The gates of Bruckin were closed. He'd walked for days, only rarely finding a caravan moving in his direction; most people were getting a far from the north as possible. Officially, the Treydolain army was on manoeuvers, gathering in the fields between the capital and Bruckin as part of an extended training exercise. That their presence was disrupting the trade routes was said to be an unintended side effect; that they were only half a day's march from the gates of Bruckin was also brushed away dismissively by spokespeople for the king, even while the city closed its doors and turned its industry towards its own defence.
Roldan Stryke had parted ways with the deposed Baron Lief and his stern pilot, leaving them to continue their journey to the west while he changed tack towards their home. Knowing the best roads and routes used by King's Eyes served him well, as he took different paths altogether. Keeping Treydolain on the far distant horizon to his right, he kept close to the mountain ring, traversing the foothills and moving quietly from village to village, town to town, until Bruckin rose into view, its towers standing proud against the mountainside. Blockades were set up on the main roads but he knew how to travel the land via other means, keeping to the banks of the River Tage which he knew were steep and would afford him cover.
Ten miles from the city walls he left the safety of the water and crossed fields, where farm hands watched him pass quizzically, wondering at the odd man who was striding towards danger. The king's army lay below in the valley, a mass of red and brown shapes looking like an angry ant's nest that had recently been kicked over by an angry child.
Bruckin was a city that had grown beyond the bounds of its walls, with a scattering of dwellings nestling around its outer edge. Despite their proximity they felt more like multiple large towns, lacking the close intensity and heat of the city proper. The guard had a heavy presence on the streets when Stryke arrived, while lengthy queues of people and horses and carts stretched down the hill from the many gates dotted along the wall.
Seeing no reason to waste time - his or anyone else's - Stryke identified the first guard of rank and approached. The guard, a tall, cliff-like woman with the curled lip of a person tired of their job, noted him immediately and signalled to her comrades, who reached for their weapons but did now draw.
Stryke first held his hands out wide, palms open and fingers splayed, then he reached down and unbuckled his sword belt, dropping it to the floor. Without approaching any closer, he removed the additional knives concealed on sheaths strapped to his calves and forearms, and extracted a thin razor wire wrapped into the cuff of his coat sleeve. Finally he deposited his pack onto the pile of weapons and stepped away.
"State your business," the guard sergeant demanded.
"I seek an audience with Viscount Lief," Stryke said, meeting her eyes with his own. "I bear vital information."
The sergeant laughed, as did her subordinates. "I'll call for him right away," she said. "Go home before I arrest you, and take your weapons with you."
He'd never appreciated the ice runs at the time: quiet journeys back and forth, dealing with real, hard-working people. For the first time in a long while, Stryke recalled that he had considered finding a house in Lagnin and settling down.
"I don't have time for this, or for politics," he said. "My name is Roldan Stryke. I'm a King's Eye and work for the crown, although perhaps not as of this moment. I have an understanding of the tactics the king's army will use against you when the siege begins - and it will begin soon, I promise you that - and need to speak with the viscount immediately."
That had at least got her undivided attention. "Tell me what you have to say and I will consider your request, or relay the information."
Stryke shook his head. "This goes straight to Garrus Lief or nowhere at all."
The sergeant moved closer, examining him from head to toe. She was a good foot taller than him. "And why would a King's Eye be wanting to share information with us?"
He looked up at her. "I have a debt to pay. This would be a start."
After a further display of pointless intransigence she finally consented, admitting him through the gates from where she led him personally to the upper levels. They kept him waiting in a bare room for over an hour, then he was summoned to the tower atop which was held Viscount Lief's office. Stryke had never been inside it before, but had once accompanied a royal visit many years ago, when he'd had to wait in the courtyard below.
"You wanted to see me, Mr Stryke," said Lief, standing by a window that overlooked the city. The gaps between buildings glowed red from furnaces burning round the clock.
"Your brother lives," Stryke said. "He is alive."
Lief spun around. "Why would you make such a claim?"
"I have seen him. He survived the crash."
He could see that Lief wanted to believe it. "And where is he now? A prisoner?"
Stryke shook his head. "Not when I last saw him, which was heading towards Forkpike, he was a free man."
As Lief was about to reply there was a subtle trembling underfoot, almost imperceptible but enough to give both of them pause. A glass positioned close to the edge of a table tipped over and smashed to the floor. They both instinctively turned to look out of the windows, in time to see cracks form in the snow peaks on the mountains high above and beyond Bruckin. Slowly, as they watched, the sky behind the mountains darkened, as if thrown into shadow, then an amorphous, shifting shape lifted itself above even the peaks, expanding and billowing out. At first too alien to be recognisable, Stryke realised slowly that it was a dust cloud, huge and impossible to comprehend. As if it had rushed up the far side of the mountains, it thrust into the sky and began to disperse in wisps on the wind, dirty grey clouds forming which merged with the whiter clouds already hugging the slopes.
"What's happening?" Stryke said, wondering to himself if the city was vulnerable to avalanches.
"I sent some people to the north, over the mountains," Lief said quietly. "You may have known some of them. I fear they shall not be returning."
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...