The world's old gods lie dormant, imprisoned for centuries in a timeless rift. They have accepted the fate of their actions, yet the people who roam freely have not. A small sect of fanatical magicians, lead by Bellack, a sinister and heartless spell weaver have not forgotten the powers that they once possessed and seek to secure their Queen's release. With the discovery of a large crystal deep in the Tanarian mines, the sect believes it has found a catalyst for their powers to break free their Queen. They will stop at nothing.
Athene had cursed the day that she had signed the charter for the convoy to Nordheim many times since they set off two months ago. The baggage train was so mind-numbingly slow and boring as they trundled their way through the increasingly barren countryside. But the money would keep her in lodgings and wine for at least three months after this trip. Easy money really - cook for the hundred warriors and twelve merchants, don't use too much salt, overcook everything and don't poison anyone, then return home to Tanaria without the tribes of Nordheim killing you. Sounded easy. It was easy too, except for the endless stream of delays and the monotony of the trail. Athene chuckled as she remembered her mother fussing around her before the trip.
'Don't take the skirts, do take the woollen leggings, lay off the lip balm there will be a lot of wild and unruly men on the trip.' However, it didn't matter how dressed down Athene stayed, some toothless hero would sit down next to her fire and start with the war stories whilst grabbing some soup or hanging around her on fire picket - 'Oh, my hero,' was usually enough to make them think that their story had impressed her - 'Now bugger off and leave me to cook,' was what it really meant. Athene stoked the evening fire to keep the stew warm. The nights had been getting progressively colder with the altitude of the mountains, the men around her had erected their weathered tents in the usual fashion against the sides of the wagons in preparation for the night and the first perimeter patrol was due back shortly. She had noticed the numerous mercenaries that accompanied them had stepped up their activities and patrols now that they had entered foreign lands; even if they had been invited into Nordheim it was still in the back of their minds that this time last year they had been close to full blown war.
Ralf gingerly approached the fire to warm his hands, the fire giving his boyish features a warm glow. Athene had developed a bit of a motherly soft spot for him over the last few weeks on the trail. At sixteen, he was the youngest of the three Balmore brothers. She liked it when Ralf was on guard duty, as he looked comical dressed in his oversized leather breastplate and a longsword shoved in his belt that occasionally dragged its tip across the ground. His cheeky smile and rosy cheeks made the lad seem out of place against the gruffness of the older and serious men on the trail. He was a nice lad but she doubted his ability to carry out his duty of protecting the wagon trail effectively. It was more likely that his brothers managed to sign their contract as a trio, but then everyone needs to start their first proper employment somewhere. After all she was no different, this was her first trail also.
As Ralf came into the light of the fire he angled his face away from her then as he turned to leave, a swelling bruise around his eye could just be seen.
'Ralf, my dear boy, what has happened to you?' Athene enquired worriedly. Ralf hated being called 'Boy' but never showed his displeasure to Athene; she somehow made the word easier to stomach.
'I don't want to talk about it Athene. Can I get some soup?'
'But Ralf, this is the third time I've seen you with unexplained injuries, I'm going to talk to your Captain.' She was beginning to think that being friends with one of the only two women on this journey was bringing Ralf a lot more resentment from the other troops than he really deserved.
'No,' Ralf begged. 'Please. You will only make it worse. My brothers have told me that your first trail makes a man of you.' His brothers were of a different breed to Ralf altogether and blatantly avoided Athene but from what she had overheard from the many loose tongues that were willing to gossip with her; they were a reasonable enough type. Harsh but fair.
'... Or your first trail might break you,' replied Athene. 'Was it Adie again?' she asked. She could see by his expression that Ralf considered lying to her for a moment, but eventually he swallowed his pride and nodded.
'I cleaned his sword and armour just as he told me, but I refused to do his shift for him, the lazy toad wanted an extra hour in his bed-roll. When I finally managed to get him up, he flew at me from his pit like the devil himself and cracked my head open. ...and worst of all my brothers won't do a damn thing about that stupid dung herder. They just say that I need to sort things out for myself.'
Athene had seen Adie bully and shove a few of the youngsters around during the trip, he was a tall, plain featured man with matted and unkempt dark hair and broad shoulders. He was much older than the others, but still of low rank, the type who thought that his years of service had earned him the God-given right to do as he pleased. Athene had always just laughed away his vulgar sexual comments that he made towards her when collecting his meals. She had grown up in a busy tavern, so was no stranger to such comments, but she knew all too well that if she was stranded alone in the middle of nowhere with only Adie for help, that repugnant greasebag would have made good his joking words. The thought of Adie slavering on top of her made Athene gag, she quickly pushed the sickening thought from her mind.
'Are you alright?' Ralf enquired, tentatively touching her hand.
'Yes,' Athene replied softly, clearing her throat. 'Yes of course, I'm fine; it's you I worry about. Now don't take any more shit from that man. If I see him touch you again I will report it to Capitan Henrick. Now have some soup to warm yourself up and have a good shift tonight.'
The next night Ralf came running frantically into her baggage tent unexpected, the cold air following him in.
'Athene I need a stew pot quickly,' he panted.
Puzzled, she handed one over and he quickly left the tent. The sound of laughter from outside made her peep through the gap, to see Ralf marching up and down the path with his sword drawn across his shoulder and the pot balanced on his head. Adie was amongst the jeering group of soldiers shouting above the others.
'Now you have your new armour; you will wear your new helmet every time you report in, boy.' Athene closed the flap in disgust - she was not in the mood for camp jests tonight.
At last the long days on the trail had drifted to an end as the convoy approached their destination, Croweheim, the town that the barbarians considered their capital. The town of Croweheim was formed from a collection of villages that had grown with time, encircled with a large timber wall for defence. It seemed rather primitive and would merely be considered a large outpost fort by Tanarian or Aristrian standards.
They had stopped at several mines along the wagon trails journey, picking up a fresh cargo of different coloured crystals at each stop. The widespread discovery of crystals containing what could only be described as magical powers had already made a lot of merchants and land owners extremely rich. Before their discovery en-masse, people had known of the odd stone here and there containing unusual powers, but now they were quickly becoming common place items providing the most basic of functions. Each mine seemed to produce its own unique strain of the coloured crystals, and these made up the majority of the cargo that the merchants required for export and which they now transported for profit and trade. Athene had hated the past days when they had arrived at the mines, as there always seemed to be so much hanging around whist the paperwork was being approved or the crystals being recounted, all she could think about was getting her final pay cheque and proving to her mother that she had been wrong - she could make it on her own.
Also at each mine stop the insistence on being searched every time you entered or left the facility had driven her mad, it had been humiliating to her, especially when she had only entered to restock some cooking provisions. The merchants running the wagon trail could have easily ordered some of the men to restock the provisions, but instead they insisted that she and Greta do it and she had nothing to do with the food at all, she was involved with the accounts scribe. After starting her employment all sweet and innocent, she had soon learned a measure of distrust on this trail and suspected the merchants were getting a kick back from the mine's guards doing the body searches. Judging from the lascivious expressions on the miners' and guards' faces when she arrived through the checkpoint; there weren't many women working in the business yet.
Mining had once again become a prosperous profession with the wealth of the crystals fuelling the economy in all areas.