“Our gods have left us.
After centuries of guidance and leadership they simply vanished, leaving only two behind: Bythe of the Iron Union and Maelene the Blessed Mother. Peace held for a time. The Iron Union existed statically, as did the Outer Wild - but one lesson the gods have no doubt learned from this world is that life is not static. It cannot be. Life will bring growth, growth will bring change, and change will bring conflict. As the diametrically opposed influences of both Bythe and Maelene came into contact, conflict and disagreement was inevitable. One might have hoped that the gods had learned wisdom, restraint and even maturity in their dealings with their kin.
This is not so.
For it would seem that the gods created us very much in their own
~Aleasea of the Ageless
Her town was burning. Elyn was sprinting down a laneway between two stone buildings. She was oblivious to the rubbish that cracked underfoot and sent fragments of wood and glass painfully into her shins. All that mattered was escape. Behind her were truly dreadful sounds. Men were dying. Elyn had never had to endure those sounds before, but in that moment of desperate flight it seemed like those terrible screams would never again leave her thoughts.
The town of Outpost was finally under siege from the Iron Union – and while the people of her home town had feared this day might come, they
were completely unprepared for the swiftness and ferocity of the assault. No one in the Council had seriously expected the Iron Union’s Helmsguard to move against the town so soon. Even if the Union finally decided to attack, everyone had thought there would be plenty of warning, sights of troop movements or the usual intelligence that would seep into the community and give everyone time enough to stage an orderly evacuation.
Everyone had been wrong.
An entire army of the Helmsguard had crashed upon the ramshackle town of Outpost just after dawn and the result had been devastating. Captain Drake’s men had been surprised and they paid for it. Hopelessly outnumbered, they still tried to plan an organised resistance as the invaders began cutting them down.
For her part, Elyn had been alone praying in the Chapel of Maelene when she first heard the shouts. At sixteen, society expected the sandy haired young woman to pray to the Blessed Mother Maelene at least twice a week and Elyn was always diligent with her duties. She had been kneeling before the small stone statue of a beautiful woman, praying for the usual things a young woman might pray for: her family - in this case her father Leon and her training. She also couldn’t help adding in the slightly selfish request that she might figure out how to get herself noticed in the same way everybody noticed her beautiful friend Nadine.
A man’s distant scream had shaken her out of those prayers. Elyn had realised that it was one of those truly awful screams that communicates a primal terror - the type of sound that warns the listener on an instinctive level that something dreadful has happened. When she emerged from the small stone building she felt an icy shard of dread stab into her stomach. Further up the road to her right, men in black metal armour were moving in an ordered line towards the chapel. Their weapons were like nothing Elyn had ever seen, long polished sabres of shining silver metal that seemed to curve with a cruel malicious edge. The black armour of the invaders was equally impressive, with each soldier covered head to foot in a seamless carapace of overlapping, iron plates. Metal. The hallmark of the Iron Union.
By contrast the town’s defenders were almost shamefully equipped in their padded blue leather and crude shortswords. As Elyn stood at the door to the chapel she watched as six of the town guard rushed past her door and down the street to intercept the invaders. An act that could only have one outcome. Elyn felt a compelling need to watch this disaster unfold before she shook off the thought and started to move.
It was an internal instruction to her unwilling feet. She found that she had to push them into action. As if they had lost all feeling and had declared autonomy from her body. Elyn quelled the internal insurrection and forced her feet into action. She abandoned her sanctuary and started running as hard as she could in the direction away from the soldiers. Elyn’s physical limitations didn’t seem to apply when she was running in fear of her life- a secret revealed to someone facing their moment of terror. The buildings rushed past her as an indistinct blur and every stride stretched her hamstrings to their limit as she moved her legs faster than she ever had. The pain never registered, only survival mattered. She knew that if she slowed for a second her life could end. It was as simple as that.
She continued down the street only to raise her eyes and take in a terrible sight before her. At least a dozen more men in jet black armour were fighting men in blue only a hundred feet away. She skidded to a halt and watched in dismay as men in blue were cut down while several more lay dying in the dirt, bloody hands clutching at terrible red gashes. Beyond them was a scene of pure mayhem. People were running in panic. Townsfolk were screaming for children, some men were attempting to attack the Helmsguard in a pitiful gesture of defiance, but most had the good sense to just run.
Scanning left and right, Elyn spied an alleyway and wasted no time heading for it. She pelted down the rubbish-strewn alley with the same superhuman gait that sheer terror seemed to gift to a young woman. Her only thoughts were to find her father. Find Leon. Leon would know what to do. He always did. She desperately hoped he was alright. At sixty three years old, Leon had begun to show signs of frailty and Elyn feared that he might not escape this.
Put it out of your head Elyn. Focus on the problem!
She knew that’s what Leon would say. With this conviction in mind she rounded the corner of the alley and collided with a figure. Elyn was sent sprawling in the dirt and she tumbled limb over limb until she came to rest in her back. She looked up to see who she’d hit – certain that it was a Helmsguard soldier. Certain that she was caught.
It was worse than that.
Standing around her were three men dressed in the ragged and threadbare garb of Outpost’s street thieves. One of them was taking the possessions of a well-dressed corpse, while the second was breaking open his rucksack and pilfering through the contents. Looters. The third man was slowly getting to his feet after Elyn had knocked him down, and was fixing her with a look that could only be described as murderous. He was tall and skinny with a pock-marked face and a cruel glint in his eyes. The kind of man that would laugh at beggars and spit in their faces as they asked for money – the obvious irony never occurring to him in his arrogance.
“Grab ‘er,” he snarled and before Elyn could rise she felt her arms and legs seized in the firm drip of desperate men.
“Just a girl, Ray!” said the shorter man who had stopped sifting through the corpse’s pockets and grabbed Elyn’s feet.
“Shut up!” spat the man called Ray as he stood over Elyn with a sneer twisting his upper lip. “No one hits me, not even girls.”
Somewhere in Elyn’s mind she realised that she was witnessing the universal display of the posturing braggart and somehow she recognised the absurdity of it all – but that didn’t help her. When Ray produced the large cleaver from behind his back, Elyn felt cold dread sweep through her body.
“No! No, no please! I’m sorry I was running from the Helmsguard! They’re here!” Elyn blurted out in desperation but Ray appeared unmoved.
“Doesn’t matter. No one disrespects me. You’ll remember that next time you try to run without a foot.”
Elyn cried out. It was a guttural and desperate thing. It was the second scream of truly primal terror she had heard that morning. It was one that saved her life.
Commander Vale surveyed her troops as they moved swiftly under her command. The town of Outpost spread out before her like a rotting cancer and Vale regarded the scene with mild disgust. She had expected the town to be an unruly hovel but the sheer filth and stench of chaos turned her stomach. She leaned forward in her saddle and watched her third company moving up to support the troops engaging the enemy at the southern side of the city. The oiled metal plates in her black armour barely sounded as she shifted her weight with the well practised movements of a military officer. Gold engraving laced the plates at their edges and thick, black chainmail protected the joints of the arms and legs, or any other part that were not covered for the sake of mobility. Despite her very young age of sixteen, Vale had already risen to become a Commander of an army in the Iron Union. Most people knew why.
“Charming little rat-hole, isn’t it?” A man’s voice rang out almost cheerfully as a red-headed man in almost identical black armour but for the silver engravings, rode up beside her.
“All of our planning just to claim a place like this Ethan?” she answered without taking her eyes off the town. “Look at them running in terror from us! We’re better off leaving them to fend for themselves. We’re risking the lives of our men...for this?”
“Ah no! We risk them for the pride of the Union my lady,” Ethan replied with heavy sarcasm. “Outpost must be re-taken to restore out rightful borders against the Outer Wild.”
“You’re bordering on treasonous thoughts there Baron,” Vale mocked with a deadpan expression, then let out a heavy sigh. “Ethan, what are we doing here?”
Vale’s friend turned in his saddle to look at her. “You know why we’re here my lady.”
Vale met Ethan’s gaze and understood his meaning. Ethan was a tall young man of twenty, with the noble features befitting a man of his excellent background. With a casual glance he verified that they couldn’t be overheard then gracefully moved his horse a step closer to Vale’s to speak in lower tones.
“Don’t forsake this opportunity Vale, there are many Commanders in the Ironhelm who would give anything for this chance.”
Vale met his gaze but didn’t reply. She knew how much it might have rankled this fine, young aristocrat to be taking orders from someone not only younger than him, but from the only female Commander in the Helmsguard. But in all the time Ethan had served as her second-in- command he had never shown the slightest hint of resentment or insubordination. Ethan would almost certainly have relished this opportunity to win valour in the courts of the Iron Union had it been granted to him. Vale realised she was dishonouring her friend with her own sullenness and snapped herself out of her mood.
“Prepare the company, I want to head in there myself,” Vale spoke with the clear and commanding voice of a military chief once more.
Ethan stiffened in his saddle and saluted with a mailed fist across his plated chest. He turned his horse around and began to bark orders at the lieutenants behind them. Vale watched him for a moment then turned her attention back to the town before her.
Appropriately named as it stood on the borderlands between the Iron Union and the Outer Wild. It had once served as the border position for the Iron Union, but over the years the town had fallen into enemy hands. Now that the powers of the Ageless were faltering, the time had come to retake the city. A symbolic gesture to be sure, but an important one. However, as a potential gateway to the empire it would serve as a very poor example. Years of war had taken a toll on the town and what had once been a thriving populace was now a collection of slums and temporary buildings.
Vale regarded the scene from atop her horse. Below her plains stretched out to the horizon. Dry grasslands swept the vista but for a thin crack of water that broke the land from south to north. Along this river sat the town where people scurried about like roaches at the sight of the oncoming soldiers. No matter that her men would be their protectors, they seemed panicked by the thought of such a display of power. No doubt every tavern owner, whore or gaming den patron was fretting that the might of the Iron Union was about to kick over the rubbish of their lives and unearth their dirty little secrets. Vale felt a sudden urge to order her men to raze the town to the ground.
“My lady,” Ethan interrupted. “The company awaits your command.”
Vale gave the order and a group of forty armed men began marching down the dry, grasslands. The vanguard moved before her under Ethan’s watchful eye, dutifully ensuring that no surprise or rogue attacker would threaten their Commander. Vale rode protected in the centre of the formation, a position that irritated her – as if even her own men doubted her ability to defend herself. That insecurity still nagged at her.
“Any sign of the Ageless?” Vale asked Ethan as they approached the outskirts of the town.
“None, sir,” he replied with a small shake of his head.
Vale tightened her jaw. Did this mean that the Ageless had left this town undefended, or were they waiting to spring an ambush? Vale knew the intentions of the Ageless could never be predicted but it didn’t stop her analytical mind from working on the problem. Just as their goddess Maelene had long since fallen, it didn’t stop them from trying to avenge her sacrifice.
“Stay alert then, Ethan,” Vale replied . “I want our men to raise the alarm at the first sign of a green cloak, we’ve lost enough good men to those zealots.”
Ethan gave an affirmation then turned to see the instruction carried out. The verbal order swept through the soldiers like a wave and Vale was reminded of the efficiency of her men and of her lieutenants. The Iron Union trained their soldiers well. No, the Iron Union trained their soldiers perfectly. There was simply no comparison in all the lands – both within the Iron Union and the Outlands. Within minutes they had passed through the outskirts and beheld the prize they had come so far to claim.
The town was a mess.
Old rubbish lay strewn across the open dirt road and Vale knew that this wasn’t simply the result of her attack. The few sturdy buildings were decrepit from years of clear neglect and the air seemed to smell of cabbage and sour milk. Occasionally a dirty face with matted hair would appear in between the heaps of trash only to vanish as soon as they sighted it. Human rats. Vale wondered how a city - no matter how remote - could sit in such a state. Before long the dilapidated structures and slums gave way to buildings of slightly better integrity. The road widened and the faces of townsfolk replaced the faces of beggars in alleys in windows, still as curious as their predecessors but at least with an improved odour. In the distance Vale could hear the unmistakable sounds of battle.
“We’ve pushed the town guard to the east, they’re giving us some resistance but they’re in steady retreat. Our losses have been light.” Ethan turned and favoured Vale with a warm smile. “Your plan was perfect Vale, well done.”
Vale returned the smile. The plan had been a great risk; avoid the early warning posts by bringing her army through the marshlands to the south. It could have just as easily turned to disaster - her campaign brought to a halt by disease, dehydration and drownings - but Vale never left a variable to chance. She had spent weeks studying every scrap of detail about the marshes and ignoring the persistently conventional wisdom of her military advisors – much to their obvious frustration. Over that time she became convinced that a path through the marshes was not only possible but likely, given the timing was right. She then realised that if she approached Outpost from the south under darkness she could catch the town’s sentry posts off- guard from the rear. The town guard could be ambushed. They could not only be taken with devastating swiftness, they could also be taken with minimal losses.
“We’ve both done well Ethan, I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Ethan nodded his head in a sign of mutual respect. He was an excellent officer yet he was a better friend.
The sound of clashing metal and renewed cries of men . Ethan signalled to the company and within seconds they had swept into position in the dirt road before them.
“There’s still skirmishes nearby my lady,” Ethan explained somewhat redundantly. “Stay here for a moment while we secure the surrounds.”
Vale felt that irritating insecurity rise within her once more but managed to suppress the mutiny. Did they really need to protect her so completely? Was she more of an intellectual tactician than a real battlefield commander to them?
She’d watched them move down the street for no more than a few moments when Vale alone heard another cry to her right. It wasn’t the usual battlefield scream that was soaking the air, this had the edge of pure terror. She turned in her saddle and searched for the source, finding it almost immediatley. In a narrow alley formed by two lopsided buildings, Vale could make out a young woman pinned to the ground by a gang of three larger men. The woman was clearly defenceless, a fact that was apparently lost on the others as they leaned over her with weapons in their hands and sneers on their faces. Criminals.
Then Vale was moving without thinking. She dismounted her horse and with three great strides she halved the distance between herself and her quarry, drawing a dagger from her belt with her left hand while raising her sabre behind her head with her right. The three men snapped their heads around and a cry went up from one as they leapt to their feet in the blink of an eye. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Vale recalled Yvorre’s warnings that three men were near-impossible odds even for the best fighter. Once the third opponent got behind you the fight was over.
Vale still didn’t hesitate.
The largest man barely had time to raise the cleaver in his hand before Vale was upon him, her sabre arcing horizontally as it’s sharp blade slashed across the man’s throat. Blood shot out from the wound as the man’s face froze in an expression of shock. He staggered half a step before crashing to the ground without a sound as blood continued to spray from the fatal injury.
But Vale saw none of it.
She had already stepped forward to engage the second man, who seemed stunned at the sight of his leader cut down so efficiently by such a young attacker, staring in horror with his hands swinging by his side. Vale seized the initiative. With no time to reverse her blade for a second slash, she instead drew her sabre towards him and pushed off the ground with her rear foot, thrusting her weapon outwards in a deadly lunge. Before the second man could react, the sword’s pointed tip buried itself deep in his chest. The victim barely had time to open his mouth in a silent scream as he started to fall backwards.
The third man, however, was not as slow as his companions and he launched himself at Vale before the young Commander could withdraw her sabre from her victim. Sensing the opportunity, the wiry man leapt at Vale, his blade ready to thrust into the weaker chain links at her side. Vale’s instinct told her to abandon her first weapon and she let it fall to the ground with it’s now screaming victim. Instead she turned to face her attacker and raised the long dagger in her left hand, turning her opponents blade with a downward swing so that the short sword passed inches from her abdomen. The failed lunge made the two fighters collide, but Vale was ready. She reached with her free right hand, grabbed her enemy’s extended weapon arm and with a turn of her own body, jerked him forward and off balance. The criminal stumbled over his opponent’s legs and fell face first into the dirt. In a heartbeat Vale thrust her armoured knee into the man’s spine and pinned him to the ground. Without a thought, the young warrior wrenched the man’s head back to expose his neck and with her other hand, quickly plunged her dagger into the vulnerable flesh. For the second time in less than half a minute, blood shot across the small alleyway and a man died without so much as a cry; but still Vale did not breathe easy or let her cold mindset drop. She jumped to her feet and scanned the alley on all sides, looking for other men running to aid or fleeing in terror back to their hovels.
There were none.
Methodically she raised herself to her full height and gave the three corpses a final glance as if she half expected them to twitch or moan, as if she had not so decisively ended their lives mere moments before. If her handiwork satisfied her she gave no indication. Her blank expression perfectly reflected her state of mind.
Vale began to break the grip on her concentration and the details of her surrounds started to come back into focus. Her head seemed light and her arms tingled from her fingers to her shoulders, but despite the mortal struggle her breathing was steady and her heartbeat firm. It was only then she noticed the young woman lying at the centre of the dirt alley and staring at her with an expression of open surprise on her face. And then Vale mirrored the expression.
Elyn had been bracing herself for agony when she realised that Ray was no longer fixing his glare on her, instead his gaze had moved to something over Elyn’s head and his expression was changing from self-important rage to something like incredulity. Elyn watched as Ray and his two associates had jumped to their feet only to be met by a smaller figure in the black armour of the Helmsguard. Elyn lay helpless as the interloper moved with a speed and grace that she’d never beheld in a fighting man. With clinical efficiency the three attackers had simply been killed. No sprawling battle or clumsy street brawl. It was almost an execution. Elyn had never seen a man killed in her life, let alone three men violently killed within seconds – so the experience had a somewhat bewildering effect on her. Elyn continued to lie in the dirt as the young soldier cast an efficient glance around him before seeming to relax a fraction. The solider then turned to Elyn and revealed his face.
It was a young woman’s face. It was Elyn’s own face.
Elyn felt a surreal sensation as if she had just awoken from a dream with the feelings fresh in her mind. The face that looked back at her own was an almost perfect copy, except for the eyes. The face of the woman in armour bore eyes of shining blue, whereas Elyn knew her eyes were the darkest of brown. Yet everything else looked identical. The youthful pale face with the narrow chin and high cheekbones. Elyn could even detect the strands of sandy coloured hair showing from beneath her black helm. And while this bizarre paradox shocked her, it seemed to have quite the equal effect on the other. The woman in the black armour was staring at her as if she was transfixed. She stood rooted to the spot with confusion flaring in those piercing blue eyes.
Elyn recovered first and climbed to her feet, mindful of the still bleeding corpses around her. The movement seemed to jolt the warrior from her fixation.
“Wait!” the soldier commanded.
Elyn wasn’t at all sure what her voice sounded like to others but this woman’s voice sounded strange – yet also familiar - to her own ears. She took an involuntary step backwards at the sound and the soldier reached out to detain her.
It was at that moment that something happened. Elyn wasn’t quite sure what it was and she’d struggle to recall it later, but there was a sense of vertigo combined with a strange sense of displacement. There was also a surge of something else. Euphoria? Adrenaline? It was there in an instant and gone a second later as Elyn felt something crash into her from behind.
It knocked the air from her lungs and all she could see was the sky. It took Elyn a moment to realise that she was lying on her back.
She sat up, head spinning and saw her strange twin also lying in the dirt some thirty feet away. It seemed to Elyn that they’d both been repelled the instant them had come into contact with each other. She didn’t know why, at that moment she didn’t actually care. Maybe later she’d regret her haste, but at the time all she knew was that a soldier from the Iron Union bore her face and wanted to detain her.
She jumped to her feet and saw the other woman starting to move her arms in a groggy fashion, as if dazed by the shock but quickly coming around. Elyn didn’t wait. She turned and ran back down the alley in the direction that she had come. She knew that there might be Helmsguard waiting for her but at that moment it was her only option. Sprinting back into the open street, she felt a surge of relief to find it empty – the resistance having apparently been pushed back some distance. Elyn turned left and continued her flight. She was aware that she was now probably behind the lines of the invaders but that was alright. In fact, it gave her one advantage – they would be preoccupied subduing the resistance and would not yet have time to manage the population now at their back. That gave her a slim window of opportunity to escape the city.
She hurried up the street and within moments she’d slipped down another side alley, then another. She’d not grown up in this town without learning the shortcuts. Moving almost instinctively she navigated the labyrinth of laneways that criss-crossed the makeshift town and headed towards the river. She prayed to Maelene - if she was watching over her - that she’d find what she needed.
It seemed that Maelene was still watching over her.
Elyn emerged from between two warehouses to run onto the decrepit docks and straight into a scene of frantic riverside evacuation. The river was choked with a flotilla of boats, small and large, all burdened with people and belongings sailing northwards. Clearly the Helmsguard hadn’t yet blockaded the river although Elyn suspected they might solve that problem at any moment. Elyn ran through the crowd of residents about to become refugees. She saw, to her rising alarm, that many of the boats had already cast off and the few that remained were already starting to swamp with people. Spot- fires of raised voices and even raised fists were peppering the docks as tempers flared and desperation boiled over.
Somewhere behind her a woman screamed and then another took up the call. Looters or Helmsguard? It didn’t matter. Elyn didn’t want to find out. She started running towards the nearest vessel – a skiff boat barely capable of holding a dozen people. She’d scarcely closed within twenty feet of the boat when she caught the attention of a large man with a clean shaven head and a somewhat bedraggled beard. With a speed that belied his bulk, he swung his body around to face Elyn and brandished a sword in an accusatory gesture that needed no interpretation. Elyn quickly pulled up at the greeting.
“Please..” she attempted. “I’ve got nowhere...”
“Get out of here, piss-ant!” came the reply with such a ferocious and sincere promise of violence that Elyn knew that there would be no further warnings. Almost stumbling backwards, Elyn turned and heard more screams from further up the docks. Helmsguard almost certainly. They would have this dock secured in minutes. Elyn looked up and down the boardwalk that lined the foul-smelling river and counted her options. Assuming these few remaining boats would be as fiercely defended for the next few minutes before they cast off, she seemed to have no options left at all.
“Elyn!” called a female voice over the tumult. Elyn clung to the offered sound like it was a lifeline in thrown to her in a torrent.
“Nadine?” she replied in confusion. She turned in the direction of the voice, eyes scanning the throng of people for the owner.
“Elyn!” the voice repeated in a louder and far more impatient tone.
She turned her attention towards a medium sized boat tethered further down the boardwalk. There Elyn could see a small crowd of people held at bay by two armed man-servants. Safely in the boat and beyond the crowd, Elyn could see the familiar figure of a slender blonde haired female. She wasted little time beyond basic recognition before she was moving through the rapidly thinning crowd towards her. Behind her, Elyn could hear more screams as the Helmsguard were doubtless continuing their advance onto the docks.
“Hurry Elyn, we’re leaving,” Nadine’s voice now drifted to her carrying a note of desperation.
Elyn reached the small crowd and began to shoulder her way through, insensitive to the curses and blows that were thrown at her and only stopping when she found herself at the pointed end of a weapon for the second time within minutes. The manservant wielding the weapon may have looked a little more refined than the previous aggressor, but Elyn didn’t doubt that his resolve was as strong.
“Vander, wait!” Nadine ordered her servant in the slightly imperious manner that seemed to belong to certain social classes. The man named Vander risked a glance in her direction to confirm the validity of the instructions.
“My lady?” the red-faced servant enquired. Although he was doing a more than adequate job defending the boat, Elyn still suspected that wielding a sword was not one of his common duties.
“Let her through,” came a commanding male voice. Elyn glanced up to see a tall man with well groomed hair and a fine moustache had walked up alongside his daughter. “She’s one of Nadine’s friends. Quickly! We’re casting off right now!”
Without even waiting for Vander to step aside, Elyn launched herself across the narrow gap between the dock and the boat and landed on the deck. Instantly she was enveloped by slender arms and the scent of flowers.
“Thank gods you’re alright!” she gushed. Elyn couldn’t help but blurt a strangled laugh at the absurdity of the comment.
“I’m alright thanks to you!” She hugged her friend back. “Where did you come from?”
They separated with a lurch as the boat pulled away from the dock and starting to catch the current. Vander and the other unnamed manservant abandoned their short careers as armed protectors and leaped to the safety of the boat. In the distance Elyn could now make out armoured figures moving through the docks, starting to move upon the few unfortunate vessels that had not made their escape in time.
“Gods...” Elyn whispered as she watched the scenes from the dock start to diminish in clarity. “How did this happen?”
“I know,” Nadine replied as she watched beside her. For a moment, now with the immediate threat of capture or death removed, they both seemed to lapse into a state of shocked silence as they bore witness to the fall of their childhood home. It only then occurred to Elyn that this would be even harder for Nadine. As the daughter of a wealthy river trader it was very possible that her family had lost everything this morning. Not that she hadn’t lost everything herself, it’s just that when you’re the daughter of a records clerk you don’t really have that much to lose.
The thought jolted her from her melancholy mood harder than a slap. In her confusion after her encounter with her strange twin and her preoccupation with her own personal safety thereafter, Elyn realised that she had completely forgotten about her father. The guilt that then flooded her was nauseating. She opened her mouth to ask the futile question when she was grasped violently and spun around in place. Leon’s familiar arms enveloped Elyn as firmly as Nadine’s had moments before. Elyn found she could measure the intensity of her father’s distress by the way he was squeezing the life out of her.
“Elyn!” Leon choked through tears. “Oh Elyn thank gods...thank gods...”
She felt a bewildering mix of confusion, relief and exhaustion as she sank into the embrace of her father. Tears welled behind her closed lids and began to spill down her cheeks in hot streams. After a moment, Leon broke the embrace and look her over with an appraising eye. Elyn had grown taller than Leon last summer but somehow his hugs still made her feel like she was half his size.
“Are you hurt?” he asked with a father’s genuine concern.
Leon was a short and portly man. He wore a full head of silver hair and a round face which was careworn by years of parenthood.
“No Pa, I’m alright, I was in the chapel when they attacked... I managed to get to the docks when Nadine found me.”
For a moment she wanted to tell Leon about her near capture with Ray and the Helmsguard, particularly the encounter with her young twin, but she somehow knew this wasn’t the right time for that conversation. Leon looked half out of his wits with worry and Elyn suspected that he didn’t need the additional problems laid on him right then and there. Leon looked at his daughter and for a moment Elyn thought that he was going to press her further, but he just nodded. Perhaps he likewise thought better of raising a question or perhaps he sensed nothing – Elyn always found herself a little off balance around her father’s probing looks. Eager to deflect the unspoken question, she changed the subject.
“What are you doing here?”
The question earned an unexpected expression of guilt and shame from Leon. Elyn immediately regretted asking.
“I was with the Council processing an application for a renewed trade permit for Nadine’s family when news of the attack hit. They took me with them. I tried to get someone to find you but the Helmsguard came at us from everywhere and there was no time to do anything but run. Before I knew what had happened I was on the boat... I didn’t know where you were. I wasn’t going to leave without you Elyn I promise.”
Elyn reached out and touched her father on the shoulder.“It’s alright, I know.”
Leon calmed himself before continuing, as if steadied by the reassurance. A parent’s endless guilt assuaged for the moment.
“And then without warning, you were next to me as if placed there by Maelene Herself. She’s been watching over us today,” Leon placed an arm around his daughter and turned to face Nadine. “Also, we’ve had some more direct assistance. Young lady we owe your father our lives, we simply will never be able to repay what you’ve done for us today.”
Nadine smiled faintly and wiped at a small tear as she looked back at the swarming soldiers on the docks. “I think we’ve all lost too much today sir,” she replied, respecting an elder despite her superior social station.
They all stood in silence for a moment as Outpost faded from view. Elyn was surprised at how swift the ship was. The household staff that had served as armed bodyguards were now running back and forth across the deck to manipulate the rigging. Within moments the mainsail was lowered and the boat lurched again as the added wind bolstered the speed afforded by the steady current.
“What do we do now?” Elyn asked.
Leon sighed. “Well the Helmsguard are no good on water so we’ll run. There’s always been a rendezvous location agreed for the day we’d have to flee from the Iron Union, I just hoped that we’d never have to use it.”
Nadine’s father had returned with blankets which he distributed to all three of them. Elyn hadn’t realised how cold it had become on the open river and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“We’ll have to see how many got out,” Nadine’s father said. “This was a blow.”
“Where will we go father?” Nadine hugged her arms around him as he gently placed the blanket around her.
“Well like Leon said, we’ll regroup at Wheatsheaf but we won’t be able to stay there, it’s not exactly a secure position, and I don’t think the fortresses like Bonehall will take us in. No, I think we’re going to have to retreat to Fairhaven.”
They all looked at him. Even Leon seemed surprised.
“Fairhaven, Paeter? Will it come to that?”
Nadine’s father shrugged. “I honestly don’t see we have much of a choice.
We’re going to need to find a settlement that’ll take us and Fairhaven’s one of the only places left, unless we want to stay close to the front line.”
There was a pause.
“What about the Ageless?” Elyn asked. It was the obvious question even if it had been unspoken. Elyn and Nadine’s respective fathers shared a look.
“They’re Maelene’s disciples Elyn,” Leon answered. “They’re our protectors. If we need them then they’ll take us in. You don’t have to worry.” Elyn and Nadine shared a look of their own. The look shared by daughters who don’t quite believe what their fathers tell them. Paeter kissed his daughter on her forehead then turned to walk back to his servants. His commanding voice calling out instructions before he had even reached
Elyn turned back to the water. Outpost had faded from sight already, a
bend in the river obliterating the dismal view. She wanted to think about Fairhaven. She wanted to think about the Ageless and how they would react to their arrival.
But she couldn’t.
As she stared out across the water all she could think about was that sharp image of a face. A face like so much like her own - but with piercing blue eyes.