The cool night against the moon-lit snow helped the dark riders alongside Sigi feel stoic. Though the road was clear, the snow on the sides of it had piled up in their absence, sometimes garnering a foot in depth. Within a few hours, they’d once again be outside of the lands of Rothgard, and within a day, they’d be at Lord Talgret’s borders. The crisp night air of the forest had a different sense of urgency tonight. It wrapped around the men, refusing to resist them because even it knew of the precious time they had to begin a counter-momentum against that which was slowly consuming the land they knew. It too, wished for them, and the others like them, to survive.
The path was well lit, the breathing of the riders and their horses rhythmically pulsing from their faces. Even though they could not see what lay north, they could feel it. Occasionally, Relman would look north, expecting something indicating an imminent attack. His nerves had been frayed from that night, where he held the middle of the triangle, fighting the Goron which preyed upon them in relentless and even cautionless attacks. He looked ahead, and became comforted when he caught Thom and his wife, Vrilda, occasionally watching the hills and mountains that made up the shadowed walls.
Sigi slowed down to a trot, affording the horses some respite. The path was wide enough, and they all gathered around each other. The snow crunched under the hooves, and the horses seemed to appreciate the relief. Sigi looked around at the few traveling with him, and noted how their posture resonated. They were not exhausted; they were determined and willing to press on at any cost. This reassured Sigi to an extent, as he knew he’d need that among the men he would command. They were quiet, looking forward and watching the path before them. They came to a split in the road, where Sigi dutifully led them to the left, leaving the lands of Rothgard. Sigi slowed down to a walk as they went towards an inclined hill.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been out this far west,” Thom spoke up, finally breaking the silence. “I forgot that the hills and mountains surrounded us.”
Vrilda looked at Thom. “Aye, I think the last time we were out this far was almost ten years ago, when we left for some alone time after our handfasting.”
“Ten years?” Relman asked. “Have you been wearing your breastplate that long, Thom?”
“I was wearing it before then, Twig. If you manage a woman, you’re going to need a full suit of armor,” Thom countered. They laughed a bit.
Relman turned to the others. “What about you, Hroth? Any family?”
They turned to Hroth to look at him, who remained silent. “Never had any woman, never had any kids,” he said flatly. “I’ve had my service to the keep, and to the people that live in it, and that is good enough for me.” At that, he rode ahead a bit, leaving the conversation.
Thom looked around, shrugging before looking back to Sigi, who was turned ahead. As he opened his mouth to talk, Sigi caught him.
“My sword, Thom,” Sigi said, looking back slightly. His hand visibly pointed to it, still strapped to his back.
“Your sword?” Vrilda questioned, a few of the men chuckling at her lack of knowledge.
“Eh,” Thom informed her. “He said that his woman is his sword. It sings beeautifully when he’s thrashing it about and it likes leather or some such.”
“Hm,” Vrilda thought for a moment. “Maybe I should have married your breastplate. It keeps shut up and doesn’t mind when I hit it.”
Thom opened his mouth again to be interrupted by laughter. He closed his mouth and looked forward, grunting.
Sigi picked up the pace as the path crested out, going back to a trot. Behind them, the sun was beginning to crest out over the mountains. The time had been flying for them, and they had moved well out of Rothgard’s keep. The vegetation had shifted slightly to shrubs and grass, which rolled over more gentle hills. As the sun began to bathe the valley, the earth began to breathe its mist, accenting the landscape as occasional tallgrass met the road. The forest stayed behind them, giving to land that was visible for several miles. In the furthest distance behind a larger ridge, a single tower could be seen.
“Is that their city?” Skelder pointed, the others following his finger.
“Aye, that’s the east watch tower. It surveys this section of their land,” Thom said. “No doubt they’ll see us in a bit.”
“That tower is huge if we can see it above that ridge,” Relman said, awestruck. “Imagine what the rest of the city is like.”
“No doubt it’s filled with women that will even approach you, Relman,” Telmar jabbed at him.
Thom looked back, defending Relman. “And just what women have you procured in your time, Telmar?”
“I could have any woman I wanted,” Telmar said smugly.
“…after dousing them in mead or hitting them on the back of the head,” Vrilda chimed in. They laughed a bit. Being caught off guard by a woman, Telmar had no response. They walked forward on their horses, crossing the damp plains that had pockmarked snow. Within a few hours, they finally reached the crest, and look at the city that span before them.
The tower was the first item to notice, as it looked east to the valley they had crossed. Beyond that, probably by another mile, the city wall held up several stories tall, made from grey stone that had been made into equal blocks throughout. Within the walls at the shallow angle, the men could see “districts” that were distinctive in their looks, likely belonging to different groups of people. Smoke came up from some of these areas, indicating metalworking, wood burning or any other number of professions that might need fire.
The city spanned for at least three or four miles. The men stood there looking at it, some of them awestruck. Down the hill and to the left, an open gate allowed entry into the city. As the men eyed it one by one, Sigi turned his horse to take it towards the road that would lead down the hill, and into the city.
As the horses carried them down the hill, the men saw how tall the city truly was. It began to shadow them.
“I cannot believe that one Lord has this entire city under his watch,” Hergar said in astonishment. “How long do you suppose it’s taken to get the city this big?”
“A long time,” Sigi said. Relman looked to him again, curious if Sigi knew personally or through hearsay. “This city has been in the Talgret family for at least five generations. They have been her since before the council, and they were often opposed by Welfvar, whom I told you of several nights ago.”
“Aye,” Thom added. “They were big enough to oppose them. They’re even bigger now.” Thom looked up at the wall as they approached the gate, the guards standing above at watch, but doing nothing to stop them from entering. They watched the group idly, before returning their attention up the road.
As they passed through the gate, they were greeted by the bustle of a city that was pulsing. People were carrying things to markets, walking, selling wares and guards occasionally patrolled in pairs, clad in full plate with a sword sheathed on their hips. Most of the men looked at in awe at the streets connecting to other streets, and the people of the city looked at the men who wore different clothes from what they were used to. Mostly, they looked at Sigi, who meandered quietly towards the slightly elevated hill, where Lord Talgret resided. Soon, they approached a secondary wall, which had been gated off. Two guards approached Sigi and the men, one of them holding up a hand.
“Your name?” a guard asked, eying Sigi suspiciously, their eyes meeting.
The other guard approached. “What do you want here, kinslayer?”
“Your head,” Sigi said flatly. Thom and the others went wide-eyed, unsure of what Sigi was dragging them into.
“Take it, and the rest of these guards will be on top of you, with no way to fight out,” the guard said, narrowing his eyes and placing his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“I’ll make a bowl out of your skull to put fruit in,” Sigi replied, menacingly. Relman went to speak up, but he couldn’t find the words. The two guards and Sigi stared at each other for a few more moments.
Finally, one of the guards let loose a smile, chuckling. The other guard followed suit.
“Haven’t seen you in a long time, Sigi,” the right guard said.
“Indeed, Balos.” Sigi nodded to the other one. “Fror.”
“Sigi,” Fror nodded back. “…a fruit bowl? Is that all the wit you’re left with these days?”
Sigi chuckled. “Perhaps.”
The other men, and Vrilda, behind Sigi were dumbfounded. Easily the air was of friendship between the three, but their hearts were still calming down.
“What can we do for you, Sigi?” Balos asked. “Need to see Lord Talgret?”
“Mm,” Sigi nodded. “These men, and woman, came with me from Lord Rothgard’s keep.”
The two guards looked beyond Sigi to those sitting horseback behind him, eying them briefly.
“We’re happy that your Lord has found the next life,” Fror offered to the gathered. Some of them nodded, and Fror looked back to Sigi. “Took you a few days to come here, then?”
“We set out last night,” Sigi said. Balos and Fror’s faces looked a bit surprised.
“No doubt it’s important then,” Balos said. “And no doubt you’re all a bit exhausted.” Balos looked behind him, nodding to a guard manning the gate lever. The man disappeared, and the gate began to slowly open.
“You know where to find him, Sigi,” Balos reaffirmed, nodding once more to Sigi before stepping aside with Fror.
“It’s good to see you both,” Sigi said before lightly ribbing the horse to move forward. The others filed in behind in through the two person-wide gate, which was just tall enough to allow riders through. No doubt there was another, and bigger access somewhere along the secondary wall. As they passed through, the air changed immediately. The streets were suddenly more orderly, with very little on the walkways. Many more men in iron armor were walking about in groups, and others still were seen training off to the side in formation. Their armor gave a soft glow, the iron having some wear on it but being very well kept on the men.
Vrilda looked at the men with raised eyebrows, and Thom looked over at her.
“Oi!” Thom said under his breath. “You looking for a replacement for me when I die?” Vrilda didn’t even acknowledge him as her eyes wandered playfully from soldier to soldier. Ahead, Sigi moved forward to a stable that was kept on the left side of the street, the inner keep laying just further of that.
They all dismounted, hitching their horses to the iron fencing that kept other well-fed and groomed horses. The difference between their own keep and this entire city was night and day. Many of them walked around, nearly self conscious of their stark contrast to the soldiers of the city. All except Sigi, who carried himself as he always did: with intent.
Sigi looked at the group as they were looking around. Hroth caught Sigi’s gaze and immediately caught up to him, spurring the others to fall in like ducks in a row. Relman hastily grabbed the semi-heavy bags of coin from off the horse. When Thom saw him struggling with it, he took one of them off his hands with a single arm, slinging it over his shoulder. They approached the inner keep, which was made of a whiter stone than what adorned the outer wall. To the right as they entered the walkway, a soldier was seen scrubbing one of the blocks that made up the base of the outside wall.
Thom chuckled, nudging Relman. “Bet he mouthed off to someone he shouldn’t have. He’s cleaning a wall.”
“Won’t it just get dirty again?” Relman asked, who thought for a moment and then answered his own question, nodding.
“You’ll get this yet, Twig,” Thom chuckled as they all filed in.
The inside of the sanctum, while modest, still boasted a very large ceiling, greater than the food hall from theirs. Archways helped support it, and holes in the wall allowed for drafts to bring in the moist smells from the plains outside, mixed with the industry that had taken up in parts of the city. The walls on the inside went up twenty feet before they met with the roof, which was lined with candle chandeliers, evenly measured and placed along the main hall. Out of one of the doors approached a man in brown and black robes, bald and aging but still brisk.
“Ah, you’re the ones from Lord Rothgard’s keep?” the old man asked. Before any of them could answer, he continued “May his life be glorious on the other side. I am Solnos, bedmaster here. I will show you to your separate rooms where you can bathe and rest after a long night’s journey.” He looked at Sigi. “Except for you, you’re to meet Lord Talgret immediately.”
“No doubt,” Sigi agreed. He looked to Thom and Relman, and held out his arms to take the satchels. They walked over, handing them to them with certain unease, and Sigi slung each over a shoulder. Another soldier approached Sigi, gesturing for him to follow. Sigi looked at the men once.
“Enjoy your rest while you can get it,” Sigi said before turning to follow the soldier down the hallway.
“Please,” Solnos beckoned. “Let me show you to your rooms for the night.”
“How did you know we were looking for rooms?” Telmar asked suspiciously. Solnos immediately turned around to walk forward into a separate, smaller hall.
“A runner came from the secondary wall to inform a few, including myself, of your trip. Covering that much ground overnight and into midday is impressive,” Solnos explained. He walked with short steps into the hallway.
“Well-informed place,” Thom thought aloud. “It’s no wonder they’re efficient on the field. They have their communication in tight order.”
Each of them followed Solnos, who introduced them to each of their rooms. As they left out of sight into each, their faces lit up once more with amazement at their quarters. Sigi followed the soldier, to council Lord Talgret.