A/N: My new years resolution is to keep the Dark Rising coming. Happy 2018!
Claudia knelt down in front of the two carved marble blocks. The stone glowed in the moonlight, and the Dark Lady closed her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. Seonag took a tentative step forward. "M'lady…"
"Stay back," Claudia said softly. "I'm fine, just stay back. I want to be alone." Her bodyguard nodded curtly and walked several paces down the hill with Mycah just a few steps behind him. Ingvild, in her wolf aspect, glanced at Claudia one last time before padding after the tribesman. Saryndiel sighed and retreated in the opposite direction. When she was sure her vassals were well out of sight, Claudia allowed the tears to flow. She reached out and traced the name carved onto the gravestone. "I'm so sorry, Father," she whispered as her index finger trailed down the letters in Maxwell Rosemont's name. "I didn't mean for any of this to happen. I didn't mean for you to get hurt. I'm so sorry."
She had tried to prepare herself for this moment for weeks now. She had spent hours as the Sultan's Joy sailed down the Galletian coast steeling herself against the thought of seeing her father's grave. As Saryndiel, Hadiim and a handful of other Censhrilaci crewmen poled them upriver in a borrowed fishing boat, she had rehearsed what she would say. All of that was gone now, her mind was utterly blank.
She just let herself cry until there were no tears left, her shoulders shaking and heaving with sobs she had been forced to hold back for months. Finally, here in the dark and so far away from her realm, she could cry in peace. Claudia was a little surprised that the warm tears did not burn the icy façade she had been forced to construct.
The ring of steel cut through the night air. "Halt!" Seonag barked. "One step further and I'll cut you down where you stand."
"You dare give us orders in our own lands?" a man called back. "Who do you think you are?" Ingvild snarled and gnashed her teeth, and Claudia could hear her two other wolves growling nearby.
There was a rasp of metal on metal as Saryndiel drew his curved daggers from his belt. "We have been given orders to keep anyone away from this hillside. We do not wish to spark a conflict, but should you press the issue we will have no choice."
Claudia pushed herself to her feet and made her way down. "No, stand down, all of you." She stared down the company of mounted men in armor. "We're not here to pick a fight."
The man leading the company swung down off his horse. "Maiden's grace. Claude!" Before Seonag could stop him, he had closed the distance between them and pulled her into a tight embrace. Claudia returned the hug as her brother wiped the tears of joy from his eyes. "I thought I was never going to see you again."
"I had to come back," the Dark Lady said softly.
Marius took off his helmet and turned to his knights. "All of you, stand down. If Claude says they don't want a fight then we won't offer one. Sir Gautier, I leave you in charge. I think Claudia and I have things we should talk about." He turned to his sister. "That's why you're here, isn't it?" Claudia nodded.
Together, the two siblings walked back up the hill and sat down in front of their parents' graves. Claudia smoothed out her skirts. "It really is a very nice place."
"You're here to do more than just exchange pleasantries with me."
Claudia sighed. "Yes. I had just thought that… well, anyway, it does not matter. Marius, I've heard about Lord Roux and the other southern lords. Please, I'm asking you not as the Dark Lady, but as your sister, to not join him. Tell me you aren't."
"I've got no other choice."
"You can't be serious!"
"Radia Imperia has been looking for an opportunity to get rid of me ever since the Shieldwall and—"
"And you're just going to hand them one?"
"And Lord Roux has made it quite clear he doesn't care who my family is, so long as I support him. Now certainly, Uncle Cassius has said he'll march to my aid, but how long will that ultimatum stand? I need to look out for the best interests of the people of Sybalia, and Lord Roux will offer me protection from King Edrick. Besides," Marius said with a shrug. "Lord Roux has a daughter of marriageable age. An alliance like that is more than I could possibly hope for anywhere else."
"And what if declaring for Roux is just the thing Edrick needs to march his army against you?"
"Then I will have the combined armies of Lords Roux and Hypatia to stand behind me, along with Baron Laurent and Earl Rolfort's. Between the five of us, we can close down almost all shipping on the Faulker. It's as good as a trade embargo on the whole realm. And if Uncle Cassius keeps his word, he'll move against the king as well."
Claudia balled her hand into a fist. "I really must speak to Uncle Cassius about that. He made that declaration without my approval."
"You can't expect him to come to you for everything he does."
"I only learned about it through gossip. It isn't right."
"I can understand why you're upset. But Claude, I need you to understand that I have to do this. We might be able to found a kingdom of our own! You can have allies in the south, if this works."
"Marius, you serve the Light."
"Lately, I'm not so sure."
Claudia leapt to her feet. "Marius! Father fought and died for the Light! I had no choice but to take up the Darkness's cause, but for you to throw everything our family has believed in away like that is—"
"You're one to talk," Marius snarled. "You say you had no choice, but you seem to have settled in just fine in the north! And don't presume you knew Father's mind on this! You weren't with him when we had to march against you. The other lords rallied around him! We've been subjected to the House of Edrick for too long, maybe some of us want to go down a different path. We don't all have the opportunity you did—"
"Opportunity? Marius, by the Triad, what happened to me wasn't an opportunity, it was a trial! A curse!"
"You swore by the Triad. Which one did you mean?"
"That's hardly relevant!"
"I think it's terribly relevant." Marius slowly got to his feet. "You've changed, Claudia. Maybe you're used to your new subjects following your orders, but I don't have to. I've made my choice."
"You're being an idiot!" Claudia screamed. "Can't you understand that Edrick is just waiting for you to make a misstep like this so he can march in? He'll use it to get at me!"
"I completely understand!" Marius shouted back. "But he's left me no other choice! I'm not siding with the House of Edrick, and I'm not throwing away everything our ancestors fought for to stand with you. I'm taking the third path."
"Throwing away? You have to put it like that, don't you?"
"Stop twisting my words around, damn it!"
The heavy tramp of booted feet caused the two siblings to fall silent. Seonag and Sir Gautier came to a halt some paces distant. Seonag had his spear hefted, and Gautier was ready to draw his blade. "We heard shouting," the tribesman said. "M'lady, is there trouble?"
"No, I'm sorry. Stand down." Claudia clamped down on her rising temper and dispelled the red and green patterns that were etching themselves in the air around her fingertips. She took a deep breath and focused on bringing her emotions back to neutral before she lost control of her fire magic and wound up torching the hillside.
Marius nodded. "At ease, Gautier."
"Yes, my lord."
The two men at arms cast glances over their shoulder as they walked down the hill before turning to glare at each other. Marius sighed and sat down. "I'm sorry, Claude. I don't mean to fight you. You came all the way south to warn me, and all I can do is lash out at you. You don't deserve that. I've just been under so much pressure that—"
"I can sympathize." Claudia knelt next to him, drawing her legs up underneath her and placing her hand over his. "In the end, Sybalia is your realm. If… If you think it best to join Lord Roux's cabal, then so be it." She looked out on the moonlit plains all around them. "Sybalia isn't my home any longer. I've given you my counsel, and ultimately it's your choice whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. I'm sorry it's going to have to be this way, but I can't say I don't understand your logic."
"Thank you, Claude."
They sat in silence for a few moments, and Claudia turned slowly to look at the shadowy shape of Rosemont Keep in the distance. "I do miss this place. Is it very different now?"
Marius smiled. "Even with all the servants and men at arms, the keep still feels empty without you and Father."
"You know I didn't mean to kill him, don't you? It was an accident and I didn't know what I was doing. I know that doesn't change the fact that it happened and his blood is on my hands, but I never meant for him to get hurt."
"I can't say I forgive you," Marius said after a brief pause. "But I don't bear you any kind of grudge. It was in the heat of battle, and everything was chaotic. He got too close and he… he got burned." Marius gestured down the hill. "Gautier lost his protégé in your raid in the west. It was the wolves that took him down, but he blames all of the Darkness for it. You, your northern bodyguard, the elves, it doesn't matter. You're all Edmond's killers as far as he's concerned."
The lord of Sybalia ran a hand down his face and Claudia was struck by how tired he looked. "I'm not going to do that," he continued. "Father's gone, and I won't let my grief over his death alienate me from the only family I have left." He clutched Claudia's hand. "I don't want to lose my sister."
Claudia sighed and gently extricated her hand from her brother's grasp. "Oh, Marius," she whispered. "You lost your sister a long time ago."
"Don't say that."
"But you know it's true. I forswore all ties to our family the day I took up my Crown. At the Shieldwall I told you that I was severing all ties to the House of Rosemont. I did it to give up my claim on any succession, but I'm going to have to let you go too, no matter how much it hurts." Claudia cut Marius off with a brief gesture. "Marius, please, listen to me. I'm doing this for our own good. I'm not starting a new branch of the Rosemonts."
"You don't have to do that."
"Yes, I do, for your own good. Furthermore, I will take no husband and bear no children."
Marius blinked. "Surely you can't be serious."
"Deathly so. If protocol demands, I will adopt an heir, but I will never have a child of my own." Claudia turned away. "I don't do that just for you, Marius. If I allowed myself to build a family, someone could use those bonds against me or use them to manipulate me and my court. My position demands my complete responsibility, and if that means sacrificing my happiness… well, then I must be prepared to do it."
Marius shook his head and turned back to the two marble grave markers. "What would Mother think of us if she were here? Look at what her children grew up to be…"
"One a traitor, and one a lord," Claudia said with a wry smile.
"One a traitor, and one a queen," Marius said at the same time.
The two of them sighed. Marius sat back and studied his father's gravestone. "To be honest, all things considered, I think Father would have been proud of both of us right now. Maybe he wouldn't agree with everything we're going to do, but he would respect what we had done."
Claudia nodded slowly. "So you're truly going to join Roux?"
"I'm sorry, Claudia. I know you came all this way to convince me otherwise, but I know what I've got to do. I'm going to go against the House of Edrick because that's what's best for Sybalia… what's best for Galletia. People remember what Father stood for, and lords and smallfolk all across the realm are looking to me to see what I'm going to do. If I join Roux, then more people will rally to us. I'm not saying I want to march into direct confrontation with King Edrick, but I want to show him that his hegemony won't stand anymore. It doesn't have to come to conflict. We just need to take a stand."
"With Edrick, it always comes down to fighting."
"Then we'll be ready for him. All of the knights and levies in the alliance are battle-tested and hardened. The west and north suffered heavy blows in your raid. If King Edrick loses the south, he'll lose some of the strongest bannermen he has. With the exception of his Crown Regiment, he kept most of the eastern and central lords out of the fight. I'll grant there are seasoned veterans from Kalaryndor's war he can call from retirement but," Marius looked at his sister with resolve burning in his eyes. "If it comes to that, we can meet them."
"I don't want you to get hurt, Marius."
"I miss having you at my back, Claude. But I'm more than capable of looking out for myself."
"I should go," Claudia whispered.
"You could stay at the keep tonight. We can set up rooms for you and your guards."
"That's very sweet of you, but it's best we didn't. I don't belong here anymore. The sooner I leave Sybalia the better it will be for everyone." She placed a hand on her father's grave. "This will probably be the last time I come here. I'm going to miss it. These vineyards, the rolling hills, the rivers and shady groves are a part of me. I'll never forget the time we shared here." She smiled sadly. "I hope to see you again someday, Marius."
Her brother brushed the back of her hand. "Whatever happens next, however this ends, I'm not going to fight you again. Light, Darkness, I don't care. You're my sister no matter what you say to the contrary, and you're all I've got left."
Claudia squeezed his fingers. "Thank you, Marius. I'm sorry things had to end this way."
The two of them walked down the hill. "You said you were giving up the Rosemont name," Marius said. "Will you be taking a new one?"
"I already have, unofficially." Claudia turned to him and smiled. "From now on, I am Lady Claudia Blackmont, the first of her name."
When they reached their vassals at the base of the hill, Claudia embraced her brother, and he held her close. When they finally parted, they exchanged no words. Claudia and her entourage melted into the midnight shadows of the landscape, the silvery-gray fur of the werewolves soon vanishing into the grasses of the Sybalian plains. Gautier turned to Marius. "My lord, we're just going to let them go? Your father would—"
"My father would not have offered a challenge to his only daughter when she had sworn she had no quarrel with his lands. I'll be the judge of my sister's intentions. We're letting her go." Gautier scowled, but said no more as they mounted up and rode back to Rosemont Keep. As the gates closed behind them, the thud of the bolt sliding into place carried with it a sense of finality. As Marius retired to his bedchamber, he realized there was no going back now. Both he and Claudia were inexorably on separate paths, and he was afraid that the only way he would ever see his sister again was if they were standing in front of two different armies.
Going downriver was much easier than poling up it. The current of the Faulker pushed them steadily along towards the sea. Ingvild and her two males were lounging on the deck of the barge in their human forms. The three wolves had never quite gotten their sea legs, but they were finding the gentle rocking of the river much more tolerable than the constant shifting of the ocean. Hadiim worked the tiller while Saryndiel rested in the tiny cabin. When the first light of dawn had broken across the sky, Seonag had thrown a tunic over his broad shoulders to hide the blue tattoos etched across his pectorals, back and upper arms. While it was not unheard of for sailors to have tattoos, the knot-like designs would clearly mark him as a northerner.
When Claudia stifled a yawn, Seonag looked up from sharpening his knife. "M'lady, you really ought to get some sleep."
"I'm not tired."
"Forgive my impertinence, but that's a pile of horse shit. You haven't slept in nearly three days and you have circles under your eyes as dark as midnight. You need to rest, you'll drive yourself into the ground if you keep this up."
You're one to talk," Claudia retorted. "You've slept about as much as I have these past few days. What good is a bodyguard who's too tired to protect me?"
"I'll sleep when you do, m'lady, and not a moment before." He stuck his knife into his belt. "So what's it going to be?"
Claudia sighed. "Fine." She shrugged off her cloak and balled it up under her head, turning onto her side and closing her eyes down to slits. She was dimly aware of Seonag watching her as her eyelids grew heavy. "I thought you said you would sleep too?"
"When you are," he replied softly, his head already beginning to droop towards his chest. When Claudia's breathing evened out and the tension that always seemed to cloud her visage lifted, Seonag took a deep breath. When she was asleep and not trying so hard to keep her face an impassive mask, she was actually rather pretty. The tribesman allowed himself a quiet laugh at this rather irreverent thought as he reached out with his foot and nudged Ingvild.
The wolf woman growled at him inarticulately as she roused herself, and Seonag hooked his thumb at Claudia. "I got her to get some rest, so now it's your turn to guard. I need to sleep. Wake me in a few hours."
Ingvild drew her legs up underneath her and stretched her arms above her head. "Take as long as you need, human." Seonag pillowed his head on his arms and drifted off in moments.
When he awoke, it was nearly dusk and his arms had grown stiff. He slowly got to his feet and stretched with a groan. Saryndiel, now at the tiller, caught his eye and motioned him over. "Douse the lanterns," the dark elf said. "It is not unheard of for boats to traverse the river by night, but it is not common. I do not wish to draw undue attention."
They had decided to light the three lanterns on the fishing boat near dusk to not raise suspicion among the other vessels that traveled up and down the river, but once night fell such precaution was more of a hindrance than a help. When the small fires were put out, Seonag went to sit by Saryndiel and gestured to the still-sleeping Claudia with a jerk of his chin. "Lady Claudia still out?"
The dark elf shook his head. "She woke up a little while ago, but I was able to persuade her to go back to sleep. She needs the rest."
"I think she sometimes forgets that being queen means she can delegate things to other people. It's not like she has to carry the burden all on her own."
"I believe she likes to think that way," Saryndiel replied. "Lady Claudia throws herself into her work because she cannot keep her mind from wandering to things she would rather forget in her moments of idleness. Better to be worrying about something she can make good on than otherwise, I should think."
Seonag shrugged. "Maybe so, but I worry she's going to wear herself out like this. The worst of it is, I don't think she's even aware of what she's putting herself through most of the time. I just don't want her to get hurt."
"It would seem to me that she is doing this to save herself pain. If that is the case, then perhaps allowing her to continue working herself into such a state is a mercy."
"Maybe here and now, but what happens when we get back to the north and she has to go about ruling? What then? Claudia's got her subjects to see to, she can't just work for days straight!" Seonag punctuated his words with a wordless snarl.
Saryndiel reached out and straightened Seonag's furs, his several rings glittering in the last light of day. "Easy, friend. I was merely offering a dissenting voice." He smiled ruefully. "It is an exercise Dareios encouraged me to take up when we were smuggling. He likes me to question his orders."
"I shouldn't have lashed out like that anyway." Seonag sighed, and if he wasn't a large swarthy warrior covered in numerous battle scars, Saryndiel would swear he was pouting. "I know I'm just supposed to protect her from an errant spear thrust or jump in front of an arrow. But until she expressly orders me otherwise, I'm going to look out for her well-being, too."
Saryndiel watched as Mycah shifted in her sleep. Claudia had told him that in their brief stay in the north, her other vassals had looked askance at Mycah's diurnal habits. To Saryndiel it made a measure of sense, and he too was regarded oddly by many of the landlocked elves he encountered for sharing the same affectation. For him, it was a matter of practicality. It was much easier to navigate a ship by day, especially when Dareios was in one of his sulks and wanted to steer by night. Both of Mycah's animal forms were most active during the day and did not have keen night vision, so it was undoubtedly safer for her to modify her sleeping patterns to accommodate.
Seonag glanced up at the rising moon. "Been a while since we sailed south. Famratyr and Azfelyndoran are probably well on their way to Radia Imperia by now." He bit his lower lip. "Damn, I really hate being cut off from the relay."
Saryndiel smirked. "You have only used the relay for just over a year. I find it amusing how you humans grow so dependent on something so quickly."
"Don't try and tell me that if you had a way of communicating over long distances on the ocean you wouldn't adopt it in a heartbeat."
"I shall concede the point."
"I'm worried about the two of them, alone in the heart of enemy territory."
Saryndiel gave a noncommittal shrug. "It is not that I do not understand your worry, but I believe that you are fretting needlessly. Famratyr and Azfelyndoran are both resourceful and cunning, in their own way. If there was any I could trust to go into the heart of Edrick's power and come out on the other side, it would be Famratyr and Azfelyndoran."
"They're an unlikely team," Seonag mused. "But an effective one."
"I do not agree with Azfelyndoran on many things," Saryndiel said. "But I certainly respect him, and his comradeship with Famratyr in no small way reinforces that. My people do not exactly get along well with others."
"Really?" Seonag chuckled. "I hadn't noticed."
Saryndiel smirked. "For a long while, I assumed I was the only dark elf I knew of that had ventured out of our city and made a gainful partnership with one not of our race. Then I had the pleasure of meeting Azfelyndoran, who not only submitted himself without qualm to a human woman but also counted a human man and a werewolf of all things among his closest companions.
"I am considered to be quite the pariah among my people," Saryndiel continued. "I accept that as my lot, and in many ways I welcome it. But Azfelyndoran is different. The elves of Andothasariel respect him. If he pushes for more of the elves to forge bonds outside our own kind, then perhaps they will listen." The dark elf sighed and fingered the gold hoop in his ear. "I fear that if the dark elves do not look beyond our borders soon, there will not be any dark elves left."
"Don't be ridiculous. Lady Claudia will protect you."
"She cannot protect us from ourselves. There are so few children in Andothasariel, and too few of my kinsmen seem interested in producing more. We are too proud to sit idly by while the rest of you march to war with Lady Claudia. It would be one thing if we were only marching to our own deaths. But with each elf that falls, we grow ever closer to the death of our entire species. We have been spread too thin."
"Why not just go back? Even if only for a little while so you can voice your concerns?"
"It is not as simple as all that. I have renounced all ties to Andothasariel. I would never pass beyond the gate. I could be killed if I tried to return."
"It is a fault of my people's damnable pride, but it is what it is." Saryndiel shook his head. "I am sorry for boring you like this, Seonag. I would like to be alone with my thoughts for a time. If you would excuse me?"
When the tribesman nodded and made his way to the front of the fishing boat, Saryndiel resettled himself at the tiller and stared up at the emerging stars, his face an impassive mask.
When they arrived in Seirene, the largest of the four Sybalian ports, three days later, and after returning the rented fishing vessel to its owners, the company made their way to the Sultan's Joy. Saryndiel took inventory of the goods the Censhrilaci had sold and tallied the profits. The dark elf distributed the sailors' cuts as they made ready to cast off. As they loaded what they had not been able to sell, Hadiim approached Saryndiel. "Captain, could I request leave for myself and three of the men? I believe this is where our paths diverge."
"You wish to leave? But why?"
Hadiim gestured to Seonag. "As a favor to the northman. He wishes us to go to Radia Imperia."
Saryndiel paused for a moment as his thoughts immediately went to Azfelyndoran and Famratyr. While he hoped the treaty negotiations would go smoothly, and he was confident that the two of them could handle themselves, certainly it would not hurt to have some backup in the city. Finally, the dark elf nodded. "May the Warrior be with you, Hadiim." The two of them traded grips. "When we reach Rhime, I will have a ship sail south to Alderford under the pretext of trade. If the situation in Radia Imperia goes south, make your way there as quickly as you can. I will keep our men there as long as they are able."
"Alderford? Only that far?"
"It is probably not safe to go any further south than that. The Faulker is a powder keg, and I cannot in good conscience risk the men for it."
"I understand, captain." Hadiim smiled. "Fair winds to you." He turned and whistled. "Hoy! Karam! Yusuf and Javed! We're leaving!"
As Hadiim turned to leave, Saryndiel caught his arm. "Please be careful. I don't need to tell you how dangerous Radia Imperia is."
Hadiim smiled. "No need to worry, captain. Karam has family in the city. His sister's husband has men to help us out of any tight spots." He strode over to Seonag and the two men traded grips. Seonag clapped a hand on Hadiim's shoulder, and the Censhrilaci smirked. "Take care of your queen, northman. I'll handle your friends in the capital."
"Once you get back to Rhime, the first round of ale will be on me."
"I'll hold you to that." And with that, Hadiim whistled to his men and vanished into the bustle of the crowds around the port. Saryndiel signaled to his remaining crew to finish loading the ship as Claudia and her vassals boarded. When the tide turned an hour later, the Sultan's Joy sailed out of Seirene harbor and tacked a course northward.