9th April - Dark Citadel
"Mistress?" Gerda hurried to unbolt the heavy oak door of their lodgings, easing it gently open to reveal a tall bearded man in a travel-stained yellow surcoat and dull plate armour. Behind him stood four men in similar livery and a young boy holding the reigns of their chargers.
"This is the lodging of Lady Aoifa Dubhaine," the man's voice was deep and cultured, a rich southern accent such as was rarely heard in the north.
"M'lady is not in right now, leave your name and I'll send a lad for you when she returns," Gerda was still getting used to her new position as a Lady's companion and her rural tones sounded strangely at odds with the smart new kirtle she now wore.
"That will not be necessary," he placed his palm against the door and it seemed to glide open without resistance.
Gerda sought to bar the way, but something about the man seemed to turn her limbs against her and try as she might she could not master them.
"You... cannot... come in," it took every ounce of will to frame the words, and Gerda was shocked at the fear in it.
"Your courage is commendable lass, but we've travelled far and our errand is urgent, now go fetch your mistress and do not tarry," and though Gerda couldn't fathom why, she fled along the street eager to comply.
Aoifa sat sipping a goblet of Abakan wine in one of the tented inns that served the armed force gathered in the fortress, studying the latest despatches with Lena and letting the troop movements play out against her mind's eye. There could of course be only one outcome to this campaign - the complete destruction of Wetham. That had been assured the moment Lukon entered the northern war, a matter which caused Aoifa some mixed feelings: Lukon never acted save in her own interest, and yet by some quirk of fortune that interest now aligned with the Church.
"Lady Aoifa!" Gerda thrust aside the tent flap and scanned the dimmed interior, "Lady Aoifa!!"
"What is it Gerda," Aoifa signalled to her and the young peasant girl pushed through the press of soldiers and their companions.
"Lady Aoifa!! There are men at the house on urgent business and you must come at once!" the girl was shivering and her words were punctuated by heavy gasps as she sought to catch her breath.
"It's okay lass," Aoifa held her close for a moment, calming her.
"I... I couldn't stop them entering the house Mistress and... and then I was running through the fortress. I... I've failed you," her face was lowered in shame and she began sobbing.
"You haven't failed me girl, now dry your tears. Lena, take care of her. I'll go and deal with these uninvited guests."
"Are you sure you wouldn't like some backup?"
"No, if they meant me harm I doubt they'd have let Gerda come running all over town shouting her head off. Get the girl a drink to calm her nerves properly and then meet me back at the house when she's feeling more herself."
Aoifa gently pushed the iron-bound oak door, slowly revealing the darkened interior of her hallway. There was a familiar scent in the air, the unmistakable freshness of Alowcan lemon groves mixed with the musky incense of the Temple precincts bringing back memories of peaceful nights before the Great Famine.
A tall man emerged from the drawing room, disturbing her reverie, and she instinctively reached for her sword even before her eyes could pick out the familiar livery of the Pontifecal Guard.
"You don't need that," her hand dropped to her side as she scanned the familiar figure.
"Garis? I thought you were dead!" she embraced the former guard captain, slapping him heartily on the back.
"Aye, well you know what they say about old soldiers," he stepped back and studied her for a moment, "You look a might younger without your armour lass."
"I feel a might younger without it," she laughed, "So what's this business that's so urgent it justifies scaring my handmaid witless?"
"Funny you should ask," he put his arm around her shoulder and lead her into the drawing room. His four companions looked strangely at odds with the elegantly furnished room in their heavy plate armour, "Lady Aoifa, may I present your bodyguard - or at least those still fit for battle."
"Lady Aoifa!!" they rose to their feet and saluted her, a gesture she reciprocated with a broad grin.