Zarsan and his men were on the homestretch headed towards Agalia when he saw a single horserider who appeared to be in a hurry to get to them. Zarsan could tell by the erratic style that the rider wasn't an expert.
"Gwyn, would you go and see if that man needs ... wait a minute." Zarsan squinted at the figure. "That's Florian!. I'll go." He sensed immediate danger and set off at a gallop.
"Zarsan!" Florian called and almost toppled off the horse as he attempted to slow it down. "Zarsan it's Luh."
"What about Luh?" Zarsan grabbed the reigns of Florian's horse.
"The Emperors are waiting in the Hall for you but I couldn't sit any longer. Luh was completely sacked by the Golon. The place ... Zarsan!" Zarsan set off at breakneck speed for Agalia.
Both Emperors and Lafi spang to their feet when Zarsan burst into the room.
"What happened?" He demanded. "How did that happen? I told you and better told you about that cursed vulnerability! Are the Golon still there?"
"Sit down, Zarsan." Kerrin said firmly. The glare that accompanied the order made Zarsan drop heavily into a chair. "No the Golon are not still there, Ludrig interveined and routed them but not before they'd completely demolished the place. I'm sorry, Zarsan, Ludrig himself found the Mayor's body."
"No." Zarsan shook his head. "No it can't be true. His ... my ... "
"Waylon inquired in person about your family, Zarsan. Ludrig reported that others perished with the Mayor and this was in his home. I'm so sorry." Kerrin said sincerely. Zarsan just stared at the table in numb shock.
"Zarsan, may I offer my deepest sympathy." Waylon said.
"Where was the Luh Division?" Zarsan mumbled.
"Most of them were on their way back here, Zarsan. The men left in Luh were to return when your Squad returned from Jullit to relieve them." Waylon told him.
"What?" Zarsan turned to look at him. "Why? That isn't how it's done. We don't split a patrol division. Who endorsed that?"
"I did and I'll regret it for the rest of my life." Waylon hung his head. "I allowed the men to come back here because Luh has been so stable for four years. I thought I was granting the men a sort of reward. I had no business doing that Zarsan, I'm not a soldier. The results were catastrophic and I don't know how I'll live with myself."
"In all fairness, Ludrig was distracted." Regent Lafi spoke up. "Reports say that there was barely two dozen men at that border. Even if there was no Agalian troops at all in Luh, Ludrig could have kept them out normally."
"Luh had the misfortune of both these occurrences happening at once. I can't ever remember such a tragic coincidence in all my years." Kerrin said sadly.
"Ludrig has taken responsibility for rebuilding the town but Agalia has given a large contribution. I also gave a sizable donation from my family accounts." Waylon said but Zarsan just nodded blankly.
"Zarsan?" Kerrin said gently. "The Scouts informed us of the miscommunication regarding Jullit. Don't worry about it. Go and rest."
"I can't." Zarsan said in daze. "I have to go to Luh."
"No, Zarsan, no." Kerrin rested his hand on Zarsan's shoulder. "If I thought there was anything to be done, I'd be right there with you. Leave it to Ludrig, lad. Don't torture yourself."
"I can't ... I don't know ... "
"Regent Lafi, could I ask you to send for Councillor Florian, please, Physician Tallow too. Don't object, Zarsan. I know grief and I've seen what it can do. Let people help you." Kerrin was extremely distraught and his pity for his Regent was overwhelming. Zarsan nodded numbly and left when Florian arrived.
Some of the Luhan refugees couldn't remember aspects of the attack, or their evacuation to Ludrigshires. Harper wasn't so lucky. She remembered every detail of it. Because it was a warm evening, she'd taken Zari out for a stroll by the harbour when the Golon struck. She'd spent over seven hours cowering in an old fishing boat under the pier before one of Ludrig's soldiers found her. Her and Zari had been moved by cart over the border and never got the chance to see her home again. The farmers and workers that were close to the border provided shelter for the refugees and Harper and Zari spent a week in some stables, complete with three horses. Harper offered to tend the animals in exchange for food and accommodation that wasn't shared with them. She didn't know the first thing about horses or Shiremen. As it happened, the men trusted only the best to tend their horses, often paying grooms and stable lads more than some soldiers were paid. The stable owner, however, quite admired Harper's willingness to work and was rather amused at her naivety. He gave her single room shack which was animal-free and gave her a job scrubbing yards and sweeping floors. Every evening, when they were alone, Harper told Zari all about his handsome father who was an Imperial Regent. She wrote to Zarsan every day, and read her letters to Zari. Sadly she knew of no way to get her letters to Agalia.
"We'll go back to Luh once King Ludrig's fixed it." Harper kissed her six month old son and lay him in a makeshift crib. "Then we can let Daddy know we're there. All three of us can bury Granda Elias properly." This still broke Harper's heart. She'd seen the flames engulf their cottage and heard by gossip that the Mayor had died. Harper had kept quiet. She told no one in the Shires that she was the Mayor's daughter incase it lead back to Zarsan. Obviously Harper was extremely grateful to Ludrig for coming to their rescue, and for giving the Luhans shelter but it was still the Shires, age long adversary of Agalia and Zarsan was the West's Regent. She didn't know enough about politics or truces to take any risks. Zari was the Regent's son and Harper would never put him at risk of any sort. "I love you, Zarsan." Harper sighed sadly and looked out of the tiny window at the clear, star flecked sky. "We're not dead. Please don't think we're dead. Please." A big tear rolled down her cheek. This was the only reason that Harper could think of as to why Zarsan hadn't come for them. She squeezed the thought from her head and made her bed by the dying fire.
Harper had been collecting firewood from the forest floor. She returned to her shack before it got dark, a sling of wood on one hip, and a sling for Zari on the other. Her employer, Stiggs, was throwing all her belongings into the yard.
"Mr Stiggs!" Harper dropped her wood and trotted as fast as she could towards the scene. "Mr Stiggs? What's happened?"
"Two pregnant sows." Stiggs ambled into Harper's shack.
"What?" Harper followed him. "I'm not with you, Mr Stiggs. I'll take those!" She grabbed her box of letters and diaries out of his hands.
"My sows need the room. Are you with me now?" Stiggs grabbed an armful of blankets and tossed them into Zari's crib, before picking it up and taking it outside.
"Hey! You're throwing me out to make room for your pigs?" Harper said in disbelief. "You can't do that! Zari's just a baby!" Stiggs just shrugged his shoulders. "Where am I to go?" She put Zari in his outdoor crib and began collecting her meagre possessions into a pile. "Mr Stiggs! Stop ignoring me! I have nowhere to go!"
"That isn't my problem. I never agreed to anything long term. You've been here six months. I need the room." Stiggs planted his fists on his hips.
"Six months and I've worked hard for you!" Harper said angrily. "I've all but repaired every stick and stone in that shack, as well as scrubbing your yards and fixing your fences!"
"And I said it's not my problem! Now get off my land and take your rubbish with you!" Stiggs drew back his foot and prepared to throw a kick at Zari's crib. Harper jumped in front of him and Stigg's big boot took her clean off her feet.
"What in torment is going on?" A man of around thirty years, mounted on a beautiful horse, rode out of the woodland. "Nesh Stiggs! I'm talking to you." His loud voice made Zari cry and Harper scrambled to him. "I think you'd better explain all this, man."
"Nothing to explain." Stiggs shrugged again. "She's been staying in my barn and now I need it."
"For his poxy pigs." Harper snarled at Stiggs. "Pardon my language."
"Is that true, Stiggs? You're evicting her to make room for your pigs?"
"I need the money, Keegan! Pigs bring in money. She doesn't. After six months, it's time she was on her feet." Stiggs folded his arms.
"Six months? You're a Luhan?" The man called Keegan did the adding up. Harper nodded. "Just you and the baby?" Another nod. "Collect your belongings and I'll send for you first thing in the morning. Stiggs, one more night won't make a difference. Let her get her own things together and stay away for the night. Do yourself a favour and don't argue." Stiggs swore horribly and barged away from the shack. "Can you stand on that leg?"
"Yes, I'm fine." Harper struggled to her feet. "Thank you. Had I known he was going to throw me out, I would have looked for another job, and somewhere to stay. Thank you, again."
"Be ready tomorrow and don't aggravate Stiggs. His temper never was too mild." Keegan nodded and rode off into the woods. Harper caught a glimpse of an etching on the leather of the saddle and just looked at Zari in surprise when her brain made a few connections. The etching was the Regal Seal of Ludrig and everyone knew that the King's oldest son was called Keegan. No wonder Stiggs had backed off. Prince Keegan Ludrig was 'sending for her'?
"Well don't we meet some lofty ones, Zari?" Harper smiled. "We'll just take it as it comes."
Emperors And Kings