April 7th - Oporto
Moira sat by the roaring fire in the back pantry of her new Manor, with a glass of Alowcan brandy and a slice of freshly-made fruit cake. Her squire Iraen was sat opposite, looking slightly uncomfortable at having servants waiting on her for a change.
"Have another glass girl, you may not get a delicacy like this again for some time," Moira sipped the fiery vintage, cask-aged in the arid valleys of the Irdalni province, and continued reading the letter from her sister Aoifa. The situation in the Colonies sounded desperate, but that didn't worry Moira. Aoifa was more than capable of looking after herself.
No, what worried Moira was the revelation that her younger brother Cathal had followed her sister to that unruly land and was even now serving with the Alowcan field army as its second-in-command. She had a hard enough time squaring that knowledge with the enduring image of a reckless lad at war with his long-suffering tutors, but there was more.
Two months past she had helped to put down the insanity that was the Theocracy of Light of Fontan, now she learned that her own brother had not only embraced the indigenous cult of his adopted homeland but that he was becoming increasingly zealous in his beliefs. The letter spoke of disturbing dreams, imprisonment and of bloody battles deep behind enemy lines: it seemed her younger brother had been making quite a name for himself and she prayed he wouldn't end up dead for his pains.
"Is everything alright ma'am?" Iraen set her empty glass on the table beside her.
"Hmm? Oh yes. Just news from my sister Aoifa of her adventures in the Colonies."
"Is Milady Aoifa well?"
"I assume so. There's a war on so I'm sure she's in her element. Why do you ask?"
"It's just you seemed rather quiet ma'am."
There was a long pause.
"You remember my younger brother Cathal?" Moira set the letter to one side and sipped her brandy, stifling a smile at her squire's blushing cheeks.
"Yes ma'am. A fine young nobleman."
"Well, not so his tutors ever mentioned to me, but I can't say they were ever particularly complimentary about me either," she grinned at the memory. "Anyway, it seems young Cathal's run away from home in search of adventure and pitched up in the Colonies."
"I hope he's alright ma'am."
"I'm sure he is lass," and the two of them sat in silence, drinking their brandy.
April 25th -- Tournament -- Perdora
"A sword?" Moira took the blade from her squire Iraen, "What bloody use is a sword?" She tested the balance and studied the edge with a less than enthusiastic eye.
"Those are the rules milady. Swords in the melee and lance in the lists."
"So, genteel bloody fighting then," they both laughted, comparing these pathetic knives to the steel-hafted axes of the Imperial Cagilan Guard it was easy to see why so many elves had lost life and limb in recent months.
"I think you should at least practice with the damn thing milady, otherwise who knows what mishaps may occur?"
"You mean, who knows what poor sod may end up grappled to the ground?"
"Well there is that ma'am. It's not like you've made a virtue of courtly manners, and my understanding of the rules are that grappling and gouging are frowned upon."
"If you weren't my cousin Iraen you'd be on a ship back to Atamara right now. And don't think I'd give you a reference lass," Moira tried a few practice sweeps with the sword, self-conscious of her empty left hand, "The bloody thing barely weighs an ounce."
"Would you like to try the shield milady? It may balance things better."
"Why? If suppose if this puny pig-sticker doesn't do the job I could always use the shield to batter my opponent instead, but I doubt the high-minded courtiers of Perdan would count that an honourable victory."
"I really don't think you're getting into the spirit ma'am. The shield is for defence, the sword for offence. They take these matters very seriously."
"Lass, you worry too much. Now grab that damn sword over there and let's have some fun."
"Yes ma'am," Iraen resignedly picked up the second blade and a buckler, preparing herself for the battering to come. Much to her surprise the Countess adopted a reasonable guard, so apparently she learnt something from her many encounters with swordsmen. Now if only luck would favour her, perhaps she'd make it beyond the first round and everyone could breathe a sigh of relief...
April 26th -- Tournament -- Perdora
Moira stood in the central plaza, slightly uncomfortable now that she'd exchanged her black armour and sweat-stained jack for the dress tunic and britches she reserved for polite company. The unaccustomed weight of a broadsword still hung at her left hip where she was trying to build a rapport with the weapon, but she suspected it would be an uphill struggle.
Watching the toing and froing of knights and their squires she wondered how many of these gathered nobles had but a few days or weeks before faced each other as sworn enemies. The camp spread in all directions as far as her eye could see, a pepper-pot of white pavilions with their noble colours gaily displayed and the dark trampled earth of the practice grounds. The cream of the continent's chivalry gathered for a tournament of magnificent proportions. A glorious sight.
Her mind wandered back to the matter at hand: she was due to meet with Duke Aeneas, the man who had held the County of Oporto before her, and hopefully good ale would ease some of the old tensions between them. There had been many a heated debate across the floor of the Fontanese Assembly, each equally as stubborn in defending their principles, and she knew for sure that the realm was much poorer since he joined the Sultanate - even if he rarely uttered a political opinion that didn't make her blood boil.
April 27th -- Tournament -- Perdora
Aeneas walked towards the central plaza, still strange that he wondered around without a sword, but if something was to happen he always covered two knives underneath his jacket.
It has been a long time ago he had worn anything different than his armor, not since he last saw his wife who died with the island he long fought upon, but it should not distract him this night, he was to meet lady Moira somewhere. But nowhere could he spot the lady as he knew her.
Then suddenly he saw her and she saw him, both looking a bit wondered about the other. Neither had seen each other before dressed, well appropriately for a noble, only had they seen the other in it's armor.
"Lady Moira, I must say I had not recognized you this way. It would not suffice in battle but for today I must say you are well dressed my lady" Aeneas said when he was close enough. Lady Moira was quite astonished by these words, mostly in the assembly they have stood in front of the other and always did they had to defend their own position against the other, but not tonight.
Then lady Moira comes to the moment again and says: "Well Thank you my lord, I must say you look well today as well, though I do not know if I prefer this or your armor".
Aeneas is silent for a short time, then he says: "My lady, shall we?" and they start to walk along the many nobles and buildings.
"I could get used to this," Moira linked her arm with Duke Aeneas in comradely fashion as they navigated between the tents and pavilions, "all friends together."
"It would never last," Aeneas grinned, "not whilst men hunger for power and glory."
"Ever the cynic Duke Aeneas?"
"No, just pragmatic Countess Moira. I've fought too many battles and seen too much killing to ever mistake good humour for good will."
Moira's mind flashed back to the fall of Akesh Temple and the strange harvest that followed, the acolytes of the Light hanging from the gibbets in the market square, interspersed with the faces of eleven knights and their human allies lifeless in the bloody soil of Oberndorf.
"I guess you're right Duke, but you wouldn't blame a lass for wishing otherwise would you?"
"Not at all milady. Even if I've seen that lass cleave through man and horse with one sweep of her axe, still I wouldn't begrudge her such a dream."
They were both smiling as they approached one of the less rowdy catering pavilions that had sprung up to service the sprawling tent city.
"After you Contess," Duke Aeneas gestured towards the open flap.
"You're too gracious milord," she bowed her head half-humorously and stepped across the threshold into the heavy scent of roasted fowl and expensive wine.
The trestles were heaped with plates of goose and duck, salvers of wild boar and trenchers of braised salmon, knotted loaves and light pastries. Flagons of crisp elven wine from the Sir valley and sweet vintages from the inland shores of Ibladesh. And seated between the trestles, dressed in expensive raiment of silk and samite and the finest tooled leather, the cream of the continent's knighthood, joking and feasting with friends and strangers alike.
"Now this Duke Aeneas is a competition more to my liking," and she slapped the slightly startled nobleman on the shoulder with a hearty laugh, "let us make merry, for soon we must back to our respective wars!"
Aeneas followed lady Moira. He looked around and smiled. It has been some time since he had been able to relax and have fun. He could better enjoy it while it lasted, war would come soon again.
With a smile he said: "Mmm, finally, a good place with seemingly good ale as well, lovely company and no badgers to be seen".
Lady moira looks at him with a bit of a strange look: "Badgers my lord, what or who is that?"
Aeneas looked at her: "Aye, only one from Atamara would know that my lady, I'm sorry. Badgers are vile creatures in the north of Atamara who have seemed to make it a habit of trying to ruin tournaments"
Both of them then were silent for some seconds until Aeneas broke the silence: "Now my lady, what would you care to drink this evening, perhaps some fine wine?" "That would be lovely, thank you" Moira answered the duke. He looked at her and then suddenly bowed his head a bit and a little smile came on his face, but a painful look in his eyes.
Lady Moira looked somewhat concerned "What is the problem my lord? Do you not like wine?" she asked.
"It is nothing, it's just, it has been years ago since I last had the pleasure of the company of such a fine lady as yourself, not since, well not for a long time. Also would you mind I took an ale instead of a glass of wine" he said, the last to quickly change the subject. Moira looked at him and decided it might be better not to ask further.
"Not at all my lord, and are you sure you wish my company this evening?" she asked.
"Yes, yes please stay my lady, I'm glad you accepted my offer, I will be right back with your drink."
A minute later Aeneas returned to the table lady Moira had taken place upon.
Moira felt a twinge of sympathy for the Duke. He was still a young man and handsome in his way, though far from the first flush of youth, but his eyes were deep wells filled to brimming with the sights he'd seen in his long travels. Moira was no stranger to death having faced it in battle many times, but the death she saw in the Duke's eye was much more personal.
"Best not to ask," she thought, "I would not wish to embarrass him."
Standing with her goblet in hand she leapt deftly onto her bench and raised a toast, "To the health of Duke Aeneas Archirium, Lord of Kazakh. May his sword never be notched, his armour never be riven and his horse never stumble. May all his enemies flee at his name and his standard never fall!"
A chorus of ill-coordinated cheers followed as she theatrically dropped back to her seat, spilling ne'er a drop of her wine. This seemed to brighten the Duke's mood and his raised his tankard in return.
"To Countess Moira Dubhaine, Lady of Oporto. Who knew that such fair hand could be equally as deadly with axe or pen," and they shared a private smile as the second round of cheers filled the hall. Outside of Fontan few knew of the Countess and her meticulous and impassioned letter-writing, and thinking back on some of their exchanges Moira doubted that either Aeneas or his scribes missed her circulars, but it was gallant of him to make such a gesture.
After that the evening seemed to fly by, punctuated by toasts to this or that knight and a succession of succulent delicacies. Aeneas spoke of his many adventures in the War Islands and of his youth in Atamara, a subject which the Cagilian Moira found particularly interesting for she had never heard the Abington side of that famous feud. For her part Moira told tales of her childhood at the Imperial Court and of her sisters and their grand adventure. But though war and politics cast a fiery backdrop to all their tales, neither spoke of battle or the many deaths they had seen in their all-too-brief lives.
And for that kindness each was glad.
The time flies and Aeneas actually has a great time. He and lady Moira had been talking about their pasts and history and the travels both of them made. Far to the history he had in Atamara, she told him stories she heard told by her sisters from the Caligan side. He was impressed, though still proud of his work there.
Then out of the blue Aeneas changed the subject "Lady Moira, may I ask you, how have you been doing in Fontan. Are you still as active on dictating your scribe as before my lady, or has he gotten rest? I do miss our "confrontations" sometimes, it gave flavor to all there in Fontan" Aeneas said with a smile.
Then lady Moira did something he never, ever had seen her doing before. He had seen her angry, full of spirit as well, as a gallant lady too, but never had he seen her blush as she did now.
"Yes my lord, I still do, someone has too no?" She answered. "Though it has become more silent without you my lord, for as much that's possible in Fontan". She said with a broken smile on her face.
"Good" Aeneas answered shortly. "My lady, it is becoming late and it seems they wish to close up here, we should not let them wait too long on us now should we" And with those words Aeneas held up his arm in front of him, ready to escort the lady out, as a nobleman should.
Moira looked around her and saw they were they only ones left, they had been talking for such a long time she hadn't noticed all others were already gone. She lay her hand on that of Aeneas and let him escort her out.
April 28th -- Tournament -- Perdora
The night was clear with a chill breeze blowing off the distant mountains and the moon hung low in the pale glare of the false dawn as the tent flap closed behind them. They paused for a moment, watching the glow on the distant horizon, neither wishing to break the silence and bring the evening to its inevitable end. A life of war left little space for human attachments.
"Duke Aeneas," Moira's voice sounded too loud in the stillness, "I would like to thank you for a most enjoyable evening. I can't remember the last time I had such a stimulating dinner companion."
"Think nothing of it Countess, I assure you the pleasure has been all mine," Aeneas smiled, "but now I really must get these old bones to bed if I'm to be fit to wield a sword in the morning."
"They don't look so old to me Your Grace," her laugh was a warm chuckle, "but never let it be said I kept a warrior from his slumber."
On a whim she put her arms around him and kissed him gently on the cheek, "You will always be welcome in Oporto my lord whilst the county lies in my charge."
He was slightly taken aback, but remembering his manners replied, "And you in Kazakh milady."
And with that they parted company.