Both men seemed nervous, their expressions showing the myriad of decisions they were already making. Jormund radiated purpose, his eyes showing how he was dead set on not leaving the private room of the inn without an answer. Henrik was more studious and observant. He had been letting Jormund to all the talking.
“So what say you, Grenden?” Jormund asked. “Will you join us?”
“No, because you have overlooked something important.”
Jormund looked astonished. It was as if he had assumed his tale was enough.
Henrik reached over touching the younger Thran’s shoulder. Jormund breathed deep, though he was clearly angry. The older Thran then leaned into the table resting his elbows on the edge and folding his hands.
“You want to know what happens afterward,” he said.
“Astute as ever, Henrik. All of you are making a mad dash to stop Viktor from achieving what he has wanted for years. Yet, you have yet to think through what comes after.”
Henrik nodded. Jormund appeared reluctant but was also in agreement. “You make a fair point, Grenden.”
“No, I haven’t. We haven’t begun discussing everything as of yet.”
“Then tell us what you see,” Jormund replied.
Grenden reached for his mug of ale. There was an odd spice about it. It was quite good and made you feel warm on the inside.
I’ll need to ask the tavern owner what he ferments this with. Setting the mug down, Grenden eyed them both.
“Who will lead in Viktor’s stead? Will the people accept it? He’s a monster for certain, but can they trust their new ruler to not be like him or worse?”
It seemed as if Henrik had thought about it more than Jormund, judging by his expression. Though the younger Thran was considering it more carefully than before.
“None of should have any part of that,” Jormund said. “It should be someone they know and trust.”
“Normally, I would agree, but we may not have that option. We are bringing war here. Lives will be lost here.” Grenden bit his tongue. I may have said too much.
“They are going to expect one of us to lay claim to the territory as has been the way of things for generations,” Henrik chimed in.
“They will. So, as I have said, you need to put some thought into this. War affects my people as much as it does both of yours. I have a large army, thanks to Savar’s single-minded focus against Illhiem.”
Both men looked surprised, neither seeming sure if it was a threat or a statement. Let’s see where my words take you.
Henrik sat back, his brow furrowed, and eyebrows drawn together in thought. He shifted eyes toward Jormund as if deferring to him.
Grenden fought back a grin. You’re grooming him to be a leader.
It was no secret the two of them had arrived in Grunier together. They even shared the same camp. After everything Jormund had already explained, it made sense.
“You mean to say you are very capable of defending yourself, should it come to that,” Jormund spoke up breaking the silence. “Whoever you side with would have an advantage. It also means you have been keeping knowledge of how many men you can field discreet.”
“Smart man, it seems you have chosen a wise successor, Henrik.”
The surprise on the old Thran’s face was amusing.
“Is it that obvious?” he asked.
“Not completely, but watching you gauge Jormund gave it away.”
The dour look on Jormund’s face told the tale. “I’ve noticed he’s been doing that a lot.”
“I won’t be here forever Henrikson,” Henrik commented.
I see. This is more than a simple alliance. Grenden leaned back, thumbing his greying beard between his fingers. “Are you giving him everything, Henrik? That changes the landscape dramatically.”
The old Thran let a wolfish smile slip. “It does, doesn’t it. None can compete with my riders.”
“The whole country is going to change Grenden,” Jormund said. “One way or another. You’ve heard everything we have to say, something dark is coming.”
Change is indeed coming, I agree. Frustration was written on the Thran’s face. “You misunderstand, Jormund, I’ve already made up my mind. You simply need to understand what it is we have to accomplish.”
“Then enlighten me,” he replied.
“First things first. This vision and the woman, I wish to speak with her. I feel as if there is something we are missing. If she is so important to keeping this darkness at bay, as I interpret the vision, then I wish to know more.”
Henrik stood and patted Jormund on the shoulder. “I’ll send for her,” he said walking toward the doorway.
“Good, because we have little time to prepare.” The confusion on both men's faces was priceless. “I said my mind was up, the task of where to go from here is what will be challenging.”
“I think I’m grateful we’ve never spoken much, Grenden,” Henrik grumbled. “I might have split your head open.”
“Probably, even so, whatever the conversation we were having, I’d still be right.”
Henrik’s scowl deepened. “I’ll go get Eadra.”
Grenden wasn’t what she expected. He wasn’t stout or well build in frame like the other Thran. In fact, he was average in both appearance and demeanor. His salting dark hair and beard were both cut short and clean.
It was his eyes that set him apart though. They shone with intelligence. Even as she took her seat Eadra saw he was already assessing her. It wasn’t the way others had in the past. Rather it felt more like being put on a scale and weighed.
Grenden shifted his attention to Mrina, his blank expression cracking enough to show distrust. Specifically, a distrust for Shaylin. Something was off, Eadra could feel it.
“So you are the Lady of the hour,” he said, his gaze was still affixed to Mrina. Grenden then shifted his attention to Eadra. “Why am I not surprised it would be an elf.”
Eadra held her hand up behind her. The slur had pricked at Mrina. She could sense it through their bond. Henrik and Jormund seemed equally irritated.
Eadra frowned. “What were you expecting?”
“Not you,” he replied. “Things are always complicated when elves involved. There is a certain arrogance when dealing with a slanted eye, that I find distasteful.”
Mrina took a step forward. From her peripheral Eadra saw her sister’s hands were on her ironwood blades. She turned to her right and shook her head. Mrina glared at him, her eyes belying her fury and stepped back, taking her hands off the hilts of her swords.
“She’s young,” he commented. There something in his tone, it almost sounded like disappointment. “But you. You aren’t, at least you don’t appear so. Your eyes give nothing away and your face remains stoic and calm. Or perhaps, you simply have a better grasp of restraint.”
What a clever man. The feeling of being weighed returned in force. Jormund’s body language changed, he appeared less tense. He understands as well.
Henrik remained a silent observer, though it felt as if he were waiting for something. Eadra glanced back at Grenden. “Using anger to see past what another hides. That’s very clever.”
“People are easier to read when they are angry,” he replied. “They often let things show they intended to keep hidden.”
“So, do you feel I’m hiding things?”
He smirked. “Several, Henrik may have told you I reached a decision, but nothing is final. It hinges on what you have to say.”
For a man who many may have dismissed as a quiet ruler, Grenden was dangerous. He was smart, much smarter than Henrik or Jormund had possibly realized. He had taken stock of what he knew and read everything perfectly.
Playing Kings with others, manipulating them to move the way you wanted. It had been a long time, but the feeling of the board was still familiar enough. Eadra knew she was late to the game and Grenden had already masterfully maneuvered into position.
“It makes sense how you have managed to keep people from looking at your borders for so long, Grenden. You play Kings well.”
He tilted his head in a sort of respectful acknowledgment of the compliment. “I have the lives of so many to consider. While I’m not the skilled fighter like Jormund or Henrik, my greatest strength is my mind.”
Eadra took a breath. There was no point keeping it from them. She felt Mrina touch her shoulder. Now or never.
She was more hesitant now, almost wary. There were traces of it in her body language. Grenden leaned forward, propping his chin up on this hands.
“Sokoras needs more than to all of us standing together,” she said. “It needs a king.”
Henrik crossed his arms, concern in his eyes. Jormund seemed to share his sentiment. It appeared she hadn’t shared everything with either of them.
Curious, but wise.
“We call Sokoras a cursed land because of how hard it is to survive here. It has made us a harsh, resilient people. However, our home is cursed. It has been so long before humans came to this land.”
“What is the source of this curse? Who placed it?” Henrik and Jormund didn’t appear surprised at the mention of a curse.
She must have at least said as much. Though, Illhiem’s vision probably leaves little to the imagination.
“Millennia ago, there was a great war. The Shaylin call it The Invasion. Their evil cousins the Dakren attacked and began spreading across Elanthar like a plague. In Sokoras, they struggled to deal with the cold.
Though the campaign against the Aethar was devastating, thanks to their war troll slaves, the Dakren cursed the land and the Aethar. The winters became harsher and longer. The dead began to rise and even with their skills, it was harder to grow food.”
“How did you learn all of this?”
“To prevent the curse from fully taking effect, twelve seals were made,” she replied. “As I said, the Aethar were highly skilled in magic, more than even the Shaylin. Since the curse fell on the king, who was slowly dying, his honor guard, the Vakari who survived the last major battle, stepped forward.
The survivors became living seals and those who had passed were summoned to fill the gap. Though it was a gross violation of the Prime Laws of Necromancy, they bound themselves to their king and were entombed with him.”
She paused and Grenden shifted his eyes to the table. She still hasn’t answered my question.
“If this seal was broken will the king reawaken?”
She nodded. “He will, my understanding of these things comes from the mantle I have taken upon myself. I have taken the place of one of the Vakari so her spirit can find peace with the Keeper. She imparted all her knowledge to me before her passing.”
“So you need eleven more…”
She shook her head. “Ten. We need ten more and soon, He is stirring.”
Grenden glanced at the young elf behind her. “Does each new addition, strengthen the seal?”
“It does, but until all twelve Vakari stand together with loyalty pledged to a new king, then it will be for nothing,” she said. “We will die and resurrect as undead in the Aetharian king’s service.”
Grenden tightened his upper lip in frustration. The nations harsh history was beginning to make more sense. The Hungerings Ones especially. They must be a subconscious response of the Aetharian king raging in his prison.
“I will help on all counts, only on one condition.”
“Which is?” Jormund chimed in.
“I choose who becomes king.”
Each of their expressions was a mix of shock and disbelief. Henrik especially. The old Thran’s face began turning several shades of red. Jormund wasn’t far behind. Grenden resisted the urge to smile.
Even if they aren’t blood, those two are a lot alike.
“I suppose you’ll name yourself such a title?!” Henrik roared. “Maybe we should call you High Thran.”
“No, he won’t,” Eadra cut in. “Out of all of you, he’s the most impartial. Grenden has everything he wants. Being King would be an unnecessary annoyance.”
Grenden smiled. She sees right through me. Well done girl.
“Let me ask in a different way,” she continued. “Would it be either of you?”
Henrik seemed to grow calmer as he thought about it. It was obvious he had no interest in such a title or responsibility. If he did, the old Thran never would have given up everything to Jormund.
Jormund would only do it reluctantly. It was the type of man he was. His heart is in the right place. He had enough on his plate proving his worth to Henrik’s people.
Eadra relaxed when both men shook their heads. “So, you can agree that he isn’t doing this for his own gain?”
Grenden fought to keep from smiling wider. Both men looked at the other, but it was Jormund who spoke. “I think we can agree on that.”
Grenden eyed them all for a moment. “Then, we had best get to work. I’m loathed to admit it, but I wish we had Illhiem’s ballista. Those dragons will be a problem.”
Eadra smirked. “No, they won’t. We have a dragon of our own.”
Thankfully the surprise on both Henrik’s and Jormund’s faces drew enough attention for him to hide his own. Grenden smiled. I’m liking you more and more, Eadra.