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Tales to tell...

Queen's Way, part one

by Katherine Journeay

Few tales have been told of this past winter. In ways the mildness of the weather served as a horrifying contrast to the turmoil that was in many of our hearts. Few tales have been told as well of the mysterious 'rescue' of Queen Meg miles below the earth by Sir Pyr and Sir Arkadyne. How did she get there and why has Chimeron been silent? Why has no-one even thought to pose these questions? Know that the following tale I tell is true. The heroics of many need to be recognized, though if you ask these brave adventurers of their deeds they will fall silent, for silence is a habit that is long to break, and silence is what carried these adventurers through the nights of bitter chill.

Lady Cassia, Chatelaine of Castle Chimeron, Feast-o-crat extordinaire, Priestess of Inamorata and Head of the Keep of the Scarlet Torch was up to her elbows in flour. All the ingredients of baklava lay close at hand, and she was in the process of peeling apart the tiny layers of filo dough. Strands of her black hair had pulled out of her braid to curl invitingly around her ears, the tip of her tongue stuck out from between her teeth in concentration. Filo dough was tricky business. Abruptly, there was a clatter at the door of the kitchen, Cassia jerked in surprise and the delicate filo dough tore in her hands. She sighed and looked up at the commotion. Lady Tiana stood in the doorway, a silver tray half dangling from her fingers, the previous contents scattered all over the stone floor. Cassia raised an eyebrow, "Yeeeeees?"

Tiana sighed, "I'm sorry Lady Cassia, I was bringing Her Majesty's tray down from her room and I tripped.” Cassia frowned. The tray was far from empty. It was hard to tell, considering the new disaster on the floor, but it looked like the food hadn’t been touched, "Did she eat anything?" "This is yesterday’s tray, I still have to bring this morning's down. She didn't eat that either." Both eyebrows went up. Cassia pulled that apron from her waist and wiped her hands on it, "Tiana, why don't you clean this up, I'll go get today's and check on the Queen." Tiana bent to her task as Cassia past her and headed up the spiral staircase to the third floor. Queen Meg had been moody since the near war with Folkestone, and Cassia was concerned. She shuddered with the memory of how close Chimeron and Folkestone, two usually friendly nations had come to blows. The Queen and her entourage had met with Lord Jarred, Sir Blade and Sir Callin at a barren crossroads on a wintry November day to discuss the tensions between Chimeron and the Church of the Dark One. Harsh words had been exchanged, but both parties had come away with a terse, but renewed pact of friendship. Although the threat of war had passed Chimeron by again, it had been a near thing. Too near, in Cassia's mind, perhaps that was why the Queen was not eating. Cassia reached the top of the stairs and turned the corner to the large double doors that lead to the Queen's private apartments. Another silver tray sat covered on the floor in front of it. Cassia tapped on the door. After the third in an increasingly loud series of knocks failed to rouse anyone inside, Cassia turned the handle, "Your Majesty?" The door swung open on silent hinges. The large four poster bed was rumpled, but cold. The armoire door was open, and clothes has been flung to the floor with little care. The writing desk, usually neat, looked like it had seen recent and heavy use, with crumpled wads of paper strewn over it's surface and on the near floor. The window had been cracked for air, but the room was bitter cold with December's chill. The fire in the fireplace was dead. Cassia felt her heart begin to thump painfully, "Your Majesty? Are you here?" The cooing of a bird was her only reply. Cassia entered the room uneasily and went to the open window. A carrier pigeon stood on its perch outside, looking hopefully at Cassia for a bit of seed. A note was attached to it's leg. Cassia cracked the window a little more and fed it from the bowl of birdseed that the Queen kept at the ledge, then disentangled the message from the bird's leg and unrolled it. It was a letter from Meg's intended, Sir Callin;

"And I love you with all my heart,

Doubt is not something a Queen can feel. You must be resolute in all you do. Once you embark upon a course of action, you must follow it through. However, before a course of action can be pursued, it must first be understood. You must also understand why you are doing something. If you find that the reasons you are doing something have no application to your course of action, then and only then are you allowed to stop, but before heading down a path, you must know all you can. Prepare for the worst and then take time to understand before acting.

I have limited time at the moment, but I do wish to address some of the issues that you raised in your so eloquent letter. I will try to do so soon.


P.S. Stay away from that Kissing Bandit guy"

Cassia folded the letter carefully and placed it in the Queen's top drawer. She felt awkward about reading the Queen's mail, especially from her beloved Sir Callin, but she had thought... well, she had imagined something dreadful. It appeared as if the Queen had probably ditched her guards and taken her horse north to see her love. Although she was an able military leader an excellent fighter, and a brilliant politician, she was too independent by half; her demeanor definitely more barmaid than Queen. "I wish she had told me that she was leaving," Cassia grumbled to herself, "At least that way I wouldn't have wasted the food." Cassia bent to the floor and began to tidy up the pieces of paper. It looked like Meg had been working on something, a letter of some kind that had been written in fits and starts, with many scratch outs and scribblings. She read the legible bits as she tidied,

"My love, I write this letter to you with grief in my heart. I have laid awake each night since our meeting at the cross roads, shocked by what I have almost allowed my pride to do to us. I am not as clever as I think, I fear, and my stupidity has nearly killed us all."

" could Blade be my enemy? How could a man that you call brother wish me ill?"

" I did not know what to do. Should I move against him and risk your wrath? Should I let it go and have a potential source of evil just walk around my lands because I was afraid of the consequences of acting? No answer..."

"...the Dark One's power. I was horrified. I was also filled with a strange sense of peace. If this was true, then my path was startlingly clear, the Guild had to be destroyed. For if their true purpose was to destroy everything, then they also had to eventually destroy Folkestone, their friends, and you. For utter destruction knows no allies, no friendship but itself. No tie is sacred and betrayal lies at the heart of the matter. All I had to do was prove that this was true, for I was not going to accept this one person's word on the matter, so I began working on it. But proof is a hard thing to come by in our world, so I decided that there would be no proof that I would accept other than the words straight from Blade's lips that this was the wish of his heart. At that point the whole world would see that I was right, would see that Blade was intent on destroying each and everyone of them, was ultimately determined to destroy even his own friends in pursuit of this goal, by logical extension. The Knights of the Realms would see their way clear, not even Peregrine..."

"I could not allow it to happen. I would NOT allow this to happen. This goal was worth risking it all, my kingdom, my life, your love. "

"...accomplishments, in my own glory before the truth. What kind of fool am I? What kind of leader am I? Have I succeeded in protecting the Realms or am I instead its greatest enemy?"

Cassia's busy hands slowed as the full weight of what she was reading sunk in. The last note trembled in the December wind.

"I don't know, and that uncertainty is a poison in my soul. I can longer live with the shame that my actions and my stubbornness have brought to me, to us all. I hope that you will forgive me. Remember that I love you, I will always love you."

Cassia read the note again, hoping that she had misread it. Then again. She felt a knot of fear clench in her stomach. No. Nonononononono. Cassia's mind raced. There must be another explanation. She leapt off the floor and ran to the closet. All the Queen's gowns were hung neatly on hangers, and her armor was complete on it's stand. Her crowns had been left untouched on their rack, and her knightly belt lay between them. Meg's other clothes lay scattered on the cold stone floor. Two shirts, a long skirt, a bodice with the lacing a crazy knotwork at the back, two pairs of boots, a pair of pants, a scarf. The things that she usually wore when she snuck down to the Bar and Wench to tend the tavern and listen to the common folk talk. From what was missing it looked like the Queen was wearing her fighting skirt, one of her oldest shirts, a pair of brown boots and a tattered bodice. Cassia checked behind the door. Both of the Queen's cloaks hung there. Well, fine, she was probably in town, maybe at the Bar and Wench or at the Keep, she couldn't have gotten far without her cloaks, and although the Queen could be a bit scatterbrained about her own personal safety, she wouldn't have Chimeron town without a cloak. Cassia left the Queen's quarters and pulled the doors shut behind her. She picked up the tray of untouched food. Well, at least there was a reasonable explanation. The Queen was fine. Perfectly fine. It wasn't until the tray began to rattle that Cassia realized she was running.

Sir Shane was a Knight of the Crown and a Knight of the Eternal Flame and he wore the mantle of both knight hoods with an easy grace. He was also Thegn of Clan Campbeul, titular head of his family and sworn follower of Her Majesty Queen Meg of Chimeron. In Her Majesty's service he was proud to be the Captain of her Royal Guard. He was a man who was quick to battle and slow to retreat. He pursued both his enemies and his liquor with the same single minded, ferocious appetite. Although he was a man who appreciated a hearty laugh and a jest with his family, outsiders found him grim and dour, and he had been accused on many occasions of being an illiterate, slack jawed barbarian. His lack of skill with letters had never been confused with a mind that was slow to comprehend, but right now he stared at Cassia dumbly, as if she spoke Elvish and not English. "What?" he asked again. "The Queen is not in her room," Cassia repeated, "She's not in the tavern, she's not in the Keep, she's not in the town. I checked the castle from top to bottom and she's not there either. Heron, the Court Mage hasn't seen her in a week, and Will Craven, her squire, said he saw her on Wednesday for his pike lesson, but he hasn't seen her since." "Well, she must have gone to see Sir Callin," Shane suggested reasonably. Cassia shook her head, "I checked the stable, her horse is here." Shane fought down the first stirrings of panic, but he could not disguise the anger that flashed across his face. Damn the woman! Guarding Queen Meg was like trying to guard the wind. Turn your back on her for a moment at feasts and she was slipping by you to shake hands warmly with a long standing enemy. On quests she would follow her instinct and charge after monsters without waiting to see if her guards noticed that she had changed direction. It was almost as if she was constantly trying to test him. The only time he felt he could relax his vigilance was when she was safely holed up in the castle. Now even that was no longer true. Damn the woman! Cassia had stepped back a pace before the face of his rage. "Athelwulf!", he shouted across the practice yard, "Athelwulf, report!" Athelwulf, long and lanky, and a healer of some repute detached himself from his guard post and strode to the archway where the two of them were standing, "Sir Shane?" "Her Majesty has pulled another disappearing act, check the guard's quarters and especially Adyan's old room to see if she is hiding out." If Shane's request seemed strange to Athelwulf, he didn't let it show. He bowed smartly turned on his heel and let his long legged stride eat the distance between the archway and the guard's quarters. Shane growled low in his throat, "I suppose it's too much to ask that she act like a normal Queen and stay where her guards can do their job." "How many Queens do you know so well that you can label her Majesty's actions as un-queenly," Cassia demanded. Shane shifted uncomfortably as a gust of cold air blew past his knees and up his kilt. He looked at her sideways through eyes slited tight against the harsh winter sun. Damn this hangover, and damn Cassia's logic. He didn't bother to answer. "The things that she must put up with on a daily basis would surely boggle the mind. If she wants moments of peace, I for one don't blame her." Cassia took a deep breath, "And I think that these matters of state, the almost war, have taken their toll on her. I found a note in her apartments that indicate that she may have been , well, not of sound mind." "What do you mean?" "I think she may have done something drastic." Shane choked, "What Cassia, should we dredge the moat?" He laughed. "Yes, I think we should." Just then Athelwulf appeared in the practice yard. He shook his head to warn Sir Shane of his news before he actually reached them. Shane swore, inventively and at great length. "Cassia, can you get traveling rations for myself and two others. I refuse to believe that she may have done away with herself." Athelwulf, who had just come even with the two of them goggled at the statement but kept his mouth shut. "I am going to see if I can track her, I'll bring Athelwulf and Kerrigan with me. If she left the castle, she left on foot, and if the last time that anyone saw her was Wednesday then she can't have gotten far. Have Will and Heron help you if you are serious about dredging the moat. Obviously, we are going to need to keep this whole thing quiet, we don't want Chimeron's enemies to know that our Queen is missing, they might think that the time is right to do something about it. Athelwulf, go find Kerrigan and get our horses ready, but don't explain what is going on, we don't want to cause panic. Lady Cassia, can you think of anything else?" Athelwulf tore off to the stables, the pouches on his belt flapping in his haste, thus there was no-one else present when Cassia replied, "No, your Highness." Shane froze. "What did you call me?" "Your Highness. With the Queen missing you become regent, that is the proper form of respect." It could have been the hangover, but Shane felt the world shudder and rock around himself for a moment. He prayed that it was the hangover, "Don't...don't call me that. We'll find her. We'll find her, and then I'll kill her myself." From down the hall that connected the archway and the practice yard to the rest of the castle, there came a shout. It was Lady Tiana who was approaching the two of them with uncharacteristic, unlady like speed. Sir Shane caught a flash of her knee as she ran. Cassia frowned as she caught the same thing. "Cassia, Lady Cassia! These messages just came by carrier pigeon for Her Majesty, and when I went to knock on her door to give them to her, she wasn't there! Who should I give them to?" Cassia and Shane exchanged a glance, and Shane grinned. With a smart bow he turned and strode in the direction of the guard house to pack a bag for himself, leaving a fuming Cassia to explain to Tiana that she would take care of all of Queen Meg's missives for the next few days. He grinned again, some days it paid off to be an illiterate, slack jawed barbarian.

Kerrigan was new to the clan, though he had been a member of Chimeron for many years. He thought with pride back to the moment when his Clan Lord, Sir Shane, had asked him to be part of his family. He could remember the taste of the scotch as it burned it's way down his throat at the induction ceremony, and the circle of smiling faces that were his new family as if it were just last night. It was, perhaps, the proudest moment of his life. His lord had asked him, and only him, out of all the rest of the clan to go hunting with him yesterday afternoon. He had accepted gladly, only a little annoyed that Athelwulf would be going with them too. It wasn't until they were outside the castle gates that Shane had confided in them both what their real purpose was; to track down their Queen, who had been missing for almost 3 days. Suddenly Athelwulf's presence made perfect, horrifying sense. If the Queen were injured or dead, Athelwulf's skills would be more useful than Kerrigan's own. Kerrigan prayed to Gaia that those skills would not be necessary at all. They had found a trail to the west outside the castle almost at once. They were the tracks of a human who appeared to have been running. Shane had frowned at that and muttered to himself. Kerrigan understood at once. If these were the tracks of Queen Meg, then what was she being chased by? There were no other marks or signs of pursuit, was the thing that was driving her forward chasing her from the air? Or was it something inside her that drove her on, heedless of whatever trail she left behind? They had followed the trail through the woods to the southwest of Chimeron where it suddenly met up with the tracks of a solitary horse. There was a bit of confusion as the two tracks overlapped, and then the footsteps vanished entirely. Shane swore. The horseman, who-ever he was, had picked up the lone wanderer and galloped away, which meant that if it was the Queen she could be much further away than they had at first thought. "I think this is definitely our trail," Shane had said, "Kerrigan, you take the lead." Kerrigan, trying not to allow his chest to swell too much with pride, swung up on his horse and began to follow the hoof prints. He knew he should be as concerned as Shane and Athelwulf appeared to be about the Queen's safety, but he was leading his lord in pursuit of his Queen on a glorious December day. The wind blew through his hair and the sun shone down upon him like a benediction. She had most likely been picked up by a kindly merchant whom they would soon overtake. He could see himself rescuing her, paying the merchant with some of the 6 rowen that he had in his pouch and bringing her back to the castle, safe and sound, with himself and his lord hailed as heroes. He could practically see the cheering throngs of people already. They followed the horse's trail until it joined a proper trade road, and followed the road west for another 5 miles. As they toped a rise they saw a small trading post, with a cluster of large tents and an open air fruit stand nestled at a place where the road made an unexpected turn around a large boulder. A stream bubbled cheerfully on the other side of the market where some women were drawing water. Shane and his men rode into the trading post, tying their horses to a nearby tree. There looked to be about 10 people who actually lived in this hamlet, with the other horses who were tied next to Kerrigan's told of about 20 others who had come here to buy and trade. Shane slid off his horse. Kerrigan wondered how his lord could stand riding in a kilt, the very thought made him wince, but Shane seemed to be in no discomfort as he strode towards the market. Kerrigan fought to keep up. Shane questioned the locals while Athelwulf and Kerrigan watched for guilty reactions. The merchants were pleased to see such wealthy patrons and practically fell all over themselves trying to be helpful. Shane was wise enough to spend a few wenches buying him and his men some fresh food and a drink which just prompted the merchants to tell them everything they knew. The beer that Kerrigan drank tasted cool and icy as he heard a vegetable vendor say that yes indeed they had seen a young woman recently. Unusual that, he went on to explain, ‘cause they don't get many women along this route. Not only that but she kept to herself by the horses, wrapped tight in a red woolen blanket while the man that she was with bought them food. Funny that because the man, Steven, usually travels alone. The vegetable vendor grinned lewdly, but mebee no more, mebee he had himself a lady love. She looked like a good one for a tumble in the hay, she did, though mebee not the kind of woman you'd want to marry, not a real lady. But no accounting fer taste, right mi lord? Kerrigan could see Sir Shane's neck begin to bulge as he strove to keep his temper with the old man, "And where does this merchant, Steven, live, good sir?" The words came out between gritted teeth. Oh, up the Northern trail about three days, the merchant bobbed his head. Shane thanked the man, but didn't tip him, and the three Chimeronians went back to their horses and headed north. Shane established a new riding order, with himself and Athelwulf up front and Kerrigan taking the rear about 50 yards behind so that if the lead riders tripped an ambush, Kerrigan might still get away. Kerrigan didn't comment about his lord's paranoia, but he and Athelwulf exchanged a terse glance which did a lot to kill Kerrigan's good mood. Shane rode with a fury that disturbed the other two men, and the words that they three of them exchanged were kept to a minimum. Kerrigan began to fear. He wasn't sure what it was, but Shane's black mood was beginning to affect him as well, and he realized sometime during their third day out, still a two days from the trader Steven's place, what his home, his kingdom would be like if they couldn't find the Queen. It was thoughts like this that keep the three men from seeing the troll until it leapt in front of Athelwulf's horse making it rear and whinny in alarm, wielding an ax and bellowing at the top of his considerably large lungs. "YOU PAY TROLL!!!"

Sir Callin of Folkestone was Dreaming. He knew he was Dreaming rather than merely dreaming because he was lying on his back in the middle of a field staring at the clouds overhead with his weapons sheathed feeling a deep sense of peace and happiness. Most of his dreams were filled with the nightmares of a man who has seen his share of battle. Flashes of horror, of seeing those that he loved fall before his own weapons, of treachery and betrayal, of the Dogs of War. But this, this was the Dreaming, and he didn't have long to wait. There was a rustle in the long grass, all the warning he had before Tetch Wildsong, his friend and soul sister, who had died the year before leapt on his chest with a mock growl. All the wind went out of his lungs with an "ooomph!". Tetch looked very pleased with herself. As he gasped for breath, Tetch, who currently looked like a cross between a white wolf and a human woman perched on his chest and regarded him, eye's bright with mirth at her own cleverness. She made an inquisitive sound deep in her throat and her words flashed into his mind faster than speech. "Callinostros. Why do you sleep?" Callin grunted, "I sleep because I'm tired." Tetch made the noise again, "Why do you sleep while your love, she who is my sister, Meg, is in danger?" Callin sat up, dislodging Tetch from his chest. His heart began to race, and he told it sternly to stop that, because this was the Dreaming, and so the sound of his heart beating, fast or slow, was an illusion, "Tetch, what do you know?" Her ear tufts went down, a sure sign that she was melancholy, "I went to see her in the Dreaming, because she was so sad. But she made no sense, she said that she had done something bad and I was not to find her. Then she did not sleep for three days. When she slept again, she tried to run away, but she was too tired to wake up, so I could talk to her. She thinks I have abandoned her. I tried to tell her that just because I am dead does not mean that we are apart, at least not yet." Tetch scratched her head with her hind leg in puzzlement, "She was crying. She said that she was a bad person. I told her that she was not but she did not believe me. She told me that she wanted to destroy herself." Callin's heart did indeed stop in that moment. He tried to convince himself that it was just the Dreaming responding to his wishes but then it started up again a moment later, faster, "Tetch, where is she?" Tetch paused in mid scratch to think, "She does not think that you love her anymore, or that she deserves your love... I cannot tell. Is hard." "Where is she?" "I do not know, west of you, and south, I think." Callin got to his feet, "Thank you my sisling, for your warning. I have to go. Can you warn many others?" She thought for a moment, "I can tell the Lars, but that is all the strength I have. Anymore would be breaking the rules of the Dreaming." She got to her feet at well, and then pulled Callin by his ears down to her face, "Find the sisling, Callinostros. I fear evil if you do not." Then she planted a kiss on his lips, and he woke abruptly with the memory of her lip's pressure on his and the smell of her in his nose. That was five days ago. Now he was out in the chill winter air with his squire, Kara. The fact that there had been no snow and no clouds meant that the air was crisp and bone chillingly cold. Kara had made no protest when he rousted her out of bed to go on what she must see as a fools errand. Good. She was learning to keep her thoughts to herself, like a knight should. The ground was treacherous, for while it was mostly churned up mud during the day, at night it re-froze and made the morning walk dangerous to horse's hoofs. They had gone out southwest and then looped back to Folkestone for more supplies and to drop off the horses when it became apparent that traveling in this weather might lame the beasts. This morning they were headed due south, on foot, to see if anyone had see the missing woman. Abruptly they entered a clearing. Kara drew in her breath in a sharp hiss. There, standing in a beam of sunlight with the wind in her hair and her hands on her hips was Queen Meg. Sir Callin felt a deep surge of relief, and then anger at her foolishness. He stepped forward two steps to take her in his arms unsure himself if he would embrace or shake her, and she stopped him with a gesture, her voice shockingly loud in the meadow. "I knew that you would find me. You are always the hero. I'm tired of these games. Either you want to marry me or not. You have to prove your love to me. It is always your friends first, then me. I refuse to return until you decide. If you love me, make me an offering now. Marry me now or at least give me a gift of faith. You seem to love your sword more than me." Kara gaped at her, what a colossal bitch! She sneaked a look at Sir Callin to see what effect Meg's words would have on him. She could see the blood rise in his face in anger, and then pale away. So softly that she almost did not hear it, she heard him reply, "You want my sword? Then you shall have it!" In a flash Gerta was in his hands, and then in Meg's stomach, her blood glinting red on the blade. Callin turned and ran past Kara, back the way they came. Kara's jaw sagged, "Callin!! What are you doing!!!!" She ran to catch up with him and then caught herself and turned back to Meg who was beginning to crumple to the ground. Kara ran for Meg, trying furiously to figure out for once what the hell her knight had been thinking. Callin shouted back at her, "Leave her be! I'm not sure she's dead. I don't think it's really her. We should find out any second." Kara stood halfway between the two of them, frozen with indecision "...what do you mean it might not be her! Callin, what's going on!" With a groan, Meg pulled herself to her feet. The sun made a radiant glory of her hair as she shook it out of her eyes and it gleamed off her circlet on her brow, "KNIGHT!!!" There was a look of fierce anger in her eyes, "What the hell are you doing?" She hand went to her knightly belt and pulled out her Questor's Blade, moving to stand in a defensive position. "Kara, has your knight finally lost it?" Callin took half a dozen steps forward, drawn against his will to this woman. Meg snarled at him, "If you hated me that much Callin, why did you try to find me? Are you two here to kill me? Well, you won't take me without a fight. Chimeron will find out. I didn't realize that you were a Dark Lore puppet. And what about you, Kara, what the hell is happening?" Callin leapt past Kara to attack Meg again, shouting at his squire, "Kara, she's a spawn of evil! Kill her now!" Kara's training took over, without further question she joined the fray. The onslaught was too much, being outnumbered and with only a short sword, Queen Meg was totally unable to land a blow and she fell before the swords of her friend and her lover. Her blood did not soak into the frozen ground, but lay pooled around her, rapidly cooling. There was a moment of silence where Callin and Kara could only stare at what their handiwork had wrought. Sir Callin kept waiting for the body to turn into that of a hideous deamon, to become that which he had thought she was, but there was no movement from her. Kara watched her knight kneel down next to the body and pull something off Meg's belt. It was a favor, Meg's favor, Kara recognized it because Callin had worn it around his neck for years. It was long and narrow with a rose vine that had five red roses and one white one embroidered on a blue background. Kara could see as well as Callin that all the roses were now red, red with Meg's blood.

Sir Lars awoke in his room in the watchtower of Duhn Mun bathed in sweat, his pulse a loud tattoo in his ears. The sun was not quite rising in the east as he struggled out of his sleeping furs to stand shivering in the frigid winter air. Lars had always taken pride in the fact that he was totally unlike his Lord, Sir Shane in a single area of expertise: Lars did not do mornings. Usually the sun was well up before Lars felt the urge to crack an eyelid, and it generally took several cups of Sir Angus's bitter java to make him truly feel that he could face the day. Today, however, he did not have that problem. Today he was wide awake and filled with a nervous energy that he bluntly labeled as fear. The memory of the dream Tetch stayed with him a moment, and he took comfort in that presence because it was the only thing that gave him comfort right now. The dream Tetch had told him that her Majesty Queen Meg had been overcome with grief and run from the castle. Tetch was not sure that the Queen was completely under her own power when this had happened and she had been practically whining with concern. She feared for Meg's continued safety and had asked Lars to go find Sir Shane and let him know that there may be darker deeds at work than the Clan Lord had first thought. Lars reached for his clothes, stumbled as he tried to put his pants on, pin wheeled his arms to try to regain his balance, knocked his mug and his plate off the bedside table for his pains and went crashing to the floor in a tangle of bedclothes, garments and cutlery. He lay there for a moment uttering the only coherent thought that occurred to him, "Gahhhhh.....". The rest of keep was silent, for he was the only resident on this morning, the other members of his Clan were out on their own business. He suddenly understood the mysterious letter that Cassia had sent to him and why she had not used plainer speech,

Unto the Clan, Pray do not expect Sir Shane or Kerrigan back anytime soon, they are busy hunting the most noble of prey with Athelwulf. I shall send word when I know more. Lady Cassia, Chatelaine of Castle Chimeron

Lars smacked himself in the head, "Well, duh! They were hunting Queen Meg! Righto!" He leapt to his feet again, suffused with the urgency that Tetch had imparted to him and managed to get his clothes on without further mishap. He raided the kitchen for winter traveling supplies, packed up his horse, scribbled a note and left it tacked to the door of the watchtower. As he headed west, the note flapped in the winter wind, and any who drew up close enough could see that it read:

Out chasing down Shane, Kerrigan and Aethulwulf, who are chasing the Queen. Please keep all sieges and ambushes to a minimum while I'm gone. Help yourself to the bog juice in the cask in the map room. -Lars

Sir Shane was just now kicking himself a day past the bridge troll, Aethelwulf could tell even though Shane had not said a word about it. The monster had been huge and intimidating, and Aethelwulf had relished the thought of doing battle with it, if only to relieve the anger and frustration of not being able to find his Queen. Surprised and a touch disappointed, Aethelwulf had seen Shane pay the bridge troll three fares and lead the other two riders across. It wasn't until today that Kerrigan had innocently asked, "Do you think we should have asked the Troll if it saw Queen Meg? I mean, if she's with this Steven guy they would have had to pass the" Kerrigan trailed off at Shane's glare. Shane had not answered him, and they continued north towards the Trader's home. A day later the three travelers arrived at a signpost. Aethelwulf read it aloud for Shane's benefit, " "Stephen's Stuff and More". I hope the more in this case refers to the Queen," he finished under his breath. Shane did not seem to hear him. They followed the sign to a fenced in area with an open central gate. Inside there was a cheerful looking cabin about twice the size of Panther's Inn. A sign on the door read "open". Aethelwulf followed Shane inside cautiously, The cabin appeared to be split into two rooms. The room that they were in was filled with the most amazing collection of junk that Aethel had ever seen, it was everywhere, on the walls, on the tables and tucked in every nook and cranny on the floor. Behind the counter stood a man and a woman. Aethel felt a moment of joy, until he realized that the woman was too short and slight to be Queen Meg, and their search apparently was not at an end. Steven answered Shane's questions amicably, "Yes, that sounds like the woman that I encountered. She was alone on the road in a state of panic. I tried to calm her down. She didn't seem like she wanted to go along, but I convinced her that no matter where she was going, she could get there faster on a horse. She didn't say anything to me, but I could hear herself talking under her breath. She looked a little cold so I gave her a burgundy blanket that I had with my stores. Luckily, I had sold my wares. Else, I wouldn't have been able to take another with me." He scratched his head at the memory, " We rode together for a few days, making very few stops. It was very strange, but I figured I could help her. She gave me a couple of rowans for my expenses. At least, I guess that's why. She just gave them to me. Anyway, she seemed ill. It was like she was afraid to go to sleep." Shane growled low in his throat, "Where is she now, man?" "I don't know. I woke up in the middle of the night and she was gone. I tried to find her, but it was dark and I'm not much of a hunter. That was two days ago. I lost her about a day's travel to the south. I wish you luck. Is there any way that I can help you?" Shane shook his head, "Thank you for your help so far -- it is essential that we find her. Can you describe your campsite -- We'll need to ride like the wind to find her. Also", as a thought struck him, " was she sleeping while you traveled? I'm trying to find out if she seemed ill, or if she talked about anything audibly." Steven shrugged, "Like I said, she vanished about two days ago. So, she could be anywhere by now. About half way between the Troll Bridge and here, there is a patch of white birch trees. It's only about one mile long, near the road. It should be rather easy to find. We were in the northern 1/3 of the forest. I pushed some rocks together to make a fire. We were about 40 yards from the road. As for the rest of it, it seemed very strange....her sleeping patterns. I was with her for two days before she slept. It was that night that she disappeared. She kept mumbling something about not being able to sleep. She said some names... Callin, Tetch, and your name, Shane. She seemed delusional, but that might have been from the lack of sleep. I've never seen someone so fearful of sleep." Aethelwulf was baffled, he knew he should be afraid for Her Majesty, but it just didn't make any sense. Why should she fear to sleep? Shane thanked the trader and practically bolted out of the cabin. He flung himself on his horse and turned the beast's head back the way they came. Kerrigan was already astride. Aethelwulf looked at where the sun was in the sky, just beginning to set, and turned to look at Shane doubtfully, "The horses are tired... I'm not sure they will make it." The set to Shane's jaw reminded Aethelwulf of iron, "I know, and we are in little better shape. We will have to ride like mad -- I want to return -- I want to push to get to the site she left TONIGHT. Let's go!" Despite the weariness in his bones, Aethelwulf could feel Shane's edginess and adrenaline begin to affect him too. He cursed and swore that the nobles of Chimeron were mad, with a mad Queen to lead them, then leaped on his horse and followed Shane back the way they came.

Kara turned on her horse to look back at her Knight. His head was bowed. It had been hours since they had spoken to each other, and Kara was reluctant to break the silence. They had borrowed two plow horses from a peasant to carry the body and to speed their way home. He had wondered out loud if Meg was possessed and had decided to bring her back to Folkestone hall to see if Killion could cure her. Kara wasn't so sure, but didn't have any other ideas. Callin rode simply, one hand on the reins the other on Meg's body across his lap, fingers smoothing over and over the tangled strands of her hair. Kara was Folkestone, tough as nails, a hardened warrior, and able to stand up to the worst that Folkestone's enemies could dish out. That was why she knew that the water in her eyes was the tears from the sun's glare and nothing more. Nothing more. A strange yip broke the silence. Kara's horse snorted nervously. The yip was followed by three more much too close and a howl to curdle the blood. "Shadow beasts!" Callin shouted just as they poured from the trees. Kara's horse reared in alarm, Kara, riding bareback felt herself sliding off it's back. She scrabbled for balance, but the plow horse had enough. It kicked and Kara flew off it's back to land on the ground and wheeled and galloped away. Kara gasped for breath and tried to roll to her feet, but she was flung back down when Meg's body landed on her legs. Callin's horse was giving him similar problems, but he turned it's head savagely, fought for control and won. Kara struggled to stand up. The beasts were taunting them with their eerie yips, Callin counted six and swore once. He dismounted, picked up Kara and flung her on his horse's back. He reached down again and heaved Meg into Kara's lap." Kara reflexively grabbed the body to steady it and could see over his shoulder the first of the beasts leap for the back of his throat. In one fluid motion Callin drew his sword, spun in place and cut the shadow beast down. He finished the move by spinning back to the horse and smacking it on it's rump. Kara hung on for dear life. She knew that Callin's sword Gerta wasn't silver and the beast would get back up any minute. She grabbed the reins and fought with the horse, steadying the body while dragging the horse to a stop. When she could see again she turned around in time to see Callin fall, talons raking across his face. Six on one with no silver weapons was too much, even for her knight. The beasts howled for joy. Kara used one of Blade's favorite swears, the one that always made Decion clap a hand over the ears of Lance-a-little. The lead shadow beast called to her, "Give us the Queen and we shall let you have your knight. Otherwise, you shall never see him again." Kara paused, Sir Callin's sacrifice meant his life, but even on his falling corpse, there was a look of determination. There would be no trading of bodies. She reached for the silver ball hidden in pouch around her neck...she knew what she had to do, "You will never have her you bastards! Sir Callin your death will not be in vain!!" She spun her horse in the direction of Folkestone, not looking back, not hearing the howls of entreaty, not hearing the tearing of flesh, just riding, riding, dashing those damn sun tears out of her eyes. She was closer to Folkestone than she had realized, it was not long before she was clattering to a stop before Folkestone Hall, shouting for her lord and husband, "Jarrod!! Come quickly! Damn it man, where are you?" Topknot, who was on duty, raised the alarm and members of Folkestone came pouring out of the hall, weapons at hand, led by Lord Jarrod his loping stride casual and sure. "What?" He shouted. The tale began to pour from Kara. Jarrod took in the body, the lack of Callin, the tales of Shadow beasts quickly. He saw Blade tense and order his horse saddled from one of the boys, saw Killion getting ready to move out too. He frowned. Lord Jarrod hated politics. He wanted to live his life with his friends, his people, killing the things that needed to be killed and drinking to their victories long into the night. What he was looking at was the queen of a country he had almost gone to war against lying dead at his feet. This situation had politics written all over it. He suddenly realized that his wife was shouting at him. "Haven't you heard what I said," she demanded, "We all have to go rescue Callin, now." Jarrod looked at Blade who was looking back at him expectantly, sword out of it's sheath. Kara stamped her foot, "Jarrod!" "No," Jarrod said. Blade used that swear. Decion looked for Lance-a-little who was nowhere in sight, he glared at Blade anyway, "Why not!" Blade demanded. Jarrod leveled a finger at him, "You know why. Aw-right, listen up you guys! Kara's right. There is something funny going on here. We are not going to raise Meg, and we're damn well not going to ride back to Chimeron with her body draped over a horse, they probably won't believe that we didn't have nothing to do with it. Blade you stay here, you are in charge while I am gone. Dec, take Meg and stick her in that glass coffin we're using as a coffee table. Kara, you and me will go back and bring Callin out. The rest of you, on guard. Keep your head low, and keep an eye out for anything stupid." "You mean like your plan?" someone muttered, but the voice was unrecognizable and Jarrod ignored it.

Bane of the Clan clutched the note that she had found tacked to the door of Duh Mar and strode down the hall of Castle Chimeron to Cassia's quarters. She was deeply puzzled. The usual bustle of the castle and it's occupants was muted, as if the castle was only half full of the usually boisterous residents. True to the letter she had not found Shane or any of the other clan members. Bane did not understand quite what was going on, but she was sure that Cassia would have the answers. She knocked on the door of Cassia's apartments. The door was broad and oak, but the shout of frustration and the sound of clattering carried clearly through the wood. Bane, alarmed, drew her sword and flung the door open. Cassia was sitting at her desk. Ink from a quill had liberally smudged her fingers, and there was several spots of it on the desk and on her nose. There were pieces of parchment scattered everywhere in the room, many of them screwed up into balls. A quill pen was sticking out of the wall, quivering, the nib surrounded by an aurora of ink. Cassia looked furious. Bane, not seeing any immediate danger relaxed, "What's wrong? she asked. Cassia shot her a glare, " Where have you been? The Queen has been missing for two months, and I have to answer all her damn mail!" Cassia swept her hand over the desk and snatched up several important looking documents. "Look at this," she demanded, "I have a letter from Kethrellen asking for foodstuffs for the Aspis who he claims is starving. I have a letter from Amica babbling something about a song that Meg wanted written for her wedding to Sir Callin in May. I have no idea what she is talking about. I have some guy named Durakis Firespawn from Dragonsbreath who sent a letter requesting sanctuary in Chimeron. I had to put him up at the Keep of the Scarlet Torch while Wil Craven dealt with the issue. He's still there! And finally, the Baron sent the Queen a letter telling her that Taithan d'Verai is back! The Feast of Rhiassa is two weeks away and everyone will be wondering why the Queen isn't there. I have no idea how we are going to keep her disappearance quiet and deal with the Sinjin trial at the same time. ! Shane is back out hunting for the Queen and I don't know what to do! Damn it, I can't do this by myself! I bake pastries, I don't rule kingdoms!" Cassia's anguished shout made the carrier pigeons in the cage by the windows coo and ruffle their feathers. Bane looked blank for a moment, "Who's Taithan?" Cassia looked shocked for a moment, and then she began, helplessly to laugh. Bane's eyebrows came down, "What? What did I say?" Cassia just began to laugh harder, tears winking at the corners of her eyes. Bane scowled, which just set Cassia off again, "Cassia..." she growled, "it's not funny." Cassia began to gasp, "It is!..... it is.....too... funny!" There was a knock at the woodwork of the door, Bane turned to glare at the newcomer too. Wil Craven, one of the Queen's squires, ignored the glare turned in his direction, "Lady Cassia, more letters have arrived." Cassia began to laugh harder. Wil seemed un-surprised at the hysterics but his left eyebrow quirked upwards in amusement. "And Bane, this note arrived for you as well, via arrow shot." Bane accepted the arrow and the scrap of parchment loftily, ignoring Cassia's giggles. She unrolled the scrap and scanned the message. Wil saw the blood drain from her face as she read it. He cleared his throat, "What's wrong?" "It's from Ahbakhan," she breathed. Cassia's laughter stopped abruptly. Abakhan was an extremely old vampire that Bane had had dealings with before. Those dealings had always involved treachery and pain. "Read it to us," she said. Bane's voice trembled only slightly,

Bane, I've heard that your Queen is missing. I've also been told that one of her former enemies has recently returned to the Realms. I have the answers you seek. If you cherish your Queen, bring to me my ring. You know how to find me. Abakhan the Prophet

In the silence Cassia saw Bane take a breath, saw something pass over her face that she did not have a name for, but Bane's voice when she spoke again was as hard as iron, and a muscle in the side of her jaw clenched, "I would like you to know, I WILL NOT do business with Abakhan." She let that statement hang in silence before she continued, "I don't care what kind of information he 'says' he has. There is always another way." Cassia opened her mouth to protest, and Bane's hand made a slashing motion, "If I haven't received any word on her whereabouts by the celebration at Rhiassa, I will pay to have an intervention or vision. I will not leave you in the dark about what my plans are going to be or when I plan to carry them out. Abakhan is a threat to me and to the castle. Now that he knows there is no technical monarchy, he may strike, but not before getting all he can out of it. I need you to be made aware of the risks he poses to us. I have dealt with Abakhan before and it is not a fun game, I don't care to play again, but if he does strike out, I want you to know I will fight to the bloody end. I believe in what the Queen represents and stands for. I refuse to let him take us in one foul swoop." "What is the ring?" Wil asked. "I believe it is his soul. I have it. He knows this and wants it back. If I give back this 'ring', then I jeopardize our chances of ever killing him for good and stopping this evil. Personally, I would like to save the Queen, but I also believe that in my soul, she would not want it this way. She wanted to destroy evil, not bargain with it. At any other means we need to get her back, but I strongly feel Abakhan is our LAST option. Cassia, we must have to begin to consider that she may already be dead. Just because the Queen is not here, does not mean her vision is gone and we must make that live no matter what." Cassia nodded once, "Even if it kills us all."

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