The Owl’s Feather was your typical inn at first glance. Two floors and probably fifteen rooms between them. The soft glow of lamplight emanated from the windows on the main floor. It was one of many places in Grunier travelers frequented.
Over the decades, it had grown into a hub of sorts for trade between territories. It was why Viktor chose to seize power here. For ambitious man like him, it was the most logical choice.
Gunnar shivered from the cold. The light from the windows was ominous. The light snowfall that had begun a while ago adding to the effect.
Why does it feel like we’re expected?
The guards had their cudgels ready, both flanking him as all of them approached the door. Gunnar reached for the handle, cautiously turning it and stepping through into the foyer. When he looked up, he saw Illhiem sitting at one of the tables. There was a pitcher at two mugs at its center. The other tables had their chairs upturned and resting on them.
Reflexively, Gunnar stepped back. The guards with him rushed forward, cudgels held defensively. But when they stepped through the open doorway, like supple vipers, two goblins slipped behind them and hamstrung both men with their daggers. They fell forward, completely taken off balance, dropping their weapons.
The goblins quickly climbed on their backs, slitting their throats. It happened so quickly and silently. Gunnar realized that he had been holding his breath the entire time as the pair turned on him once the deed was done.
When he locked eyes with them, the message in their yellow orbs was clear. One wrong move meant death. One of them seemed especially eager.
“Check his pockets and take anything you find. Do not keep any of it,” Illhiem commanded. One of the goblins stepped forward while the other slinked closer, his small blade in clear view.
They took his coin purse first, shaking it before tossing it aside. They took both his daggers. One of the collected the weapons and took them to Illhiem.
He barely managed to remain composed when the other goblin found the vial in his belt pouch. The little creature paused to look at it, sniffed the vial, then turned to him. It narrowed its eyes suspiciously, a sneer etching its way onto the goblins face.
“Skixa crenza tok ru!” he sounded somewhere between angry and threatening.
Gunnar bit the inside of his lip, trying to hold his ground. The hard look the creature wore was unnerving. His expression spoke volumes of his desire to kill as if he knew what was in it.
“The twig values the vial, Illhiem.” a deep harsh voice said from off to his right. “Skixa wants to kill him for having it.”
Gunnar looked up, catching sight of someone sitting in the shadows on the stairs.
“No, Volkin, there’s been enough killing this night.”
A resigned sigh followed. “Then I’ll tell the orcs you want them to prepare for the worst and get the men ready.”
“Make sure Grazigs understands the need for caution,” the old Thran replied.
There was no response, but Gunnar felt like there was none needed between the two of them. It was strange, for all the boasting and all the talk over the years between Viktor and Savar about how easy it would be to overwhelm Illhiem, suddenly it appeared that the fight would not have been so.
“Sit, Gunnar,” he said. “Skixa, destroy that vial.”
The goblin flashed a gleeful smile, the rows of sharp teeth in his large mouth making him that much more frightening. He ran toward the hearth and tossed the vial in, satisfaction written all over his face.
“Leave us,” Illhiem commanded. Both goblins appeared hesitant, even more than reluctant. “Please,” he added.
With annoyed sneers they sheathed their weapons and opened the door behind Gunnar, stepping into the cold. One of them eyed the bag of shards laying just inside the foyer.
Gunnar cautiously crept forward and seated himself at the table. The expression the old Thran wore was grave, his eyes showing a hint of sorrow in them.
He’s reluctant. No, he’s prepared to do what he needs to if necessary.
“You aren’t what I expected,” he said, pouring both of them a drink. “We never met at the last gathering. I’m sure you were busy running Viktor’s errands.”
“It was a busy time them, as it is now.”
The old Thran nodded. “It’s a sad time,” he replied. “So much is happening and so much more has yet to.”
Gunnar stared at the ale in the mug. Cryptic as his words were, but their meaning was clear. He’s waging a war…
It all made sense. The meetings between the other Thran, the movement of the Rangers. Even Gren, they were using him to undermine the trust between Savar and his men. Even the druids, though they were fewer, Kala had come herself instead of another Elder.
“I see you understand my meaning,” he said.
Gunnar blinked, looking up at him. “You had one of your creatures watching Savar’s camp.”
Illhiem frowned. “The goblins,” he said adding emphasis to the word, “are not my creatures, as you put it. They are my allies. Think yourself fortunate I sent them out. I doubt I could stop them from killing you over such a remark.”
Gunnar looked toward the stairs where the one Illhiem had addressed as Volkin had sat. “So do you intend to kill me?”
The sad light reflecting in the old Thran’s eyes was surprising. It was as if the question had left him wounded.
“No, I don’t want to. I had hoped to understand you and if possible, reason with you.”
Gunnar pushed the mug away from him. “Reason is a hard thing to find when one’s life is obviously on the line.”
Illhiem nodded. “Such is the state of things,” he replied somberly. “You’re an intelligent man, Gunnar. You have more freedom under Viktor than most and serve at his right hand. Yet I cannot understand why.”
“Clever men often find ways to survive under a tyrant, especially when there is a vision for the future.”
“But what has that vision cost you?” he leaned forward, hands folded and eyebrows drawn together in concern.
“I have accepted who I have become, Illhiem. I have done many things, some I have worked to circumvent from being the worst possible outcome. Yet, blood stains my hands. I believe in what we are doing because nothing will change if it isn’t done.”
“Daegon spoke to me once about you many years ago,” he said. “He said you were a man of honor and integrity.”
Gunnar clenched his fist. It had been a long time since that name had reached his ears. “People change, good Thran. If serving under Thran Svlian taught me anything, it’s that a man only finds who he truly is when tested in the darkest of circumstances.”
“Daegen was a sniveling coward!” He stood, his chair falling away. The years spent keeping everything bottled up came bursting forth. Gunnar could feel his heart racing, almost painfully. His body shook, his anger overtaking him. “When times were good, before Viktor, he played the champion, the noble, benevolent leader. But when a real threat came… I saw who he truly was.”
The old Thran’s expression was blank. His eyes emotionless.
“You weren’t there when the fighting started or when Viktor’s raids began. In the beginning, he did what anyone would have expected, but when Viktor proved more clever, he ran.
His courage was a presumptuous farce. He was only confident when he was winning. The man had never been forced in a fight where his life was ever in danger, not until Viktor.”
Gunnar took a breath, the pain in his chest growing worse. He clenched his teeth, narrowing his eyes as he stared Illhiem down. “To this day, the people in this land believe Daegan fought to his last breath, but the truth is far more shameful. Rather than meet his fate, for better or worse, he sent one of his own soldiers, dressed in his armor, to fight in his stead! He knew Viktor would come for him on the field…”
Gunnar leaned on the table for support, tears blurring his vision. He clutched his chest, his breathing labored. “So many lives lost to his indecision. So many villages burned and pointless skirmishes. The people would have rallied if he had taken to the field as their leader. They would have…fought. We could have avoided all this. There was nothing honorable about Daegen Svlian.”
Illhiem bit the inside of his cheek. As Thran, he had seen many things, but never such a pitiful sight. It beyond heartbreaking. Gunnar was barely able to stand, his arms shaking as he wept while using the table for support.
You poor man…
“Yet you stayed until the bitter end…”
The older man's brown eyes hardened. “I stayed until I could no longer stomach the sight of him,” he replied. “Until I slit his throat myself. Then I opened the gates to let Viktor and the Blades in.”
Illhiem frowned. It was hard to suppress the rising anger. “You betrayed him…”
“Enough people had died. Daegen had betrayed our trust.” Gunnar replied. “Why let anyone else suffer at the hands of a butcher like Viktor. Grunier wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t acted. Lisstra and the children’s blood are on my hands, I’ve accepted that.”
Sacrificing a few to save many. It was hard to say if it had been the right decision. In battle, many questionable choices are often made.
“Gunnar, do you honestly believe Viktor’s path is the only one we have?”
The seneschal nodded. “Where there is no vision…” he began.
“There is no future and the people starve.” Gunnar looked up, his eyes bloodshot surprise written on his face. “It’s an old saying, not many know it. There is another way, Gunnar. In fact, it is the only option we have left.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“We all agree Sokoras needs to change, the other Thran and I. Some are more reluctant, but it is clear now that we can no longer remain as we are.”
As the words left his lips, Illhiem felt a small fount of reluctance seep into his heart. He thought of Volkin and the goblins. They had yet to be told everything. The orcs and their shamen would be easier to sway. His own people would have to adjust, but they would follow believing it was being done for their betterment.
“I can’t imagine what you witnessed so many years ago or the torturous weight that you have carried for so long, but I promise you that what we seek is the same. Daegen failed his people, but together we won’t fail this country.”
Gunnar reached for his chair, replaced it and sat down. He cast a sidelong glance at the hearth, then at his mug of ale. “Who will be High Thran?”
“Grenden is deciding that. He has excluded himself from leadership in these matters in the name of impartiality. Whomever he chooses, we are honor bound to accept it.”
He grew quiet, his expression seemingly reflective as if pondering a great many things. It was easy to see he was in conflict. After spending so many years devoted to a belief that there was only one way forward, it was no surprise that he would doubt what was being said.
“What will become of me after you learn all I have done to help Viktor? Of the people I have hurt and lengths I have gone to aid him?”
Illhiem shifted his eyes to the mug of ale on the table. “Had I not witnessed the pain you were in, it would have been hard to say.” He looked up, locking eyes with Gunnar. “But, that suffering is your penance and what we are creating, your redemption. You will spend the rest of your life working to make Sokoras what it should have been all along.”
His mind was still working. Like any Sokoran he was a survivor. But when the resignation written on the older man’s face was replaced with certainty, Illhiem saw his answer. From the moment he stepped into the foyer, Gunnar knew the word ‘no’ was a death sentence.
“Then tomorrow, we slay The Bear,” Gunnar said. “I don’t think I can stomach to see another Haejenyar.”