Chapter One

They rode single file out of the Northwest. Six they were; braced in battle against the wind blowing from the South, hunched on their mounts as plumes of breaths dissipated quickly in the cold. The horses, coats matted with snow and frost, valiantly trudged forward, hooves breaking through the crust of wind-polished snow extending in all directions.

Achieving a small rise, the leader sat up straighter, raising an arm as he reined his horse to a stop. Without direction, the four behind him steered their mounts to a copse of small trees to the left, dismounted, and secured their horses to the bare branches. Three then spread out, kicking snow away from the ground. After a time one stopped and cleared a wider patch from the earth.

“Here!” he shouted to the others, who stopped their search and moved to the man.
“Aye,” one of the others said. “You’ve found a right solid boulder top. It’s nice and flat. Let’s get a fire going.” He headed back towards the horses and joined the portly, bearded man of wrinkles and sun-weathered ebony skin who was digging through his mount’s saddlebag.

“Found an adequate spot for burning, have you?” he asked, his wrinkles stretching into a smile around his mouth. “Mind you’re efforts at the fire. We’ve not much left.” he said as he pulled a cooking pot from his bags.

“Use half of what he have, even if it’s not enough.” The leader interjected, having dismounted to lead his horse towards the rest. “We will need wood later for a signal fire.” Tying his mount to a branch, he fished from his laden pack a long spy glass and walked further  along the path until he reached the uppermost point of the rise. Without yet lifting the glass to his eye he surveyed the eastern horizon. Behind him the sixth man secured his mount and, after conferring with the others who were removing small bundles of wood affixed to their horse’s packs, turned and made to join the leader.

“Are we close?” he asked as he came alongside.

“Yes, I think so, cousin.” the leader replied. Finally putting the glass up to his eye, he searched the horizon. Behind them the others had combined portions of their wood and were cheerfully talking as the bearded man fanned flames developing within the small pile of branches.

“There.” he said, pointing just to the left of the trail as it diminished into the distance. He held out the glass for the other man. “ Tell me what you think, Samuel.”
Samuel took the glass and examined where his cousin had pointed.

“Yes, I agree.” he said as he handed the glass back. “It appears we shall achieve our destination just before sun fall.” he handed the glass back to the leader. “For several days now I’ve seen no sign of pursuit. Nor, Richard, has there been signs of birds or other foul creatures. We’re not in danger of discovery.” he gave his cousin a stern look. “Yet, I’m concerned for this break.”

Richard returned Samuel’s stern look. “Yes. It is my design for a short rest with a quick, hot meal: then off to our destination.” He turned and once again looked off into the distance through the glass. “However, I suspect we will have to stop again and give signal.”
“Aye.” Samuel said as he nodded his head in agreement. “Wouldn’t want the locals to be surprised by our arrival.” he turned and looked to the others gathered at the now strong burning, though small, fire. “Eriq!” he shouted.

A young man, looking to be in his early twenties, the pale skin of his face reddened by the wind, who had been standing besides the portly bearded man, turned and smiled at Samuel.

“Aye Lieutenant?” he shouted back as he made his way towards the two. “You be needing something?” he asked, once he reached them.

“Yes.” Richard said, still facing the eastern horizon. “Who still has signal powder?”

“Michael, My Lord.” Eriq said, his smile still bright on his face. “Shall I have him ready it?”

“No.” answered Samuel. “We’ve more traveling yet.” he said as he clasped the young man on the shoulder. “So, how goes the preparations?”

“Sir, the stew will be bland and tasteless as all such quick stews, by necessity, are. It shall be ready in a few minutes.” He turned and pointed at the burning wood. “Luck is with us Lords. This spot held a flat stone, allowing for a hot fire quickly.”

“Luck?” questioned Richard sharply as he turned from the eastern horizon to stare angrily at Eriq. “What luck was there in losing so ma……” but before he could finish, Samuel put a hand on his cousin’s shoulder, giving him a look that asked for restraint.

Richard’s returned look was sharp, but then slowly softened. Shaking his head in understanding, he turned to resume examination of the eastern horizon.

“Come!” Samuel said, turning to Eriq. “Let’s see just how necessarily bland and tasteless this stew is.” Placing his arm about the young man’s shoulder, they walked to the fire, leaving Richard standing in his doubt. Reaching the cooking pot he smelled the boiling stew and smiled at Eriq.

“Bland and tasteless?” he questioned.  “I believe my understanding of taste is quite different from yours.”

He clasped the young man on the shoulder.

“I think you look to lower expectations so that we are pleasantly surprised, Eriq. That rascal of an old cook taught you well.”

“Old?”  Spoke out one of the other men.  “Old now, would it be?  My Lords, being young whippersnappers hardly grants you the privilege of calling me old.”

It was the portly, bearded man who stepped away from the pot where he had been adding herbs and seasoning to the stew.

“Besides, is that any way to speak of your elders?”

All the men standing around the fire broke out laughing. Slapping Eriq and the old cook affectionately on the backs Samuel turned to the other two.

“While, Kevin,” he paused and turned to look at the bearded man, “Old Cook” he said with a sly smile, earning a snort from the stout man, “and Eriq are making the meal we are eating this short rest, how about our horses?” Without a word, the two walked each in a circular direction away from the fire, kicking and digging down through the snow as earlier.
“Here we go!” shouted a blond man of middling age. “I’ve found some thick grass here.” The others brought their mounts, with Samuel bringing along Richard’s who still brooded into the horizon.
“Well done, Stefan.” Old Cook said gruffly as he grinned. “Now if you could only find us some herbs amongst the grasses beneath this Gods forsaken snow.”
“Forsaken?” Stefan responded as gruffly. “Unnatural it is. A cold; bitter and relentless beyond it’s season – with no sign of a change.” The others nodded their heads in agreement. “If not for the craft of our Captain we would be frozen mounds in the Central Plains.”
“You sell yourself short, Stefan.” Richard interjected, having joined the others from his self-imposed solitude. “It is I who ought be thankful for the experience and wisdom each of you has displayed on this difficult journey.” He paused, watching the horses as they grazed upon the frozen grasses. “I have been lax in expressing my gratitude.” He brought his gaze back up, looking each man in the eyes. “But we approach the eastern edge of the Central Plains. If the words of the Wood Witch are correct, our fate awaits us at Trivale.”
One of the men, ebony skinned as Old Cook but without the weathered age, stepped up to the Captain. He started to say something, than appeared to think otherwise.
“Michael, speak your mind.” Richard said, his voice soft with condonation.
“Aye, Captain.” Michael said, looking down to the snow. “It’s just, that…..” he hesitated a breath, “well, we’ve lost many men on this journey with little, if any, time to speak our hurts. Our grief we have put aside. But for how much longer must we delay our pain?”
“I do not know, Michael.” Richard replied, pain briefly etching his face. But with an inhale of breath he straighten up, looking once again at his men. “Each of you have held yourselves accountable with valor and strength. I ask that each of you continue to do so.”
Abruptly he turned away, his face a stern mask of silent shame. Walking to his horse he placed the spyglass back into the saddlebag. The men watched with various looks of sadness, fear, or sympathy.
It was a snort from Old Cook that brought them out of their revere.
“Enough of this melancholy!” He groused roughly. “We’ve a tasteless stew to eat, if we are to believe that young whippersnapper Eriq.”
“What?” Eriq quipped back, his face feigning hurt. “It was you who went on about the lack of strong herbs for our stew. Next time make the damn thing yourself, you fat, ungrateful old man!”
“Watch your tongue, you no good young pup!” Old Cook snarled as he walked back to the pot of stew. “Or I’ll feed your portion to the horses.”
“Oh, that’s mature.” The young man shot back as he stamped after the old man while the rest of the company laughed. “Fine example you’re setting for me. If I turn out no good as you’re always claiming, you’ve only yourself to blame.” Suddenly he stopped, fear chasing the smile from his face. Trembling, he looked to the south. Richard, who had turn back from his horse to watch the banter, strode up to the young man.
“What is it Eriq?”
“Gorillas.” he stammered, pointing. “It’s faint, my Lord; a distance off they are.” He turned to look at Richard. “But I can smell them.” Then he turned back south, disappointment on his face. “I could. It’s gone now Captain.”
“Gentlemen, we eat quicker than planned.” Richard stated.
The men went to their mounts and retrieved bowls from the depths of the saddlebags. With urgency they each received a scoop of stew. When the last of the food was distributed, the cooking pot was quickly washed and stowed; the fire quickly quenched. Standing around the remains of the fire they ate silently, stealing glances to the south. When finished they stowed their bowls without washing.
“Eriq, ride up front behind Samuel; he is taking point.” Richard ordered as he and the company mounted their horses. “All of us; stay close – no gaps. Keep your eyes and ears sharp. We may battle more than wind today.”
“Aye Captain!” the men said in unison as Samuel took the lead and urgently headed  the company down the trail towards the horizon.

The large man stood staring at the pile of rags that laid on the table. His face was a study in confusion and doubt. As he wiped his hands on his apron people stood about him with various looks of fear, doubt, and confusion; whispering among themselves – even arguing softly. He ignored them all.
Shaking his head he turned away from the table and walked over to a crude bar of boards placed across the back of the room on three barrels. Behind it were several shelves made of the same style boards anchored to the wall and lined with various bottles and jugs. Standing at the right end of the bar and placing his large, calloused hands on it’s rough surface he hollered through a door into a back room.
He scowled after a few moments of silence and yelled even louder. “Brandt!”
This time he was rewarded with the voice of a young man, soon followed by the boy himself. He smiled brightly as he carried a box from the back room.
“Sorry Bale.” he answered cheerfully as he looked up into the face of the large man. “I was digging under the back shelves.”
Bale gave the thin boy a look of stern disbelief, but it did not last long against the onslaught of the boy’s cheerful smile. Shaking his large, round head with thick, black hair he gave a reluctant smile in return.
“Alright than.” he said, attempting to sound stern and failing. “Put that box down and get some stew ladled. Let’s see if we can feed our new guest.”
Brandt’s eyes widened as he excitedly put the box down on the floor under the make-shift bar.
“Yes sir!” he exclaimed as he headed into the back room. Bale chucked in amusement. He then turned back towards the pile of rags on the table. Two of the people who were milling about broke from the rest. They were a severe, thin woman approaching middle age with a scowl on her pale face, and an equally thin, but older man in the fall of his years who’s face was absence the severity of the woman.
“Is it wise to let the boy get so close to the stranger?” the woman said. But before Bale could answer she turned aside to cover her mouth as she was wracked with coughing. The old man grimaced, his face a study of concern, matching that of Bale’s. However, neither said anything to the woman. Instead they patiently waiting for the bout of coughing to pass.
“What is there to be concerned about, Amaru?” Bale said after the coughing had subsided, his voice an echo of his earlier concern. “The stranger has given no sign of threat. And in my inn hospitality is offered to all until such time as a person proves otherwise.”
Amaru looked to offer more argument, then turned to the old man by her side.
“Father, you are the Elder of our community. Talk some sense into this brute of an inn keeper.” she said, a look of consternation on her face matching the sternness of her voice. “It is unwise to harbor unknown danger within the border of our village!”
Despite his daughter’s barrage of anger he smiled patiently at her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“I cannot do that, Amaru.” he said, his voice matching the tone of his smile. “I agree with Bale. Hospitality, not fear, best shows our worth.”
Amaru snorted in disgust, shrugged her father’s hand from her shoulder, turned, and walked stiffly back towards the table of rags. Her father looked on in sadness and futility. Bale also watched, then went behind the bar and from one of the small barrels on the shelf poured a mug of brownish ale.
“You have patience Lous, I’ll give you that.” he said as he placed the mug in front of the old man. “I would have placed her over my knees and taught her a proper respect for her elders.”
Lous reached for the mug, a slight smile easing the sadness of his face.
“I have been sorely tempted, my friend.” he said as he lifted the mug, taking a sip. “But she is no longer the child my wife and I enjoyed in our youth.”
“From what I understand there was not always enjoyment about her youth either.” the burly inn keeper said as he poured himself a mug of ale. “I’ve heard tales of her temper and rampages through the village. And I remember a time or two when I had to chase her from my inn because of her temperament.”
“And Rasha?” Lous said with friendly sarcasm in his voice. “I seem to remember her temperament chasing a few customers from this inn as well.”
“You’ll get no argument from me on that.” Bale said, chuckling lightly. “Though a few of those customers deserved a good chasing.” he continued just before taking a large drink from his mug. “Let’s just be thankful that Amaru and Rasha have not clashed!” he finished, wiping the ale’s foam from his chin and placing his mug on the bar.
Suddenly a large woman wearing a fur parka with the hood over her head burst in from a side door next to the two.
“Men!” she shouted excitedly as she threw back the hood, the static causing some of her long, red hair to stand on end. Her breath labored from the exertion of having run a long distance. “Six of them. Soldiers by the looks of their clothes and mounts. They passed the stand without signaling. I need support to confront them!”
Lous studied the woman who, like Bale, towered over him by a foot, maybe more. She had large, green eyes with a graceful nose that poised over a wide mouth with full lips suggesting a smile that would light up a room. The others in the inn had been startled by her entrance with some moving closer to learn more.
“Well?” she asked as she looked about the room, consternation coloring her already flushed face. “Are any of you with courage enough to join me?”
“Now, hold on for a bit, Rasha!” Lous said sternly, a flash of irritation in his voice. “Just because they failed to signal does not justify a confrontation.” he glared about the room at all the others watching. “We will remember ourselves. We are Trivale, village on the edge of the Eastern Ring Mountains, home of hospitality and rest. All this talk of confrontation is unbecoming of us!”
He returned his glare to Rasha who stood in shock at the response of Lous.
“But they did not signal, as is custom!” she argued, but without the earlier urgency, her confidence appearing to have been shaken by the Elder’s irritation. “How can we trust them?”
“Because it is winter, with a cold breeze out of the south and nightfall approaching.” Bale interjected, his voice calm with assurance. “We are beyond the edge of the wilderness. Many of our visitors are weary and haggard, without much thought for the customs of remote lands. Let us see what they have to say about themselves instead of inventing fears that we might make real.”
Rasha looked upon the two men with disbelief on her face. About them the others whispered amongst themselves, fear and concern painting many of their faces. Finally, it was Amaru who moved back up, a look of anger flashing in her eyes.
“Are you so concerned about upholding custom that you would put us in possible danger?” she said accusingly.
“Daughter!” Lous said sternly, the earlier softness completely gone from his voice. “I am the Elder here, a member of the Council, and I will uphold our customs!” Amaru took a step back, shock on her face, as the rest of the onlookers gasped into silence.
“I will not act the coward and retreat into fear.” Lous continued on, standing straight and looking around at everyone in the room, his voice still stern but without the edge. “We are better than that.
“For a time uncounted Trivale has stood as it is, through war and peace. Always have our customs – our beliefs – held us strong and secure. They have proven themselves adequate to all situations.” Lous finished, his age seeming to return to him as his body sagged a bit, though his gaze was still strong to the room. “I will not lose faith in them now.”
Finally he returned his gaze solely to his daughter, who was lost in her own private thoughts. But he did not relent, and after a time she returned his look. “Father……”
Lous just shook his head in acknowledgment and was answered with a look of relief from Amaru. He then turned to Bale.
“We have more guests arriving. Let us prepare a greeting worthy of the history of Trivale.” he said, a sheepish grin on his face to which the inn keeper chuckled.
“I am always prepared for worthy greetings.” he answered. “Brandt!” he then bellowed, turning towards the backroom door. “Brandt, prepare enough stew for six more!”
The young boy stuck his head out of the doorway, eagerly looking around for the six new guests.
“Boy! They’re not here yet!” Bale gruffed mockingly, smiling at the youth. “But for as long as you’re taking for our current guest, I thought I’d get you started early.”
“But he’s not awake to eat!” Brandt argued back. “So I’ve been preparing tubers.”
“Tubers?” the large man said incredulously. “I want to uphold our hospitality, not destroy it! Go out to the back shed, in the cellar, and get some potatoes. They might be old, but we ought be able to salvage some of them.” the boy nodded in understanding and disappeared from the doorway.
Bale turned to Rasha.
“How far out are they, do you reckon?” he asked the large woman, who scowled in response. “Enough! Put your distrust and your anger aside. How far out?”
“About an hour.” she answered belligerently.
“Good.” he said, ignoring her tone and nodding to himself. “I’ve time enough for biscuits.”
He then looked about the room at all the spectators. Some were still looking on him and Rasha, others were again focused on the rags piled on the table. “Don’t you all have business? Stop gawking and get to it! I’ve got guest coming.” he paused and glared about the room. “We’ve got guest coming. And we’ve but a few days until we head out to the wintering homes. Either join Rasha to greet our guests at the village gate, or go to your homes and prepare to travel!”
Some of the spectators glared back at Bale, whispering to themselves, then moved towards the door, bundling themselves up in thick coats, wrapping scarves about their necks, and stomped out the front door. A few showed less animosity, if not outright curiosity. Yet none moved up to stand by Rasha, who was still belligerently glaring at the inn keeper. Bale returned her glare. Finally, Amaru moved to stand by the red head.
“Remember who you are Rasha.” Bale stated without malice or anger. “You are more than the barbarian warrior you are always showing.” he sighed and moved towards the back room. “Use the diplomacy I know you were taught as a child.” he said to her as he walked away.
“And what did that diplomacy get us?” she responded bitterly, a look of hurt on her face. “Where did it get us?”
But Bale did not answer, he had already disappeared into the back room.

Samuel lead the company along the slowly curving path into the southern wind. They no longer road in single file, instead grouped up in a loose circle, with Richard still at the rear. To their left the mountains stood white-capped and majestic.
“Why this round-a-bout way to our destination?” asked Eriq of Old Cook. “We could have easily cut across the open plain. There was a trail a ways back.”
“Aye, that we could.” the old veteran replied to the young man on his right. “And be ambushed by gorillas, if they be about. Or be seen as marauders intent on attacking. This path swings around the hills onto a long level approach. We are afforded a good view about us. Also, best we give the village plenty of time to put eyes on us. We passed the signal stand a ways back, no doubt leaving some in Trivale anxious. Our Lords are hoping that by staying on the marked path the anxiety will be tempered some.”
“Are all roads to villages constructed so?” Eriq asked, to which Old Cook nodded yes.
“Well, we never took the long way into villages before.” Eriq countered.
“We never entered into inhabited villages until now.” Michael said, riding behind Old Cook. “It’s why I have signal powder left. I’d no chance til now to use it. Disappointing we are in a hurry.”
“Oh, stop your belly aching!” Stephan shouted back towards Michael. “We are about to have our first real rest in months. I’ll put a warm meal, a warm room, and a soft bed ahead of playing with smoke any day.”
Old Cook snorted at Stephan’s comment.
“You’ll end up on the floor.” he shouted back, “so used to sleeping on ground, hard and cold, these past years.” eliciting laughs from most of the company. Samuel was too intent on the road ahead, with the wind taking away the voices from behind. Richard, a scowl on his face since their meal, did offer a smile. But it quickly disappeared when his cousin raised an arm signaling for a stop. He hastened his mount through the company to join Samuel.
“We have a greeting party.”
Richard looked down the path which had completed its long, gradual turn to the south and now ran straight to the village. Midway down the road to Trivale stood a group of people alongside a towering obelisk. Richard took out his looking glass and examined the party waiting.
“I see only two, cousin.” Richard said softly “Both women. One large, a red head, with a sword that reminds me of the Southern Barbarians. She looks….” he paused, seeming to consider his word, “unhappy.  The other, slight, no weapon. She has her hood up.” He looked to Samuel. “Tell the men: under no circumstances are they to draw their weapons unless expressly ordered by me.”
“Cousin?” Samuel questioned. “Is that wise? If there are gorillas about we will need to be quick.”
“Yes!” Richard responded strenuously under his breath. “Eriq has not reported any scent.” he paused, looking sternly into his cousin’s eyes “It is an order.” he continued, not releasing Samuel’s eyes. “Trust me.” he finished.
“As you command, my Captain.” Samuel answered formally, his face flat and emotionless as he turned and rode back to the others.
“And I will take the lead.” Richard stated, to which Samuel nodded in acknowledgment without turning.
“My Lord, what is it?” Old Cook asked, a look of concern on his face. “Is there danger?”
“It doesn’t appear so.” Samuel answered simply as he looked over the men. “But the Captain has ordered that no weapons shall be drawn under any circumstances, except by his direct order.”
Old Cook gave Samuel a hard, long look. Finally, he nodded his head in acceptance. “Aye, My Lord. We’ll await his order.”
“What is going on?” Eriq asked, a look of confusion on his face. Samuel turned his horse towards the young man, a stern look on his face, opening his mouth as if to say something.
“Soldier!” Old Cook interjected, startling both Samuel and Eriq. “You’ve been given an order, and you’ll follow it!” he said sharply, giving the young man a severe stare. Eriq, eyes wide from shock, simply nodded his head. “All of you heard the Lieutenant, no weapons drawn except on the Captain’s order.” Michael and Stefan nodded in understanding, steeling their faces against whatever emotions they had, while Eriq blanched red-faced in embarrassment. Old Cook continued to stare at the young man until he too nodded. Samuel looked on until he was satisfied, then turned his horse back to the south.
“The order has been given, Captain.” he said formally to his cousin’s back.
“Good.” Richard responded, putting down his spyglass and placing it in a pocket. “You take the rear Lieutenant. The rest of you, two by two. I will take the lead. I want silence the rest of the way.”
The Captain urged his mount forward slowly, the rest of the men responding without a pause, following him. None spoke, nor looked about. None, that is, except Samuel who continually looked for any possible ambush. In this manner they closed the distance between themselves and the two women standing by the obelisk.

“They’re on the move again.” Rasha said, gripping the hilt of her sword until her knuckles turned white. “Damn fool thing, sending you out here with me, and no weapon on you.” she grumbled.
“I am here to keep you calm.” Amaru said, her face hidden from the wind and from eyes. “As much as I disagree with his choice, Father is the Elder, I will do his bidding.”
“You honor your father.” Rasha said stiffly, as if the words were bitter tasting. Around them the wind swirled, dancing dust about their legs as it scurried north down the road. “He should be proud of you.”
“Honor?” Amaru replied. “None would call my treatment of Father honorable. But I love him. He deserves better than how I treat him.”
The large red head sighed, relaxing the tension from her sword hilt.
“Is that not the way of it?” she replied to the slight woman. “We love our family, yet we seem more intent on arguing.” she chuckled lightly. “But than, they are not exactly bereft of fault. They seem just as intent in arguing as us.”
“Perhaps you have not paid much attention to Lous, my father.” said Amaru, turning her hooded head to make eye contact with Rasha. “If so, can you recall a time he ever argued with me?”
A bluster of air whipped Rasha’s red hair about as she appeared to think, then nodded with just the smallest of grins on her face.
“No, I actually can’t.” she answered. “I’d ask the same of you, but we both know the answer to that.” she finished, chuckling to herself. “Bale and I are always arguing.”
“It is but bluster.” Amaru stated, turning back to look at the approaching men, and not joining Rasha in chuckling. “There is no discernable animosity between you.”
“That is true.” the red head acknowledged as she too resumed watching the riders. “But it is the way of our Kin. We are a people known for constant bickering.”
“Kin?” Amaru asked, perplexity tinting her voice. “I have heard you refer to kin before, but always it seems beyond mere family.” she turned again to look at Rasha, the fur lining of her hood buffeted by the cold wind. “Bale is family?” she finished hesitantly.
“Forgive me, Amaru, I speak of a past that is no longer.” she looked down at the snow that blew in swirls past her feet. “We are not family.”
“All these years you’ve been living in Trivale, and I’ve heard more about you in the last few minutes.” Amaru said, once again turning to watch the riders. “And yet I still know nothing.”
“Not even that I am your friend?” Rasha asked.
“That is about us, not about you.” the slight woman responded. “But yes, that I know. And I know you will protect Trivale and all it’s people with your last breath.”
“Than you know more than nothing.” The red head stated, drawing her sword as the lead rider pulled his mount to a stop in front of them.

Richard looked upon the two woman, the large red head with the sword drawn and the slight woman who’s face was obscured by her hood. Behind him his men sat stony faced on their mounts, awaiting orders. He too waited, also showing no emotions, as the red headed woman scowled at the company. The wind tugged and pulled at their remnants, eager in it’s travel to wear them down, strip them of protection. Finally, it was the slight, hooded woman who stepped forward.
“Welcome strangers to Trivale.” she said formally, bowing slightly. “We would extend hospitality to weary, haggard travels such as yourselves.”
The Captain looked on, saying nothing, showing nothing on his face. Finally he dismounted and stepped forward of his horse. Kneeling on his right leg, he reached around with his right hand and grasped the hilt of his sword from underneath, bowing as he removed it from it’s sheath and placed it on the snow-crusted road, it’s end pointing to the east. His neck was exposed to Rasha’s sword.
“We are honored to accept your hospitality” he answered formally as he maintained the bow.
Rasha looked, the scowl still on her face. She then looked up at the men still mounted, her eyes shifting from rider to rider. Amaru remained still, the hood of her coat hiding her emotions. About them all the wind swirled and whined, as if irritated by this delay in it’s efforts at eroding them down. Finally, with a nod of her head, the large woman sheathed her sword.
Richard looked up at the two women while behind him the palatable relief managed to fight the wind and join his. Without changing the hold on his sword he replaced it in it’s sheath and took his feet.
“We are grateful for the welcome.” Richard continued formally, bowing slightly, keeping his eyes on the slight woman. “I am Richard, Captain of the company. “Behind me are Stefan, Michael, Eriq, and Kevin. In the rear is my Lieutenant, Samuel.”
“I am Amaru, daughter of Lous, who is an Elder of Trivale and a member of the council.” she responded, returning in same a slight bow.” On his behalf I welcome you to our village. Come, let us lead you to the inn. Bale awaits with food, drink, and a warm fire.”
“It is with pleasure that on behalf of my men and myself I accept the honor of your hospitality.” Richard replied.
“Rasha,” Amaru said to the red-headed woman, “would you retrieve our horses?”
Rash grunted in acknowledgment as she turned and trudged through the snow around the base of the obelisk and disappeared from sight.
“I was wondering if we were going to learn her name.” Eriq whispered to Old Cook.”
“I need no name.” the veteran growled, giving the young man a severe look that startled him. “It is enough to know she is a Southern Barbarian.”
“You will hold your tongue Kevin!” Richard said tersely as he glared at Old Cook. “We are far from safe country, and in need of help.” he continued, now sharing his glare with all the company while Amaru stared on in shock and Samuel, a look of concern on his face, moved his mount through the company to come along side his cousin. “The campaign against the Barbarians is long over. Have you forgotten the reason of our straights?”
Richard turned to his cousin.
“Lieutenant, you will lead.” he said curtly. “And remind them they are soldiers of the Old Northern Kingdom.” Abruptly he urged his mount to the rear of the company and waited. Amaru continued to stand silently, watching, her reaction hidden by her hood.
“Men, take your stations!” Samuel barked, looking sternly upon the men. He watched as the company arranged itself tightly two by two, with Richard centered behind. Looking satisfied once they settled into place Samuel turned his mount to face south, centered in front of the company.
“Lady Amaru, we await your lead.” he said formally.
Rasha came back around the obelisk leading two horses; one a large stead adorned with an ornate leather saddle designed to carry many weapons, and the other a smaller mount bred for simple country riding. She scowled as she caught sight of the formation, as if she sensed the conflict among them. Swinging the animals to the south she aided Amaru onto the smaller horse, then mounted the war horse.
Without word Amaru urged her mount forward and the two women lead the formation of Old Northern Kingdom soldiers into Trivale.