Chapter 1
March to War

Ancient Forest, Byrn; Anno Regis 1285

"What thoughts go through the mind of an invader? What drives a man to take up arms and march on his neighbor? Is it mere obedience to the will of his masters? Is it greed for spoils? Is it lust for violence? I suppose it's a little bit of all of these."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

There was no masking the sound of nearly five thousand boots tromping through the blanket of pine needles that covered the forest floor. It was like thunder rumbling in the distance, an apt analogy since the invading army would soon sweep through the kingdom of Byrn like a great storm.
The army was the Marauders, the elite fighters of the fearsome usurper king of Gladius, Randwulf the Conqueror. Originally cobbled together from the countless bandit groups infesting the Crescent Mountains, the Marauders were refined over the years following the conquest of Gladius. Organized and outfitted as a conventional army, Randwulf's harsh training ensured that they were no less formidable. If anything, the fusion of Titian and Gladian elements made the new generation of Marauders even more powerful than its forebears.
At the head of the main formation rode Randwulf himself. His pride allowed for nothing more than a vanguard detachment of tenscore to march before him. The Wolf of Cygnus had lost little of his vitality over the past twenty years, still every bit as fierce and hungry for power. More than anything, however, he was driven to the East by the prophecy of his downfall. The warlock Shadowblight had predicted his rise to power decades ago and the King had little reason to doubt the ill oracle that followed his triumph.
His dreams were haunted from that day onward. The Eagle in the East, the key to his destruction, was always there, its talons seeking his blood. If Randwulf did not stop it, the Eagle would rob him of everything he had fought to gain.
Biding his time for twenty years was one of the hardest things he had to do in his entire life. His preparations for the invasion of Gladius paled in comparison, but it was a necessary evil. He had to firmly cement his grip on his new kingdom, lest it fall out of his hands in his absence. Also, he had a greater purpose in coming to Byrn, but to achieve it he first needed to perfect his powers. The preparations were finally complete and his Marauders drew ever closer to their destination. Nothing would stop him now.
He raised his hand to summon Cadmus Martial, the commander of the Marauders, who rode close to the King's side. The former cavalry officer had been looking forward to the campaign, eager to strike at Gladius' longtime enemy. Like Randwulf, age had little effect on him save the greying of his hair. He was still an able swordsman and thirsted for battle.
"Yes, Your Majesty?"
"Bring me the traitor," Randwulf said, "that Byrnan apprentice of the warlock."
Before Cadmus could respond, a cloaked figure appeared before the King, hovering just above the ground and gliding backwards to keep pace with his horse. All of the warlock's apprentices dressed essentially the same, but this one allowed himself a few trappings to distinguish himself, fineries his ascetic master scorned. Although the hood masked his face as he bowed before the King, Randwulf caught a trace of a serpentine grin cross the apprentice's mouth.
"You called, sire?" the apprentice asked.
Randwulf frowned. "From now on, you will approach me like a man, not a wraith."
"As you wish, sire," the apprentice replied pliantly, his insincerity unmistakable.
The King did not like the warlock or his apprentices to begin with, but this one was the worst. He was proud to the point of arrogance, showing only enough decorum to avoid an encounter with the lash. He was treacherous and obsessive, a dangerous combination worsened by a tenuous grip on sanity. Permitting his continued survival carried considerable risks, but his skills and knowledge were useful. As long as he could be kept in his place, it was too much of a waste to get rid of him.
"You are a Byrnan, correct?" the King asked.
"Indeed, sire."
"And you offered information on your homeland, yes?"
"But of course."
"You would betray your native land?"
The apprentice bowed low, spreading his arms in a theatric display. "My loyalty is to you, sire, and to my master, naturally." He glanced over to Cadmus. "I am not the first traitor to be accepted into your ranks. Am I, Lord Cadmus?"
"Impudent wretch!" Cadmus roared, reaching for the hilt of his sword.
Randwulf raised a hand and to stay the fiery patrician's wrath.
"Watch your tongue, whelp," the King warned, "or I will have it cut out."
The apprentice bowed again, once to Randwulf and then to Cadmus. "I am afraid His Lordship misunderstood me," he said, his voice slick as oil. "I only meant to say that Your Majesty has been aided in the past by men of vision, men who wanted to be on the right side of history."
"A presumptuous creature, aren't you?"
"I have a weakness for honesty, sire."
"Quite," Randwulf replied, making no effort to hide his sarcasm. "Now what can you tell me?"
The apprentice made a sweeping gesture for dramatic flair, saying, "More than two hundred years have passed since the last time Byrnans and Gladians crossed swords, but Byrn has always had to be vigilant to preserve its borders. With the Ardovans to the north and the Nemerites to the south, the threat of invasion is a constant worry.
"Twelve watchposts line the border. Individually, the detachments at each watchpost amount to very little, but they can signal the other watchposts and spread the alarm throughout the entire kingdom in no time at all."
"Good," Randwulf said curtly. "I want them to know we are coming. How many population centers are there?"
"There are five towns that belong to Byrn and an unaligned Gypsy village in the forest to the south. The town garrisons are more robust than those in Gladius, but still pose no challenge to the Marauders, even if you take into account any militia they can raise and the private forces of the boyars."
"Boyars?" Cadmus asked, oblivious to the fact that his interruption could draw the King's ire.
"Landed noblemen, Your Lordship," the apprentice replied, "much like your fellow patricians or the jarls of Titan. With the right incentives, their loyalties can be easily acquired."
"I have no plans of cutting a deal with the Byrnans," Randwulf said. "I intend to crush them."
The apprentice did not even flinch at the prospect of his homeland's ruin. "As Your Majesty wishes, of course. The only real obstacle is the city of Dragova, near the castle. The bulk of army is stationed there and unless they have fallen upon hard times recently, they outnumber the Marauders by a fair margin."
"The Gladians outnumbered my Marauders nearly three to one when I invaded," the King replied, "but they fell all the same. Even with two Elemental Knights in his service, the Mountain King could not stand against me."
"In that case, sire, you are in luck. Byrn has but one Elemental Knight, King Abdiy himself, and he is getting on in years. However, I have heard the Captain of the Dragon Guard was once an Elemental Knight before he lost his birthright. Who knows what powers a man retains after being forsaken by the Gems?"
"Nothing that can stand against a full-fledged Elemental Knight," Randwulf said. He eyed the apprentice. "As a member of House Serkan, you should know that as well as anyone."
The apprentice held a hand to his chest in feigned surprise. "My, there is no hiding from a fellow heir of the Eight Stars, is there? Yes, sire, it seems the lesson of Kudret the Invader went unheeded, but surely it plays to your advantage."
Randwulf made a dismissive wave of his hand. "Yes, but enough of that. What else can you tell me of the kingdom's defenses?"
The apprentice lowered his voice conspiratorially, more to annoy Cadmus than anything else. "Actually, sire, there is another unconventional threat to this campaign."
"What do you mean?" Randwulf asked.
"It is a rather long story," the apprentice replied, "but I suppose we still have a few days before we clear the forest."
The King was dubious of how valuable this story would be, but he did not plan to dismiss it out of hand. If nothing else, it would kill some time. He nodded for the apprentice to proceed.
"Go on."
The apprentice bowed, clearly pleased at the indulgence. "Well, sire, it all started ten years ago..."