A stranger carefully made their way thru the crowded Great Hall toward OFG. The stranger walked with such grace and with such intention that it caused the gathered warriors and courtiers to make way as the cloaked figure approached. OFG, seated at the center of her dais, was surrounded by her closest counsel and personal guard. Colonel Ti and Lucky just beside her, each with their men at arms. Commander Zander and Princess Kai were just in front of her, seated at her left and right. OFG had a hand on Zander's right and Kai's left shoulder. The room feel silent as the figure slowed and stopped before OFG.
Gracefully the figure bowed low and recited the formal greetings, “My thanks for your welcome, most noble liege. I bring good tidings and best wishes from my Master and Mistress of the North. We pray good fortune for you and peace in your realm.”
OFG stood, smiling. “You are most welcome here. My thanks to our good brother, Bourbon of the Red, for sending you, our dear young sister, Clara Malleus Racoonorum!”
Around the room eyebrows raised and a low murmur was heard as the young visitor rose. She pulled back her cloak. The falling cloak revealed that Clara was the loveliest of creatures. She was raven of hair and dark of eye. Her sharply defined face enhanced her large, wide eyes as she modestly looked down and away, bowing her thanks.
Kai smirked and opened her mouth to make just a little bit of fun at this Clara. But her mother's hand on her shoulder turned heavier and so Kai held her tongue. Everyone knew that Princess Kai disliked Clara if only because she held her brother's attention. Kai noticed the slightest rise in her mother's eyebrow and any thought to hold this lovely young visitor to ridicule was gone. She had been warned to show nothing but kindness to Clara. Kai huffed under her breath. Perhaps Clara wouldn't be so bad. Kai glanced at her brother and then determined to be friends with Clara, if only for his sake.
The young Commander Zander was staring straight ahead and had not even blinked. Ridged and tall he gave no indication of interest nor acknowledgment of Clara whatsoever. The perfect warrior, he was stone faced and unmoved.
Formalities over the court returned to its own conversations. “Come, Clara, tell us of your travels and the news of the North.” OFG motioned to spot nearby. “Have you taken your vows? I see you are attired for the hunt and not in your habit.”
Clara gingerly approached. She moved like liquid, with the low slung ,graceful stride of the Shep Herds but with the the feline grace and agility of the Silent Hunters. She sat nearby, her head slightly bowed – the very picture of humility and modesty. She was perfect.
“Yes, Sir. I formerly entered the convent this past season. But my Master thought that perhaps, with the Gathering of Warriors, you may need my assistance with translation. It is my area of study, you see. So I was granted leave by my Order's Superior. I am at your command.”
Everything about Clara was lovely and noble. She was being modest. OFG knew that she had some skill on the hunt and had already made her first kill. Clara's eyes scanned the room for possible danger. She had the sense of a fighter, thought OFG watching her closely. Holy Order or not, Clara may yet have a warrior's heart.
Zander had still not moved nor acknowledged her presence. He had taken the news of Clara's vows roughly but it was never spoke of – except by the courtiers who were notorious gossips. For a while Kai had teased Zander but when she saw the wounded look in his eye she stopped. He had once been in love with the fair Clara. But her Master had other plans for her and Clara was sent to the convent. There would be no marriage to Commander Zander. It was a wound still fresh.
“Clara!” Kai's voice sang out. “Clara, here.” The Princess stepped forward and removed the tiara from her own head. It was not particularity ornate, but it was beautiful diadem with some jewels. Kai's collection of tiaras was impressive.
“For you.” Kai placed the tiara on Clara's head and nodded. “You look like a princess now. Just like me and I shall call you Sister.” Kai was smiling and it seemed that she had made peace with this visitor, much to everyone's relief. “You have to meet Cowboy," Kai told her, "He's the most amazing person ever.” And with that Kai escorted Clara off into the crowd.
OFG could hear Kai's laughing voice calling for Cowboy over the din of the room. At least that went well. She had spoken harshly to Kai and told her to extend every kindness to Clara. It would seem that the stubborn Princess had listened.
Zander had still not moved but he was scanning the crowd, always watchful. The Gathering of Warriors happened every winter when the wind turned cold and the snow began to fall. It was the time just before the battle season. They came from all corners of the Land. Warriors of every kind poured into the Great Hall eager for battle.
Cowboy and his companion had arrived several nights before. Kai had taken to Cowboy immediately and they became fast friends. He had laughing eyes and an affable manner and the keenest hearing of anyone Kai had ever encountered. And he used this gift to entertain Kai. They would sit near the door of the Great Hall as Cowboy listened to the conversations of whomever was approaching. Then after the person entered the door Cowboy would repeat to Kai exactly what was said in the hallway. Some of it was most unkind. Some just casual conversation. And some quiet scandalous.
Kai laughed and delighted in this game for hours. Especially since Cowboy would do a perfect imitation of their unsuspecting victims. He especially loved to do an impression of the enormous courtier, Sir Nicholas Von Fuzzalot. Mostly Sir Nicholas complained about the food. But that didn't stop him from stuffing himself with whatever he could find to eat.They had a lot of fun at his expense.
Cowboy arrived with his enormous red companion, Otto, along with a contingent of his men. They were an odd pair. Cowboy was small and lithe but quick and stout hearted. Otto was perhaps one of the largest warriors Kai had seen. He had an enormous head and was broad across the shoulders. He reminded Kai of one of the ancient seafaring warriors from the Frozen Lands of long ago. But Otto was of the LionSlayers from the Westlands. They had traveled many days for the Gathering.
There were some tense moments when Otto and Cowboy were first announced. Something about the way the mighty red warrior carried himself did not sit right with Col Ti. Upon meeting they eyed each other warily. The tension rose in the room as the two warriors faced each other unblinking. Suddenly, Otto threw his head back and laughed with his huge booming voice. He clapped Col Ti on the shoulder, “Come now! We drink now, ya? We are too old for this. Come, friends? Ya?”
Col Ti smiled wryly and the two of them, these two battle scarred old warriors, walked off together talking of younger days and fierce battles and how these young pups didn't know what life was really about. They drank blood wine and talked far into the night. Lucky joined them but was well under the table by the time Otto stood up deep in the morning. Otto sang a great song of a fallen warrior of his realm, Deirdre of the Veld. Those who were still awake listened intently. Since that night Col Ti and Otto shared every meal and attended duties together. They were well matched.
Commander Zander was with this guard watching the merriment of the evening. He spoke cheerfully and drank heartily with his men. But try as he might Zander could not shake the sense of brooding that darkened his heart. Something just beyond what he could hear or see had stalked him causing him to be restless.
The young captain never took his his eyes off Clara as she and Kai and Cowboy laughed and talked on the other side of the Great Hall. He could tell that Cowboy was amusing them with his keen hearing and imitations.
Zander looked around the room. Many great warriors had come for the Gathering. Some old, such as the grizzled old fighter, Marv of New Hark. He was perhaps the oldest warrior and knew the battle songs from long ago. Some of the younger fighters had gathered to hear his deep, rich voice tell the tales.
The music filling the Great Hall changed and the crowds began to move away from the center of the room and to press back against the walls. An exotic tune played as the court dancers swept into the room and began gliding across the floor. The lead dancer took her position in the front. She was flanked by the Lady Pepper and Mistress Peep. A dramatic pause in the music and then.... the tinkling of small cymbals.
The principal dancer was tall and slender with hypnotic eyes and the grace of a cat. Her long dark hair had small bells woven in beautiful patterns that sang as she whirled and stretched to the music. Their dance told a story of love found - and lost - with both subtle and vivid imaginary. The dancers told a tale that was felt most heavily by some, and there were more than a few stolen glances at Commander Zander. The crowd was spell bound by the time their performance ended and the Dancer Tempi took her bow. The Gathering rewarded her well with much praise as she was the finest dancer in the Lands.
Across the room, Kai motioned with her head and she narrowed her eyes in disdain. “He's just disgusting! Look at how huge he is! I don't know why Mother keeps him around.”
Cowboy laughed as he looked at Sir Nicholas. “Would you like to know what he's saying, Clara?”
“Oh no, I couldn't... it would be rude... and...”
Just then the trio watched as Sir Nicholas suddenly pricked his ears and turned his great head at some undetectable movement along the outer wall. Like grey lightening he hurled his huge girth and in a single blow struck down the hapless mouse foolish enough to enter the Great Hall.
Clara and Kai shrieked with laughter and shook their heads in disbelief. “And that's why your Mother tolerates him, Princess Kai!” Cowboy threw his head back laughing, all of them enjoying Sir Nicholas' antics together.
Suddenly Cowboy's eyes darted into the distance. Concentrating hard, he cocked his head and attuned his ears.
Kai was still laughing and turning to him she asked, “What Cowboy? More lover's gossip from the hallway?” But her face froze when she saw the look in his eye – and then suddenly serious, “What is it?”
Quickly he asked, “Do you have warriors afield?”
But by then Kai had heard it too. When it came a third time the Great Hall fell silent as others turned to listen. Kai was on her feet straining to hear.
Then again, long and low, they all heard the desperate cry in the great distance.
Kai caught her breath. “That's.... the battle horn...that's...that's my father's battle horn! My father!”
And she was gone.
Immediately Zander and he men were charging after her. The Great Hall exploded with activity. Warriors lept up, seeking their weapons and rushing out of the Great Hall. All around her Clara saw chaos which seemed oddly organized. Fighters and their pages pushed past her and she was in the center of a flurry of movement and noise. Col Ti was cursing the laggards from their cups and Lucky was arming his men. OFG was bellowing for her mount as her pulled her battle axe from the hands of her waiting Master of Arms.
Otto's rose from the table and then his huge voice carried across the noise, “LionSlayers! To war!” And at once his men were formed up and racing out of the Great Hall, the enormous red warrior leading the way. Cowboy ran after them and he disappeared from Clara's view.
A swirl of activity surrounded her, Clara suddenly alone, found someone was shoving an unfamiliar sword and mail into her hands...and then they were gone also. This can't be happening, she thought. Her life at the convent was of quiet meditation and not battle rage and warring. She had seen death but this, she was not prepared for this.
She desperately reached out and caught the closest one to her, “But what of me? What should I do?”
Little Mo, his arms full of battle gear, looked at her quizzically. “Fight, Clara. We all fight. Or we die.” And then he was gone hurrying to catch up with OFG, who's greaves he was carrying.
This was war, she thought. I'm going to war. Fear was building in her heart and then...
An enormous paw on her shoulder and she turned toward the low voice that was saying, “Come with me, my lady, I'll keep you safe.”
It was Commander Zander.
Editor's note: New readers may begin this part of the story here and then here for the second part. And also the third part. And then here for the fourth part. The backstory begins here, then Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.