The sun was still creeping into the valley when Oliana woke to the sound of galloping hooves approaching the village. She dressed quickly and stepped outside, whistling for Dechar. She could hear Roth close behind her, groaning as he stretched before crawling out of his bed.
The village looked more somber in the clouded daylight with its thatch-crowned stone edifices in a disorderly assemblage, adorned with patches of melting snow. Oliana rushed to the square which was marked by a terrace of cobblestone, a small well in the center. She could see the mist of her breath as it left her nose in the cold, dry morning air. She was greeted by Dechar, whose eye remained steady on the strange horsemen.
There were four of them, all clothed in ebony suits of armor, their black horses' blankets bearing the crest of Eirethstead, a great kingdom to the south of the mountain range.
"Where is the chief? We are here to have a word with him," one of the soldiers belted out to the small group of spectators that had amassed.
"I am she," Oliana said. "My father passed away a few months ago. I have taken his position in his stead. What is your business here?"
"Awfully young to be a chief, aren't you? Did he have no brothers?"
Another soldier regarded Dechar nervously. "That wolf... your pet? Will you not keep it on a leash? It looks as though it could devour my horse in one swallow," he laughed nervously.
"I need no leash," Dechar growled softly. "The chief asked you what your business is here."
The soldier’s eyes widened. He cleared his throat, trying to regain his composure quickly. “We would like a word with the chief in private on political matters."
Old Jarrah the sage had been standing at the edge of the square adjacent to the curious gathering of townspeople. Upon the soldier’s words, his cane slipped from his hands, and he fell on the chilled cobblestone.
“Jarrah!” Oliana rushed over to his aid. As she offered him her hand, he looked up at her with determined icy blue eyes floating in a sea of wrinkles. A wispy white beard adorned his withered chin.
“Come speak with me after,” he whispered hoarsely. “Do not forget. At my age, I very well may.” Oliana gave a slight nod, and Jarrah could see worry in her face. “And do not be afraid of them,” he added.
Easier said than done, Oliana thought. After she helped Jarrah rise to his feet, her attention returned to the messengers. "You can tie your horses up by the stables over there," Oliana gestured. "Then you may follow me." Her mind was abuzz with thoughts on what these soldiers could possibly want to discuss with her.
"Make yourselves comfortable," she led them into the foyer of her home, making sure to quickly straighten the table she had kicked the night before. She started a flame in the fireplace. "We haven't enough chairs for everyone, but--"
"That will do just fine, thank you. We come bearing rather ill news for you, it so happens. You see, our kingdom, Eirethstead, has grown. King Gillireth continues to spread his influence considerably, and as can only be expected, he has set his eye upon this valley. There is an army headed this way which will arrive sometime before noon tomorrow. They will be stationed in Ravenquill Moor outside the pass. You need only submit yourself as a citizen of the kingdom and renounce your post as chief to our general, and no blood will be shed."
Oliana stared at the ground in a stupor. She felt everything she and her family had ever worked for was slipping from her fingers. And she blamed herself.
"These people, of course, will be allowed to live here much the same as before, though they will be subject to the kingdom's regulation and taxation, of course. And likely, too, new residents will move in and make the village their home... do you understand?"
The soldier had noticed Oliana's reticent expression. She now looked up and replied with a lump in her throat: "I understand. I will prepare to surrender tomorrow."
"Well that's good. All in all, it's not really so bad, is it, dear?" the soldier said. Oliana could tell that the emotion in his tone was there out of habit, and that he bore no feelings whatsoever about what he was saying for the sheer number of times he had said it. "We will be taking our leave, now. And we thank you for your cooperation."
One of the soldiers gave her an insincere pat on the shoulder as he filed out of the doorway. Oliana sat alone in the empty foyer for a moment with her thoughts before facing the cold outside.
She had barely left the house when she heard Roth shout behind her. "I heard the whole thing! Those bastards!"
"Mind your tongue, eavesdropper," Oliana turned sharply to face him.
"We've got to do something. Father always said that people from the Eirethstead are made to give half their earnings to the kingdom. And those soldiers, they'd be walking the streets, keeping their eye on us in our very sleep!"
"Exactly what do you expect me to do? Rally troops to fight against Gillireth's army? We are defenseless against his forces. We have no choice!"
"If Father were here, he would think of something," Roth mumbled.
"Well he's not, alright?! He's dead. Dead. And there is nothing we can do about it." Tears welled up in her eyes as she looked away. “I have to speak with Jarrah.”
She stepped away quickly, looking down to avoid the inquiring faces she passed along the way.
Roth stood alone. Under his breath, he added a promise: "If you won't do anything about this, sister, I will."