Jula returned to Fort Nord in two days time, her shoulder aching from the journey. She found Senator Anthony and Governor Marcus in the Council Room, going over records and accounts. She deposited the satchel of reports in front of the Senator and waited for a reply.
Senator Anthony wouldn't even look up from his papers to acknowledge her presences. Marcus looked at him with irritated eyes before turning to Jula. "Thank you Jula. Did any of the commanders say when they would be able to get here?"
"Commander Andrew will be arriving soon. The others will try to make it before the snows get too deep. Luietent Julius will likely not get away until the spring. There has been movement among the Cougar Tribe that has his attention."
"Let us hope it is nothing serious." Marcus feared the mountain tribe more then any other. "What has happened to your shoulder?"
"A Galnian encounter. It is nothing." Jula replied. The Senator glanced his eyes up for a moment for reaching for the satchel.
"Have Conniya look it over." Marcus instructed, giving his dismissal. Jula bowed her head and retreated from the room.
Conniya had some ointment to help Jula's injured shoulder then proceeded to stuff her with food over the next few days. Anca became the young woman's shadow, following her every where she went as she helped prepare the Fort for the coming winter. Jula did not find another opportunity to leave the Fort until the first snow fall. The small settlement of Hokite was in need of another milking cow for the winter months as two of theirs had been killed by a pack of wolves. The wind was biting cold but Jula had volunteered to take an extra cow to the settlement Anca begged to come along, having never visited the settlement before. Jula allowed it for she liked the company and the young girl was a helpful little dear.
Hokite was a village not far from Fort Nord where soldiers could keep a watchful eye on the land and farmers. They had built their accommodations and watchtower right on top of the Eagle Tribe, making the settlement populated by Asdon soldiers and Galnians. The farmers kept their homes on their own lands, away from the tension that brewed in the air of Hokite.
"Are many of the settlements like Hokite?" Anca inquired as they crested a hill, bringing Hokite into view.
"In ways it is." Jula explained. "There is the main village where the markets and shops are, and the farmlands stretch out from there. But no other settlement is built directly upon a tribe. This was an attempt to squish out their rebellion. The other forts and settlements are placed on land suitable for farming. The tribes were pushed away into the woods and hills in order to avoid us."
"My father says Hokite is the most unsafe settlement out of them all. I would think the ones near the mountain tribes would be."
"The mountain tribes have been dormant for some time. While the Eagle Tribe has been sitting under Asda's thumb for years." Jula had never really paid attention to the state of Hokite but she could understand why Anca's father was uneasy about it. Many of the farmers and residence of Fort Nord were nervous about having a Galnian tribe so close to their doors.
"Isn't Captain Auken of the Eagle Tribe? Is he displeased by how his people have become enslaved?"
Jula looked at Anca in wonder. She had never thought to ask Auken how he felt about it. He so rarely spoke of the tribe that disowned him after his mother's death. She just assumed he'd renounced them when he was taken in by her father.
The Asdon woman walked through the streets of the village without a thought but discomfort swept over Anca. She saw the Galnians glare and felt their dislike being directed upon them. She willed the cow to move faster along the dirt streets, regretting her decision to come. She had never felt so watched and so despised before. There were many unkind people in Fort Nord but it was nothing like this. Anca wanted to leave this place as quickly as possible.
The guards greeted Jula, taking the cow and escorting her to their colonel. They gave no sign of acknowledgement to Anca who followed in Jula's wake. The Colonel welcomes his kin-woman with a grin that made goose bumps appear on Anca's skin. He was a lean man with cold green eyes. His head was shaven but the thin line of a beard ran along his bony jaw line. Something about him made her think snake. "I knew when a saw the golden head of a woman in my streets it had to be you." The Colonel wagged a finger at Jula, "It was only a matter of time before you came."
"I enjoy the walk, and you requested another cow for the winter. Everyone was much too busy to make the delivery."
Anca didn't like the look the Colonel was giving Jula. It was one of want and hunger which made her skin crawl. Oh, why had no one else been available to bring the cow? "May I interest you in staying for something to eat?"
"No thank you, there is much to be done in Nord before the winter sets in." she bowed her head to the Colonel before turning to usher Anca out of the room. It was a mistake to have come, Jula knew that. She had forgotten how slimy the Colonel was. No matter how short she made their encounters she always felt a need to wash afterwards. She was thankful to have Anca with her despite her age. Together they made their way through the few streets of Hokite, turning a corner to make them disappear from the sight of the Colonel's quarters where he was indeed watching. Galnians walked about, eyes down but watchful of soldiers.
A dirty hand reach out and grabbing Anca by the wrist. The man had taken her so suddenly Jula had walked a few paces before realizing the girl was not at her side. "Anca?" she hurried back for her but another Galnian stepped in front of her, blocking her way.
"What tribe runs in your veins, girl?" the man sneered at Anca as he fingered a flyaway curl that had escaped from Anca's braids.
"Leave her be." Jula thundered in a voice of authority.
"Looking out for you half-bloods, are you?" the second man looked down upon the Asdon woman with hard brown eyes. "There's a first. I had yet to see any Asdon defend the mix breeds they helped create. But that's how it works isn't it? Breeding us out to take our land." He stepped towards Jula, causing her to back away until she was against the wall of a hide and bark hut. Her face was like stone, a skill she had learned to master, but her eyes betrayed her, showing her fear. The man's hand took her jaw, pinning her to the wall. Anca cried out but the first man held her in place so that she could do nothing to help her mistress.
"What keeps us from returning the favor?" the man continued through his teeth. Jula saw a long scar running down the side of his face and knew this man wanted vengeance for the act. He leaned in to her and said into her ear, "The dignity of not wishing to sink to your level." He answered his own question. He released his grip on Jula but the ache of his hand remained. "What will keep the half-breeds loyal to you? Perhaps you should think of that."
Jula looked into the man's eyes a moment longer before stretching out her arm for Anca. The two hurried away hand-in-hand. The awareness of the people around them could not be ignored now. Vacant eyed women with golden haired children at their sides went about their chores; green eyed youths past by as they went about preparing homes for the coming winter. Snow began to fall as the two women departed the settlement and scurried across the open land for home.
The memory of the encounter with the Galnians remained in Jula's mind despite the distracting cold. Something very wrong was happening at Hokite that made the man's words ring true. The Colonel was not an honest man and the sound of his oily voice made her shiver with disgust. Had it always been like that? How could she have never noticed it before? She could put the blame on her long absence from the area but she knew it would be just an excuse. She'd been a fool to go to the settlement but the Senator had Marcus so preoccupied he pay little attention to minor things. No doubt the Colonel would begin asking for Jula's hand in marriage like he had done before she left for Driisen.
Jula had no worry of Marcus agreeing to the Colonel's request for he had said he'd rather hang himself then see Jula become the Colonel's wife. But knowing what the Colonel was like made Jula believe the scarred Galnian's hated words. Was it only happening in Hokite? There did seem to be more half-breed children about the settlements, including Fort Nord. If it was an order from the Emperor then Marcus would know about it and if it was a suggestion past among the ranks,
Antharc would know. With Marcus too busy to be bothered, Jula chose to confront the young captain upon the matter. She found him in the tavern and joined him for a drink. Once causalities were aside, Jula went for her objective. Steering the conversation towards the colonies she took her opportunity to ask, "Tell me of the happenings in Hokite. How are they fairing with the Tribe of the Eagle?"
"Nothing new to my knowledge. Everything is going smoothly for them and the farmers have had no disturbances other with hungry wolf packs." Antharc replied but his eyes betrayed him for they went hard with displeasure.
"I have my doubts upon that." Jula pressed.
"There is nothing that needs to cause your pretty head to worry." Antharc attempted a smile but it was small and did not reach his eyes.
"I do not mean to cause my head to worry, only to educate it."
"It's not a matter for women's ears." Antharc dropped pretense and took a firm attitude upon the matter. But Jula was never one to give up until she had achieved what she had wanted.
"I was there today. I saw the children and how not even a quarter of them are full blood Galnians. The women are scared and the men are angry. Now tell me why that is."
Antharc gave a heavy sigh, "You know very well why that is. Those men care not what race a woman is, just as long as he can get her to warm his bed. Brides have even been taken from their husbands to fill such needs. Young girls used to fill their need."
"Breed the Galnians out, is that just an idea of theirs or a suggestion from the Empire?" Jula's hands shook with anger but she kept herself calm. How dare these men do such a vile act. They were Asdon and should act as such.
"Where did you hear that?" the captains eyes were shocked to have Jula say such words.
"Is that a way to justify the rape of countless women? Some of whom already belong to a man?" her anger now traced her voice.
"It is not a belief of mine." Antharc too was not pleased with these actions that brought Asda disgrace. But he had little control over such matters
"And what of your men? Is it their belief?"
Antharc opened his mouth then shut it. Jula stood up to leave, her question answered. It made her sick, causing her to need air.
Antharc caught her wrist as she turned to leave, "Men have their needs, Jula and there are few of our own women here. A leader can only deny his men so much."
"Does that help you sleep at night?" Jula snapped, pulling her hand from his grasp and stormed out of the tavern.
Outside, snow was still falling in fluffy white flacks. It stuck to Jula's hair and shawl as she walked the streets where people milled about. The conversation with Antharc brewed heavily in her mind. It relieved her to think Asda had not made such an order but the disgrace the soldiers were causing the natives was just as horrid. If Asda's people were such wondrous folk why then would they do such a shameful thing?
"Much to think about tonight?" a cheerful voice asked. Jula looked up to see Loku and Talon. Their black hair was spotted with snow and smiles were etched upon their faces, Winter had a strange affect on the Sunnox. They were use to harsh climates so perhaps it was a bit of home that they hadn't seen since their youth.
"Unfortunately." Jula replied with a weary smile.
"Then you need a drink." Loku laid a hand on her shoulder and stirred her back towards the tavern. The temperature change was incredible when they entered the now crowded building. The heat of cooking fires and bodies created a wall of warmth the moment the door opened. Jula shook her shawl and hair to be rid of the sticky snow. She spotted Auken right away, sitting at his usual table in the far corner with Siphro, Sjurn, and Chalang. He smiled warmly to them as she and the Southeners came near.
"Honey," Sjurn called to a curly haired brunette with green eyes. "Three more."
Jula slide into the seat nearest Auken and waited for her drink that would help chase away her unpleasant thoughts. Auken leaned towards her so that his men could not hear him, "Turmoil?" he asked.
No one knew her better then Auken. She could hide nothing from him for he could read her like a scroll. Looking into his hazel eyes she muttered back, "How are you're feeling toward the treatment of your old tribe?"
The question took Auken by surprise. "I see you went to Hokite today." he took a drink of his ale. "I prefer not to think of it."
"That is no way to treat an unpleasant situation."
"There is nothing that can be done about it, Jula. It's pointless to fret over something that can't be changed." Auken said sternly.
The young tavern maid brought the extra ale and Jula took a large gulp of hers before it was even touched the table. She could not look at the half-breed maiden without the scarred Galnian's words echoing in her head. Auken placed a hand on her arm to give it a comforting squeeze then withdrew.
"Oh that just hits the spot doesn't it?" Loku smacked his lips, savoring the taste of ale. "A reward for a hard day of work."
"When have you ever had a hard day's work?" Chalang teased in his serious tone. A smile crept across Jula's face as she took another drink. The company of the Sunnox was a good choice after such a day. Brutish and savage but they had good hearts. She watched them as they joked and relaxed together. They could get vile at times but were quick to apologize when they remembered that a lady was present among them. Being raised around men Jula had become use to their rude noises and indecent talk but these outlandish men kept awareness of her presence without putting on pretense. She was comfortable with them as they were with her. She was thankful that Auken was assigned them as his men. She may have missed out on their companionship otherwise.
"Are you weary tonight?" Talon asked as the other listened as Sjurn told a humorous tale about a Sunnox man and a lost goat.
Jula meet his gray eyes. They had always fascinated her for the gray pools were not only an unusual colour to her but seemed so deep and tender that she could lose herself in them for hours. "Weary from many things." She answered.
"Shall I take you home?"
Jula nodded. She was ready to end this day. After bidding the men goodnight, she left with her escort. The snow had become heavy in its fall but the cold was not as noticeable without the aid of the wind. Wrapping her shawl around her shoulders, Jula walked silently with Talon down the snow thickened streets to the Governor's House. The hazy glow of lamps lit their way; the air smelled crisp and cool. It seemed magical to Jula and she allowed herself to become lost in its beauty only to be brought out of it when she realized they had come to Marcus's home. The candles in the open hallway burned to light the way for a late working servant or a wandering body.
She turned to thank Talon for seeing her home, a habit Auken and his men did for her. His eyes seemed to shine out from his snowy head, capturing her. They looked strange to her, as if they were speaking to her in another language that she did not know. A snowflake fell upon her cheek like a cold kiss. Talon's hand came up to brush it away. His touch sent an unfamiliar sensation though Jula's body and she felt heat suddenly rise to her face.
"Sleep well, Jula." Talon bid.
"And to you, Talon." She returned. She did not miss the moment of hesitation he had when she spoke his name. But then he turned and walked back down the snow covered street. Jula went inside her home, all thoughts of Hokite replaced with wonder of what had just transpired between her and the Sunnox northerner she had known since she was sixteen.
From the study room tower in the Governor's House, Jula sat in the window wrapped in a warm blanket with a scroll unrolled before her. She stopped reading for a moment to look out the window at the winter scene below. The Fort was blanketed in white, and chimney smoke rose from the houses and bunkers. Boys were busy in the streets shoveling the way. Goats and pigs wandered about their pens, making their own paths. Guards paced the cleared walkways of the Nord's wall, dressed thickly against the wind. Jula's eyes traveled over the peaceful Fort to the round house of Auken and his men. Siphro could be seen chopping wood as Auken came along with a yoke across his shoulders where two buckets of well water dangled from the hooks. Over the past couple of days, Jula had found herself looking down upon the round house watching for Talon. She still didn't fully understand what had happened between them the other night but she hoped for another private moment to find out the meaning.
Leaning her head back against the sill, Jula looked out at the white land. It took her a moment to notice the fast moving form coming towards the Fort. Tossing aside the scroll, Jula went to the telescope to have a better look at the rider. It was only one man on horse back, a messenger. She had made a point to know all the letters carriers, and she knew this one to be in the service of Lieutenant Julius, stationed in the north-west settlement of Fort Macadonna. Hurrying from the tower room, Jula went in search of Marcus. He was found at the storage huts going over the inventory papers with the storage keeper. "Governor Marcus," Jula bobbed a curtsy to him as was expected of her when she addressed him in public. "A messenger of Lieutenant Julius is arriving at the gates."
The Governor nodded, "Thank you, Lady Jula. I'll see him momentarily." Bobbing another curtsy, she hurried back to the Governor's House to meet the messenger.
Marcus met the man in the Council Room and due to the Senator's presence, Jula had to wait outside while the man delivered his news. At the sound of the door opening, she was on her feet. Marcus's head poked out of the room "Jula, summon Antharc and Auken at once and have a servant bring some food for our messenger." Instantly, Jula was moving. Anca appeared from her hiding place in the hall to go tell Conniya to prepare a meal.
Taking up her skirts, Jula took off running to find Antharc and Auken. People in the street made way for the familiar sight of her hurry about on errands for the Governor. In the bunk house, men were caught off guard when Jula entered without warning. "Antharc," she called to the young captain. The fact that he was in nothing but his breeches did not even phase her. "You are needed by the Governor this instant."
Just as quickly as she had appeared, she was gone, off running to fetch Auken. She found him where she knew she would, in the stables cleaning the horse stalls with Chalang. "Message from Lieutenant Julius. Marcus wants to see you." Sticking the pitch fork in a stack of hay, Auken followed her back to the Governor's House.
Anca lurked in the hallway when Jula returned. "What is going on?" the young girl asked with excitement but she was hushed as Auken went into the Council Room. Antharc came shortly after and disappear inside as well. The two girls were left to wait once more. Finally the door opened and out came the two captains. Nodding their heads to Jula, they left the Governor's House without a word. Anca was suddenly gone, just in time for the Senator to appear from the room, the Governor at his side. Marcus excused himself from Senator Anthony's side and beckoned for Jula. She followed him into the Council Room and shut the door behind her. "The Tribe of the Cougar is on the move and men from the Badger Tribe have been spotted in the area." Marcus told her, making the hairs on the back of Jula's neck prickle. The Cougar and Badger Tribes were the most powerful tribes in Galnia and a meeting between them could not be good for Asda. "I am having Antharc's band station themselves near Fort Macadonna while Auken looks into the matter. If we are lucky, this will be nothing, but if not, I want an army close at hand to help Lieutenant Julius."
Jula shivered at the thought of battle with the tribes. Chief Quinnama of the Cougar Tribe was a fearsome man to whom her father was said to be uneager to face. Current reports from Fort Macadonna stated that the mountains the Cougar Tribe dominated were calm, causing a breath of relief to pass but it was only a matter of time before Quinnama would stir. And Chief Oaktuc of the Badger Tribe was of likewise concern. The two tribes were wise to Asdon's fear yet had remained quiet for a time. The last heard attack from them was a year before when Captain Kay lost eleven of his men to two Badger tribesmen. "I want you to go ahead of Auken." Marcus solemnly broke into Jula's thoughts. "I need a speedy rider with him to bring word to Julius and Antharc."
Jula kept a masked face, refusing to show her fear. "As you wish." She replied obediently with a nod of her head. Marcus turned away, allowing Jula to leave.
"Jula," he stopped her at the door, his face grave. He did not want to send her north but it was the best choice, "Be watchful and come back with health."
That night Jula joined the men in drinks to a safe journey. The soldiers of Antharc sang a song of their homeland, and she sang with them, arm across a man's shoulders and rocking to the tune. When it came time for Jula to leave, the men cheered to her health and the drinks they would buy her when they finished dealing with the Galnians.
Stepping out into the cold night, Jula made her way home. The scream of a hawk brought her eyes up to see Smitta circling in the night sky. His feathered body framed by the stars. "He is restless tonight." Turning, Jula came face to face with Talon. He lifted his gray eyes to his bird above, "He senses something we do not."
"I hope it's a good omen he is feeling." Jula began walked again and Talon fell into step beside her. "One can only hope the power of Jupus is on our side when we face these tribes."
"Between your God and mine, I believe that some supernatural being will be with us." Talon did not seem uneasy about this mission but none of the Sunnox ever showed their feelings in a coming battle. They became calm and hard, faith bond to their own god. It was a trait they shared with the Asdons but their hard statue was only used when needed.
Arriving in front of the Governor's House, Talon touched Jula's forearm. She looked into his eyes and thought she saw concern but his eyes were quick in becoming unreadable like they always were. His gaze sent the same unfamiliar sensation through her as last time. "I will see you in Macadonna, my Lady."
"I will be waiting." She spoke before realizing she had.
Neither moved away, both content in standing before the other, lost from the world around them. Jula's feet were numb from the snow but all she could feel was Talon's eyes. He raised his hand and gentle stroked her cheek. As if in a dream, her body moved without notification to her mind, taking a step towards him. He lowered his face to her where their lips met, making the world crumble away. Their kiss was long and deep, leaving them dazed when they parted. "Until Macadonna, my Lady Jula." Talon whispered again before walking away. Jula watched him go before turning into her home, her lips still warm from his touch.