Prologue: The Council

Even though it was afternoon a dozen bright torches provided light in the meeting area. The canopy from the trees and vines so completely blocked the sun that the only way to tell the difference between day and night was by listening to the animals. The tones of the frogs, crickets, and other swamp creatures changed during the day; the hotter it got it the quieter they sang.
The meeting area was in the center of a massive rock that rose nearly ten feet above the water. It's flat, even top and location between the two territories made it ideal for council meetings. Ambassadors from the two factions had been meeting here for generations, but this was the first time the meetings were to discuss war.
At the stone table in the center of the flat rock one ambassador sat waiting. Two attendants, both female, stood behind her carrying bags with the proper documents and other information they would need. There were no weapons.
The ambassador was female, in her early twenties, with blond hair. She had grown up working hard in her family business so she was quite strong. She wore dark, muted robes of various colors that blended well with the surrounding swamp. The dark haired attendants were just at the end of their teen years.
She took a slow breath and looked at the empty seat on the other side of the table. She smiled thinking how, almost two months ago when she had first started here, she had fretted over the delay. She had discovered quickly that the delay was more theatrical than anything and now she enjoyed it. She used the time to prepare herself for the meeting and review the facts she needed to present. She had learned the job and its responsibilities quickly.
A slight breeze gently tossed the papers before her on the table. Her lengthy blond hair shifted as well, but she did not rush to put either back in place. Patience was her strong point in these talks and she had perfected her skills like an art.
A bird flew low over the flat rock. It squawked at her several times and then veered away. A few seconds later there was a flash of colors and the ambassador she was here to meet, with his attendants, stood on the other side of the table. The flash of light didn't usually signal and opening of a jump casting, but the ambassador always made a big entrance.
He was a few years older than she, tall, thin, and sandy haired. His cloak of bright red and orange revealed the leather armor he wore underneath, the blue tint of casting providing a pleasant contrast. He wore sparkly gold and silver rings and necklaces and a scarf of white feathers. The deep red gloves matched the color of the thick laces on his boots. His attendants, one a blond male and one a red haired female were dressed in standard leather armor. He was very good at drawing attention when he wanted too.
She yawned, slowly and deliberately, and then nodded at the chair.
He nodded to his attendants who quickly brushed the chair clean before he sat down.
"I know the casts keep the birds, insects, and other ugly creatures away," he explained. "I just want to make sure there is no dirt or contamination on my clothes," he said and winked at her.
"Of course," she said, not really caring. "You were only a few minutes late this time."
"Yes," he admitted. "We had lots of information from our representatives coming in that had to be sorted out. Time just got away."
"We are on the verge of war," she pointed out, knowing that he was actually talking about his spies. "Time is, unfortunately, something we do not have."
"To the point as always," he said. "A war we do not want, but will fight if necessary."
"A fact you remind me of every time we meet and by your actions in between."
"What happened was not our fault," he said with mock offense.
"Gunter Prison is off limits as are the staff and inmates. It's in neutral territory."
"We did not go to the prison," he said, suddenly serious. "The prisoners tried to escape and came in our direction. One of our patrols crossed paths with them in the dark; there was confusion, then a battle."
"Your patrol against unarmed escapees is not a battle, it's a slaughter."
"Unarmed, yes, but not without resources. Three warriors on patrol against eight of them."
"Three experienced warriors against three desperate escapees, and you know it," she spat at him as she stood. "Your warriors should have known better and pulled out."
"And your warriors should not have gone in," he matched her tone.
"They heard the commotion and investigated. On the borderline they have the authority."
"Not on our side of the line they don't."
"It was in neutral territory when it began," she said determined to keep him honest. "By the time our warriors got there the frenzy had already begun."
"Yes, it had," he said matching her accusatory glare, "and you are fully aware of what kind of affect frenzy has on us, as well."
She stopped as sure as if he had struck her in the chest. She took a deep breath and slowly sat down. She composed her thoughts and forced herself to calm down before she spoke again.
"We are also aware that you have moved in to the Fanden Estate."
"Which is not in neutral territory and has been silent for three months," he said confidently knowing their moves were legitimate.
"Silent, but not completely empty," she pointed out trying to regain the upper hand.
"Ghosts, kisertets, yes. The after images of the family and servants are being laid to rest."
"And the bodies?"
"Buried in the courtyard, untouched and protected," he smiled knowing she could not object. "The cause of death has been determined to be yapoll bites, contagious and infectious, and they were all overcome within a day."
She nodded, but did not say anything. Their own spies had encountered the yapoll nests when investigating the house. "What are your plans for the estate?"
"I imagine the same plans as yours are for the Whirool prison," he said smiling. "Of course, since you refuse to give us exact information as well, all I can do is imagine."
There was a long silence as they stared at each other and waited for the next move.
"Very well," she said finally. "We have agreed to honor your claims on the Cooper Mines. Though they are in neutral territory we will relinquish our claim and allow you sole management. We do reserve the right to monitor activity from our borderline as long as you instigate the proper markers.
His stone face managed to hide the shock he felt. He had not been expecting this and wondered what her true motive was. The Cooper Mines were in the northern part of the swamp and were an anomaly. Though surrounded by the swamp the mines were completely dry and several valuable ores had been mined there. He was also angry that he had nothing to offer her in return.
"I will pass that information along to my marshals," he said.
"We are hoping, in return, that you will lessen your restrictions on the traffic through the Blood River."
He tensed only briefly, but it was long enough for her to catch it.
"We have spoken about this before," he said swallowing hard. "The Blood River takes you close to our Sanctum. Too close, for many of us."
"Then why did you relocate it there? There are hundreds of other possibilities all over the swamps." She waited for him to answer. When he didn't, she continued on. "With the number of guards and patrols you have on that part of the river, no one could make a move without being seen."
"As you well know, our kind can do many things without being seen," he challenged her.
"We have no desire to invade your Sanctum." She said refusing to back down. "None of us have ever even tried to invade your sacred grounds. Can you say that?"
"Those were rogues," he said quickly. "They were rebels and were not acting as our agents."
"Yet their path originated in your capital."
"You have no proof of that."
"The swamp told us so. The signs were all there, the color of the mud on their boots, the crests on their weapons."
"They were thieves as well as killers."
"But why? Give me an explanation why they would attempt a strike that disruptive."
"Perhaps a third party," he said not completely confident. "Someone in the swamp who would benefit from a war between us."
"Like who?" she asked with a calm and steady voice. "There is nobody else in the swamp. Even the giants have never taken an interest in us even before the mountain fell. Humans, hobgoblins, dwarves, all the rest are afraid of us."
"Not all of them," he smiled. "Several of them came in to the swamps eleven days ago. They are avoiding the prisons and the main roads. Their only reason for doing that must be to spy on us."
"I've heard of their presence, but we don't consider them much of a threat. Four humans and a dwarf. We believe they are gold hunters."
"There's no gold in the swamps."
"We know that, yes, but they don't."
"Then what about the second group that came in five days ago?" he said and smiled at the surprise on her face. "Two giants, traveling together, without attendants or even horses, in search of the first group."
She sat back, stunned, furious that she had not known. "They are in our territory," she said with her fists clenched. "Most likely criminals on the run. I believe they call them Fugitive Kind," she added regaining her confidence. "How did you know about them?"
"The swamp speaks to us, too," he said.
"Very well," she said hiding any emotion. "We have some equipment left in the mines to dismantle. We will be out of there soon."
"Understood. I will also express your request to the Marshall about passage on the Blood River," he said.
She nodded, knowing that he would not.
"We will speak again soon," he said confidently as he rose and joined his attendants.
He waved his wand and there was a flash of colors as he opened the jump cast and then a snap as this side of the door closed.
Movement on the edge of the flat rock caught her attention and she turned to see a lizard slither on to the even stone. She thought about leaving it there hoping it would eventually nest on his chair, but decided to remove it. One of the advantages she had over him was that he hadn't realized the protective casts were canceled for several seconds both before and after he jumped. This way she was always ready for him before he arrived.
She walked over and carefully picked up the lizard. One of her attendants joined her while the other collected her belongings.
"Bell, please make sure this gets released once we are outside the shell," she said handing the animal to the assistant.
"Of course," the dark haired girl said.
"I don't think he cares whether there's a war or not," the second attendant, Ring, said as she joined them. Bell and Ring were twin sisters and she trusted them completely.
"No," Maura agreed sadly. "I'm afraid his ego tells him he will be a hero when they go to war and win."
"What if they don't win?" Bell asked.
"Either from ego or confidence he hasn't considered that possibility. He's not a peace maker and he doesn't want to be one, either. That is what makes him so dangerous."
"I'm afraid, Maura, you were not at your best tonight," Ring said honestly.
Maura looked her hard in the face for a second, than nodded. "I let his attitude and his carelessness get to me. I don't want to go to war."
"We'd better get back to the Sanctum," Bell broke the tension.
"Yes, as soon as we do I will meet with the Marshall and update him on the situation. Bell, talk to the deputies and give me updates on their progress. As much as I fear it, the warriors must be ready. Ring, find out what you can about these two groups who have entered the swamp. Both of them. I especially want to know of the two giants who are following or hunting the first group.
The attendants nodded that they would do what they were told and all three of them walked to the edge of the flat rock. Bell and Ring each pulled a necklace from beneath their cloaks. Bell's carried a focus stone and Ring's a source stone. Simultaneously they spoke the words to open the cast gate and they stepped down the wooden steps to their boat.
As they moved away without rowing, Bell released the lizard on a muddy bank.