Where once he was regarded kindly and praised when he passed over the hanging walkways, Ryan Chase Stormer was now met with fear, scorn, and aversion. Even among those who would share a pint with him at the pub and the young dams who used to smile and bat their lashes at him. "A small price for a great reward," he reassured himself and sought out Thitala once more.
"To what do I owe the pleasure today?" Thitala asked tiredly.
"Advice, once more," Ryan said.
"Walk with me," Thitala said and went toward the more secluded of the capital's gardens. "What is troubling you this time?"
"A new council has been set and seems to be running smoothly, however detached this one is from the military, and understandably so," Ryan started. "Now I need to take the next step from here. We need to gain allies outside of the Ferals. Where do I start? I know nothing of the peoples outside the forest, and barely understand the ones in it. I was not trained to socialize nor conduct politics. To flirt and fight is all I know and have been taught from page to squire to knight. The masters are the ones who become groomed for such things."
"Alas, those shortcomings do not ease when you climb past grunt to captain, commander, or general," Thitala sighed. "Are there not any emissaries left who could guide you through who your new relations should be?"
"I'm not overly hopeful about it," Ryan said and shook his head. "All we've found are staunchly loyal to the current ways and have no desire to regress to the open borders we once held. I'm just as qualified as any of the other revolutionaries to go bumbling around and engaging the kurach of the prairie, the dwarven mines, the centaur herds, the coastal elves, or the various human settlements. The goblin-kin are forever our enemies, so I'm not overly worried about consorting with them."
"Then it is time to groom through your ranks for the most appropriate diplomats. It is only a matter of time before word reaches the Eor of what has taken place, and then you could have the entirety of the Imperial clans on your back. You may just have to do all the legwork if you wish for this to succeed," Thitala said.
"I've been fearing as much. I'm not shy of hard work, but it's hard to cultivate change alone," Ryan said. "I will look again." He politely thanked Thitala for his time, dismissed himself, and left.
Evening was settling and tonight Ryan felt that there was no better place to go than the pub. The barmaids at least were still nice to him. Then he got an idea. "Cille, have you ever dreamed of travel?"
"What strange notion has gotten into that head this time?" Cilled asked as she strode up with his pint of alcohol.
"I am in desperate need of a fair-tongued representative to talk to the prairie kurach for me, perhaps others. Would you be interested?"
"Ya haven't even had yer first sip and already talkin' crazy," Cille said incredulously. "What's it pay?"
"I still have many baubles set aside for my bride-price, and as it's looking unlikely I'll find anyone to tolerate me now, I'd give some of it to you."
"Trinkets from the dowry of a knight, eh?" Cille said with a twinkle in her eye. "Almost sounds like you have more than one agenda in mind. Alright, I'm yours to command." Cille sat down across from him with a demure and calculating grin. "Let's talk politics."
Ryan sighed and began to detail what had been accomplished and what was still to be done. Cille at least appeared genuinely intrigued and even had a few suggestions to make on how to approach the other clans.
"I knew I should have come here tonight," Ryan said groggily after his fifth pint. "Maybe I can even get you to help me with Yoline."
"Even a knight can't afford me for that," Cille smiled coyly. "To bed with you, you've had enough for one evening, and so have I."
Ryan staggered to his feet and sleepily sputtered a protest as Cille realized she would have to assist the usurper back to his quarters if he was to arrive there safely. With careful nudges, occasional support, and cheerful banter, she guided him home and then stood watch at the door.
"Irresponsible sod surely announced to every one of his enemies tonight he was incapacitated. These young bucks just can't handle their liquor," she grumbled and ordered some of the rebellious militia to see to it he came through the night unharmed. After having a blanket brought to her to keep warm on the cool spring night, she took her place at the entrance. In the morning she was even kind enough to have a remedy for hangovers brought to him before she left for her own home to get some sleep.
Ryan squinted against the bright morning sunshine that made the ache in his head worse. He felt every pound at the door and opened it grumpily. There was a gift from Cille, consisting of a hearty breakfast and hot drink. The blue knight took it quietly and sat down to his morning meal. "A barmaid as a diplomat, I must be out of my mind..." He flinched as there was another knock at his door and he invited them inside. A golden-winged knight entered with a pronounced frown.
"Greetings, Jorgen," Ryan said and rose to greet him.
"Morning," Jorgen said and sat down at the table. Ryan sat back down and continued his breakfast. "So far, so good. Village life has returned to normal. The outlying lords and nobles groveling for mercy with their troops away on the raids and surrounded by Blade and Weolcen warriors. Gifts have been sent to reassure them, and Yoline of course is making sure everybody is fed, clothed, and sheltered. Have you decided how to handle the raiding parties' return?"
"Rally more allies with the help of an ale wench romancing them," Ryan said quickly and took a swig of his drink.
"How the mighty have fallen," Jorgen said and shook his head slowly. "Perhaps we should instead be planning the pitch and tones of our screams of agony while we're tortured to death for high treason."
"I still retain hope this will succeed," Ryan said firmly. "If I must give my life in the attempt to save the Imperials from themselves, then so be it."
"Who is the first ally you wish to charm? You've captured the attention of the Ferals and even gotten them to leave their borders for your sake," Jorgen said.
"Our sake. You were the one who goaded me into this," Ryan reminded him. "Next, I suppose we should turn to our cousins, the Ganche, Thistle, Xyun, and Heyen out in the grasses."
"The raids have dwindled the Ganche and Thistle. The Heyen are much smaller now than they used to be. That Wynfall place has taken its toll on their numbers," Jorgen frowned. "I wouldn't mind an end goal of the Sylvans united to wipe that city off the table."
"A campaign for a future date," Ryan nodded. "But first, home. Have you set to seeing the gryphons rewarded?"
"As ludicrous a plan as it is, yes, they are fed and showing a surprising amount of fealty. If we'd known they could be tamed so easily, we would have made them war beasts a long time ago," Jorgen replied as Ryan finished the last of his breakfast. "Then I suppose we'll be plowing fields with minocentaur like humans and their oxen while the wily kirshani fetch our slippers and perform tricks."
"Paradise," Ryan said sarcastically and straightened himself up. "I have a barmaid to equip and escort. Can you manage the capital while I'm gone?"
"I think Yoline and I can handle things," Jorgen said with a wry smile. "She's kinder to me than you."
Ryan groaned and both of them left his quarters. Cille was easy to find that afternoon and ready to begin her assignment. There was a merry twinkle in her eye as Ryan chose to personally escort her and protect the offering of some fat young goats. A swift-winged scout joined them to help them find the closest Prairie clans, and to help keep watch for danger. Their campfires were found with little trouble.
"Do you think they know we're out here?" Ryan asked after the scout gave his report.
"I don't think so. I wasn't shot at," Ketil replied. "Their skill with the bow has greatly increased in the past few decades."
I wonder why, Ryan thought sarcastically. "Let's approach them slowly and hope they're in a listening mood. Drive the goats before us and see if that helps distract them."
Cille and Ketil did as told. The goats' calls caught the attention of the Ganche and a curious warrior approached them.
"Imperial Sylvans?" he asked vehemently when he was close enough to see who was with the bleating bovids.
"Unarmed and not seeking trouble," Ryan said quickly and held up his hands to show they were empty.
"Imperials do not seek trouble because they are trouble," growled the warrior as his hand clutched the sling attached to his belt. "State your business."
"These fine young billies and nannies are for you!" Cille said cheerily.
"And what is it you're wanting in return?" the warrior asked suspiciously.
"Only that your chief lend us his ear for a few moments, and then we'll be gone," Cille said sweetly. "We have no soldiers at the ready. You can circle the area first to test our honesty if you wish."
"Undoubtedly," the warrior said and ordered them to stay where they were while he checked for ambushers. After a survey had been performed, the chief of both the Thistle and Ganche clans appeared before the diplomatic Fernwicks. They viewed the peace offerings rather skeptically.
"What guarantee do we have of your newfound peacefulness after we help you overthrow the loyal Imperials?" the chief of the Thistle clan asked.
"Those who make up the rebellion has held little interest in the raiding parties, but we do not have the relationship with the Prairie clans as the Ferals do. We can only give our word, and no doubt that won't carry much weight," Ryan said uneasily.
"Indeed, it does not," the Thistle chief said shrewdly. "But we shall try it, for a season. We haven't much choice ourselves, not with the weakened state we're in. We cannot handle many more Imperial raids."
"Warriors from other clans are coming," the Ganche chief continued as he petted a goat nudging his leg. "For your sake, you should be upfront about your intentions. The net grows ever tighter. The Imperials cannot sustain these attacks for much longer. It would be wise to stand down."
"Surely there aren't that many Prairie warriors coming," Cille said with a bit of confusion. "The plains are a big place, but sparsely populated."
"Oh no, my dear lady," the Ganche chief fixed her with a cold gaze. "There are far more to worry about than a few disgruntled Ferals and wronged Prairie clans. You may rest here for a few days before returning to the Nyre."
The Fernwick diplomats rested a small ways from the combined Ganche and Thistle clan settlements.
"So I suppose it's true the Ganche and Thistle travel together now?" Cille asked over their roasting supper.
"It's something they started doing in the past few years. Settlers from Wynfall tried to start a second village closer to the Eor, right in the middle of their territories. Eventually the Wynfall soldiers gave up after the fierce opposition from the Ganche and Thistle, but it weakened their numbers to the point that they often live together now," Ryan explained.
"And you expect them to help us how?" Cille asked skeptically.
"Because they are very skilled with the bow and hand-sling, and our only chance against them in the past has either been to strike when they were unaware or wait until they ran out of rocks and arrows," Ryan said. "There are rocks everywhere out here and ten of them can ward off fifty of us."
"I certainly hope you know what you're doing," Cille sighed.
"You'll love the next conversation then," Ryan said with a wry grin. "We're going underground."
Cille sat straight up. "You're joking."
"The dogs of war are barking at the gates, and what better way to answer than with some cave hounds?"
"They aren't even capable of speech! They're mindless, bloodthirsty snakes with legs and fins! Literally," Cille hissed. "Just how do you expect to reason with them and command them into battle?"
"By speaking with their handlers, the dwarves," Ryan replied.
"The lengths you have chosen will plant you between the dishonorable dead," Cille said with disgust. "Poisoning your own kind. How much further will you stoop?"
"We all must do what we feel is right. I will let the gods and historians judge me," Ryan sighed and flopped back into the grass. "May the ends justify the means."
Cille didn't argue with him but chose to sleep on the other side of their fire that night. It was a quiet flight back to the Fernwick capital.
"Stealing from the Fernwick now?" Cille asked as a chest laden with gems and precious metals was placed into sturdy satchels attached to a brace of donkeys.
"If we can switch from raids to trade routes, the wealth of the Fernwick will increase immensely, and we can receive many more shiny trinkets from the dwarves than this," Ryan explained as he checked the harnesses one last time. "I intend to replace what I had to borrow from the coffers."
"And aid them in their wars against trolls and hobgoblins too, I suppose," Cille criticized. "Perhaps perform the grunt work in their forges?"
"I like that idea even better," Ryan said with a genuine smile. "Think of how greatly our armour and weapons would improve with dwarven master smithery!"
"You are permanently cut off at the pub," Cille said with a frown. "Your brain is addled. One too many blows on the training grounds."
"Shall I escort you, my lady?" Ryan asked pleasantly as he took the reins in one hand and extended an elbow for her to link arms with him. "Then I may have an ass in both hands."
Cille stormed off with an indignant huff and Ryan chuckled to himself. The closest dwarven entrance was in the northernmost part of the Fernwick lands. Ketil joined them again to keep an eye out for predators, enemies, and other dangers. They arrived safely and Ryan took it as a sign of providence that things continued to proceed so smoothly. He knocked boldly on the gate and waited for it to open.
A guard opened a peephole and looked him up and down. "What business have ye, fuzztails?"
"An audience with one of your fine chieftains, and an offering for his time," Ryan said grandly and lifted a flap on one of the satchels.
"Pillaged jewels from other dwarven clans is hardly a satisfact'ry offering," grumbled the dwarf, but opened the gate to let them inside. The heavy stone door was sealed as soon as the three of them and their cargo was inside, making Ryan and Ketil very nervous.
"Oh, please, this isn't any worse than the ale cellars," Cille said loftily. "It's rather cozy in these tunnels. Just be glad the dwarves have daysight like us and not darksight like the duergar so we have these beautiful torches to light our way."
"It's nice ta be 'preciated by ye beasts," snickered the guard leading them deeper into the ground. "Oy, boss, couple o' skywalkers come ta see ye," he called as they entered a large chamber.
"What business have ye, fuzztails?" asked the chief grumpily.
Dwarves are nothing if not consistent, Ryan noted.
"Gracious and benevolent fellow of long and curly beard, we present these treasures as we so humbly request—" Cille began before she was interrupted.
"Spare ye flat'ry for them spindly elves, get down ta business," the chief interjected.
"We want you to drive yamaer to the surface when the Eor Imperials come to take the Fernwick capital back from us," Ryan said bluntly.
The chief looked him up and down and stared at him for a moment. "Are ye not Fernwick?"
"We are," Ryan nodded. "We have overthrown the current Elders and taken control. We have no interest in continuing a raiding lifestyle. We seek to transition to the more agreeable ways of commerce and trade."
"And next ye'll be wantin' to trade with us?" the chief asked.
"If the opportunity arises for that conversation, yes, I think we can reach some sort of agreement," Cille replied. "As I understand, the dwarves struggle with adequate meals since very little grows or lives this far below ground."
The chief grunted what seemed to be an affirmation. "Ye do realize if we help ye turn on your brothers, and then you betray us as well, the penalty will be swift and severe. We can tunnel where ye cannot reach, and destroy your villages from below. Not even the trees can protect you. Roots are vulnerable to our kind and our ways. We can set your huts ablaze without ever breaching the topsoil."
"We are well aware of the risks and consequences," Ryan replied.
"Better access to provisions catches me wee eye," the chieftain said with a mirthless grin that exposed his yellowed teeth. "If you're successful, this could be the start of a long and lucrative partnership for us both."
Ryan bowed to him and they were dismissed by the chieftain.
"Can we feed a herd of dwarves?" Cille asked when they were above ground again and well out of earshot.
"They can feed themselves, all we have to do is let them forage," Ryan said grimly. "If they want more, they will have to meet us at the bartering table."
"Any other species you want to spread us between?" Cille asked.
"That should do it for now," Ryan sighed. "I don't even know where to begin with elves, and even as crafty as kirshani are I'm not sure what they can do with their small size. Thank you for your assistance."
"You know where I'll be if you need my services further," Cille said with a single nod of satisfaction.
"I thought I was banned from the pub?" Ryan asked suspiciously.
"You'll be allowed back to celebrate your mighty victory, and only then," Cille said haughtily. "Not a moment before."
"Do you think centaurs would make good war steeds?" Ryan asked innocently and was met with a cuff to the back of his head from Cille. "I kid, I kid!"
"Those monsters have two stomachs, and we have enough to feed as is! First you have to give them a good meal of bread and meat, and then put them out to pasture to fill the other stomach. Do you have a pasture? No, you do not, because we are called sylvan for a reason!" Cille scolded him.
"Scissortails and Weolcen have pastures," Ryan countered. "Where do you think they keep the sheep they make their wool from?"
"Maybe they pull it out of their asses, like where most of your ideas come from," Cille said with a sideways glance.
"Nope, just short, tufty manes here," Ryan said as he played dumb and petted the sweet beasts behind him.
"As dull as you are, we should yoke you right up with the donkeys," Cille retorted.
"Might as well give all your bride-price to her family, I think you're a match," Ketil teased from his position in the lead of their procession.
"We most certainly are not!" they exclaimed in unison.
"You're even synchronized," Ketil laughed and Cille threw a rock at him, which he deftly avoided. "Alright, I'll stop."
"Bucks are as stubborn and insufferable as jacks," Cille muttered to herself. And how dare Ketil suggest I be his jennet!
A fluttering of feathers caught their attention and Zyzy landed nearby.
"What brings you today, fair lady?" Ryan said cheerily.
"You are making inquiries for friends in battle, no?" Zyzy asked as she blinked a few times.
"Yes," Ryan replied. "We've possibly gained a few other kurach clans and some dwarven aid."
"Dwarves cannot climb trees," Zyzy stated. "You need night flyers for roosting enemies."
"I hadn't considered murdering them in their sleep," Ryan said slowly with a raised eyebrow.
"The nightwings will fall on them while they come through the grasses," Zyzy said matter-of-factly. "We do not want fighting in our forests if it can be avoided."
"I thought the gryphons only wished to play messenger?" Ryan asked.
"My kind does, but the owl-kin do not," Zyzy explained. "And they will expect to be fed for the nights they sacrifice hunting."
"Naturally, they will be rewarded for any aid they can give us," Ryan said humbly.
Satisfied, Zyzy gave her feathers a quick fluff and then took flight.
"Assassinations from the dark," Cille said critically.
"All is fair in love and war," Ryan said coldly. "We are trained to execute in stealth, and to expect it."
"This is why you knights stay single longer than the warriors," Cilled said with a frown and began walking toward home again.
Jorgen strode out to meet his fellow fallen knight when the messenger gryphons announced their impending arrival. "Did all go well?"
"We've got yamaer, we've got Ganche and Thistle, and according to Zyzy, we've got nightwing gryphons at the ready," Ryan said tiredly.
"The gryphons are going to fight?" Jorgen asked in amazement. "I thought they wanted to stay away from the action."
"Regular meals as couriers prompted them to suggest it," Ryan said. "We now have gryphons on our side."
"Divine benevolence! We may succeed yet," Jorgen said hopefully.
"Time will tell after the Eor Imperials have had their retaliation," Ryan cautioned.
"You're not having second thoughts, are you?" Jorgen asked suspiciously.
"Never," Ryan said quickly. "But, they are our brothers in arms. Many who return will be ones who we have spent our lives training with. That does not rest easy with me."
"Nor I," said Jorgen. "But it must be done."
Ryan nodded grimly and he, Cille, and Ketil retired to their separate chambers to rest and await the consequences of their insurrection.
Word soon reached the Imperials of the Eor forest, expedited by the fact the rebels decided to gloat a bit about their victory in wrestling control from the loyal Fernwick and allowing a few messengers to escape to the safety of the Eor.
"Why did you do that?" asked a tired Weolcen Elder. "We're not even sure if there are sympathisers to your cause in the Eor and things are not yet stable here! A breach now could spell disaster and undo all we've worked for."
"We don't tell you Ferals everything," grinned a young warrior. "We have been corresponding a bit with those in the Eor. Falnor is the most stubborn about the old ways, but Waebre is very hopeful. Sushaw is losing interest in battling with the Prairie and wayward humans, and Austmont is all for a more cautious lifestyle, what with being next to those gigantic Highland kurach and all."
"Speaking of the Prairie, has the Fernwick sent out a peace offering to them yet?" the Weolcen Elder asked.
"Yes. Just the other week we sent a a lass out with good goats. It's not much, but it's a start!" the young warrior replied cheerfully.
"It will take a lot more than goats to soothe those ruffled feathers, but, yes, it is a start," the Elder said tiredly.
"I make no guarantees for the rumpies, but I suppose we shall burn that bridge when we get to it," the warrior laughed.
"You Imperials have such a peculiar sense of humour..." the Elder shook his head. "I'd much rather not get mixed up with humans. They are few in number and their settlements far inbetween. We can spare rubbing elbows for now. Any news on the whereabouts of the Fernwick raiding parties?"
"The refugees fled to Waebre since it's the closest Imperial clan, and the raiding parties were sent to aid them. Undoubtedly, they're aware of what's happening at home," the guard replied.
"Undoubtedly they are already enlisting assistance from Waebre, Sushaw, Falnor, and Austmont," the Elder said. "Here's to hoping the dwindling Thistle and Ganche, a few yamaer, and ruffled gryphons can help us hold the Fernwick capital."
"And that we enter into an unprecedented age of grandeur and influence," murmured the idealistic young guard.
The Elder simply shook his head.