The 11th day of Eleasias in the Year of the Ruins Reborn.

Skillet had only to bend his knees slightly to bring his eyes down level with the bar top. He looked across it, noting the presence of any stains and dust that needed to be removed. Starting at the right-hand end, he began to wipe the surface with great vigour, using a cloth, working his way to the left. He glanced up occasionally at the two figures seated at a wooden table, just off the left-hand front corner of the bar. Apart from them, the Bronze Lion was almost empty this night.

Captain Barghest took another swig of his beer before setting it back down again and looking across at his drinking companion.

“So, I’m going to take a guess that fairly soon after this she asked you if you wanted a fight, just sparring no doubt, a little test of skill?” he said with a knowing smile.

“My good Captain,” answered the large man across from him, “You say that as if it’s a regular occurrence that you have come to expect.”

Barghest let out a haughty laugh at this. “Oh, only every time someone new comes along for her play with. But you have not answered my question.”

A wry smile started to creep across the other man’s face. “Yes. She declared to all about that there would be little challenge for a man of my size in fighting a young woman like her, and that there was probably no point.”

“And…?” pressed Barghest.

“I calmly advised her that I did not think I had anything to prove to her, and that she was probably right, and then went on my way,” replied his companion.

Now the Captain let out another burst of laughter. He had heard that today, for the first time in living memory, Helena Tudor had been left speechless. Had it been anyone else, no doubt she would have fired back some comment about cowardice. But this man was different. He carried with him a presence that clearly marked him out. He was known to have both wealth and influence back on the Islands. Although not a member of the Council of Deepingwald, when he spoke, people listened.

If he told Tudor, another of his senior guards, that he did not think he had anything to prove about his fighting abilities to her, it would have come across as deadly serious, not some idle boast or evasion.

Barghest sat back in his chair and took another drink of his beer. It had been five weeks since Laird Henrikson had come from the Islands, onboard The Guiding Fire. Barghest was still not really sure what to make of that decision. What was his motivation? He had his own ideas on what it may be, and he was not too sure he liked them.

The man across from him really was a giant. Not so much solidly packed like the warriors of the Hillfolk, or the Monstrous Black Orcs, chronicled in books from before the Collapse, just possession of a huge, tall frame. His grey hair was receeding fast, going much the way of Barghest’s own bald head. He sported a large grey moustache in the style that was popular amongst the aristocracy, again similar to Barghest’s, but longer and more flared at the ends.

In his youth, Henrikson may have been expected to do something like this, but he was now well past his youth, being of a similar age to the Captain. Back in those days he was known to a real handful, rebelling against his upbringing and status, always charging off into the forests of the Islands on hunts. On several occasions he had caused significant problems for his father, Ulmar Henrikson. Later, when the old Laird had passed away, Jason Henrikson had taken on far more responsibility and had mellowed significantly, however, his rebellious history still won him great popularity amongst the Folk. He had used this popularity to his advantage, influencing members of the Council.

By now Skillet had made his way across the bar, and found himself looking at a stain near the left end that looked like it was going to take some serious work.

Barghest had made Henrikson a senior guard. He liked him. Despite his reservations on why he was here, he liked him. Perhaps it was because he was of comparable age; they often found themselves chatting about old times here in the Bronze Lion. Perhaps it was that the man was quite capable of taking on and dealing with responsibility, or that people around the town, like on the Islands, paid attention to what he said.

Others in the Guard had also commented that they were surprised how well he just fit in. Both Beloin Thunderthimble, one of the other senior guards, and quite possibly the person with the shortest temper in all the world, and Sergeant Valino, who ran all day to day operations of the Guard, had said he was a valuable addition.

Never once, however, had Barghest directly questioned him on his motives. But now he felt it was the right times to broach this subject.

“So, why here?” he asked with a sigh.

Henrikson sat back for a moment and regarded him. “Why did I come?” he asked, “I would have thought that was obvious.”

“Are you watching us Jason? For the Council?” asked Barghest.

Henrikson raised his eyebrows at this.

“Why do you think the Council would want to put a watcher in your midst? What could you possibly have to hide? This whole venture is for the Folk, all the Folk, and so much more.”

“But there has been no mass exodus from the Islands. No plans for other outposts.” argued the Captain.

“Some would, quite justifiably, argue that this place needs to stand for a good few years, to prove it can work in relative safety before more Folk come,” reasoned the Laird.

“And what of supply ships? Surely maintaining a consistent level of supply to supplement the resources here would make sense?” said Barghest.

Henrikson did not reply at first. He looked first at Barghest and then let his gaze wander past him into space. “You know the answer. Everyone knows the answer – it’s just no-one is prepared to admit it. The attacks on The Guiding Fire have the Council rattled. They’re listening to nay-sayers and prophets of doom. Idiots reading far too much into the shipping attacks, like some crazed Priests of Gruumsh.”

He looked back at Barghest and stopped when the Captain subtly raised two fingers off the table. Barghest lent back in his chair and dropped his head back to glance over his right shoulder and stare at the bar.

Skillet’s scrubbing of the surface started to slow and slow till it came to a stop, at which point a pin could fall and would be clearly heard. Although his face had taken on a slightly more red hue, he gave a slight nod and grunt of satisfaction and without having once raised his head or eyes turned and went to inspect the glasses at the other end of the bar.

Turning back to Henrikson, Barghest took up his drink once more and nodded for the Laird to continue.

Henrikson began again, though in more hushed tones. “Nearly five hundred years. Five hundred! And yet the whole of civilisation is contained on a string of Islands out at sea. Don’t you see where this is going? Yes, we have done well, managing to live within the limits of the Islands, but have you not seen the changes? The population is starting to rise. How long before we start to run out of room? How long before someone cuts down a tree the Forest Folk have forbidden to be cut? Or what if we suffer a number of bad winters, year on year, devastating crops? You know what the history books tell us. You know how the Collapse is said to have begun. Man’s petty squabbles, infighting. How long before people start turning against one another over some dispute. Why do you think the Council agreed to fund this latest attempt for the Mainland? When all previous attempts met with utter ruin?”

Barghest was silent, listening intently to him. At the other end of the bar Skillet too was frozen, midway though cleaning a glass.

“They know. They have seen the signs. Too many disputes, too little crop yield.” said Henrikson darkly. “At first this was going well, and look about us.” He said gesturing around the bar room. “Here we are, on the Mainland, in an Inn. It is working. But now, at the most crucial point, they’re pulling back, having doubts. Black-sailed ships should not make them hold back, it should make them hurry up and send more!”

Barghest stared at him now, something about what he had just said, and something he had said before stuck out to him. He listened carefully, aware that he had just picked up on something that would no doubt prove to be the most important piece of information to come out of their conversation.

Henrikson paused for a moment before finishing. “Yes, I am here because of the Council. But not for the council. I am here because this has to work. Because I fear for the continued survival of our civilisation. There is a dark time coming – and soon we may be the last light left in the world.”

Over by the far end of the bar, came the sound of shattering glass.

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