Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Crusade Conspiracy (Third Draft)

Accusations against Kindee are heard all across Gramaza. I do not concern myself with gossip, but it this case I am moved to respond because I see a charge of treason growing around this heroic woman, the consequences of which are too grave to allow. Even as I returned from the Nemi throne at Moft I was greeted with much confusion about the mission to Star's Reach.

Those who have denounced Kindee are given a large audience, their words are repeated throughout the nobility. Even those who adore her ignore this danger, dismissing it as the vanity of the nobility. Some say that the nobility blames the tragedies of the mission on her to protect the legacy of their departed Elida, but more than the reputation of that fawning brat is at stake.

So I wade in with utmost seriousness, open in my intention to defend Kindee, but swearing honesty in my account of the history of these events. I walked all the way to the Moft, where our people's place in the story concluded, and we bid farewell to the Towalk missionaries we were tasked with serving. As the Manifest Keeper on the mission I was privy to details of the trip that the rumor mongers are ignorant of. As a function of that duty I kept detailed notes of the journey, which are available for reference through the Assayer's Society House for those who want to verify the consistency of my account.

My assays of material from the old world have been valued above all others for more than a generation not only because of my skillfulness in observation, but mostly because of my practice of honesty. So before you listen to any slander of these accounts, I challenge you to find one example of me lying in living memory, I know that any true examples must be older than my first beard, though I am not naive enough to doubt that examples may be fabricated on account of the corruption driving this matter. Material evidence of the details I report are spread along a long distant trail, so I have only testimony to offer, though I will indicate how more local evidence might be sought later.

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From the hand carved balcony of the Host of Salvation's sanctuary cave Head Priestess Korada of the Host, architect of our mission to Star's Reach, spoke to the Nobility of Gramaza. They were gathered in the great vault with the Guards who would go on the long walk, including Kindee; I was there too as Manifest Keeper for the expedition. Beside Korada was Dald, leader of the Towalk, the honored strangers from the unknown South who had asked our people's support in reaching Star's Reach. Silent the gathered nobility grew anticipating the word of Korada. These are the words of Korada's speech announcing the mission to Star's Reach.

"My Fellows, we have come to know the Towalk in recent months, and have learned of their spirit of friendship. We have also heard the dire mission they carry for all peoples who are true to the Earth. News reached them, as it had reached us, of the recent discovery of Star's Reach by the Meriga nation who live to the East of the Kanzi desert. But the Towalk, better than ourselves, realized the danger of this. Far more vividly than our albums does their lore remember the times of warfare waged by our common ancestors against the Sky Lords for the mercy of the Earth. Before the Federal War these lands were ruled by worshipers of the Sky Lords. The Towalk have shown us records from that era about the alliance between the Federalists and the Sky Lords. How they shared deadly sciences and visited 'death from above' on the warriors we share as ancestors. How they held the Earth captive to the Consumers.

"Now, the heirs of the Federalists, the Merigers, seek to reestablish contact with their former patrons. They have found Star's Reach, the last hold of the Federalists, the last bridge to the Sky Lords, and they hold it again!

"Only in the Host's darkest terrors and most melancholic guessing had the possibility of the Sky Lords return been thought. With damp cheeks I confess we were too comfortable and proud to see this danger clearly. Clearly as the Towalk saw it upon first hearing of Star's Reach's discovery. So, hear now from someone whose instincts for danger are clear and sharp, hear now from Dald of the Towalk, whose heart is one with the will of the Host concerning Star's Reach"

Dald stood tall giving his speech in the archaic voice of his people.

"My kin in the South are the Towalk, after the mountain we live on, sticking out of wind blasted sands. When we heard that Star's Reach had been found we were frightened. Stories from the Federal War are still told each night among our people, and to this day we use no fire at night, like our ancestors during the war, lest the birds of slay find them. That custom's how recall these things so well.

"During the war a leader from near Towalk uncovered that the Federalists were getting support and weapons, there 'birds of slay', from the Sky Lords. He uncovered the Federalists and the Sky Lords had ruled most of the world for a hundred years before the Federalist War broke their power. But the Sky Lords ruined the rains and the sno with their power before they abandoned the Federalists to defeat. Your people and ours were still one then, but as the sands grew peoples shrunk and lost touch with each other, becoming the Towalk and the Gramaza, and the other mountain peoples.

"Our people is smaller than your city on the Gramaza. I did not know there was such a big place left until we found your tall proud cliff top walls. We only have news from traveling Canyon folk and never guesses that twenty hundreds might still live as a single people. Towalk is much smaller, the fifty and five that marched to your lands are the best part of our able aged. Our ancestors were strong enough to some how break the Sky Lords power then, but we have grown few, and dare not see them return.

"We seek to find Star's Reach, and break any tie to the Sky Lords that remains there. We didn't know how it would be done, and departed trusting the Land would provide a way. At your walls, which amaze us in their vastness, we found the first hope for success. In them you invited us, as friends, and for a moon we have been here, heralding warning and calling for support against the Sky Lords.

"Thank you for your welcome, for shelter, for hearing our cause, and for aiding our cause. We had no means to attack Star's Reach except our slings, but Korada grants us an arsenal of repeating rifles, and has trained us in their use. She sends thirty of her own guards as guides to Star's Reach. She sends forty trail carts with us, loaded with supplies. Also we have learned much of the way to Star's Reach. Through sandy lands and up the Rado river trail to the spine of the mountains, across the land of the Nemi, and down into the Kansi desert, along nomadic trade routes to the ruins. North of the Nora dead zone and South of the shifting Aldon dunes we must thread our way. These Land's names mean nothing to be, but with our guides we hope to see Star's Reach, and make sure the Land is safe from the Sky Lords, forever!

Those are the speeches that launched the mission to Star's Reach. Elida also gave a speech. His was a hollow and trite acceptance of duties, his official duties at least. Still these were the vows of duty he gave, I recall them so that you can consider how well Kindee in fact heeded these duties. "I accept the duty of leading the Guard of the Host's mission in search of Star's Reach; pledging to protect it from destruction; and to guide the Towalk on their mission to protect the Earth from the dangers at Star's Reach." By rising to the events around her, guided by this code, Kindee upset plans kept dearly private, for that the Host now attacks her.

At next dawn the combined forces of the Towalk and the Guard of the Host made way for the North gate of Gramaza, but at the gate there were fifty volunteers waiting to join the mission, standing with there own provisions gifted and borrowed from friends. Dald was ecstatic to see these unannounced supporters, many of whom he recognized as friends from his people's stay in Gramaza, he rushed to greet them. But Elida stopped in his tracks so suddenly that I nearly walked into the his cart, they were not part of his plan.

The volunteers were lead by a proud and kind hearted young man named Grand, who presented himself to Elida while I watched. "Fifty stout fighters to topple the occupiers of Star's Reach offer ourselves to your command.”

Elida responded with a flustered stammer "Do you mean to suggest, that the Guard of the Host is not equal to this mission? The journey is very far, and the larger a group is, the more difficult they are to support, and it is also more difficult to, find passage through other lands, more dangerous crossing other borders, provocative, that is to say. You are better off here in the safety of these walls, a safety you haven't learned to do with out."

"We are self sufficient, and these men have faced danger before, some are veterans of the Guard, with our numbers combined raiders and herders would not question us, besides wouldn't you say many along the way will want to join the cause? It would be a shame if our Great City offered the fewest fighters to this cause!" Grand responded without concern for Elida's reproach.

Elida started "Raiders and herders are not my concern, I meant the Nemi...". I do not know how he meant to finish for here Kindee stepped out of line making her move into the heart of matters. "Grand!" she yelled as though to an old friend "It is a joy that you have organized such a fine group, and one so well prepared." She then nodded at me "This is our Manifest Keeper, won't you go over your supplies with him, so that he can say if your goods are enough for the journey."

I was put on the spot by this, and I might be incriminating myself, for I sensed the tension in Elida, and knew him to be fumbling for a way to turn back the Volunteers, but seeing Grand's enthusiasm and seeing Elida stymied I chose, not out of disloyalty so much as nerviousness, to hurry off to check Grand's supplies. An inventory seemed a much more comfortable place to be than near Elida peeved.

But while Grand lead me to his crew's supplies I heard Elida's shrill tone with Kindee for stepping out of line so. Little do the words matter, so little about Elida ever mattered, he was a servile man, though he could reprimand Kindee and threaten many punishments, she had already won this moment, diverting him from the instant where he might still have prevented the joining of the Volunteers, as I am certain was his hope, though I cannot tell what his motive precisely was, it is possible that neither could he.

From the gate house where I busied myself with the inventory I saw them arguing. Elida reprimanding Kindee, turning to come to the gate house to address the volunteers, only to be dragged back into reprimanding Kindee further as she would bait him with a remark. Three times I saw the cycle turn, and by the time Elida made it to the gate their were smirks and whispers against his authority from the Volunteers.

Grand spoke to Dald, who nodded to word's I couldn't hear and went to speak to Elida, what they spoke of I do not know, but only briefly afterwards the whole mission, with the Volunteers, marched out and down fron Granmaza, into the dry valleys, and the sandy lands. Though Elida always preened himself as the leader, he was formally at Dald's service.

The first three days travel were grueling. Elida pushed hard for us to cover a long distance each day, which the Guards in their training were well adapted towards, unlike the Volunteers, many of whom were terracers, pruners, or orchariders, so not accustomed to the heat of the sandy lands or to covering great distances. But, I must admit to growing bitter from this, as an Assayer and an old hermit I was least accustomed to the grueling miles, and though I could have imagined it in my pains, I did feel a great toxicity from Elida toward me; punishment it felt for my cowing to Kindee the usurper at the gates. Mercy came from Dald, who was mindful of endurance limits and would insist on the goodness of camp sites which Elida wished to have marched past.

Dropping down from Gramaza all trails follow the sandy lands for a great ways, and though there are cooler mountains all around, they are not where the trail lies. Rust colored were all the lands along the long trail we marched those first three days, surrounded on all sides by brush speckled mountains crowding the horizon close around us, their sides lined with paths carved by the routes of the slope herders who live in these areas, though hide themselves from us. More barren were the wide sandy valleys, with few desert shrubs growing in the drainages and along canyons. Many difficult crossings there were where flood cut washes split the trail. Often we would have to break to stake together a rope crossing for a canyon scarcely too wide to leap.

Toward the end of the fourth day all was made more harsh as a bitter sand storm enveloped us. We were high enough into the mountains now not to fear being covered by the sand like a salvage crew in Junktown, but it stung and cut, wearied the eyes, and fouled the nose. Into a narrow canyon near the main trail we fled for shelter from the wind blown sand. It was a very tight fit for hundred and thirty six people to camp together in the canyon.

Suddenly confused shouting, barked orders, and warnings came from all sides, and the canyon became a kicked hive of confusion, Kindee dashed toward the mouth of the canyon, leaping though the cluttered camp, her voice calling for us to take arms. Dald and his older sister, Wana, followed in her wake advising camps that we had become surrounded. The guard and the Towalk took up rifles, but the volunteers had not all been issued rifles, some had smoking guns, and the rest had good hunting bows, which were not so good in so cramped a canyon.

A parched drawl hollered from the sand hazed outside "We came to join your expedition, or to end it." and several powder gunshots echoed all around.

"State who you are, and your reasons for threatening us." yelled Elida in his best impression of bravado.

"I am Rul, voice for five bands of Bledstone, we are here to stop the Greys from coming back, and to claim their ruins' spoils. More are better for a raid, but if you want the loot, you should be asking how many warriors surround you, you should also be asking what sort of warriors you are to be surrounded so easy!"

"Our purpose is only to stop the greys, we have ruins enough beneath our own sands, but you should ask the Towalk too, if they would accept ruffians, it is a foul turn, ambushing us from a storm." yelled Elida.

Dald reached Elida's position at the cave mouth walking past him toward toward the voice from the sand storm saying "I am Dald, from Towalk, I'm coming out, to see if I trust you or not, don't kill me or there will be a fight, but no trust."

I do not know what happened between Dald and Rul in the blowing sands, but it did not take Dald long to return with this to say "They're alright, lot like the nomads who bring our people trade and news, even those that told us of Star's Reach being found. Rowdy, spit fire, but strong." he turned at Elida "Can't be choosy about who we walk with if we are going to stop the Sky Lords." Elida bowed to Dald in this matter, and called for our group to stand down.

Dald and Elida briefed the whole party that we would be meeting with Bledstoners to join together against the Sky Lords. Understandably many from Gramaza were upset. Most only knew of Bledstoners as raiders and enemies of the Host's salvation of Junktown, or as crooked traders. Even their request to join was true to form, an ambush!

Kindee and Wana were sitting with a circle of volunteers and guards calming worries about the Bledstone. Laffe, a Volunteer, vented "I know how the Guard tried to turn us away, now so easily we accept the Bledstone!"

"All of the Land's children are free to join out mission, the depth of the calling grants a deeper trust." Wana responded.

Kindee agreed "We are here for the Towalk, who welcome all whom would join their mission, accepting them is fated. Though..." Kindee paused, looking toward Elida who stood talking with Dald at some distance "I am very glad to have my comrades, the Volunteers, here in case our friends prove more dangerous than we all hope them to be."

The Sun was sinking behind sandstone cliffs when the sands calmed enough for us to leave the canyon to meet the Bledstone. Elida and Bald lead us all to a large valley where the trail ran from Silpass to Lenood Canyon. There was a fire burning, and around it a dozen Bredstone stood waiting. We were still surrounded another fifty Bredstone crouching behind cover in the twilight. Rul was a flat bodied man, wide from shoulder to shoulder, but very thin from navel to spine, it favored him with a very dynamic and swift silhouette that he used the flames to cast.

Rul fiercely embraced Dald and then Elida, laughing as he released Elida. "Welcome to our fire! My new allies." Dald accepted his greeting, but it was still tense like a cocked gun, which there were many of, both sides aware that battle was not a distant possibility, when Rul was given space to speak to our group, I recorded his words thus:

"It was Talen, my own cousin, who told the Towalk of Star's Reach. My family has traded with the Towalk since our grandparents were children. And before he knew of Star's Reach, I knew of it, for I am the one who told Talen! Many nights have been filled with songs we sing of the treasures of Star's Reach, fables of lucky yottes who found it, and when we heard it was found we wanted to see and to take for ourselves. But, even my group has not the numbers to march against what guards the Merigers or maybe even the Greys have at that place. But word of the Towalk crusade reached my ears before Dald's men reached the gates of Gramaza. So, with that news I have been busy! See five bands who have joined me at hearing this news, ready to take the spoils from the Grey or to die spiting them.

"Hmmm. I know that Gramaza's citizens do not trust us sandy landers. Least of all you sharp shooting Guards, your faces are grim even now. But we will be family for this, we must join against the Greys. Everyone here is ready to die to stop the Greys, what matters if we have strife among ourselves to be settled after they are defeated, better to risk death in victory that death in defeat."

By the time of his speech many had warmed to the Bledstoners joining, and after hearing it, and feeling the strength of tone in Rul's voice I believe that there was even enthusiam for traveling with the Bledstoners. All by now felt this was "a barbaric quest, and what better than barbarians as companions", as was said in fellowship and jest many times between the Bledstoners and the Gramazers.

Late into the night many stayed up celebrating that this threat of premature conflict was averted. I however slept early and soundly. There was some tension over the Bledstone fire, as the Towalk feared their fire might draw birds of slay, it has been recounted to me that at moon rise it was extinguished and the Bledstone, Towalk, the Volunteers, and the Guards caroused in the moon light.

In the morning I arose to find few awake, excepting some Bledstoners who had foregone sleep altogether the night before, as their people do more commonly than our own. It was a late start before the new alliance began to make way toward the high mountains we sought to cross. Yet even with the bonds of friendship germinating between the crew new tensions emerged, the Bledstoners are very different in habit of how they move through these lands, and traveling more lightly than those from Gramaza or the Towalk pushing the provisions we had gifted they tended to get ahead of the group and spread our lines thin. Elida was tormented by this new element of chaos in the group, and by Rul who argued with him about routes as they walked. That evening, Rul gathered his bands to give a speech and the rest of our coalition gathered to hear him, I recorded it thus:

"Between us and Star's Reach is a long journey, some of you might live to see sands upon sands for days upon days, if we make it that far, but another issue lies between us and there. The Nemi Rangers, the highlanders of all highlanders, even Gramaza they would look down upon were they neighbors. A long long line is the ridge of these mountains, between us and Star's Reach, and it is the spine of the Nemi Rangers. They guard jealously the orchards feed by that ridge's drainage, and a long trail connects their range along the length. That trail is the cord of their spine, and not something that any people is welcome to walk on. You of Gramaza are being lead toward the greatest Southern pass of that trail, Loven. But I would lead the march North, to the Nemi Capital of Moft. They are weak in Loven, and our army would be a siege to them, they would have no choice but to fight us. But even where they are weak it would take nearly a siege to force the walls and citadel of their pass, a siege we cannot afford. Even if we forced them in short order their swift reinforcement would swarm down their cord trail, and crush us into the sands.

"Today I have dried my throat, can you hear it crack? trying to convince Elida the stubborn and Dald the silent of the Northern route, but they did not commit to it. Do I speak out of turn now? We have five days until the forked road forces an outcome. I have said the Northern pass is the better pass, and told you who know less than I do why. I invite Elida or Dald to speak now if they have another view."

Bledstoners whooped adoring Rul. Uncomfortable and calm were the respective quiets of the Gramaza and Towalk peoples. All eyes gathered on Elida as he made his way to stand beside Rul, he paused, waiting for the whooping to still before giving his speech.

"Yesterday we meet each other and you gave our expedition a test, if we were war like or quick to quarrel we would not be today marching as allies, as new friends. Maybe something like that is fated with the Nemi, or maybe something very different. They rule their mountain ridge and are jealous and in Moft, their throne, their nobility is most jealous, listen to one raised in courts himself, I should know! But consider the ribbing and the teasing I received for being stunned to silence by the amazing commitment of my own people, of the Volunteers of Gramaza. It is not the nobility who warm to such missions, there are too many nobles and too many plots for that. No it is the commoner who is moved to a mission like ours. Thirty guards were sent by Gramaza Nobles, and only a few of us from the nobility, but there were fifty sent by the passions of the Land.

"This is my argument for us taking the Loven route, the rural route. Our group is of rural people and has received the best aid from among the rural peoples. Better to meet the Nemi there, than to meet them in their castles where they feel secure against any threat, even the threat of the Sky Lords, or the Greys, of a second rise of the Federalists. They feel safe, I can attest to the safety felt by those raised in castles, Gramaza's need to be woken by the Towalk proves it, and in their safely even 'death from above' and 'birds of slay' are but dim myths to them, and they don't feel the danger, feel the treat, that forces us to take this dangerous mission. We should stay far from their Capital and its people that are only like the part in me that you all tease, and not at all like the part of me that learned from our journey and warmed to the friendship between the long crossed Bledstone and my people, our people, the Gramaza."

This speech was all too popular, I was sad to hear such shallow flattery bring great cheers from many, especially among the Guards. Rul was ashen faced and grim. Dale, though invited to speak, quietly declined to comment from his place among his compatriots. Rul stood as large as he could and retorted with some venom in his voice.

"You are a good entertainer, Elida! You speak to our vanity, and it is good to hear you tease yourself, today I was starting to think such a thing was impossible. But, if you tease yourself you should first learn humility! Much you may know about your noble ways and maybe you know how to kiss up to savages, for kissing up is the best skill of a noble. But you are ignorant, I am sorry to speak thus to my friend. The nobility of the Nemi is not in a castle nobility like Gramaza, a hard skull of rulers! They are not a single city state fortress with think bones around a dessert meat. No they are swifter than that, more war like, the whole cord and spine is their nobility, there is no going around it. Their law forbids any settlement larger than Moft with its twelve hundreds of populace. So they have many towns along many passes, tied by a great cord, and with uncanny speed the Nemi Rangers travel that way. None of you Gramaza have even seen their ways, none can even imagine them. It is better to face strength to its face like the Towalk did before your gates, and only my people know the dangers of both the Gramaza and the Nemi gates, truly camping under YOUR gates takes more courage!

"Nemi nobles mix and move through their orcharders and their cistern diggers, and their whole people, and the whole hinterlands, they are many kings of many orchards and groves. The rural, you call it as only one who does not travel might, south is noble in as great a portion as their capital, or maybe more so. But your kind who rule from on high, do not like my kind who sneak around low spots and narrow passes, and where their armor and their guard is weak, in the south, is also where their hot blood is. It is criminal stupidity to drive an army of hundreds against their most insecure point, it is a declaration of war."

Elida turned toward Rul, with hate filled gaze, and looked as though he might undo the peace of the previous day, when in a great bound Dald landed between the quarreling ones, resting his big hands on each man's shoulders. "Don't waste yourselves on each other! Not until the job is through." then addressing the gathered crowd which itself had many people considering deeds which would undo the peace "My people are just trying to make our way to Star's Reach, and we cannot tell if so many followers are a curse! But we do not know the way through these mountains, and must trust our guides, and all who would join, even those who would fight each other, are our guides. You both may be guides, less ignorant than I am, but you are following my quest, joining my mission. Don't tell me of some Nemi enemy, because I am not here to fight the Nemi, won't someone tell me a better path than destroying ourselves before I even meet a Nemi, or break Star's Reach?"

Kindee, from the crowd, yelled to Dald "I know a way through our first danger, which is one other! Let some of my people and some of the Bledstone join in small bands, to scout ahead. That we may learn more truly what is on our paths, rather than walking blind. That we may cultivate more friendships, to stitch together these rifts. That the Towalk may have fewer CHILDREN to tend with the core of our alliance, and be able to keep the peace that way. Spread and stretched are our nerves, like our lines today. Maybe they must break? Let us choose the breaks, and make with them scouts and heralds!"

At this point I saw in Elida's face a look of horror, more distorted than his rage at Rul, but he was speechless while Dald said this. "It's good to hear someone speak sense after hearing a day of bickering. I would like it if you could put together some few folks to do this scouting."

Little else of import was said at that gathering, though in the next morning I crossed Kindee's path, and was nearly shoved over by her gaze. When I asked her of her fury she did not speak. Only later I learned that Elida had cast her from the Guards, though of course her esteem was thereby made greater with many.

No one wanted more speeches, for there were enough physical dangers as we made headway into the high lands. Kindee had been busy since her demotion from the Guard, seven groups of nine she had put together to scout ahead and meet with the main group at the fork in five days. No guards, I later learned, were permitted to join the scouts. It was good we were now above the worst of the dust storms, and here a little more vegetation held the lands together and kept the dust in check, though on the second day we suffered from bad winds, they were at our back and not so thick with sand as to be crippling, indeed the Bledstone who remained with the group behaved as though it were pleasant weather.

It took us not five but seven days to reach the rendezvous, for as we marched we came across welcomes along the trail, families from the Begorn herders. Our advance was now heralded, and nomads who had been in hiding before now came down to meet us, bringing fine gifts to offer to our march. By the second day we had to turn down some donations of food and water for our carts were becoming too heavy to manage in the steepening lands, and our pace began to suffer. Recruits we had as well, several families sent their youths to our cause. So twenty seven strong Begone joined our quest, and I suspect that more than a few children of Gramaza were conceived among the herds people in those days, or more accurately nights. Each time we camped several family groups of Begorn gathered around us like an entourage, and wanted to feast us and celebrate, though there was little dancing in the dark, because no fires were allowed by the Towalk, at least there was much music, which did not frighten the Towalk at all. We marched on those days as though already triumphant.

Over dinner the Begorns would tell us of the excitement they had for such a strange passing through, and how safe they felt that the Birds of Slay would be banished by our quest. It was hard to understand them, as there voice is more different from ours than even the Towalks, so I could not keep any meaningful quotes from them, indeed their meaning was often a guessing game. They related to us the scouting parties heralding our pass, and how the leader of the expedition, they pronounced her name 'Kanda' would open the way through the Nemi.

Dald especially was happy to be received thus, and he blushed even through tanned cheeks with pride basking in this glory, I sat with him when I could, happy to see him so honored. Rul was not seen much at these celebrations, except perhaps by some herdess apart from the camps. Elida was not seen at the celebrations, he would retreat to his own thoughts and worries about the delay of these celebrations, coming out only to chide Dald about the pace of our advance.

The accounts of the Begorns suggested the scouts were hurrying ahead of us at a fantastic rate. Elida as he came to understand this felt usurped and grew morose. Later I learned that petty and vengeful feeling were already warping his mind, that at this time he was quietly spreading orders to squad leaders among the Guard, preparing them for battle with the Nemi. While he was doing this the Begorn were singing of how 'Kanda' would find welcome through the Nemi for our glorious quest. The Begorn are suspicious of the Nemi generally, but felt that 'Kanda' could surly turn their favor.

When we reached the Fork and meeting point, after seven days march, we found only five of the scouting parties waiting for us. I was walking behind Dald and Elida as they hailed these scouts. Elida was agitated, harassing the scouts for explanation, why the group Kindee went with and the group Grand went with were missing. An unnerved scout, named Drada, gave this report.

"They made it here three day's ago, and headed on down both forks, to observe the conditions and see what state the Nemi were in. We got here a day later. Kindee had ordered these five group to herald your advent to the Begorn herders, so we could find more support for the journey. Our five groups braided the lands, announcing the mission to Star's Reach. Most Begone were supportive, and promised gifts, some even offered recr..."

Elida asked "No! can you tell me, does Kindee intend to herald us all the way to the Nemi? To betray us to them?"

The scout was struggling for words when Dald put his hand on Elida's shoulder pointing down the Southern route, the one to Loven pass, where twenty-one bodies could be seen against the side of a mountain, approaching at a jog.

Raked by late evening sunlight they jogged down switch backs along the mountain slope under the jagged horizon. They were still far off when it became clear that it was a scouting party followed by twelve Nemi Rangers. When it became clear that we were about to meet the Nemi Elida order us all to await them at attention.

When they arrived in front of our lines stood Elida, Dald, and Rul. It was Grand's group which had gone to witness the Southern pass.

Grand stopped before the three, his scouts behind him and the Nemi Ranger standing proudly behind them. "I saw their battlements on the pass, it is a walled citidel at the pass. When their group dropped behind our party, to question us, I requested passage, hoping to scout the far side for you, we were denied, but they offered to come speak to the whole alliance, offering escort to Moft, where we might make our case before the Ranger Chiefs."

Grand bowed out and a man, whose name I never had chance to learn, steped forward to speak tall and strong and wearing a kind of plate armor uniform of a material unlike any I have ever assayed. This is what he said:

"You seek to cross our territory on a mission of war against a neighbor of the Nemi. Your scouts have petitioned well in your favor, and speak of the danger of the darkest enemies of our shared ancestry. I am willing to escort you to Moft where we can receive your army as guests, and discuss certain misunderstandings that we fear underlie your mission."

"Misunderstandings?" started Dald "Star's Reach has been found, as long as it exists it is a danger to all the worlds lands! What if the old war is brought back? We must go there, and ensure that this danger is settled!"

"I knew of your mission" said the Ranger "even before your scouts reached us, but your courage and character have been well recounted to me. Still, you come from a place distant and there is much news you should learn at Moft before launching war, I am willing to advocate that the group from Towalk be granted a visit to Star's Reach, that you can return to your families will reassurances based on your own experience and not hearsay. Those who now control Star's Reach have since finding it sent emissaries of peace, and have reassured those very same fears in my peoples hearts. I am surprised that these emissaries haven't connected with Gramaza."

Elida hissed "Haven't you considered that they, you, could have been corrupted? You arrange visit, are you now allies, doormen, of the Greys? Do they offer you to be the Federalists of the mountains? We shall not be stopped before your throne, for an offer that amounts to being taken to the Greys in custody."

Grand screamed “down!” guessing the violent intent that Elida was about to loose. I ducked down as warriors all around me flashed to fire guns. Elida's words "Don't spare the traitors!" were the last words my mind made sense of before all blurred into a chaos of guns and screams. Many Gramaza shots I heard 'toof' of the air rifles, and much more horrific thunder blasts from powder guns and Nemi shotguns. I laid on the ground, shaking after hearing the last shot, an execution shot from some Bledstone powder rifle, had long since stopped echoing. A Begorn turned me over to check me for life, pulling me from my cowering.

As I sat up I could hear Elida barking orders, trying to get our mission together to rush Loven Pass. Countless voices were yelling of many things at no one in particular. Smoke of powder guns slowly drifting up the mountain side. People were gathering the wounded. Grand and the eight with him were dead, among the twelve Nemi they stood with. Dald was being helped up, his right arm mangled by a shot gun blast. Rul lay bled out on the rocky ground. In addition to him we lost Haz of the Guard, Bemmy of the Volunteers, and two Bledstoners; a dozen more were seriously wounded, awful is a blast of Nemi shot.

Nemi shotguns only got off nine shots, compared to a hundred rounds they received. Though their armor, amazingly, deflected many air bullets, the limited coverage was no help against a concentrated barrage. The last of them, who had tried to crawl away, had been shot close.

It was almost dark as we had recovered the first suggestion of order. Elida was in a frantic, pointless rush, commanding us to make haste to Loven Pass at the first hint of light in the morning. Meanwhile Dald, his arm having been amputated, was unconscious. With Rul dead the Bledstone were leaderless. In a daze we made a mess of a camp for the night, resigned to a forced march at first light for what we imagined to be certain death.

Before dawn we were dropping gear, getting ready to rush a Nemi citadel. Elida was insistent that with our numbers we could swarm over the divide at more points than the Nemi could guard and collect together on the other side, but serious questions about carrying provisions, knowing the landscape, and how we could meetup he never had time for. Some of the Begorn had volunteered to stay and get the injured treatment with their peoples, though convincing Dald to stay behind, amputation or not, was proving very difficult.

Elida put on a cloak of composure and started to form lines to charge Loven Pass, almost despondent stood Wana beside him, her brother's place. But we never got further, because from the Northern path Kindee returned, and her scouting group had thirty Nemi Rangers with them.

Coming around the corner they were only three hundreds yards from our camp when they were seen. Elida, rushed over seeing them approach, barking orders to the Guards to assemble, as though we were under attack. Dutifully the Guards took their positions, but even as the guards did so turmoil broke out as some Volunteers and Bledstoners, wearing mourning bandannas for Grand and Rul, began to scream over the orders many foul words.

Kindee saw this scene, our wretched camp, the twenty six bodies arrayed in honor to the vultures, with great horror. She ordered the Nemi and her scouting group to take cover. Some Nemi ran up the hillside that the trail hugged, more quickly than I thought was possible, taking cover behind rocks. Alone Kindee walked toward the guns pointed at her, gesturing widely she tossed her rifle up the hill side, approaching unarmed. She roared "Why to you cower before your own scout?"

Elida yelled back "You command our enemy traitorous usurper! You bring the Nemi to capture us as Grand tried before you."

Kindee seemed genuinely stunned by Elida's response. "I bring a welcome party and good tidings to the Towalk, that the Nemi will petition for them to visit Star's Reach. Also I bring a question from the Nemi for the Guard of the Host who escorted this mission. 'Why did you find fault in the assurances sent West by the Meriga emissaries?'"

Elida hissed "Lying traitor! We will kill your whol..."

"No!" howled Wana "We will meet and talk more." she turned to Elida "You were to be our guide, not our doom! Look! Look! If your Guards fire, there are many in our line who would fire on them, Bledstone, and Volunteers. And even I don't guess what the Begone or my own Towalk would then do! You would slaughter us all if we fall on ourselves."

Elida stood there shaking, as all heads turned to Wana and him. I think he guessed what the Nemi would do to him, concerning the twelve dead Rangers. No one would obey him any longer, Elida took his rifle and turned it toward Kindee, committing a kind of suicide mowed down by many shooters, who needn't be named. There were something pathetically heroic in his death, he died guilty for twelve dead Rangers, and that did much to protect us all from Nemi retribution.

After Kindee introduced us to the Nemi leader, Sir Hoza, the alliance disbanded. Begorn returned to their families and herds. The Bledstone seeing no hope for plunder returned to the low lands. The Volunteers were sent back to Gramaza, returning with praise of Kindee, which was then distorted to invent stories of treachery, like the envious stories that doomed Elida.

The Towalk went with us to the high citidel of Moft carved into the living stone around that pass, and we parted ways with them on arrival, as they went further North, to see a Meriger diplomate, demanding proof of the safety of Star's Reaches occupation. The Guard was brought back to Moft for a hearing concerning the death of the twelve Rangers. There Elida was found responsible, and the Guard was permitted to return. My testimony, I am proud to say, was key to that verdict.

With Elida dead, we could not answer the question that the Nemi sent with Kindee. And more disturbingly since returning to Gramaza I am left with two questions: why has no one here heard of the Ambassador who came to Gramaza offering assurances of Star Reach's safety? And how did the Nemi Ambassador get Korada's sigel print on those assurances?

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