The horse's hooves tore the dirt road to bits. Sweat flew from the horse's body leaving a trail of salty drops on the road to Evania. Horse and rider were both exhausted, but the message was urgent. Rest was not possible. As he passed small farms, the children ran toward him hoping he would have time to share the news from along the border. That was usually the way; Philip enjoyed his rounds as messenger. It meant relaxing afternoons at various homesteads, sharing events from the castle, news of the crops and discussions of weather patterns. Philip knew which homesteads would serve freshly baked bread and which one always asked him to sample that season's brew. He knew his speed announced the urgency, that his pace would startle the people and give cause to rumors.
The foaming breath of his horse matched his own. It would do no good if his voice was too dry to deliver the warning when he did finally reach the castle. Philip tried to swallow some spit to ease his parched throat, but it was effective as trying to slay a giant with a pin.
His mouth watered as he dashed past John and Ruby's place; hot bread was always served with honey.
John Junior shouted as he rode by, "Ho! Philip! What news?"
"Urgent message for the King!"
Philip wasn't sure if John Junior heard anything, but the fact that something was amiss would not be misinterpreted.
As the castle came into view, Philip's legs were ready to give out. Evania was a woodland kingdom with thousands upon thousands of acres of trees and vines, greens and browns, shade and earth. For years the land, in Philip's heart as well as all who called themselves Evanians, had been protected from everything. The sun never shone too brightly in the woods, the heat never seemed to overwhelm with all the rivers to keep cool. But now? What would protect them now if the rumors were true?
His spirits were lifted at the sight of Evanian towers of wood and stone jutting skyward, appearing only now that the road was straight.
The guard at the outer post saw Philip coming fast and waited for him to slow. As he raced by, Philip dropped a red cloth. Within seconds the guard blew the horn - a resonating blast that would awake all of Evania.
By the time he had crossed the bridge, ducked under the archway and clomped onto the stone courtyard, King Julius himself was running down the steps toward him.
"Philip!" King Julius called out. "What news?"
"The ogres, Majesty. They come."
"Trouble along the border?" the King asked.
Philip nodded. "The worst sort."
When the ogres approached the castle, the courtyard was filled with soldiers in their armor, the crest of the White Dove on their chests, and swords at their side. King Julius stood before them all, waiting with silent apprehension. For the ogres to come this far, the safety along the borders must be dire.
Captain Urgane, leader of the ogres led a small band of his soldiers toward the King. Evanian soldiers held their breath; not only in anticipation of the news the ogres would bring, but for the stench that followed the ogres like a cloud.
Ogres are a paradox. At first glance, their appearance is quite alarming. They stand about four heads taller than the most men and have the width to match. Gifted with dense muscles, an Ogre's strength rivals a wild storm. They are built like men and women, but they are never mistaken them for what they are. Ogres are completely hairless, but just like people, they have different colored skin; although for Ogres, it has more to do with what they eat than their heritage. Captain Urgane was a dark shade of blue. Others Ogres are shades of green and yellow. There are red ogres too, but they are not part of the border guards, nor do they live with the Ogres of Evania. Red Ogres are fierce beings that did not agree to the treaty and remained in the mountains far to the north.
Urgane bowed elaborately to King Julius, always a surprise for his size and appearance, and spoke. "High Majesty of Evania, Urgane, Captian of Border Guards, bearing news." Ogres may look terrifying, but their voices ring in deep tones vibrating through the air, calming the most heated arguments just with the loveliness of the sound.
Chancellor Judah replied with the common greeting, sounding as bored as a slug: "Urgane is welcome in the Great Hall."
Julius wanted to point out they were not in the Great Hall, but all standing in the courtyard, but it didn't matter. Chancellor Judah was three times the King's age and no one felt compelled to correct him.
"King Julius, sixth son of the Prokopios Realm awaits your report," Chancellor Judah concluded his formal address.
Captain Urgane stepped forward. "Majesty, someone—or something—is crossing rivers near Phoenix at night between the outposts. Ogre guards found farms burning, the families gone."
"Dead?" Julius asked.
"I bring no certain answers. Blood and signs of struggles were all to be found."
"One farm?" Chancellor Petros asked.
"Three in the last week. Tracks were leading to the river."
"Do you believe this is the work of Cordanians?" Chancellor Petros wondered.
"We have not had a conflict with the Cordanians since my grandfather's reign," Julius said. "Our treaty with them still stands."
"I can't say for sure if it was Cordanians," Captain Urgane shifted his ax to the other hand, "only that the attackers went to the river which borders our lands."
Chancellor Bacchus spoke up. "May I suggest we send our scouts to the borders for a thorough study of the situation?"
Silence hung in the courtyard, waiting for the King to concur with the Chancellor, who was about to agree when Captain Urgane stepped forward. "Speaking with respect Majesty and Chancellors, I carry a request from the Mayor of Phoenix asking for a formal inquiry."
Julius' heart soared. A formal inquiry would require time away from the castle to travel to the Settlements. A week away from the formalities of castle life was just the beacon of hope Julius needed.
"Do you know what that entails?" Chancellor Judah sighed and shifted his weight speaking to Urgane as if he had made the request for himself. "The King must visit the Settlements, two Chancellors and a General must accompany him, and the people of the Five Settlements must hold a Hall meeting."
"A formal inquiry also includes the piece about bringing soldiers," Captain Urgane added. "The Settlements make this request for protection; greater protection than their tools-of-trade provide." He lifted his ax, a giant of axes. "My weapon is effective, but there are far too few Ogres along the borders to patrol effectively."
At this point, everyone in the courtyard took several steps backward as Captain Urgane's stinging under-arm stench permeated the area.
Chancellor Judah scoffed. "Captain Urgane, if your ogres gave chase and the attackers have returned to the river, then the threat has passed. Asking King Julius to also send soldiers to the Five Settlements is excessive."
"Chancellor, three families are missing. Attacked homestead weren't just burnt and ravaged, but torn apart. They were looking for something."
"Do you know what?" Julius asked.
"It's difficult to say. But each house was missing all the silver – there were no coins, no candlesticks, platters...nothing."
Chancellor Judah paled, muttering, "By the love of the White Dove."
Julius glanced at Chancellor Petros and saw that he was thinking the same thing. Addressing Captain Urgane, King Julius agreed. "With silver being taken, I believe that the request for soldiers and the inquiry is necessary. Captain Urgane, if you would please join us in the garden, I must consult with my Chancellors and make the necessary arrangements."
Captain Urgane bowed again, and left through the doors leading to the gardens. Three attendants groaned softly as Julius turned to them and nodded for them to see to Captain Urgane's needs.
The Chancellor's waited for instructions from their King. "Gentlemen, I will meet you there shortly. I would like to have a few moments to collect my thoughts."
They all bowed respectfully, although Chancellor Judah did not. He believed that the King should be able to think on the spot, making excellent decisions always, and leading the people into prosperity. King Julius practiced a different strategy: talk to a mentor first, open mouth with decision later.
"Chancellor Petros," King Julius whispered, "Great Hall if you would."
A few minutes later, Julius entered the Great Hall to find Chancellor Petros standing before the throne, staring at the carving brilliant bird taking flight of a on the back.
"In times of trouble," he said, "the White Dove is our greatest protection."
"I think the families who were taken would disagree," King Julius said, approaching the throne.
Petros turned and bowed to the King. "But trouble comes to us no matter what. How we respond determines how freely the White Dove can assist."
"Free assistance," the King almost smiled. "There is no such thing."
By the time they arrived at the garden, the other Chancellors had joined Captain Urgane, all keeping a good distance from him. The purpose of the courtyard garden was to offer a quiet, un-eaves-drop-able location for the King to meet with his advisers and Generals. The garden wasn't really a garden in the sense that anything edible grew. It was a stone courtyard surrounded by tall stone, window-less walls. The roof was polished alabaster and brass; a spectacular gift from the elves after the Evanians assisted with a skirmish with Red Ogres generations ago. Matching the roundness of the garden, a circular stone table was constructed in the center. Not just any table for this space would do, but a map of Evania and all its surrounding countries was etched onto the surface. Before the alabaster roof was constructed, the king and advisers met here no matter what the weather, using tarps to keep the weather off. But parchment maps are easily destroyed in the rain or snow. The stone map on the table was the perfect solution. Despite the heat of the day, two great fires had been lit to provide light; the towering walls surrounding the garden blocked much of the radiant sunlight.
The King's entrance squelched a heated argument between the Chancellors and Captain Neleus, who is not an ogre, but had been Julius' father's friend.
"I see that the planning of a battle is already underway," Julius interrupted.
The men, while not harming each other in any way, stepped back and looked as though they had just been caught fighting over the last pastry.
"Gentlemen," Julius began, "it is obvious that you have all heard of Captain Urgane's report of several attacks along the eastern borders."
The men nodded.
"And you also know that someone has attacked settlements, burning homes and stealing families away, presumably, to the other side of the river into Cordania."
Again they nodded.
"And the silver," Julius paused, not to make the moment more dramatic, but because they all knew what it implied. "Whoever is responsible for this aggression is possibly seeking silver."
Each of them remembered the tales of generations past. The legends of beasts, resistant only to silver, had haunted the dreams and childhood tales for decades.
"I do not wish to jump to conclusions," Julius said. "We all know that the silver alludes to a potential magical threat, but let's remember too that the Settlers deal mostly in silver. This could be as simple as greed. Until we know more, we will treat it as such. But I will not walk into this blindly. We will send troops to the Five Settlements to increase the river guard. Captain Neleus," Julius turned to the aged and wise commander, "your men will patrol the channel. General Maur, I would like four troops sent to the Eastern border. Two will patrol and two will escort the women and children back here if you believe the threat is great enough to merit an evacuation. Based on the settler's strength and general stubbornness, we just may need to arm them."
Chancellor Judah disagreed, which didn't surprise anyone. Julius believed it is his unfulfilled ambition to counter everything. It kept everyone on their toes, however, so while Judah may be a thorn under their heels, Julius had learned to defend all actions with gross amounts of reason. "King Julius," Judah began, "the expense of arming all the settlers would deplete our own stores of weaponry. I suggest we initiate an evacuation of the settlement area until the situation has been brought under control."
"Let us not forget how the Settlers came to be Settlers," Captain Neleus struggled to keep his temper under control, but years of battle training served him well in conversations with the Chancellors. "Hard work and blood. They bring in more than half of this city's market foods. You feast daily on their hard work. If they do choose to stay and fight, I imagine they will fight valiantly to protect their homes. The women, too, are very strong. They fight off wolves and bears to protect their children and their land. Several years ago, a twelve-year old girl killed a grizzly bear with nothing more than a long knife."
"I heard that story," Julius said, "but I thought it was just a tall tale remarking on the strength of the Settlers."
"It's true." General Maur nodded. "These people fear little. They are proud. They may not be learned or graceful in their formalities, but they are good people."
Chancellor Judah looked to Julius.
"I agree with Captain Neleus," Julius said and Chancellor Judah bowed his acceptance of the decision.
With that matter settled, Julius turned to Captain Urgane. "How many people have been taken?"
"Three families. Fifteen people," Urgane said, counting on his fingers.
Julius stared at the map with Evania etched in the center of the stone table. The Elves had carved an exact image of the Evanian castle in the heart of the forest. A narrow line etched between the trees indicated the road leading east to Phoenix. Julius traced the line to the road to the etching of Settler's Hall, a large wooden building where the meeting with the leaders of the Settlements would take place upon the King's arrival. Following the trail east, Julius' finger stopped at the river. Beyond the teaming rapids were the plains of Cordania which gradually rose to the mountains. A massive castle had been carefully sculpted into the stone table, a castle which clung to the side of a cliff. To the north, Elven lands. Those lands were not named, the Elves refused to mar the land with such trivial things as labels. The land was theirs and no one had yet dared take it away from them. South of Evania was forbidden to humans. Creatures who feared humans - and with good reason - lived among the crevices of the mountains and throughout the forests further south. Both these areas were decorated with trees, mountains and rivers, but no names.
"The Cordanians are fearless," Julius said. "The strain between our lands has gone on for decades. Our treaty has been honored, but in personal dealings with any Cordanian, the tension is sometimes strong enough to taste like blood. These actions, these attacks, if they are the work of the Cordanian people, will destroy the thin peace we have maintained," Julius turned to the men gathered. "General Maur, oversee the preparation of provisions. We leave at sunrise."
Chancellor Petros followed Julius to the library. Hartwin and Ortwin, Julius' hunting hounds, stood and greeted them. They had been curled up together in front of the fireplace, still enjoying the sliver of heat from last night's fire. They had been King Harold's, Julius' father's hunting dogs, and were enjoying their last days in front of warm fireplaces. They didn't hunt at all last year and Julius wouldn't be taking them to the Settlements. They would never make it.
Neither of them spoke until the door to the hallway was securely locked. Chancellor Petros turned from the door and let out a long sigh. He removed his hat and with it the formality of being only a Chancellor to the King. "It's happened again."
"Let's not jump to conclusions, Kristopher," Julius said. "If the Cordanians are after wealth, silver is all the Settlers have. I will go and see if there is any proof of a greater threat." Julius looked over to the wall of bookshelves. Some holding scrolls of maps, books of war strategies, others the myths and legends. But those held only words, re-telling what people remembered, probably fabricated to draw out the tension and lengthen the drama. Instead, Julius to the mantle and picked up the sword; it had been passed on from King Harold and worn at the hip of every King of Evania. "Do you believe the stories?"
Chancellor Petros nodded. "Yes. I believe them. Perhaps they are a bit tall, but they were written from a base of truth."
"That truth being that it's possible to create Leviathans, vile creatures to which silver weapons are the only tools to use against them."
Chancellor Petros stood next to Julius. "Your great-grandfather, the Good King Gerald, was the last to fight against magical beings. Of the men under your command, Captain Neleus is the only one old enough to remember hearing the Leviathan tales from someone who actually fought those battles."
"His father?" Julius asked.
"His grandfather was a soldier in the fight that King Gerald led against the Leviathans. He was a young soldier at the time. I remember hearing Captain Neleus tell your father that after that battle with the Leviathans, his grandfather never slept for more than a few minutes."
"I hope that isn't what we are up against. There usually isn't a reason to fight against the magical realm," Julius said. "The Elves refuse to communicate with us, the Ogres have a treaty with us, and the others just mind themselves."
Chancellor Petros looked to the books holding those stories and nodded. "Your father would have hoped you to be older."
"My father wished for many things for me," Julius laughed, but there was no joy in it. "The greatest of those was for me to be a man."
"Perhaps it will be difficult now to keep your secret."
"Yes, we might lose half our army if the Leviathans have returned and the other half if they learn they are led by a woman."