"I enjoyed that, my friend," Jibrith laughed. "Oh, but it is so good to see you again. Fifteen years have not aged you, nor your humour!"
"Nor you, nor yours, wise Jibrith. But I am happy I can still best you at one thing!"
They hugged once more, then Fralli took a step away from his friend and frowned.
"But I am sorry, Jibrith, for I bring neither good nor happy news for Lord Hevne and yourself. In brief, the warriors of the Fire Isles are moored off the northernmost tip of Kamkarra. There is no doubt of their intentions."
In answer to Jibrith's shouted words, Fralli nodded. His face puckered, and a loud, roared snort escaped. He fell against Jibrith who threw his arms around him and they burst into torrents of breathless laughter. Gripping Fralli's shoulders Jibrith held him away so he could look into Fralli's sputtering, laughing face.
"Fralli, you cur, you've bested me again with words! Oafson of oafs! Wonderful!" and, laughing, both men clasped each others shoulders and kissed each other upon the cheek.
The room filled with shrieks of laughter once again as Fralli chuckled "all light is corrupted by my countenance, eh, Jibrith?"
Silence trembled between the two men, a silence that appeared to Callipe as icy and merciless as death itself. Near the now closed door, the two guards tried to veil their shock as they stood with swords unsheathed.
In the centre of the room Jibrith stood unarmed, his face appearing red with rage. On Fralli's face his veins stood out and his jaw clenched tight. Deliberately, the two men slowly approached one another.
"Oafson of oafs, say you?" Jibrith yelled again, almost into Fralli's face.
Callipe watched as they glared intensely at one another, red faced, trembling with suppressed emotion.
Jibrith's tone was icy.
"And has Jerren Truthdreamer cast you aside, out of her High Lands because she tires of your contamination?"
Callipe saw Fralli's fingers tighten around the hilt of his sword and he pulled both bell cords. Instantly the door crashed open and both guards stood in readiness, swords drawn.
Fralli's hand slipped away from his sword.
"Your men are well trained," he spat at Jibrith before turning to Callipe, "But that is Callipe's doing, surely. This oaf, this oafson of oafs, would be incapable of any such thing."
"Oafson of oafs?" Jibrith, horrified, yelled in shocked questioning.
"I know who this is," Jibrith said as he emerged from shadow. "Few there are so ugly who have not great renown because of it."
Callipe's mouth fell open and he tensed.
"You are unwelcome here by night, Fralli son of Truthdreamer. Much less are you welcome by day when all light is corrupted by your countenance."
"I seek not your welcome, dolt, whatever the hour." Fralli took one step forward. "I will speak to Lord Hevne, not to her worthless adornment."
Callipe gaped as the two grim-faced adversaries eyed one another. His hand reached for two summoning cords.
"My Lord Hevne has - " Callipe ventured but was interrupted by a voice from a dark corner.
"Good Callipe, I will explain to our visitor, thank you. You stand your position."
The officer of the guard was relieved to hear Jibrith's voice. In quieter times Callipe would not have considered telling anyone of the whereabouts of his Lord, but these were not quieter times and a messenger from the High Lands of Kamkarra would be a portend even if it was not a year of the Second Sun.
Callipe bowed his head briefly, then
"This is Fralli - " he began.
On entering the room, Callipe positioned himself by the four tails of the Summoning Bells. He, too, was not without suspicion.
The pulling of the fabric cord of one bell would alert the guards outside; the pulling of two would summon them into the room in readiness for conflict.
The pulling of three cords would alert all the guards of the Fist and send them to their positions inside and outside the room. And the pulling of all four would surround the chamber with guards and would seal all the entrances and exits so that none could enter or leave.
Fralli's question was tainted with suspicion and he flexed his wrists. His mother had told him of the people of Kamkarra, slow to anger and peaceable in the years of the old rulers, but since Hevne had become Lord little was known. There was no reason to suppose a change, Jerren Truthdreamer had forewarned him, but sometimes the young seek change for its own sake. It is better to be aware of all possible stories, not just those oft told, she had said.
Callipe heard the hard edge of suspicion and understood that suspicion and tiredness may breed rash acts.
At the officer's instruction, one of the guards held open the door. Once the men passed through, the door was closed. Both guards remained on alert outside it.
"My Lord Hevne is not here - " the officer of the guard began.
Fralli son of Truthdreamer looked quickly around the room. On a dais in the centre of the room a low fire flickered, adding a little light to the torches that flamed in the middle of three of the four walls. The corners trapped the night's darkness and Fralli was aware of guards stationed there.
"Then why bring me - ?"
The guards knew of Jerren Truthdreamer by tale and legend and fireside stories. Her name, made real in the night air, drew gasps.
"I am Callipe, officer of the guard." A voice introduced the man as he emerged from the darkness. "Guards, sheath your swords. Resume your duties. Follow me, Fralli."
Callipe led Fralli son of Jerren Truthdreamer through the torchlit winding corridors of Triu's chambers until they came to a door guarded by two warriors. As was the custom, one stood, sword unsheathed, the other sat but stood up and loosened his sword at the sound of approaching feet.
"Your message is?" As he spoke, one of the guards pushed a flaming torch into the newcomer's face, so close that the smoke make him cough. Others held their torches lower, alongside their swords, the better to illumine the strangers hands.
"My message is for Lord Hevne, guard," he spluttered. "You need not clap your torches to my face. I am known. My name is Fralli, son of Jerren Truthdreamer of the High Lands of Kamkarra."
The stranger's voice regained composure. And with it, authority:
"My mission is urgent, Hevne must hear me without delay. Lead me to her. Immediately."
The Emissary from the Highlands of Kamkarra arrived in the middle of the night. His horse clattered through the narrow streets of Kamkarra's outskirts and reigned to a stop in one of the open squares on the far side of Kamkarra harbour. The rider stood in his stirrups and looked around, then, having found his bearing, spurred his horse again. White, foam-flecked sputum flew from the panting horse's mouth as it sped forwards.
Minutes later, guards outside Triu's chambers held the man at swordpoint as another guard led the trembling horse away.
The rider, too, shook from his exertion.
They split up. Hevne continued in the direction they were proceeding and on her orders one tracker circled around to the right, another tracker to the left and Darion retraced the track back in the opposite direction to ensure other tracks had not diverged from it. It was unlikely that an ambush awaited: but not impossible.
What light there was rapidly diminished as black cloud inked out the stars. Slow progress was measured in silences and rustlings as Hevne crawled along the tell tale signs.
She came to the rim of a shallow dip. Below, something waited in the darkness.
Crawling was slow going, but now necessary. An hour out from camp and they'd found tracks: one ragged bootprint in damp mud, and muddy remnants on dry grassy tussocks nearby, a muddy confession which disappeared but which confirmed Hevne's feeling of surveillance and indicated the watcher's direction. And it was just one watcher: an intermittent and narrow line of crushed and broken grasses led away.
Hevne had sought and found an upturned, broken stem and run her thumb across the end. Sap glittered wet.
"Recent," she'd said, "Even in this wind, it's still wet. It's close, whatever it is. "
The camp's soft murmur filled the night as Hevne waited for Darion and the trackers,
The memories of death by blade intruded.
She ground her teeth.
Worse, the agonies of the dying, squealing for an end to it, made some slaughters easier to enact but harder to remember.
And worse of all? The soft moaning of a child who had not even the strength to cry. Hevne cried aloud for her as her blade pierced her heart and finally ended her pain.
Intelligence. Cunning. Empathy.
Hevne wiped her eyes. So far today, as Leader, she had used none of those.
Intelligence and cunning, then. And empathy.
In her mind the slaughter of the women and children still roamed wild: horrific visions of slayings stampeded her logic.
She breathed deeply, mastering her emotions. Again, she looked around. Orders were delivered in hushed tones, each Fist carrying out it's allotted duties until camp was completed and her warriors sat and ate. And in due course, the lookouts were replaced and they returned to camp and themselves ate.
Once more Hevne scoured the dark distance for their stalker. Nothing.
And Hevne wondered if the stalker displayed empathy in addition to intelligence and cunning.
"A warrior requires a firm wrist, a hard heart and blind resolution. That is sufficient."
As Jibrith spoke, Hevne listened attentively and committed to memory every word her older friend said.
"A leader, Hevne, requires empathy, to see into the mind of the enemy, to know their plans sometimes even before they themselves know them. Only then can a great Leader direct a battle to her own ends. This then is the role of Leader - is your role, Hevne - to know empathy but refute sympathy until the clang and clamour of battle is done and all swords are safely sheathed."
Hevne looked around her, though her mind remained with Jibrith all those years ago. She watched as her men silently set up camp then she scoured the distance for any signs of life.
Jibrith had sat her down and knelt beside her. They were inside the high shrine of Enkarra, high above bustling Kamkarra. On the stone walls flaming torches cast a flickering light and coloured the ceiling black with smoke. Their occasional crackling sounded like soft percussions in the cool of the holy air. Jibrith talked in barely a whisper, but in this sacred place his words resounded clearly.
Intelligence and cunning.
"Highly prized assets in battle" as Jibrith told her many years ago. "And empathy."
"But why empathy?" Hevne had asked. "I would not want to feel the fear my enemy feels. Nor would I want to wear the shackles of sympathy, for sympathy will follow empathy as sure as gulls follow shoals. Jibrith, sympathy destroys resolve."
Hevne smiled as she recalled Jibrith hugging her then. "You are your father's daughter," he'd said, and she'd felt proud: "He was impetuous, too." And she'd frowned.
"But he knew empathy, Hevne. Intelligence, cunning and empathy. In peace and in battle."
From the start of their journey inland, Hevne had had the sensation of being watched. Neither the horrific slaughter nor the repulsion she had felt at leaving the slaughtered untended had lessened that feeling.
Then, as the sun hit its zenith, Hevne caught a distant glint ahead and to the north west. She bent their route toward that direction. From that moment on there was no further telltale sign: but something was there.
Knowing nothing, Hevne knew only what it wasn't. It was surely not some demented stray from the battle.
No. Whatever it was, it showed intelligence and cunning.