As promised another early peek. again, disclaimer, I still have some ideas rattling around in my head that could add changes to this.
King Ben was in his council chambers reviewing one of the regular reports he received from his people in the north about Alex’s activities there. Suggesting the information was sent by spies was a stretch as Alex was utterly aware of who they all were and what they were doing. It was more in line with a parent receiving a report card than it was a conspiracy to spy.
“Nicely done,” Ben muttered to himself as he got to the part about the threats of an overthrow, a visiting dragon, and the suppressed rebellion.
“Sire?” one of his advisors asked at the muttered comment.
“Oh, nothing important, just following the adventures of our Northern relatives as they bring the restless natives to heel,” Ben replied with a smile.
Scattered about the room were several men and women, all in the middle of various activities related to managing the kingdom. Once a week Ben brought his administrators together to work out the business of managing the affairs of state. Each would work on their areas of responsibility, reaching out to their peers when questions or problems arose. He found the arrangement very effective in enabling constant communication between his administrators and it let him know if anyone wasn’t playing nice.
“Not asking for more money I hope?” one of the men said anxiously, looking up from his ledgers.
Ben recognized the voice of his treasurer without looking up at the man.
“No, while I have no doubt he could use it, for us to send more money is not what he needs most just now,” Ben said thoughtfully as he considered Alex’s plight.
Moving back to his seat at the table, he scanned the group of advisors before speaking.
“Have someone gather the accounts for all the trading we have done with the north in the last five years. I want to see what goes in and out of the port of Nyland. I also wish to know what products we purchase indirectly that have origins in Gundor.”
“Yes, Sire,” his administrator replied.
Perhaps a boost in trade will help move things in the right direction, Ben thought to himself as he considered the challenges that lay ahead for Alex.
King Elion was going over his own set of reports from the lands north of Great Vale and the kingdom on the other side of the Northern Mountains. The unquestionable success of Alex’s adventures in his home realm had left Elion’s rival, King Avenstore, scrambling to regain control there. The release of magic in the technological world had pushed the scales back to a more balanced state and had both Woodland and Dark elves reassessing their control of things in many places.
With Avenstore tied up there, it left Elion free to begin his campaign of stability in both realms, furthering his efforts to restore the balance between chaos and order. The Woodland elves were driven by orderly magic, the kind found in all growing things, while the Dark elves thrived in magical chaos of volcanic fire and ground splitting earthquakes.
While all were found in nature, it was very different in the way it was applied. It was the war to gain an advantage that the pair of Elven Kings had been waging for millennia, all in multiple realms and with numerous players.
“Using dragons, hum,” Elion muttered to himself, both in admiration and concern.
“Sire?” the messenger standing before him replied.
“Oh, nothing. Just an observation,” Elion answered.
Alex had gained his advantage in both realms by his association with the magical beasts. Forever the victim of other dominant species, dragons had almost become extinct due to these abuses and their lack of interest in the goings-on around them. Only careful management of the exploitations heaped upon the few remaining creatures had allowed them to survive the onslaught.
After centuries of manipulations and mistreatment, along came Alex, releasing the imprisoned few and freeing the constrained magic within them to thrive once more. Neither good nor evil, dragons were neutral in the eyes of the balance.
Once the tool of chaos, it was yet to be determined if they would continue to assist Alex in his efforts or become a power of their own in the struggle. Most hoped they would take their newfound freedom and retreat from the warring sides.
Elion hated uncertainty but quelled the urge to take action himself lest he fell into the patterns of the past, a past that had almost consumed Dark and Woodland Elves alike. As it was, the A’asari’s ruins stood as a reminder to all of that folly.
“Tell our people to keep watch, but they are to take no direct action,” Elion instructed the messenger before dismissing the man.
“As usual, for now, Alex is on his own with this one,” Elion muttered to himself with a smile.
He knew Alex could do more damage on his own than a handful of elves, Dark or Woodland. A wildcard since the first day of his arrival in A’nland, he had been the instrument of change in two realms now. Elion wondered if left unchecked, how far the wizard’s influence would be felt.
It wasn’t Alex however that had Elion’s focus at the moment, rather it was his unborn child that had the potential of changing the very nature of both realms. Shifting his thoughts to Windfall, he decided to up his game there and see if he couldn’t get ahead of any troubles in the making.
“Have my messenger ready for a trip to Windfall, we may need to expand our activities there,” he ordered as he pulled some blank parchment from a stack and began to write.
Across the Western Sea lay the city of Jikar. It is a small community north of Tazmain on the coastline of the lands to the west of A’nland. It was almost perfectly opposite Nyland to the east across the sea so shared a similar climate. Nearly as cold as its counterpart in the east in the winter, the lands here were more arid, flat, and open, tending to hotter summer months. Extremely flat in all directions, the Dragon’s Teeth far to the south were the closest mountains in sight.
“I still think we should have gone south and assumed ownership of Tantalus’s holdings near Lake Vishap, where it is warmer,” Vennala scolded her husband, the deposed Vassal King of the North.
“Easier said than done, my dear. The location is well known to the devil wizard who usurped my thrown in his pursuit of his wretched wife’s mother. Thus, it is a poor location for hiding should they choose to hound us further and try to reclaim the kingdom treasury, our rightful compensation. This location will do us nicely for now, at least until we can assess the damage done by this villain. Tantalus’s lands are going nowhere in the meantime,” Ailmer replied as he picked at the food on the plate before him.
The couple had fled Gundor Stronghold, bringing with them everything of value they could transport from their mountain top home and across the sea on a commandeered ship of the small Gundor fleet. Promised as compensation to the deserting captain and crew, Ailmer was sure the man and crew had renamed the vessel after its arrival in the west. He was just as sure it was now destined for anywhere but a return to Nyland.
Now occupying a small temporary home in the city, they spent their days keeping a low profile while they determined their next steps.
“You don’t imagine the arrival of Avenstore?” Vennala asked hopefully.
Ailmer knew his wife held out hope that the Dark Elf King would appear and intervene on their behalf, their current circumstance the result of the elf king’s last failed plot. She blamed the elf and expected him to repair the damage done. The Vassal King knew better as the elves held a more removed attitude that you were presented an opportunity and success or failure were yours alone to determine.
“One can only hope,” Ailmer replied with a shrug as he privately hoped to never see the elf again.
Their current home was a walled villa just inside the city, a place he was positive garnered them some sense of security and comfort. Jikar was not known for its natural beauty or vast tourism appeal. The only reason someone came to this cold desolate location was to buy ore from one of the many mines that dotted the barren landscape further west of town. The vast open spaces were littered with open-pit mines that extracted much of the base metals used throughout the rest of the known world. Copper, lead, iron, tin, and nickel all were scratched from the earth in one of the many operations to be used elsewhere.
Jikar itself sat on the closest deep-water port to the many mining operations, and the sturdy docks supported the loading of high-quality ore onto the ships for processing in other locations. Kingdoms around the known world came here to acquire the base metals they needed for everything from weapons to cookware.
“With no kingdom here to rule, maybe we should think about acquiring a mine?” Ailmer asked his wife optimistically, knowing his options were limited.
The sour expression on her face suggested it might not be the best option in her opinion.
“Guild master, you have a visitor,” the Ranger in his traditional green and tan attire announced before leading the stranger into the wood-paneled office.
“Thank you,” Leander replied to the retreating man as he examined the newcomer.
Leander’s return to the Guild in Great Vale had not been as well-received as he might have hoped. The already sour mood created when his predecessor had usurped the Guild control in an attempted grab for power had the rank-and-file sensitive to any efforts smelling of politics. Many good men had died in the last plot and no one wanted a repeat of those events.
In his absence, it had taken a visit from an Elvin warrior to prevent the membership from replacing Leander outright, a message from King Elion explaining the absence as a mission for the good of all Rangers and A’nland alike.
While that went far in preventing his replacement, it did little to dissuade the opinion that he was still too close to King Ben and the pending marriage to Princess Abrianna added to that argument. It was only Abrianna’s general popularity among the Ranger members that softened the attitude locally.
Returning his attention to the cloaked figure before him, his first guess was it was a woman, her hood concealing most of her face.
“The King is most satisfied with the outcome of your last adventure,” the song-like voice declared as the hood dropped from her head.
Before him stood the angelic face of a Woodland Elf female, one of Elion’s many subjects and a stunning beauty. Her piercing green eyes were set in a pale face surrounded by jet black hair. In his dealings with the Woodland elves, Leander had seen complexions from almost midnight black to snowy white with all the colors of nature in between. Hair and eyes always seemed to complement the skin tone, and he sometimes wondered if they could change all three at will like humans might their dress.
“I am glad to hear that. Please, sit,” was all Leander could think to say as he returned to his seat behind his desk while motioning for the elf to do the same.
“I am not here long. This is for you,” she replied while extending one arm and passing a rolled parchment to him as she moved to stand before his desk.
“The King wishes Great Vale to host the annual gathering of the Ranger Guild masters this year. He feels it will go far to help resolve your current discord and bring harmony among the leaders,” the female said with a tinge of sarcasm.
“Tell his majesty I thank him for the honor and tend to agree,” Leander replied with a small laugh.
“He also wishes you to present this at the gathering,” she added in a somber tone as she passed a second scroll to his waiting hand.
Opening the rolled document, he scanned the contents, sucking in his breath as he completed the single page.
“You know this has not been overwhelmingly popular, even here in Great Vale,” Leander responded as he held up the page.
“Among some of the current membership and other outsiders, that is true. It is also true that it is a matter of pride to many in Great Vale that the practice originated here,” she countered.
“The first candidates were of exceptional qualifications and were singularly popular in their own right,” Leander expanded.
“Then set that as the standard, but King Elion has spoken on this issue. You are to introduce the recruitment of women into the Rangers beyond the limits of Great Vale.”
“Surprise,” a red-headed freckled face bellowed, startling Alex as the young woman appeared out of the back of the cart, one hauling supplies up the hill and into Gundor Stronghold.
“Me too!” Leena added as she slipped out of the wagon behind her sister Kelby and both the women rushed up to embrace their brother-in-law.
Once upon a time, Alex would have expected an attempted seduction or pilfering of any valuables on his person, but those days were in the past. Since his marriage to the mermaids’ half-sister, the twins had been more than honest and reliable, if not wholly trustworthy. As a family member, they still tended to pilfer the occasional trinket as a blood right, should something catch their eye.
And the seduction of their brother-in-law was now out of the question. The looming birth of their niece or nephew had both girls placing Alex as out of bounds, if for no other reason than for sister Cassie’s sake.
“So, how did it go in Nyland,” Alex asked as he took one woman under each arm, and the three of them made their way toward the castle keep.
“Well, these six men all agreed to return to your employ, particularly after Vesuvius made a smoke ring over Nyland,” Kelby answered as she waved flirtingly to the men driving the three carts.
“He does have a presence,” Alex answered as he glanced back to see his people leading the wagons into the courtyard where they could be offloaded into the storerooms.
He was happy to see the burly guardsmen as he was woefully short-handed in the manpower department. Filling the depleted ranks had proven more difficult than expected as a good number of the castle guard had been enticed away by the lords of the valley. Poor treatment by the previous resident had left Alex with a huge PR problem in his attempts to attract staff and personnel.
“Kinsey!” both twins proclaimed in unison as they released Alex and ran to the wolf waiting just inside the doors of the keep. Red and black hair merged as the young women smothered their affections on the wolf.
“And how was the port?” Alex asked as he led the pair upstairs and into his office and requested food and drink for the three of them from the nearby steward.
“Busy for this time of year. All the shippers and locals were waiting to see who came out on top at winter’s end,” Leena explained, Nyland being her home before they all met.
Before Kelby could add more, a servant entered with a tray of bread, meat, cheese, and a pitcher of water with three cups placed before the three and exited.
“Wait,” Alex blurted as the pair started to reach for the offering.
Closing his eyes, he scanned the contents for any uninvited additives before nodding okay.
“You make that a regular habit?” Kelby asked as she cautiously continued her reach.
“Until I am confident the people around me are satisfied that I am the lesser evil, yes,” Alex added with a smile.
“Thus, your hidey-hole here?” Leena asked of the small room.
Alex was aware Leena knew of the larger, official offices on the castle’s first floor from her previous visit here.
“Easier to defend and heat, plus my bedroom is just down the hall,” Alex added with a smile.
“And our rooms?” Kelby inquired.
“On this level, any place but mine that you like. You two shouldn’t be in any danger at the moment. The plotters have all been sent home to reassess their future in Gundor with visions of dragons dancing in their heads. Queen’s quarters are available if you are so inclined. The former mistress of the castle left a closet full of clothes you two might want to pick over,” he added with a knowing smile.
There was no possible way the two mermaids would pass up pillaging the Queen’s wardrobe, and there was so much for them to go through that Alex had no worries about keeping them to a reasonable amount.
A squeal of delight accompanied by a flurry of red hair saw the pair vacate the room in record time. Alex couldn’t help but smile as he heard the pair scurry down the hall, their voices fading as they reached their destination.
Ignoring the commotion down the hall, Alex went back to assessing the economic state in Gundor and how he might alter the current situation to his favor. Considering some of the changes he had made in Windfall, he began scribbling out messages to be sent south with instructions on what was required and when.
Gundor Stronghold sat atop a volcanic mound in the middle of a valley that ran east to the T’ybel river and west to the coast. Its southern boundary was the mountain range the southerners called the Northern Mountains, and to the north were even larger mountains the residents of Gundor called hell.
Encased in snow and ice year-round, the barren stone was piled skyward in a massive barrier. Devoid of any plant life, it was not a fit home for man nor beast, and even the dragons of legend found no practical use for them. As far as anyone knew, they had no volcanic arteries to warm a dragon’s den or hatch their offspring.
Not nearly as wide as the valley of Great Vale, north to south, Gundor valley ran east to west as wide as the kingdoms of Windfall and Great Vale combined. In the warmer months, the valley floor was fertile, more than suitable for the local farmer’s crops, and in the winter, their precious livestock grazed over the same fields, scratching the residual plant life out from under the snow for forage. The majority of their winter feed sat in barns, bailed in the fields in fall, and distributed regularly through the winter.
Dotted along the valley boundaries, at the base of both mountain ranges, the Vassal Lords had built their keeps and small castles. All of the structures were made of stone and placed where they provided the most significant protection to the occupants. None dared possess one square foot of their precious valley floor, needed for crops and grazing.
It was to these castles that the former stewards and guards of Gundor Stronghold fled, most in hopes of a less oppressive Lord and Lady to serve. Others just needed a job no matter whom they served. It was these people he hoped to reach first.
King Avenstore sat in his office high above the downtown Seattle skyline and rifled through the stacks of reports on his desk. Each detailed a new encroachment of magical creatures into the realm that constituted that homeworld the White Wizard had so recently released the magical block on. With the escape of Vesuvius and the return of magic to the unsuspecting populace, the reign of technology in this world was in question.
Should these humans discover their newfound opportunities to challenge the status quo, Avenstore’s control of the realm would be slipping. Elion had played him well, delivering the wizard home as demanded but including his support circle that empowered him to undue a millennium of progress for the Dark Elves.
At first, Avenstore had considered the decision a mistake on Elion’s part as it placed the birth of the Wizard’s child in a place he controlled. A female child had the potential of disrupting more than the balance, as she put in play opponents considered long out of the game.
Now it was Avenstore’s chance to return the favor, for he believed A’nland was ripe for insurrection. Gundor Stronghold might be on the mend with those souths of its borders, but hidden dangers to the north, east, and west were a spark away from igniting chaos and Avenstore knew just the right unsuspecting person to send in carrying the flame.