“The rulers of nations can never be said to truly trust one another, but there are a few ways they can come to cooperate: common ancestry, common national interests, or a common foe.”
-Caurus Etrenius, “A Treatise on the Nature of Conflict”
The man in the yellow robe rose from his seat, and opened his arms wide. He started talking, some words of welcome, but I wasn’t really paying attention. My entire focus was on the Fae woman, waiting to see what she might do, ready in case she needed something from me.
The man resumed his seat, and gestured toward the empty chairs on the side of the table closest to us. I understood that the man intended for us to sit, but I remained standing, and so did my countrymen. Clearly, what this man wanted could not possibly be important enough to pay attention to, not when she was here.
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as though I’d just sprinted a thousand paces, as though I was back on the battlefield. Strange, when I felt perfectly calm otherwise.
The man looked down at the parchments in front of him, and then back up at us, repeating his gesture and speaking again. When we continued not to move, he looked to the others seated around the table, then asked Sir Hagan a question.
The Fae woman spoke. “I believe I understand the problem.” She stood, looking at Sir Hagan across the wide table. “Tell me, please, are you under the influence of my glamour?”
“Yes,” I said, more or less in time with Sir Hagan. It wasn’t something I’d considered until just then, but it was as clear as day now that she’d said it. I found it interesting how little it bothered me; being under her spell seemed like the kind of thing I should have been outraged or terrified by, yet neither fear or anger came. And even knowing that the glamour was responsible for that lack of reaction wasn’t enough to pierce the calm, easy serenity that wrapped me like swaddling around a newborn.
The yellow-robed man began talking to the man who’d lead us in, the two of them exchanging quick, sharp words. Both sounded angry, or frustrated. The man asked Sir Hagan another question, and then turned to the Fae woman and asked her, gesturing toward us.
She nodded. “You, please,” she said, pointing to Sir Hagan, “how did you protect your men from the glamour of the Fae who attacked you in Tilaird?”
“Iron around the ears, my lady.” Sir Hagan said.
The woman tilted her head. “Please elaborate.”
“We wore helmets of iron or steel, or coifs of chainmail, my lady.”
I felt something touch the side of my belt. I was reluctant to look away from the Fae woman, not wanting to miss anything, but I risked a quick glance down. Strangely, the movement I’d felt was my own hand, shaking like an old man’s as it tried of its own volition to wrap itself around the handle of the bronze dagger.
The Fae woman gestured to the yellow-robed man, and he said something to our escort. The escort approached us, trying to step around me to reach Sir Hagan for a moment before sighing and stepping around in front of me. I could feel my mind become just a little clearer as he stpped closer; when he spoke to me I could tell he was speaking Euphenti, though I couldn’t spare enough of my focus to tell what he was saying. He pulled something from his belt, some sort of studded strap, and reached up to wrap it around my neck.
Blind, furious panic flooded into me. I shoved Lares away from me as hard as I could, sending him stumbling over empty chairs as he fell onto the table. Shouting erupted around the room, loud but not loud enough to break through the torrent of thoughts rushing through my mind. We are betrayed! The Concord is a lie! The enemy control Euphentis, and they’ve lured us here to capture us! They wrapped a shackle around my throat!
I ripped the bronze dagger from its sheath, pointing it at anyone who so much as took a step toward me. “Back! Stay back!” I looked over at my countrymen; Sir Bliss was giving me a confused look, but the rest had their eyes fixed on the Fae woman. I pointed my blade at her. “You won’t take us all, I won’t let you. I’ll warn the others.” I took a step back, toward where I hoped the door was.
The man in the yellow robe stepped in front of the woman, and looked across the table at Lares. “What’s he saying?” he asked in Euphenti.
Lares slowly lowered himself down off of the table, turning so that he could see me. “He thinks we mean to capture him,” he said, also in Euphenti, “Says he won’t let us, not without warning the rest of their forces.”
The man in yellow opened his eyes wide, and then chuckled. “The Fates have gifted the Tillish with spirit and bravery, it appears. I just wish they’d taught them to talk like civilized people. Tell him he’s in no danger.”
Lares turned his head to look at the yellow-robed man. “Their leader Sir Hagan speaks our language, and he told me that this one speaks Euphenti also. He can understand what we’re saying.”
The yellow-robed man looked back at me. “Is that so? You understand me?”
I nodded slowly, never breaking eye contact with the man, never lowering my dagger.
He raised his hands, palms toward me. “My apologies to the Fates, then, and to you as well. No one here means to hurt you.”
“What about…” I gestured with my dagger at the Fae woman. With my other hand, I reached up to the back of the strap Lares had wrapped around my neck, feeling for a closure or buckle.
I heard sharp inhalations from several of the people in the room, and Lares flinched and raised his hands toward me. “Don’t!” he said sharply, “Don’t take it off, the collar’s the thing that’s protecting you.”
I looked at him, confused. “How?”
“Lodestones, iron lodestones, in the band. I have another if you’d like to see.” He pointed back behind him, toward the back of his belt. “If I may?”
After a moment, I nodded again. Lares reached behind himself, and pulled out another of the studded straps. It made a dull, repetitive clicking sound as he pulled it free. He held it out to me, and I stepped forward to take it, pulling back my knife enough that I wasn’t pressing it to his throat and holding out my free hand.
“I thought you knew,” he said as he laid the strap over my hand. “I’m sorry, when your Sir Hagan said you knew how to protect yourselves, I didn’t think he meant that you’d wrapped your heads in metal.”
I looked down at what Lares had placed in my hand. The strap was made up of multiple layers of heavy cloth, sewn together at the edges. What I’d seen as studs were actually copper rivets, piercing the outer layers of cloth but not the inner, and behind the rivets I could feel something like metal bars inside the band. It was actually quite similar in construction to my armored coat.
As I examined the strap, one of the hanging ends twisted around, and it and the other end swung inward and stuck to each other. The remainder of the two lengths did the same, snapping together with the same kind of dull click that I’d heard when Lares had retrieved the belt, until my hand was enclosed in a small half-twisted loop and the rest of the band hung below it as a single piece. I jumped a little in surprise. I’d heard of lodestones before, bits of iron ore or other stone that iron would be drawn to, but I was under the impression that almost all of them were weak, barely strong enough to lift up a single nail. These were obviously much more powerful.
I looked back up at Lares. “This protects me?”
Lares nodded. “It creates a… an invisible aura in the air that disrupts Fae magic. I expect your helmets created a similar disruption.” He glanced over at Sir Hagan, who was still staring at the Fae woman. “I have enough for all of you, I’d just assumed you didn’t need them. You could put that one on Sir Hagan yourself, if you’d like.”
I gestured to the room with the strap in my hand. “Why do none of you wear them.”
“We’re all protected another way. Still lodestones, but… more permanently attached.” Lares sighed. “It’s one of the things we intended to go over during the meeting.”
I stared at him for a moment, then gestured to the Fae woman with my dagger again. “Who is she? Why is she here?”
The man in the yellow robe was the one who spoke. “Miss Irandrya is a traitor to her people, and a dear ally to us. Without her help, we never would have resisted the Fae long enough to invent the idea of the Concord of Man, let alone to form it.”
“And who are you?” I asked the man.
The man raised his eyebrows, and then nodded. “Of course, the glamour. You wouldn’t have heard.” He raised one hand, touching the tips of his fingers to his chest. “My name is Perion Byrne, and I am the Lord General and Commander of the army of the Concord of Man.”
“He is also the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Atlin,” Lares added.
Byrne frowned. “Only if everyone in Wiltford Castle is dead. And only if the Kingdom of Atlin still exists by the time the war is over.” He looked back over at me. “Come, my boy, put up your blade. Your people are among friends here. I promise.”