No Place Like Home
The Thinning Veil
Location: High Lord's Private Courtyard, Stormholm Caer, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: Late October 3550
The past few days had been something of an experience for Richard. After the first 48 hours or so Doc Kiernan, as Richard insisted on calling him, had released him from the infirmary and he had been given his own quarters. The wound itself had closed, but he still required frequent treatments with a hot compress to try to help with the pain and stiffness. Kiernan checked up on him periodically to make sure he was obeying the treatment plan. To some extent Richard was enjoying himself. He had luxuries here that he had not had in the last eight months during his deployment. Things like sleeping in a bed, bathing on a regular basis, and eating food that didn’t come in a plastic pouch. Plus he had clean clothes, even if he found them strange. He had been given a simple green tunic and dull tan pants along with boots and a belt. They were comfortable though, even if funny looking. Still Richard quickly found himself bored.
He had spent some time exploring the areas of the castle that he was permitted to see, his quarters, the kitchen and mess hall, and a few exterior spaces. He took advantage of the latter, insisting on exercising each morning, though he had to be careful of his still healing shoulder. As he moved about the place he was never without escort. While they weren’t under foot, he knew he was being guarded. At least part of the time his guard was Laryn, which he found pleasant. As she was the only person he saw on any sort of regular basis besides Doc Kiernan, he thought of her as the closest thing he had to a friend. Aside from that though there was a lot of time to kill.
At one point he had asked for a history book, hoping to gain some insight into the land and its people. The one that Laryn had brought him though was a real doorstopper of a text. He did his best to try to read it, but it was hard going. The script itself, which he could read it if he concentrated, was very different than what he was used to. That and the sheer density of the material meant usually he couldn’t get through more than a dozen pages before his eyes started to cross and it felt like his brain was trying to slide out his ears. Over several days he managed to read some of this world's ancient history, but it was hard to say how much he had retained.
One of the few activities he had found stimulating was to stand on one of the courtyard walls and watch a group of guard training in the courtyard below. This is where he was when the messenger came and found him. The young man they sent told him he was to go and meet the High Lord. Shrugging, Richard followed as he lead the way.
The courtyard was a sunlit oasis and one of Mikhael’s favorite places within the complex of rooms that made up his private residence within Stormholm Caer. Some years previously, he had located a little used area of the keep and had it renovated into his home. In the process, he had found a wealth of old books, scrolls and furnishings that had been stored and forgotten as well as a large and very well appointed bathing chamber that included the luxury of a private steam bath. Prowling the three floors left him with the opinion that the apartment had, at one time in the past, been the province of a previous High Lord. If one knew how to find it, and few did, there was an exterior entrance to the apartment via a hidden courtyard. This access was limited to only a few trusted members of his staff and household though. The official entrance was on the first floor and was equally hard to find.
This floor contained a vestibule where one or two guards were normally posted, two living areas, one formal and one personal and more casual, two dining areas with a small cooking area between them. Like the living areas, there was a large formal dining room and a much smaller one that was the one most often used by himself and his son. There was also a guest bedchamber and small bathing chamber and privy as well as a massive library. A flight of stairs led up to the second floor which contained another living area, even more casual than the larger one downstairs, a hidden access to Mikhael’s tower workroom and private library, his and Vasily’s bedchambers, dressing chambers and bathing chambers.
From the tower, Mikhael could access the third floor of his apartment. This was an open expanse that he used for indoor exercising and where he and Vasily, and now Aeonar as well, often retreated to play. He also had a small area set up with comfortable chairs near massive floor to ceiling windows that let him look out over the river gorge far below and even provided a good view of the falls that burst from underneath the great keep.
The interior stone walls of most of the apartment had been left undressed. The exceptions were in the dining chambers and formal living areas where they had been washed with a pleasant blue-gray. Mikhael loathed the practice of hanging heavy draperies or tapestries over windows, so had had shutters that rolled open and closed on tracks mounted over the windows. The furnishings were well made but comfortable and the few tapestries that covered the walls as artwork were done in muted jewel tones giving the rooms a warm yet masculine presence. Rugs in the same tones and colors dotted the floors adding to the feeling that the rooms were meant to be lived in and not just occupied.
On this day, Mikhael was enjoying the courtyard that lay just off the private living area of the ground floor of his apartments. Access was via a sliding tract of windows which stood open to allow fresh air to circulate inside. Vasily and Aeonar, the Wyr cub that was now his son’s constant companion, played near a fountain that trickled and splashed over the stones of the courtyard wall into a deep pool that contained small catfish, decorative carp and a large white duck that paddled happily near his young master. Access to the courtyard was restricted and could only be reached from inside the apartment, it was well hidden from the exterior courtyard that actually gave external access to the High Lord’s private domain making it a place where he could truly relax.
It was three days after he had been wounded while rescuing the second Traveler to arrive in their lands. His body was still stiff and sore from the agonizing muscle contractions brought on as the wyvern’s venom ran its course, but he was in much better shape than many who ran afoul of the nasty things. The Chief Battle Surgeon had told him that, although the animal’s fangs had left unpleasantly deep wounds, it had not managed to inject a full measure of its venom meaning Mikhael had only faced a day or two of severe pain and fever rather than what could have dragged on for a week or more. This was more common than not, Kiernan had stated. Wyvern tended to be stingy with their venom.
To accommodate the thick bandage that wrapped his upper leg, Mikhael had chosen to dress in the style of the native Celtic Highlanders. He wore a long lace up shirt under a padded vest. The shirt was tucked into a kilt that fell just below the knees and a matching plaid was brooched at his shoulder. The plaid was in the colors adopted by the Stormdanovich family, muted gray, blue-gray and black. He also wore soft leather boots that reached slightly above his knees and where he had a boot sheath and his dagger. Both of Mikhael’s swords were near to hand.
Since he and Vasily often took their meals in the courtyard when the days were nice, he had had a lower than normal stone table constructed for the space along with comfortable chairs that could be moved under cover during inclement weather. Today, he sat in one of the deep, barrel-type comfortable chairs with the injured leg propped up on a footrest brought from inside the apartment. Attendants had laid the midday meal and Hawke lounged nearby.
“Vasily, Aeonar, come get your meal. You boys and Donal may eat next to the fountain,” Mikhael called out as the last pewter plate was set. Another attendant, followed by a man that Mikhael recognized as the Traveler that had arrived in Tegwyn Tor a few days previous. Due to the subsequent arrival of another Traveler and his own injury, he was just now getting an opportunity to follow-up with the man although Anastasiya had made sure to relay routine reports to him and Hawke.
The attendant stopped short of the table, “Sergeant Richard Coyle,” the man said, stumbling slightly over the unfamiliar rank and name. Although the rank had no meaning in Cymeria, the Seneschal had said the man seemed to set great store by his military service, therefore it was an easy courtesy to afford him.
“Join us,” Mikhael said, making it a request and not a command then gestured at his leg where it rested amongst several cushions on the footrest. “Please forgive me for not standing to greet you, syr.”
Richard followed the man that had summoned him through a maze of corridors that seemed to go on forever. Richard initially tried to keep his bearings, but soon lost them as the number of turns exceeded the number he could hold in his head at once. It left him with the impression that this place was bigger on the inside than on the outside. Though an alternate possibility was that he was being deliberately lead in circles to keep him from being able to find their destination again. Eventually though they turned off the corridor to a door that looked very much like all the others they had passed and entered.
The rooms they entered were extremely sumptuous, and Richard had no difficulty believing that a king lived here. He was however not given much time to look around as he was lead out into a courtyard that was equally grand. Taking in the people there he saw the man that was obviously the high lord. Even seated the fact that he was a big man was evident. He was accompanied by another man, probably a bodyguard by the way he carried himself, as well as two children eating nearby, one of whom clearly with a resemblance to the high lord. Though Richard had been given a brief tutorial on the proper etiquette for this situation, he found the idea of bowing to anyone, high lord or not, galling. Instead he snapped to attention and rendered a crisp salute. “Sergeant Richard Coyle reporting as ordered, sir.” He stated in the clipped but courteous tone that was typical for the military. Realizing that his host was probably unfamiliar with the custom of saluting, Richard did not wait for a return salute, but after a pause of a few seconds dropped the salute, though he remained at attention.
On being directed to a chair, Richard sat as he was bidden, though he still sat at attention. He allowed a bit of curiosity to enter his expression as he waited for the high lord to speak.
“Thank you for agreeing to see us, Sergeant Coyle,” Mikhael said, easily mimicking the pronunciation of the man’s rank in his deep, clear voice. He paused and turned his gaze to the two boys, “Vasily, you and Aeonar may take your meal by the fountain. Do not forget to feed Donal.” At the High Lord’s words, one of the attendants moved to help the boys carry their plates to the fountain with the large white duck waddling and quacking in their wake.
“The duck,” he said by the way of explanation for dismissing the boys from the table, “would not have allowed for conversation. “This,” he gestured to the man at his right, “is Ryndar Hawke Windwalker, the commander of the Morrighan, one of our guard units.” For now, Mikhael chose not to go into details regarding exactly who the Morrighan were. His expression was a friendly neutral, his cold blue eyes mirroring some of Coyle’s curiosity. “I would also like to convey my regard and gratitude for your assist of the Tegwyn children. It is unlikely that they could have survived the wyvern.”
Richard inclined his head politely as the other man was introduced as an officer of the guard. “Sir.” He said in polite acknowledgment before returning his attention to the high lord. This was far less formal than Richard had expected, or indeed was used to, but taking his cue from the attitude of his host relaxed a bit, though he still sat up straight out of respect for his host. Though Richard lowered his eyes slightly as his host thanked him out of a sense of modesty. “No thanks are required sir. A soldier’s duty is to protect the weak and the helpless. I was happy to serve.” Richard paused for a moment, but as his host seemed to want a conversation he decided to say what was on his mind. “Sir, I would like at some point to go back out to the farm. I want to check up on them and well, I need to return the property I… borrowed.” Richard decided that borrowed was the most polite term he could come up with for looting a dead man, even if he had been in dire need at the time. “Though, I’m afraid I don’t know how to ride, sir, and I’m guessing it would be a pretty long walk.”
“Walking that distance would be difficult and...hazardous...for one not familiar with the dangers of this world” Mikhael answered with a slight smile and a grimace toward his leg. “Even those of us cognizant of those dangers can still walk into trouble.” This time, humor sparked in his eyes at Hawke’s sour look. “Considering the circumstances that necessitated the borrowing of certain items, if you will give one of your attendants a list, we will see them replaced with equal or better goods.”
Richard swallowed, looking slightly nervous about what he was about to explain. “Sir, I don’t think you entirely understand. The items I… borrowed… I took them from… one of the dead.” Richard looked deeply ashamed as he spoke. “I had no boots and had to cut up my shirt for bandages. I had no idea where I was or how far I was from civilization. I thought it was a military necessity… if a distasteful one.” Richard drew a deep breath. “I want to give the items I took back, in case they have sentimental value, for the survivors.”
Pausing he turned his thoughts to more practical matters. “I talked to Laryn some, about learning to ride. Maybe she could teach me if her other duties permit.” While he was trying to maintain his military bearing, he could not help but smile.
For a change, Mikhael’s smile was kind rather than wolfish. Slanting a glance at Hawke who remained wary and watchful but silent, he once again turned his attention onto their guest, “Things such as how a people reveres its dead vary and from your words and expression, it must be very different in your world. The Celtic people of Cymeria are very pragmatic. Personal effects such as clothing are usually burned along with the deceased. Weapons, jewelry, other items of worth are shared amongst his or her descendants unless the deceased prepared a bequest prior to their demise. I will see appropriate inquiries are made to the family, but I assure you, it is more likely they will be more grateful for the new replacements. I will also see that your dismay at having to take things from the dead man is conveyed as well although it is unlikely they would begrudge the use of those items in such a situation.”
Mikhael took a moment to drink some of the cold water that had been provided and gestured at the table, “Please, help yourself to food and drink. There is plenty.” He shifted slightly. His leg ached and he was still sore from the ravages of the wyvern poison. Perhaps stirring from his bedchamber so soon had been ill advised. “I have no issues with Lady Laryn teaching you to ride as long as it does not impact her duties. There are many mounts within the stable suitable for learning on.”
Richard nodded slowly. “I will put together a list then, if that's what will make them happy. It just seems strange to me. For us taking things from the dead, except for weapons and intelligence, is against the laws and rules of land warfare.”
Being bidden to eat, Richard reached out and took some food. Truth be told he was quite hungry, but he did his best to remember his table manners. He took bread, cheese, and meat and assembled an impromptu sandwich. Taking a bite, he smiled. The food was really very good.
“Lady Laryn has been kind to me, I have been enjoying her company.” He added with a genuine smile.
Tilting his head, Mikhael smiled quietly as the conversation also became an exploration of cultures. “Do not misunderstand. We do not condone robbing from the dead for personal gain just that the family will understand mitigating circumstances.” The High Lord paused to take a drink of his water and break off some of the bread and cheese. “Have you been able to give thought to what you want to do?” It seemed a less than stellar way to find out if the man realized he would not be going back to his realm, but it was not the sort of conversation Mikhael ever expected to have with anyone.
Richard nodded slowly, glad to hear that the man opposite him was apparently not the sort of barbarian king that had come into his wealth through looting and pillaging. Though at his next question Richard was caught a bit by surprise. Tilting his head slightly he studied Mikhael for several long moments. “Sir, I mean no disrespect, but I have a duty to rejoin my unit.” Richard set down his sandwich, no longer feeling hungry. “Lady Laryn told me that as far as she knows that isn’t possible, but… I can’t just give up… not without at least trying. I could never live with myself if I didn’t exhaust all reasonable chances to get back.”
Sitting back in his chair he sighed slightly before taking up a cup and taking a long drink. “If it turns out I can’t go home, sir… well… I’ve always been a soldier… It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be… and frankly I am one of the best.” Setting the cup down he fixed Mikhael with a piercing gaze. “Sir, I mean no disrespect, but I am not just some killer for hire. I will not fight for just anyone. I can’t serve a country I know nothing about.” Richard’s expression softened slightly. “This country, Cymeria, can you tell me sir, what does it stand for? If I fought with you, what would I be fighting for and against?”
Mikhael exchanged a glance with Hawke as a low chuckle rumbled in his broad chest. His usually cold blue eyes warmed with amusement, “You do ask epic questions, Richard.” He used the man’s first name as a gesture of friendship. It was not a name totally foreign to Cymeria, but neither was it common.
“First, Laryn is correct to an extent. The majority of Aereth’s people consider Travelers to be a myth. While I have been forced to inactivity by my injury, I have been reading any texts our archivists could find that address the subject. Some of those I am having copied from our ancient arcane language to modern Saesneg...the common tongue. I will send them to you when they are complete.” For now, Mikhael chose to keep quiet on the subject of the newest Traveler.
“The Cymry, my people, are an ancient race of...sorcerers...magic-users. It is believed that, in a time so distant in the past that little to nothing remains, some of them became tremendously powerful, archadepts. In their quest for more knowledge and more power, they opened gates to other realms and worlds, perhaps other universes entirely. The remnants of those arcane gates remain within some of the ancient cylchs...stone circles. From time to time they catch an unwary traveler and bring them here. I have studied the arcane extensively and have not found anything that indicates the ancient gates can be opened.” Mikhael did not tell Richard of the Cymry’s ability to create the point-to-point portals they used to facilitate long distance travel. He was not trying to without information that could help the man but rather to not give false hope. Nothing he had learned gave him reason to believe that he, or any archadept, could create a portal to someplace they did not have a reading on or the energy key for.
“Your question, what does Cymeria stand for? There is no one easy answer, but I will tell of my land and people as best I can.” The High Lord reached for the pitcher of water and a clean pewter goblet. Filling it, he drank deeply as he marshaled his thoughts. When he spoke, his clear deep voice now held the slight sing-song notes of a storyteller.
“Cymeria is older than time some say. There were no people living here when the Cymry and the Wyr fled the destruction of Atlantis for these shores. We were here long before Menfolk came and gave us the name of Chimera. For many millennia, there was peace until there was not. Some of my race, the Cymry, once again became too arrogant and dissolute in the use of their powers. They warred amongst themselves because that was...and still is...our nature. Eventually others of my kind overthrew the maddened rulers and peace was restored, but the damage was done, many Menfolk came to distrust us and even to revile us. Some of the Cymry did the same. That is our past and it resonates in our present and will probably continue to do so in our future. Restoring the faith of the younger races will take time.”
Mikhael paused to drink from his water goblet. Speaking so long at a time was still an effort. “Cymeria is the Land. It nourishes and enriches us. In return, we owe it respect and protection. My people…” here a brilliant smile lit Mikhael’s face and his eyes, “are good and evil, kind and cruel, strong and weak...like any land’s people, they are not perfect. Cymeria seeks to protect and nourish her own. We have never carried war beyond our borders and, with some fortune, we will never have to do so although should our allies call for our aid, we would have to respond. This land has enemies from without and within, the greatest of which are those that follow yr un Cysgodi, the Shadowed One. The Cymry are not what they once were. I am not sure we could win an arcane war.”
“If you were to fight with us...for us...Sergeant Richard Coyle, you would be fighting for those that cannot defend themselves, for peace and against tyranny and the forcing of beliefs that would call for the extermination of entire races due only to their birthright.” Mikhael gazed steadily at the younger man for several moments. “You should consider spending some time with our Guard’s trainees, learn from the people that defend Cymeria for anything I say would be biased as my life is connected to this land and its people by the blood I have shed during my oath to it.” He gestured elegantly toward the sky where the great three-ringed moon hovered, glowing faintly against the blue, its rings glimmering with light and, so some believed, power. “Marnwr, the Judge, will weigh my intent and actions as he does all who come before him. I can only,” he spread his hands, “do my best for all those that dwell in Cymeria and do not seek to harm others.”
Richard listened attentively, giving careful consideration to the words the man spoke. He watched his features closely, trying to see if the man was just making a speech or was truly sincere about what he said. The man seemed sincere, but Richard had heard many of these kinds of speeches in the army from high ranking officers. Just because they were sincere did not necessarily mean they understood the truth on the ground. The high lord had given Richard a lot of information all at once and it was a lot to process, especially the parts about magic and what not. The offer to see for himself though, was an intriguing one. “I think I will go spend some time with your recruits.” He said slowly after a long pause. “Who knows, maybe I can teach them a thing or two about the American way of war.” He said with a slight laugh.
Taking a drink he thought for a moment. “So if I understand what you said, you are a Cymry, so you can use magic?” His tone was still a bit skeptical, still not entirely convinced that magic existed at all. “And I guess since I can’t that means I would be considered a… menfolk?”
Mikhael chose to let the man’s comment regarding teaching the recruits a thing or two about the American way of war pass. After all, the Marshal of the Garrison would have the last say and he knew Brychan well enough to trust the man’s judgement when it came to what he would and would not allow where his trainees were concerned. Over and above that, finding oneself stranded in another country was bad enough, Mikhael could only imagine how learning you were trapped on another world entirely would make a person feel. Instead, he focused on Coyle’s question about magic. “Yes, I am trained in the use of the arcane,” he answered, an edge of amusement in his tone. “There are several races that are considered arcane in nature, that have an...affinity...for the magic of this world. The races of Menfolk are much younger but some have the ability to use magic, most do not.” He smiled, “As with most things, who can use magic and why is not as simple as yes and no.”
A wave of weariness hit Mikhael. It felt as if he had strode head first into one of the keep’s walls. “My apologies, Sergeant Coyle,” he said, lifting a hand to summon one of the attendants, “I fear I still tire easily. I am certain you understand since both of us suffer from recent wyvern encounters.”
Rising slightly unsteadily to his feet, Mikhael waited as the other man also rose and nodded his understanding before leaving with the attendant. For a moment, the High Lord’s eyes followed the Coyle, his mind occupied with the conundrum of the sudden influx of Travelers in their midst. Shaking his head, he turned his attention to Hawke to ask him if he would keep an eye on the children until their attendant returned from her meal before making his way back inside.