The Wild Ride
When Shadows Fall
Location: Stormholm Caer, Daranau Eira, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: September 3550
There were several routes that could be taken from the Plains of D’hassa March and the great tomb of Yr’Meddrodau north to Harkania March and the seat of power of the High Lord of Cymeria. The fastest route for a horse and rider was through the low-lying pass behind Brwydr Gaer, the great fort built after the Battle of D’hassa, then north through the Llynfi Valley. From there, a rider could angle west and cross the K’harsten High Pass and on into K’harsten March. Following the road to the border of K’harsten, if a rider knew the lands beyond the roads, he could angle almost due north across the Highland Valley, bypass the massive sprawling capital city of Dinas Ulchedir, and shave more time off the journey. Once past the city, there were a few places to ford the eastern fork of the Gwyfal River and rejoin the High Road.
The High Road, like almost all the main roads in Cymeria was a marvel of engineering. Its construction began began as a leveled dirt road upon which small stones and mortar were laid. Gravel was laid upon this, which was finally topped with tight fitting, interlocking stones to provide a flat surface. The road was cambered in the middle for water runoff and had ditches to either side which were protected by low retaining walls. Many traders and world travelers marveled at the engineering and said that the stones fit together so securely and closely that they appeared to have grown together rather than to have been fitted together by the hands of man. Those less inclined to charity towards the hereditary Cymry rulers of Cymeria, accused them of laying the road by magic and slaking its foundation with blood.
The hard surfaced main roads were not really conducive to very fast moving traffic such as mounted horses moving at a hard gallop. Although level, the stones were hard on a horse’s hooves and legs. The Cymerians solved this by engineering secondary roads that followed the same routes as the main roads, actually running alongside them in many places and where there was no room for the Courier Route, as they were called, sections of the hard fitted stone surface was replaced by the softer surface of the Courier Routes. These roads had the same level hard packed dirt bed overlaid with gravel, stones and mortar to allow for drainage. On top of that was another hard packed dirt surface. Again, the road was cambered to encourage water runoff.
Cymeria’s great capital city of Dinas Ulchedir covered several miles, stretching east and west across the Gwyfal River where its two forks joined, and then northward nearly to the foothills of the northern arc of the Cambrian Mountain Range where the highest peaks in Cymeria could be found. The foothills themselves were more like low-lying mountain ranges interspersed with wide valleys, all of it heavily forested than true hills, foot or otherwise. As a traveler left the northernmost edge of the city, they could see the misty, forested hills and rising above them the mighty stones of the Great Cambrian Wall.
On certain days when the light was just right, Stormholm Caer, the great keep of the rulers of Cymeria, could be seen shimmering hazily in the distance and appearing as if it were floating just above its mountain promontory. The locals took it for granted that Stormholm Caer was indeed hovering in the air while the Cymry that lived within its walls watched over the Land. Some feared the image, claiming that it was a trick of dark magic. In reality, the mirage was just that...a mirage caused by a trick of the light and curve of the horizon.
The Great Cambrian Wall had been a feature of the land when the Cymry arrived on Aereth. All records of who had commanded it be built, why and when, had been lost. The Cymry had taken advantage of it, adding battlements and towers here and there, but other than that, they had left it alone. Its construction defied their most advanced engineers and its need for repair was rare.
The wall itself stretched along the southernmost ridges of the foothills and flowed for hundreds of miles east and west. The only easy access to the lands beyond was via the Tower Gate through which the High Road passed. The wall had small embattlements and watchtowers placed along its length, though few were manned on a regular basis, most being used only when a patrol was making their way along the wall looking for areas that needed repair.
The Cambrian Wall - or Great Cambrian Wall - ranged from sixteen to twenty-six feet in height added onto whatever natural ridge or cliff it was resting on. At the bottom it was twenty feet wide narrowing to sixteen feet wide at its apex. The outer wall followed the contours of the ridges and valleys of the Daranau Eira foothills from east to west for hundreds of miles in each direction. Where the foothills dipped to a nearly flat, level and almost park-like area, one of the ancient battlements had been restructured to allow the High Road clear and easy passage through the wall. The actual gates were removed and towers constructed to house a light garrison whose main duty assignment was to advise travelers of conditions further north and generally keep an eye on the general comings and goings. Though there was not an actual barrier at this point, it had become known as Tower Gate. The only other gaps in the great wall were archways designed to let the many fast flowing and rampaging waters of the Highlands to continue their courses unhindered.
Once past the Tower Gate, the High Road rose and fell with the ridges and dips of the foothills. Within a half hour’s ride, the formidable barrier of Harkanus Gaer’s (Fort Harkanus) southern wall and South Gate loomed over the rugged countryside. This time, travelers had to stop while a massive twelve foot thick stone gate was rolled back into the walls before they could pass through to a walled in courtyard where they could rest and water their mounts or other livestock while they waited to be allowed to continue their journey. This access and egress back onto the High Road was known as the South Gate. The same process would be repeated in reverse after a journey of several hours to reach the North Gate. There, they would enter a walled courtyard first and be held there while the Guardsmen or Watch Commander on duty verified they had legitimate business in the High Lord’s lands.
Harkanus Gaer was, in fact, split into two forts, one lying east of the High Road and the other on the west side, effectively forming a vast barrier wall to either side of the roadway. The walls that provided an effective barrier to straying off the roadway ended where sheer cliffs of jagged granite told the story of when the mighty Gwyfal River had carved its way through the stone, leaving a passage to the rising mountains known as Fort’s Pass. High overhead, built to span the pass were a series of arched stone bridges that connected the eastern half of the fort to its western sibling. No sassenach (outlander, foreigner) or enemy had ever found their way inside the fort or, to date, past its walls.
Just beyond Harkanus Gaer’s North Gate, lay a small hamlet consisting of a couple of taverns, inns, stables, and blacksmith’s shop. There were a few homes and farms scattered about it where the land allowed such. This small settlement was known as Duskhallow, named because it was where most travelers wound up at dusk. Many travelers, after the hours spent traversing the High Road, would pause for a time in the village to slake their thirst, have a meal, or even spend the night as well as have their animals boarded and tended.
Making the remainder of the journey to Stormholm Caer was not as challenging as merely staying on the horse, thought Mikhael, wearily shifting his weight in the saddle as he and his party approached the imposing bulk of the Cambrian Wall. He knew that the riders with him were as exhausted and saddle sore as he was. The High Lord only had to look at them to see the weariness in their faces and posture, yet no one complained, nor had they complained from the outset when he had set a pace that would have killed most men and horses, only pausing for rest when they could literally no longer ride without being in danger of falling from their saddles. The journey from the Plains of D’hassa, north and west through K’harsten Pass, and then on to Harkania was normally a seven to nine day ride on horseback and at a reasonable pace. Mikhael had cut it down to five days, riding as far into each night as moonlight and exhaustion allowed.
The need to return to Stormholm was motivated by fear. Fear instilled in him by the dying words of one of the Black Templars they had fought in D’hassa, member of the secretive Black Order of Aquitaine. The High Lord knew, logically, that once Oksana’s caravan reached Harkanus Gaer and passed through the gates, no earthly enemy stood much chance of harming them. But, as the Black Order had proven at the Ceremony of Oaths, they were not your average earthly enemy. They possessed arcane powers that rivaled even the most powerful Cymry.
Mikhael could still see the battered face of the dying man when he closed his eyes and hear the whispered menace in his voice. “For hate’s sake, I spit my dying breath at thee, Thunder Lord. Know this, your witch-son will not survive reaching the snows of your home and you will be the instrument of his destruction. It will be you, Cymry, that awakens the sleeping stone that will burn his soul to ashes.” He had shaken the man, furiously demanding to know the meaning of his words, but to no avail. The Black Templar whispered his last breath along with the curse he uttered.
The rising sun was just starting to turn the sky to a pale gold as the weary band guided their horses onto the High Road just north of Dinas Ulchedir. In the near distance, they could see the mist swaddled Highlands and rising in the far distance above the low-lying mountains that most called the foothills, were the soaring peaks of the Cambrian Mountain Range. Like a ghost, rising behind the other mountains soared An Teallach, the highest mountain in Cymeria, rising some twenty-nine thousand feet to its summit. Mist and fog shrouded the summit of their destination, Daranau Eira, often referred to in Saesneg, the Common Trade Tongue, as Thundersnow Mountain - or just Thunder Snow. A few yards from the far side of the road, the western fork of the mighty Gwyfal River roared and tumbled over cataracts and rapids, on its way south to eventually empty over a spectacular horseshoe shaped waterfall into Lake Gwynedd.
The beauty of the surrounding countryside was lost on the weary riders as they nudged their equally exhausted mounts into a steady gallop. Their destination was still nearly a day’s journey to the north. If they pushed as hard as they had in their ride from D’hassa, they might be able to shave a couple of hours off the time. After passing beneath the arches of Tower Gate, they set spur to flank and their mounts surged forward in response. Perhaps the animals sensed they were nearing home, but they seemed to regain some of their spirit and energy. Recognition of the High Lord’s banner being carried by one of his Morrigan, acting as a the standard bearer, prompted the guards at Harkanus Gaer’s South Gate to have it open and waiting as they galloped through to the courtyard. Here, Mikhael called a halt to allow time for the horses to be watered and given a light feed while he and his men did the same. As they ate, refilled their canteens and stretched their legs to ease the cramps of too many hours in the saddle, a lone rider in Guard uniform swung onto a mount led out from the far side of the courtyard and raced away, heading to the pass and north.
The Watch Commander strode over, bowing his head in respect, “I sent an outrider to warn the North Gate that you would be coming through, m’lord, and that they should not detain your party unless you stop for water...they are to have the gate open and waiting.”
Mikhael gave a nod and tight smile to the man, “With good fortune, we will not pass your outrider on the road,” he managed with a bit of his usual humor lighting his eyes.
Giving the signal to mount up, the party once again set their mounts to a fast gallop, stringing out enough along the road so that they did not impede other traffic. Fortunately, there were few travelers heading north so soon after the Seremoni Llwon, the great Gathering of the Clans for the Ceremony of Oaths, and so near to the fall harvest. The towering walls of Harkanus Gaer reminded the riders, and anyone else traveling Fort’s Pass, that they were within the boundaries of the mightiest and best protected fort in Cymeria. Where the pass followed what used to be the bed of the Gwyfal River, whose course had, over millennia carved its way down through sheer granite cliffs, they could see one of the great arched stone bridges that spanned the pass from cliff to cliff, soaring high overhead. They would pass under four more of the bridges before coming out from between the cliffs where nature once again met the stone walls of Harkanus Gaer.
At long last, the High Lord and his party clattered out of the shelter of the cliffs, passed under the northernmost bridge, and were once again in the shadow of Harkanus Gaer’s walls. Mikhael was not the only rider reeling in their saddles as they entered the courtyard and galloped for the North Gate and back onto the open road. Here, the High Road curved slightly east and once again was accompanied by the violent waters of the massive east fork of the Gwyfal. Now, the road was beginning to ascend sharply and the river was a cascade over a series of step waterfalls. The High Road entered the base of the mountain range where it forked east to Snowvale, the small village that served the Theurgy Guild’s fortress, Sanctuary, on the lower slopes of Mynydd Cysegr (Mt. Sanctuary). Snowvale was the nearest village of any size and a major trading center, not only for the Theurgy but for the residents of Stormholm Caer and the surrounding highland farms.
After passing the eastern fork, often called Sanctuary Road, the High Road narrowed and became steeper. The retaining walls usually found along the sides and ditches for water runoff had been left behind. The road’s natural slope allowed for significant water drainage although periodically, small trenches were dug to allow snow melt to flow into the Gwyfal.
The sun was low on the horizon when the riders picked up the sound of the two waterfalls that sprang from an opening in the side of the promontory to fall hundreds of feet into Thunder River. There was an abyss dug into the river bed by the water’s power over untold thousands of years. The pool at the base of the falls was protected by a natural ring of rock and was a favorite spot for swimming in the hot days of high summer. One just had to be careful not to be sucked in by the whirlpool at the base of the falls or get caught in the current where the pool spilled over a rocky ledge and into the raging river, the source of the east fork of the Gwyfal.
With mighty strides, the horses swept forward and ever upward, breath coming hard as they galloped full out toward the tunnel entrance that wound through the heart of the mountain and out on the promontory where Stormholm Caer perched. More cascading water surrounded the ancient entrance as it was a habit of the Cymry to build on heights and near fast flowing water. There were no guards at the entrance and the gate stood open, having been rolled back into the mountain. The maze of tunnels inside was enough protection for the most part as without the key to the right passages through the massive caverns, invaders would wander forever or until they plummeted into one of the many chasms lurking within. Moon globes, those odd crystals that provided light when cut and polished correctly and allowed to recharge in the sun, were suspended on long chains from the cavern ceilings or inset into niches along the walls, providing plenty of light. Where it was not practical to use the light emitting crystal globes, shallow stone troughs with a clean, sweet smelling oil provided additional light.
Mikhael, and the riders with him, knew the tunnels through the caverns by heart and barely slowed their horses’ pace as they plunged through the entrance. Bats occasionally stirred and flew past, spooked by the loud sound of clattering hooves, but other than their high-pitched, near soundless cries and the echoes of hoofbeats, all was silent.
Greymane’s hooves were drowned out by the echoes of the other horses as they sped into the tunnel. While Kaelan had ridden to Stormholm Caer before, he did not know the tunnels that well, having often come by a road that led across the mountains. Still he did not feel insecure or in fear of losing his way. His senses allowed him to know where Mikhael and the others were moving, and with the group there was no getting lost. He could spot Falún ahead, Northwind had kept up with the lead group throughout their wild ride across the marches. Beside Falún’s horse he could see another moving silhouette, running like a shadow. Oréas’ horse had injured its leg and been unable to run any longer halfway through the journey, and the Wyr warrior had chosen to run the rest of the distance in wolf shape rather than replacing his steed.
Allowing his senses to guide him through the tunnel, Kaelan let the worry he had locked away to surface. The threat of a dying man might be nothing or it might be the herald of doom. Too much treachery had happened this past year for it to be taken lightly. He knew all too well that a threat against the Heir was a threat against Mikhael and Cymeria as well.
Grief could cripple the High Lord at a critical moment. Not all Cymry bonded so closely to their children as had Mikhael to Vasily. Perhaps the bond was more pronounced because Mikhael was a single father. Kaelan had seen Dwarrow who survived the death of their family for reasons of duty and obligation…these were men who had lost parts of their souls, Dwarrow with dark, empty eyes. He would not see a friend fall to such a fate, whatever the Black Templars had planned, what kind of treachery this was, they needed to find it. Could they have infiltrated House Stormdanovich, like they had done with the Dwarven royal household? After the events of the summer, of father fighting son, and of even guardsmen proving to be disloyal, Kaelan wondered about Mikhael’s people. He could not see any treachery in Hawke, he could not imagine Hawke betraying Mikhael… but then, he would not have foreseen Ferván turning on him, on others becoming traitors.
He felt Falún’s gaze as his brother had turned back to look at him. He could tell what the gaze reminded him off - that allowing the seed of distrust into their souls was the true victory the Shadow would achieve. His mind understood that… but Maker! He wished he could see the enemy more clearly.
What seemed like hours later, but was, in truth only minutes, the horses burst through an archway and into a brightly lit, turf padded arena used both for mustering together riders, troops or caravans and for training horses and riders. Across its width was the opening to the cavern stables where grooms and stable lads were pouring through to catch the reins of the exhausted horses as the riders flung themselves out of their saddles racing on the heels of their High Lord to the outer courtyard and the entrance to the magnificent keep itself.
Mikhael shouldered through the wide heavy oaken doors before the retainers that usually had the duty of opening doors and announcing returning residents or visitors could get out of the way. He flung off his soiled riding gloves as he lengthened his strides to a run, racing for the main staircase and up to the third floor and toward the eastern wing of the keep where he shared apartments with his son. At his heels were Hawke Windwalker and both of the Dwarrow Princes who had made the nightmare ride from D’hassa with him, allies and friends all. Reaching the door to his son’s rooms, he flung it open and continued full speed through the living quarters to the bedchamber, calling loudly for Vasya as he moved through each room, head swiveling as he sought the boy. At this hour of the day, he was likely being dressed for dinner so he headed straight to the boy’s spacious dressing chamber.