Steel And Stone
They assembled Sari's team of volunteers and had the outfitters provide them with gear that evening so that the next morning, no more than an hour after dawn, the band was ready to depart. Sari had left Sir Jared in command of the army; though they disagreed strongly about what her role as queen should be, he was an excellent general and, ironically enough, possessed of the same personal skill and courage Sari considered important.
Sari's party contained four members in addition to herself. One was Lord Mercier; he was familiar with the terrain of his fiefdom as well as its people. Mercier was also a competent enough though not elite fighter, skilled with needlers. He'd be supported in the role of long-range combatant by the two Whistlebot cyborgs accompanying them, conical robots about three feet high equipped with Foi flamethrowers and small, single-target needleguns.
The other three human members were a mixed bag, chosen to deal with a variety of situations. Marella, a Knight of the Forests, was almost as skilled in battle as Sari; the blonde woman would assist her queen in front-line fighting and serve as a bodyguard. Lira was a cyborg technician and expert at mechanical matters, and Nevin a tracker and outdoorsman in Lord Mercier's service. Hopefully between the two of them they would be prepared for whatever Lune was after, be it technical or biological. Sari may not have known what they might find, but she was sure that if Lune got what he wanted, it would be very bad for Landen.
They walked all morning through the valley plains, passing by fields of crops and pastures where animals grazed. It looked pleasant and bucolic, as if just a few miles away men and women hadn't bled and died in battle with monsters out of a nightmare. When they passed near enough, though, they could see that the farmers and herders were the elderly or the very young. Lord Mercier had dutifully enlisted all the able-bodied from his lands into the militia to try and defend Landen.
The sight merely stiffened Sari's resolve to defeat Lune. This was what she was fighting for, to make this peaceful life more than just an illusion.
"Your lands are well-kept, my Lord," Marella observed.
"Thank you," Mercier replied, pleased and surprised by the compliment.
"Do you think we should stop and investigate this area?" Nevin wondered.
Sari glanced at the nobleman. This was his area of expertise.
"I don't think so. The valley is well-settled in this region. If there was something of interest, the people would have come across it, and it would have become part of local lore even if they didn't understand what it was."
"But would you have heard about it, my Lord?" Nevin asked. "Forgive me, but the nobility doesn't always get a chance to hear what the common folk talk about over their ale." He looked a bit apprehensive, as if afraid Mercier would become angry with him. He didn't, although Marella's eyes did narrow. Perhaps she was a bit more aware of her knightly status than Sari would have liked.
"No offense taken," Mercier told the hunter. "You're quite right. These precincts, though, are quite near to the manor, and I do try to keep my ear to the ground. Near the end of the valley, though, you could be quite right. The best approach would be to stop along the way and ask the people in the various hamlets we pass about local rumors and legends. If there's something here of importance, they've had generations to find it. A better chance than we have, wouldn't you say, your Majesty?"
"Much better," Sari agreed. "While we're at it, could we cut out all this 'your Majesty' and 'my Lord' and 'my lady Queen' rot? It's bad enough at court, where at least it has a place, but a band like this is supposed to work together as a team. All this concern for rank is starting to make my teeth ache."
The irony there being that because she was the queen, she could insure that the niceties of rank be ignored. Then again, that was the good thing about being the monarch; she could make certain that things were done the way she felt was best for all.
Let's just hope my judgment is right.
The next two days were marked by a certain sameness: travel, broken at intervals to stop at a hamlet or a large farm to ask questions. The questioning make their journey take much longer than it might have, but Sari was confident that they hadn't missed anything. On the second day they started ascending into the upper regions of the valley, near the edge of the world, coming to another hamlet as twilight began to fall.
"This should be Carin," Mercier said. "It's the furthest east of the settlements on my estates."
"Then if anyone knows something, it'll be here," Nevin concluded. "Unless someone's been lying to us, of course."
"Why would they do that?" Marella asked. "There's a war on. Keeping back a piece of information might mean that the Layans could overrun and kill them."
"Just trying to cover all bases, Mari dear," the hunter said jauntily. Freed from the constraints of formal propriety, Nevin had displayed a wicked sense of humor. "Wouldn't want to overlook a possibility until we find what we're looking for."
"And some people are just schemers who are out for whatever they can get even if they hurt other people along the way," pointed out Lira. "We all had to live through the Regent's Council after the King and Queen died heirless."
Sari remembered that all too well. If not for those power-hungry schemers, Satera might not have fallen, and her mother might still be alive.
"It's a pointless argument," she snapped, both to ward off the pain and to bring an end to the discussion. "Let's just go up to Carin and see if anyone knows anything." She turned and started up the hill, ignoring the hurt looks more than one of her companions turned on her back.
It would have taken a great deal of ambition to call Carin a village. It consisted of six houses, two of which were the sturdily-built, two-story style common to larger settlements, while the other four were huts. The sign of a foaming mug hung outside the door of one of the larger buildings; the lights showing through the tavern window beckoned the party as night closed in.
They caught everyone's attention at once, of course, the instant they entered the taproom. Carin just didn't get travelers; the eight or nine customers were probably the same ones every night, swapping hopes, complaints, and tall tales over the local brew. That the newcomers were well-armed and some richly dressed made the surprise all the more astounding. The bartender, a beefy man with heavily muscled arms, came out from behind the bar. The way he favored a twisted right leg told at once why he wasn't part of the militia.
"Lord Mercier," he said with a bow. "How can we help you?"
It took the noble a couple of seconds to recognize the man, but he did come up with the name.
"Ah, Gaid. I'm surprised you know me; I think we've only met twice."
"It suits a man to mark his lord well in his mind."
"Well, I can't really argue with that." He turned to his companions. "Everyone, this is Gaid, my reeve in this region." He grinned at the man. "Gaid, I didn't realize you had a...side occupation."
"It keeps me busy. Besides which, it saves me having to walk over to the tavern when I'm called to break up a fight if I run the place myself." He said the last with an amiable grin, obviously inviting his lord to commiserate with him over the responsibilities of ruling. "So what brings you here, my Lord?"
"The same thing that drives us all these days, Gaid, the war."
"Lune has made three tries at Dressos," Sari told the reeve. "We're here to find out why."
Gaid raised an eyebrow.
"If you want the secrets to the demon's strategy, you've come to the wrong place. None of us are mindreaders."
Sari expected Marella to burst out with an ill-timed "Watch how you talk to your queen!" but the knight surprised her by staying wisely silent.
"Lune wants something in this valley. We don't know what or why, but we do know it's important enough for him to change his tactics and waste his resources against a defensible position of no obvious military value. We need to know if anyone's seen anything unusual, even if they can't be sure what it is. Even folklore would be an improvement on what we understand now, even something that happened generations ago."
She looked past the bartender at the men in the taproom, sweeping them with her gaze.
"You ought to tell them about the shapes," one man said softly to another.
"Aw, they're not interested in that, Sid."
"Actually, we are," Sari cut in. "Like I said, anything at all could be useful."
"Blunt sort of lass, isn't she?" Gaid commented.
"Well, she is the queen," Mercier replied, almost apologetically. No one in the small tavern missed the announcement, resulting in stunned faces all around. Royalty wasn't something the folks of Carin saw very often, and if they did it was because one of the peasants had traveled away, not that the royal had come to their little hamlet.
Unfortunately, Sari didn't have time to cope with a surprised peasantry, so she quickly acted to try and narrow the perceived distance between them. She pulled out a chair at the table where the man who'd talked about "shapes" was sitting and dropped into it backwards, folding her arms across the back.
"What's your name?"
"R-Rollo, your Majesty," he stammered. No, she thought, that wouldn't do at all. Sari reached into her pocket, took out a ten-meseta piece, and flipped it to Gaid.
"A round for the house," she said, "and an extra for anyone with a story to tell, so as to whet their whistle."
The reeve got the hint and drew a couple of mugs of dark, foamy ale, setting them down in front of Rollo and Sari before he took to pouring everyone else's. Sari took an experimental sip of the brew. It was typical Landen mountain-ale, almost thick enough to chew with a rich, creamy taste to it that concealed the alcohol content.
"I'd offer to have one with you for every story, but I have a feeling that two would put me under the table, and no one likes a drunken queen. It's so hard to tell one that she snores," she added in a conspiratorial aside. This drew a spate of laughter--a bit forced from some of the more nervous peasants, but it was a start--and she moved on to the business at hand.
"Now, Rollo, what are these 'shapes' you mentioned?"
"Well, that's just it, my Lady," he said easily, apparently deciding any queen who'd buy him an ale wasn't going to have him arrested for some mysterious offense. "I can't rightly say what they were. Just things lurking around the edges of my farm at twilight a couple of days back. I never got a close look at them. I didn't like the looks of them, though, the way they were slinking around just outside the light. Two nights straight I saw them, and let me tell you I was getting mighty anxious on the second night." He took a deep swig of ale. "Then, the night after that, they were gone. Never touched me or mine, so I can't complain too loud, I guess."
"Do you think they could have been monsters?" Nevin asked.
The gray-haired peasant ran his hand through his short bangs.
"That's just it. Ain't no monsters around here."
Sari glanced at Mercier.
"The valley is a closed space," he said. "My twice-great-grandfather was supposed to have led a massive hunt to clear out all the chirpers, eindons, and moos hereabouts, and no more could get in because of the terrain."
"The mountains would be much too hard for weak monsters like those to cross," agreed the hunter.
"Plus, like I said, they stayed out of the light," Rollo took the floor back. "Could have been animals, monsters, even cyborgs for all I know."
"Have you or anyone ever seen these shapes at any other time?"
"I haven't, and no one else said they did."
"I see," Sari mused. "Thank you." She looked around the taproom. "Anyone else?"
"Well," the barmaid spoke up. She was a moderately pretty pink-haired girl with a scoop-necked blouse and tight skirt. "You said you were interested in local stories, right?"
"There's the Wishing Stone," the serving girl told her. "I don't know why Layans would want it, but it's a landmark everyone around here knows about."
"Wishing Stone?" Lord Mercier asked, curious about his lands. "I don't believe I've ever heard of that."
"It's a stone pillar about an hour's walk northeast of here," Gaid supplied.
"How did it get its name?" Marella wanted to know.
"They say that if you press your hand to it and make a wish, the stone will grant your heart's desire," the barmaid told her. "It's just a little superstition, though. It doesn't hurt anything to try, right?"
"No, I can't see why not, though I doubt Lune's chasing after harmless fun." Sari frowned, thinking of the attempt Lune's spy had made to steal the Power Topaz. There were many things in Landen that dated back to the days of Orakio whose true abilities had been lost over the passing centuries. "Not unless he knows something we don't."
"Did you want to check it out?" Nevin asked.
"Definitely. It won't take long, and it would be silly to overlook any possibility."
She took another sip of the ale.
"The legends say that Lune fought at the head of Laya's armies a thousand years ago," she mused. "If that's true, he might know things about our world that even we don't. He could try to--"
She never got the chance to finish the thought; she was interrupted by cries and screams erupting outside the tavern. She was on her feet in an instant, knives drawn. Through the taproom window they could see the sudden blossoming of flames.
"Is it an enemy attack?" Lira exclaimed. "Here?"
The battle party rushed outside, Marella and Sari in the lead. They were greeted by a scene of carnage. Monsters swarmed the streets, and two of the buildings were alight. Oozes, sickly-hued blobs about two feet in diameter, seemed to grow pinpoints of light inside their bodies that swelled to fist-size before being disgorged by the monsters. These burning missiles ignited wood and thatch where they hit, sending a third hut up in flames before Sari's eyes. From inside the burning homes the anguish of the dying pealed out, while outside lizrds pounced on the villagers lucky enough to have escaped the flames.
Screams filled Sari's ears as she threw herself into the fray, and it was not until her blades had torn apart the nearest ooze that she realized that it was her own voice. Next to her Marella cut a hissing, snarling lizrd off its prey, a terrified boy no more than ten. Mercier and Nevin were firing their needlers, and Lira ordered the Whistlebots into combat. It was quick and brutal, the monsters no match for the rage of the Orakian warriors. Sari dispatched the last of the lizrds and was starting to think about ways to fight the fire when she heard the howl of fresh agony.
Everyone spun to see Lira lying on the ground, an ooze's gelatinous form wrapped around her leg. Tears streamed down her face as she stabbed ineffectually at the monster with her hunting knife. Nevin was closest, but he could only stare helplessly, the needler in his grip an unsuitable weapon due to its wide-spreading fire. If he shot, he'd hit Lira, too.
Sari sprinted towards the fallen technician and lunged with her knife. It ripped open the creature, which rapidly lost its cohesion as it was cut apart, dissolving into a stinking ichor. She hadn't been fast enough, though. The ooze's acidic slime had dissolved--digested--right through Lira's leg below the knee.
The queen yanked a Monomate out of her belt pouch, opened the cap, and poured the green liquid into Lira's mouth. Legend had that there had been easier ways to deliver these medicines in battle in the ancient days, but it was enough for Sari that the medicine itself still could be made. Before her eyes the bleeding stopped and a layer of fresh new skin grew across the stump.
"T-thanks, Sari," the woman said, still trembling from shock. "You saved my life."
"I only wish I could have been here sooner."
"Hey, a little Trimate and it'll grow back as good as new. I just wish we had some here with us; I'm not going to be much use to you on the quest this way."
Sari promised herself to secure that Trimate for Lira, even if she had to buy it with her personal funds. The powerful healing medicine was beyond the skill of most doctors and apothecaries; what few they had in Landen were largely left over from the Devastation War. There wasn't time to do any more than that; the fires had to be stopped before they consumed the whole village, and as many people saved from the flames as they could manage.
It was long, hard work, and by the end of it Sari and the others were exhausted, covered in soot and grime. Nine people were dead and another twelve injured, this in a hamlet of no more than forty souls counting the inhabitants of the outlying farms like Rollo who came into Carin to drink, trade, or talk. Aside from Lira's maiming, one cyborg had also been destroyed among Sari's group.
"Damn Lune for doing this," Sari swore. "What pleasure does he get out of butchering elders and children?"
"How did the monsters get here, anyway?" Mercier wanted to know.
"The hard way," Marella said. "He controls the territory north of here; he must have forced his monsters to cross the mountain range."
"He'd have lost dozens that way. It's impossible to cross those peaks safely."
"Safely, no, but even if nine out of every ten was killed on the way, that still leaves the tenth one here to fight and kill for him. If it was important enough to waste his strength like that, he could do it."
"And he would," Sari agreed. "The demon doesn't care about people's lives; what would a few monsters be to him?" She wiped the sweat from her forehead on the back of her sleeve and left a black streak of soot on the fabric. "I thought we could spend the night here and press on in the morning, but if Lune's willing to sacrifice so many monsters to get what he wants, we can't afford to wait around. Let's get directions, because we're heading for the Wishing Stone right now."