Beddigan stood at the bow railing of the ship and smiled at the salty spray of the sea tickling his whiskers. He had never liked sea travel; didn’t have the stomach for it. But this voyage, from the Empire of the Lions to the country of Ehl-Indrah, on the far side of the Bintack Oceania, the Rams domain, was unlike any sea travel he had experienced before. The small ship cut through the water with superior grace, making for a much more even ride, with nearly none of the choppiness usually felt as a boat battled with the waves of the water below.
After a long trip by carraige from the Capital which sat far inland in the allied lands, he and Ragnon had reached the coastal city of Utinnah and left the Empire aboard one of the fleet’s specialty transport vessels, manned without traditional captain, and powered by a combination of wind and Mage. It moved much more quickly than a traditional ship, and had the added benefit of a more smooth and stable ride. These ships were reserved for diplomatic missions, with regular tall ships serving for general trade and transport. Mages were in short supply in the Empire, so only few were trained in the arts of navigating these vessels through the ocean.
Beddigan turned to the Wolf as Ragnon approached to lean against the railing beside him, sun and wind ruffling the dark fur of the Wolf’s face.
“I can’t believe how much more tolerable this trip is over any other boat I’ve been on.” He said to his friend. The Wolf smiled,
“I haven’t had much cause for ships and the like but even I can tell how much better this is.” Beddigan nodded and went back to looking out at the ocean; and further on to the quickly approaching land-mass that he assumed was their destination.
“I hope William is alright.” Beddigan mused aloud.” Ragnon laughed, which drew a sharp look form Beddigan.
“Ah, mate, I don’t mean to laugh at the Bear’s misfortune. I mean, what would I know of leaving behind a family?” the Wolf said. “It’s just… you have to be a little glad he isn’t coming on this trip, what with us being on a diplomatic-type of voyage. With the way he has responded to every new people in this land… it could have gotten ugly really fast, and we need to get these Rams on our side, yeah?” Ragnon explained and Beddigan felt himself agreeing with the Wolf, despite his concern for William.
“And it’s not as though we just left him behind. He has a very important task to undertake.” Beddigan said. “We need to find a way to communicate with those back home, hopefully without using the emergency gem that Lady Lisanne gave to me.” Ragnon nodded.
“We’re going to need some sort of miracle of sorcery to solve this issue with the oath to the Dragons that the Empire has made, too.” Beddigan nodded, turning a bit to look south, where the landbridge was visible in the distance. So close to home, yet so far.
“That and for peace of mind, both for William and myself. And for all your talk of not knowing what it is like to worry for family, I bet you have a bit of concern for my sister.” Ragnon turned away, looking sheepish.
“She’s safe in the Losley Deadwoods. I ain’t worried.” Beddigan clasped a hand on the Wolf’s should and turned him to back to face him.
“I hope with everything in me that that is true, but by now the Wolves could have conquered Katheyra and be moving in on those places of the world they had never ventured before. We cannot be sure that they are safe.” The look that flashed across Ragnon’s face made Beddigan feel sick to his stomach.
A young female Jaguar approached them then and they stepped apart, turning their backs to the view to address her. She wore robes similar to those of the Mages that they had seen in the palace of the Empire, but they were shorter, falling just above the knee, and she had a silken scarf wrapped around her head.
“We are almost there, my lords.” She said softly. “Please collect your things.” Beddigan smiled at her.
“Yes, thank you my lady.” He said with a short bow. The Jaguar fled then and Ragnon stifled a laugh.
“You have quite the effect on these feline women, Mouse.” Beddigan rolled his eyes and began to make his way below decks to grab their bags.
Once the ship had successfully docked, and was tethered in the marina, Beddigan and Ragnon made their way down the gangway to the docks below. They made every effort not to stare at these new and wondrous creatures. Curiously though, Beddigan noted, they didn’t receive the stares of incredulity that they had seen in both the other people’s lands in this part of the world. Beddigan admired the form of the strong-looking males approaching them, with their giant curled horns that looked almost like a built-in battle helmet. They wore typical garb, breeches and vest, though no undershirt, and each had a cape of midnight black with red edging that distinguished them as different from the other Rams moving around the docks. The other thing that stood out to Beddigan was the lack of females anywhere in sight. Not a single one.
Tucking away that little detail to mull over later, he stepped forward to meet the three Rams approaching. The one in the centre looked over him and Ragnon before speaking.
“You are Beddigan and Ragnon, sent from the Empire on the Lord Regent’s behalf.” He said, more a statement than a question. Beddigan nodded,
“Yes, we come to discuss a matter of great importance. Thank you for agreeing to see us so quickly.” The Ram nodded, one curt jerk of his head and turned away, his flanking companions turning around as well.
“Come.” Was all that was said to them. Beddigan exchanged a look with Ragnon and then hurried to catch up to the three Rams, seeing that the red that edged their capes also filled out a very large insignia of the outline of a Rams head in the centre.
They moved through the streets of the seaside town, that grew up in a tiered crescent from the water towards a large, grey-stone Keep near the top of the hill. Those on the streets stepped aside to allow them to pass without hesitation, and again Beddigan was struck by both the lack of females and the absence of curiosity among the Rams who met them along the way. It dawned on him as they entered through a large gate in the Keep’s walls to its inner courtyard, that perhaps they weren’t curious because they knew of both Wolves and Mice in a way that he and Ragnon had not known of the Rams.
Yet another thing to think on, he thought as they entered the Keep proper and were lead straight to the throne room. He caught a fleeting glimpse of a slighter Ram, with obvious female attributes, while they waited outside the massive doors to the room where the King took visitors. She wore a dress of pale pink with a white apron and had horns much shorter and less rounded than the male Rams. She had appeared from a room down the corridor and averting her eyes, quickly hurried into another room, carrying a basket filled with cloth.
The Ram who had lead their way up from the marina appeared at the doorway and gestured for them to come in.
“The King will see you now.” He said gruffly. They moved into the dark room, lit with no natural light, only lamps that burned an oil which left an acrid scent on the air. Moving down a carpet of heavy red fabric, they reached a raised dais with a simple stone chair atop it; a pair of similar, though smaller chairs sat to both right and left, situated slightly below than that of the King’s. Those chairs sat empty, but in the centre sat a quiet, young-looking Ram, whose horns, though full and heavy and curved, did not circle his cheeks completely, like that of the Ram who had lead them into the room. Beddigan noticed to that this King was not dressed in the regalia of other rulers he had seen, both at home and here in this part of the world; but in the same well-made but simple clothing as his guards. He wore no crown, and if not seated on the throne in the Keep of this city, Beddigan would not have known him to be the King at all.
He and Ragnon bowed deeply, waiting for the guard who had lead them in to formally introduce them, but no such custom seemed to exist in Ehl-Indrah. After a few awkward beats of silence, the King nodded to them both.
“You have come from the Empire but you are no feline.” Said the Ram in a surprisingly deep and gravelly voice for his youth. Beddigan nodded,
“We come from lands south of here, beyond your maps, where a great war is brewing and our very way of life is being threatened.” The King nodded slowly, but stayed silent. Beddigan continued. “We used means of sorcery to climb over the peaks of what is known here as the Southern Wall, seeking assistance to help us save a glorious nation of people from tyrannical subjugation and rule. We first met the Deer of Haven, and then found our way to the Empire of the Lions, where we have spoken with the Lord Regent about this matter.” The King’s face remained expressionless.
“And what brings you to my throne room then, Mouse?” Beddigan felt his heart-rate quicken. They do know of us, his mind races with excitement.
“The Lord Regent has pledged to help us with this war, under a few conditions.” Beddigan began, hesitating a bit as he chose his words carefully. “First and foremost, the Empire will not join our efforts without your blessing, and contribution of troops, supplies, or assistance in the stewardship of the allied lands while their soldiers are away. This is the matter that has brought us before you.” The King stared at them a long moment.
“And the other conditions?” was all that the Ram said. Beddigan continued, swallowing a lump of anxiety.
“We must also find a way to break or circumvent the oath made with the Dragons that keeps the people of this part of the world from crossing the southern borders.” This elicited a spark of something in the King’s eyes that made the fur on the back of Beddigan’s neck stand up.
“And have you solved this dilemma?” the King asked. Beddigan shook his head slowly.
“A companion of ours is hard at work on this matter back in the Empire.” The King continued to do little but fix them in their gaze. Finally he stood, stepping down from the dais.
“I must consult my council.” Was all the Ram said before walking past them with little pretense and leaving them alone in the flickering orange light of the Throne room. Ragnon turned to Beddigan, his eyes wide.
“Well that went… well?” the Wolf said with a hopeful shrug. Beddigan turned in time to see two guards enter the room to collect them.
“I guess we’ll find that out soon enough.” He said, allowing himself to be lead back into the main halls of the Keep.
The day stretched on and into night before Beddigan and Ragnon were fetched from the room they had been given to rest in, while the King sought council about their request. The guards had lead them from the throne room, to a large guest room, and had advised them to rest. A small meal was brought up and left at the door by way of a simple knock. When Beddigan had opened the door to see who had come calling, he saw only a tray with two mugs of watery soup a couple heels of dark bread, and caught a faint glimpse of a pink dress swishing hurriedly down the corridor and around the corner, out of sight. Ragnon had been sleeping, but Beddigan woke him to eat, and then they both napped after the simple meal, as afternoon turned to twilight.
A knock at the door had startled them both awake and Beddigan was surprised that they had slept through the rest of the day. Two guards escorted them down to a lively dining hall where the King sat at the end of one of the three long tables with various men at arms sitting around him, and at the other tables. A guard gestured to some open seats at a table far from the King.
“You will eat and rest. There will be no talk with the King on this night. He will address you in the morning.” The guard said gruffly before leaving them standing there to take his seat at the King’s table. Ragnon leaned in to Beddigan as they surveyed the room which was loud with chatter, laughter, and the thunk of ale tankards on thick wooden tabletops.
“They aren’t the friendliest bunch, ey?” he said with a lopsided grin. Beddigan nodded and lead the Wolf to the indicated spot on the bench seat that they were to sit on. There were several Rams seated around the table, none of which did anything more than meet their eyes briefly before returning to their food, ale, and conversations.
A blur of pink dress caught Beddigan’s attention as two heavy plates were laid on the table in front of them, followed swiftly by two sloshingly-full tankards of ale. Beddigan was about to thank the serving girl when he saw here swiftly swishing away.
“First lady I’ve seen since we got here.” Ragnon said with a mouthful of bread. Beddigan looked around the room, and saw no other females. Sipping the sharply spiced ale he nodded,
“I have seen only glimpses. They move quickly and don’t seem to wish to engage us.” He said. As he ate, he watched females swish in and out of the room, refilling tankards, and removing plates. They kept their gaze low, and many of the men at arms acted as if they didn’t exist at all. And the ones that were deep in their cups made clumsy advances that sent the girls fleeing even more quickly from the room, and set the men off laughing. By the time a girl came to remove their plates he was feeling pretty awfully about the way the females were being treated. He forced out a “Thank you.” to the girl and she dipped her head and murmured,
“My lord.” Before scurrying away. Ragnon elbowed him in the side some time later.
“It isn’t your fight, friend.” Beddigan looked to Ragnon, a question in his eyes. The Wolf chuckled. “It’s written all over your face, Beddigan. Now is not the time for chivalry.” Beddigan made a rude noise and sipped some ale.
The guards were beginning to disperse; the King having adjourned some time earlier in the evening. Their table was nearly empty, as were the other two. Beddigan was just about to suggest to Ragnon that they turn in for the night when he caught the eye of a much older Ram, sitting on the far side of a table across the room from them, near the hearth. He realized that from where the Ram was sitting, he must be a close council of the King as he was sitting directly to the right of where the King’s slightly larger chair sat empty. The Ram made a short gesture for them to join him and Beddigan stood. Ragnon looked up at him warily,
“What do you think all this is about, then?” the Wolf asked, standing to join him. They picked their way across the room, and Beddigan just shrugged mildly to the Wolf in answer. Picking the two seats opposite the old Ram, Beddigan smiled warmly,
“Hello, my name is Beddigan and this is my friend Ragnon.” The old Ram nodded his head silently, the white whiskers in his dark grey fur catching the light from the hearth, and sipped from his tankard of ale. The silence stretched between them and Beddigan cleared his throat to break it. “It’s uh, it’s quite the Keep you have here. Much different than what we have back in our home countries.” The old Ram nodded again and Beddigan began to wonder why they had been invited over if this Ram wasn’t going to speak to them.
“I am Ollin.” The Ram said gruffly. “I advise the King.” Beddigan nodded slowly.
“I figured as much by your seating placement at his table.” Ollin chuckled then, and the sound seemed so foreign to the Ram’s mouth that it mostly turned into a rough cough.
“You see much, Mouse.” Beddigan wondered for a moment if he had offended the Ram, but chose not to dwell on it. Despite their predilection for silence, he saw an opportunity with this Ram to get some answers to the questions that had been raised by their brief meeting with the King earlier that day.
“You know of my kind.” He said softly; a statement, not a question. The old Ram waited a moment and then nodded. “And his.” Beddigan said nodding his head to Ragnon. The old Ram nodded again, though Beddigan noted a brief narrowing of the dark eyes at the Wolf that preceded the head inclination. “We have no knowledge of any of the species in this part of the world, aside from the lore of the Dragons.” He said then, and to his surprise the old Ram continued to nod.
“The barrier is only one way. Your kind have made it to us, but we have not made it to you.” the old Ram said. “And they have not been able to return.” Beddigan felt the impact of that like a blow to the gut.
“Wait…” he whispered. “You mean, there are Mice here? And Wolves?” Ragnon had perked up now and was leaning in eagerly waiting for the old Ram’s answer. Another short, slow nod.
“A few.” The old Ram said. “Less of his than yours.” Beddigan was shocked. It took him a minute to process, but then the confusion started to creep in.
“But the Deer of Haven did not know us. Neither did the felines.” The old Ram nodded again.
“Our continent is our own. We remain separate from the Empire, and without passage on their ships, we’ve no desire, nor resources, for sea travel.” The old Ram drank deeply of his tankard before speaking again. “The Mice and Wolves that remain among us, and they are very few, make their homes in our villages and contribute to our society.” The old Ram said, adding softly, “And our society alone.” Beddigan let his mind turn over this new information in the silence that followed. It had been some time since any organized group of Mice or Wolves, at least that he knew of, had tried to head north of their lands. But at times, there had been entire ships on the sea, squadrons of soldiers in the woods.
“There was a time that we sent ships north…” Beddigan said hesitantly. The old Ram nodded his head.
“Those ships never made landfall.” Beddigan felt an odd sadness in that, despite having always assumed those ships and the people on them had been lost. The old Ram leaned back in his chair and considered them both.
“The way through the forests is very dangerous. Few survived it, and even fewer attempted it over the years. We knew not what to do with those that made it to us. So, the King,” he hesitated a moment, “The Old King,” he corrected, “granted them asylum and watched them closely over the years.” Beddigan nodded along.
“After the ships never returned and the squadrons who marched north and west disappeared beyond the trees, we quit organizing explorations to the north and west. Not only because of the loss we felt at never seeing those Mice again, but because we had a war to fight that wasn’t showing any signs of letting up.” Ragnon, who had been largely silent spoke up now.
“Which is why we are here. And why we beg the assistance of your King and your people in allying with the Empire so that they may lend us the troops we need to stop the Wolves.” This got the old Ram’s attention, his bushy white eyebrows shooting up in a rare expression on his face.
“The Wolves… then you are… a defector.” The old Ram mused aloud and Beddigan noticed the way Ragnon shifted back in his seat under the Ram’s watchful gaze. The Wolf nodded,
“Few dare to disagree or state openly the flaws with their leaders, least of all among the Wolves, and even less among the children of its famous war commanders.” Beddigan felt the fire and heat boiling up in Ragnon as he continued. “But I have never had any problem telling them exactly how malicious and tyrannical they are. And telling them I will have no part in it. And for turnings I have been jailed or running; thought a spy by the Mice, and a traitor by my own.” Ragnon’s paws fisted and pounded down on the table top, making their ale tankards jump. The old Ram just watched them with his placid stare. “It wasn’t until I met this one, in a jail cell in his home country, no less! That I began to believe I could do something. I could make a change and have a real life. Which is why I am here now.” Beddigan winced when Ragnon dropped the knowledge that they had been in jail together.
The old Ram’s gaze shifted from Wolf to Mouse.
“You too are a defector?” the Ram asked. Beddigan shifted nervously under the sharp gaze of the old Ram.
“In a sense.” He said hesitantly. “My father was murdered by my Queen, and while under service for her with the Royal Sapphire Brigade, I uncovered this. I set a prisoner free, and killed a fellow soldier who was corrupt. I disappeared from my land for many turnings, faking my death to remain hidden and serving as an Adventurer in a land known as Katheyra. It is Katheyra which is under threat of Wolf rule now, a surrogate home for me.” The old Ram nodded and listened as Beddigan continued, “The prisoner I let escape was a young Fox from Reene, a country that was subjugated by the Wolves a very long time ago in our lands greatest war. They were murdered and enslaved to the point that they have no independence or culture left. The Wolves seek to do the same to the Badgers of Katheyra and we must not let that happen.” Taking a breath and a swig of ale, he finished, “And despite my Queen’s flaws and the issues in my own country, the Mice would seek to defend Katheyra’s independence with everything that they are, were they not embroiled in a never-ending war with the Wolves.” The old Ram nodded and sat still and silent for quite some time. Finally he stood, his chair scraping roughly over the uneven stone floors.
“I have much to discuss with the King before you meet with him in the morning.” Beddigan nodded and stood as well, Ragnon following suit.
“Thank you for your time this evening, Ollin.” The Ram nodded and walked away from them, disappearing down a dark corridor.
To be continued…
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