The group entrusted with this mission were, a multi-talented merchant Garryl Hemgarryl; an Alcuran scout of Tibulani ancestry called Gunnar; an Erturan called Hannsan who had been an acolyte of Korak before leaving that god's service in circumstances of some controversy; yourself; Tanath Hemnerasun, a talented Alcuran armsman; and Hietan Hemalberan, a Knight of Alcura.
Talons in Alcus
Before we left, several of our number witnessed a confrontation the import of which was not immediately clear. Prior to the confrontation, Tanath was present at an incident where his associate (and yours) Roan Ealdar saw a man who Roan insisted was Soros Yi Grisane.
Soros – former weapons master to the last Baron Ertura and associate of my grandfather Wodarn – had been Roan's master until an argument of some sort had divided them. Soros was by this point have been an old man, but Roan told Tanath that Soros had not appeared to have aged a day in the 30 years since Roan had last seen him.
Later Tanath and Garryl witnessed an attack on a Fontarbrian vessel tied up at the docks by two demonic creatures answering the descriptions previously given of Talons, the servants of Tokan Liod. These were of human height but demonic in form, with very dark, lizard-like skin. One of these two Talons were carrying twin short swords, weapons very similar to the weapons which Soros had favoured in years gone by. This, coupled with the fact that Soros had not aged, led us to later conclude that Soros is a Talon. Longevity appears to be a virtue, not only of Tokan Liod, but also of his servants, as the later appearance of Bilador, and the enduring vitality of the general Itkoviro Fenroln attest.
The other Talon was winged, and carried a curve-handled knife which it dropped in the course of the fighting and which you now have in your possession. I would suggest you take the greatest care with that knife, father, as I now believe it to be the badge of office of a Kartagi imperial assassin.
Shape-shifting appears to be another likely attribute of these demonic servants. You have told me that my grandfather Wodarn frequently said that he had seen Tokan Liod in the presence of half a dozen or so demonic Talons in a building in Karia. They could hardly have arrived at Karia in demonic form without drawing attention, and it seems more likely that they arrived in the form of ordinary men, only to transfigure themselves at need.
Survivors of the Talons' attack
The attack by the Talons on the ship failed. Despite killing several Fontarbrian knights present on the ship, the Talons were driven off by several powerful magi present on the ship. The magi escaped the ship and the city and would (as we later learn) make their way back to Fontarbria with the heirloom which was the object of the Talons' attack.
A surviving knight, Halcira Ronril, Knight of Jhilesa, declined to explain any relevant details of the attack, but later events would allow us to piece together most of what happened. The ship belonged to the Knights of the Irchilan, a Fontarbrian Militant Order dedicated to fighting the Shanir. They had traveled to the island of Illkankor, far to the north and west of the Free Cities, in search of The Well of Souls.
The Well of Souls is an ancient heirloom which permits (through the device of a complex and dangerous ritual) communication with the long dead. Through this heirloom, the Militant Orders sought to resolve the Fontarbrian civil war by contacting the last undisputed King, Vanam, and asking him which of his lines was the line of legitimate succession. As you know, Fontarbrian succession works not through primogeniture but through nomination from a possible group of eligible successors.
Halcira Ronril, though unassuming in manner, had been very senior within his Order prior to the attack and had become Grand Master now by virtue of the death of the former Grand Master in the attack on the ship.
Ronril, although he divulged little or nothing of his mission, was indebted to you, father, because of the delicate manner in which you handled the matter of several suits of Fontarbrian plate armour, which by the laws of their country the Fontarbrians should not have transported abroad, but in which the bodies of the dead knights were armed. Halcira Ronril agreed to travel with us to Fontarbria and to use his good offices to keep us as safe as practicable during our search for Hemarl.
We travel to Fontarbria
Thus we duly travelled to Fontarbria in the company of Halcira Ronril. A number of incidents befell us on the seas and in the cities along our journey including Ertures, Esakom and Darlis but in due course we entered Fontarbria. We made landfall in the city of Farlar, where Halcira Ronril was treated with honour by his fellows of the Jhilesa Order, and it became clear that he was senior among them. He heard some important news there, which we later came to understand was the news that the escaped mages had reached home with the Well of Souls.
Ronril, now recognised as Grand Master of his Order, was to travel to a convocation of the Grand Masters of all the Militant Orders with a view (we believe) to unlocking its power. We in turn heard rumour that Hemarl was campaigning to the north east of that vast country, and resolved to continue by sea as far as we could. Halcira Ronril travelled with us for as long as our two routes coincided.
As we were preparing to leave the city of Farlar, we received an entreaty that would prove fateful for me and the House of Alcura. A noble called Arnohil approached our ship and asked for passage for himself and a lady in his care, Lady Anim ay Saloso. We agreed and the two – with a single servant, Wat – joined us on our journey. In time, as you know, it became clear that this lady was the wife of Talzeem, the scion of the CoDratapnan line and claimant to the Fontarbrian throne. Talzeem was infamous for his cruelty on the battlefield and he was no more gracious in his private life; Anim had chosen to return to her father, Count Saloso in territory close to where we believed Hemarl was campaigning.
Explosion and curse
We travelled with Halcira Ronril to the city of Rolanre, where it became clear to us how senior a figure he was. The city was full of members of all the militant orders, joined for what was then a secret ritual, but which we later came to believe was the first, abortive, attempt to use the Well of Souls. The attempt failed with spectacular results, killing all the Grand Masters, including Ronril. We left the city promptly.
However, before the explosion, we had cause to overhear an expression which peaked our interest. One member of a militant order, in a tone which suggested a curse against another person, said “The Seventh will take him”. We did not understand at that time the import of that curse, but later came to understand that it referred to that being which I have mentioned, not a God but of their kind, their eternal enemy who works in secret.
We enter the civil war
Having left that city, we travelled further through the wreckage of the war between CoDratapna, CoNarlosa and CoRendasa factions. We learned that Hemarl was besieging the very city from whence Anim had come, Qan Saloso. Leaving our ship in the city of Egevir, we hired a group of Kartagi mercenaries led by one Ashesh and his lieutenant Haakesh. Haakesh was of interest because he carried a large knife with a distinctly curved handle similar to and another which had been dropped by a Talon in their attack in Alcus. The Kartagi proved excellent guardians on the road.
Travelling a hard overland route, we eventually came to Qan Saloso, which had by now been taken by Hemarl. We met him there, in the Count's keep, for the first time; an older and surely harder man than you had known. He was shown deference and respect equal to any Fontarbrian count, as far as I could see. He had lost his wife and all but one of his children to the plague several years previously, and there was a quality of bitterness about him. The news we brought of the death of his mother clearly did not cheer him, but there was no doubt that he would soon begin to prepare for the long journey home.
However, there were more immediate problems to hand. Talzeem, called the Impaler, had decided to lead his army to recapture Qan Saloso, and was approaching fast. Volunteering our services, our group were given the task of policing the city while Hemarl's veterans and his Fontarbrian allies prepared to receive siege. We retained the services of the Kartagi mercenaries to assist us.
If I may say so, father, our group performed our functions very well during the weeks which followed, both before and during the Siege of Qan Saloso. We uncovered a plot to destroy the city using Kartagi Fire which, in addition to saving the city, provided us with a supply of Fire which we used to devastating effect, destroying much of Talzeem's great naval fleet, as well as doing other great damage to Talzeem's efforts.
Aided by the presence of Anim, we helped persuade Saloso himself to join the CoRendasa cause and defend his city. We contracted the Kartagi Haakesh to discretely remove the threat posed by a number of disloyal Salosan knights, in the process learning that Haakesh is a man of exceptional talent; a matter to which I shall soon return. Interestingly, the curve-handled knife which he carried was very similar to one held by a statue of the God-Emperor of Kartagi which sits in Qan Saloso.
On a personal level, this was the period in which Lady Anim agreed to be my wife. According to Fontarbrian law, she had by this time been divorced from Talzeem and her father agreed that I might take her hand. I had little concern for dowries or the like; I had a bride who was literally fit for a Fontarbrian King, beautiful, witty and erudite. The noble line of Alcus will long be enriched by my fortunate marriage.
Crushing defeat at Qan Saloso
Our defense of the city was conducted in the hope that a relieving force would soon arrive. We received word of such possible relief shortly after Talzeem's army did; this spurred him to a desperate assault on the city which succeeded. Hemarl's forces retreated to the city's keep. The relieving army arrived and a great battle was fought outside the gates of Qan Saloso.
What we only later learned was that the militant orders had by then all thrown their weight behind Talzeem, swelling his numbers. It is unclear whether those numbers were the reason for the CoDratapna victory, or whether Talzeem's CoRendasa rival had made a desperate grab at victory before the strength of the militant orders could be brought to bear but failed – dying at Talzeem's hand – in the attempt. Our guess was that the orders had successfully operated the Well of Souls and resolved the issue of the Fontrabrian succession to their own satisfaction. It appeared that – the CoRendasa's last effort having failed – the united strength of the Militant Orders would now be decisive. The war was effectively over. We were defeated and besieged.
Hemarl made preparation to fight through the city to freedom. My companions Garryl and Gunnar secured 1200 spears and other implements of war. Gunnar also parlayed in private with Arnohil, former protector of my wife Anim. Arnohil, being the son of Viscount Saloso had returned to his father and remained nominally loyal to the CoDratapna alliance, to which the County of Saloso was allied. Previously having conspired with us against Talzeem, Arnohil was at this time minded to act as a loyal armsman to the (now undisputed) King. However, when presented with incontrovertible evidence, collected by Gunnar, that the King was planning his (Arnohil's) execution along with that of Count Saloso, Arnohil became agreeable to assist Hemarl's plans.
The death of Hemarl Matora
It was that night that we gave counsel to Hemarl which would prove to be disastrously uninformed. He asked us for our views on whether he should attempt to break from Qan Saloso in force, or instead should stay and parlay with Talzeem. Believing – how wrong we were! – that flight across the whole of Fontarbria would be impossible, we counselled that he should parlay.
I know, father, that Hemarl was a wily and experienced general who knew far more about Fontarbrian affairs than any of us could ever learn, and that in the end he made his own decision. That said, I cannot help but wonder whether, if we had argued differently, we might have persuaded him to lead his unequalled army of veterans out through the gates of Qan Saloso that night. If he had done so, I do not doubt that Hemarl would now be receiving all his due honours as Prince of Matora.
That was not to be. Thanks to the intrigues of the accursed court at Karia – manipulated, no doubt, by the evil of the Arok – an agreement had been reached that Talzeem would murder Hemarl in return for something previously agreed, which thing is not yet known to us.
Thus it was that Hemarl Matora rode out in good faith to parlay with the anointed King of Fontarbria and was by that King murdered. History will record Hemarl as a great general and leader of men but the last of his wars – like all of those before it – ended for him in bitter defeat.
News of Talzeem's treachery came in the form of one of Hemarl's guardsman who escaped during the fighting. Gunnar and Garryl led a ferocious sortie in an attempt to rescue Hemarl. Having fought their way through the enemy-held city, they were separated from their soldiers and made their way – alone but for each other – into the heart of Talzeem's camp. There they found that faithless butcher and his henchmen feasting and toasting their successful assassination. The desecrated corpses of Hemarl and his guards lay stacked without ceremony nearby. Gunnar and Garryl recovered Hemarl's ring and returned to the keep with their terrible news.
The greatest march in history?
In Hemarl's absence I assumed command of the surviving Matoran forces and a number of allies, notably a company of Harmorian cavalry. Saloso and the other Fontarbrian lords were resolved to stay and parlay with their new King. We “Histrans” (as the Fontarbrians would collectively call us, Histran and Matoran alike) would leave that very night. Suborning Arnohil (who commanded a section of the CoDratapnan lines adjacent to the keep) we stole out of the city with one last explosion of Kartagi Fire to mark our passage – and collapse the only bridge at our rear.
A small company of Hemarl's men left us then, intent on recovering his body and giving it the ceremony due to such a man as he. Their story is not mine to tell, and I will leave its telling to them. I will say only that they were successful, and that great honour should be accorded those brave few for as long as they live.
I will not recount in detail the passage of our small but mighty army through the entirety of the great Kingdom of Fontarbria. At all times harried; frequently hungry; occasionally in danger of utter annihilation by greatly superior Fontarbrian forces, we marched ever onward for not less than three thousand miles. If there is an equal to that feat in all of history, then I am not aware of it. The men who survived that march constituted one of the most admirable groups of fighting men ever to march under any banner. I will never be as proud as I was they day we crossed the Kalmarese border into safety.
It was on this longest march that many of us were inducted into the mysteries of Korak who had blessed us with His favour and to whom we have ever since offered due obeisance.
Campaigning against Ankheras for Hadraden Matora
We travelled through Kalmar. It became clear that border raiding between the Duchies and Kingdom has escalated in outright war. We were not to be delayed though; we proceeded to Otgaidar to contact Hemarl's Matora's heir, the young Hadraden. Hadraden is the son of Hemarl's only surviving child, a daughter who had married the King of Otgaidar. By our lights, Hadraden was not only the recognised heir to the throne of Otgaidar; he was also the rightful heir to Matora.
After a period of rest and recuperation, Hemarl's Matoran's campaigned against the crown of Ankheras, participating in the conquest of Anhagus and of Laetaras with the joint armies of Ertura, Lecaha, Pacose, and Marisa.
The Ankherans thusly weakened, the time was right for Hadraden's claim to be pressed. The signal – long awaited – was sent to the Matoran mercer houses and was answered. The mercer houses rose against Ankheras, and our allied forces invaded