The library was dark even though the light breaking in through the dulled glass windows betrayed the fact it was the middle of the day. The cold stone walls were covered in cloths and fabrics that displayed a mixture of patterns, symbols and pictorial accounts of long past events. One great tapestry showed a great battle between armies of men in leather and metal armour. Some of them stood on metal vehicles and above them was a winged machine, dropping fire. The land was barren like desert and the ground littered with bodies. In front of the tapestry were a number of relics including a broken axe, helmet and what looked like a rubber wheel though it was too flexible to use on its own. The library was rectangular in shape and over half of its space taken up by a dozen oak bookcases, each dark with age, and as sturdy as the day they were built. At one point in the past, they had probably been full to overflowing with books and papers, but those days were long gone. Only a fraction remained of the world’s old literature and the texts on the dusty shelves were valued more highly than any food, fuel or material. Few of the books were complete and most showed extreme signs of age and deprivation.

Synne sat at her wooden table, a place where she had been working now for over three years. She had spent every day of her training either working on martial arts, writing or working in this library. When she was a young girl, she had been taught to read by her father, an ability that was increasingly rare in these lands. Of the population of the old city, only half of them could read to any extent and a tiny proportion of those could write. With these skills, she was learning, though she had already started to pass on her knowledge to a new line of teachers who could then teach others. It was her father’s hope that in less than ten years the entire city could be literate, the first member of the League to do so. Her city was self-contained, founded by a group of nomadic warriors and built amongst the ruins of what must have been a mighty city itself at sometime in the past.

Even more important though, was that she could read, and understand some of the books she had found that were in different tongues. This was a unique gift, as over half the books known to exist were not in the League’s native language. Any member of the League that had the ability to read and understand the knowledge contained in these old texts would have a priceless asset, and be most valued of all. Of greater importance though would be the benefits to all members that such knowledge could bring. The thoughts of the medical, science and engineering knowledge waiting to be discovered thrilled her, and it was what drove her to learn to read the old tongues.

To the side of her desk were several ancient machines, each lovingly maintained, cleaned and oiled. The closest to her was a simple handheld press. It featured movable type and Synne had used it in the last few hours to duplicate financial records for the archives. Of all the work she did, this was the most boring. With this chore completed, Synne was able to move on to something she found infinitely more interesting. This part of her working day was dedicated to transcribing, repairing, restoring and copying the small number of sacred written texts and relics still owned by the city. The book she was working on was a water-damaged copy of an early twentieth century edition of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The book was dated, but this was only of partial use to her, as the only dates used were those of the founding of the League. Synne had no idea when the twentieth century had been, only that it wasn’t in her lifetime or anybody else she knew.

Large sections of the book were unreadable due to damage over the centuries as well as water and fire, but the sections she had fixed so far were fascinating. The area she had been working on for more than two weeks was ironically called, Attacking with Fire and concerned the tactical and strategic use of fire in war and politics. Synne’s father Lord Galan, was the leader of the city of Haven, and had shown great interest in this book and wanted the copies of the reassembled sections sent to him. When she was finished, the repaired and reassembled title was to be printed on the machines, with at least a dozen copies to be created at the personal expense of the her father. The costs of making the ink alone made this a valuable proposition and the books would be a valuable heirloom and great status symbol.

The door to the library opened and in walked two young men, both in their early twenties. Between them they carried a chest. They staggered inside and dropped it to the ground with a thud.

“Oops,” said the first, though with little reverence.

The second noticed Synne who was still working at her desk. Upon hearing the noise and the door, she stood and turned to them. Her clothes were basic and drab and she had the look of someone who, though fully occupied, was hardly satisfied with what life had to offer her. She was a tall woman, just under six feet and relatively strongly built which was surprising considering she spent so much time in the library.

“What have you got there?” she asked.

“Uh, items recovered from the expedition into the Wastelands. This is all the paper they could find, sent over by courtesy of your brother,” said the first.

Synne wandered over and lifted the lid gently, peering inside at its contents.

“This isn’t paper, you fools! These are books and they contain knowledge and wisdom you can only dream of.”

“Uh, yeah, okay. So, we can go now?” asked the first man, his disinterest in the box being self-evident.

Synne nodded and as the two men left, she stood and stared intently at the objects resting in the wooden box. She moved to the side of the box and noticed the lettering. It read simply, Stacks.

“Stacks?” asked Synne to herself though she was still unsure as to the meaning.

She looked back inside and at first was disappointed only to find loose sheets of paper. Though valuable, they were nothing compared to the knowledge of the Ancients. As she lifted the sheets and placed them delicately into a case on the lower shelf, she noticed one contained a list. Moving it into the light she read it carefully. The lettering was smaller than usual and it appeared to be a record of books to be sold off.

“Sold off?” she muttered to herself. The Ancients must have had access to a bewildering array of knowledge, if they could afford to simply sell off books. The only other option she could think of was that these were essentially treasure that had been exchanged for something of equal value. Some kind of economic measure, perhaps.

She reached inside and withdrew a glossy book, its cover thin and colourful though faded with time. With a gentle blow, the dust moved aside to reveal the cover. It showed a picture of a three-legged machine that seemed to be chasing or herding people.

“Strange,” whispered Synne as she opened the book to reveal its contents.

“It is a book of a war with creatures from Mars,” she said with a hint of surprise.

She looked out of the window and up to the sky before turning back to the book and then flipped it over. The idea of a great war was always of interest, especially as one of the biggest questions any of them ever had was, what had happened centuries ago? Some even doubted any great event had occurred and that the mysterious buildings and artefacts had been left by an older, more advanced society. So many questions she thought to herself. She turned the book over and noticed a dusty and partially worn away description of its contents. She strained as she tried to read the text, then smiled to herself as she made out the words.

“Ah, a science fiction story, fascinating,” she exclaimed.

As she placed the book down, she found a dark leather-bound edition of a book that must be of value. As she lifted it part of the old leather dropped off, and with a twist of her wrist she managed to catch it and place it on the table. The name on the spine had faded long ago yet the pages looked solid. She opened a few pages, staring in awe at the illustrations. The first showed people in sets of metal armour and they were fighting next to wooden barriers. The next page showed a bizarre machine like a cart, yet it was fitted with blades and armour. Synne looked closely at the machine, the detail was incredible as were the many hue and colours.

A hand knocked at the door.

“Come in,” answered Synne, though she remained engrossed in the work.

In walked a man of common clothes and bearing. He approached Synne and then stopped in front of her, waiting patiently.

Synne turned to the man though her thoughts were still on the incredible machines.

“Can I help?” asked Synne.

“I’m from the flatlands, miss, we’ve been expanding the crop fields and I’ve started organising the irrigation of the new sections. The problem is we need to move water from a lower field to clear it for crops.”

“And what do you need from me?” asked Synne.

“Well, I was told you might have a piece of technology that could help us move the water,” he explained.

Synne stood and walked over to one of the many bookcases. As she looked along the rows of books, she continued talking.

“What have you tried so far?”

“Well, we’ve tried buckets but it is taking too long. I don’t have enough labourers to work the land and drain the water.”

“I understand. So, a machine you could use to pull the water and place it somewhere else would be of use then?” asked Synne with a smile.

“If such a miraculous machine existed it would help us clear the land and start work immediately,” said the man with a growing smile.

Synne removed a book from a shelf. It was a simple volume containing a section on tools, equipment and machines for agriculture. She walked over to her desk and laid out the book so that the man could see the pages.

“This is called an Archimedes Screw, it is an ancient invention. By placing this screw in the channel of water you simply turn the screw and the water will be pulled upwards and out this side,” she explained.

“Incredible, this will truly work with water?” he asked.

“It will work with all kinds of fluids. Take this plan to the workshop and ask them to assemble you one that is five yards long, that is that about right.”

The man took the paperwork and headed for the door.

“Be careful with those plans, they are priceless,” said Synne with a smile.

As the man left Synne grinned inwardly, knowing well that the material she had shown him was a copy from the archive of the screw, she had over fifty more copies locked safely away. She moved back to her book and examined the contents in detail. From the inlay page it said it was a selection of illustrations from the German swordmaster, Talhoffer. Synne hadn’t heard of the man before but the illustrations were extraordinary. As she skimmed through further pages, she could see examples of men and even some women that were fighting with a great variety of weapons. Some used swords, others spears and there was even an image of a person using a piece of cloth with something wrapped up inside it.

What really caught Synne’s eye though, was the lavish detail on the armour and machines. These were not the simple works of a humble blacksmith but those of skilled craftsmen with expert knowledge on the shape and movement of the human figure. The machines were fanciful and she was excited when she saw what looked like a land ship, a wooden item covered in metal plating and pulled by armoured horses. On the sides of the machine were metal tubes with puffs of mist coming out of them.

“I’ve seen these before,” she muttered as she looked intently at the details.

She spent several more hours, pouring through the book, forgetting the rest of the titles sat patiently in the box before she noticed how dark it had become. Because of the gloom in the library she already had several lamps burning and had turned them up without giving the lateness of the day any consideration. It was time for her to go she could return and continue her work tomorrow. She closed the book carefully and ensured there were no naked flames anywhere in the library before stepping outside. As she opened the door, a chill wind crept in and sent a tingle through her body.

She closed the heavy wooden door behind her and locked it shut. Only she and Lord Galan carried keys for the library and if anybody was found to be in the room without them, they could expect a very heavy punishment. She walked the short distance from the library, where she had been working all day, to the inn. As she made her way along the path she thought about the exciting treasures she had seen and for a moment she was tempted to head back and read some more. Then she remembered, she had promised to meet her older brother Ulric today, primarily to discuss his training. She had not seen her brother for a week as he had been away, teaching at the League’s combat school that was over a day’s ride from their settlement. Her brother was one of the small numbers of warriors in the area and it was his job to protect the region from Raiders and slavers. The other members of the League knew that Haven was the strongest of their members and the teachings of its greatest warrior well appreciated. Some of the border regions were paid upkeep by the great Houses to provide small bands of militia to protect the fragile frontiers, and to occasionally provide troops when needed. Ulric often had to travel to help teach these people how to fight.

Although there were nearly a thousand people in Haven and five times that number in the farms, villages and lands nearby it was unable to afford more than a fifty full time warriors, the rest had to be provided by the militia or from other League forces. Every person that lived there was a mouth to feed and warriors contributed no food, trade or materials, even though their role was necessary and vital. That didn’t mean they neglected their defences though, every man or woman over the age of sixteen was shown how to use basic weapons and was expected to man the defences if the time required it, which it frequently did.

Ulric, and his companions spent their time travelling the borders improving their equipment or training the inhabitants of Haven and the other members in the basics of combat should it ever be required. As Synne wandered down the path she looked about at the city, the remnants of what she thought was probably a great settlement at sometime, perhaps even a major city to the Ancients. After all these years the old names had faded, the buildings had collapsed and little remained other than foundations and the odd relic usually taken away or stripped for its parts. These days the city was known as Haven. According to the old men that lived there it was named due to it being the first of the settlements to be reoccupied and rebuilt centuries ago, though many would dispute that or even that there ever was some great calamity at some point in the past. It was obvious that people had been here many years ago as some of the ruins on the outskirts and even some of the older buildings in Haven must be very old. Whatever the truth, the city of Haven was the most powerful, successful and peaceful of the settlements in the League and its warriors were renowned though the lands.

It had been dark for almost three hours and most of the inhabitants of city were indoors. The shadow of the ruined fortress loomed over the small number of buildings just as it must have done for hundreds of years. A flicker of light came from a few guard posts and a great orange glow came from the busiest part of the area, the old inn. Only a fraction of the city was occupied, the perimeter was a mixture of trees, bushes, and scrub that seemed to hide a bewildering array of low walls and outlines of what probably used to be buildings. The dusty paths between the ramshackle buildings were in poor condition and travel at night could be treacherous. Night-time in this part of the world was always a danger, and it was a time when everybody had to be on their guard. The open ground around the outpost could hide all manner of evil things and it frequently did.

As she approached the inn she placed her torch in the water bucket and then into the stand nearby. She opened the door and went inside.

“Synne, busy day?” asked the barman who was busily serving a customer.

Synne nodded and walked towards a table, moving past the half a dozen regulars. As she approached the table, a dark figure turned slightly to face her. Synne ignored the man and continued to her usual spot. As she moved a few more feet, the man at the table moved and either by accident or by plan, ended up striking Synne in the side. She stumbled a foot or two and then turned to face the man. She was unable to respond though, before the seated figure moved to stand towering over her. It was hard to make out the man’s full figure but as he stood it was clear he was a man of violence. He wore iron armour on his shoulders and chest and had specially fashioned vanguards and braces of either leather or thick rubber on his arms and legs.

“Excuse me,” said Synne and without hesitating continued onwards to her place.

As she moved to sit, a great booming voice echoed through the room.

“What do you mean, excuse me?” asked the giant, still standing and unmoving.

Synne lowered herself to her seat and ignored the man.

“I’m talking to you, little princess!” exclaimed the stranger.

“Then maybe you should go outside and find somebody else to annoy, Raider,” said a sarcastic voice.

A young man stepped into view and faced off against the stranger. He was one of the town’s newest warriors. The two looked at each other for several seconds, neither saying a word. A volley of laughter echoed through the warm room as the other patrons enjoyed the joke at the expense of the stranger. The barman placed a tankard of the locally made ale on the table and made his way discreetly back to the bar.

The laughter continued as the stranger walked slowly over to the table where Synne sat. As he reached just a few short feet away, the young man stepped ahead and blocked his way.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me, I said you should go outside!”

“So, the girl has a child to protect her,” replied the stranger, as he lowered his right hand to his left hip and placed his hand on the hilt of something, obviously preparing to draw a weapon.

“Hey, I don’t want no trouble here. You know the rules, no violence in Haven,” said the barman, “on pain of death!” he added, almost for effect.

The stranger looked at the barman and then back to the people in the room. His hand still rested on the hilt of the weapon and he showed no sign of backing down.

“Do you know who I am?” he demanded.

The door to the inn opened and in walked two more men, both wearing similar clothing and armour to the stranger. On their chests, they wore a symbol of some kind and on their belts each carried a vicious looking blade.

“Cainon, Lord Galan is ready to see us, come on,” said one of them.

The stranger looked around the room and with a grunt he turned and left the inn. As he took several paces away from them, he released his hand on his weapon and appeared to relax a little. As he was about to close the door the younger man called out.

“Don’t bother coming back, you’re not welcome!” he said with a laugh.

The stranger turned just a few degrees so his head showed in profile against the low light. He looked inside for a brief moment and was gone. As the door shut, the younger man jumped down to sit in front of Synne.

“You are unwise to antagonise one of the Thirty, Peter,” said Synne as she took a sip from her drink.

“One of the Thirty, I thought that was a story used to frighten children. They don’t really exist,” replied the younger man.

“Peter. My brother says you are a good student and showing promise, you are not a warrior though, not yet. You know our military is small and like any of the other members of the League, can afford only a few dozen warriors and you have not even finished your training. You must learn to control yourself if you are to become one of my brother’s retainers. By antagonising Cainon, you once more show your lack of understanding and humility.”

“Understanding? All I saw were a few nomads who were trying to look tough and pushing their way around our lands. Do you have no pride? Don’t you care? I thought you were training in the arts as well?” asked the young man with a strong tone of scorn. “Your brother would fight!”

The door shut with a loud noise.

“Her brother would tell you exactly the same, student!” came a growl from the door.

“Ulric!” said Synne with a happy grin.

The gruff looking man strolled in, he was a good head taller than Synne and carried himself with the poise of a man that was used to commanding people.

“Cainon is one of the Brotherhood, the collection of nomadic tribes and bandits from the North East that controls half of the land here.”

He gestured with his hand for the young man to move out of the way. With a gap created, he sat down in front of Synne and winked at her before turning back to Peter.

“Most of their territory is in and around the Wastelands. We don’t know how they are able to survive there but somehow they do. Together the Brotherhood is the equal of the League, mainly because nobody else wants to live or travel anywhere near the Wastelands. They are a troublesome and very dangerous people. Luckily, they spend more time fighting amongst each other and fighting the Raiders from the mountains than worrying about us. They fought against us at the last Contest, and if it wasn’t for the fact that the rest of the League sided with us, they would have easily won. If they had won they would have led and this would probably lead to the League being dissolved or worse, open conflict between the League and the Brotherhood just like in the old days. As my sister has explained to you, your actions could cause trouble between us.”

“I understand, please accept my apologies. I didn’t realise it was quite as complicated as that,” said the young man as he stood up and left the space in front of Synne.

As he turned to move away, he stopped and turned to Ulric.

“If I might ask though, why do we follow these rules? Why don’t we fight and run our own affairs? The League is strong, maybe stronger than the Brotherhood.”

“Fight? You know this, have you never listened to my brother? If the Brotherhood was ever able to unite they would be a power more deadly than any of us could match,” exclaimed Synne.

Ulric moved a step closer to his student, looking intently into his eyes.

“There are few of the powerful Houses left now but the League stops any one becoming more powerful than the rest of them combined. This means the League is always able to exercise control over the members. At present, the members could just about match a united Brotherhood in battle, but for how long? What if one member, refused to fight? It was your attitude of war and conquest that led to the scouring of the land and the fall of many of the settlements here. The strongest of the remaining Houses made a decision five generations ago, that led to the first Battle of the Thirty to stop the never-ending war and to let the decision be made with the least blood spilt. You know this!” said Ulric.

“Yes, yes, I know, I’ve heard this story since I was a boy. When will there be the next Contest then?” he asked.

Synne sighed and looked at her brother in exasperation. Ulric looked at her, acknowledging her grin before turning to the youngster.

“If you listened half as much as you talked you would know the answer. A decision can only called for after a minimum of ten years or if the leader of any of the League members retires,” he said.

“Or dies,” added Synne.

“I still don’t understand though. What difference does it make who wins the Contest?” asked the young man.

“What difference?” exclaimed Ulric with alarming volume.

“Listen, the winner chooses the leader of for the alliance of the League and the Brotherhood from its own faction as well as the Captain of the combined armed forces of the Alliance. Basically the winner will lead until the next Contest is called. Imagine what it would be like if a clan or House like the Brotherhood ever won. They would lead and control the military,” explained Ulric.

“Is that a bad thing?” replied the man to the annoyance of both Ulric and Synne.

The door opened and in ran two teenagers.

“Have you heard the news?” shouted the first whilst the second pushed ahead.

“What is it?” asked Ulric.

“Raiders have attacked the flatlands in the North. Lord Galan has ordered the Alliance’s warriors to drive them back. The Brotherhood is already sending men as required and four more cities in the League are sending their men,” said the second boy.

A murmur rushed around the inn as those present realised the enormity of the situation. In the past, attacks by Raiders had been anything from a dozen men to a coordinated attack by almost a hundred. Raids were usually launched to steal food and supplies, but they could also continue with land grabbing or even kidnapping. The arrival of slavers was a threat few wanted to even consider.

“I must go, sister,” said Ulric.

He stood and made for the door, the young student close behind him. As he reached it, he turned back to Synne.

“Keep your weapons close, just in case.”

* * *

Ulric and his group of warriors dismounted from their horses and made their way to the gathering of warriors.

There were groups from various Houses and each wore distinctive clothing and armour of their lands. A small but rough looking contingent moved ahead to meet Ulric. The group stood next to a pair of parallel metal tracks that led off into the mist. Some said that the track had been part of the old transport system, though how sets of metal lines could help move people or goods was anybody’s guess.

One group, wearing the distinctive back mounted banners of the Blood Pack stood off to the side. Their armour was slick with red dye and each carried their favoured spears. They were from a small mountainous territory off to the west of Haven but had been loyal friends for decades and a strong member of the League. On top of this, they were the sworn enemies of the Brotherhood. They took their name from their ancestors who had hunted with wolves in their homelands. Though they now occupied the area with small towns and villages, their warriors still clung to the traditions of wearing wolf pelts and decorating their armour with the blood of their kills. Ulric nodded to them as he moved to the rest of the gathered warriors.

The contingent from the Brotherhood approached, their armour was blackened with fire, in theory to protect the metal from rust, but more likely to look more menacing. Each of the men carried well-crafted and modified armour as well as swords, axes and knives. They looked like a mixture of a wild barbarian and an ancient armoured soldier. As Ulric and his men continued forward they were met by Master Lar of the Brotherhood. He was the tallest and strongest looking of the group. His head was shaved bare and on his shoulder he carried a prized and extremely rare weapon that Synne was convinced had the name of musket. Ulric had only ever seen one before, and in the hands of a trader who wanted more wealth that he had ever seen to buy the item. Apparently, they used a special explosive powder that could be bought in only a few of the most expensive markets. This was one of the items his sister, Synne, was currently studying and learning about. Ulric look surprised to see the leader of the Brotherhood out with such a small body of men.

“Ulric, my clan is here, as required by our agreement. We have already run into two parties of Raiders, who I might add are being taken back as spoils,” he said as he looked at Ulric’s contingent of tough looking fighters.

“What are your plans?” he asked.

“The Blood Pack has already cleared the border villages, there is one large group left that is travelling back to the Wastelands. We will ride out and intercept them before they get there.”

“Where is the rest of the Brotherhood?”

Lar shrugged, “Who knows, maybe they were distracted on the way.”

“The order from Lord Galan was that all forces were to assemble here under my command. The agreement between the League and the Brotherhood says you must provide a force equal to ours,” said Ulric angrily.

“Well, take it up with him when you go home, Ulric,” he said with a snigger.

“As for the Raiders, what if they reach the Wastelands?” asked Lar with an odd expression.

“Let’s make sure there is no if!” replied Ulric sternly.

One of the local scouts spoke up.

“We’ve seen them about a mile away, there were too many of them to stop. They have prisoners and projectile weapons,” explained the man.

Ulric whistled and three of the men brought over their horses.

“Not for much longer, Lar and the rest of you, follow me, we will stop them!” he barked as he climbed onto his horse.

As Ulric galloped off to the North with his warriors from the Guild and the Blood Pack riding alongside them, Master Lar looked at them and paused.

“Not long now,” he said as he smiled.

He signalled to his own men. With a nod, they mounted their own horses and with a cloud of dust joined in with the rest of the mounted host as they galloped to battle.

* * *

Synne stood with the reverence required when meeting the head of her House, Lord Galan. The man was in his late sixties and in his younger days been a warrior, much like Synne’s brother Ulric. The struggles of the past years had taken their toll however and the old man now walked with a pronounced limp. He was sat at his table, always guarded by his personal assistant, the mute but deadly Gratus. The two had fought side by side and at some point in the past, Gratus had been captured and tortured by one of the many clans in the Brotherhood. It was a mark of his loyalty that had made his enemies remove his tongue, a punishment that he apparently had returned on them tenfold.

“So these are actual designs for machines of war? Real machines, not fanciful designs?” asked the Master.

“Yes, father. The one design here is very simple and allows a lantern to be carried on the arm, as well as this shield device and a weapon. I think it is for use at night, probably for guards,” she explained.

Turning a few pages, she stopped at a very detailed design for a war machine that allowed men to climb up and over a high wall. It was mainly constructed with wood, though the pivoting sections looked like iron. There were a number of metal cogs and levers, but nothing unknown to Synne.

“The designs are detailed yet there is nothing here that appears contrary to science. I have already started on a model of one of the simpler designs, but my work is being slowed because of the text. If you look here, you can see the descriptions but they are in a different language. It looks like the language of the Germans and not one I am familiar with. I do have several texts in the library related to it though,” Synne said.

“Curious. What of these techniques with the weapons, can we make use of them?” he asked, as he pointed at the pages with fighters using a variety of weapons.

“I will check with Ulric when he returns, though from my basic training so far I do recognise some of the movements,” said Synne as she turned the pages.

“For example, this particular move suggests that if a strike with a shorter weapon extends to my head, I can strike with a sloping parry directly in front and then step to the side and deliver a counter cut. We already practice this move so it would be reasonable to assume we can make use of the rest of the techniques,” she explained.

“Fascinating, and these papers came from our scouting expedition into the wilderness?”

“Yes, father.”

“Well, that is some excellent work for all of those involved. I suggest you put the Eastern manual on hold for now and move on to these combat techniques. The attacks by Raiders are increasing in number and anything that can give us an advantage will be of help. I’m sure your brother will find this new found knowledge to be of great use. Now child, tell me of your martial training. How are you doing and have you mastered the staff yet?” he asked with a smile.

Before Synne could answer the question, the thick wooden doors swung open to reveal Ulric and a bloodied warrior.

“Brother!” cried Synne as she noticed the blood on both men.

Ulric placed his hand reassuringly on Synne’s shoulder and then moved up to Lord Galan.

“Sire, we have returned from battle with the Raiders. The League met and we drove them back but there were casualties. We lost three, the others even more.”

“By the Gods, is the border secure?” asked the Master.

“Our border is strong but the flatlands further north have been razed. We were too late to stop the Raiders and they have taken prisoners. We mustered nearly a hundred warriors from the League but the Brotherhood only provided a single contingent under Master Lar. We chased them north but they disappeared into the Wastelands.”

“The Wastelands, we’ve lost many warriors in that place. Those that travel there are still falling to the sickness. Did you follow them?”

Ulric turned his head.

“No, father, I’ve heard that plenty suffer after even a few hours in the Wasteland. We know it affects men it turns them wild. Against my advice, Master Lar of the Brotherhood led a party north and into the heart of the Wastelands. I ordered them not to travel outside out our borders with so few men but he insisted.”

“As leader of the expedition of the League it is the law that they follow your orders. Did you explain this to him?” asked an irritated Lord Galan.

“I did, father, and Master Lar assured me he would obey. As we tended to our wounded he rushed off and took twenty men,” said Ulric as he sighed.

“That’s when we heard news of the ambush, Sire,” he added.

“Ambush, against Master Lar? Is he safe?”

 “No, Sire. According to the few that came back over fifty Raiders were waiting for them in the pass. They tried to fight their way out, but most were surrounded. Only a few managed to escape, Master Lar of the Brotherhood was cut down just feet from the boundary of the wasteland. I led our warriors to try to rescue them but it was already too late. The Raiders were gone and just some weapons and armour are all we found,” explained the exhausted Ulric.

“What of the rest of the Brotherhood?”

“A small number survived, they blame us for not helping them. After taking the bodies they left.”

“You did the right thing, if you had stayed with Lar then you would almost certainly be dead. What of the bodies though, did you see the dead of the Brotherhood?”

“No, father, why do you ask?”

“Because, my son, I do not trust them, never have. They might say they lost men but who is to say what really happened. Anyway, Lar always was a warmonger looking for glory and he’s caused us enough problems in the past, perhaps this is not a bad thing. What about our border to the Wastelands?” asked Lord Galan.

“I have evacuated the farmlands along the border and stationed the militia along the watchtowers. The iron track in the Wastelands seems to be at the heart of the Raiders’ plans. If we can work out a way to avoid the sickness I am sure an expedition could follow the track and finish them off, once and for all.”

Lord Galan turned his head in disagreement.

“The Raiders are not the real issue, they are still small in number and are more of a nuisance than a real problem. I am much more concerned with who is encouraging, or perhaps even aiding them in their actions, and I suspect the Brotherhood is involved. They have been spoiling for a fight for many years now and they have never been happy with the primacy of our House. These Raiders over the last year have weakened us yet the Brotherhood’s lands seem safe, why is this? You saw no bodies from the Brotherhood, yet they blame us?” he asked rhetorically.

Lord Galan walked to his window and looked out across the town. A number of people were walking, going about their daily business. He noticed a few riders making their way through the main street. He turned back.

“I sense dangerous times ahead. Mobilise the reserves and strengthen the border. I will send messengers to the Houses for a conference. It is time for the other Houses to hear of this and my suspicions about our neighbours to the East. If my suspicions are correct, the Brotherhood have a long-term plan and you can be sure it will not paint us in a good light with the rest of the League.”

A banging sound from outside indicated the guards had a messenger. Two armoured men escorted him into the chamber. The messenger, in the uniform of the Brotherhood, walked ahead and knelt before the Lord Galan. As he approached Gratus stepped forward and intercepted the man. He had much experience with the Brotherhood and his suspicions were often correct. The messenger lifted his arms, submitting to a search that yielded nothing of note. With a grunt, Gratus stepped aside and let the man move a step closer, he then dropped to one knee, acknowledging the position of Lord Galan.

With a movement of Galan’s hand, the messenger rose and spoke.

“Lord Galan, I bring word from the Brotherhood.”

“Why do I think this isn’t going to be good news?” said Ulric sarcastically.

Lord Galan indicated to the man to continue.

 “The Brotherhood demands a Contest between our lands!”

“What?” shouted Lord Galan.

“With the death of Master Lar, which the Brotherhood blames on your negligence, it has been agreed you are unfit to lead the League.”

The Master started shouting, his anger bursting into a rage.

“How dare you! You will suffer for this outrage!”

Ulric gave a signal and the two guards escorted the messenger outside.

“We will march!” cried Lord Galan.

“Father, we cannot afford war, none of us can, we must stay calm,” pleaded Synne who until now had remained quiet.

“What do you know of war?” said the Master with a snort that he instantly regretted.

“Synne is right father, a war with the Brotherhood will leave us open to attack by the rest of the League. We need to maintain the agreement or we will suffer the consequences,” argued Ulric.

“The agreement is already broken!” barked Lord Galan.

 “Only if one House declares war, Sire, what of our agreements with the other Houses? The Contest assured us of primacy before all the Houses until the next Contest,” said Synne.

Lord Galan took a step back and looked around the room as though he was looking for some item he had been missing for days. He paused and then looked back to his children in confusion.

“With Master Lar dead the Brotherhood must choose a new leader. Part of the agreement is that a new leader may call for a Contest, it is the law.”

 “A Contest, but why should we agree to it?” asked a confused Ulric.

He paced the room, trying to find answers.

“We are already supreme. We have nothing to gain and everything to lose. If they win we will have to swear fealty to them for the next ten years,” said Ulric.

“True, but the law allows for this. By breaking the law, we forfeit our position and they fight a Contest without us to determine a new primary House. A victory for us in a Contest will secure our position in the League and force their new leader to swear allegiance to us. No leader would then declare war on another. That is the entire point of the agreement, to stop continuous warfare,” explained Lord Galan.

“Are you sure this is wise, there must be a better way?” said Ulric.

“Perhaps, but five warriors in the Contest is better than five hundred at our border, fighting the combined League. A battle I would add that we could not win, not yet anyway,” said Galan as he gave a wry smile to Synne.

“Ulric, the Contest has kept the peace for five generations, there is no reason to doubt it now. Plus, with you leading our contingent how could we ever lose?”

Lord Galan ordered the messenger to be brought back before him.

 “I have made up my mind. I need riders to take messages to the leaders of every House. A contest is to be held in ninety days. Each House may enter a contingent of five as are the terms of the agreement. The winning house will take leadership of the League for the next ten years. Any House violating the sovereignty of another during the Contest will forfeit their position and be automatically cast out,” ordered Lord Galan.

The messenger bowed and then left.

“Sire, are you sure?” asked Ulric, still unconvinced of his actions.

“Do you doubt your own abilities? You have three months to ready your group. I will contact the other Houses and ensure we have allies for the Contest. We need only to defeat those who oppose us to gain ten more years and a stronger position. By declaring a Contest we force the Brotherhood’s hand. If they still attack during this period they bring the wrath of the League and even they cannot stand against the rest of us,” explained Lord Galan.

“Anyway, we have other things to attend to and in my opinion they are developments that equal or even surpass the importance of the Contest,” he said mysteriously.

He moved over to a table at the side of the room that was stacked with papers. Nearby were a number of wooden crates, one of which had been opened. A map covered in many markings was laid out in the middle of the table, each corner weighed down by paperweights. In the centre was the city of Haven and around it the many villages, workshops and farms that it controlled. On its borders were several of the League Houses and to the north east of them all, was the great buffer that led to the wilderness of the Wastelands. To the South was the great desert that ran off into the unknown.

“As you know, the League has been trapped in this area by the danger of the Wastelands to the North and the barren wilderness of the desert to the South. What if, I were to tell you that I know of lands in the North where towns still exist, traders ply their goods and people travel in the same fashion as us?”

“You jest, father?” asked Ulric suspiciously.

“Indeed I do not. I have received news that a caravan travelled through the Wastelands and came directly here not a week ago, completely unscathed,” said Lord Galan excitedly.

“This isn’t possible, father,” said Ulric.

“Look, I spoke with several of them and after a long discussion I have made arrangements for a monthly visit by their traders to sell their goods and for us to export ours. They bring all manner of items including this,” he said as he pointed to a long wooden box.

Synne wandered over and lifted the lid, inside was a short metal object the size of a large dagger. It was well made and mechanical. In the centre was a rotating barrel that clicked as it moved.

“What is it?” asked Ulric.

“The trader said it was a weapon called a pistol, apparently it was used with metal and chemicals to launch projectiles, by the Ancients,” explained Lord Galan.

“A pistol, I have read about these items!” exclaimed Synne.

“Listen, my children. I want you to arrange a small party of trusted men to go on a scouting mission in two weeks time. I have arranged for you to meet these traders at a place called the Trading Post. It is here,” he said as he pointed at the map.

“But that is in the North of the Wastelands,” replied Ulric.

“Indeed and these traders say the sickness only affects these areas to the East and West, they are marked in red on the map.”

“So you are telling us that there are lands to the North we have never seen that are trading in goods and artefacts such as these?” asked Ulric.

“Indeed. There are even iron rails that carry mechanical transports off to distant areas where more clans live. If what these traders say is true, then the true number of towns and people is five times more than we ever thought. There are great opportunities for knowledge, learning and trade.”

“Mechanical transports, you mean trains?” asked Synne as she imagined the machines from her books.

 Lord Galan nodded with satisfaction. Synne and Ulric smiled as they examined the contents of the map and the ancient weapon whilst Lord Galan seated himself back down with a groan. Gratus helped him in position and moved close to his ear.

“Gratus, I could do with a drink,” said Galan as he closed his eyes and rested.