December 9th - Ashforth
Rhidhana sat in the privacy of her study, reading her mother's battered and travel-stained journal. The opening pages described her arrival in Krimml, an idealistic young warrior from distant Atamara, determined to build a new life here in the Mother of Democracy. The strong flowing hand reflected the woman who'd penned the pages, a heroine to some and a terror to others but respected by all for her strength of purpose.
Rhidhana's eyes moistened at the memory of her long-passed mother, a woman more accustomed to the saddle and warfare than the duties of hearth and home, and she paused for a moment to blink away the nascent tears. How noble and proud Lady Moira had looked in her black steel plate, the very armour she'd worn during the famous Lions' raid on Ashforth and at the storming of Akesh Temple.
She set the journal carefully on the table and sipped her wine. It was close to ten years since her mother had last strapped on that infamous black armour and ridden forth to battle, never to return.
"Mother, how can I ever hope to honour your memory?"
"You know the answer to that Rhidhana," it was her chatelaine Iraen, the warm rich voice of the woman who'd nursed her and had been Lady Moira's closest confidante.
"Iraen? I... I didn't hear you enter," she took another sip from her goblet, as much for something to do as for her interest in the wine.
"Your mother was an uncompromising woman and often difficult to live with, but she was also my dearest friend and one of the finest, noblest warriors Fontan has ever known. She would not want you to shed tears for her memory."
"I am not the woman she was Iraen."
"No my dear, you're not. But you are more like her than you realise. To many nobility is a title worn for profit or personal glory, not so your mother and her sisters. I know their courage and their dignity yet live on in you m'lady, if you will but answer the call."
"I pray you are right Iraen, for today I've asked Lord Elberan if he will accept me into his household and he has consented..."
December 13th - Ashforth
Lady Moira's journals, densely written in her well-known flowing script, were the only intimate connection that Rhidhana still shared with her mother. And for that reason she valued them more than any other treasure of House Dubhaine: more than the battered and bloodied standard of the Imperial Cagilan Guard; more than the Lion helm; more than the Supreme Justice's ermine robes; more even than the wolfshead sword of Asena.
Within the pages of those green leather-bound tomes she could read her mother's inner thoughts, sentiments so personal that even her chatelaine Iraen had known them only dimly, and from their assiduous study Rhidhana had learned the meaning of honour and integrity and duty.
To most though the detailed and precise notes, annotated with personal asides and confidential correspondence, orders of battle and meticulously drawn maps, would represent a wealth of insight on some of the most turbulent years in Fontanese history - and indeed when the family fortune had ebbed dangerously low there had been those willing to offer considerable sums for the secrets contained within.
Had it not been for the generosity of certain noblemen in Ashforth, men who in some cases owed their lives and their fortunes to Lady Moira's leadership or in other cases had counted themselves her friends, then surely the journals would long since have gone to a new home. And doubtless many of the other volumes in the Dubhaine library would have shared the same fate: the torts and strategos, the treatises on ethics and medicine and natural philosophy, the histories and polemics, the geographies and hagiographies.
Rhidhana realised that few of her peers shared the Dubhaine affinity for the written word. Indeed many nobles seemed to take great pride in their illiteracy, seeing the quill as a tool fit only for the scribe and the scrivener. She wondered at times if there might not be some comfort in sharing that outlook for knowledge had certainly brought her mother more trouble than it had rewards. But then she'd turn to one of the many treatises on democracy penned by Chancellor Mikhail, or to Helion's Anatomica with its precise diagrams of muscle and sinew, and her passion for learning would be redoubled.
And if Rhidhana had ever entertained any doubts that a woman of quality could be both a scholar and a warrior of repute, the example of Lady Moira stood as the ultimate rebuttal. However the question which now preoccupied her thoughts was whether or not she too possessed the strength of body and mind necessary to emerge from her mother's shadow?
December 27th -- Sir Temple
Rhidhana reined in her steed as he approached the crossroads and reaching in her saddlebag retrieved a battered oilskin packet. Deftly easing the gauntlet from her right hand with her teeth one finger at a time, she dropped the heavy leather glove into her lap and untied the leather laces holding the packet shut. Within was a delicately crafted vellum sheet, milk-white and thin as damask.
As she opened it a thrill ran through her and she remembered the vivid prose with which her mother had described the Elven hinterland, lands which Lady Moira had raided on many occasions before tragedy had overtaken their house. Rhidhana wished she could have accompanied her mother on those expeditions: in her mind's eye she saw the blue and yellow flag of Fontan silhouetted against the azure ocean and white havens of Glinmar.
Those days were long past, and with them much of Fontan's glory. Her armies were as brave as ever they'd been, but courage was barely enough to win battles against such wealth and power as the Elves could muster - let alone to turn the tides of war.
Her finger traced the blue ribbon of the great River Sirion as she studied the map, as bright now as the day it was first crafted, and she wondered whither she should ride next and what secrets she might uncover in these alien lands?
December 28th -- Rollbar
Rhidhana moved sure-footedly through the twilit undergrowth, recurve bow in her right hand and the blue-feathered flight of an arrow in her left. Terrible tales were spoken of these woods, the black woods of Glinmar - superstitions as old as the Elven race who claimed dominion over them. For here at the edge of the ocean where the thick forest pressed forebodingly close to the gleaming white havens ranged beasts in the guise of men, skin-thieves preying on lonely travellers to clothe their savage natures in human flesh. The trolls and barrow-kin familiar in the civilised lands of the south and west paled in comparison.
In the journal entry for her first visit to these eastern forests Lady Moira described just such a beast, a bear-spirit preying on local villagers. It had taken a full company of Fontan's finest woodsmen to bring the creature to bay and even then only the cunningly crafted wolfshead blade of Asena, a gift from Duke Aeneas Archirium himself, had proven sharp enough to rend the foul thing's flesh. As ever with her mother's accounts of battle, the prose left little to the imagination and when the adolescent Rhidhana had read those passages her sleep would be disturbed with dreams of ferocious beasts red in tooth and claw.
Travelling now alone with little more to protect her than a hunting bow, a notched sabre and the Dubhaine sangue froid it was doubtful that Rhidhana would survive such an encounter, but it was essential that she learn everything she could of these distant elven lands whilst the opportunity presented itself and bring that knowledge home to Fontan with due despatch.
It had been sunset of the previous day when she'd stabled her horse Fleetmane in a hamlet on the road from Slimbar to Tallbar, partly to throw off any pursuit but mostly to spare the poor creature the dangers she now braved. She prayed he would still be there on her return as he'd served her well and it would be a shame to see such a fine steed bearing an Elven lord to war.
Both Rhidhana's mother and her aunt Brigdha were accomplished scouts, commanders in the Fontan Corps of Guides who thought little of ranging as they pleased on their covert missions, and as a consequence Rhidhana had rarely lacked for skilled teachers. Admittedly since her guardian Iraen relocated the family's interests to Ashforth and the open plains Rhidhana's opportunities to practice woodcraft had been circumscribed by the demands of schooling and polite society, but now the adventurous spirit which lay dormant in the heart of every true-born Dubhaine had been reignited the lessons learned as a child in the woods of Oporto were swiftly returning and she covered the trackless leagues of dense forest with an increasingly swift and certain step.
Let the skin-thieves show themselves if they dare, this night a new predator stalked the northern forests...