Part 1: The Intrigue
The clan stronghold is in a cave somewhere in the rolling hills of Hibernia. A tall scriptorum desk sits opposite the entrance with a stool before it. Beside this, a tall, slender table holds the sacred carved oak box which contains the Sacred Relics of the Longinii. Torchlight illuminates the textured rock walls. To one side a curtain closes off a passage leading to the Inner Sanctum and living quarters. On a flat-topped stone, a crystal ball sits on its pedistal. A sky chart is pinned to a board. The entrance to the cave is hidden by brush and a boulder. A visitor who makes his or her way to this site must be serious about his or her intentions. For, guarding this location is not only some wild country but the magic of the Clan and the spirit of our Patron. A visitor is making her way. The Clansmembers await...
The visitor checks behind her to make sure no one has seen her progress up the slopes. She slips behind the boulder and enters the cave. Leaves stick to her cape and cowel. She drops the hood and brushes leaves from her hair.
"What is it you want?" LibrisLeo asks from her seat at the scriptorum table.
The visitor looks around, but no one offers her a seat. "I have come to propose an alliance."
"What sort of an alliance?" LibrisLeo asks.
"Between our two clans."
"Aren't you kkeebb, lead minstrel of the Clan Mistik Musik?" Seona asks from her seat in the corner. "What could you possibly offer us in the way of an alliance?"
"Our Clan is prepared to assist you in finding the Spear of Destiny." LibrisLeo and Seona exchange glances. "How do you propose to do this? You are a group of musicians, not a fact-finding junket." Seona leans against the wall and waits for the answer.
"We are more than just musicians," kkeebb relpies. "Each one of our Minstrels is well-versed in the arts of the dagger and interrogation..."
"I've heard that you also have a cave full of gold and jewels," Livia speaks up from the passageway. "There are times when money greases the wheels of information better than threats or even death."
"We do have our ways," kkeebb answeres noncommittally. "Our Minstrels are prepared to do whatever it takes to assist you in your search for the spear."
"What do you want in return?" LibrisLeo asks.
"I ask only that, when you take over the world, you allow the music to flourish."
"We will discuss it and get back to you."
The Lead Minstrel nods and leaves the way she has come.
"Well? What do you think?" Seona asks once the visitor has gone.
"We can't vote right now, one member is missing."
Livia stretches her arms and twirls around the room. "All that wonderful gold, and it will be ours!" she giggles.
Part 2: The Northern Menace
An Alliance of the Clans?
Ceridwen had told her clan that her trip was to get away, to find a place to meditate on things, to do some shopping, to hear news of the world. And she had done all of those things. But the results had been less and so much more than she had anticipated. Her meditations had brought disturbing visions and omens. Crows followed her footsteps, cawing out their messages wherever she went. Beware, be watchful! They called. Visions of armies marching strong had come in fevered fits: sandaled feet stamping smooth the roads of the Forumland forests, leather boots gripping the mud while swords flashed...
The green hill beyond the villa sparkled in its golden sheath of raindrops as the sun sank lower. Beyond that, a rosey stormcloud massed energy, stark against the darkening sky and golden valley. Another omen? Or just appropriate?
Rumors hugged her mind. Rumors of a pitched clan battle between the forces of Forumland. It was said that the Dianas had joined with the O'Connors to take over the other clans. It was said that the Stargazers had censored her own clan Longinus, although she didn't know why. It was even rumored that a fighting force bred in the Otherworld and shaped in the pits of Hades was on its way to ensure its clan's ascension. Her shopping had suffered due to the rumors. Merchants worried about the battle to come had raised their prices. Transportation, they said, was becoming too risky. Goods were getting scarce. There was going to be a war, and shelves were constantly emptied in preparation... But there were other rumors, and the things she had seen firsthand. These were more immediate, more pressing. And they preyed on her mind. It was rumored, on good authority, that the Senate had decided to withdraw their support to Hibernia of the Forumlands. Led by a shadowy cabal known only as 'The Fox', the senators had begun to pressure the Emperor Honorius to forsake the tiny land at the end of the world and concentrate on the barbarian threat from the northern hinterlands. This cabal told the emperor how expensive it was to maintain the colony opposed to the wealth it brought in. It said that it was too far away from all the Roman people knew to be of any use. There were other, more lucrative endeavors in their own vicinity, as well as the threats from the Cabal of Barbarian States, the Nationhood of Barbarian Capitals, and the Alliance of Barbarian Countries. They said that a successful defense against these giants had to be concentrated on the home front.
Then there were the things seen: Coastal communities laid waste by the barbarian fleets of the North Sea, villages burnt and pillaged, motherless children mourning for the women now taken as slaves or worse by the invaders, villages of old people and the very young where these pirates had taken those of an age to fight and serve. They would come in by night, she was told, in their long boats, and creep up on a sleeping community. Without warning they would sweep down and crush any resistance the sleepy villagers could give. After taking what they would, they burned the buildings to the ground and left the corpses to the animals. People called them 'The Visitors' in quiet fear. These activities were still confined to the northern coastal settlements, but these 'Visitors' had begun to grow bold. They took their ships up rivers to ravage settlements there, and had even been reported traveling across land some ways to reach a particularily wealthy enclave.
The clans of forumland had to unite, she thought to herself, put aside their differences for now and fight under a common banner. They had to drive off the Norhtern menace, and convince the Senate not to withdraw support.
Her stomach churned. This was a catastrophe in the making. If the clans did not believe her, and why should they, no one ever did, thier land would no longer be theirs. The children of the clans would grow up with these raiders as their masters instead of having autonomy. She thought about her own children and couldn't watch them grow up slaves to a foreign power. Hibernia of Forumland was theirs. She tried to see the future, but her emotions interfered. Her stomach continued to battle her while her mind tried to comfort her with words of victory. Were the words true? Or were they just a reaction to the stress of the coming conflict?
There were other matters to take care of and she put her mind to them. Should they ally with the Mystic Minstrels? Yes, but not for the rumored gold and jewels. If things came to a head, money would mean nothing. The reasons for alliance would be the mobility and near-invisibility of the Minstrels in their entertaining capacity, and the comfort of numbers in these uncertain times.
The Stargazers. What could she do about them? Their censorship had come from rumors, she was certain. She didn't even know why they had targeted the peaceful clan. She decided to contact their leader and find out. While she did, she would also propose a temporary alliance to fight the threats that were nearly upon them. Once they saw that the Longinii were proud people of the land, they would certainly know that their only intentions were for the good of the people and the country.
Ceridwen felt the evening chill and realised that it was nearly dark. She wrapped her wool shawl around her and stood up, pausing a moment to gaze at a flickering star. The star winked and shimmered in the violet sky. Ceridwen went inside.
The old man sat back and hitched his leg into a more comfortable position. Sweat glistened on his brow. His bony shoulders, thin with years, still shone with the energy of his workout.
"Yes, they do need some work," he said. "If they can't knock me down, they've got some things to learn."
Ceridwen raised an eyebrow. She had watched the workout and doubted if a more experienced fighter could have thrown the old man to the ground with any ease. He might be old, but he was a veteran of the Roman army.
"They need more discipline. Takes over when their interest wanes."
"That's why we have asked for your help," Ceridwen answered. "The way things look, we'll need a well-disciplined fighting force to defend the village."
"And with a little bit of that Gaelic cunning..?" he asked, a twinkle in his eye.
Ceridwen inclined her head. "That would certainly help. I hear their forces are more experienced, and larger..."
"I remember those days, the Gaels coming out of the hills, striking, and fading back into the brush like they'd never been. We were sore-pressed those times. Only thing that saved us was our discipline. Fortified encampments at night, shields at the ready on the march... The problem was when we went through a narrow pass. We were strung out, couldn't form up. Lost a lot of men that way."
"Well, if we can effectively combine the best of both, we'll have some sort of an advantage, even if we aren't as experienced."
"Discipline, attention to duty, confidence in their training and their leaders..." he leaned back. "I might not be much to look at. Old, I expect. But I'm not much older than you, Lady. I did my time, served my emperor... emperors... There's always at least two of them now, isn't there?"
Ceridwen grinned. Which she rarely did outside the family. She remembered as well as he did that there had been an Emperor of Britain a few years before. "Well, there's the Eastern Emperor in Byz... uh, Constantinople, and the Western Emperor in Rome. And occasionally, an emperor of one province or another. Do you remember Maximus?"
"Magnus Maximus. Soldier, leader, Emperor of Britain. Some emperor," the old man sniffed. "Took his troops and left Britain almost undefended while he tried to usurp the throne of Rome. I was there, but I was not with him. I figured, if he did succeed, I could always run up to Caledonia, or over to Hibernia."
"Maxen Wledig," Ceridwen agreed.
His eyes became dreamy as he recalled those days, before he'd gotten older. "Those were treacherous times," he said. "You couldn't trust a man, not friend nor brother. Keep your thoughts to yourself was safer than speaking them aloud, even to the winds. You know, the empire would have given anything to have Hibernia. They'd give even more for Forumland."
He'd lowered his eyes to watch the patterns he was drawing in the earth with a long stick. Ceridwen couldn't read his expression.
"With Forumland, they wouldn't have to worry about the Germans on their borders. There's power here. Power and magic. One mage from this land, and those Germans would turn into so many salmon in the streams of Europe. Or bow their knees in homage. But the empire no longer has the time."
His voice had dropped with his eyes. Ceridwen watched the patterns forming from the end of his stick. Spirals, lines, hills, the island itself.
"Whoever rules Forumland, rules the empire... and the world."
"Forumland is not a united empire," Ceridwen reminded him.
"Not now, no. But there are those who would see it happen." He raised his eyes. They were intense, a light gleaming out from behind them. "All the glories of Rome would be nothing to the empire of this land," he said. "Gold and jewels and the bounty of the earth, ripe and ready for conquest. Whoever rules Forumland can have anything in the world. They can have the world. The person who rules Forumland, rules the Empire."
Ceridwen sat back, her face, she hoped, a mask. So that was it. She knew Forumland was a special place filled with magic. But she had never connected this specialness to the conquest of the world.
She was old enough not to want to rule the world. There were too many headaches in just holding the lands and dependents her family owned now. Imagine that on a global scale! she told herself. But, she had to admit the allure. Ruler of the world and everything in it. Homage from Senators to Barbarians, all bending their knee to her. Riches beyond her wildest imagination, goods and land, and her name spoken of as a Goddess...
Any one of the other clans' leaders, though, if they realised this, would probably jump at the chance to become Emperor of the World. Who was this man she had entrusted with the training of her troops?
He nodded at her as her gaze finally settled on him. "That's their plan," he said. "To rule Forumland, to rule the empire. To have knees bend to them, their pleasure where they take it. Remember Caligula? Nero?"
Ceridwen shuddered. Such excesses, and unstoppable because they were Divine Emperors. "That can't happen here," she gasped, more as a spell against it than an affirmation.
"Not if we train our soldiers right. Not if we give them the power to fight against the Otherworldly forces which will be come upon us." He smiled in grim satisfaction. "This land is dear, too precious to despoil with the likes of those Dianas, or the O'Connors, or any of the rest of them. Let it live naturally, like it has since time began. Let the factions keep to themselves as the Gods have decreed."
"Marcus, who are you?" she asked him.
"Just a man who's had his allegiance shifted," he answered her. "I owe you my liege. It is my duty to ensure the safety and independence of this land we live on, and the autonomy of this family."
Ceridwen's son Bran wandered by, rubbing his muscular shoulders from the morning's workout. He nodded to his mother, then squatted sorely beside the old veteran. "That was some exercise," he said. "I thought I had you!"
"Never assume anything," the old man said, punctuating his remark with a curt nod. "In war, any assumption could be your last."
Part 4: The Twilight
Ceridwen strode down the woodland path which bisected the copse at the edges of the town. To either side, their army practiced weaponry with their backs to the path.
She had just come from speaking with Marcus and the others who were training the troops.
"They're doing well," Marcus had told her. "But their experience, all of them, lays with the bow."
"Of course. They all hunt," Ceridwen had replied.
"Speaking of the bow, we've had some take to the targets at the green," Gwyn had said. "It would look suspicious if no one practiced there any more."
Ceridwen had nodded her approval of this ploy. It was true; even at the height of hunting, there was always someone practicing at the targets.
"What about the hit-and-run?" she asked.
Gwyn had smiled then, his eyes softly fading to the past. "They're Celts, each and every one of them. They know how to remain invisible until the right moment, then sweep down like a flock of avenging falcons, taking what they will then fading back into nothingness."
"We separate them into two groups," Marcus expanded. "One group becomes the invaders, the other, the defenders. For now they use practice swords and hand-to-hand. We send the 'invaders' along a path, sometimes in the hills, sometimes along the swampy land west of here. At first, Gwyn would choose the place for the attack. I would show our troops the places where an attack would most likely take place. Now, we watch and let them decide those places which would be most beneficial to the attack, and methods of defense for those areas known to be unsafe."
They were learning the best of both styles. Ceridwen was pleased.
An arrow sang out of its bow to her left and she stopped to watch it strike home. The arrow quivered in the cloth-covered straw, right in the center of the circular pattern.
The voice was low and cool, but carried an air of command. Ceridwen felt her soul tighten as she glanced around to see her daughter Creiddylad sitting on the side of the path.
The girl put her hand protectively on a pack beside her. "I'm medical," she said proudly.
Her mother smiled tiredly. Every morning and every evening, Creiddylad mentioned her special job in the army. She would have mentioned it more often, but these days, they rarely saw each other beyond the family table.
Ceridwen did worry about her daughter, though. It was one thing to patch a skinned knee or a small cut. Quite another to stem the bleeding of a severed limb. Or, sing the soul of the dying to eternal spring.
The wooded copse was pleasant in the afternoon sunshine. Ceridwen lowered herself deliberately to sit beside her daughter.
"Not everyone is here," Creiddylad said. "Some of the men are out in the fields, and most of the women. We've got to get the harvest in before Market Faire. I don't understand why you moved the Faire up this year. It doesn't make sense! You've got us out here training, and you know that takes people away from the fields. You should have made it later, Mother."
Judgement was heavy in her voice. Ceridwen didn't want to tell her about the rapidly approaching war, the girl's mouth was too ready to speak. But she was not prepared to hash around it for hours when there were other things to do. "Just trust me, all right? There are things you know nothing about..."
"I know that it isn't right to expect the people to train all night and day and expect them to bring the harvest in as well. We just can't do it, there isn't time!"
Ceridwen raised her eyes and scanned the woods. A feeling had struck her, a feeling of impending danger. Her ears began to ring, drowning out her daughter's voice. In her mind, she could see Livia, basket of herbs on her arm, walking behind the archers' targets. She rose, watching the targets closely.
Livia, and an ill-placed arrow. She could see the trajectory taking the feathered shaft between two targets and right into the unsuspecting woman. She could see it, she could see...
A ripple of color in the mottled light and Livia came into view.
Creiddylad stood up beside her mother, hand at her throat. "Watch out!" she cried.
But the arrow had already been loosed. Ceridwen watched it as it traveled, slowly in her horror-stricken mind. No sound could penetrate the sight of the arrow barely missing the haystack and its covering of cloth; no other sight could intrude. Livia flinched away from the path of the arrow and reached up to grab it by its shaft.
Ceridwen sank down to the log. This family would be the death of her yet, she swore to herself.
Everyone was running now. Creiddylad grabbed her bag and went to see what had happened to her cousin. Bows were laying by the shooters' line, their owners converging on the figure in the forest. Even the spear throwers had abandoned their practice to see if they could help.
Creiddylad forced her way through the first archers to arrive. "Let me through!" she demanded, holding her bag above their heads.
Livia was holding the arrow, a confused look on her face. "Here," she said, and handed it to her cousin.
"Where were you hit?" Creiddylad demanded, turning her cousin around to find the site. She handed the arrow to someone standing nearby to free her hands to search.
But she could find no blood, no place where the arrow had pierced Livia's flesh.
"It didn't touch me," Livia said. She patted her cousin's shoulder in assurance. "Really. It wasn't going that fast, I was able to get out of the way."
Creiddylad continued to turn her around, though, convinced that she was merely in shock.
Marcus and Gwyn ran up and barrelled their way through the crowd. "Is she all right?" Marcus shouted.
Gwyn joined Creiddylad in the search for a puncture. "She wasn't hit," he said at last, shaking his head.
"She caught the arrow," a woman said in awe.
"She was holding it," a man replied.
"Told you I thought she caught it," Gwyn hissed at Marcus.
Marcus only sighed heavily and shook his head. [Image]
Lights twinkled up from the green at the edge of town. People were arriving for the Faire. Booths and pavilions were being constructed in the limited light, to be ready for the crowds which would begin to arrive on the morrow.
Other lights shone in the fields around the valley. Farmers worked with the moonlight and torches to bring their harvests home.
The soldiers who had been out in the woods earlier were now out reaping the ripened crops for winter. They would get little sleep. Bran and Creiddylad were out there as well, helping, as were the merchants and their children.
Seona passed through the room and paused to see the earth-bound stars.
"They don't understand why we're pushing this," she remarked in the dimness.
"I know. Crei was giving me some trouble over it earlier today. Right before Livia caught the arrow."
"It seemed so slow," Livia said, staring at her hand. "I saw it coming, just floating along. It was coming right at me, so I moved aside and reached for it before it hit into a tree..."
"Everybody's talking about it. They think you're double-blessed."
"I think it's the sight," Livia said. "I was able to see it before it was even shot, and could see where it would go. But, no one would believe that, would they?"
Seona shook her head. "No, no one would. Just as they wouldn't believe us if we told them about that army marching through the land right now on its way to the Stargazers' Keep."
"I think that's because no one wants to believe that there's a war coming which may devastate the land and kill a good many of our people. They'd rather believe in safety."
Julia came in and draped the Sacred Cloth about her neck.
"Is it time?" Livia asked.
Julia opened the shrine to their Patron and lit the frankincense. She lifted the miniature golden spear from its velvet cushion and raised it high as her kinswomen gathered around her for their nightly devotions.
Part 5: Midnight
Ceridwen sighed. She had heard from Skybax of the Stargazer Clan the week before, asking if the Family could shield their non-combatants. She had agreed. Now they were on their way, led by a light cavalry contingent. Sick, elderly, and children, all with no place to go now that Stargazer Keep had been stripped in the face of Lord Bane's forces. Ceridwen wasn't sure where they would put them to keep them safely hidden, but she knew that they had to.
Julia entered the cavern, taking off her ceremonial scarf as she did. She noticed the communications crystal on the scriptorum and ran her hand down its smooth facets to draw energy.
Because of her status as religious leader of the Family, Ceridwen and the others had kept the details of the coming war from her. Not because of any delicacy on her part; Julia was an expert bowman and had taken a liking for single-stick practice.
It was more because of her relationship to their Patron. It was Julia more than the others with whom he had any contact, and it was Julia who was most sympathetic to his whims and desires. Ceridwen, LibrisLeo, Seona and Livia had decided amongst themselves that it would be better not to tell her about their struggle to keep Forumland free of one single clan above the others beause he would probably want them to step into the breech while the other clans were fighting, and to take the reins of Forumland for themselves.
"Who have you been communicating with?" Julia asked as she removed her fingers reluctantly from the crystal.
It was time. There was no longer any reason to hide things, Julia would know soon enough when the non-combatant Stargazers arrived. "Skybax," Ceridwen replied.
"Skybax," Julia mused, "Skybax... Oh, yes. Stargazers. Mana Knight. Why have you been in contact with him?"
"He is sending the sick, elderly and young of their Clan to us, for protection," Ceridwen replied.
Julia cocked her head. "Protection? Does this have anything to do with our developing an army? What is going on, anyway?"
Ceridwen told her about the developments from the time she had gone northward for her meditation. She told her about her visit to Stargazer Keep, and what she had learned from Skybax. She brought her up to date on the developments: the clans who had joined the Alliance in conjunction with Lord Bane; the threat of the Dianas and their desire to rule Forumland; what Marcus had said about the ruler of Forumland; that the armies of the dreaded Lord were marching through the land on their way to fight the Stargazers at that moment and that, if the dark forces won, all of Forumland would be in for some real trouble.
Julia took it all in silently. "We must keep the struggle in our devotions," she said when Ceridwen was finished. "These dark forces have been interfering with my power-workings already. I have felt the disturbance they have brought. I'm glad you told me of them."
"Our main concern is that he not find out and try to force us to usurp the autonomy of this land."
Julia nodded, but her eyes were veiled. Ceridwen wondered if she had done the right thing in telling her before the refugees had arrived.
"He would be right in insisting that we take the reins for the duration of the fight," Julia said. "But afterwards, I'm afraid that our Patron would try to keep the power in the Family. No, I will not tell him knowingly. Rest assured. And if he should find out, I will fight him on this point. We do not wish Forumland to suffer the devastation which has plagued the remnants of the Empire since Honorius ordered the downsizing of the troops. Now. Where will we hide the Stargazers?"
"During the Faire, it will be simple. There will be many people from outlying areas here, all to shop or hawk their wares. During that time, we must find safe houses for them."
"Is there anyone else involved?"
Ceridwen took a breath. "I have called for Web Witch of the Galen Clan," she replied.
"I thought I felt a familiar presence."
Web Witch was another transplanted Briton. She had lived east of the Longinii lands back then, and was known to the older members as both a friend and a powerful sorceress. Normally, her presence would be cause for celebration. But in these uncertain times, the festivities would have to wait.
Julia's eyes were trained on the rough-hewn ceiling of the cavern, but seeing past the walls into the town. "She is near the square, I see the inn. Let's go and welcome her to our lands."
The Faire had been going on for two days already. The harvest had been affected through contests pitting the strength of the farmers from one location against the farmers of other towns. Now the streets were lined with booths selling flour and millet and various grains and vegetables. Apple stands were plentiful. Colorful baskets and pottery were displayed from other booths and pavilions which housed the more noble families showed that the wares were well-received.
"Apple cider! Fresh, hot apple cider!" one merchant cried.
"Every bride wants her pots! Come get your pots!" another chimed in.
Ceridwen and Julia made their way through the crowds to the inn and entered the dimness of its perpetual evening. Long tables were laid out, and a stew simmered over the fire. Two late-rising men were drinking tankards near the blaze. The innkeeper rushed up to greet the patron family of the area.
"We have heard that an old aquaintance of ours is staying here," Ceridwen said. "Her name is Web Witch."
"Ah, yes, the Briton. I don't believe she has left yet... Medb!" he called to his wife, who appeared in the doorway to their private rooms.
"Has that British woman left the inn yet?"
"Not that I know of," Medb answered.
"She's up in the room at the head of the stairs. It's been a good Faire so far, Lady."
Ceridwen smiled and wished him prosperity, then followed Julia up the stairs.
"Webbie?" Julia called, knocking on the thick oaken door.
The door flew open and a smiling Web Witch drew her old aquaintances into the room with little ceremony. "I was wondering when you'd get here!" she exclaimed in her comforting west accent.
Julia grinned back at the woman. "I have missed hearing the speech of our own country for too long!" she exclaimed. "But that darned Cheshire grin you people have...!"
Web Witch laughed and seemed to disappear into her smile. "My dear, you seem to have adopted it yourself! Wonderful Faire you have here. I saw acrobats performing last night when I arrived, and was lulled to sleep by minstrels."
Ceridwen looked at the bed, which was still unmade from Web Witch's night, and cocked an eyebrow. "Which side did they sleep on? Or, did you take the middle?"
Web Witch laughed and winked, but did not answer. Then her face grew grim. "Tell me what this is all about, now."
Ceridwen explained as best she could, leaving the actual seeing to the sorceress.
Web Witch frowned, growing more pronounced in the process. It was something about those Cheshire people that when they smiled, they all but disappeared; but when they frowned, they seemed to take on a surreal presence. "I have felt the darkness descending," she sighed at last. "I had hoped that it was nothing to do with us, but I suppose we must fight the thing. What do you wish me to do?"
"We've begun to form an army here, for our own protection, and to assist the Stargazers in their fight. We also would like to bring our magic to bear against the invaders. But we alone cannot affect much damage. Is there something you can do to swing the tide?"
Web Witch drew a pot from her nightstand and lit the herbal mixture inside of it. She waved it delicately under her nose and breathed in the fresh aroma of springtime. "Well, physically, I can blot the field from Lord Bane's view with the fog our Clan is so famous for. We would have to warn the Stargazers first, so they would not become trapped in the soup. I can also fog the minds of the human participants on Bane's side, and possibly the elven members of his forces. What about you?"
"We have recently discovered a natural extension of our ability to see into the future," Ceridwen said. "We are able to discern the path of a projectile headed in our direction and stop it before it does damage. We have tested it on each member of the Family, and it seems to be a common trait."
Julia took a wad of material in her hand. "Watch this," she said, and the material began to smoulder. In an instant, it burst into flames and writhed in the bowl Julia had dropped it into.
Web Witch watched, suitably impressed. "I expect you'll replace that lovely scarf," she said, then, "If we could get you near enough to Lord Bane, you could cause some real damage, if only to his person."
"The problem is, he's protected by his God," Ceridwen said. "The magic which veils their thoughts must come from a Divine source. No human is that powerful."
Web Witch's eyes narrowed and her accent grew thicker. "Then we must fight them on that level. Have you any idea of the Gods of this place?"
Julia nodded. "I have discovered them and have paid them homage in my devotions," she answered. "They are a just and righteous group, and I am sure that They do not wish the likes of Bane and his band to rule Forumland."
"I as well have made my peace with the Gods of our lands and shall petition them for protection and strength. I shall also ask that my powers be enhanced in order to fight off this menace to our country. I suggest that we all take the time to go deep into our devotions and draw nearer to our Gods before this scourge descends on us, and on our allies."
It was agreed between them that every night of that week, they all should meet at the villa and meditate together to draw power for the fight to come. Then Julia and Ceridwen left their friend to take in the sights of the Harvest Market Faire.
"Look. There's kkeebb," Julia whispered as they regained the square.
Ceridwen looked. A minstrel, lute in hand, was playing to a group of people. Her soft, hypnotic voice drifted over the crowd, lulling them with the old tales of warriors and beautiful maidens.
"It's too bad she decided to take the Mystic Minstrels into the Dark Alliance," Julia said.
Ceridwen shook her head. "They're a small group and must make their peace with all parties or they will be crushed. Do not condemn her until you have faced her demons."
They moved to the outskirts of town, where the archery targets stood. Several members of their newly-formed army were testing their prowess against visitors who had come for the Faire. Marcus and Gwyn were on the sidelines with the other spectators, watching intently as each archer made his or her mark on the target.
"Always recruiting," Julia sighed.
Ceridwen caught Marcus' eye. Try not to give the game away, she thought.
Marcus looked surprised, then nodded as if he'd heard her thoughts, and the two women moved on.
Part 6: The Storm
Kkeebb, the lead minstrel of the Mystic Minstrels, was playing a gentle lay on the green. The crowd around her sat in rapt silence while her music floated above.
"Isn't that beautiful?" Julia sighed. "It's too bad she and her clan have decided to go with the Dianas."
"Despite what you've heard, life is a series of compromises," Ceridwen replied. "And you can't know at the time you make your decision, whether it will be the right one or not."
"We've been through this a hundred times," Livia sighed. "Our problem right now is getting those non-combatants from the Stargazer Clan into some safer situation. Right now, they're blending into the strangers here. When the crowds leave, though, we'll need some place for them to stay so Lord Bane's forces don't discover them."
"We also need to get our forces up and ready to fight," Ceridwen said.
"How are they doing?"
"Marcus tells me that this first group is ready to leave. They're better at archery than the spears, but that can't be helped. They're well-equipped and knowledgeable, and they're familiar with both Roman and Celtic methods of warfare, on a basic level."
"I saw them helping Marcus and Gwynn with the training last evening," Julia said.
"Both Marcus and Gwynn feel that, by helping to train others, their lessons will be better set in their minds. But they should be leaving anyway. I've heard from Skybax."
The three women huddled together away from the crowd while Ceridwen imparted the latest news from the Mana Knight.
"So the keep's been razed," Julia sighed.
"This is serious," Livia said.
"That's why we need to get our people out of here, and try to keep any representatives from the other clans here. Our most important job will be to keep the Minstrels from seeing our army, and from seeing them leave. That's why this Faire was so important! It masks a variety of otherwise noticeable leavings and arrivals."
Web Witch wandered over, laughing and holding a plate of pie. She sat down on the grass beside her friends to listen to the lovely music.
"I want to go with the army." Livia crossed her arms over her chest resolutely. Ever since she discovered her ability to stop a projectile, it had been her wish to assist their forces in any way she could.
"I'd rather see you stay and train with the new group before going into battle," Ceridwen answered. "Otherwise, all you'd be is a glorified arrow-finder, and you won't be any good at all if you get killed. Train with the new group, please."
"Is that an order?"
"Then, I will leave with the army."
Ceridwen sighed. Livia could catch any arrow or light spear thrown her way, but if there were too many of them, she would certainly run out of hands. Besides, her magic would be needed more than her limited fighting skills.
"Let her go." Web Witch's voice was soft and full. "She has power, and her magic could be useful. I'll watch her."
"Oh. You're going?"
"Of course. The Galens' fog will be needed in the first heat of battle, not in its aftermath."
Ceridwen nodded. Her son and daughter were going with the army, and now Livia and Web Witch were leaving as well. They had all planned on traveling to the battlefield at one time or another, for some it would be sooner than expected.
"I'd like them to stay on and help get these newer troops in shape," Marcus said.
Ceridwen followed him along the road which ran through the practice area. All around them, arrows were being shot and spears thrown. In a little clearing to the side, recruits worked on close combat with both short pikes and hands. Ceriwen noticed her son, Bran, throw a new recruit to the ground as easily as if he was releasing a sack of flour.
"I'd like to see them all stay here, but it just isn't possible. Our allies need our help."
"So things are getting worse in Forumland." Marcus shook his head and stopped to call out some instruction to the spear group. "It's the power of the place, I tell you. Whoever owns this land can rule the world. The Gods are strong here, and there's magic in the water itself."
"I want you to ask the departing troops if they will lend their homes for a time, to the refugees from the Stargazer Clan. There are spies about, and we need secrecy."
Marcus nodded and scratched his bearded chin. "I can do that. Some of the new recruits need places as well. We'll be working on homes for them, too."
It was early evening now. The Faire had wound down between the day's festivities and the night's entertainment. Most of the visitors were at supper, partaking of the excellent food of the inn and the bakery in town and incidentally filling their coffers with new gold. Ceridwen knew that the troops must be hungry, but she also knew the need for additional training.
"They're set to leave tonight," Marcus said with a shake of his head. "No one's to know. While the Faire holds people's attention, they will be leaving out the pass for the Stargazer's mountains. Oh, three of our best veterans will be going with the troops, so there will be some experience along. Couldn't keep Angus out of it, he said, and Paulus and Civonius feel the same."
"How are they fixed for supplies?"
"They've enough to get them into the Stargazers' lands and then some. It's a time-honored tradition to forage in the lands where you fight."
Ceridwen frowned. "From what I've heard, there won't be much left to forage. Lord Bane's troops are doing the same thing, and setting fire to what they cannot carry. There won't be much to sustain them once they're there."
Marcus nodded in approval. "I don't care for the likes of Bane, but he knows his stuff. If he leaves anything in the fields, our troops, or the Stargazers, will have it."
A distant rumble filled the evening air. Ceridwen and Marcus both turned to the surrounding hills. Tall clouds loomed, threatening the valley with a late storm.
"Might be a good thing," Marcus observed as the first sheets of rain cascaded down the far slopes. "No one will be out to catch the army's leaving."
It was more than just a storm, though. It was an indication of things to come. Ceridwen watched as the rain moved closer to the village, and thought about Lord Bane's forces running as easily through the land. Don't let them get waylaid, she thought.
Marcus jerked his head in her direction. "Lady, did you say something?"
"Oh. Well, yesterday and again now, I thought I heard you speak. Something about the troops not getting ambushed..."
Ceridwen shook her head, but wondered what his sensitivity could mean.