The rapid, practiced, thud of small feet came thundering down the stairs.
"Mummy!" Screamed the eight-year-old as she charged across and buried herself in Minerva's dress.
Minerva quickly wiped her eyes and picked up her little girl.
"Hey bunny! How're you doing?"
"I'm alright. Frankie's been naughty though."
Nerys looked at her granddaughter. "Only because you weren't in control of him." She looked up. "Little monster nearly caught the neighbour's cat the other day."
Minerva raised her eyebrows. "What have I told you about keeping Frankie under control?"
"Sorry mum." She looked dour. "Glad you're home though mum."
Her mother was beside herself. "Oh! You're not hurt are you? What happened?"
"I'm..." Minerva's minds eye flashed back to the moment the coven was broken as she delivered the final, massive, blow to the enemy. "I'm not hurt." She lied. "But we were overrun..." She held on tightly as the floodgates finally had a chance to open. "They're all gone mum. All gone." She sobbed.
"Shh... You're here now. You're safe."
"That's it mum. It's not safe here. Not anymore. There's a friend outside, you need to go with them."
"This evacuation is your doing?"
"Yes, mum, it is."
"Rhian! Don't forget to pack your warm clothes!" Came the shout from the kitchen as Minerva entered the house quietly. Outside the noise of neighbours hastily moving into the street to join the crowd, as they filed towards the northern city gate, hid the noise she made as she opened the door.
"Mum?" The noise from the kitchen stopped and her mother's face instantly appeared at the kitchen door. "Minny! Oh my Goddess!! You're home? They never said, you never said..." She ran along the short hall and wrapped her eldest in a massive hug. "I thought..."
"Back early mum."
Minerva made her way through a city on the very edge of panic. It was clear as the cities forces made their way through the streets. The looks of barely concealed terror written on every face. Young and old, it didn't matter. Even the soldiers.
Minerva, however, had a specific destination in mind. Her mother lived on the outskirts of the city, near the wall. And while it was right that her mother left with an armoured escort, it was her daughter that she sought. In the coming says she would need her by her side. As close as possible.
Stepping from the oppressive silence of the Matriarch's chambers back into the real-world felt like stepping out into a front-line camp. The mansion was heaving with people rushing around. Minerva quietly stopped a girl that was gathering up plates and dishes.
"What is going on?"
The girl looked at her quizzically and then spotted the new pips on Minerva's collar and changed the look to wide-eyed horror.
"M'm'ma'am!" She tried to curtsey and hold onto her plates. "The Matriarch has issued orders to evacuate the city ma'am!"
"What? The whole city?"
"Yes ma'am! Everyone is to leave!"
The Matriarch brought her staff down and placed the tip on Minerva's shoulder.
"I hereby promote your rank to general. You are to leave this place with my orders to gather the weapons of war, in accordance with the prophecies of the Augury. You report directly to me and to no-one else."
She stood the staff upright and at rest.
"Am I clear in my orders general Khisha?"
Minerva bowed her head. "Ma'am!"
"Then I must ask why you are still here. You are dismissed!"
Minerva hurried to her feet, and strode purposefully, and quickly, from the Matriarch's chamber.
The Matriarch glared at Minerva. "And what, exactly, did the Shadow lord ask in return for this unfettered, and presumably un-molested, access?"
"Ma'am. His lordship requested that I keep him appraised of the situation here in the lands of light."
"Did he now... I would say that this was unprecedented. However, I have heard reports from the Western lands that the Augury has returned to us." She sighed, heavily. "Death and great change is upon us as we stumble, blindly, into its dark and heavy folds. I would send you west, but there are tasks for you here first."
Minerva stood before the Matriarch of Moorehaven, head bowed, red eyed after fully describing what had happened and how Hammords Reach had fallen.
"The Shadow Lord allows you access to his lands." Croaked the Matriarch with her gravelled voice.
It was a statement. Not a question, just a statement. The Matriarch sat on the throne chair, carved from the remains of an ancient oak; it's roots still fixing it to the ground. The chamber had been built around it.
"I find that most disturbing of all. No-one has had such access for over three thousand years! If not more."
"I am arresting you for possession of weapons within the city walls!" Shouted the guard.
"Oh, my goodness! Gordon! What...?" The sergeant gasped an exasperated sigh. He clipped the soldier over the head. "Shut up private!" He shouted as Gordon yelped and grabbed his ear.
"Sorry ma'am. May I see your papers?" The sergeant quickly looked over the document that Minerva had been trying to present to the guard.
"That seems more than in order ma'am. Or should I say Sergeant Major?"
She smiled. "Ma'am is just fine sergeant."
He nodded and turned to Gordon. "Back on duty private! Now!!"
Minerva calmly presented her coven paperwork to the guard. "I did not pass through the gates. I..." She was one of the few who knew the shadow realm. "Travelled here. Magic. I am staying at the laughing duck."
"Sergeant!" He bellowed. "Intruder!"
She rolled her eyes and planted her fists on her hips.
"Listen up moron. If I wanted to bypass you, I'd be inside already with the Matriarch. As it is, right now, I'm being very polite and walking in the light bearing you no harm."
"What are you doing Gordon?" The sergeant rolled up behind the guard, scowling.
She was brought to a stop by the thud of a Halberd on the cobbled street in front of her. The guard, in the kings' livery of cobalt blue and gold planted himself in front of her.
"Halt! State your business!"
Minerva sighed. "I must see the Matriarch. It is very urgent. I have come from Hammords Reach with news."
She reached into the pouch on her belt, pulling back her cloak and revealing her gauntlets slung beneath.
The guard stiffened, stepped back and brought the sharp end of the halberd to bear. "All weapons are stored on entry!"
The city of Moorehaven was of standard fair, other than it being a port city. A castle sat in the middle of the city on top of a bear lodge butte of solid granite. The river Moorechase came from inland via a gate that helped the city to control commerce. As a result, it was rich. It had well paid guards. It had good defences and little crime. For a city, it was a good place to live.
Minerva really hated it.
She could feel the veneer that was plastered over the whole place, and it made her skin crawl.
Minerva deliberately swooshed past the inn's front desk. Placing another coin as she passed. "I'll be back!" She exclaimed as she left.
This morning was not going to be fun. Arriving, as she had, meant that she'd slept away urgent hours. She didn't think that the enemy would be able to mobilise across the distance she'd travelled, but still...
Her first call would have to be with the local Matriarch. She had to report the deaths of her coven. Twelve dead, excluding herself. A witch's dozen. The symmetry of the twelve and the focus... Her.
She strode towards the keep.
The bed actually looked clean for once. Which was good, as she had no strength for a cleansing spell. She locked the door, hung her favourite bad luck totem on the handle, kicked off her boots and promptly collapsed onto the bed where sleep came quickly.
Warm morning sunshine splashing across her face brought her fully awake. Almost as much as the need for the toilet. Which, it turned out, to not be as nice as the bed. To be fair, there was only so much that could be done to a seated bucket in a box affair.
"I need a bed," Hissed Minerva, as she slammed a gold coin onto the counter. "And breakfast."
The attendant eyed the coin. "Er, sorry miss. That needs to be two gold for the bed and a silver for breakfast."
She squinted evilly from beneath the brim of her hat. "How about two gold and I don't turn you into a frog?" She placed another gold onto the counter.
He looked at her. "Yes, ma'am!" He replied with a frightened squeak.
She followed him upstairs as he showed her to her room. "The key ma'am. We hope you enjoy your stay!"
Exhausted, Minerva staggered from the alleyway and into the bright sunshine. She looked around and was relieved to discover that the alley she'd just come from was bordered by an inn. After extending herself so much what she needed now was sleep. Travelling well over a hundred miles in a matter of moments, Irregardless of being waylaid by the lord of shadows, was exhausting. It didn't matter how fit she was, right now she needed a bed.
She headed into the inn.
"Welcome to the laughing duck. How can I help you madam?" Said the smiling man behind the desk.
"Mark this day Witch. Mark it well. I give you permission to walk my lands. The price? The price is knowledge. Be my eyes in the light-lands, and keep me informed..." There was a pause. "Thank you, Witch. You may go."
Minerva would have breathed a sigh of relief there and then but waited until she stepped into the noise and bustle of the town. Behind her the alleyway seemed darker than the others.
The sacking of Hammords Reach had not only destroyed it here but had wiped it from the shadow lands.
And the shadow lord wasn't happy.
"I only hold you here to answer my question Witch. No harm will come to you. I have seen you before, and you have always treated my lands with the greatest respect. You have never trespassed without good reason, and so I turn a blind eye."
Suddenly the alleyway was filled with stark contrast.
"Not all who trespass are so, wise."
"Please my lord. I swear to you to that I will find what is happening and stamp it out. My sisters, my sisters..."
"I know Witch. I watched as the battle tore the mountain apart to defeat your enemy."
This shocked Minerva to the core. The lands of shadow were dangerous at the best of times. It would be so simple to just wander in amazement at the shadows on the faces of people without the face behind it. Watch them dance as a person spoke or turned their head. Just watching the shadowy outlines of trees and bushes could fascinate. Draw you in as you wasted away.
For there to be a place where the lord of shadows could not tread. Where there was nothing but void...
"My lord. I beseech you. Let me return to my land."
"I, I don't know how to answer that my lord. The city was attacked, ransacked and burned."
"Ordinarily this would be of no concern to me. There have been many wars in the light-lands. And yet the sun still shines, the plants grow in the bloodied earth and cast their shade. I am able to walk the fields of poppies and enjoy the shadows of their scent. But I become concerned when land falls dark, when cities fall silent and still in the blackness where no shadow may exist. Please tell me Witch. What magic can be so brutal?"