August 11th -- Alebad
Cathal sat upon the throne of Minas Thalion and pondered the future. Across his lap the blade Inescapable Doom lay sheathed, a reminder of the purpose with which he had entered these lands, and upon his head sat the simple circlet of the Imperial Lordship.
Strange were the ways of fate, or more accurately, strange were the ways of the Gods.
In a former age he had fought as Alebad's ally, the General who held her southern flank when her own knights would not do so. The sorrow of those days hung heavy in his thoughts, the thousands who died at his command in the fields of Abaka to prove a point of principle.
He remembered a time when those memories had torn at his heart like an eagle's talons, before the cleansing fire of the Flesh Incorruptible had healed him of all hurts.
"Your Excellency," a herald burst into the chamber, panting and breathless.
Cathal turned his attention to the young guardsman, probably no more than sixteen years of age.
"I bring... a... message from the... captain of... the guard..." deep gasps shook his body, turning his words into a series of disjointed fragments.
"Take a deep breath lad and calm yourself, I have known of Lord Aepyornis' coming these past two days", Cathal stood and hooked the scabbard to his belt, the sword lost to sight amidst the folds of his plain woollen cloak.
"But my Lord, his herald has only just arrived to announce his approach!" The page pulled himself upright, his mouth hanging half-open.
The palace was a hive of activity, servants scurrying too and fro on the many errands attendant on a great banquet. Tonight Alebad paid host not only to Count Aepyornis of Helsera, a priest accounted wise beyond his years, but also to Ambassador Gellin from Giblot.
Such an event had not been held in all the years since the foundation of the realm and as ever where ignorance reigns, rumour and wild speculation filled the void.
"My dear old friend," Cathal stood waiting at the gate as the priest approached, "the people of Minas Thalion welcome you. I've had rooms prepared in my private chambers that you may rest from your labours, and tomorrow I shall hold such a feast in your honour as men shall sing of unto the ninth generation."
"To hear the name of Cathal Dubhaine is to catch a breeze of the winds of fate, to glimpse the shifting of long-stilled Shadows."
The Shaman's steps were slow. The gentle waving of his robes, deliberate and controlled. The intricately stitched patterns were so dense that images seemed to emerge across each new and rhythmic contour. He would often tell that they offered direction toward one's performance upon the shifting Stage.
"To see him is to feel the course of the eternal Play flow 'twixt open fingers."
Long ago a warrior of renown, the Shaman's broad shoulders seemed diminished as he hunched beneath the heavy fabrics. The stoic eyes of a man consumed by duty had long dulled with the weight of penance. For years now, he had been so very tired.
"But to speak with him is to touch history itself!"
He laughed quietly, a dry grin crossing his face as he straightened up to more properly greet the new Imperial Lord.
"You know, sometimes I think to pen from your tale an epic. But no sooner do I turn around and you've gone and changed the ending! Rest I must and feast I shall. If you will so have it, a small troupe is under my employ and will gladly perform tomorrow in your honor."
"Such a fine gift of wisdom will put my humble hall to shame," Cathal bowed with deep solemnity, his hands drawn as a curtain before his face.
He held that pose for a long second, and about him his retainers stood dumbstruck and confused. But even as they pondered whom this man in his strange attire might be that their liege should pay him such singular honour, a deep laugh emerged from Lord Cathal's throat and he stood arms outstretched in welcome and embraced the Shaman as a brother.
"It's good to see you still in one piece, you old charlatan. And perhaps I'll find a way to pay you well in kind before this age is ended, for the epic of my days has indeed taken a strange twist. On this matter more than any other I seek your counsel, for whom else is as wise in the lore of the stage? But come, there are too many prying ears here to discuss such matters freely."
And with that Lord Cathal lead his guest within.
"Of all people! You make me worry, to hear that something is strange to you. Now, how is it that I may be of service, my friend?"
Bustling servants moved aside as Lord Cathal and his mysterious guest approached, the bubbling fountains and green sward of the palace gardens giving way to the old citadel's incestuous maze of flagstones and winding steps.
It was here Eugene II and his beleaguered knights mounted the last defence of ancient Alebad, an ignominious end for an over-proud people. Cathal still remember his last meeting with the Duke, hours before the slaughter of Abaka Fields. Had that old fool committed his troops how different might have been his fate, but instead he put his trust in walls of stone and men dead to courage.
As they walked Cathal spoke in hushed tones of the war that was and the war that is to come. Woven deep in his words were the lore of the final curtain call and the apocalyptic prophecies of the Trinity, of the Black Wind which would sweep from the north and lay Portion to waste. These were no ravings of a mad seer but the rigorous discourse of a rational mind, and there was a chill to them that perhaps insanity would have made less discomforting.
"If prophecy has been gifted to me it is for this one purpose: that men be free to choose their own destiny, for good or ill. I stand thus against the Lie of Lukon which would make slaves of us all. We stand now on the brink of that destiny and whichever way the realms divide will determine once and for all whether Valast's legacy be permanent or perishable."
They stood now at the door to his private chambers, and Cathal held it open invitingly. Inside a fire slumbered in a grand stone fireplace, causing soft shadows to skitter playfully across the faded tapestries and heavy furnishings.
"Which way will your people choose old friend? Will they stand by the tyrant's bastard pups and be consumed whole? Or will they cast aside that tired old tragedy and favour a new play, a tale of hope in the face of adversity, of just desserts and noble sentiments brought to fruition? Will they be the villain's accomplice, or the unlooked-for champion who having walked the paths of night a scoundrel, awakes one morning the hero of the piece."
"For if they ascend the latter path and embrace the light which gives all shadows their form then we might yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But if not then the curtain will make its final descent and men will know no more of virtue, of honour, of freedom. All that stands as contrast to the darkness will be swept away and the land will have no more shadows to play."
August 21st -- Alebad
The Shaman's eyes ran rough over the halls of the palace, inquisitive inspection falling prey to the fogged perception of doubt. From the stories he had heard the history of Alebad now seemed palpable, but the more he reached, the more he felt only the hollow and ephemeral. That same sensation had long become a plague to him.
As it had been long ago, however, speaking with Cathal had a strange way of rejuvenating a tired mind. There was a strength and conviction in the prophet that Aepyornis feared may have long been abandoned in himself. And when they came to rest at the fireplace, he may have even felt empowered by the gloomy discourse.
"You may not like the answers I can provide. There is discontent, but there is also complacency. There is acceptance. I fear the Dagger rusted in its idling.
The role of the Guild will only be salvaged by the marrying of Light to Darkness, where the dichotomy has forever been ruled by war. Else the land of Shadows may well destroy itself, and with it will the Stage plunge into its end."
Cathal unclasped his cloak and cast it across the back of a heavy wooden chair, revealing a simple jerkin of tooled black leather and a plain scabbarded sword. A young page appeared from an alcove and busied himself with the cloak whilst a second approached the noblemen bearing a tray with two goblets.
"My friend, when last we met it was I who carried the heavy burden, mourning the fall of Alowca," Cathal's eyes sparked with humour as they studied the aged shaman, "Now it seems the roles have been reversed."
He took one of the proffered goblets and sipped the heavy Abakan wine, taking his place beside the fire. The subtle dance of light and shadow as the tongues of flame capered in the heavy iron grate seemed to consume his attention for a long while and there was a heavy silence before he next spoke.
"Valast's son professes the desire to undo his father's legacy," Cathal's thumb idly tapped the rim of the goblet, "Would this be enough to rouse the chorus from its slumber?"
August 23rd -- Alebad
Aepyornis took a goblet and drank heavily from it, almost immediately jerking forward and clearing his throat after swallowing. He was too accustomed to the light strawberry wines of Hulaferd. Coughing shortly but in earnest, he set the goblet down to avoid a spill.
"Hem. Pardon me," Aepyornis did his best to muster a chuckle and a grin, with varying results. Composed as he was able, "Not heavy. My shoulders just can't bear what they used to."
He took up the goblet again, this time drawing from it more cautiously. "I'm not like you, my friend. My aspirations are generally selfish. So too, my burdens. I've never had the strength of will for heroicism."
"It must have taken much to build Lukon, but there was a weakness in Valast that followed him until his end. How, then, does his son measure?"
August 31st -- Alebad
"A very good question," Cathal pursed his lips as he considered his reply, "I should say there's much more of the father in the son than he'd like, but he hides it well."
Cathal signalled one of the pages, "Bring a trencher of food, my friend's traveled far to honour our city and it's not good to drink on an empty stomach."
"Yes M'Lord," the lad bowed and swiftly withdrew along with his companion.
"Aepyornis my friend, I've tried to dislike Lord Valdrix but I find it difficult. His manner is forthright and I sense in it that peculiar charm which was the root of Valast's power. However in council he speaks of war as though it were a game and I wonder whether he understands the full implications of the cause to which he is now allied."