Ryan strode out to just before the loyal Fernwick camps and flashed his brilliant wings to catch their attention. Warily, Chief Heyne met with him again.
"News from the Ferals," Ryan began. "The grove has been found, along with a grouchy old gryphon who demanded a sacrifice."
"What is the nature of this 'sacrifice'?" Heyne asked warily.
"He hasn't said yet, but apparently the Ferals once used those ruins a long time ago to settle disputes. They have suggested that the custom be revived, and that the Keeper said each of the clans that have been fighting would need to offer up people to participate."
"What will become of them?" Heyne asked. "I don't like this."
"From what the Keeper said, none would be taken away forever and would be returned after the completion of the games, so long as the outcome of the games were honoured," Ryan explained. "I don't like it either."
"When is all this to take place?"
"During the autumnal festivities."
"I'll send word to the Eor," Heyne sighed. "They're not giving us much time to work."
"There is one more thing," Ryan said reluctantly. "The Keeper said it was the obligation of each clan involved to also send a crew to help clean up his ruins. Naturally, we'll offer safe passage."
"The Eor Sylvans are sure to love that," Heyne said grimly.
"The types of games are still to be determined," Ryan said. "They will also need to have trustworthy representatives so we all can decide how to compete."
"Ah, even better!" Heyne exclaimed. "Just how do you expect me to get them to consent to that? After all that happened, they certainly don't trust you."
"There are the carrier gryphons," Ryan suggested. "They are equipped with scroll cases. Seal the scrolls with wax, and we can communicate that way. Cleaning crews will still need to be sent."
"How did you ever tame those savage beasts?" Heyne asked warily.
"Honestly? We didn't. The Ferals just started feeding them," Ryan said with an annoyed look. "To think their loyalty was so easily bought."
"Feeding a gryphon would be easier and safer than sending other messengers. I'll give it a try..." Heyne paused and eyed his estranged clan mate, contemplating his next question.
"We would be glad to send one of our trusted courriers to help you, if it means not facing annihilation from the spirits," Ryan said quickly.
"How the mighty have fallen," Heyne sighed. He agreed to receive the bird. Ryan met with him the next day with a swift young gryphon who was eager to be fed, and almost as eager to race to the Eor.
"We must first introduce you to our allies, else you would be shot down," Heyne warned the sprightly bird.
"Let's go right away!" the gryphon said cheerily. "Finch, at your service!"
"I'll leave you two to get better acquainted," Ryan chuckled and took his leave of them.
"What are you creatures usually paid for your services?" Heyne asked as the plucky thing trotted beside him.
"Pay? Oh, no, no pay. Just meat," Finch said perkily.
"What kind of meat?" Heyne asked patiently.
"All the normal kinds, of course!" Finch laughed. "Deer, juicy rabbits, pigs, squirrels, and sometimes a nice fat fish."
"And that box on your chest is how you carry messages?" Heyne inquired.
"Yes!" Finch nodded fervently. "Safely tucked under my hackles, and quite comfortable. Can we leave today?"
"I will seek permission," Heyne nodded. He led them to the Fernwick elders, who had been recently returned to their people.
"What fresh insolence is this?" Gerard asked when he saw the gryphon in tow with the knight.
"A gift from our wayword kin," Heyne explained. "They say he is a swift, hard worker, ready and able to transport messages between us and our Eor allies."
"You intend to trust this thing?" Kelton asked incredulously.
"I serve any who feed me," Finch said happily. "Other Fernwicks say you are to feed me now."
"And will your previous masters be feeding you while you are in our service?" Angelo asked.
"Of course not!" Finch chuckled. "I will be up here where they are not. You must feed me now."
"I do not like this," Kelton growled. "I don't trust it."
"Then he shall fly by the watchtowers, so we can keep an eye on him," Gerard said. "Gryphons are considerably faster than we are. But why would they send us such a beast?"
Heyne quickly explained what Ryan had told him.
"I like that even less!" Kelton snapped.
"It is the will of the spirits," Michael said with resignation. "We must cooperate as best we can to appease them."
"I will send for a scribe to begin drafting the first scroll," Chartek said. "See to it our new courier receives his first meal, to solidify his loyalty."
"Yes, yes, meat, meat!" Finch said and danced in place.
"Algod, give me strength," Heyne muttered as he lead his new pet away.
The air was warm and clear when Heyne set out with Finch to escort him on his first flight to the Eor forest.
"Look at the river! How big! I've never been outside the forest before. Oh! a fish jumped!" Finch chattered as he flitted gaily along beside his slower companion.
"More strength, dear Algod, more strength," Heyne said quietly through clenched teeth.
The journey felt painfully slow to both travellers and Heyne was relieved to see the first Waebren outpost.
"Fernwick chieftain?" the guard asked curiously. "Is all well in the Nyre?"
Heyne briefly explained his need to deliver his first message to Chieftess Richelle. The guard nodded and gave him a token to show the other watchposts to safely arrive. Heyne thanked him and continued on with the bouncy bird.
"Have you lost your ever-lovin' pluckin' mind?" Richelle asked flatly with a raised eyebrow when she had received Chief Heyne and Finch. "You expect us to use this beast?"
"We have but a few short days to prepare for these games the Keeper demanded," Heyne explained. "It would be a faster mode of communication than flying ourselves."
"I am as sweet as a newborn kitten and loyal as a battle-scarred old war-hound!" Finch said and rubbed against Richelle's legs like a cat.
"You are loyal to whomever feeds you," Heyne said tiredly.
"As loyal as a battle-scarred old war-hound to whomever feeds me!"
"This whole situation is the most ludicrous thing I have ever seen," Richelle said with exasperation and rubbed her eyes tiredly. "Fine. I will reseal this scroll with my stamp and pass it along to Sushaw and Falnor. Gale speed on your return home."
"Gale speed," Heyne nodded warmly to her and was permitted to stay the night before leaving for the Nyre.
"Udom is going to love you," Richelle said sarcastically.
"Who wouldn't love me?" Finch said giddily. "Fastest flyer of five flocks!"
Richelle caught herself smiling at the foolish creature and chose to personally take him to her guest quarters where the other chiefs waited.
Walentyna laughed heartily when she heard the tale given by Richelle and Finch.
"Perhaps the one thing Udom loves more than battle is a contest! I do not pity his poor people," she said as she wiped a tear from her eye. Walentyna went to summon her captains.
"A contest?" Udom said with wide eyes. "Why, yes, a contest! We will demonstrate the superior strength and agility of the Falnor! We can battle for the right to the entire Nyre! We will—"
"Feed the messenger or leave the challenge unsent!" Finch said with pitiful eyes. "I have not eaten since yesterday, and it was a poor catch by that bumbling escort who doesn't know how to catch anything but fleas."
"Of course, noble pigeon," Udom said. "Send for a leg of ham at once."
"I am no pigeon!" cried Finch. "I am a falcon. See my beautiful stripes and bars? Falcon!"
"My mistake, master falcon. Enjoy your meal, I must begin my summons at once!" Udom said grandly and ordered for captains to be brought to him immediately. Finch relished his reward and pulled strips of it off greedily as his new masters prepared to depart once again.
So began the correspondence between tribes of how to approach the ruins and upcoming competitions. Finch was kept quite busy and fed to his satisfaction as he relayed news to and from the Eor Sylvans, coordinated with Zyzy's duties to the Nyre Sylvans.
Heyne walked to where the rebels were camped and flashed his wings. Ryan promptly answered him and stood before him.
"The other chiefs have arrived with labourers to help tend to the ruins," Heyne said. "We also need to determine the nature of these 'games' we are expected to play."
"It may be safest to use the ruins as a neutral place to discuss things, considering the Keeper and those horned things that keep appearing," Ryan said.
"That is what Chieftess Richelle had suggested as well," Heyne said and paused. "A truce has been called."
"We of course will lead you to the location of the ruins, preferably without incident," Ryan said. "Meet us here when you are ready."
Heyne nodded and turned to leave. Ryan had taken a few steps when Heyen stopped, and turned to face him again. "And, Ryan, how long have you known of the risks of attack from gryphons, yamaer, and mino-bison?"
"Longer than I knew an ale wench made a good diplomat, but not as long as she had known," Ryan said with a sad smile and returned to his camp.
That afternoon, both camps had packed up and were ready to go. They took flight and Ryan nervously lead them to the ruins where the Keeper was waiting for more cleaning crews to tidy his decrepit nest. The blind opinicus clacked his beak impatiently when the new arrivals landed. The chieftains immediately began dividing up their respective clanmates and assigning task forces to assist in needed repairs and maintenance. Each had travelled with a smaller retinue so provisions would not be as much of an issue this time in the Nyre.
"It's amazing at how well this place stayed hidden below the branches for so many years," remarked a Blade worker to Ryan. "We had no idea this was out here."
"It looks so old... and nothing like kurach architecture, but it has our scripts all over it," Ryan noted as he placed a hand on a worn and broken column.
"It's not quite dwarven either," the worker said. "We've been trying to ask the Keeper about this, but he just hisses at us and tells us to get back to work."
"Perhaps, when all this is over, we can send some historians to decipher all these old glyphs?" Ryan suggested.
"Not sure how much everybody will go for Imperials nosing about, but this place is in the vacant lands between clans," the worker shrugged. "We got some of the upper stories ready for you important people. Might wanna go claim a spot while you can."
Ryan thanked him and made his way to one of crumbling walkways on the second tier. He could see where at different points on the second tier the chieftains had claimed nooks for themselves and their crews. Udom was on the complete opposite side of the courtyard, and Ryan could clearly hear the Falnor chief's booming voice as he was enthusiastically encouraging his workers to do a good job.
"We've also got a space cleared for you lot to debate on the games," suddenly came a feminine voice behind him that caused him to visibly flinch in surprise. "I didn't think you found me that repulsive, ya blue devil."
"Cille!" Ryan said with a broad grin. "I didn't expect you to be here."
"Your ability to eloquently negotiate is as lacking as your observation skills and ability to hold your liquor," Cille said coyly. "Somebody has to be here to rescue you from yourself."
"I suppose you'll be joining me at the deliberations then?" Ryan asked with mild reservation.
"Already got your bed made, too," Cille said with a smirk. "C'mon, I'll show you to your quarters and then I'll tell the other chieftains where to find the breakfast table."
"'Other' chieftains?" Ryan asked as she lead him away. "Are you implying I'm a chief?"
"An acting chief as the leader of the rebels," Cille said. "Did you think I'd be talking to them by myself?"
"I certainly hope you'll be by my side to help inspire the rebels to fight their hardest in these games. Acting chief? Oh, gods... They'll make me eat my own wings if we lose!" Ryan groaned.
Cille turned a skeptical eye toward him. "Yeah, we hear all kinds of crazy rumours about what happens to traitors, but nobody knows for sure. Does the military actually do stuff like that?"
Ryan's grim silence was the only answer she needed.
After seeing to it that he was as comfortably settled in as he could be in the dilapitated stone room, Cille made her way to the other balconies where Heyne, Richelle, Udom, Walentyna, and the eldest Elders Niranjan, Lohit , and Heregeorn had chosen to stay. She took the opportunity to gauge what she would be up against in the coming days. The first ones she reached were the three Ferals, who tiredly nodded and thanked her when she informed them of the first meal that would be served to the lords in the morning.
"An invitation to the chief," Cille said pleasantly to the guard waiting outside of Heyne's door. He warily poked his head out. Heyne wore a trouble look mixed between relief, suspicion, and betrayal when he saw a Fernwick dam before him.
"Good evening, Chief Heyne!" Cille said cordially. "We've been toiling away at both the ruins and a proper reception for our guests, and have a scrumptuous breakfast being prepared in the morning for our noble leaders! If you have any special requests, now is the time to make it."
"Don't poison me," Heyne said with marked fatigue.
"Good ol' Fernwick homecooking will restore you!" Cille said cheerily. "A table will be set in the courtyard there. We will send for you if you haven't arrived before serving time."
Further down was the Waebren chieftess, and Cille felt just a touch insecure when she laid eyes on her. Richelle was the youngest of the official chieftains, only a little older than Ryan, and had earned her status through combat. She trained regularly with her warriors, and had a fire in her eyes that had not dimmed from the tolls of travel. She fixed a stern and judgmental look on Cille as she presented her invitation, and responded with only a curt nod before reclusing to her chambers once again.
She's gonna be a tough nut to crack tomorrow, Cille shuddered.
A loud, jovial voice interrupted her thoughts and she was soon outside of Udom's door. He quickly came out when she informed the guard of her presence.
"Who might you be this, fine, fair evening?" he asked grandly.
"Cille, a humble maiden, inviting you to a welcoming breakfast on the morrow after your long journey," Cille began before she was interrupted.
"Ah, splendid, splendid!" Udom roared and bashed her into his broad chest with a friendly one-armed hug. "A hot meal will be most welcome! There is much work to do and much good food will be needed! My deepest thanks, maiden!" Udom released her and strolled jauntily back inside.
Cille coughed slightly as she made her way to the Sushaw balcony. I had heard a few things about how boisterous Lord Udom was, but was not expecting that. She was almost afraid to approach Walentyna's lair after having heard how particular the Sushaw chieftess could be. Cille requested the guard to summon her and waited patiently.
"Oh?" came a voice from inside. Out stepped a tall dam wearing many furs and her hair adorned with silver beads. "You wish to speak to me?" she asked haughtily.
"Greetings, fair chieftess! We have prepared to serve a great breakfast to our weary lords in the interest of good relations," Cille said with a well practiced smile. "It will be in the center of the courtyard, where crews are working even harder to tidy and straighten for tomorrow."
"Thank you," Walentyna said curtly and sauntered back inside.
Cille bowed and made her way back to the courtyard. She is going to be insufferable, I can see that now!
The center of the courtyard had been cleared of debris and weeds first, and a stone table had been restored and set with many delicious bowls of food for the hungry rulers when they descended from their balconies. The table was circular in design, made of adjoined pieces, and the center left open so that the diners could be served more easily and so they could face each other during discussions. The lords were spaced a proper distance away from each other, but there was a distinct awkwardness present during the meal.
"Down to business!" Udom declared when they had all finished their portions. "Now that we are pleasantly filled, we should decide on the nature of these 'games' before the villagers arrive for the festivities. The throwing of dice and balls feels belittling. We should have a real competition!"
"Agreed. We were not urged here so our clanmates could watch us move pieces on a small board," Lohit said. "It's festival time, and we should keep it appropriate."
"There are seven clans present. Should we choose seven different activities?" asked Heregeorn.
"Eight. If Fernwick could agree on matters, we wouldn't have two representatives," Heyne said with a stern look at Ryan, who frowned in response.
"An odd number of activities should be selected," Niranjan said. "Whichever clan wins the most activities or points per activity should be declared the winner."
"There must be combat, of course," Udom said. "This is a fight for dominance!"
"We should put forth a single warrior per event, to keep matters simple," Richelle said.
"We should have a contest of speed, too," Heyne said bitterly. "Strength in a fight means little if you don't have the speed for it to matter."
"Yes!" said Walentyna. "The fastest runner and the fastest flyer."
"Speed and strength are meaningless if not proper directed. We need a contest of skill," Lohit added.
"How do you measure skill, other than who is the victor in the other stages?" Walentyna asked critically.
"If you can't aim, it doesn't matter how hard and fast you can strike," Heyne said. "Perhaps some slings."
"Slings!" exclaimed Heregeorn. "We do not use weapons!"
"Should be an easy win for us then," Walentyna smirked.
"You were perfectly fine with them under dwarven armour," Heyne scowled.
"Gauntlets are an extension of natural claws. I regret nothing," Lohit said.
"We should set a rule now that only fabric or leather clothing be permitted in the arenas," Richelle said shortly.
"Agreed," said the others almost in unison.
"Combat, foot races, wing races, and slings. We don't have anything specifically for strength yet," Ryan summed.
"Stones!" cried Udom. "We can test strength, speed, and skill with stones. A common winter pastime."
"It's an odd number of activities," Richelle noted.
"Now we just need to know how they're to be judged," Niranjan said. "It's needless to say that none of us will trust a Sylvan to judge the competitions fairly."
"Seeing as how you Scissortails are the experts in utilizing outside aide, I'm not surprised you'd propose that," Richelle said flatly.
"We're actually quite happy to help!" chirped a small voice nearby. The Sylvans all turned to look at the eavesdropper. Zyzy had returned to check on her handlers, and on her back was a kirshani. The little chameleon-like person was greening broadly from one batty ear to another. "I can go find your judges! You just need a runner, a flyer, a strong one, a crafty one, and a fighter, right?"
"We can judge the combat rounds ourself. We are all familiar with the concepts of tournaments and undoubtedly keep similar rules," Richelle said and cast a suspicious eye at the others. "On second thought, bring a spare just in case."
"Leave it to me! I have just the ones in mind for you! Kip kip, Zyzy!" the kirshani said and gripped Zyzy's hackles. She clucked and took a leaning leap into the sky.
"Did you know Zyzy had a rider?" Heregeorn asked the Scissortail Elder.
"I had no idea," Niranjan responded honestly. "I thought gryphons didn't associate outside their flocks unless they had something to gain..." he fell silent and stared pensively at the table.
"Is something wrong?" Heyne asked.
"About ten years ago, I exiled a cub who had befriended gryphons, dragons, and allowed a minocentaur bull to follow her back to the den," Niranjan said with a deep frown. "At the time, I thought she was being used so the Scissortails would become easy prey to the beasts. I still have those reservations now with the volunteered aid from that stripe-tailed varmint."
"Finch has been surprisingly loyal and easy to work with," Richelle said. "I've half a mind to keep him on permanently if he can prove himself to be as true as he appears."
"Times have certainly changed rather drastically since we were all wee cubs," Lohit chuckled and leaned on the table. "I think we should take this moment to discuss what our long term plans are depending on who the victor is."
"First and foremost, we villagers want to make sure we can stay. We don't want to be displaced any more than we already have," Cille said as she sat down beside Ryan on one of the long benches that ran around the table. "The Nyre is our home, and we want to keep it that way. Whoever wins these contests and whatever is decided, please keep that under consideration."
"Aren't you just an ale wench?" Heyne asked suspiciously.
"An ale wench who has been hearing rumours from other villagers and travellers long before we have," Ryan pointed out.
"You're that ale wench," Heyne acknowledged.
"We Scissortails have no desire for dominance or control. We just want to be left alone," Niranjan said. "That cub I exiled ended up wandering pretty far from the Nyre, and encountered the Arctic clans who were threatening to come as far south as our lands if the raiding was not ended. Our original goal, before the rebellion, was to peacefully reach an agreement with the Imperial clans to cease their assaults."
"The Arctic clans are weak!" scoffed Udom. "They are fine adversaries to test our honour against, but so sparesly populated they posed no threat to you."
"However, many inside and out of the Nyre were becoming displeased with the raids. We promised to help find an end to it in exchange from help from at least three different Plains clans," Ryan said.
"Plains kurach are fierce, but as small as the Arctic ones!" Udom dismissed. "They are of no threat either."
"We lost a lot of good warriors in the short time we spent trying to get to the Nyre through combined attacks from Plains, nightwings, and yamaer, and the rebel Fernwick held their own quite well with the Feral clans backing them," Richelle pointed out. "If they were already willing to work together without the Fernwick calling them together, we would have trouble. Austmont is already buckling under the strain from the Tundra Highland, and we will soon have to turn our attention to aiding them."
Udom's bushy beard bristled as he considered what she said.
"We have heard no such tales, however, we also wish to be left alone. The Weolcen clan tires of these skirmishes," Lohit said. "We will not submit to Fernwick expansion when you have so much spare room in your own lands."
"The Blade clan will gladly fight to the bitter end, however, we're not keen on the possibility of having to destroy the entire Fernwick clan to have peace. We also would prefer just to be unmolested in the future," Heregeorn said.
"I and other knights and soldiers feel there is no glory in attacking weak opponents or angering neighbouring peoples to the point of our annihilation. What few we enlisted the help of were very eager to work with us, all things considered, and we wish to explore other ways of obtaining resources from them," Ryan said.
"Raiding is part of the Imperial way of life!" Heyne scolded.
"But not for much longer! Look around you, Chief," Ryan said and held his arms out. "We're deep in Feral territory because now the spirits have gotten involved. That thing with the giant horns was popping in and out of sight like some sort of deranged pixie. And it was just the messenger! What will they do to us if they become further displeased?"
"The Eor spirits have a more normal lust for battle and have never given us trouble," Walentyna said airily.
"And where were they when we were confronted by the Nyre spirits?" Niranjan asked coldly. "Where were they when the cave dogs were unleashed on you?"
The Imperial kurach glared at the Ferals, unwilling to back down.
"If the Imperials win these games, you will never complain again about our campaigns, and submit to our rule," Udom said sternly.
"Then, if any of the Ferals or we win the games, all raiding is to cease," Ryan said calmly.
"I do believe that is enough for the morning, before tempers become too hot. The cooks should already be working up a wonderful midday meal for us, so let's take a moment to cool off," Cille said gracefully. None of the chieftains needed a second invitation and quickly reclused to their quarters. After they and their attendants were well out of earshot, Cille turned to Ryan, who had stayed behind at the table. "High stakes," she said softly.
"Exactly the stakes I thought there would be," he said and clenched his fists.
"Do you have any on your side that can hold their own in the games?" Cille asked.
"I've always been one of the most agile in the air, so I will be handling that one," Ryan said and slowly exhaled. "I think I know a few who can take part in the other four."
"Will they let you compete?" Cille asked warily. "You are an acting chief for the rebels."
"I will just quietly leave that out until the decisions are all finalized," Ryan said with a mirthless smile. "It's not the Sylvan way to throw a tantrum and renegotiate after reaching a decision on a serious matter."
"You better be careful and not die on me," Cille said firmly. "You're my best customer."
Ryan grunted. "Thanks." He stood and returned to his own quarters until Cille would come to summon them again for the next meal.