Friday, May 27, 2011

The Legend of Perinas and Mira

A quick note about the following story:  The Legend of Perinas and Mira takes place in the world I created for my book series, The Book of Iden.  You do not need to have read my first book to follow this story, but there are a few terms and places that I mention that come from it.  For your reference, I have included a map of the areas mentioned in the 'Pages' area on the right side of this blog.  Sizing was an issue, but if you click on the picture it will show you a larger version.  The main antagonists in this story are the Half-people (also called the Gahrna).  Here is a brief excerpt from my book that explains a little about them:

             Few tales are still told of the old Northern Kingdom, the first seat of the royal descendants of Cane.  The Sons of Cane left behind many horrors when they left those lands and most of those who survived them refused to speak of them again.  The little that is known of those days is passed down by the scholarly houses of Holthum and Cranst as well as some of the monastic orders of the Church.  There is one story, however, that is widely known by the people of Canimar.  The tale of Perinas and Mira and the terrible love they shared.
            Perinas was the brother of Cerinas, the fourth king of the North.  He was a tall, powerful man widely known to be stout of heart and sharp of mind.  Many a campaign against the creatures of the North was won under his leadership.  When he was a young lieutenant in his father’s army, he assumed the command of his crippled captain and routed the furious Tarnharäds, forcing them back over the rolling hills into the south.  Upon his coronation, Cerinas appointed his brother Lord General of the Royal Army.  Even seasoned commanders recognized Perinas’ brilliance and applauded the appointment.  By the age of 23 years, Perinas was the second most respected man in the Kingdom, after his brother Cerinas.
            Mira was the only child of Hartus, Master Farmer of the Northern Kingdom.  Her Uncle Baris was the ancestor of Hortum, who first tilled the wide fields of Canimar.  In those days, the Master Farmer was considered a lord of the highest regard.  All the land owners in the North were considered vassals to the king and the master farmer oversaw all the manors that grew food for the kingdom.  The Northern Kingdom was much more unified than Canimar ever was.  The elite class was small and closely knit.  Ever since Mira was very young, it was assumed by lord and commoner alike that she would someday be the bride of a prince.  When Cerinas married the daughter of Bartholomew the Herdsman, the marriage was all but sealed. 
            Mira and Perinas had met only twice before their marriage was announced.  Perinas seldom let his emotions play a part in his decision making and saw the marriage for its positive social implications.  Stronger bonds between the Royal Family and the family of the Master Farmer would ensure a smoother administration of goods.  Furthermore, since the master farmer had no sons, marriage to Mira would ensure that, should Perinas have two sons, the second would be assured a position deserving of his royal status.  Mira had little say in the matter.  It was not until the Kingdom moved to Canimar that the daughters of Cane would make any successful push for rights of their own.  However, when they did finally rise to prominence, many of the countesses and warrior maidens held Mira as their inspiration. 
            The wedding was a beautiful ceremony attended by every prominent family and many commoners.  Mira wore a long white gown with gold embroidery and Perinas wore his full dress uniform adorned with various medals and epilates.  A great banquet followed the ceremony as the people of the Northern Kingdom celebrated the marriage of two beloved families.  Everyone in the kingdom was overjoyed, except for Mira and Perinas. 
            When the celebrations were finally over, the two newlyweds found themselves alone in their bedchamber.  Mira was fairly certain of what was expected of her, but she was uncomfortable with the prospect.  She undressed to her sleeping gown and sat down by the bed, fiddling lightly with her hair.  Perinas, for his part, also lacked any driving interest in immediate consummation.  Undressing quickly, he slipped into his bed.  Mira followed nervously and lay with her back to her husband.  She lay quietly, listening for the tell tale signs of approach.  After a few minutes, she heard him roll over and her body tensed.  Turning on her back, she glanced over at him, prepared to plead for a stay of their nuptial obligations, only to find him fast asleep and snoring lightly.
            Mira breathed a sigh of relief.  Her muscles relaxed and she closed her eyes, greatly comforted that she would not have to endure her marital duties that evening.  She let her mind wander back to the days before her engagement, when she was merely the daughter of the Master Farmer.  She had loved to accompany her father to the various farms he oversaw and to converse with the land owners who grew the crops that fed the kingdom.  Their love of the land inspired her.  Whenever she could, she would slip away to the fields and forests of her father’s manor to track deer and search for wild herbs.  Sometimes, her father would take her to hunt deer and wolves in the wilder regions of the kingdom.  It was on these trips that she learned how to defend herself and earned a great respect for fighting men.  It is true that, when she was younger, she had held the man who would become her husband in high regard for his victories, but she hardly knew the man in person.  She thought, perhaps, if she could harness that youthful admiration, she might find a way to care for him.
            As she lay there quietly, a new thought began to form in Mira’s mind.  Though she was happy to have been granted a reprieve, she couldn’t help wondering why her husband had been so disinterested.  She had been told all her life that she was a beautiful girl.  Had she been wrong to believe it?  Mira felt suddenly self-conscious.  No, Mira thought.  It is not possible.  I have seen many women regarded as beautiful and I look no worse than the best of them.  Mira reasoned that there must be something wrong with her husband.  Why kind of gentleman would treat a lady in such a way; especially one so fair as her?  And his wife no less, she reflected crossly.  Mira rolled to the far side of the bed and scowled, anger holding her until sleep took its place.
            The next morning when Mira awoke, her husband was already dressing.  She sat up and yawned, watching him idly out of the corner of her eye.  It took him several minutes to realize that his wife was awake and when he did, he paid her little mind.  Donning his day to day uniform, he laced up his boots and rose to leave.  As he was walking to the door, he stopped and turned to his wife as though just noticing she was there.  Clearing his throat and straightening his posture, he spoke as though to some minister or dignitary to which he owed some obligatory courtesy.
            “I am leaving for the Western borders to examine our fortifications.  I will return one week hence,” he said with an official air.  Mira stared back at him, unimpressed.
            “You were quite fatigued last evening, husband,” she said flatly.  Perinas stood silently for a few moments, expecting more.  When Mira remained silent, he replied awkwardly:
            “Er, yes. The festivities continued quite late into the evening.  I trust you slept well yourself?”  Mira nodded.
            “Oh yes, quite well.”  She smiled thinly, then added, “with nothing else to occupy me, what choice had I but to sleep?”  Perinas remained outwardly rigid, but behind his blank features, he was quite perplexed.  He had expected his wife to feel much the same way he had.
            “Very well, Lady Mira.  I apologize for my sluggishness.  As I said, I will be back in a week.  If you wish, we can consummate our marriage then.”  Mira’s gaze narrowed for a moment.
            “Please, my Lord,” she said, fluttering her eyes.  “You flatter me with your generosity.  I ask no favors from you.”  Perinas looked back at her for a moment in confusion.  Then, taking her at her word, he nodded.
            “Right, I will return one week hence,” he said, and promptly walked out the door.  Mira sighed heavily and slid back under the sheets. 
            The king granted Perinas a large manor on the coast by the Eastern Sea.  The manor had everything Mira really needed to be happy.  The sandy beaches gave way to grassy fields that blended into a deep forest.  In the first few days of her life there, Mira explored everything.  An hour after her husband departed, she walked down to the beach and waded in the shallows.  She found a small tidal pool and collected a few things for medicinal purposes.  The next day, she explored a section of forest and found a large meadow filled with sage and thyme.  She followed a family of deer for a league before dusk forced her back into the castle.
            On the fifth day, while she was lying in a field by the sheep pasture, a courier arrived with an urgent message for Mira.  The message was from her mother and read:
Mira, your father has fallen ill and is confined to his bed.  He requests your presence as soon as you can manage.  ~Mother
Mira gathered her things immediately and rode to her father’s side.  His illness had not yet grown serious, but he was unable to perform his duties as Master Farmer.
            “Mira,” he said to her, his voice warm and loving.  “I have overseen the king’s fields for many years, but I fear this illness threatens my post.  If I am long unable to perform my duties, the king may have no choice but to replace me as master farmer.”
            “What can I do to help you, Father?” she asked, sensing his deep concern.  “Anything you need.”  Her father smiled and took her hand.
            “When you were younger, you accompanied me many times on my business.  I have no doubt that you possess the skills necessary to take my place for a time.  Would you work oversee the manors in my stead?”  Mira nodded, her heart overflowing with pride.
            “Of course, father.  You honor me with your trust.”
            “You honor me with your love, daughter.  How is it that a man such as myself should have raised so fine a daughter?”  He beamed up at his daughter and she smiled back.  Mira took leave of her father an hour later and went immediately to his study to assess the situation.  She poured over her father’s papers, familiarizing herself with the current land owners and their respective products.  In two short days, she deemed herself ready to execute her father’s duties.  Saying goodbye to her parents, she departed early in the morning to examine the management of the kingdom’s farms.
            Word spread quickly around the land of Mira’s new charge, and many of the commoners thought it odd that woman would hold such an important office.  However, so great was the esteem in which her family was held that few seriously questioned her father’s judgment.  What’s more, most of the king’s vassals had overseen their lands for many years and remembered Mira from her youth.  The lords of the Northern Kingdom found her kind, witty and a pleasure to view.  Many a heart felt the sting of jealously towards her young husband.
            Perinas, for his part, was one of the few in the kingdom who had not heard of Mira’s temporary appointment.  Not until he arrived back at his home did he realize his wife was missing.  His first reaction was one of distress.  Once his house hands informed him of her whereabouts, however, he felt greatly relieved.  With the question of consummation lifted from his shoulders, Perinas could focus all his attention on defense of the kingdom.  He threw himself into his work, drafting military maneuvers, planning defenses and inspecting his troops.  Perinas spent much of his time traveling in those days, making sure that he knew the land and how best to defend it.
            Things continued in much the same manner for six seasons, with both Perinas and Mira deeply engrossed in their work.  Both spent many days away from the castle by the Eastern Sea and their stays at home rarely coincided.  The pair found this arrangement to be most satisfactory.  The communicated sparsely, sending each other messages now and then to reassure one another that neither had perished. 
            One day while Perinas was examining fortifications on the West River, he came across a group of lieutenants gathered in a barrack.  He was about to approach them when he hear one of them say his name.
            “Oh, Perinas?  I have no envy for the man,” said one voice.
            “Why not?” asked another.  “He is so widely respected in the kingdom.”
            “Aye,” said the first voice.  “But worldly respect does one no good in the bed chamber it seems.  I was married not four months before I conceived a son.  It seems that Lord Perinas and Lady Mira may never be so lucky.”
            “I heard our Lady lacks a fertile field for sowing,” said a third voice.
            “I heard our Lord Perinas hath not the strength of loin,” replied the first.  Perinas heard laughter from within and his face flushed red.  Deeply humiliated, his first instinct was to draw his sword and challenge each to a duel for their insolence.  Upon further reflection, however, he departed from the fortifications and rode to the king’s palace to speak with his brother.  Perinas had known nothing but the highest regard from the people of the North since he had been very young, and as he rode, he contemplated what to do about this disturbing development.  He thought about collecting his wife and carrying her directly to the castle, but he did not relish the thought of doing so.  Instead, he resolved to withdraw from society for an undetermined time.  Arriving at the palace, he insisted on an immediate audience with his brother.  Entering the court, he made a sweeping bow and dismissed the king’s attendants and ministers with a wave of his hand.  They left and Perinas spoke hastily.
            “I have come to announce my intention to take a leave of absence from my post as Lord General.  I shall be gone for no more than two months, but my business is to be kept closely; only you and I may know.”  The king was taken aback by his brother’s announcement.
            “This is quite unexpected, Perinas.  Why have you come to this abrupt decision?”  Perinas, unwilling to admit the cause of his shame, ignored his brother’s question in favor of explaining his plan.
            “With the Tarnharäds banished to the south, the nations of Half-people across the West River are our greatest threat.  We know alarmingly little about the ways of those beastly creatures and until now we have been content to wait for their attacks.  I say those days have passed.  I shall creep into the belly of the beast unseen and investigate their devices.  Once I have studied their plans, I shall return and use my inside knowledge to better plan our defenses.”  The king was greatly troubled by his brother’s demeanor, but he could not deny the wisdom of his plan.  Attacks from the Half-people came every few years and, while his armies were always victorious, success came at a great cost. 
            “My brother,” he said in reply.  “The plan is sensible as you say, but I cannot ignore the manner in which you come to me; short of patience and with an ill-favored air.  Perhaps it would be wise to return to your home until your health and vigor have returned to you.  When have you last seen your young wife?” 
            “My health and vigor have not left me since my days in the cradle,” he replied angrily.  “And I have no need for my wife.  Let her tend to her fields or whatever she will.  I shall leave at once for the west, leave my horse along the river bank and cross over to the steppes of the Western Mountains.  From there I will continue North on foot to uncover what I can.  Good day, brother.”  Without another word, Perinas left the king utterly dumbfounded.  Ignoring all others, he found his horse and rode at full gallop into the west.
            Perinas arrived at Galthed, the last outpost of the Northern Kingdom, in the dead of night.  Shrouded in a black cloak, he boarded his horse with an unknowing stable hand and made his way to the river.  He passed two silver coins to a ferryman who thought him mad, but took him across the river nonetheless.  Once across, he climbed the rolling hills and disappeared into the steppes at the foot of the long Western range.  His destination, the Fort of Bervorn overlooking the pass between the Western Mountains (also known as the Heneth-tarno Menthili) and the Northern mountain range (also known as the Icthelem Menthili), lay a hundred leagues to the north of his crossing. 
            Carved into the side of the northernmost mountain, the infamous Bervorn had been seen only once by human eyes that lived to tell.  The walls were sheer stone but for the well fortified entrance at the base.  If the lone report was accurate, the only way to sneak into the Fortress would be from above.  Perinas would have to climb the last mountain to a point above the top of the Bervorn and carefully make his way back down into the fortress.  It was a perilous mission, but Perinas knew only the determination to succeed. 
            Perinas moved slowly north along the steppes, taking care not to be spotted by roving patrols of Half-people.  Along the way, he investigated a number of smaller outposts and fortifications along the river.  These were chiefly built as lookouts to warn the rest of the land of any imminent attack.  Most of the Half-people’s territory lay in Narashook to the West of the Mountains and to the Southwest in what would one day be South Canimar, but they took care to keep track of their human neighbors. 
            After ten days of travel, Perinas arrived at the foot of the last mountain in the Western Range.  Moving carefully, he searched for a safe path to the summit.  Much to his chagrin, most of the passes along the mountain were heavily guarded.  He was forced to search for a more daring route.  Abandoning most of his provisions, he slung his sword across his back and began to scale the high cliffs.  For two days he struggled up the rocky crags, stopping only for food and a few moments rest.  At dawn on the third day of his climb, he reached the top and saw the sun rising over the misty mountain tops of the Ichtelem Menthili.  A thick fog filled the pass that lay between the converging mountain ranges, but Perinas thought he could make out the hazy shape of Bervorn.  This was a mirage, however, as the actual top of the Fortress lay much farther down.  Anxious to continue his quest but mindful of the dangers of fatigue, he laid down on the snowy mountain peak and fell into a deep sleep.
            Perinas’ rest was plagued by an uncharacteristic air of dread.   In all his life, he could not remember ever having felt such a sensation.  He dreamed that he stood on the cusp of the crenellation atop Bervorn.  A few feet away from him stood a tall figure cloaked in shadow.  It seemed to stare past him into the wide expanses of Iden, slowly turning its head to survey the area.  Perinas moved to avoid its gaze, but his body was frozen still.  He felt sweat burst forth from his forehead as his heart filled with dread.  Finally, after what felt like hours, the shadow’s gaze fell upon him.  The world grew dark and dreary as it bored into his mind.  The shadow stared at him intently and he felt pulled towards it.  It filled his view as it dragged him forward and the world around him darkened.  He felt a deep sense of foreboding, and then woke up in a cold sweat on the snowy mountaintop.
            Perinas wiped the sleep out of his eyes and climbed to his feet.  He was stiff from the cold, but determined to continue on his mission.  Ignoring his dream, he gathered his things and began to descend towards Bervorn.  He made his way down slowly and carefully, making sure not to dislodge anything that might alert sentries to his presence.  After ten hours of gradual decline, Perinas finally spotted the top of the massive fortress.  Concealing himself behind a large boulder, he examined the defenses.  Sentries patrolled most of the paths that led down to the walls of the fort as well as the tops of the walls.  However, there was one area where the stone mountain jutted out above the top of the fortress.  From his vantage point, he examined the possibility of leaping from the rock to the top of the wall.  It would be quite the jump as the rock hung about seven lengths of his body above the structure and the gap between was about two lengths.  He would have to get a running start and be sure to roll when he landed, but the wall was not very wide.  Precision would be the key. 
            When darkness fell, Perinas climbed up to the overhanging rock and assessed the situation.  Every twenty minutes or so, the two sentries on his targeted wall would be at the far corners facing away from each other.  This would be his best chance.  He would have to land hard and stay low, and then quickly roll himself over the inside of the wall.  Once over the wall, he would need to drop only ten feet to carved stone roof of the inner structure.  From there, he could enter the fortress through an unguarded window he had spotted in the day light.  After that, he would have to depend on his wits.
            Perinas watched quietly as the sentries walked to the far corners of the wall.  Setting himself about ten steps from the end of the rock, he took a deep breath and then broke into a run.  Vaulting himself of the edge, he soared through the air towards the wall.  In a split second, his heart sank.  He had over shot his jump.  Stretching his legs as far as he could, he struck the far edge of the wall and tumbled over it.  He hit the roof at a roll, landed hard on his left shoulder.  A gasp of pain accompanied the loud thud of his body against the rock.  Both sentries turned towards the sound and began to approach his position.  His shoulder throbbed in pain and blood ran down his face from a gash on his forehead, but he forced himself to move.  The impact left him disoriented and he couldn’t find the window.   Scrambling around on one hand and knees, he searched frantically for the opening.  He was certain that the sentries would be able to see him soon.  Reaching out blindly, he finally found the window and pulled himself inside by his one good arm.
            Perinas realized quickly that he had not found a window, but had in fact found a ventilation duct.  He slid downward along a sleek stone chute, fearing at first that he would plummet to his death.  After a few moments, however, he realized that the angle of the duct would not allow him to pick up any more speed.  He spread his hands and feet to slow himself and eventually came to a stop in the cramped duct.  Taking a deep breath, he recomposed himself and began to creep head first down the passage.  Every few feet, a separate shaft would split off from his to another part of the castle, but he decided to follow this one downward until it stopped.  A light began to grow below him and he hastened his decent.
            When he reached the bottom, he pushed his limbs against the sides of the shaft and lowered his head out of the shaft.  A dimly lit room lay before him.  Two figures stood in the middle, not far from the ventilation shaft.  One was a large Bull-like creature that stood twice as tall as a man, a member of the ruling race of Half-people called the Tarsna.  The other was a strange figure shrouded in shadow.  Perinas’ heart skipped a beat.  Could it be the same figure from his dream?  The two figures were whispering to one another, but Perinas could just make out what they were saying.
            “When will our new weapon be ready?” asked the Tarsna, his voice heavy and impatient.
            “Soon, Balleck,” the shadow replied, its voice thin and wicked.  My work is going well and would be easily completed if you would provide me with another Dragon.  I do not wish to ask you again.”
            “Another?” Balleck shouted angrily.  “Do you have any idea how many of my men died capturing the last one?”
            “All of this means nothing,” said the shadow.  “This new weapon will be worth a thousand of your men.  If you want my help, you must answer all my requests.”  Balleck snorted irritably, but nodded his head.
            “Very well, but this weapon must be everything you say it will be.  My people have suffered the humans’ presence in our lands for too long.  They must be destroyed for good.”  The shadow chucked slyly. 
            “You shall have your destruction.”  The huge Tarsna sneered and turned away from the shadow.  “There is one more thing, Balleck.  I think you have an uninvited guest.” 
            Perinas was craning his neck to see the Tarsna when, suddenly, his muscles went limp.  He plummeted to the floor and landed in a heap on the rocks.  Writhing in agony, Perinas gasped for breath.  He heard Balleck roar in anger and the ground shook as he pounded his way towards him. 
            “Guards!” he yelled gruffly and the entire chamber started to shake.  Three wolf-headed Canisa rushed into the room and grabbed hold of Perinas.  They stripped him of his weapons and lifted him up to face Balleck.
            “Human scum,” he growled.  “How dare you soil my halls with your presence.”  Balleck’s snarling face drew in close, but Perinas’ attention was fixed on the shadow.  He thought he could almost make out its face, but it quickly turned away and left the chamber.  Balleck examined his prisoner closely.
            “I know your face,” he said.  “You are Perinas, Lord General of the humans.  You are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of my people!  What do you have to say for yourself?”  Perinas curled his lip in contempt.
            “It is you monsters who are to blame for the death and destruction in these lands.  My people came to live here in peace.”
            “Mark my words, Perinas,” Balleck snarled.  “Your generation shall be the last to know peace in these lands.  You and your children shall bleed until the fields the North turn red and we shall toss your ruined bodies into the sea.”  Turning away, he barked orders to Canisa.
            “Take him away.  Find out what he knows and then throw him in the pit.”  The wolfmen growled as they dragged Perinas away into the depths of Bervorn.
            Two months had passed since Perinas’ mysterious disappearance and the people of the kingdom were beginning to whisper.  Mira, for her part, thought little about not seeing or hearing from her husband for months at a time.  Such was the life they had lived since marriage.  She enjoyed working in the place of her father who was still bedridden from sickness.  Oblivious to the gossip of other lords and ladies, she put her heart into the administration of the kingdom’s farms.  By all accounts, she executed the position with both poise and skill.  However, no amount of success could quell the musings of idle minds.
            One day while on her way to review wheat quotas with Lord Mitner, she came upon a group of ladies sitting in the grass outside the Manor.  Though she cared little for niceties, she smiled cordially to them as she passed by.  Lady Mitner, long ago a friendly acquaintance, now turned up her nose as Mira passed.  Not one to passively accept such an insult, she turned abruptly from her course and approached the group.  When she was too close to ignore, Lady Mitner turned to her and produced a feigned smile.
            “My Lady Mira; forgive me.  I did not see you approaching.”  Mira returned her smile with a wicked grin.
            “There is nothing to forgive, Lady Mitner.  Your blindness is as widely known as your ignorance.  Frankly, I am pleasantly surprised find you here rather than in the fields with the rest of the livestock.”  The other Ladies gasped in horror.  Lady Mitner scowled furiously.  Mira, satisfied, turned away and left the group.  Over her shoulder, he heard them whispering.
            “What a horrible woman,” one said.
            “Ghastly,” added another.  Like a whirling squall over the ocean, Lady Mitner’s voice rose above the rest.
            “What do you expect from a scarlet lady?  Legend of her dreadful behavior is well known across the kingdom.  Why else would Lord Perinas disappear in shame?”  Mira froze in her tracks.  Certainly this was just idle talk from an idle fool.  But how could she be sure?  Before she could turn to face them, another voice chimed in.
            “Oh yes, word of her exploits in the bed chamber have been circulating as far south as the hill country.”
            “Perinas would have been better off marrying his sword,” said another.  “At least he gets some use out of that.”  The Ladies laughed and Mira’s face grew hot.  She wanted to rush back to the group and flay them all mercilessly, but she resisted.  Embarrassment overtook her and she returned quickly to her horse.  How could anyone think such horrible things about her?  She had no idea where her husband went or why he left.  No one in the realm did, except perhaps the king
            Mira resolved to clear her name and rode at full speed to the king’s palace.  In much the same manner as her husband had two months earlier, she burst into the king’s court like a hell storm.
            “Where is my husband?” she demanded without regard for the royal goings on.  The king, shocked once more, stood dumbfounded by his throne.  Four of his ministers with whom he had been conversing sat thunderstruck nearby.  For a few tense moments, silence enveloped the entire room.  Mira glared intently at the king, her gaze unwavering.  The king, never the boldest of men, faltered under the intensity of his sister-in-law’s stare.  He waved his ministers out of the room without a word and bid his servants to follow.  When the room was empty, he sat down on his throne. 
            “What can I do for you, sister?” he asked regally.  Mira stared back at him; her brow furrowed intensely.  “Of course,” the king continued.  “I’m afraid your husband’s whereabouts are a royal secret.  Only he and I can know for the good of the kingdom.”  Mira looked at him crossly.
            “Perhaps you have heard what the chief topic of conversation amongst the idle fools of your kingdom?” she snapped.  “The implication that some behavior of mine has driven Perinas into self exile is an abomination.  I’ll not be slandered in such a way.  Tell me where he is!”
            “My dear Lady,” the king replied.  “I am afraid there is nothing I can do.  I am greatly concerned about him myself.”
            “Concerned for him?” Mira asked indignantly.  “My Lord, my chief concern is for my…”  She was cut short by a pained expression that flitted across the king’s face.  A kneejerk compassion struck her and she suddenly understood the situation.
            “My Lord, what has happened?  Where did Perinas go that worries you so?”  The king turned away from her, trying to hide his fear, but he could not.  He had wrestled solitarily with a foreboding feeling ever since Perinas had left and now he could no longer face it alone. 
            “My brother has gone to Bervorn to capture the secrets of the Half-people.  He was so very brash when he left, but I fear something terrible has befallen him.  He should have returned by now.”  Mira felt a certain sympathy for her brother-in-law, but any genuine compassion was overshadowed by anger.
            “You mean to tell me that while I am slandered by cretins my husband is gallivanting off on some fool’s errand in the North?  And what’s more, the dullard has gone and gotten himself captured?”  The king, dumbfounded by her reaction, merely nodded. 
            “This will not stand,” she said turning away from the king.  Striding boldly toward a collection of weapons greatly prized by the king, she chose a bow and quiver, a short hunting knife, and a broadsword.
            “I shall need to borrow these,” she said while strapping the weapons to her belt and back.  The king’s mouth hung open in shock as she walked past him and out of the court.  With a sigh, he slumped down in his chair.  Yet another concern on my head, he thought.
            Striding boldly into the king’s stables, Mira intercepted a servant who was leading a brilliant black mare to pasture.
            “Thank you,” she said as she took the bridle from his hands.  Leading it to the saddles, she attached a few provision bags she had taken from the king’s stores and mounted the horse.  With a loud ‘yaa!’, she rode Northwest at full speed towards the Pass of the Half-people.  She would ride all day along the river that ran past the capital until she reached the Great Lake of Lacarth where she would spend the night and cross the Pelvian Plane the following day.  If she timed her ride correctly, she would arrive at the pass and Bervorn by night fall. 
            Mira rode hard until daylight failed and the horse insisted on rest.  When they stopped, she watered the horse and it fell asleep immediately, but she could not.  She heard the voices of the Ladies mocking her in her head.  Fury over the position in which she was left consumed her.  She hated him for it, but there was something else; a strange stinging in her chest.  His lack of consideration bothered her for reasons she did not yet understand.  She lay on her back brooding for some time before she finally passed into sleep.
            The next morning, she crossed stream that connects the Great Lake to the West River onto the Pelvian Plane.  The plane was named for Gharas Pelvian, cousin to the first king, who led a pioneering expedition from the Marches west along the Northern Mountain Chain.  It was on that plane that the Sons of Cane first met the Half-people, who attacked them without provocation.  Though valiant in battle, Pelvian was struck down.  The first king dedicated the plane to his cousin’s memory and many in the kingdom revere the land as holy, though very few actually live there.  Those that did lived by the side of the Great Lake where the soil could be worked.  Nearly half of the plane was tundra, frozen solid most of the year by cold drafts off the mountains.  Where grass did grow, it grew wildly in great expanses uninterrupted by tree or bush.  In winter, when the snow covered the ground and the mists rolled down off the mountains, it was impossible to tell the far flung land from the hazy gray skies.  There was a certain inhospitable charm to that land and it brought calm to Mira’s mind.  Spurring her horse onward, she sped across the plane like a bolt of lightning.
            As daylight began to fade, the shadow of the Western Mountains loomed in the distance.  She rode on hard, and by night fall, she arrived at the river.  Dismounting, she tied the horse to a small bush by the water in the hopes that it might create at least some kind of cover.  Once she was satisfied that the horses’ presence was no longer obvious, she removed her excess baggage and waded into the river.
            She immediately regretted the decision as the water numbed her legs almost instantly.  It was early autumn and the weather was just starting to turn.  Cold air drifted down off the mountains and even colder water rushed down from mountain springs.  Mira cursed under her breath as she struggled through the freezing water.  Soon, the water was up to her neck and she was forced to paddle her way through the frigid river.  After what felt like an hour’s struggle, her feet touched the bed of the far bank.  She dragged herself out of the water and flopped down in the grass, shivering violently.  Taking deep breaths, she tried to settle her body.  After a few minutes, she stopped shaking, but she was still freezing.  She feared she might plunge into hypothermia, but could think of nothing to avert it.  Looking up above her to the west, she saw the imposing silhouette of the Fortress of Bervorn.  The windows and watchtowers glowed with the light of torch fires and she realized her only hope lay in one of them.  It seemed a mad thought, but she had planned to infiltrate the Fortress anyway.  Her mission was simply more urgent now.  There would be no time to examine her options more carefully.  She would have to enter immediately.
            Staying low, she made her way to the base of the mountain that stood beside Bervorn.  When she reached the side of the fort, she pressed herself against the walls and sidled a long toward the spot where the walls met the mountain.  Not certain what she was looking for, she kept moving until she reached the mountain side and looked up at the steep rocky slide.  It’s impossible, she thought.  Even here the climb would be nearly vertical.  She imagined herself attempting the climb and shuttered.  She was certain she could get no more than four or five body lengths before she slipped and plummeted back to earth.  Perhaps I could just storm the gate.
            Crouching by the intersection of mountain and castle wall, she contemplated her next course of action.  As she sat, she suddenly became aware of the sound of trickling water.  Looking around, she could see no source of the sound.  She searched the area nearby, but could not find and water.  Confused, she slumped down against the side of the mountain.  The sound grew louder.  Mira pressed her ear against the wall and realized the water was running behind it.  Looking up at the rock, she noticed a small dark patch in the side of the rock little wider than her own body.  Thinking back to everything she had learned about the Half-people, she realized what she was seeing.
            The serf class of the Half-people was constructed mostly of a race called the Caprena.  The Caprena were small, goat-like creatures about half the size of an adult male human.  This must have been an access tunnel for the Caperna to tend to the fortress drainage systems.  Mira scrambled up the rock and peered into the tunnel.  It was dark and narrow, but Mira estimated that she could squeeze herself through.  Unslinging the broadsword from her back, she held the strap in her teeth and pulled herself into the tunnel.
            As expected, it was a tight squeeze.  Mira grunted and swore as she dragged herself through the passage.  After a few minutes, the tunnel widened a bit and then dropped off.  Pushing her head out over the gap, she tried to make out the bottom but could not.  With a sigh, she decided to throw caution to the wind and slide down.  Placing a hand and a foot on either side, she slowly shimmied towards the bottom.  After about three body lengths, she dropped into a waist deep flow of water.  She trudged forward into the darkness up the inclined passage and into the bowels of Bervorn. 
            The air grew warmer and the water shallower as she climbed further into the fortress.  When at last she stepped out of the drain, she found herself in a dark wide room. The chamber appeared to be a hub of some sort, with five passages heading in different directions.  Worried about being seen, she decided on the passage that appeared the darkest.  She took care to walk quietly and listen for voices or footsteps ahead of her.  The hallway continued upward in what seemed to be a spiral and Mira silently worried that she might climb to high and have to backtrack.  She passed a few corridors leading off in different directions, but did not deviate from her current path for fear that she would not be able to find her way back. 
            After a few minutes, she heard voices up the corridor and jumped into the shadows of a side tunnel.  Crouching in the dark, she listened to two Half-people conversing as they passed.
            “I would have thought the blighter would have died a month ago,” said one in a deep rumble.
            “He would have, but Lord Balleck ordered us to begin feeding him for fear he would pass before telling us what he knows,” answered another.  “We’ve turned to more direct forms of extraction, but the human has proven surprisingly resilient.  Felk has recently switched to burning in the hopes that it might loosen his tongue.”  Mira cringed at the thought of a fellow human being burned.  The things these monsters are capable of…
            “Anyway, it’s my turn to feed the animal.  I just hope old Felk isn’t there; he makes me uneasy,” the second voice continued. 
            “I’ve no interest in risking it.  You can go on your own.”  Mira heard one of the creatures stop and walk back the way it came.  The other continued down the passage.  Stepping lightly, she followed the sound of the second creature, a Canisa, being sure to keep her distance.  Once or twice, she thought she heard footsteps approaching from another direction and scrambled for cover, but it was in her mind.  She forced herself to focus on the task at hand.  She had been lucky so far, but she was not going to rely on that to carry her through. 
            After a few turns down declining halls, the creature came to a large wooden door and knocked hesitantly.  Mira ducked around a corner and watched the scene unfold. The door opened and a gruesome looking Tarsna appeared.  His horns were sharp and twisted; his eyes screwed and glass.  He grunted savagely and the Canisa stepped back in alarm.  The Tarsna laughed wickedly and flung the door open.
            “Alright Vetta,” his voice rumbled.  “Let’s ‘ave it then.” 
            “Aye, ‘course, Felk,” the Canisa replied, his voice shaking with fear.  He held out the small sack of food and Felk tore it from his hands.  Vetta stayed there for a few moments until Felk waved his arm in dismissal and he hurried back down the hall.  Mira barely had time to hide herself as he hurried away.  She heard the door slam shut as she slid into the shadows of an unlit corner.  Once she was certain he was gone, she crept around the corner to the door and pressed her ear against the wood.  She could just make out what Felk was saying.
            “Alright now, m’ lord.   You wanna eat?  You gotta speak.”  His voice rumbled deeply, dripping with distain.
            “You already tried that,” Perinas answered defiantly.  “I have no reason to believe you won’t ever feed me again.”  Felk chuckled.
            “Oh I plan on feedin’ yeh, Lord Perinas.  We’re just going to have a new arrangement.  A new deal, if you will,” Felk sniggered.  Mira heard him shuffle around and the sound of metal clanking.  “You want a bite of food, you have to take a burn.”  On the other side of the door, there was a wicked searing noise and Perinas let out a tortured scream.  Utterly shocked, Mira froze at the horrendous sound.  The sickening sizzle of flesh coupled with cruel laughter followed.
            “There,” Felk said.  “You earned yourself a bite of fish.  Want a little more?”
            “N-no,” Perinas stuttered, breathing heavily.  “I don’t think I do.”
            “Come now,” Felk said playfully.  “You’ll need your strength.  How about some potato?”  The sound of searing flesh coupled with another earsplitting scream brought Mira back to her senses.  Leaping to her feet, she kicked open the chamber door and rushed inside.  The scene before her was more terrible than she had imagined.  Perinas lay in the middle of the floor, chained to a small stone pillar.  He looked emaciated and his half naked body was covered in welts.  Felk stood over him with a glowing iron rod in his hand.  His gleeful smile melted into shock as he turned to face the intruder.  Expecting someone much larger, he did not see Mira at first.  She moved toward him quickly and he stumbled backward swinging his iron bar.  Mira ducked under his attack and lashed out at his feet.  The jolt of pain caused Felk to jerk his hand back, catching Mira in the back as she tried to jump past him.  She was thrown off her feet and tumbled onto the ground.  Struggling to her feet, Mira scrambled for her sword as Felk rushed towards her.  She rolled to one side and kicked at his already wounded foot.  Felk stumbled and crashed head first into the wall. Drawing her hunting knife, Mira plunged it into his chest.  Felk let out an echoing cry and went limp.
            Mira withdrew the knife and wiped the blood on Felk’s tunic.  Returning it to its sheath, she retrieved her sword and approached her husband.  She lifted the sword over her head and brought it down hard, cracking a link in the chain that held him.  Two more strikes and the chain was broken.  Perinas rolled away from the pillar and lay still on the floor.  Mira felt a twinge of pity, but it was overwhelmed by the urgency of the moment.  Trying to balance compassion with the necessity of haste, she approached him and knelt by his side.
            “Well…get up, alright?”  Perinas turned to her with a puzzled look, pain still etched across his face. 
            “Water?” he asked through horridly chapped lips.  Mira searched her person for a moment, and then realized she had left her water pouch with the horse.
            “No time to find water now, we must make haste.”  Perinas looked dejected.  Raising a quivering arm, he gestured to a bucket sitting behind her.  Peering into it, she noticed it was filled nearly to the brim with water.
            “Oh, very well,” she said impatiently.  Helping him to his knees, Mira led Perinas to the water bucket and left him there to drink.  She rose to her feet and looked around the room. 
            “Not a lot in the way of weaponry in here, is there?” she said as she searched.  Perinas grunted between gulps of water and gestured toward a table against the far wall.  Mira approached it and found a long steel rod that was narrow on one side and wide on the other.
            “Will this work?” she asked, never having seen such a weapon before.  Silently, Perinas pointed to his back which was covered in wide welts, long thin cuts and triangular punctures.  Mira recoiled a bit, but forced herself to examine the wounds.
            “Thin end is for cutting,” Perinas said breathlessly.  “Thick end is for breaking.”  Mira nodded and looked upon her husband in his weakened state.
            “Can you wield it?” she asked hefting it up with two hands.  “It is quite heavy.”  A look of anger crawled across his face.  Perinas took hold of the bucket and pushed himself to his feet.
            “My Lady,” he said.  “I could wield a wagon wheel with one arm if it meant taking revenge against these heinous brutes.”  Taking the torture device from her and raised it boldly above his head.  Staggering a bit, he reached out for the wall and steadied himself.  Mira looked at him apprehensively, but reasoned that a weakened Perinas would be more help in battle than nothing. 
            “Very well,” she said.  “I believe I can lead us out through the same tunnel I entered.  It will be a tight fit, but in your current state I believe you can-”
            “No,” Perinas shouted, cutting her off.  “Two days after they took me, I promised Balleck I would walk out the front gate of this Fortress with a river of blood at my feet.  I mean to keep that promise.”  Crossing the room, Perinas retrieved is cloak from a pile of his clothes and laid it across his shoulders.  Pausing for a moment, he looked at his wife.  Mustering all his accumulated bravery and eloquence, he said:
            “Thank you,” and started towards the door.
            “Yes, well…” Mira said as Perinas walked out of the room.  “I suppose it is time we moved on.”  Indignant at the idea of having to follow the man she had just saved, but conscious of her chances of escaping alone, Mira strode out of the room with her sword raised ahead of her. 
            At first, it seemed as though the escape might be uncontested.  It was the dead of night, and very few guards were assigned to patrolling the inside of the castle.  After a few minutes of travel, Perinas and Mira came to a door.
            “This is the gatehouse,” he said.  “I saw it when they were dragging me to Balleck a week ago.  We’ll have to throw open the gates from there and then take the far passage to the left down to the entrance.  I have no idea how many Half-people are guarding this room or how many will come at the sound of the gate,” he continued.  “Are you ready for battle?”  Mira stared back at him and pointed to the gash in her arm where Felk had struck her with the iron.  Perinas nodded.  He took a moment to compose himself, and then, with a taking a deep breath, he kicked open the door to the gatehouse. 
            The room was empty.  Perinas cursed under his breath and entered.  He muttered something mostly inaudible, though Mira thought she could make out the words ‘rivers of blood.’ 
            “Perhaps it is for the best,” she said as Perinas approached the large coiled rope that held the drawbridge upright.  “This way we can let the bridge down slowly in the hopes that only the sentries on the top might notice.  It will take them longer to spread the word.”  Perinas ignored her, examining the mechanism that allowed for lowering and raising of the gate.
            “If we hurry, we might be able to get to the gate before any sentries do,” she continued.  “Even if we did meet any resistance, might not have to fight until we are outside the…”  At that moment, Perinas stepped back from the pullies and raised his weapon over his head.  With great force, he brought the sharpened end down hard on the thick rope.  Raising the weapon again, he struck it once more. 
            “What are you doing?” Mira said, practically screaming.  Perinas continued as the rope began to fray.  
            Snap!  Whoosh!  Crash!  The rope broke and sent the door plummeting towards the ground where it landed with a smash, splintering from top to bottom. 
            “That should draw some attention,” he said as he walked out the door.
            “Are you mad?” shouted Mira.  “Every beast in this place will be at the gate in a matter of seconds!”  Perinas stopped in his tracks and turned to her, his stone face set in a serious expression.  Raising the torture tool dramatically, he pointed it at her and said, in a grave tone:
            “Rivers of blood,” and turned out the door.  Resigning herself to the battle before her, she hurried off after her husband who strode boldly down the corridor.  By the time they reached the end of the passage, the entrance hall was filling with sleeping looking Canisa and Tarsna.  Confusion abounded as they filed into the hall to examine the shattered door.  Not one of them noticed the pair of humans until Perinas strode into their midst and bellowed:
            “Canea ae Carnaec!”  Draw blood for Cane.  Howling out the battle cry of the Sons of Cane, he launched himself into the crowds of Half-people.  Mira, undaunted by enemy numbers and spurred on by her husband’s madness, charged into the fray after him.  The Half-people panicked.  Many had not brought their weapons and not all those that did understood what was happening until they were met with cold steel.  The congregation scattered with the majority running for the far end of the hall.  Perinas and Mira had nearly reached the gate when they were cut off.  The outer guard who patrolled the grounds had heard the commotion and assembled in a column by the gate.
            “Good,” Perinas said with a wicked smile.  “I would have hated for them to get off easy.”  His face a mad twist of pleasure and rage, he hurdled toward the column at full speed.  Mira, out of breath but unwilling to be left behind, charged in after him.  Side by side, they parried, thrust and lunged themselves through the outer guard.  Perinas sustained a slice to the chest and Mira a blow to the head, but both continued to fight.  The guard was overwhelmed.  Battles had been few and far between allowing their fighting skills to atrophy.  That coupled with the timing of the battle left them at a great disadvantage.  Perinas and Mira cut through their ranks and into the open air in a matter of minutes.  Once they broke through, Pernias looked back at the shallow trail of blood behind him in disappointment.
            “That will have to do, Perinas,” Mira said as she grabbed his arm.  “I, at very least, shall tempt fate no more.”  Perinas nodded and the two turned to the east and hurried toward the Pelvian plane.  Behind them, they heard the sound of alarm bells and trampling feet.  They would have to move quickly to avoid capture. 
            Running as fast as they could muster, they reached the river and plunged into the water.  Perinas gasped in dismay at the cold and went rigid.  Mira grabbed his arm and pulled him deeper into the current.  She swam hard with Perinas trying his best to help, but two months of torture and starvation weighed on him heavily.  He thought he might die of exhaustion.  When they finally reached the far side of the river, Mira had to drag him ashore.  She hoped she had estimated correctly and that they had come across somewhere north her original crossing.  On the other side of the river, Canisa archers were taking aim.  Slinging Perinas’ arm over her shoulder, she carried him south as fast as she could.
            By the time they reached the horse, she was on the verge of collapse herself.  Arrows had begun to land around her and one found its mark in Perinas’ leg.  She dragged him onward to where the horse was tied and into the bushes nearby.  Shafts continued to fall around them as she untied the horse.  It scrambled to its feet and she hoisted Perinas onto its back.  Climbing up into the saddle, she spurred the horse on and it launched into a gallop.  Between the thundering hooves and the raining shafts, she heard Perinas muttering deliriously.
            “Cannowain…must see Cerinas…war…”  Mira drove the horse onward over the frigid Pelvian plane toward the coming light of day.  The cold autumn wind whipped around them as they stole like a shadow toward Cannowain and the throne of King Cerinas.
            Cerinas sat slumped on his throne, his crown cocked forward on his head.  He was in a miserable way; alone but for a single servant standing by a table of food.  His brother and top military advisor was missing.  His Master Farmer had ridden off in search of him.  Both were now likely trapped inside the lands of the Half-people.  If they had been captured, war would be unavoidable.  Naturally, war meant he would need generals.  Generals would need soldiers.  Those soldiers would need food.  The logistics of the situation were driving him mad.  His lower advisors were fractured in their opinion.  He could not get two to agree on one course of action.  Without those two key advisors, his rule was in shambles.  Perhaps I should abdicate, he thought.  My son is eight years old now.  I’m certain he could lead as effectively as I.  Cerinas sighed heavily and shook his head.  What was he to do?
            With a loud crash, the doors to his court flung open.  One of the double doors fell off its hinges as Mira entered the court covered in blood, sweat and mud and propping up the severely wounded Perinas on her shoulders.  The king jumped out of his seat, sending his crown crashing to the floor.  He crouched down and picked it up nervously as Mira approached.  Cerinas hurried to a nearby table, but Mira was impatient. 
            “This will do,” she said, hoisting Perinas off her shoulder and onto the king’s throne.  Cerinas looked at his brother as he sat slumped on his chair.  His breathing was shallow and blood ran from fresh wounds all over his body. 
            “Why have you brought him here?  My brother should be in the infirmary.”  Mira shrugged and approached the table.
            “He insisted on speaking with you immediately,” she said flatly and sat down at the table.  Pulling a plate of food to her, she began to eat lightly.  The king was perplexed.  He approached his wounded brother slowly and knelt down beside him. 
            “Very well, but send for a healer, would you?” he said.  Mira looked up from her plate of food and turned to the servant.  She donned an impatient look and waved her hand at him.  Bewildered by her uncouth behavior, he hurried off in a huff.  Mira returned to her meal as Cerinas saw to his brother.
            “Speak, Perinas,” he whispered.  Perinas looked at his brother through dull, glassy eyes.  Cerinas took his brothers hand firmly.
            “The…hal- people…me wrrr,” he said, struggling breathlessly for words.  Cerinas looked confused.
            “I-I don’t understand,” the king replied.
            “The Half-people mean war,” Mira mumbled between bites.  Perinas nodded deliriously.  “You shall have to marshal an army capable of full scale war,” Mira continued.  “I suggest you start by sending advisors to Murtland on the lake as they will likely be your first major settlement threatened.  The Half-people will over run the Pelvian Plane in a matter of days.  Conscript a small force in Galthed to act as a preliminary defense force.  The city of Glowen will likely produce the most soldiers for your army, but do not discount the people of Bards Hallow.  They are stout of heart and sharp of mind.  I would-”
            “Madam!” the king shouted in protest.  “I acquiesced silently when your father acted beyond his authority in appointing you his successor, but I will not have you dictate military policy while…” The king stopped short as his brother tugged his arm urgently. 
            “Do it,” Perinas whispered to his bewildered brother.  The king nodded and rose to his feet.  He started toward the door when Perinas pulled him back.
            “The shadow…” Perinas said thinly. 
            “What?” the king replied.  He looked at Mira who shrugged and shook her head.  As he knelt back down, the healers arrived from the infirmary and rushed over to the throne.
            “The shadow is making them a great weapon…” Perinas whispered.  “I could not learn…”  The chief healer began to examine him immediately.
            “My Lord,” the healer said.  “You must allow us to take him to the infirmary.  The king nodded dumbly and stepped back as Perinas was loaded carefully onto a stretcher and carried out of the hall.  Ambling over to the table, he sat down beside Mira.  She pushed him a plate and he accepted it without a sound, his face a vacant expression of helplessness.
            Two weeks later, Perinas sat in the infirmary recovering from his wounds.  A parade of lords, military officers and other dignitaries had come to visit him relentlessly since he was able to sit up straight, but never the one person he wished to see.  Just when he was certain she was not going to come, Mira appeared in the infirmary doorway.  Perinas’ heart jumped, but he did his best not to betray his happiness at her arrival.  Straight faced, she entered his room and, laying a stack of papers beside his bed, she sat down beside him. 
            “I thought it best to give time to recover before we began our plans, but we can no longer delay.”  Perinas opened his mouth to question her, but was cut off as she continued at a rapid pace.
            “The Half-people have already crossed the West River and occupied the Pelvian Plane.  We tried to get warning to the villagers there, but many were overrun before our messengers could reach them.  Our meager defenses in the area put up little resistance and most withdrew to the south of the lake.  We have set up several archery units along the water ways to deter their crossing.”  Perinas nodded.
            “Good, but when Balleck decides to move en masse, there will be no stopping him.  How soon can new troops be brought to the front?”  Mira searched through the pile of parchment she had brought and produced a map, which she laid on Perinas’ lap.  Withdrawing another sheet from the pile, she read the current figures.
            “So far, we have raised seven thousand swords and one thousand riders.  They are being moved to the lake as we speak.”
            “No,” Perinas said quickly.  “Only send a thousand infantry and the reserve pike men from Galthed.  Have the rest make camp outside Murtland.  I will not stay here more than a few more days.  When I leave I will ride there immediately and lead the troops north to the mountains.”  Mira examined the map.
            “You mean to cross the tundra between the lake and the mountains and surround them,” she said with an air of shock.  “It will be a risky move with winter coming.  If our troops are pushed back, retreat will be nearly impossible.” 
            “There is no valor without great risk,” Perinas replied.  “The Half-people are a large nation spread across wide lands.  It will take more than a season to mobilize their forces.  You forced their hand when you rescued me.  They had no way of knowing how much or how little I had learned and so had no choice but to move before they were ready.  If we move quickly, we can close the northern pass that links our lands with Narashook so that they cannot bring their forces through.” 
            “What if they unite with the Garguan to the south of the river?  How will we defend against such an alliance?” Mira asked, pointing to the area south of where the West River pooled. 
            “The Snakeheads?” Perinas said skeptically.  “That seems very unlikely.  The Tarsna don’t trust their cousins and all reports suggest they live far to the south.  Few have ever even been seen by human eyes.  I do not think we will need to worry about them.”  Mira nodded and gathered the extra parchment.  With a curt bow, she turned away.
            “Mira, wait,” Perinas said more urgently than he meant.  She turned around and raised her eyebrows expectantly.  Perinas fiddle with the map for a moment.
            “I was thinking that, perhaps if you are not required at your post, you might want to take a new assignment.”  Mira placed her hands on her hips and looked at him shrewdly.  Perinas’ heart quickened as he searched for the words that would reflect the tenderness suddenly growing in his heart.  Minutes seemed to pass before he finally found them.
            “You seemed pretty good…”  Mira’s eyes narrowed. 
            “At Bervorn, I mean,” Perinas added quickly.  “You fought well and you have shown great initiative today.  You would make a fine man.”  Mira’s brow furrowed as Perinas stumbled over words.
            “Er, soldier.  A fine soldier,” he stuttered.  “What I mean to say is; I want you riding by my side.”  Mira’s eyes widened again and she took a step back.  She looked shocked.  Perinas expected that she must be taking great pride in his endorsement.  Gathering herself, she opened her mouth and spoke.
            “My Lord Perinas, what makes you think that was not always my intention?” Mira said with a twinge of irritation.  “Do you often spend day and night marshaling troops and planning their movements without the expectation of one day commanding them?  I shall have your army assembled and ready to march at your arrival in two days time.  Do not be late.”  Mira turned abruptly on her heels and marched out of the infirmary, leaving Perinas utterly baffled at her behavior.
            When Perinas arrived in Murtland, he found the army just as Mira had promised.  Without delay, he led them along the lake against the cold autumn winds towards the mountains.  They reached the tundra in two days and turned west towards the thin waterway that ran from the mountains to the lake.  The air was frigid, but even more so was the heart of his riding companion.  Though constantly riding by his side, his wife spoke very little.  What she did say was limited to military maneuvers and expected enemy movements.  Any time he attempted to carry the conversation to topics outside the coming battle, she grew silent.  While he felt that he should feel in some way insulted at her disinterest, he instead admired her unshakeable focus.  It was, after all, his normal state.  When leading men into battle, his mind was a steel trap; never letting another soul know is plans until necessary.  Now, however, every inch of him begged for her approval.  He could not explain this feeling to himself, but there was nothing he could do to stop it either.
            Four days march brought the army of the Northern Kingdom onto the Pelvian Plane.  As Perinas predicted, the northern end of the Plan lay unprotected.  He ordered a double time march west to cut Balleck’s army off from Bervorn.  From the east bank of the river, he would take his army south to meet the Half-people.  When the army arrived at the banks of the West River, Perinas ordered a rest.  The men made camp and he raised his tent at the center.  As he finished, he noticed Mira approaching through the crowd of soldiers and horses.
            “I was wondering where you had gone and if you would return,” he said brightly.  “I am glad to see you have.  Would you care to, er…join me?” he continued, gesturing to his tent.  Mira eyed him suspiciously.
            “Thank you but I have my own.”  Perinas nodded shyly, ashamed that he had been so bold as to ask his wife to spend the night.  Mira seemed to forgive him, for she changed the subject quickly.
            “I have come for my command.  I assume by now you have decided which division to assign me.  I should like to address them without further delay,” she said assuming a haughty stance.  Perinas, on the other hand, was perplexed.
            “Command?” he said, raising an eyebrow.  “I said you would be riding with me.  I meant in battle as well.  We fought well side by side at Bervorn.  Why do you not wish to stay by my side now?”
            “It is a matter of perception,” Mira replied.  “By your side it might appear that you are protecting me.  I have greater intentions than to bear your standard…or your offspring.”  Perinas was taken aback and utterly speechless.  Mira placed her hands on her hips and tapped her foot impatiently. 
            “Er, third division?” he said nervously.  “Lord Hornell was unable to join the ranks.  I had intended to merge them with the fourth.”
            “Four hundred swords?” she said disappointedly.  “Lord Boet commands a thousand and he is a doddering old fool.”  Perinas sat wordless, shaking his head.  Mira sighed and turned away.
            “Very well,” she said as she departed.  “Four hundred will have to do.”  She disappeared once more into the crowd of soldiers as they finished raising their tents for the night.
            Perinas was left to wonder how he could have possibly pleased Mira.  He was hurt that she had wished to part from his side.  Any commander of his army would be honored to have such a prestigious place.  Perhaps he had offended her by his invitation into the tent.  He wished very dearly that she might soon see him in a different light.  After this battle is over and she sees my great prowess, he thought.  Then she will regard me as she should…
            The battle did not go as well as Perinas had hoped.  While he had succeeding in surprising Balleck, his forces were greater than Perinas had anticipated.  Outnumbered by Half-people, the forces of the kingdom were unable to overwhelm their adversaries.  Instead, Perinas ordered small groups of soldiers to engage in minor skirmishes along the fringes of the enemy forces.  These small battles were largely successful, but Perinas felt mounting pressure for a major victory.  The Half-people’s seeming unwillingness to mount an offensive perplexed him and was a source of great anxiety.  On the third day of fighting, however, Mira arrived with a proposition.
            “Send my division against their right flank,” she said, striding boldly toward him.  “They are weakest to the East.  If my swordsmen can break through the lines and secure the East end of the river that feeds the lake.  With that open, we can bring in the reinforcements that are protecting crossing and mount an offensive.” 
            “That would be unwise,” Perinas replied.  “If they wheel around behind you, you will be trapped against the river and almost certainly annihilated.”
            “We would be no more trapped than if we were pushed against the mountains,” she answered bluntly.  “If we must retreat over the river, the archers on the far side can cover our crossing.  Have any better solution at present or are you simply afraid of sending me into battle?”
            Perinas considered the question quickly.  Would he be so resistant had another commander suggested the plan?  What if he had conceived of the plan himself?  Would he not think it gallant to risk such a perilous maneuver? 
            “What do the men think of such an attack?” Perinas inquired, searching for excuses to deny her request.
            “I have spoken to each of my lieutenants and they are eager for glory,” she replied.  Perinas’ heart sank, but he could find no other pretext to refuse her.  She had planned the attack thoroughly and there would be no convincing her otherwise. 
            “Very well,” said Perinas dejectedly.  “Begin your attack one hour before dawn.  I will send two thousand men to their left flank to draw attention from your movements.”  A long pregnant pause followed as Perinas breathed in as if to continue.  Mira waited with uncharacteristic patience. 
            “Be careful…with…yourself,” Perinas said awkwardly.  Mira raised an eyebrow curiously.  She gave a curt bow and turned away towards her division.  She had noticed the odd changes in Perinas’ demeanor with disinterest, but they were becoming hard to ignore.  It had caused her great concern at the outset of the battle.  She feared a newly developed defect would in some way impair his ability to lead.  Mira also worried that his anger toward the Half-people over his captivity might cloud his judgment.  However, she could not deny that he had shown both restraint and military prowess so far.  Before their meeting, Mira assumed that he had returned to his former self at the outset of battle, but she was quite shocked to find him still somehow perturbed.  It was becoming increasingly apparent to her that the unthinkable was happening.  For reasons unfathomable to the human mind, Mira’s husband was infatuated with her.
            Her husband’s odd feelings aside, Mira collected her troops and was ready to march an hour before dawn.  Keeping low to the ground, they set out along the West Bank of the lake toward the enemy’s right flank.  When the sun began to peek over the horizon, the enemy came into sight.  Mira took last moment to assess the situation and then raised her sword to signal the charge.
            The Half-people were caught off guard by the attack and fell back toward the river.  Mira’s division caught up with them before they could get far.  The battle was swift and the flank was sent reeling backward.  Their forces were even weaker than Mira had anticipated and, in less than an hour, the river was in sight.  At that point, something very curious happened.  The retreating Half-people turned on Mira’s division and dug in their heels.  She ordered an immediate halt and sensed something had run afoul.  Turning her horse, Mira faced the West and gasped.  Three enemy columns had broken from the front and were now advancing on their position.  Judging by their prompt arrival, this offensive had been planned.  Mira ordered her forces to form a defensive phalanx and prepare for fierce battle.  She dismounted, drew her sword and, for some reason, thought of Perinas…
            Across the plane, Perinas was beside himself.  He had personally led two thousand men against what he expected to be the bulk of Balleck’s forces.  However, when his forces arrived, they found the camp abandoned.  Perinas immediately sent out scouts and waited impatiently for them to return.  When word came at last, it was dire.  The third division was surrounded by Balleck’s entire army.  Perinas was struck with a primal fear.  Without delay, he mounted his horse and rode full speed towards the fray.  His mind was tormented with scenes of Mira’s death as he galloped toward the battle. 
            When he came near the battle, a commander of the enemy forces noticed his approach.  Instead of ordering the attack, however, he called to his men to move west so that, as Perinas approached, a gap opened in the enemy force.  Soon, the field before him was empty but for the lone figure of a Canisa warrior standing between him and the third division.  As he drew closer, the warrior raised his hand to slow him and Perinas grudgingly obliged.  Steadying his horse, he stopped beside the enemy foot soldier. 
            “Perinas, I presume,” the Casina said wickedly.  “I am Barthol, herald of Lord Balleck.”
            “What do you want,” Perinas replied unimpressed.
            “No doubt you have come in search of your darling wife,” he answered with a smile.  “The one who helped you murder so many in Bervorn.  Did you think we did not know who she was?”  In a flash, Perinas drew his sword and pointed it at Barthol’s neck.
            “Where is she?” he said, pressing the blade against the Casina’s fur.
            “Tut tut,” said Barthol, his face unphased.  “Do not be so quick to draw my blood, Perinas.  If you kill me, you will never get her back.”  Perinas made as if to cut his throat, but then quickly raised his sword.
            “What is it you want?” he asked and Barthol sneered triumphantly.
            “The great Lord Balleck is holding your little wife in a cave just across the river in the side of yonder mountain,” he said gesturing to the nearest peak on the horizon.  “He wishes to discuss peace terms, but feared you would not consider his offer without a bargaining chip.  Balleck requests your pre-” Barthol crumpled to the ground in an unconscious heap as Perinas struck him upside the head with the flat of his sword.  He reared his horse onto its hind legs and turned to the west, then galloped off toward the river.  The commanders of the Northern Kingdom saw this and immediately gave orders to attack in support of their maddened Lord General. 
            The lines of the Half-people that had broken off to the west were taken completely off guard as Perinas cut through them at full gallop.  They scattered every which way as their commanders made futile attempts to reform them.  Perinas was through them in a flash and onto the east bank of the river.  Without a moment’s hesitation, he leapt into the water and swam across freezing cold river.  Pulling himself onto the bank on the opposite side, Perinas continued on like a man possessed.  He saw the cave in the distance and strode boldly towards it.  As he approached, two guards appeared at the entrance and ordered him to stop.  Steel flashed in the sun and they fell to the ground with their swords still sheathed. 
            Perinas continued on into the cave.  It was dark, but a faint light fluttered along the walls.  Perinas followed a slowly turning corridor towards the source with is sword still drawn and at the ready.  The light grew brighter as he advanced until it opened into a wide chamber.  He looked across the cavernous room and his heart skipped a beat.  At the far wall behind a roaring fire stood Mira in a cage, flanked on one side by Balleck and on the other by the shrouded shadow.  Perinas paused only for a moment before advancing on them.
            “Throw down your sword!” Balleck shouted.  Perinas obliged, tossing the sword at his feet so that Balleck had to leap out of the way.
            “You fool,” Balleck hissed.  “One does not begin a parlay by such violent means.  I should have my guards take-”
            “Your guards are dead, Balleck,” Perinas said coldly.  “Release my wife or you soon will be as well.”  He stepped toward Balleck without breaking stride and the great Tarsna’s eyes flashed with panic. 
            “Quickly,” he shouted to the shadow.  “Release the gurgle,” Perinas drew a hunting knife and sheathed it in Balleck’s throat.  The Lord of the Half-people’s army fell dead at his feet.  Retrieving his sword, Perinas turned to face the shadow.  He took one step forward and it laughed menacingly.  The wicked malice that saturated its voice froze him in his tracks.
            “Very good, Perinas,” it hissed.  “Balleck was worth very little to me once he had finished bringing me the supplies I needed.  He thought I was building him a great weapon that he could use to finally conquer the race of humans, as though I would lower myself to help such a vile and pathetic form of life.”
            “You were not building a weapon?”
            “Oh, I was building a weapon, but not for him.  I was building a weapon that would rain terror down on both human and beast alike.  Too long have your kin soiled this land with your presence.”
            “My kin?” Perinas replied, his voice shaking.  “What are you?”
            “My people were left in this land long ago to protect it and its inhabitants, but your kind spat in our faces.  We, the rightful rulers of Iden, were forced to serve you lowly and despicable creatures.  No more!  The first of the great Karshink has been raised from the depths.  Good bye, Perinas.  The land shall soon be scrubbed of your human filth.”  Bending all his mind against the shadow’s icy grip, Perinas lunged forward and raised his sword.  Undaunted, the shadow lifted its arm and turned away. 
            At once, the cave began to shake violently.  Stones began to fall to the chamber floor.  Perinas looked up in horror.  Something up above him moved across the ceiling of the cave.  An enormous black mass was undulating through the darkness toward the cave wall.  With a great shriek, it tumbled from the ceiling toward the floor.  There was a flapping sound as the mass spread out and seemed to stand suspended in the air for a moment before continuing toward the ground where it landed with crash.  Perinas took a step back from the dark black mound that lay on the rubble.  It looked like a pile of refuse covered in a black sheet, but for the fact that it was moving.  The mound gave an ear splitting roar and stood upright revealing the horrible creature beneath.  The Karshink looked like an enormous bat with a dragon’s head.  It spread out its long arms to reveal a thick membrane that served as wings.  When it lifted its arms above its head, the membrane retracted back under its arms and it pounded its clawed hands into the stone floor.  Bearing its jagged teeth, it advanced upon Perinas. 
            The horrific vision stole Perinas’ courage for a moment and he backed away quickly.  The Karshink lunged at him and he leapt aside to avoid it.  It swiped at him with one long arm and batted him into the cave wall.  He let out a harsh cry and crumpled in a heap.  He felt as though moon itself had landed on his head.  Nothing could compare with the sheer strength of this creature.  Perinas’ grip on his sword hilt weakened as the darkness closed in around him.  He felt the world rumble.  And then he heard a voice.
            “Perinas!” Mira yelled at the top of her lungs.  It was no use, The Karshink was closing in on her injured husband.  She had no idea how Perinas long would be unconscious, but she had to do something to save him.  Looking around frantically, she saw her only hope lying just within reach.  A thick iron stoking rod lay half in and half out of the fire.  Readying herself for the pain, she reached out and grabbed the rod.  The metal was burning hot, but she focused all her thought on the task at hand.  Winding up, she hurled the iron bar toward the beast and struck in hard in the middle of the back.  As the Karshink wheeled around and faced her, Mira became acutely aware that she was still locked in a cage. 
            “Perinas!” she shouted.  “Wake up now, please!”  The creature inched nearer to her and she suddenly regretted not breaking the lock with it before attempting to get the creatures attention.  The Karshink reached the bars of the cage and gripped them firmly.  Mira backed to the far side, but there was little room to hide.  With one great heave, the Karshink tore the bars from the cage.  It slowly snaked its head in through the gap and opened its mouth to attack.  Just then, a might roar came from behind the creature as Perinas leapt through the air towards it with his sword held high.  He brought the blade down hard towards the creature, but his momentum carried him farther than he had expected.  With a loud crash, he landed on the creature’s neck, sending its head into the stones.  Mira stood looked on openmouthed.
            “You missed it!” Mira said shocked.  “It was standing nearly still!”
            “Pray, my Lady,” Perinas answered groggily.  “Ram your head into yonder wall, then attempt the same attack.”  Mira looked at him crossly, but quickly forgot the slight.
            “The monster seems stunned,” she replied.  “We must hurry.”  Perinas grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the cage.  They turned to run, but Perinas froze.  A razor sharp claw suddenly seemed to grow out of his side.  He toppled over and the creature reared up behind him.  With one monstrous step, it closed off the space between him and his wife.  There was no chance for him.
            “Go!” he shouted, but Mira stood still.  She looked at the man for whom she had once harbored such anger and she could not move.  Always the pragmatist, Mira knew Perinas was right to tell her to go.  If she stayed they would both die, but for some reason she remained.  Something dawned on her that she should have realized long ago.  Her anger at his wedding night rejection, his abandoning her without a word to rush into capture, and her willingness to risk death to bring him back; each time she had been deeply hurt when she should have been ambivalent.  As she looked at him now, she was forced to grudgingly admit the truth.
            “Perinas!” she shouted.  “I love you.”  Perinas’ eyes widened as he looked past the Karshink and into his wife’s eyes.  The feelings that had welled within him since her heroics at Bervorn burst forth.
            “I love you too!” he shouted back.  Despite the circumstances and the splitting pain in his side, he was happier than he had ever felt.  The years of tempering his emotions fell away and he struggled to his feet, making as if to run to her.
            “I feel like I’ve never felt be-” Perinas fell unconscious under the weight of the Karshink’s heavy hand.  Mira gasped in horror and ran toward him.  With a broad swipe, the beast sent her sailing backwards onto the dead body of Balleck.  Undaunted, she grabbed the hunting knife out of Balleck’s throat and scrambled to her feet.  Across the room, the Karshink was approaching Perinas’ limp body.  Stepping lightly, she hurried to a pillar of stone that rose out of the chamber floor.  She climbed to the top as quickly as she could and launched herself onto the creature’s back.  Raising the knife, she brought it down hard into the creatures left eye.  It squealed and bucked her off, toppling her onto the rocks beside Perinas.
            Mira did not hesitate for a moment.  She grabbed Perinas and hoisted him onto her shoulders.  Stepping quickly, she hurried towards the cave exit.  The Karshink heard the sound of her running and turned in pursuit.  The cave shook and the air vibrated with the sound of the monster thundering after them.  As Mira entered the tunnel, Perinas awoke with a jolt and fell out of his wife’s arms.  She stopped and pulled him to his feet and they ran together.  The tunnel began to collapse around them as the Karshink battered half blind against the walls.  The cave mouth came into view the creature nipping angrily at their heels.  As they burst into the open air, Perinas grabbed the knife from his wife’s hand.  He turned to face the creature as it came out into the light.  Its vision impaired for a split second, it looked up into the sky and exposed its neck.  Perinas sprung towards it and jammed the knife hard into the creature’s throat and it began to thrash around.
            Clasping hands, Perinas and Mira ran from the cave as the creature let out a harsh gurgle and died amidst the rocks.  They ran as far as the river and collapsed on the bank.  Perinas grabbed his wife and pulled her to him and they embraced passionately.  Their lips were about to meet when Perinas realized they were being watched.  Across the river, the Pelvian Plane was covered with the bodies of fallen soldiers.  Standing among the bodies at a temporary pause in the action, fighters from both sides were alerted by the sounds of the creature’s death.  They now stared wordlessly at the two humans lying across the river.  Perinas and Mira rose to their feet and Perinas shouted to the Half-people closest to the river.
            “Tell your kinsmen Balleck is dead and his new weapon is destroyed!  If you put up your swords now, both our armies can bury their dead and be done with this battle.”  Murmurs ran through the lines of the Half-people, spreading the message to every soldier on the field.  The battle that had raged was fierce and bloody and left both sides disheartened.  No clear advantage was won for either side until the death of the Half-people’s commander.  Over eight thousand combined humans and Half-people died on the Pelvian Plane over four days of battle.  The scene was so gruesome that few of either nation ever crossed into the wide fields again and many believe them to be haunted.
            Tensions between human and Half-person continued on, but never erupted in full scale war again until the fall of the Northern Kingdom a generation later.  That day on the Pelvian Plane, they buried their dead forever.  Few who had witnessed that battle could ever stomach the thought of war again.
            As for Perinas and Mira, their love was one of the few joys that blossomed from that day.  They returned to the Kingdom hand in hand and were greeted as heroes, but their only interest was each other.  They stole quickly back to their manor by the sea where they lived together happily for many years.  Over time, their love grew into a family.  Their oldest son, Penniface, was known throughout the Northern Kingdom for his bravery.  By all existing accounts, their life remained from that point on a model of happiness and unwavering love.
The End