Brann reined in his horse and stared across the clearing. After a few moments he began to curse, quietly and viciously. The cursing continued as he rode over to inspect the ruins of the turf-roofed bothy, finding, as he had expected, the dead bodies of the occupants nearby, mown down by arrow and sword in their flight. He saw the open gate of the cattle pen and the churned up path made by the animals’ hooves and the hoofprints of the horses of the men who had driven them away. And, trampled into the mud by the passing hooves, another body. A boy of about ten, his head almost severed from his body by the savage side-swipe of a sword, his cattle-tally still clutched in his lifeless hand. Brann felt sickness and fury rise in him. He half turned in the saddle and shouted “Tarn!” His friend came riding in from the Forest, and grimaced at the bloody scene. “It is the Dark One’s mercenaries again!” Brann said. “They will not fight against Swordsmen, but they are very brave against such foes as this!” He indicated the victims. “Old folks, pregnant women, and children.” He cursed again. “Where is the man of this place?” “Away, or taken prisoner”, Tarn answered.

The two young men slid from horseback and went to examine the bodies. The boy and the old couple were obviously dead, but the woman, though a black arrow was embedded in her back, groaned as they touched her. She was still alive, though barely. Brann said “Can we get her to the camp, to the Healer? Or bring him here?” Tarn considered. “One journey there, or two there and back? She is like to die whichever we do. But if we get her to the Healer in time, he may save the babe in her belly.” “Then let you take her to him” Brann said, “and I will see to the bodies. I have known the Dark One’s followers do foul things to the dead. I would prevent that, if I may.” As carefully as possible they carried the wounded woman to the horses. Tarn mounted and took her in the crook of his arm, riding off as quickly as he dared with such a burden. When his friend had gone, Brann turned to his sad task, deciding to carry the bodies into the ruined bothy and pull the remains down over them as a grave-mound, until they could be decently buried. Thinking to get the worst over with first, he took off his cloak and went to the cattle pen, where he wrapped the blood-soaked, mud-plastered corpse of the boy from head to foot, tightly and with great care. He was very much afraid that that hideously-lolling head would fall away completely. He was carrying the piteous bundle back to the bothy when he heard a shout, and turned to see a man at the edge of the celaring, a large bundle of sticks on his shoulder.

Dropping his bundle, the man gazed round wildly. Brann laid down the boy’s body and made a move towards the man, but before he could speak, the other launched himself at Brann, knife in hand, screaming “Murderer!” It was a perilous situation, for Brann dared not use his sword lest he should kill or seriously wound the man, yet was himself in danger from the knife. Somehow he managed to avoid the knife and grasp the man’s wrist, grappling with him, tightening his grip till the knife dropped to the ground. All the time he was shouting at the man, trying to penetrate his despairing fury, but in vain. Once disarmed, though, the man suddenly lost all fight. Staring at Brann with wild, wide eyes set in a face white with grief, the man panted, “Kill me too, then – since you have destroyed all I loved!” Brann, still holding him firmly, gave the man a little shake and said, not unkindly, “Listen to me, man! I did not do this thing! I only found the place so, and was laying the bodies to rest.” “Then what were you stealing?” the man demanded. “I was stealing nothing”, Brann retorted. “It was the child – the boy. I did not want – whoever cared for him – to see him so.” The man’s wild eyes filled suddenly with tears, and he gave a deep groan that seemed to come from the depths of his soul. “My son? My Kerith?”he asked, dazedly, going limp in Brann’s grasp and sinking to his knees.

Brann knelt beside him, putting a comforting arm round the man’s shoulders as they leaned over the pathetic little bundle. “Unwrap him”, the man said at last. Brann protested “Better you do not see him so – better to remember him as he was.” “No!” the other answered. “Better I do see him so, that the memory will give me more strength to hate those who did this. I will find them and kill them for it, I swear!” Silently, unwillingly, Brann unwrapped the corpse. The boy’s father gave one cry of horror that stabbed through Brann’s heart and mind. Then he cradled the ruined little body in his arms and collapsed with it, sobbing, to the ground. Brann rose, leaving the man to his grief, keeping guard over him, hand on sword-hilt, lest there should still be danger. At last the man was done, for now, with mourning his son and, refusing Brann’s help, wrapped the dead boy again in the cloak and carried him into the bothy. He stopped to weep again for the old couple before he and Brann laid them beside the boy. Then, as if suddenly realising, he cried, “But where is my wife, my Lyrine? Oh, gods, if they have taken her…” “No”, Brann said, very gently. “We found her too, wounded and barely alive. My friend has taken her to our Healer. But I doubt she will live.” The man looked up at him. “I love my wife, Swordsman. I left my people, and she hers, for our love. But I would rather she were dead than alive in the hands of those -” he spat out a foul word. “Let us finish our work here and I will take you to her”, Brann told him.

“I am sorry I attacked you”, the other said, ” but I thought you were one of them. You have been kind, to me and mine. I will not forget. Tell me your name, that I may remember you.” “I am Brann of the Forest”, Brann said. “And you?” “I am Marvis. Once I belonged to the people of the Mountains, as my Lyrine belonged to your people. But she and her parents ” – he glanced towards the bodies of the old couple – ” accepted me with love and kindness, and we lived together here, half-way between Mountain and Forest.” As they turned to the task of pulling down the ruined home-place to make a temporary grave-mound for the three bodies, Brann said, “Once your people and mine were enemies, and our ways are different. Yet though we are still wary of each other, we have lived at peace for six generations now, and I think it is time that we spoke together about the Darkness that has come upon us. If the people of Li’is are divided, the Darkness will prosper. If we make an alliance against it, we may defeat it. ” “I would gladly fight with you against the Dark One, Brann of the Forest. I was a Swordsman and a hunter once, though I have been a tender of land and cattle since I wed Lyrine.”

Marvis’ horse had been stolen by the raiders, and they had to share Brann’s mount as they rode back to Brann’s father’s camp. As they reached it, Tarn came towards them, and Brann quickly explained Marvis’ presence, then asked “Tarn, what of the woman – Marvis’ wife?” Tarn shook his head. “I am sorry, Marvis – she is dying. The Healer is with her.” They took Marvis to the Healer’s tent. Lyrine had been made as comfortable as possible, and the Healer was at her side, keeping careful watch over her. Tarn said, “Healer, this is her husband.” The Healer laid a gentle hand on Marvis’ arm. “There is nothing I can do for her. I am sorry”, he said. “But once it is over, I may save the babe – if you go quickly, and leave me to my work. Do you understand?” “Yes”, Marvis said, quietly. “Thank you.” He knelt beside the dying woman and held her in his arms, murmuring endearments, kissing her face. Lyrine’s eyelids fluttered. She managed to look once into her husband’s face, she gasped as though she was trying to speak, and then she went limp, lifeless in his arms, eyes staring sightlessly upward. “Quickly now!” the Healer commanded urgently. “Brann, Tarn, take him away.” They were afraid Marvis would cling to his beloved dead, but he had understood the Healer’s commands and went with them. Outside the tent they tried to comfort him, but all their thoughts were on what was happening inside the tent, as the Healer fought to save the dead woman’s unborn child. At last, they heard the thin, protesting cry of a newborn child. The tent-flap opened, and the Healer stood there. There was blood on his robe, and on his hands, but in those hands lay a small babe, a boy-child, also blood-smeared, but alive, his cries growing louder and stronger as they listened. Marvis gave a little cry and reached out for his newborn son, holding the tiny, living body close to him. With tears in his eyes he stared at the babe, and then at the Healer. “You have brought life out of death for me this day”, Marvis told the Healer, his voice shaking with emotion. ” I thought I had lost all that I loved – but this child is left to me, because of your skill. And your kindness “, he added, speaking to Brann and Tarn.

In the days that followed, they helped Marvis bury his dead, and his baby son – named Lyris after his mother – was put into the care of a kindly woman who nursed him with her own babe. The child thrived, and Marvis had time to grieve for those he had lost, and then begin to make plans for the future. Brann, meanwhile, had been speaking to his father, the Lord of the Forest and the Harbour, about his ideas concerning an alliance against the Dark One. “We have had no quarrel with the Mountain folk for six generations”, Brann said. “And for two, they, like us, have been under this Dark One’s dominion. You are Lord of the Harbour – but who holds the Harbour? Who holds our town there, and patrols the Forest edges? We are hiding here in camps in the Forest, as Marvis’ folk are hiding in the Mountains. Neither of our peoples is strong enough – alone. But together – together, my father, we might defeat his forces.” “An alliance?” his father asked. “And who will lead it? And how shall we find the Mountain folk to propose this alliance, since they are hiding in the Mountains? If we go among their Mountains, they may think we come to attack them – even, that we are some of the Dark One’s creatures.” “We will send Marvis with our message.” Brann said. “He wishes, now, to return to his own people. He has lost his Lyrine, and there is nothing to keep him among us now that she is gone. He feels the memories may be less painful if he is away from the place where it all happened. Oh, he is not ungrateful, my father. But he is lonely, and hurt, and he needs to be with his old friends – which does not mean he will forget the new ones. When the babe is strong enough, he will be on his way. And he will take any message we may have for the Lord of the Mountains.”

“Which still does not answer my other question. Do not think I am opposed to your idea, Brann my son. I too am weary of hiding and oppression. Still, we need to consider this carefully. Who will lead, and who follow? Our people, and those of the Mountains, are brave, but proud. I do not think either will give way to the other.” “There is no need”, Brann said. “We cannot risk either you or the Lord of the Mountains in battle. There must be someone still to lead our peoples, if the alliance should fail. Let us propose to the Lord of the Mountains that we send two equal forces, under two equal leaders – the Heir of the Forest and the Heir of the Mountains. We shall be allies, making joint decisions. If the Lord of the Mountains and his Heir feel as you and I do, there should be no problem.” “And what is this joint force to do? You talk of defeating the Dark One, but how?” “There is only one thing we can do. Somehow, we must attack the Dark City.” “Brann, my son! This Dark Lord has powers we cannot understand. When he first appeared in Li’is, men fought against him, and were defeated, and brought into slavery. He overcame their city, and turned it into his dark fortress. No one knows where he came from, and some say he is not born of Li’is at all. He is no ordinary enemy, and brave as you and our men are, and those of the Mountains, you may be no match for him.” “Yet we can try! Father, how many men have been killed or enslaved, children slaughtered, women and maidens raped and tortured, goods and lands stolen, by his mercenaries and in his name? We are Swordsmen of Li’is, and if we do nothing to try to stop this thing, we are no Swordsmen at all. I will march against this tyrant, dark powers or no, if I have to go alone!” “Not alone”, said a voice from the doorway of the tent. Tarn stood there, with Marvis beside him, smiling at Brann. “Marvis and I at least will march with you. Is it not so?” he asked his companion. Marvis nodded, but grimly, not smiling like Tarn. “Aye. I owe a blood debt to the Dark Lord.” “Very well”, Brann’s father answered. “You are willing to take a message to your Lord for us, Marvis?” “Yes, I will take the message. He knows I am loyal to him, though I left the Mountains for Lyrine’s sake.”

“Do you think your people will be willing to fight the Dark Lord? They may be afraid of his powers.” Brann’s father said. Marvis replied “Some of our people believe in the old gods still, yet they have failed us. If their power is so little, why should his be greater? I do not believe in sorcery.” “Yet there are stories…” “No doubt spread to frighten us, and keep him in power”, Tarn said. Tarn was a sceptic as far as matters of faith were concerned. Brann had his own ideas. “If it is true that there is a dark power”, he said, “then it seems to me that there must also be, somewhere, a power of light. If there were only darkness in the world, where would love and honour and courage and joy come from? And if we are determined to fight against the darkness, it may be that the light will aid us.” “Well, it may be so”, his father answered. “We are agreed then, on sending a message to the Lord of the Mountains?” Without waiting for an answer , he reached into a small casket which stood on his folding table and produced a little writing scroll, a carved pen, and a cut-down, hollowed and stoppered horn containing ink made from the blackish juice of a purple Forest berry. With them he wrote the message which Marvis was to carry, using not the Old Tongue, but the common speech of all Li’is. “From the Lord of the Forest and of the Harbour to the Lord of the Mountains, greetings. We send you this message by Marvis of the Mountain people, who will tell you of the evil that has befallen him at the hands of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries. It seems to us that since there has been peace between our peoples for many years, since before the Dark One’s coming, and since each of our peoples has suffered under him, we should unite in opposition to him. We are proposing that there should be a meeting between us to discuss this matter, and that the Lord and his Heir of the Forest and Harbour and the Lord and his Heir of the Mountains, with a small number of trusted men, should come together to talk. Since we of the Forest are proposing the meeting, we will leave the choosing of the place for it to you of the Mountains, if you agree to come.” Having signed the scroll, he gave it to Brann, who read it aloud, then asked. “Do you think that will be acceptable to your Lord, Marvis?” “I believe so. It is a fair offer”, Marvis said, “even to his choosing the meeting place.”

It was a few weeks before Marvis was ready to leave for the Mountains with his baby son. Brann and Tarn went with him to the edge of the camp. Marvis had Lyris slung in a carrying-cradle on his back, his small bundle of possessions in his hand, and the vital message to the Lord of the Mountains tucked inside the breast of his shirt. Brann and Tarn wished their new friend well with his journey, and took a regretful leave of him, but Marvis said, with a look at once smiling and determined. “You are not rid of me yet, my friends! I will be back to fight alongside you.” In fact , it was only about ten days before Marvis returned, wearing strangely-cut clothing and riding one of the nimble-footed horses of the Mountains. He was welcomed by all, reassured Lyris’ erstwhile foster-mother that his son was doing well in the Mountains, then said to Brann, “I bring my Lord’s reply to your father. He is in favour of a meeting.” “You were well-received, then?” “Yes, indeed – though there have been some changes – some sad changes- since I left the Mountains. But that is for others to tell, not me.” They had reached Brann’s father’s tent by now, and went in to deliver the message. The Lord of the Mountains, after the customary greetings, had written,”Marvis has told us of the help and friendship he has received among your people and your kindness in his time of need. For this I send you my own thanks, since he is, though I believe he has not told you so, a kinsman of mine. For your proposal, we agree to the meeting, and that it is time to make a stand against this enemy. If we can agree together, it will be good to make this alliance. Since you give us choice of meeting place, we believe it would be safest to meet at our Fortress Cave, high on the Mountain. Come with your company to the Axehead Rock above the Marsh, which marks our boundaries, and Marvis will conduct you from there. After dark, two days from receiving this, is the time of meeting.” “When they had read this, Marvis said “Someone will need to come with us to tend the horses. Part of the journey cannot be made on horseback.” “That is easily arranged”, Brann assured him. “How many men shall we take ? How many will the Lord of the Mountain bring?” “About twenty” Marvis said. “Where is the Healer, Brann? I have a gift for him, from my Lord.” Tarn, who was with them, went out to find the Healer, and Brann asked, “And you are his kinsman, Marvis?” “Just a cousin, Brann. But since the Dark One came, Tamor has lost many of his kinsmen- and some of his closest.”

Tarn returned with the Healer, who enquired eagerly after the babe. “He is growing fast” Marvis said. “Every time I look at him I thank you in my heart, Healer.” For a moment his eyes misted, then he said, “See, I have brought you a gift from the Mountains.” He had been holding on his arm a pannier basket he had taken from his mount. Now he removed the lid and offered the contents for the Healer’s inspection. To Brann’s uninitiated eyes they were an unimpressive collection of crumpled leaves, withered flowers and muddy roots, but the Healer received the offering with a cry of joy. “Blueroot!” he exclaimed, rummaging in the basket, “And starweed, waterbread, bitterherb – ah!” in delight, finding a handful of crumpled pods, whose dark berries gave off a very strong, sweet smell – ” even sweetwood! Thank you, Marvis. These are treasures indeed!” The Dark One steals the treasures of every people”, Marvis commented, “but in Healing he takes no delight. The healing herbs still grow safely in the Mountains.” “Once we could trade for them safely too”, Brann’s father said, ” but now the Dark One’s spies are everywhere, and even if something is of no value to him, they will despoil it for the pleasure of it. Guard your herbs well, Marvis.” The Healer, still exclaiming with pleasure, carried away his basket of treasures to pound, dry, infuse, or otherwise prepare for use. It was clear that he would have a busy and happy few days. For the others, though, the meeting and proposed alliance loomed large.

Brann’s father left it to him to choose who to take, and he and Tarn sat under a tree at the edge of the camp, giving an appearance of casual ease, as they discussed the matter. It was obvious that Tarn would be one of the party. He and Brann were Sword-Brethren, had been friends since childhood, as long as either of them could remember. But who else, of all their friends and Sword-Brethren , to take? Brann sat with his back against the tree and his knees drawn up in front of him, leaning slightly forward, which caused his dark hair to flop into his grey eyes as he frowned in concentration. The frown and the strong, square bones of his face, made him look quite belligerent. Tarn, who was sprawling on the grass, looked merely puzzled. He had a rather long, narrow face that could have looked gloomy save that his habitual expression was cheerful and friendly. He had light brown hair and hazel eyes, and in general his appearance led casual acquaintances to consider him a pleasant but rather ingenuous fellow. In this they were wrong, for Tarn was clever and quick-witted, not easily deceived, and though he was a loyal friend, he did not give his friendship lightly, though he treated all he met with equal courtesy. “Erris, for one”, Brann said, and Tarn agreed. Erris was cool-headed, diplomatic, but dogged. “That means Yarris too”, Tarn added, for the brothers were inseparable. “Celon has a good head, too” Brann went on, knowing that Tarn would not push forward his own cousin, Sword-Brethren though they were, as well as kinsmen. He sighed. “And I suppose I must take my own two cousins, though they are so impetuous!” “But honourable, and brave”, Tarn said. “Jamin and Javan will not shame you, Brann.” “That is five”, Brann said, considering. “Roth?” “Maybe” Tarn said, “but he may have other things on his mind.” He grinned as he spoke, for Roth was soon to be wed. “Perhaps someone older, for counsel”, Brann suggested. “The Healer?” “We could not take him away from the camp”, Tarn argued. “His apprentices are not as skilled as he. Perhaps we should take one of them, though – it might be as well to have a Healer with us.” “Not Marama. We cannot take a maiden”, Brann pondered. “Forin, then”, Tarn said, decisively, and when Brann stared at him, he said, “Yes, I know he is quiet, and shy. But that is his advantage , Brann. I know of no one in the camp, apart from the most skilled hunters, who can move as quickly and quietly as Forin. And he is clever – very clever, in his own way. He can find the strangest solutions to problems- and they work.” “I will take your word for it”, Brann said. “Very well, then. Erris and Yarris, Celon, Jamin, Javan, Forin – and you and I. That is eight, and Marvis said about twenty. Who else?” “Does Marvis fight for us, or for the Mountains?” Tarn asked. “Both – and neither”, Brann said. “He is the link between us. We cannot claim him, Tarn. If with any, he fights with the Mountains, but for his own revenge. I think he will not be truly part of either company.” “Let us assume Roth will come”, Brann continued. “My father leads us, and does not count. Tavan, Linnath and Aldaran.” “Tavan and Javan do not always agree”, Tarn commented, “though they are kinsmen.” “If they cannot agree on something as important as this, I will knock their thick heads together!” Brann said, wrathfully. “I need them – the Forest needs them!”

“You suggested elders, for counsel”, Tarn reminded him. “If Kolar will come, that is enough”, Brann said. “He and my father between them hold most of the wisdom of our people.” “Not Sain?” “He is wise, but timid. I think he would not do well if there were a dispute. Oh, of course! We must have Varil!” Brann exclaimed , naming the Sword-Trainer. “Then not his son”, Tarn said. “The Sword-Training must go on.” “And what of the New Swords?” Brann asked. “We have not considered them.” “Should we leave out experienced men to make way for New Swords?” “Ordinarily, no. But I remember Varil saying that there were some promising Swordsmen in the last batch. That tall, red-haired lad, for example – what is his name?” “Larik, I think. Perhaps we should consult Varil.” Brann agreed, and they went to see Varil. Explaining about their plans for an alliance, and the proposed meeting, they first asked him to join them, then asked his opinion on their list of candidates. “You are putting a lot of care into this meeting, Brann.” Varil commented, shrewdly. Brann looked sideways at the grizzled, rugged man and said, slowly, “It is my thought that this company may be the heart of our fighting force, Varil. ” The Sword-Trainer nodded. “I thought it might be.” “We wanted to know about the New Swords. You said one or two had special skill- Larik, was it – the red-headed one?” “Aye. And Gern, the little, quick, dark one. He can make the sword dance in his hand. Not too much inexperience, though, on a task like this.” Varil’s tawny eyes half-closed in thought. “Your Marvis is not the first man to leave the Mountains for love of a Forest maiden.” he said. “Kenan is half of Mountain blood, and knows some of the ways of the Mountains – take him. And do not rely wholly on swords. You, Tarn, are a good archer,as well as a Swordsman. I would take others.” Brann ran through the tally of his Swordsmen, in his head. “Erlin has some bow-skill”, he said, “and a way with horses, which might be useful. Rais?” “Not Rais, if you will take my advice”, Varil said. “He can be clumsy.” “Aman” ,Tarn said, “is my equal with the bow.” “But not with the sword”, Brann answered. “You are seeking bowmen now, not Swordsmen”, Varil reminded him. “Harin and Harith”, Tarn suggested. “They are hunters”, Brann said. “Exactly”, Varil answered him. “Good bowmen, fast runners, silent movers, skilled trackers, and quick and clean with a knife. Swordsmanship is not the only skill, Brann. Be wary that you do not take too much pride in your own skills and look down on those which are different.” Brann acknowledged the truth of the Sword-Trainer’s words, then said, “Let this be our company, then.” He checked them off on his fingers as he spoke. “My father leads us. For counsel, Kolar, and you, Varil. Swordsmen – you and I, Tarn, then Erris and Yarris, Celon, Jamin and Javan, Roth, Tavan, Linnath, Aldaran, and Larik and Gern of the New Swords. Kenan, for Mountain lore, and Forin, for Healer. And bowmen – you again, Tarn, Erlin, Aman, and Harin and Harith for their hunting skills also.” “It seems good to me” ,Tarn said. “Well-balanced.” “To me also”, Varil said. Brann grinned suddenly. “Then all I have to do is persuade them to come!”

In truth, there was not much persuading to do. Everyone was angry at the Dark Lord’s continuing robbery and domination of their towns and lands, and their apparent inability to do anything about it.The chance which Brann now offered them to at least retaliate against their foe, stirred them all. Even Roth, the bridegroom-to-be, was eager to join them. And so, at the appointed time, led by Marvis, they set out for the rendezvous. In elder times, when men spoke the Old Tongue, such an embassy would have of courtesy gone under truce and unarmed, but in these days, with the peril of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries always in mind, there was dispensation, and they went armed with swords, knives, and the shorter bows and stubbier arrows that served better in the Forest thickets than the traditional, more elegant ones. Skirting round the wide, disease-ridden swamp that was the flood plain of the White River, they made their way through thick forest to the Axehead Rock. The huge, wedge-shaped rock, named for its shape, stood in the River’s course, and split off from the main River a small branch rivulet, which slipped down through the trees of the Forest, and was the water supply for Brann’s camp. The Rock marked the boundary between the Forest people and the Mountain folk, and once they were above it, though still in the Forest, they were in strange territory. Here the trees were less dense, and they could see more of the reddish-brown carpet of last year’s leaves overlying the rich black earth which their horses’ hooves churned up. The ground began to rise steeply, and Marvis led them silently upward through the humid shade of the trees, following the course of the River, speaking only to warn them of dangers such as animal holes or the twining, hook-thorned ground-vines, which might cause a horse to fall. As they rode on, Brann became aware of a dull, rushing sound. At first he was not sure that it was not the sound of his own blood in his ears, for he was hot and slightly breathless in the still, humid air. But the noise grew louder and deeper. He called to Marvis, who was riding just a little in front, “Marvis, what is that noise?” “It is the Falls of Vandar”, Marvis said, and glanced up through the trees at the sky. “It is near sunset, and we must be there before nightfall. It is not a climb to be made in the dark.”

Marvis quickened his pace, and they followed. The roaring, rushing noise grew thunderously loud, and at last they rounded one final huge clump of trees, and saw the source. It was cataract in full spate, a wall of white water pouring smoking and roaring over an almost sheer cliff. At the foot of the cliff it flowed frothing and bubbling over stones to run away as the White River. It was an amazing, awe-inspiring sight. Marvis let them admire the majestic spectacle for a few minutes, before he pointed to one side of the Falls and said, “There lies our path. We must leave the horses now.” They followed his pointing finger and saw that there was a rough brushwood corral set up ready for them There were already one or two mounts there, and two lads watching them. Marvis rode across and spoke to them, then returned to say, “The lads will guard the horses. Tamor thinks it best that all your company are present at our meeting. He has sent some of his company ahead to welcome us. The rest will be here soon. Hurry, we must go up before dark.””Up where?” Tarn asked, as they trotted towards the corral.”Up the Stairway”, Marvin answered, pointing again to the side of the Falls. Brann saw then that a faint pathway led up the side of the cliff, taking advantage of a shallow cleft in the rock, with here and there a foothold cut out where there was no natural hold to be had. Though the cliff was not too high for a man to climb, it was very steep, and the path looked a rough and perilous “Stairway” indeed. Once up there, though, they would be safe against any attack, since one man might defend the head of the Stairway against all comers. Marvis started up the steep Stairway, and one by one they followed him. The fitness and stamina of the Forest men stood them in good stead now, even the older men, Varil, Kolar, and Baran, Brann’s father, making the climb without problems.As they reached the top of the Stairway, two of the Mountain men, in clothes like Marvis’, were waiting for them, and greeted them courteously. Brann looked around him. They were standing on a wide, grassy shelf. To one side ran the river that fed the cataract, bubbling up from underground, under the rocky wall of the mountainside that backed the shelf. The shelf led a long way back, and where it ended was a huge cave in the mountainside, originally natural, but bearing signs of enlargement. Several wooden buildings were built on to this natural shelter, and a strong wooden stockade, with thick gates, now open but guarded, surrounded the whole. “This is the Fortress Level”, Marvis explained, and that is our Fortress Cave.”

“We should be safe enough here”, Baran commented. “Is there any other way to this place?” “Many years ago there was a pathway up the flank of the Mountain, but when the Dark One came, my people sealed it off with a fall of rock. The only other way to it now is over the Mountain by the Spearcleft Pass, and that is narrow enough for a small body of men to guard.” It was now growing dark, and they headed for the shelter of the Fortress Cave. Tarn asked “Will the Lord of the Mountains make the climb in the dark?” “No”, Marvis said. “He is above us on the Mountain. We mostly stay between the Falls and the Pass, nowadays.” Entering the cave, they saw that part of it had been closed in , with walls of rock and timber and a wooden roof, to make a Hall. Into this Marvis conducted them. There was a fire, for though the weather was hot the cave was cool, especially now that the sun had set. The two men who had accompanied them lit torches at the fire and placed them in sconces round the walls. A long, rough-hewn table surrounded by benches stood in the middle of the Hall, ready for the discussions. As they stood looking round the Hall, there was a sound of talking and the tread of booted feet outside, and Marvis said, “My Lord has arrived.” They all swung round to face the entrance, and waited. A burly, grey-haired man strode into the Hall, smiling. He had such an open, honest face that they warmed to him at once. Behind him a slim figure, cloaked and hooded so that they saw little of his face, led in the rest of the company of Mountain men. Baran stepped forward. “Tamor, Lord of the Mountains? I am Baran, Lord of the Forest and the Harbour.” “Welcome”, the other said, in a deep rich voice. ” It is time there was peace and friendship between us – especially since we face one common enemy.” There was a pause as some of the Mountain men brought food to the table for the Friendship Meal ; rough bread and cheese, dried meat of the food beasts hunted here, mountain berries, sour wine – for the Dark Lord and his mercenaries took the best of what was to be had. The two Lords seated themselves opposite each other, the two Heirs, with their men, at either end. The torchlight was dim, and it was not easy to distinguish faces. Still, Brann, who was naturally curious to see his counterpart, found it almost impossible to catch a glimpse of the face of the Heir of the Mountains. When they had eaten together, thus confirming their new friendship, the discussions proper began.

Baran called Brann forward, and said,” The proposal we had was this: two equal and allied forces, under two equal commanders – the Heir of the Forest and the Heir of the Mountains. This is Brann, my son, the Heir.” Tamor smiled at Brann, and said, strangely, “Well, we shall see.” He beckoned to the slim, cloaked figure, who came to his side. “The Heir of the Mountains”, he said, nodding to his Heir. The cloak was flung back, and there stood – to Brann’s astonishment – a girl. She wore men’s clothes, and a sword at her side, her honey-coloured hair was pulled carelessly back and pinned close to her head, but undoubtedly she was a girl – a not unattractive one, too, Brann thought, bemusedly. He must have looked slightly scornful, for the girl frowned, her nostrils flaring slightly, and her hazel-green eyes glared at him. A low, hostile murmur ran through the Forest men, and Tavan, never diplomatic, hissed, “It is a trick!” The girl lifted her head and stared at them challengingly. “It is no trick”, she said, in a firm, measured voice, rather deep for a girl, that surprised Brann. “You asked for the Heir of the Mountains, and that is who I am.” Still, her assurance somehow nettled Brann, and he asked, “Has the Lord of the Mountains no male kin, then?” He was instantly remorseful when Tamor answered , “I had male kin, yes. My son, Tamorine’s father, and his brother were killed fighting the Dark One’s forces. Tamran, her brother, disappeared in pursuit of other of his mercenaries, and since that was years ago, is presumed dead also. Tamorine is all that remains to me.” There was no anger in his voice towards Brann, who flushed for shame, and exclaimed, “Oh, Lord Tamor, Lady Tamorine, forgive me! My words were graceless and dishonourable!” Tamorine said nothing, though she smiled faintly – more at his discomfiture, Brann felt, than in sign of forgiveness. Tamor, though, was gracious in his dismissal of the whole matter, then said, “I know it is strange to you to find my Heir is Tamorine. But she has undergone Sword-Training like any other, and is better than most. And she has her own debts to repay the Dark Lord.””Sword-Training is one thing”, Tarn said quietly. “Battle is another.”

The girl turned towards him with a strange smile. Lifting the loop of hair that lay against her left cheek, she turned that side of her face towards the light and said, “Did I come by this in Sword-Training, Forest man?” For down the side of her face lay a long scar, thin and silvery, ending only a little above the curve of her jaw. “I have fought with my people – ask them!” Varil, the Sword-Trainer, said, “Truly, one may judge a leader by their followers.” The Mountain men had kept silence, but now one of the stood, and said, scowling, “What if our Lady Tamorine is a maiden and not a man? She is as brave and honourable and skilled with the sword as any of our Swordsmen. All of us are proud to be her Sword-Brethren.” “But if we are to ride against the Dark Lord, is there not a double danger to her?” protested Brann. “If she were captured…” “If I were captured I would free myself – one way or another”, the girl said, calmly. Brann knew that she meant, though she did not say it, that she would find means to kill herself rather than fall, a woman, into the hands of the Dark Lord’s forces. He did not doubt that she meant it, too. But his own sense of honour still argued against it. The man who had spoken before said, “Lord of the Forest, your proposal is honourable. But there will be no alliance unless we are led by the Heir of the Mountains – our Lady Tamorine.” Tamorine looked Brann straight in the eyes and said, “Perhaps, Lord Brann of the Forest, you would prefer to try my sword-skill for yourself?” There was neither mockery nor challenge in her clear tones, only the offer to match him fairly, not in anger, but in equal contest. And she probably was his equal, he admitted to himself, meeting her candid hazel-green gaze. Now he was really seeing her, not a girl in men’s clothing with a sword at her side, but a warrior of the Mountain people. She had the stance, the poise, the movements of a Swordsman, and – the faint scar down her cheek showed it – a Swordsman’s experience.Accepting her now as an equal, Brann did the acceptable thing in answer to her offer. Taking off his cloak, he flung it to Tarn, then drew his sword and extended it towards Tamorine, but downwards at an angle, so that the point of his blade touched the ground at her feet.

There was an approving murmur from the Mountain men, and Tamorine in turn discarded her cloak, drew her sword, and extended it as Brann had done, so that their swords crossed. Varil, the Sword-Trainer, instinctively came forward to set them in position for the bout, being scrupulously fair about it, even appealing to Tamorine’s men to protest if they found him in the wrong, but none did. A silence fell, but there was no tension in it, only the interest of Swordsmen. Varil gave the signal, and they began. Tamorine did indeed have all the skills her lieutenant had boasted of, and if Brann had still harboured any scruples about fighting a sword-bout with a maiden, they rapidly disappeared. Skilful Swordsman that he was, Tamorine was his match. She made him work hard, moving with speed and agility. Far from being a handicap, her slighter frame gave her an advantage. But Brann too was quick and lithe, and so evenly matched were they that neither could claim a touch on the other. At last Varil declared the bout over,and a dead heat, a decision neither Forest nor Mountain men could fault. Brann, hot and sweating, turned to the equally flushed and perspiring girl, and said, smiling, “You are a noble opponent, Lady Tamorine, but I am glad I shall be fighting alongside you, and not against you.” It seemed to take a moment for her to realise what he meant, his acceptance of her as joint leader of their forces. Then she smiled back. It seemed to change her whole face. Before she had seemed, not quite sullen, but full of suppressed sadness, no doubt at the loss of her kinsmen. Now she was bright and valiant, and though she were a maiden, still a Sword-Brother to trust and be glad to have with him in battle.

Published by afaithbasedfantasytrilogy

I'm first and foremost a Christian. I'm also a widow, mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and a retired school librarian.

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