Author’s Note: The series continues! We catch up with Valerian as he nears DaleGuard and this time, I can promise, action, intrigue and maybe faint trails of …romance? Oh, you guys should have seen the Part I intro! Personally, I thought it was badass but then again, I wrote it. The patrons only said it was nice.
Speaking of patrons, I have something uber special for you guys. First, let me edit the patron page (too much outdated info) then I’ll roll it out. I bet you will like it and then some!
Also, what do you think of the featured image/makeshift cover? I made it myself. I make all of them myself.
Chapter One: Home
The walls of DaleGuard are an even more impressive sight to an onlooker approaching from the west. For any perceptive person, it was clear that serious planning and aesthetics went into the laying the road to the fortress city. On a clear day like this, you could see the Guardian of the Dales in all its glory.
The Wherry Mountain Range and the Grand Boundary closing in, the first from the West and the second from the South-east. Given the distance to them, they were perfectly sized to look like a fence that met its famous walls, except they didn’t. The two mountain ranges gave way to the Pronged Gap and if you possessed eyesight as keen as Valerian’s or better, you could catch a glimpse of the guard towers that stood before the gaps. The towers were made of white stone making them contrast nicely with the dark variety that made up DaleGuard’s walls.
The city sat stolidly in the way. You knew that there was open space behind it. You could practically see the gaps in the mountain ranges but the fort remained squarely in your sight. Valerian knew that behind it, the valley widened till it got the gaps but toward it, it narrowed. None could enter Cragsveil and for that matter Bathar without getting past the guard and in all its existence, none had. The Wherries got close…once but that was it.
It was easy to look at DaleGuard and think of how mighty its half a kilometre high, fifty metres thick, battle tower topped, enchanted walls were. As you approached it, you could even sense its valiant yet foreboding aura. An aura created from years of men spilling blood and dying either to protect or breach it. For most, the city was more imposing than it was inviting. Most people weren’t Valerian Steelborn. For him, looking at DaleGuard was nearly the same as looking at home. Homesickness, stronger than he had ever felt it, filled his chest and he begged the coach driver to hurry.
He had been on the road for days. The journey was far shorter this time around. they hadn’t had to pick anyone up for one thing and secondly, the beasts pulling the coach had never needed to rest. Not once. They were inexorable. It seemed that stamina did beat speed, however, at this moment Valerian only wished that they could go faster.
The members of the Magistrate’s household, plus the patriarch, Elders Brian and Foreson and surprisingly, Great Elder Allard were all gathered in the manor’s forecourt waiting to welcome Valerian home. He’d called ahead as he grew near so they knew he was coming. Their feelings at this moment were opposite to Valerian’s in one aspect. He couldn’t wait to get there and they couldn’t wait for him to get here. Sela, impatient was flying over the roof hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
She didn’t know what coach he was coming in but she kept her eyes out for any that came along their road. Without warning, she cried out, sending pulses of excitement and hope at the people below her. There was a coach coming into their neighbourhood. It was a dusty vehicle pulled by six strange daemons. She had never seen the like. She watched it make the final turn and start down the avenue to their manor. That was all she needed.
With a burst of lightning, she flew straight at it, hissing happily. A head popped out a window, Valerian’s head. Boy and snake rejoiced at their first meeting in months. No invitation necessary, she pushed her way into the coach and curled around him. The two laughed joyously as she rubbed herself against him affectionately, her rough scales making rasping sounds on his armour.
Besides a short start and small yelp from the driver, the coach continued as it should, driving into the manor’s forecourt. With no small amount of excitement, Valerian pushed open the door and stepped out of the coach. He nearly tripped down the stairs due to Sela refusing to let go but luckily caught himself in time. Standing in front of him with the exception of his uncles was everyone he cared about Jonas and Vorm. The latter’s wife and kids were here though. Hefting the coils the massive serpent had wrapped around him, Valerian walked up to them. His eyes flickered from face to face, meeting Avery’s, Uncle Richard’s, the Elders, the daemons, his great-grandfather and little cousins, who waved and greeted, before finally coming to a rest on the centre of the welcome party. his grandparents. His grandmother was the same as he remembered, a dame dressed in practical clothes with grey hair framing her young face. His grandfather, on the other hand, looked older than he remembered.
“I’m back!” he exclaimed simply, unsure what else to say.
His grandfather smiled warmly, his old face beaming as he stepped forward. Clasping a hand on his shoulder, a physical display Valerian had not expected, his grandfather said, “Welcome home!”
Steelborns weren’t the type for great displays of affection and the magistrate’s household was no exception but they did throw good parties. It was their way of relaxation and celebration. For Valerian, the care put into his welcome was the same as a teary welcome. After a quick trip to his room to clean and change he returned to join in a feast. His room had been kept pristine, both clean and just as he left it.
The feast itself was spectacular, nothing had been spared. All his favourite foods were there in the exact way he liked it a gesture he appreciated. Even better, efforts were made to include him in the dinner conversation even as they made sure to fill him in on the things that happened while he was away. The twins were being cute little rascals were tormenting him for details of where he had been and what he had been up to. Sitting there at the dinner table with his family was everything Valerian had hoped to come back to and more. For a little while, his worries and stress fell away as he immersed himself in the feelings and rhythms of home.
“So, how did you manage it?” the patriarch suddenly asked, unable to restrain his curiosity any longer.
“I’m sorry?” Valerian asked in confusion. “Manage what, exactly?”
“You know what I’m referring to”, the man said nonplussed. “How did you get Lady Bloodworth to choose you as her apprentice?”
Everyone was watching intently now. Truthfully, they all wanted to know but the patriarch could have at least waited for them to finish dinner first.
“I am not certain”, Valerian said with sincerity. “I was simply called to meet her. Then she told me she wanted to train me and that she had gotten your permission to do so.”
“Come on boy”, his great-grandfather pushed. “That can’t be all there is to it! Do you know how much effort the clan has been putting into getting noticed by people like that woman? Yet, we remain beneath their notice. Then, out of the blue, I get a call from her asking if she could take you as her apprentice. There’s got to be something you are not telling us.”
“There isn’t!” Valerian assured him. “Apparently, she saw my skills and favoured my potential. I had never even heard of the lady before she summoned me.”
It was at this point that Valerian’s grandfather chose to step in, his tone unhappy. “That is enough you two! Let us finish eating our dinner. All the talking to be had can be done later. We have a parlour just for that purpose. This is our dining room. Let’s put off the mater for now and dine!”
Like he was wont to, Valan’s father rolled over him, asking Valerian in an incredulous tone, “You don’t know who Lady Bloodworth is?”
“or not”, the magistrate added.
Dinner interrupted, the patriarch leaned over the table in Valerian’s direction. “You really didn’t, did you?” he said scrutinising Valerian for lies.
After seeing the truth he sought, he threw his head back and laughed. “That’s rich! Would you believe this Allard? We spent so much trying to make in-roads with all those generals and military families and Valan’s boy just goes out and bags an apprenticeship with THE Bloodworth without knowing who she is or even how.”
Great Elder Allard gave a wry smile at this. He supposed it was pretty ironic. All those people they’d been slowly working on over the years. The gap between them and those figures was actually insignificant when compared with the gap between those same figures and Lady Bloodworth and yet they now had an in-road with the latter when many of the former had turned them down.
Realising that what this was had nothing to with him and everything to do with his new teacher, Valerian started making inquiries, “What in-roads? What’s so special about my new teacher?”
Setting his tableware aside with a huff, Valerian’s grandfather committed himself to this new road their mealtime had taken. He did not forget to shoot his father a dirty look as he did so, though the other ignored him.
“You already know the clan has been focusing on carving itself a place in the military, taking pains to associate itself with the image of warriors and gathering authority in the form of military influence”, he began.
“Unfortunately, that is not as easy as it seems on paper. Nearly every field you can think of in Bathar is cornered by one party or power. For instance, your grandmother’s clan can be said to control all horse trade in the eastern sector of Bathar.”
“We do control all horse trade in the east, dear”, his wife reminded him gently. “That and many of the other mount related businesses just not all of them directly.”
Taking the correction in stride, the magistrate continued, “Right! With such things in place, it is not so easy for a new party to rise in that field. In the case of my earlier example, any horse trader in the area would sooner or later find itself in competition with your grandmother’s family. There are only three ways around such a thing, compete directly, submit and join their network or find some way to mollify and stay out of their way.
“Doing the first would be pure foolishness. They have had three hundred thousand years to set themselves up in the industry and make a name for themselves. There’s no reasonable way in which a new party, especially a small one, can directly compete with them”, he explained.
“The second could resolve any issues that might arise between the two parties and even allow the smaller one to benefit from the larger one’s network and resources but of course, the drawback is that it wouldn’t be itself any longer, just part of the other”, he added. “The third would prevent any tension between them but it also means that small party will never have any hope or room for growth not so long as they do not want to antagonise their suppressors.”
“However”, Valan said, suddenly looking serious. “This is only true for fields where a monopoly or something close to it has been established. Unfortunately, over the ages, most of the fields have been taken over by one party or the other. A few fields are exempt probably because it is either impossible or too difficult to gain a monopoly in them or because they haven’t been around too long.”
Giving his father and the seated elders one of his trademarked looks of disdain and contempt, he concluded, “One such field is death and in their great wisdom, the powers that be in our clan have decided that this is the best field to invest in.”