Neal stood on the large balcony off the Hall of Elders, gazing down over the surrounding landscape.  The sun was warmly shining on the community they had built here.  He smiled, proud of the work he and his friends had accomplished.  But there was still much to do.

            “Neal, I have news.”  His cousin Alexander said from behind him.  Neal turned to look at Alex, standing there in fighting leathers, looking trim and noble.  Alex had grown a goatee and his hair was a little longer since last he had been in the Citadel, having gone on a tour with Daniel and some troops to see how matters stood in the outlying townships.

            “Come, speak with me cousin.”  Neal said, guiding Alex over to the large circular table within the Hall.  Alex sat beside him in the nearest chairs, and slumped back, looking tired.  He appraised his cousin, wearing rich robes and looking regal, and thought it might be nice to stay in the city for a while.  The road could sometimes be harsh.

            “Things are bad on the Fringe.”  Alex said, referring to the edges of their territory.  Beyond the Fringe lay the prairies, where things had run to rot thanks to bandits.  “Raiders hit the towns pretty frequently, and our patrols can’t keep up.  Daniel and I ended up in a skirmish a week or two ago, and the only reason we survived was because we had guns.  But our bullets are running out, in another year or two the rifles will join the machine guns as museum pieces.”

            “We shall have to raise more troops, and encourage more blacksmiths.  If the guns run out, we’ll need swords and spears.”  Neal said.  “It still makes me smile, however, that former museum pieces are now useful again, and technology is falling apart.”

            

“Makes you smile?  It concerns me.  While as children sword fighting may have seemed glamorous, out in the field it can be harsh and brutal.  One of my men lost an arm and lies dying!  We could not get him to a doctor in time to stop infection.   Now he has gangrene, and the rot is too deep for amputation to do any good.  Things are not civilized on the Fringe, no matter how they look here.”

Alexander’s voice roughened at the end, and Neal could see him struggling to control his emotions.  While his face remained impassive, the anguish was evident in his eyes, which were moist with unspilled tears.

            “You’re right, of course, cousin.  I should not talk so flippantly about matters I know little of.  The next patrol, I shall ride out with Daniel or you to learn of things myself, instead of sitting in my tower.” Neal patted his cousin’s hand.  “I did not mean to upset you.”

            “There are other things that are more upsetting.  There are rumours…”  Alex said, feeling chills as he thought about what he had heard.  “People say that sometimes women go missing, which might be expected near bandit country, but they say it here in the city too.  And…”

            “And what?” Neal said.  Despite the terrible nature of what Alex had just related, somehow he sensed that the next thing he wanted to say was worse.

            “There are whispers…  I don’t know how to explain it, or why it troubles me the way it does,” Alex said, gripping his cousin’s hand, “But I shiver whenever I hear this part, and I hear it in every village.”

            “What is it?”  Neal asked.  He could feel goose bumps on the back of his neck, as if Alex’s fear was creeping into his skin.

            “There are whispers of something, something dark.  Every village there is someone who murmurs it under their breath, you see it carved into wooden walls, painted on fences.  Four words, but they strike fear into everyone.  ‘Donovan Reza is coming.’  I don’t even know what it means, but somehow I am terrified.”

            Neal felt a cold lump inside his chest, but he forced himself to laugh.  “That’s all?  That frightens you more than bandits and missing women?  A name?”

            Alex squeezed Neal’s hand, his eyes blazing.  “The first time I heard it was in an outlying village two weeks hard riding from here.  An old man sat in the mud, drool running from his lips, and he kept saying it over and over.  Somehow it had driven him mad!  Until you see such things, perhaps you cannot understand.  Something dark is lying out there, waiting for us, the way a cat waits outside a mouse hole…  And now I hear the same whispers in the alleys of our city, scarcely a month later.  I tell you, there is danger here.”  Alex’s face was tense, on edge.

            Neal stared intently at his cousin’s face for a moment, and nodded gently.  “We will look into it.  I’m sorry I laughed.  Truly, your story chills me to the bone.  It just seems so small a thing, for all the fear it causes.”

            “I know.  Somehow that’s what frightens me about it, that it should not be so frightening.  How can a name carry such terror with it?  How did it travel so fast?  What does it mean?”  Alex stood up, rubbing his arms as if to get warm.

            “I will start an investigation.  You, in the meantime, should relax, enjoy your time here in the city.  I will go out on the next patrol myself with Daniel or Owen.”  Neal said, directing his cousin towards the door.  “You should rest, the road has made you weary.”

            Alex nodded, smiling gratefully as he walked down the hall.  Neal turned to go back to his balcony, and saw a white figure leaning against a nearby pillar.  Neal felt his heart lurch for a moment, startled by the unexpected arrival, and then he realized it was Ethan, who must have entered while they were talking.

            “Ethan, you startled me.  I didn’t hear you come in.” Neal said, holding his hand to his chest.  His friend just shrugged.

            “You were busy talking to Alex.  I didn’t want to interrupt.”  He offered a wry grin.  “His news is disturbing you.”

            “Yes.  I’m concerned about these rumours.  Women disappearing, and now this… other matter.  You heard?”

            “Yes.  We should investigate.”

            Neal sat down in a chair, feeling tired already.  It was hard to run a society, there were so many decisions to make.

            “Whom will you send?”  Simon Lamb asked, entering from a side corridor.  “I was just speaking to Daniel, I imagine about the same thing you two are discussing.  Troubling news, eh?”  He put his hand on Neal’s shoulder reassuringly.

            “I was just thinking about that.” Neal said.  “I considered Owen, since Alex is so tired…”

            “Owen is helping me with the markets, Neal.  You wanted him to learn how to manage the economy, remember?  And Jay and Evan are running the church.  Daniel has enough work with the patrols and the Citadel guards.”  Simon reminded him.  “That leaves…”

            “Ethan!  Ethan, could you do this?”  Neal looked at the white robed man still standing against the pillar.  Ethan stroked his goatee thoughtfully, and then ran his hand through his short hair. 

“Do you really want me to?”

            “I would be truly grateful to entrust this to you.” Neal nodded, receiving a comforting paternal squeeze on his shoulder from Lamb as he made his decision.

            “You can count on me, Neal.”  Ethan smiled.

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Alex and Neal 

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