“How did you come upon these things?” Kevin asked.
“I am told these things were found under most curious circumstances,” the Duke said conspiratorially, even though he was solely in the company of those who were as well, or perhaps better, informed than himself. The Duke smiled all the same, seeming to enjoy the delicious thought that he was suddenly at the center of the investigation.
“You were ‘told’?” queried Kevin with equal covertness. “You didn’t actually see for yourself what happened?”
“You mean me? Personally?” Northstorm sniffed, mildly offended at the thought. “Of course not! The circumstances surrounding the incident were far too rustic for one of my station.
“These broken things were found near a pasture for cloud-sheep kept by my vassal there.” Northstorm threw a disdainful gesture of acknowledgment over his shoulder at the old shepherd who stood uncomfortably between the expressionless Thom and Dwyer Illwind. Assuming this sop of attention from his liege lord was an invitation for the old serf to explain what had happened to him, the humble shepherd parted his lips to speak. However, the Illwind brothers apparently disapproved of the old shepherd speaking without first following decorum. Simultaneously, each brother sidearmed the old man in his spindly back, driving him with a thump one step forward, and knocking whatever he intended to say out of his mouth.
Northstorm said, “The pastures in the lowlands of my dukedom are above a high plateau of the peak Landfolk call, Mt. Majestic.”
The shepherd might have uttered something at this point, but as soon as Northstorm turned his attention back to Galwynn, the Illwind brothers simultaneously sidearmed the old peasant across his gaunt chest, driving him with a thwack one step backward to where he had originally stood. As the old shepherd gingerly rubbed his chest where he had been smacked, his pained expression gradually gave way to the resigned cast that Galwynn suspected was common among the Duke’s serfs.
Paying no further mind to the old shepherd, Duke Northstorm said, “The best rain-grass grows in the lowland pastures, you know. That is where my serf was grazing his cloud-sheep.”
Galwynn was eager to hear what the old shepherd had to say. He realized the lowlands of Sky coincided with the mountain plateaus of Land. And witnesses had told him they had seen a brilliant shaft of light steak up from a mountain plateau and pierce the sky on the night of the celestial incident. If the old shepherd was in the lowlands tending his sheep, he might have witnessed something important.
Now all Kevin had to do, was get His Grace to relinquish the floor long enough for the old shepherd to tell his own tale.
“My serf was tending his flock late into night,” said His Grace. “It gets cold in the lowland pastures in the dead of night, and shepherding is such mind-numbingly tedious work, that I have little doubt that the shepherd was dozing off from time to time in the middle of his watch. Is it any wonder then, that one of his flock wandered off; a prized ewe in fact? Naturally, he went in search of her.”
The Duke looked weary and long-suffering as he sidled close enough to Galwynn to speak intimately. “That was shoddy care of livestock, mind you. I’ve issued very clear rules about the care and handling of my property, but what is one to do? Finding competent help is so difficult nowadays.”
“I see your dilemma,” Kevin replied, sympathetically. “But, pray continue.” Galwynn was trying to keep Northstorm from straying as far from the subject as the cloud-sheep had strayed from their pasture.
“Ah, nose to the grindstone,” said the Duke. “I admire that. Well, to continue:
“The shepherd found his lost ewe in a gully and was bringing her back to the rest of his flock, when suddenly—” the Duke said dramatically, acting out his impression of an awestruck shepherd, “—the chaos in Heaven that everyone has been in such a tizzy about lately, occurred!
“The stars flew hither and thither like a pinwheel! And a shaft of light more brilliant than day dispelled the darkness, while an infernal roar like the bellow of dragons from the Domain of Fire broke the silence.
“I myself saw the disturbance, as well. I was at my manor house, of course, working on accounts late into the night when it transpired. I don’t mind admitting, I was thunderstruck! And if I, being a sophisticated man of Sky, was confounded by the event, then obviously the shepherd must have been terrified when he observed the sudden intermingling of Land and Sky. And all with nary a sorcerer in sight to facilitate the convergence of Domains!”
“You said, ‘intermingling’?” Kevin asked. “You’re saying the two Domains overlapped? They were visible to each other?”
“Why of course,” said the Duke, perplexed. “Doesn’t everybody know that already? Oh well, they will soon enough when the gossips among the serfs finish spreading the word.”
“I see,” said Galwynn, as he bit his lower lip so as not to comment on the Duke’s casual omission of details. “Pray continue.”
His Grace needed no further encouragement. “The shepherd drove his flock from the lowlands to safe shelter, then raced home faster than a cold storm front to tell his family and village what happened. They all knew what happened long before word finally reached my ears,” he said. “As their liege lord, they should have informed me first. But under the circumstances they can be forgiven this one time, I suppose.
“In any case, on his way home, the shepherd encountered an outrider for the Ethereal Legion and frantically reported the incident before continuing home. The Legionnaire passed word to King Cirrus, and after much too much delay in my opinion, word eventually came to me.”
The expression on Duke Northstorm’s face became serious and wary. Then he leaned toward Galwynn and King Cirrus, and said in a hush, “I personally believe the debris scattered over the lowlands was the aftermath of a secret test of a salvaged siege engine—such as a ram, cannon, or trebuchet that was common during the War Between Land and Sky—that malfunctioned and tore itself apart into ten thousand pieces.”
Then His Grace leaned back and declaimed in full voice, “Of course, I myself have no lingering war memories or ill feelings towards Landfolk, Master Galwynn. In fact, my fortune comes from regular trade with Landfolk—sorcerers, merchants, and the like—and I can quite sincerely state that some of my best friends are Landfolk. The War was a long time ago, I say. No grudges here!
“But,” Northstorm added, as he returned to leaning close and speaking covertly, “perhaps such goodwill is not shared by everyone on Land?” The Duke tilted his head so the dark side of his gaze was closer than the light. “Otherwise, who else could have been operating such an engine?”
Kevin flinched inside when he heard Northstorm’s theory, because he had to grudgingly admit there was some truth to what the Duke said. Just as some of the Ethereal Legion still remembered the War with bitterness, some humans still clung tightly to their old hatreds. Could someone be trying to rekindle the war by refurbishing a fearsome siege engine? But if so, what kind of siege engine could cause the chaos seen in Heaven? Or what—Cosmos preserve us!, thought Kevin—if this was some new kind of weapon about which, no one knew; or for which, there was no defense?
Kevin’s reverie was interrupted when Northstorm, who being so busy talking had not noticed Galwynn’s attention drift, mused aloud, “I wish the shepherd had come to me immediately.” He paused a heartbeat for effect, then hurriedly explained, “The herdsman is my serf, and his general welfare is my responsibility. It would be quite embarrassing if my serf was injured for merely herding cloud-sheep. My fellow liege lords are quite fond of passing judgement, you know.”
The Sky King seized this lull in the Duke’s reverie to tell Master Galwynn, “My advisors visited the site and deemed it noteworthy. My intention was that you and I should visit the pasture and assess the scattered debris in situ.” King Cirrus’s voice slowed, and Galwynn thought he might be thinking of making some comment about how the situation had actually developed, but decided this was neither the time nor place to say anything.
Oblivious to the unspoken conversation going on between King and Master, Northstorm continued his thought. “Unfortunately, the weather on Mt. Majestic at this time of year is notoriously uncertain. All these pieces of catapult or trebuchet or whatever it was, might have washed down the mountain or been blown off the precipice by some storm if preventive action wasn’t taken. I’m sure you would have preferred seeing the evidence in its natural setting, but clearly the better part of caution was to collect the evidence and bring it to the castle for examination.” Kevin thought the Duke’s face exhibited an especially mindless innocence as he asked, “Don’t you agree?”
Master Galwynn looked at the detritus on the storeroom floor and tried to decide what to tell the Sky King. Should he say abandon all hope, here and now, because the bumbling Duke Northstorm had hopelessly mixed and muddled the best clues he had to what caused the crisis in the sky? Or was that too fatalistic? Who knew what shred of hope the future might bring? (Who, besides the oracles, of course? But those perverse prognosticators seldom spoke sooth without obscuring it with some enigmatic riddle that you usually couldn’t make sense of until it was too late to matter.)
Would some good fortune turn up and save them in the nick of time? Or would the world end like the snap of your finger? Either way, the best answer to give was clear.
“It’s too early to render an opinion,” Galwynn said. “But given enough time,” and hopefully not all eternity and a day, he thought to himself, “we will surely find an answer.”
The Sky King realized how daunting was Master Galwynn’s task, and by way of encouragement, thanked him for his efforts so far and invited everyone present to a feast that evening to welcome Galwynn’s arrival. Then the King dismissed all the visitors so Galwynn could work in peace.
After all others were gone, Nimbus sidled up to Kevin, who had settled on a bench and stared worriedly at the floor. “Master Galwynn, you can figure out what all this debris is, can’t you?”
Galwynn looked up from the rubble on the floor and answered resignedly, “Frankly? Barring a miracle? Probably, not in your lifetime, Lieutenant. Probably, not in your lifetime.”