Chapter 19
Dark Horizon

Greystone, Gladius; Gladian Year 603

"First, they appeared on the horizon, the dark clouds of a distant storm. Before we knew what was happening, our land was completely overrun. That one warning on the horizon is all we had."
- The Lament of Chamberlain Lavelle

Ridley and his men searched the mountains at their standard interval, barely within eyeshot of one another. Though they were most adept in the woods, the scouts of Rowan prided themselves in their ability to navigate any terrain without missing the slightest detail. Since none of the regular troops patrolled outside the valley where the castle was located, the task of monitoring the mountainous border lay in their hands.
Agility and flexibility was a requisite for such patrols and common soldiers possessed neither. Ridley noticed the men on his left doing the relay maneuver, indicating they had something to report. He waited patiently for the runner to reach him. A testament to Rowan stamina, the run had not even winded the man and he immediately gave the report.
"Wistrel saw a suspicious group a few furlongs from here."
Ridley looked at the man incredulously.
"Bandit groups are common around here. Wistrel should know that."
"It wasn't just a bandit group," the man added. "He said they were organized... like an army. They were big like an army, too. He said it was like when all the miners assemble before work."
The news was certainly unexpected. Titan had been a broken country for over a hundred years, and most broken of all was the province nearest to the border. With all the bandit groups roving around, no one could possibly move such a large number of people without problems.
As he thought about it, he realized that the number of bandit groups had gone down since his father's time. A sense of foreboding crept over him. His instincts told him something was wrong and the men of Rowan were taught to trust their instincts.
"I'm going to report this to the King," Ridley said. "Tell Wistrel to keep an eye on them, but to stay out of sight. I should return in a day's time."
The man nodded and went off to pass the message along to the others. Ridley ran back to Greystone at a full sprint. It could simply be a local lord trying to consolidate his power, but the Rowanite feared it was something much worse. He could waste no time.

* * *

King Edgar was in the training grounds, sparring with his son Edward. He was clad in full armor and wielded a huge sword that was nearly as long as he was tall. His son was similarly equipped. Though the youth's sword was scaled down, it was still larger than anything a normal man would wield.
The men of Edgar's family were renowned for their might. The very thought of facing his grandfather had robbed the sovereignists of their will to fight eighty years ago. As long as the heirs retained the strength of the legendary Everard, the rule of the Mountain Kings was secure.
The King put all his weight into a broad slash. Edward successfully blocked the attack, but his stance was unsettled.
"Well done, boy," the King said, "but your legs were too close together. You have to maintain the proper distance in your stance if you want to withstand an attack. Strength is important, but a more skillful fighter makes up for a lack of it."
"Yes, Father," Edward replied.
His agreement seemed like a reflex sometimes, but Edgar had to hope that his lessons were not ignored. The King was still in his prime, but he would not live forever and he wanted his heir to be ready when the time came for him to take up the crown.
He was about to motion for Edward to make an attack when he heard a clamor nearby. The guards were putting up a protest to no avail.
He raised his hand for Edward to pause and he turned to see the cause of the commotion. It was one of the scouts from Rowan, who paid no heed to the guards' demands to halt.
"Your Majesty, I've come to make a report," the scout said.
"What impudence!" the chamberlain barked. "Show His Majesty the proper respect, you dog! Kneel!"
The scout did not kneel, standing instead as if he were an equal. Edgar waved for the chamberlain to calm down. The value of the Rowanites as scouts made him tolerate their habitual impertinence.
"Go ahead," the King said.
"My men have found a large group massed near the border," the Rowanite said. "They are many in number and well-organized. It is too early to determine their intent, but I have my people keeping constant watch. I knew you would want to hear the first word, so I came as soon as I found out."
"Have you seen them for yourself?" Edgar asked.
"I will tell you what my own eyes have seen in my next report. By your leave..."
The scout turned and left, paying no special courtesy to the nation's sovereign. Edgar knew the Rowanite had given him all the information that was available at the time. It was good to have such an early warning. The Rowanites' reliability outweighed any of their faults.
He took a brief glance at his chamberlain. Absolutely fuming, as expected. Edgar only grinned. Only bold men like that scout were deserving of his respect. Turning back to his son, he continued their sparring match. For the time being, all he could do was wait.