Below Dae, a chasm twelve hundred feet deep waited like a demon hungry for offerings to fall into its maw. Above her, the mountain called Heaven’s Pillar, Tola-Veyne, soared into a sea of heavy cloud cover. A storm gathered above the summit, building winds and rain, sleet and hail, to scour the foolish and the unwary from the craggy rock face and send them plummeting to their demise far below.
“The air’s gone still,” Dae said, shouting to the dozen of climbers around her, “We’ve got ten minutes, at the most, until the skies break open and washes everybody here away.”
“We can’t get off the mountain in ten minutes,” Kemoral said, his irritation matched only by the unkind mirth it brought to Dae’s heart.
Sir Faen Kemoral was the Senior Commander of the Gallagrin Royal Guard. As such he outranked the commanders and generals of any noble’s house forces, even though the troops he commanded were far fewer in number. Unlike many in the royal capital, Sir Kemoral could also boast of having direct and immediate access to the Queen. His concerns were those of the realm, and therefore her concerns as well. When he spoke, people had good reason to listen.
Despite that, Kemoral was not an attention seeker. He was able to boast of his importance but he rarely, if ever, did. He rarely, if ever, needed to. His face and heraldry were well known, both in High Crest and in the various barracks and military stations which he had cause to visit. He enjoyed an inherent deference from those he interacted with and was careful not to overplay the demands he put on those beneath him in the social order. It was a lesson he’d learned from observing the previous ruler of Gallagrin, King Sathe, the Butcher.
Sathe’s reign had been one of constant fear and humiliation for those around him. Sathe always pushed over the boundaries of tolerable behavior when dealing with those beneath him. It was a tool the tyrant used to keep his underlings beaten, and broken, so that fear would sap away any thoughts of rebellion.
Kemoral hadn’t been the commander of the Royal Guard then, but he’d been high enough in the ranks to see the kind of impact that behavior had on people. In an atmosphere of terror, no one could act efficiently, no one had the drive to do better than what was demanded of them, and no one was willing to say when something was wrong and a better solution existed to a problem.
On those points, he and Dae were in complete agreement, as they were on many other points as well. Despite being largely compatible in their views though, the Senior Commander of the Royal Guard and the Queen’s Knight differed on enough of the “smaller” details that each found the other decidedly antagonistic.
“There’s one path that’ll take you off the mountain in less than ten minutes,” Dae said, looking downwards.
“What should we do then Lady Akorli?” one of the Royal Guard candidates asked, glancing over towards her.
Spread across the mountain face, a dozen of the most promising Pact Warriors of the new year clung to the rock with all of the strength and tenacity they could muster.
“This is part of the test,” Dae said, using Kirios, her Pact Spirit, to amplify her voice. “Your goal is to survive. That’s it. There’s cave entrance a hundred feet above us. That’ll protect you from the storm if you can make it there in time.”
“This test is insane,” Kemoral said, whispering so that only Dae could hear him.
“I thought we agreed,” Dae whispered back and she hoisted herself up to a new set of handholds. “The Queen’s Guard is going to have only the best.”
“You ask too much of them,” Kemoral said, grimacing with the strain of pulling himself up the mountain at Dae’s speed.
“I need to know where they’re going to give up,” Dae said. “We can’t afford to induct quitters into the Queen’s Guard. Not after the problems you’ve been having since Halrek lost his head.”
Kemoral lost his grip as he reached for a new spot, but was able to stay on the sheer wall with one hand and both feet braced properly.
“He didn’t lose it, it was taken from him,” Kemoral said. “A move that, however well justified it was, we are still paying for.”
“You lost over half of the Guard,” Dae said. “Think what that means in terms of how many of them would have betrayed you and the Queen if Halrek hadn’t been stopped?”
“There are many threats to our Queen and Country,” Kemoral said. “In neutralizing one, you exposed her more openly to the others.”
“Given that the threat I neutralized thought he’d successfully killed the Queen, and that he managed to divert the blame for that onto someone else, I don’t think there was ever going to be a path that didn’t expose her to some other perils,” Dae said as she found a pair of solid handholds that brought her another six feet up the cliff.
“You certainly don’t shy away from perils,” Kemoral said, trying and then abandoning three grippable spots before settling on a traversable path upwards.
“I don’t often have the chance to,” Dae said.
“This is ridiculous!” one of the other recruits yelled. “We could have climbed to the top by now if we could use our Pact spirits!”
“I already told you the rules,” Dae said to them all. “No using your Pact transformations to climb up the mountain.”
“I don’t see the point in this,” Kemoral said. “There’s not a noble son or daughter who applies to the Guard who doesn’t have a strong Pact Spirit bound to them already. What purpose does it serve to torture their bodies like this?”
“You bought your commission, didn’t you?” Dae asked.
“Duke Morli, my grandfather, did,” Kemoral said without self consciousness.
While anyone in Gallagrin could enlist under the banner of their local Duke, those who wished for a position as an officer had to purchase that commission. For command ranks in the individual noble armies, the prices were set by the Noble families in question. Commissions in the Royal Guard were given by the King or Queen and required far greater sums than in a provincial army. Dae’s commission when she had been awarded command of Star’s Watch had come with a cost, despite the fact that the Queen (then Princess) had ordered it of her. Alari had provided the funds from her war chest to, which in turn had paid the salaries of the officers who served under Dae at the time. It was a complicated system, rife with possibility for corruption, but somehow people made it work anyways, though it often left those in charge with little experience directly managing the troops. That task was given to those who’d earned their position the hard way.
“This isn’t a test of their bodies,” Dae whispered. “I want to see what they’re spirits look like.”
“You will push them to their deaths to see in their ghosts what they might have been,” Kemoral said. “That’s brilliant. Simply brilliant.”
The cave mouth was still roughly fifty feet above them as the first, precursor drops of rain began to fall.
Dae looked over the small team that she’d assembled. They were a miserable looking lot. Most were paler cast than Dae from having spent the greater portion of their lives indoors. That sort of lifestyle, even for those who had put in some time training for their Entrance Trials, was showing through in the candidates by the panting and cursing and general displeasure at the activity required of them.
A part of Dae felt sorry noble young men and women, even as she devised still harder challenges to throw against them. The poor children around her, just barely into their adulthood, had come to the Royal Guard Entrance Trials expecting to be judged on their inherited worth. Each bore a Pact Spirit which had served the noble family they belonged to for generations and was therefore quite powerful regardless of how adept the applicant was with the Pact Bond.
In other years, it had taken little more than a willingness to pledge themselves to the crown’s service and a demonstration to show the capabilities of their Pact Spirit, for a candidate to secure a place on the Guard’s roster. Noble sons and daughters were not in such great abundance that the Royal Guard could afford to turn too many away.
With Halrek’s death and the shifting political landscape which followed it though, an unfortunate number of noble families found excuses to call their scions back from the pledge of service to the Royal Court.
That happened at the same time as Dae was trying to piece together a special team dedicated solely to the Queen’s well being. Her goal had been to skim the cream of the crop from the Royal Guide and forge an elite unit, but with the crumbling of the Guard’s membership rolls, there wasn’t enough “cream” left to skim off anymore.
That is what lead Dae to the challenge of clinging to a mountain side as one of the early storms of spring, or late storms of winter, descended upon her. If the Royal Guard couldn’t supply the personnel that she needed, her next best option was to train them herself, and the first step in that formula was to find people whom she could actually train.
There were a lot of elements that went into the analysis of each candidate though, from the ability to listen, to the ability to set aside their egos and give up being the most important and special of all children just because of what they’d been born with. Dae wanted to see creativity, and passion, and attentiveness in them but most of all she wanted the Queen’s Guard to be effective and agreeable to Alari.
Dae knew her Queen. If Alari didn’t feel her special guards could save both themselves and her, she wouldn’t allow them to risk their lives in her defense, and if she simply didn’t like them, she’d refuse their service even if she was in peril.
There was a real chance that the climbers might wash off the mountain but it wasn’t going to be because they fell. Alari and Kemoral were fast enough to catch anyone who pitched off into the abyss below them. Even if everyone made it to the cave though, Dae wasn’t certain that any of them were going to survive the mountain in terms of making it onto the Queen’s Guard.
In all likelihood, after the testing, Dae would pass on them and Kemoral would take them into the Royal Guard instead. Those who had made it to the mountain had at least the prowess to serve in that capacity, and Kemoral was desperate for bodies to refill his diminished ranks.
Dae glanced around, inspecting the candidates climbing above her. Most were grumbling openly. Several were whispering insults that they either didn’t know or didn’t care that she could hear. And then there was one, a young girl, likely just turned eighteen, who had stopped climbing altogether.
The girl’s eyes were closed and her head was tipped to the side as though she was considering something or having an internal conversation. She opened her eyes and measured the distance to the cave mouth with her gaze. Of all the climbers she was the slowest and from the looks of things, the one least likely to make the entrance in time. From her expression, Dae could see that the girl was aware of this too.
Dae frowned. If she let the girl climb a little further, she could catch up to her before the storm hit and help the girl into the cave before real danger struck. There were a couple of others who were likely to be in need of that kind of aid as well, but Kemoral was already moving towards one of them and the other transformed his hands into clawed Pact Armor gauntlets to aid in his ascent.
The girl saw this too and her frown matched Dae’s. Despite being in last place, she apparently wasn’t going to cheat.
Dae started moving towards her, but Jyl, the young girl, had other ideas and reached her decision before Dae got within twenty feet of her.
With her frown changing to a frightened smile, Jyl let go.
For a long fraction of a second she was poised, precariously standing on her footholds on the cliff’s face as gravity slowly pulled her off balance and into the chasm.
Dae readied her transformation, wings and power surging into her mind’s eye, but before the fateful second was up she paused and held herself back.
Jyl wasn’t falling to her doom.
She was gliding.
Before she’d dropped more than dozen feet, wide, gossamer wings spread from the young girl’s back carrying her softly downwards, and if not away from the storm then at least to a safer, more secure camp to wait it out in.
It wasn’t how Dae had suggested that the challenge before them should be met, but it was within the rules that she’d laid out for the candidates. Depending on what Jyl did once the storm was passed, Dae though she might have found one candidate who could qualify for the Queen’s Guard after all.