The War Dragon hovered above the horizon. Morganna knew what it meant; war was coming, and coming soon. And so, she set aside her fears and entered the haunted forest.
Twelve days ago a slave ship had been spotted off the shores of Nastrana. Sources claimed that the ship was delivering slaves to the empire - which was why she and Lord Tiernan, her counterpart in the governance of Vaelion, were now on their way to see the Star Reader. Azimah would know what to do. But first, they had to get to her.
“What was that?” Her voice echoed strangely through the trees.
“What?” Their guide pulled down the hood of his cape, revealing long braids of dark hair much like her own.
It was the first time he had spoken since introducing himself at the edge of the forest. For the second time it struck Morganna that his voice was too low for his face. But never mind that. She pointed into the darkness.
“Something crossed right through your feet just now. Something large.”
The guide shrugged. “A pig toad most likely. A bunch of young ones left the pond a few weeks ago. They’ve been crossing this path ever since. They’re nothing to worry about, I assure you.”
Morganna was worried, but not about pig toads. She had heard stories of this godless wood before. The haunted woods of Kyraemor, enter once be seen no more. She wondered if the answer behind all the stories was simply oversized pig toads.
There had been no signs of spirits on their journey thus far, but the brush was so thick that it was difficult for Morganna to see signs of anything at all. When her feet were not in a constant battle against the vines and roots, the forest floor beneath revealed itself in patches of sweet-smelling clover, under which burrowed an untold number of bugs and beasts. Beetles came out of hiding at the sound of the expedition’s footfall, scrambling to avoid being crushed, though many were not quick enough.
Just as she was growing accustomed to the unsettling crunch, she heard another strange noise. Was that a giggle?
The forest went dark.
Morganna raised her chin and called out. “Excuse me!”
The sound of the guardian’s blade hacking against branches stopped.
She squinted her eyes to make out his shape. He had turned his head back and seemed to be waiting. She cleared her throat. “It appears the sun has left this day. Could you light your torch?”
“I could try. But it never stays lit when she’s not here.”
“How do you mean?”
“When the Star Reader’s with me, the torch stays lit. When she’s not, it goes out.”
Lord Tiernan let out a curt laugh. “Nonsense.”
“Like I said, I could try.”
Morganna nodded. “Please do.”
The guide brandished his torch and set it alight. Morganna was momentarily blinded by the sudden burst of flame. As her eyes adjusted, the forest appeared to spiral around her, almost as if it was being stirred by the cool wind as it played a symphony on the bows of the trees.
The path before them became narrower and narrower until the branches of the trees began to curve around them like a tunnel. They were forced to crouch down as they walked, yet no matter how carefully they twisted and turned, it was impossible not to be cut by the thorny branches now surrounded them.
The guide stopped and signaled for them to listen. The forest had grown quiet. No more bird calls. No more cricket song. No wind.
The torch went out.
“Lady Morganna, take my hand.” The guide’s voice was low and steady. “And you, Lord Tiernan, take hers. We’re going to walk in a single line together from this point out. Do you understand?”
Morganna murmured her agreement. Behind her Lord Tiernan said nothing, but he did reach out to take her hand.
Ever forward they continued, carefully, yet briskly moving through the darkness. Morganna could hear Tiernan’s breath growing heavy behind her, but he kept up the pace.
At last, a single beam of moonlight poured through an opening in the treetops, illuminating a still pond that now lay before them. The water glistened and the sound of crickets returned. A white owl flew overhead, letting out a call of warning.
The guide raised one finger to his lips.
Morganna and Tiernan followed closely as the guide led them over a path of river stones to an opening in the emerging hillside. He then led them into the cave, and carefully through its dark and twisting passages, until they reached a cavern that was lit from within. That was where he left them.
The Star Reader rose to her feet and extended her arm. “Come in my friends. Make yourselves at home.”
Lord Tiernan hesitated at the entrance of the chamber, so Morganna sashayed around him, convincingly feigning indifference to their surroundings.
They looked out of place standing there in the moonlit cavern. Both had worn hunting clothes for their trip, but somehow their well-stitched garments seemed too stately for the space they now stood within. In contrast, the Star Reader’s robes looked as if they were made to exist in such a space. Her dress was as pale as the moonlight, with tattered edges that seemed to disappear into the fog that filled the air.
“Good Evening, Azimah.” Morganna bowed her head in respect.
The Star Reader met her guest’s bow with a nod. As her head tilted forward, an array of spectral light shone from an opening behind her, much like the sun cresting over the horizon. Morganna’s eyes lit up watching the fractured light pour in and create a mirage of swirling clouds in the air.
The light came from a glass globe, much like the one in her home city of Lyndaria. Morganna stepped forward to inspect the intricate sculpture. Glass shards were hung on a web of wires and strings, created an ever-shifting display of colored light that resembled stars.
Lord Tiernan shifted his weight. The Star Reader turned to him in response.
“Please sit, my friend.” She gestured to a low, wooden bench to her right. “You will find this more comfortable than the rocks on which you stand.”
“Thank you, Azi, ehem, Star Reader.”
“Azimah will do.” She stepped back and sat upon a natural shelf in the cave wall. “So, you’ve seen the War Dragon, I presume.”
Morganna nodded. “I thought it might be a different star at first, but now there is no mistaking it. And then came the news of the ships.”
“Slave ships,” said Tiernan. “Off the coast of Nastrana.”
Azimah’s eyelashes fluttered.
Could it be she did not know?
“And now you are here.” The Star Reader pursed her lips. “Let me ask you this; Are you ready to start a war?”
Morganna shook her head. “Of course we’re not ready. No one’s ever ready. But the War Dragon is in the sky and the King has broken his promise. Do we really have a choice?”
“There is no choice. War is here. Let us be the ones to declare it.” Tiernan bellowed over her, sounding almost happy.
Azimah breathed in deeply and let out a controlled sigh. “The king is a man who killed his own brother, and you want to declare war against him over the sighting of a few ships?”
“Don’t you tell me that tale like it’s supposed to mean something.” Tiernan’s face contorted into a sneer. “It wasn’t the first time a king killed his brother, and it won’t be the last.”
“Besides -” His voice was quieter now. “It is our duty to keep the empire a free land. We all agreed to that at the end of the last war. And now he’s broken that promise.”
Morganna looked down and picked a cobweb off her cape. She always felt stuck in the middle when in conversations with these two. It was a feeling she did not miss.
“What is the king doing with the slaves from the ships?” Azimah’s voice took on an unaffected tone.
Morganna looked up and grinned. She knew this game. “We don’t know.”
“And how many men do you have ready to fight?”
“Sixty, maybe seventy from Lyndaria. How many would you say you have in Kireen?” Morganna looked at Tiernan.
“A few hundred.” He scowled.
“How many is a few?”
“I don’t know.”
“I see. And how many swords have been sharpened?”
Tiernan glared at Azimah. She met him with a steady gaze.
“If you declare war now, then there will be war now and you will lose. If instead you do what I’m about to suggest, you can give yourselves enough time to prepare and a good chance at victory. Which will you choose?”
Tiernan threw his hands up. “If I had my choice I would end his life in one clean strike and be done with it.”
Azimah smiled. “It is unwise to kill a king without first planning his replacement.”
“Planning his replacement? Just how am I supposed to do that? Those jackals have a convoluted way of choosing their kings. I can’t do anything to change that.”
“You can’t, but I can - if I have enough time.”
“I…” He hung his head. “Fine. Fine. We’ll do it your way.”
Morganna stepped forward. “What exactly is it that you suggest?”
“Marriages, ha! Can you believe she wants us to arrange marriages for our children?”
Tiernan untied his bedroll and shook it loose. Their guide had left them outside to set up camp, promising to return in the morning to lead them back out of the forest.
Morgana shrugged. She didn’t think it was such a terrible idea. Her own father had once taken part in a ceremonial marriage with a Rhydian in order to seal a treaty. It wasn’t their way, but when alliances were at stake, exceptions had to be made.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask. I’m more concerned with the possibility that it might be too little. Do you think three political marriages will be enough? Shouldn’t we do more?”
“Believe me, convincing my eldest son, Wyck, to agree to a marriage – let alone an arranged marriage – would take up more time and effort than I have to give. It’s not even worth attempting.”
“Perhaps if you visited him more -” Morganna bit her lip. She hadn’t meant to speak that thought out loud.
“It is he that should visit me!”
She looked away.
As she let out her braids, Morganna listened to Tiernan’s breath. Once its pace had slowed she knew she could speak again.
“So if you’re not following the Star Reader’s plan, what is it you plan to do?”
“Oh, I’ll follow part of her plan – the part that makes sense. Once we get out of this wood I’ll send the king a message. We’ll request to meet with him to discuss something innocuous, like taxes. And we’ll use that meeting to gather information on the activity with the slave ships. We should confirm that he has broken the treaty before starting a war over it.”
Morganna frowned. She didn’t like the idea of meeting the king face to face. The last time she met him had been so unpleasant, and he hadn’t even become the king yet.
She laid her head back against her knapsack and stared up at the stars. Try as she might, she couldn’t help but set her eyes upon the War Dragon. It was still low in the sky, but it was rising. She made a promise to herself that with or without Lord Tiernan, she would do everything she could to prepare.