Chapter Sixteen

Being blind in one eye made it impossible to properly judge distances every time. Alera growled in frustration as the axe missed the target, again, and lodged itself in the unpainted frame. She stalked to it and ripped it out of the wood only to drive it as if she were cleaving her enemies head from his shoulders. One of her hounds pattered over to her and nipped playfully at her hand. She looked down and smiled at the female alpha. "Not now girl," she said, scratching the hound behind the ear. Seasntán yawned and stretched from her perch on another target and gave Alera a bored look.

She stuck her tongue out at the cat and pulled her blades from their back sheaths. Fighting with a blind eye was a challenge, but she had found a way to work around it at least with sword fighting.

With swords it was all about movement, flowing from one strike to the next which allows for predictions of movement and meant Alera could fight even without her left eye. Now, to avoid her office, the clan lords, and all the problems still needing to be solved, she moved from once stance to another. It was like a form of meditation, all her focus was on which form was next, the proper stance, the proper wrist movement.

A blade crashed against hers from the left. Startled, she moved to retaliate until the fact that none of her guards were moving (including the cat-kin and her hounds) weren't reacting to her attacker. "Alister?" She lowered her blades as he came into view. "I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow."

He grinned and spun the blade around his hand, showing off. "I rode ahead, Rogue needed the exercise."

"So it wasn't to see me?"

He looked aghast. "That would be improper. You go my hawk then?"

She nodded stripped her weapons, handing them back to a guard. "Syrian isn't here on a social call, I guessed that when I saw him on the solstice."

He nodded. "There I something I want to discuss with you in private before he arrives."

"Ah, so that is why you came early." She whistled for the hounds and Seastnán before leading Alsiter into the castle, which was looking more and more like it should. "How far ahead where you?"

"They should be here tonight, but not until late."

She nodded as the guards pushed open the doors to her private rooms on the third floor. The sitting room was well furnished in soft earth tones and ancient tapestries with forest scenes while a fire burned, it's shifting light the only illumination. She motioned for him to sit and took a seat beside the fire, warming limbs now chilled as her body cooled down from her work out.
"What did you need to discuss?"

He shifted uncomfortably, staring at the fire as a log broke. She waited patiently, settling into the calm a hunter needed while waiting for prey. "If we can't change your death," he finally began, still not looking at her, "I'm afraid that Motὶr will not be able to fight off Samliam should they invade."

Alera frowned and rested her head on her folded hands as she too stared at the shifting flames. "What else is bothering Alister?"

He shifted again, the wood of the chair creaking as he did. "Without you to hold them together, the clan lords will tear this country apart. Even if my father dies, you are the only thing right now keeping us from a civil war."

She nodded, she could see his point. "What do you suggest then?" Please, please Gods, don't let him be thinking what I think he is.

"No vision of mine has ever been wrong, I have never heard of someone changing their death once it has been seen. In case we can't change the death I saw for you, the only thing that will keep Motὶr from tearing herself apart is a ruler who is not dead."

"Why don't you just say it Alister? You think I need be married." He dropped her gaze back to the fire, answering her question. "I have thought about this as well."

"I didn't mean to sound as if I were telling you what you should do," he muttered, ashamed.

"I know that, hence my use of your first name, and the fact that you are still breathing normally. I too have thought long and hard about this since I received your hawk, and long before then. I wanted to avoid it, but once the clan lords know that we may soon be at war with Samliam and possibly Ghaul, they will demand the same thing." Alera leaned forward and popped her neck, trying to relieve some of the tension building in her body. "When Syrian leaves I am going on a," she paused and fumbled for the right word, "pilgrimage. I want you to join me."

"But what of my father?"

"Send your troops to Donnag for now and have them start hunting. I know you trust the men I sent you to run things while you are gone."

He nodded. "As you wish."

"You're not going to ask where we will be going?" she asked, surprised. Where she planned on taking them wasn't on any map or well known.

"I figured you would tell me when you were ready," he answered with a shrug. She smiled.

"I will see you tomorrow then; I expect you and the clan lords to be here after first meal with Syrian." She rose then to say goodbye. Alister bowed and took his leave while she watched. What was she going to do with him?

Syrian arrived just as Alera finished smoothing her skirts. She had dismissed the notion of ladies-in-waiting the first week after her coronation and now just had her personal guard, three of which were in the room now. She rose and bowed her head to Syrian. "Prince Syrian, it is a please to see you under better circumstances," she greeted him, gesturing for him to take a seat.

He bowed low. "Queen Alera, I am glad to see you finally on the throne."

She smoothed her skirts again and resisted the urge to adjust her crown even though it wasn't crooked. Alister brushed past her guards and dropped to a knee. "Sorry I am late my queen, your highness, but I was waylaid by my clansmen."

Alera gestured for him to rise and join them as the other clan lords filed in, all kneeling before their queen and bowing to Syrian. "Explain why you are here." She already knew and settled into her chair to listen as the foreign prince spoke. She learned nothing knew from him and watched her clan lords carefully for reactions. They looked nervous but not overly surprised about the growing unrest in Samliam. Many were old enough to remember the Samliam War and how her parents had driven them out of the country. "Thank you for warning us. What do you want in exchange?" That was the one thing she didn't know.

"For our nations to be allies in the coming wars. Ghaul isn't just your enemy, she has spread her net even into our territories and with your breaking of their treaty they will be after you too."

"Aye, they will."

"I must leave today for Syrnvile and cannot stay much longer. But if you wish to begin work on a treaty," he trailed off.

She rose, letting everyone know the meeting was coming to an end. "I will send Hyrin Catharnac with you; he has a brilliant mind for politics." Lyam Catharnac the clan lord glared at her but said nothing, Hyrin was his only living son. She had suspected Syrian might want an alliance and had Hyrin waiting in the foyer with his bags. "He will meet in the foyer."

Syrain rose and bowed lowed. "Thank you your highness. May your reign be long and prosperous." He left then and the door closed with an ominous noise.

Alister joined the ranks of the clan lords and leaned against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. Niall stepped forward with a frown on his face. "You can't avoid the subject any longer niece."

Alera flinched and looked away from them all. Both her clan lord uncles had brought up the subject of marriage and both times she had forced them from her office. But he was right; she could not avoid the topic any longer. "I know, and I am your queen not just your niece." He bowed his head, properly chastised.

"I suggest the games my queen," Alastrion spoke up, stepping forward.

Alera groaned. The games? "That hasn't been done in near a century."

"Then ask that bard of yours. His memory is infallible," Raghanid replied. Alera glared at them all, what was it gang up on the queen day?

"I know how the games work, uncle, but do any of you remember what happened the last time the games where held? Besides, we do not have men to spare, we need to deal with the Pretender then I will consider marriage."

Alister hid a grin behind a cough. "No one will die during the games my Queen, and we could use them as a way to lure my father out and kill him." The other clan lords gave him a look of distrust before turning back to her.

She started pacing, considering Alister's words. The games were a series of challenges that tested the champion from each clan in honor, courage, strength and loyalty. The last challenge was for the lady in whose name the games were held, fought the champion to test he own skills. If they could spare the men Alera would hold the games, but it was not the right time.

Would it draw out Conrὶ or would it just give him a better chance of killing more of her people or her? No, it wasn't worth the risk. They would take the fight to him and destroy him, even if it meant her death. "No, we will take the fight to him."

The clan lords immediately started arguing and all at once, even Alister added to the din. "Enough!" she yelled. Her personal guard loosened their swords in the sheaths and glared at the collection of men. "I am your queen and you will listen to me." She added enough steel to her tone to cut through them. "The Pretender is our largest threat for the moment as he has caused internal issues. Once he is dead we can rebuild and focus on foreign threats, but we need to deal with one issue at a time."

She needed to visit the Clear Lake and the temple there; she needed to pray and needed guidance. They were right that she needed to get married; they would need someone to rally around if she were to die, they would need someone to lead them into peace and prosperity. If she were to bear a child would they raise him or her to rule? Or would they use the babe for their devices?

She would have to choose a king carefully and going to the lake would help. Decision made she straightened her shoulders and took in the men before her. "Go home to your keeps and prepare your warriors. Fearghall I will have a hawk sent to your keep with orders for your men to move to the Donnag border. You and Donnag will travel to his keep tomorrow. Now leave, I have matters to attend to."

They all bowed and left, leaving her alone with her guards and thoughts. "Tina, send word to Fearghall that I will meet with him after mid-meal. Then you will all take the evening off, I have private matters to attend to."

Tina, the head of her private guard, frowned. "But my queen, we cannot leave you unguarded; it would ruin our honor and go against our oaths."

"I realize that, but where I go tonight you cannot follow. It is a private place that can never see bloodshed."

"You think we would cause trouble?"

"No, but trouble would follow. I need you all to make it look like I am here in the castle still until I get back. Those are my orders, do you understand?"

Tine bowed, one fist over her heart. "We understand my queen."

"Thank you." Alera left then with them trailing her to deal with the day's business.