The Falcon's Trail

Chapter 3

Gwene Durst: II

by: Sycamore
Gwene Durst lived in the country of Chesque, westernmost of the five countries in the territories pertaining to Balor, the superpower of the region.

Chesque was seldom a peaceful country for long. According to the histories of Chesque written by the Cataloger's Order of the city, Balor was recorded as having attempted to conquer the independent countries many times throughout the ages, sometimes succeeding for centuries at a time, before a hero emerged, united the cities for a common cause, and reclaimed their seperate independences.

However, heros grew scarcer, as old habits prevailed on them. Youth along with intellectuals had long given up hope of ever ridding themselves of the wolf at their doors due to the stubborn old ways of division and mistrust. They weakened themselves with their grudges, exhausted their energy by trying to outdo one another, and worst of all, they raised their children to take their places building the bridges of division. It was only too easy for a superpower of Balor's size, much furthered along technologically and economically, to swoop in and expand their territory whenever an opportunity presented itself. Much of Harthrough had already been conquered, with treaties and peace arrangements barring the doors to ever recover much of what they had lost, and Chesque was slowly losing territory as well.

Despite the common evil the city-states faced, they were hardly on friendly terms among themselves. They had evolved to either regard one another with cold courtesy at best, or open war at their worst.

If one were to devote a certain amount of time (several days, really) to reading through the histories penned by the Cataloger's Order, one might discover just exactly how the state of affairs and interrelationships between the cities and Balor came to be, but as few in the day were book-learned, and those few didn't care to devote more time than necessary to histories, all they had to judge by were the memory of tales told by those generations above, war veterans from the War of Passer's Walk with Varth, and the Fifth War with Harthrough.

If not, the current news, usually proclaimed by the heralds from city squares, dutifully dictating their politicians' power-hungry speeches laced with propaganda.

Citizens of Chesque turned up their noses at Harthroughers, who in their view, were always far less advanced than they. What always rankled the Chesquians however, were the election and ruling methods Harthrough used. They elected nobility through rank and service to their city, instead of the time-cherished notion of bloodlines. To Chesquians reasoning, a man could be a beggar from the streets one day, a military officer the next, and hold a high position in the city on the next! His grandfather could have been a criminal from Harthrough's infamous Catspaw crime organization for all it mattered! No one would bother to check his history. Because of this Chesquians had always had a prejudice towards Harthrough, suspecting the officers in command. In private whispers, Harthrough were nothing more than a common lot of thieves and criminals.

Harthrough, on the other hand, a city always under military rule, viewed the citizens of Chesque as pretentious and corrupt, without honor. Chesque to them were archaic in their notion of choosing city rulers, not for their worthiness and proof of good character, but because they had perhaps a 100th portion of a noble hero's blood in them, which somehow justified them claiming status that was not rightfully theirs. Their rulers were all spoiled and vain title-claimers.

Chesque and Harthrough both thought of Varthians as primitive country bumpkins, Varth having less book-learners and nobles than Chesque, a smaller and less disciplined army than Harthrough and the smallest Cataloger's Order of the three. Furthermore, Varth had the friendliest relationship with Balor, and traded most of their livestock and produce with them, providing little enough for the other city-states, especially when the relationship with Varth grew stale due to discrimination from the more urban cities of Chesque and Harthrough. Varth was not without its own brand of pride, and claimed high prices for crops and produce that only they could provide to Chesque and Harthrough, while giving Balor good deals in comparison. In addition to being country bumpkins, they were also greedy swindlers in the eyes of the northern cities.

While the two other city-states Vearne and Rublin had their own conflicts, both were far south, seaport towns facing the Purple Sea, and had mostly civil relations when trading with the northern three.

Gwene's memories could by no means extend so far back to the origin of the prejudice, however she grew to puzzle on the state of her world, as many of her generation did. In the days when she was a nobledaughter, and had the rare privilege to travel to the other city-states to attend some intercity feast day or a nobleman's celebration, not merely once were her family accosted by some drunken commoner or soldier who, emboldened by their drink, gathered around the caravans to point fingers and hurl slanders, or worse, approach directly and attempt physical assault.

Once, in Harthrough, when Gwene had been eight, the General's son was celebrating his eighth birthday and the nobles of all the city-states had been invited to partake in the celebration. Her father had gone out to meet up with his trading partners, when two beggars had approached him not ten paces from the caravan. Gwene and her older brother Carmichael had peeked out the curtains at the right side, only to feel their mother's powerful arms dragging them back in. Carmichael promptly swung out the back, ignoring his mother's threats of " sweets at all for you this feast!"

Gwene crossed her arms huffily, unable to see their father in front, but being able to hear a thick slurred voice say in stumbling accents,

"...up-nosed Chesquian vermin! Ran me out of business, he did! Refused to trade with us unless tax prices lowered! Twas' all his doing! Him and his noble pretender bastards!"

"Aye," agreed a scratchy voice, stumbling upon his words, "How's a man to make a living off lowering taxes, I ask ye? Bothered none that we was feeding a family. Wasn't unfair our prices, maybe a mite high, but a man has to earn a living dun't he? Only Chesquians with their upped noses invade our fair city, and demand fairer bargain. Fair, pah!" and then a cough and the sound of a violent retch broke off his rant.

"You've said it yourself, sirs." Her father's tones rang cool and crisp next to the sound of the drunken slurs she'd been hearing. "Dishonesty is never a means to make a business, and if you are incompetent in doing your trading fairly, I think you benefit the business better by being in your current condition. Where's this honor in business you Harthroughers boast of? I know the honorable Commander General approved of the goods lists; were you merely victims of his... honorable miscalculation?"

"Pretentious bastard!", the first man growled between clenched teeth, before Gwene heard a furious scuffle and a terrible sounding swack! before a rough third voice demanded order and called for backup before the drunken voices were dragged off, shouting,

"We aren't done with ye, ye son of a c**! He insulted honorable Commander General Regus! Let go of m'arms ye bastards!"

"Watch yourself next time you pass through, milord a
*! T'won't be so easy on you!"

Gwene's eyes had remained the size of melons up until the voices disappeared into the noise of the throng. When she was sure they had disappeared, she scrambled to the side and peeked out the curtains, "Carmichael, did they hurt him?" she asked in a half-whisper at her brother, who had climbed to the top to get a better look.

"I couldn't see. I think he hit- father's coming!" he jumped down and shoved her back into the caravan with his foot, swinging back in beside her. She swatted his arm as he landed.

"Don't kick me," she whispered at him fiercely, before her father re-entered their caravan, his red hair tousled about his face, and his black silk tie stretched to hang limply over his waistcoat. His green eyes blazed fire, and he stared at each member of his family with those eyes for a second before his wife approached him, placing her hands on his coat lapels.

"Rewon, we heard it all. Were you hurt?"

He shook his head, reaching up to cover her hands with his,

"No, Syria. Nothing worse than I've dealt with before. Their lot is the best this vile city has to offer. Do you know who they made the First Lieutenant? The third in command from none other than the Catspaw! The lad...!"

"Hush Rewon, not in front of our children!" Syria chided

"Carmichael, take your sister to the square to meet the General's son and give him our gift. They are serving the sweets and soft wines, and puddings, I know you children won't want to miss them."

"No, no sweets." Syria interjected "Carmichael missed his privilege to eat them. Go meet the General's son, and then come straight to the bridle stall here in front" she pointed "I'll be watching, and I'll know if you've eaten anything. Don't you dare, or you know what to expect at home." This addressed at her son with a furrowed brow.

Carmichael and Gwene frowned at each of their parents in turn, seeing through their ploy to rid themselves of their children's ears. Gwene turned to her little sister, sleeping soundly in a corner on a large cushion.

"I wanna go with Stasa! I don't want to go now! Please let's wait for her to wake up." she protested

"Now," her parents said firmly in unison.

"Come on," Carmichael grumbled, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her out.

Gwene shook him off angrily once they were outside. "Don't grab me! That hurt!" Rubbing the arm where his grasp had been too tight.

"Shh!" He responded tersely, motioning for her to be quiet, and creeping up to the front of the caravan where there were no curtains.

Gwene bit her lip, and followed cautiously, careful not to step on a twig or leaf. She leaned close to the caravan's wooden frame and heard her father's agitated accents,

"...renounces his oaths to the Catspaw, saves the General's cousin from a sinking ship, and like that" snapping his fingers, "promoted to First! Why, I could join the army with such a system! It would be a simple matter to hire a thug to give some officer's relative a good fright, swoop in and save them heroically, and find myself General on the morrow! Let me tell you Syria, with this city's election system it's a cinch! If I could think of such a simple scheme, how many criminals would have jumped to the idea first? Who knows, but by now the General Commander might be the Catspaw's Diamond Fox himself!"

"Rewon..." Syria began,

"Syria, all I have to say is, I thank my stars I'm not born in such a vile city, governed by their army with not one drop of royal blood in their veins, living in the same vicinity with infamous crime organizations like Catspaw and Blood Debt, and their industry, save us! Those beggars that accosted me were really the best the city had to offer! You should be thankful you don't make a living off doing trade with Harthrough's merchants, Syria. Hot-blooded, overly patriotic and zealous are the least of their flaws. They are all thieves and crooks! They should all be in the army! Live and die for their bloody army!"

"Rewon, you are beginning to sound like every other nobleman in Chesque. Half of what you hear about Harthrough's government are rumors, perpetuated by Balor to keep us weak and divided! It is Balor, with its spies and secrets and power-lust you should be attacking so viciously, not Harthrough! I was sure you knew this Rewon, you are book-learned too aren't you? You know not to listen to kitchen gossip!"

Her father chuckled. "Syria, you put walls around your mind, as you do about our children. Open your eyes and see the evidence before you! You heard the beggars, they are one of the many evidences of this town's failure in leadership. A proud, stiff-necked failure."

"No, I don't know this country. I don't live here, I don't see what daily life is like, nor am I a Harthrougher so I can't make a closed judgement. Despite these crime organizations, citizens are seldom harmed by them, and were it not for their valor sixty years ago, when Harthrough's army refused to lend us aid, we would long since be a province of Balor. Have you forgotten that too, Rewon?"

"No I haven't, and I wish you hadn't reminded me." Her father's tone was angry now. "Take your head out of those histories and look at the world around you as it is now. Everything that comes out of your own mouth only shows your ignorance. We have repaid our debt to Catspaw and Juniper's Gift, or have you forgotten? Sure, Catspaw treat their own citizens well enough. Thanks to Catspaw a third of the peaches imported from Varth are missing and half of our export load of clay bricks and quartz as well! Our share of the resources have gone missing. That's why Harthrough doesn't route them out. Have you forgotten that they are criminals working with the government and forgiven them their crimes? I think I can see why noblewomen don't hold office in Chesque."

"Now you're being spiteful as well as stupid. What makes you think I had overlooked Catspaw as criminals? I only wish you'd..."

"Enough, Syria. I refuse to fight with you over Harthrough."

He burst out of the caravan so suddenly, Gwene jumped and stumbled over Carmichael's hand.

"Ow!" He jerked his hand out from under her foot, tripping her in the process so she landed square on her bottom.

Their father rounded on them. "Have you been hiding there all along?"

"No." They said in unison. "We just came back," Carmichael lied with ease when necessary.

Their father frowned at them, and then turned his gaze to the chest they'd been kneeling on. "And forgot to give the General's son his gift, I see."

"Yes, we just came back to get it." said Carmichael quickly, prompting a raised eyebrow from his father in response.

"Is Stasa awake yet?" Gwene trying to avert her father's fixed attention from them.

Syria emerged with a tear-streaked Stasa at her side. Stasa's cloudy green eyes, mostly sightless, always stared in front of her.

"Is father angry?" she asked meekly, not seeing her father kneel in front of her to dry her tears.

"I'm not angry," He responded kindly, wiping the tracks with a thumb.

"Just misunderstanding," said Syria a little stiffly which earned a look from her husband, "but never mind. Lets all go meet the General's son together, and wish him a happy birthday."

As her family made their way to the square, Gwene reflected on the discussion she had overheard, recalling that most of it had scared and shocked her. Unbeknownst to her, her mother Syria had fought tooth and nail to prevent the Chesquian nobility airs from entering into her children's heads, by being selective of household guests, educating her children herself, and running the staff and even her husband on a tight leash about their vocabulary around them whenever her sharp ears were present to overhear the kitchen gossip that approached her noblechildren a little too closely.

Gwene had not been able to prevent hearing the slanders at the Harthroughers or Varthians entirely, but she had least expected to hear it from her father; always the perfect Chesquian nobleman with his lean stately figure, fiery red hair and mustache, and with chivalry and education crowned about his high-held head. She thought him incapable of speaking poorly of anyone, fair and just in his business proceedings, and the soul of generosity and benevolence when the situation called for it. Never once had she heard him demean anyone or think him capable of holding grudges, and her glorified image of her noble father had shattered before her eyes upon hearing the open scorn on the business and nobility of Harthrough.

That day had lit a spark that ignited the flames of a passion in her for peace and harmony between villages, without prejudice and fear. She had developed an early resolve to become an ambassador for Chesque in the years to come.

However, her new resolve was sorely tried in the hottest of flames not four years later, during an open skirmish with Harthrough, later dubbed "The War of Hunger" or "The Sixth War" that had left the city weakened, her family fatherless, her brother maimed, and had toppled their family from their former position of nobility.

Despite her husband's death, Syria Durst, a resourceful and pragmatic woman by nature, was not one who remained downtrodden for long. Hers was not merely a noble, but a royal bloodline, evident by the silver streaks in her light brown hair that she possessed even as a baby. Silver streaks were long appraised as an ancient symbol of royalty in the Chesquian royal lineage.

The royal bloodline had long ceased to be the single rulers of Chesque, being sovereign only in the days when Chesque was a monarchy with their former lands pertaining to them, before the existence of Balor. Be that as it were, it remained the custom to turn an heir from the high mansion of royalty onto the streets two weeks after their sixteenth birthday for a period of two to three years to teach them responsibility and how to prosper in the commoner's world. They were given two guidebooks from the Cataloger's Order, one teaching the basics of common practices such as basket weaving, carpet and clothes dyeing, and similar crafts common to Chesque, the other a list of foods, herbs and salves, for desperate situations and basic structures should the search for a temporary lodge take longer than anticipated. They were allowed to take besides an extra set of clothes, and six golden heads, one golden head being enough to purchase material to weave three baskets, or two different dye colors and some small garments. Nothing more, nothing less.

When Syria's turn came two weeks since her sixteenth birthday, she had found little use for the books, finding labor and lodgings within three weeks, and soon proving herself to be hard-working and diligent in assisting an old innkeeper couple. They had once owed a debt to her parents, and her parents had been lenient to them in the methods of repayment some years past. The old couple had taken Syria in, feeling as though accommodating the daughter of their former creditors was one of the least ways to repay them. Syria with her naturally determined disposition and love for work, soon found herself running the Swallow's Nest Inn more than the elderly couple themselves, who were happy to take a much needed leisurely pace. The elderly couple had no heirs or relatives to take charge of the business and more than half a year later, the old sire died from the overbearance of his age. His wife wished to rejoin her younger sister in an herb cabin in the Silver Pass Mountains west of Chesque to live out her last days "...breathing the clean mountain air." in her words. In the two following months, she gave complete ownership of the Swallow's Nest to Syria.

Syria continued the business, finding two assistants to help her run the inn up until her day to return. By then, her business had become significantly affluent for a small inn such as the Swallow's Nest but one of her hired hands had left for better prospects, and the other was with child, unable to do the work on her own. For that reason Syria was loath to leave her faithful assistant behind. She refused to go home, staying another three years to run the inn before a royal match was made for her. By then, the assistant had become competent enough to run the inn without her and encouraged her to return home for the wedding, so Syria succumbed to her advice and to custom and returned home for the wedding. She continued to visit the Swallow's Nest, being able in her new position to give generous sums to the inn when it struggled with funds, or to provide food and materials to keep the inn in the highest of conditions.

All was well from the day her oldest son Carmichael had been born, through Gwene's birth five years later, up until the day her youngest, Stasa had been born two years after Gwene. Stasa's birth had presented a host of complications, one being that Stasa in the womb had been tightly wrapped by the umbilical cord around her neck.

The operation had been long and tedious, and mother and daughter were both nearly lost. Syria emerged, severely weakened, but alive and undamaged. Her child however, had suffered some brain damage due to the compression of the umbilical cord, which resulted in the baby's partial blindness. Syria, while having suffered less permanent damage, was bedridden for three months following Stasa's birth, after which she completely lost contact with her old business venture.

It was to this old Swallow's Nest that Syria went with her children after the battle, and finding to her additional dismay, that while it had been spared the destroyed fate of most of Chesque's other buildings, it had been abandoned; for years by the unkempt looks of it. Leaves from the surrounding oaks lay strewn about in a thick layer surrounding the small wooden structure and piled high on the roof. Moss and fungi had started to consume the actual building. The door was bolted and rusted shut, and the windows were a lacework of cobwebs.

Gwene had stared up at her new would-be home, considering these details carefully. "Imagine what it's like inside." she said with a shudder.

"What's it like?" said Stasa, now ten years old, and completely devoid of vision.

"Abandoned," said Gwene, "and small. And in bad condition."

Carmichael didn't even bother to examine closely. His wound was relatively fresh still, and all he ever did since coming home from the war was sleep restlessly or stare absently. He never spoke, just grunted or moaned in pain from the wound his left stump caused. He had screamed once, right before losing consciousness and collapsing off his bed when his bandaged stump nicked the bedpost of the bed he slept in.

He shuffled towards a moss covered stone well a few paces away, and eased himself down next to it, leaning his head back. He stared up at the sky, the daylight making the bags under his eyes look morbidly like bruises. He looked so haggard, that one look at him made Gwene feel sorry. He was enough to make anyone feel sorry.

"We're still fortunate." Syria said, squaring her shoulders and adjusting the basket on her arm which contained all the goods they had left in the world. "We have a home, and a means to make a living. I don't know why Panila left, perhaps caring for an inn and a family proved too great a task, but no matter. We have this home to ourselves now, and we will make it flourish, won't we?"

She smiled bravely at Gwene and Stasa, squeezing Stasa's hand.

"Yes." said Stasa unwavering, and for once, Gwene was jealous that she could not see.

Gwene could not answer her mother. She felt as though she had a boulder in her chest. A stone wall that collapsed and crushed her soft, beating heart underneath. Her mother's face had looked almost as haggard as Carmichael's, and for once her silver streaks made her look old, not royal.

Gwene felt her throat tighten, and felt the angry tears sting her eyes. She wiped them away before they could threaten to spill. She had cried too much already. She had cried when the soldier brought an unconscious and bleeding Carmichael to the door, delivering the news that her father was dead and her brother had lost his left hand in an explosion. She had cried when she smelled the smoke, and found the mansion deserted, only to see that the empty stable was caught in a massive fire. She cried when they fled to the underground passage with the other civilians and were trying to settle for some sleep on a cold stone slab with a rough, thin blanket to cover her. She had cried herself sick that night. Cried, and wished herself dead. She felt as though she would never sleep again, she wished over and over into the suffocating blanket that she were dead, and suddenly the blanket seemed to strangle her, so she flung it away and ran down the length of the passage, frantically searching for a way back into the open night air. The walls were close and dark and suffocating, so she had beaten at them with her fists and screamed. Her hair kept smothering her tear-stained face, so she pulled at her hair, kicked at the walls, and finally, exhausted by her violent outburst, sank onto the floor and somehow managed to cry herself to sleep.

(To be continued)

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