Prologue

Winter had come across the valley, bringing with it a heavy blanket of snow. The skies were darker than normal, with large gray clouds hovering over the village, as if airships holding the people below for ransom. The last of the crop that could be gathered had been done so just two days prior. And yet with that small sum of good news, the village of Lain seemed so glum.

There was talk of the Spring, and of the soldiers who would pour through the mountains from the east. Hungry men with bitter eyes. No one in Lain longed for that event. There was just enough food for the people this season, with none to spare. And yet everyone knew, those armored fiends would be expecting something of a tribute three months from now.

My friends, the major had said, Im not sure we can afford the Solstice celebration this year. His head hang low, his eyes grew dim until they appeared gray dull instead of the vibrant silver beams they were in happier times. I have also spoken to the priests and priestess. They have agreed it may not be a good time to have children. We wont have enough food to feed us all.

The crowd was hushed by his words. Empty eyes stared forward, the thought of the one pleasure of the season being denied to them, coupled with the idea that many of the couples who had longed to have children would be expect to be wait. A few women wept and slowly slunk away from the podium.

How can you simply ignore us and our needs for the wants of those vile beasts? one of the men cried out.

Jared, I understand your anger, but you need to remember the good of our people. Not just the desire of yourself, the mayor called out.

If we took up arms, Jared cried. He stepped up, fists clenched. His hair was dark brown. He had a mustache, which seemed to drape over his chin. We could defy them. You might be afraid of those soldiers, Anfeald, but Im not. And Im not alone. He looked around at the crowd, seeing a few defiant eyes that spurred him on. We have no ties to the republic.

We have every tie to them, Anfeald argued back. They are the guardians of our nation.

Guardians or masters? another man cried out.

The Senate was our guardian, the king and his soldiers were our protectors, but the Republic is nothing but a bunch of cowards and fools. Jared continued.

And exactly how do you propose why fight them? the mayor said with a sigh. We have no blacksmith. We have no weapon master. No one to train us. Every last one who has an ounce of fight is sent to the wars. He began to pace, his body shaking. The fact is we have no way to fight.

The crowd seemed to sigh collectively, no on doubted that he had a point of this. One by one the bitter faces returned to despair and disappointment. Jared stood nearly alone in his disgust.

A distant blast of thunder ended the silence as a cool wind rushed through Lain. As I said, the mayor said, the priests and priestess have agreed it isnt a good idea to have children. We arent going to be able to feed the new mouths as well as our own. And there isnt enough food to celebrate the Solstice. His shoulders lowered and he let out a deep sigh from his thin, boney frame. I do apologize for giving such horrid news, but it is my duty.

As he finished speaking, a bell rang. All heads turned to the south, and closed their eyes. The sun would be disappearing in an hour or so. That meant the winds would bring the temperature down to near freezing. The villagers hurried away, not even waiting to be dismissed by the mayor.

Jared stood, glaring at the other man. There wasnt a touch of sympathy in eithers eyes. Finally, the merchant turned and walked away, leaving the mayor and his few aides to themselves.

It seems Jareds grudge against you is growing stronger, a heavy set man said.

He actually had a few more of them on his side too, a young woman, in her twenties with long golden hair said. If you are not careful, your sentinel, you might bring a revolution down on our heads.

Theres more to worry about that, Anfeald groaned. Elections will be coming with the Hunters Moon. Even if he doesnt get our people to violently get rid of me, hes liable to run against me in election then.

Jared is not a politician, the chubby man laughed.

Thats just what I am worried about, List. Hes got the heart of a warrior, with no cunning of the politician. And with his hard head leading his senses, and not his mind, Anfeald shook his head. We could face ruin.

Your sentinel, List said, rubbing his chin. It might be wise to be rid of him entirely.

Anfeald glared at his political aide, his heart pounding against his chest at the words. List, you cant honestly be suggesting that I have one of my own citizens killed?

It only makes sense, List said. His eyes were dark brown, as was his hair. He wore a smug grin as he suggested the words. His gray tunic blew in the wind. We cant beat him in a revolution of arms or words, List continued. He began to pace now. And we cant excommunicate him for reasons of protection of the village without getting the people angry at us.

Im not sure I agree with this, List, the blonde woman said. Wouldnt we be making a martyr out of him?

Not if we make it look like an accident, List growled. He turned to the mayor. Your Sentinel, we cant have a revolution and have Republican soldiers turn our village to ash. And we cant lose to Jared in an election and have him try to fight. It would end the same way.

The mayor closed his eyes, his temple throbbing as though his skin were about to burst. I shall consider this, but until the time I say, we will do nothing.

We may not have much time, sire, List pleaded.

We will not rush in to this madness, anymore than we shall with the insanity that, that merchant is trying to peddle to the people. And that is what I have to say on that. He turned then and walked from the two of them, hurrying home as the wind began to pick up.