The arrival of Tranton Seldon into the valley had provided precisely the destabilisation that Garrus Lief had hoped for, creating an impossible situation for King Guijus and an opportunity for the north. That the very same instability had already seized his brother, their leader, the Baron of the Northring, was not a consequence he had anticipated. If Guijus Tellador had been cut off at the knees by Seldon's presence and the events in the capital, then Bruckin and the north had lost its head.
Garrus stood on the patchwork deck of the Mountain Breaker, still far from completion and with holes through which could be seen the innards of the vessel. Around the edge of the deck were placements for weapons, currently empty. The engine room was just that: an empty space waiting for power.
War had come early, and they were not ready.
The ship was covered with hundreds of construction workers, swarming over it like bees on a hive. Garrus tilted his head slightly, noting that the half-finished ship could also be described as looking like a carcass being stripped by flies. It hung in an awkward halfway reality, poised and waiting to become something significant.
Baron Theodus Lief was under house arrest in the royal palace, leaving the workers of Bruckin to look to Garrus for leadership. He could provide it, of that he was certain and without anxiety, but the path ahead was less clear that it had once been. The cards were no longer solely in their favour: most notably, playing a waiting game was now impossible. Theodus was imprisoned and the north was obligated to respond.
Were the situation reversed, his brother would not hesitate to strike with every available asset, he knew. Theodus would fall upon the capital with every ship and able man and woman at his disposal, and would crash upon it like clouds on the mountainside. They would be defeated and dispersed and all would be lost. That was why he had always stayed his brother's more fervent ambitions, pushing him always towards a longer vision.
Garrus had always been the patient one. Even now, when every fibre of his northern blood strained to retaliate and lash out, when insult demanded injury and he wanted nothing more than to crush Guijus Tellador's crown beneath the hard-working, stone-ground boot of the north - even now, he knew that the only option was to wait.
They would attack, but at a time of his choosing. Vengeance would not be swift, but it would be effective. The king was weakened, especially if the rumours were true and Seldon had indeed vanished, or been killed. Without their king, the monarchy would collapse; without Baron Theodus Lief, the north would continue. They were stonebreakers, after all.
The fleet was not yet ready, and so Garrus would send envoys to pursue diplomatic solutions while preparations continued.
He took a lift down to the floor of the hangar, barely registering the enormous ship towering above him as he left the shipyard and passed through the city. It was mobilising everywhere he looked, with every merchant and stonemason and blacksmith turning their skills towards the war effort. Garrus' first action had been to announce the Baron's arrest to the city, using it as a galvanising force. There would be no secrets from these people, those who had remained resolute in the face of hardships and the subtle economic persecution of the south. He walked the streets freely, mingling among all who lived and worked there, unafraid and proud. They all knew who he was and understood the significance of his habit of walking alone through Bruckin's streets, both on the lower and upper levels. The King of Treydolain would not dare to be so alone in his own city.
The north looked after its own.
A distant bell rang, then another, the noise spreading across the rooftops and echoing down between the walls of the buildings. A messenger approached Garrus, out of breath.
"We've caught something," he panted, "something down from the mountains."
The northern gate was rarely used and local residents tended to think of it as being an immovable part of the city walls, yet once Garrus had made the journey across the city - taking the shorter, elevated route by cable car - he found it swung half-open and surrounded by armed guards. He approached, glimpsing the steep incline of the mountain beyond.
There was a snarling, scraping sound coming from the other side of the gate. A guard handed him a halberd as he passed. "Be careful, Viscount Lief," he noted, "it's a nasty one." He pointed to a fresh, bloodied scar on the side of his head.
Garrus paused, hefting the halberd. It was expertly weighted and produced, as was any metalwork here. The irony that a civil war was coming in which both sides would be using northern weaponry was not lost on him. "Do you need treatment?" he asked the guard, grimacing at the wound.
"I will get some, sir," the man acknowledged, "just as soon as my replacement arrives."
"Don't leave it too long," Garrus said. "You don't want that becoming infected."
He lifted the halberd from the ground and passed through the opening in the gate, feeling the cold wind blowing down from the summits. They described themselves as northerners, but there was always further north - as the mountains constantly reminded them.
The scene before him stopped him in his tracks, his feet crunching into the frosted ground. A ring of guards, various weapons drawn, surrounded a creature which lay beneath a weighted net. It writhed and kicked with powerful hind legs, while the guards struggled to secure the net into the frozen soil. Though it was difficult to see clearly below the mesh, Garrus could tell that it was a quadruped and large, easily twice the height of a man should it stand upright, though its body shape was closer to that of a large cat. Its head was surrounded by an explosive mane of fur, which tapered away to shorter hairs down its body. Along its haunches were odd, feathered protrusions, looking more like the leaves and stalks of a plant than a natural part of a mammal. It hissed and snarled and snorted.
The commander of the guard saw Garrus and signalled that he shouldn't come any closer. "We've not yet fully secured it," the commander warned. "I don't want you being anywhere near it if it gets any ideas."
Garrus stared at the scrabbling beast. "Where was it found?"
"It was spotted from tower six," the commander said, "prowling close to the gate. We didn't want to leave it roaming so close to the city."
"Good," Garrus said, nodding. "When was the last time you saw anything like this?"
Putting his hand on his hips, armour clinking against armour, the commander exhaled with a soft whistle. "I've only seen these in history books," he said, "and nothing this big's been seen in these parts for generations. I don't know how long."
"That's what I thought," Garrus said. He looked away from the creature and up at the peaks, stretching up above the city, the path winding its way out of view. Snow capped the mountains, storm clouds hung in the valleys between the peaks and their remained unknown and sublime: always there, but beyond reach. The Barrier Mountains were not the only impassable range - the entire mountain ring was a wall, the northern mountains no exception. Some small, odd animals sometimes ventured down from higher altitudes but for the most part the mountains kept to themselves: nothing came down, and nobody went up.
The creature, therefore, marked a change. Perhaps environmental, or something as simple as a rockfall or tremor opening up new paths. Tranton Seldon's crossing of the southern mountains might not remain as a unique achievement for long.
"Commander," Garrus ordered, "I'm going to need a complement of your best men."
"Yes, sir, may I ask for what?"
"Of course. We need to explore the mountain path. See what else might be up there."
"But there is no way through, sir."
"This creature clearly managed it," Garrus said, pointing. "If something has changed on the peaks, I'm sure it won't be anything stonebreakers can't handle."
The commander smiled broadly. "Couldn't agree more, sir."
"This creature," Garrus said, taking a few steps towards it. "Prepare it for the arena."
YOU ARE READING
The Mechanical CrownFantasy
An explorer, a princess, a slave and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and romance. When Tranton Seldon becomes the first to cross the mountains in hundreds of years...