magic seeping through the rock. It had been these stories, told by his grandmother whilst the family was sat around fire, the only source of heat and light in their small hut, which had encouraged Niko to find a way of leaving his small village and finding countless adventures until he had worked his way down to these infamous mountains. He had dreamed of being a great hero standing at the bottom of these mountains, his sword drawn and mighty steed at his side, whilst the villagers begged him not to be foolish. He used to imagine himself laughing and making his way up the mountains, fighting off the magical creatures and seeing images of trapped ancients begging for him to release them, and then he would come out on the other side unscathed to go down in history as the first and only person to ever make it across the Helvete.
Nowadays his mind was a lot less creative, more concerned with the welfare of his soldiers and the strength of their base than with finding this heroic steed or taking on foolhardy missions. He had worked hard in his life to get as far as he had and refused to be swayed by some childish whim.
Niko heard the trumpet blare declaring the change of watch and he headed out to make sure that all was well with his men. Thankfully it had been decided that one of the head chefs in the court needed to be sent ahead in order to oversee the setting up of the kitchens, which meant that everyone was treated to his new meals with him testing out the ingredients that were not found further north. He could already smell tonight's meal being prepared and promised himself that he'd walk as quickly as possible when doing the check in order to satisfy his hunger with whatever feast awaited them.
Reigan huffed in annoyance as his red hair once again decided to free itself from its restraints just to be blown in front of his face and annoy his nose. He needed to travel from the southern city of Termi to Mersk up north to make one last trade of the year and that required travelling the only possible route through the mountains. It was a route that was unknown by many people, however there were a small group of travellers known as 'Platno' that had passed this information down through the generations. Whilst Reigan had not been born into this group he had joined many of the lone travellers as a way of adding safety in numbers. It was in this way that he had been shown their connection between the countries - Atzemegut in the north and Valisa in the south. It was a treacherous journey of narrow paths, steep climbs and long drops but the most terrifying threat was the idea of what lurked in the shadows around them. He had heard the tales, everyone had, but he still needed to travel through the pass in order to get enough money to live out the winter.
Urging the horses on, Reigan was hoping to at least be in sight of the large city before stopping for the night. In order to do that he'd need to make it out of the forest he was travelling through and out onto open land.
"C'mon Nestor, Ard's not the only horse hooked up here, we'll rest in a bit, honest."
He hoped the horse could sense the sincerity in his voice, even if it couldn't understand what he was saying. The two large horses strained at the reins, the last part of the forest road went up a steep incline which, when reaching the top a traveller could look down onto their first view of the port city Malfio. It had been a long journey to get back here and even Reigan had started to feel drained with the pace he had had to set in order to beat the onset of winter. Winter set in around the mountain range with a vengeance and to consider going through the pass once it had hit was suicide. He had to make this one last transaction before the pass was blocked and then it wouldn't matter which side he spent the harsh months on as long as he was away from the mountains.
The caravan finally crested the hill and Reigan and his horses finally got a look at the city that he had once called home. It was a sprawling labyrinth of roads and alleyways that all converged at the centre to meet at the great university whose great spire towered hundreds of feet above even the most elaborate building. With its ancient architecture and dark appearance the university struck any newcomer with a great sense of awe, some of which was carried over from the time when it was the last great holy building before the mountain range. Reigan, however, had grown up in the university itself, his father a professor of the arts, and was not filled with awe so much as dread even when looking at it from afar. Every time he had to enter the city walls he made sure he picked an inn as far away as possible with a room that didn't look onto the spire. The city walls themselves were as old as the university; they had been built by the holy men to ensure that the shadow of the mountains never came close enough to overshadow the monastery's land. Whilst he was now able to see the city from his position he knew it was still another day's drive away. With this in mind he led the caravan down to a flattened plain on the hill and intended to make camp. It had been a long journey and knowing that he was nearing the end of it for the next few months made him move a bit faster when unhitching the horses. He had collected a large amount of firewood from his journey through the forest and, along with the game and wildfowl he'd taken some time to hunt, he had the makings of a fine meal that wouldn't need much adding to for it to support him through the pass. Between Malfio and the pass there was nothing but thick forests and desolate plains, the mountain shadows having turned the land itself into uninhabitable wilderness and, whilst there was a fair amount of wildlife that lived there, he didn't wish to run across anything tainted so restricted his hunting to the cleaner forests. With the fire built up and the phasian bird roasting on a spit he poured himself some dilute wine from his flask and leaned back against a tree to watch the city lights glimmer in the distance, gently reminding him of what he had run away from.
He was coming up to his eleventh birthday when it had all happened. He had spent the day exploring the many tunnels and secret passageways that ran through the university whilst his father was lecturing, he knew these routes like the back of his hand, and he had arrived back to their living quarters just in time to clean up before supper. His father had always disliked the idea of him putting himself in such danger, many of the routes hadn't been travelled since the time of the holy men, so he made sure that there was never any evidence of him having been anywhere but studying in his room. He was in the bathroom trying to flatten down his wild hair when he'd heard his dad enter their quarters, it was about the same time he arrived home every night but something was wrong, normally his dad would call out a greeting as he entered and he never brought home visitors, this time was different. He heard it clear as day, three sets of footsteps; one quiet and soft, belonging to his father but the other two were a lot heavier, more determined. Reigan stayed hidden in the bathroom wondering why his father and these friends weren't talking amongst each other like most friends would when he heard it, what sounded like a thud and then his father letting out a groan. Reigan chanced to peer out through a knothole in the door only to see his father's eyes staring straight back at him before a large, hobnailed boot landed on his skull. As scared as Reigan was fear had him stuck in his position, watching as the men searched through the living room before taking some of his father's papers from his desk drawer and going to leave. It was as they were leaving that one of them turned around to survey the room and then, staring straight at where he was positioned, dropped a gas lamp in the room before locking the door behind him. It was the young boy's knowledge of the secret tunnels alone that had got him out of that death trap he once called home. Left on the streets and scared for his life he had spent a year in the city, hiding in the slums hoping to never see those two men again. It had been just before the onset of winter over a year later that he had found himself travelling with a family of Platnos. With his red hair and fair complexion he was viewed as unique, his father had told him when he was younger that his mother had come from across the seas, so when old Grimms had spotted him scrounging for food they had been more than happy to adopt him into their family and teach them the Platno ways.
Reigan finished the last of his wine and the food and made his way into the caravan, leaving the fire embers to burn themselves out. Tomorrow he'd have to make his way into the city and ensure he was well supplied to make it across to Atzemegut before heading off. Tonight, though, he was more concerned about him and his horses getting some much needed rest before the arduous journey. Checking on his cargo in the lock box one last time he stripped off his outerwear, pulled down his bed and made himself comfortable before dozing off.