The day was bright and clear as Sokan walked through the edge of the forest. He enjoyed the shade that the trees provided against the heat of the rising sun. The paths were easy and clearly marked in this part of Estalia. With luck, he would make it to the next town well before nightfall. He considered swinging his mandolin around so that he could strum and compose as he journeyed but decided against it. The sword and lyre hanging from his left hip would have gotten hung up on the strap even if he didn’t have his satchel slung over his body so that it hung in counterpoint on his right side. His dark blue cape with silver embroidery proclaimed him to be a fully-trained bard — as if the instruments themselves were not announcement enough. His newly-gained status would easily get him at least a pallet by the fireside and a meal at any inn or tavern he stopped in at on his travels. If not, there were always his songs and tales and, in time, he would be trusted to carry missives and messages. Once he’d established his reputation, he’d even be invited to join caravans traveling to the other kingdoms.
Of course, he was getting ahead of himself. Sokan’s master, Jevenar, had warned him about that. “Focus on the here and now, lad. Otherwise you won’t live to see ‘then’ because I’ll use your guts for strings and your hair for a belt.” Resolving to keep his mind on the present, Sokan hummed a few bars of the Lay of Anaka to himself and thought about the news that had taken the last town he’d traveled through by storm. The neighboring kingdom, the Prime Kingdom of Patoga, had long been ripped apart by civil war. However, impossible as it seemed, the Search had been called and word sent out to the six secondary countries and the three hidden lands. Searchers or those who wished to become Searchers were invited to travel through the ravaged lands of Patoga to swear to the Searcher’s Pact on the steps of Ali’ama’s temple in Artra, the abandoned capital of the world where the Throneless ruled, for now. The thought of making that journey and then setting out on the Search itself gave Sokan a thrill. Even if he did not arrive in time to swear to the Pact, he could still accompany other Searchers and record their adventures in what would become a new round of legends in the Search for the Seven Scepters.
It had actually been the grand cycle of the Search that had started Sokan on his path to becoming a bard. His mother, winds guide her and shelter her from all life’s storms, had been a tavern worker. His elder brother was a woodsman and their father had died just before Sokan’s mother had discovered she carried him. Kassrylon had already been following his own path by the time Sokan was born even though their father, gods beyond all, had made his living as a cobbler, not a hunter. Sokan had spent most of his early days in the tavern with his mother and seemed destined to become an undercook or brewer until Jevenar appeared one autumn evening. Once the two had met, Jevenar took up residence in Laravi and began training his apprentice. When Sokan was old enough to begin making small journeys, the older bard had taken him to almost every town near Laravi. A few years later, Sokan was pronounced ready to present himself before the Dunire who granted him his cloak and welcomed him into their ranks, declaring him to be accomplished in the art of storytelling, singing, playing his chosen instruments, composition, and theatrics. Now all Sokan had to do was travel from town to town, sharing news and tales and searching out more stories and songs to add to his collection. He thought that anything involving the Search would be fine fodder for a future epic indeed.
Humming to himself, Sokan continued walking, daydreaming about fighting his way through the armies battling across Patoga, learning the truth of the Prime War before arriving a hero in Artra to join in the Pact. There would be celebrations all over the city and he would be paraded up to the Temple of Ali’ama. Behind him would walk the rightful Prime, the true heir of Ximaron. Sokan would watch as the Throneless knelt before their ruler and he pardoned them magnanimously. Sokan would go out on the Search, of course, but he would return to Artra whenever one of the leaders of the other nations — Inner and Outer — came to re-swear their oath of fidelity and fealty to the Prime of Garena. Those galas would be remembered for centuries. His name would go down in history. Sokan of Estalia, the bard who restored the balance of Garena.
Giving his satchel a hitch, Sokan continued his trek. If he pushed hard enough, he could probably make the border to Patoga in just under a week.
Sokan studied himself in the mirror as he wiped away the last of the shaving foam from his ear. The inns in Culodan were quite good. He’d avoided the ones that were along the main roadway running through the large town — those were already host to more experienced bards who had eyed his new cloak with amusement. They had been generous in offering to let him work alongside them. The lone woman among them had eyed him openly, making him blush as she suggested that there was much he could learn from a tour with her. Sokan had had more than his fair share of experience with women but the open blandishments — hidden behind flowery language and double entendres — had been something he was not accustomed to dealing with. The women he’d been with hadn’t been ashamed but they had been discreet and subtle in their attentions. He’d decided to avoid the more well-traveled paths in town, going off the beaten path. And, he was glad he had. The gossip he heard had made him change the route he was planning to take into Patoga. Instead of traveling alongside the main highway that ran through Culodan directly, he was going to find one of the small game trails that ran deep through the forest the two countries shared. Apparently, three armies were converging near the border between Estalia and Patoga and there was nary a sign of a parley pavilion in sight. Most rumors named the armies as being Ximaron’s “faithful soldiers” led by his son-in-law Thaxon, the mercenary army of Qoth led by the late Prime’s brother-in-law, and finally the Royal Corps led — supposedly — by one of Ximaron’s two surviving daughters. Sokan knew that the eldest of the pair would be of an age with him while the younger would be seven years his junior. He did not know their names. Ximaron had fathered fifteen children on his three wives. The girls were the youngest children by his first wife and would never have been expected to lead Patoga considering that there were thirteen other heirs ahead of them. The Reaper’s Supper had seen ten of those fifteen dead. The other three had been killed during the protracted civil war.
It was said, of course, that the Prime had countless scores of bastards. He was allowed only three wives but he had dozens of concubines who had given him many more children. None of them would be in line to inherit the Prime’s throne, of course. A bastard was never considered part of the line of inheritance — even if the father had acknowledged him and adopted him. Sokan wondered if those bastards had been behind the start of the Patogan civil war. It wouldn’t be the first time that such a thing had happened — albeit on a much larger scale than anything that had ever happened in the past. Of course, one of the dozen Throneless could be behind it. The only thing certain was that nothing was certain when it came to the cause of the Prime War.
Staring at himself, Sokan shook his head. He needed to keep his mind focused on making his way through to Artra without getting killed. Perhaps he could pass for a Patogan who was one of the Factionless. The Factionless were generally left alone by the three major armies. If he could pull that off, the worst he might face would be lengthy diatribes about why he should pledge to bear arms for one side or another. He had the piercing blue eyes that were common in both Estalia and Patoga and his coloring — pale, fair skin — would be common in the war-torn nation. His black hair was common there as well. Coupled with his blue eyes, he did look like one of them. The only oddity was his hair. Most Patogan men wore theirs cropped at the shoulders whereas Sokan’s hung down to his waist. It had been impossible to cut it after he’d entered into manhood and difficult to do before that. In Patoga, only the men of the Prime Family wore their hair long and most of them preferred to keep it just to the middle of their backs. Of course, the women of the Prime Family were different — their hair grew until it reached their ankles. It could also change color as they willed it, or so the stories said.
“Maybe half of each,” he muttered to himself. He could pull that off easily enough. His features did have a Patogan cast to them — a long, thin nose and a strong jawline with wide-spaced eyes, prominent cheekbones, and full lips. He was almost the diametric opposite of his brother Kassrylon. “That solves it,” he nodded to himself after a thorough study of his face. “Half of each and Factionless. That’s how I’ll get through to the Temple of Ali’ama to swear the Pact.”
“Factionless?” the Patogan soldier spat when he came across Sokan in the forest. “Are you a coward or a liar?”
Sokan sighed. It seemed that the rumors he’d heard were a bit outdated. There were still Factionless but they were very few in number and treated like spies based on how the soldier was treating him, ordering him to keep his hands over his head. “I am Factionless because I am a bard,” he explained, nodding towards his cloak. “I take no sides in a conflict until I have heard all of the stories and feel that one side stands for what is right.”
“So you’re a coward, then.”
“No. A bard.”
“There hasn’t been a bard through Patoga in seven years but there have been plenty of people sewing up blue cloaks and claiming to be bards instead of taking up arms for their Prime. You trained in using that weapon?” the soldier asked, glancing at Sokan’s sword.
“I can use it at need but I am a bard. I’m not from Patoga — I was raised in Estalia. My father’s family comes from Patoga. He settled in Laravi thirty years ago.”
“What part of Patoga is he from?”
“I don’t know. He died before I was born and my mother became…unstable. Her mind wanders. Sometimes she forgets he’s dead.”
“Spare me the sob story,” the soldier grunted. “You’re going to talk to the Lady.”
“Lady?” Sokan stammered, surprised.
“Yeah. The Lady. Better hope she’s in a good mood, Factionless. She hates seeing cowards who are trying to spit on her father’s heritage. Keep your hands up,” the soldier ordered. He walked over and pulled Sokan’s sword out of the scabbard. Then he removed the satchel, mandolin, and lyre. Sokan hissed in a breath but relaxed when the soldier set his belongings down on the ground gently. He checked Sokan further for weapons and, finding done, dug through the satchel and checked inside the mandolin. When he was satisfied that, aside from the sword and a small dagger in his boot, Sokan was unarmed, the soldier handed the rest of his items back to the bard, keeping only the weapons tucked into his own belt. “Follow me,” he said as he turned back the way he had come.
Their trek through the forest took a half hour but brought them to the camp of the Royal Guard. Sokan stifled a groan of frustration. The Royal Guard still held to some of the older traditions. They allowed relatively free travel but they also insisted on acting as a police force and dealt harshly with lawbreakers. Without the Prime to appoint Justices, the Royal Guard frequently acted as both Justice and Executioner to those they felt merited their ire. Sokan followed his captor into the camp and sat down inside one of the tents as instructed. He set his belongings down by the tent’s entrance and waited for the guard’s superior officer to come and question him. He did not believe that the Lady would be part of it at all even though, in theory, she should be. As the legitimate heir to the Prime’s Throne, she was the fount of all justice in Patoga and in Garena. Many of Sokan’s stories hinted at eras where the Primes heard every case in the land and gave true justice. Sometimes they were merciful, often they were compassionate, but always, they were just. The older legends said it was something they were born with — a strong sense of what was right and wrong, what was pardonable, and what punishments fit which offenses. Other nations had tried to copy the Patogan legal system but only the Prime Kingdom had been a place of true justice.
That, however, ended when the war began.
Sokan wasn’t certain how much of the stories he believed. The war had been raging for most of his conscious life. As a small child, Patoga and the Prime had been near-mythic figures. By the time he’d become more aware of the world outside of Laravi, the Prime had been dead and the war in full force. He hummed a few bars to himself, trying to sketch out a rhyme scheme that would work. Someone would need to tell the story of the Prime war, after all. It might as well be a bard. However, Sokan did not have long with his thoughts before a trio of guards entered the tent. Two took up position flanking the chair across from him while the third walked across the tent and parted a secret flap, admitting a rather short person who was covered from head to toe with a hooded cloak. The short figure sat down in the chair across from Sokan. “You are from Estalia? From this Laravi? And a bard?” the figure asked. The voice, though soft, carried the higher-pitched and purer tones of a child than an adult. Cloaked as the child was, Sokan could not guess as to whether it was a boy or a girl — if a child it was and not merely a dwarf.
“I am,” Sokan said carefully, wondering if he was being made the butt of a joke.
“And if I were to query the Dunire, what name would they have graven on their rolls for you?”
“Sokan. Sokan Llhersian.”
“Llhersian,” the child muttered. “That name is known to us, is it not?” The question was directed to the guards standing near the chair.
“The incident near Selbai.”
“Ah, yes. Unpleasant business, that. Tell me, Sokan, have you any brothers or sisters?”
“An older brother,” Sokan nodded. “He is a ranger and a hunter.”
“Have you any of his skills in woodlore?”
“Would you be willing to search him out on our behalf?”
“I would but I doubt he would respond favorably to any summons. Kassrylon prefers his freedom,” Sokan replied, puzzled. His dark eyebrows were crowded together beneath his creased forehead as he tried to work the enigma of the person before him and their questions out. “Why would you need the skills of a ranger from Estalia?”
“I would hire you to find him for us and then to hire him to perform a small service for me,” the child said, reaching up with small, delicate hands and pulling back the cowl drawn over her face. Sokan’s eyes widened in shock. Sitting across from him was Ximaron’s youngest daughter, Bassina. Her deep sapphire eyes met his calmly and with a gravity that seemed both unnatural and yet oddly fitting for a child of her age. Her shoulder-length hair fell loose around her face, its colors changing quickly and frequently, letting Sokan know that the princess was far more worried and conflicted than her face or voice revealed.
“And what task might this be, princess?” Sokan asked, his voice hoarse and his mouth dry with fear.
“I would hire him to track down and return my sister to us,” the girl said softly. “I miss her stories,” she added with a wistfulness that only a child could feel.
Sokan stared at the princess for a long moment before he did the only sensible thing he could do under the circumstances. He fainted dead away.