Chapter 7: The Color and Shape of a World
by Julian Lawler
It was still dark. The faint vestiges of sunlight were barely visible in the far horizon when the gates swung open with a loud metallic squeal. A light, chill breeze wafted through the stable yard and Palance was forced to clasp the last button of his cloak around his neck. He sat atop his brown horse, the leather of his saddle creaking with each small movement both rider and beast made.
Beyond the gate, the alleyway wound its way down the far block like a snake through rocks. Despite the shadows, the prince knew the streets were empty. Magically lit street lamps shed their light down upon street corners and around the stables. Dust swirled across the silent alley and trash occasionally tumbled across a far street, only to disappear behind a large building. His horse whinnied and stomped its feet, kicking up its own share of dust.
Palance patted the brown stallion affectionately. It was eager to be off on the road. Palance tried to smile tenderly, but it wouldn’t come to his face. His thoughts were still on the Rune Man’s words and their implications.
They had spent the rest of the week before looking for Romen Garrenson. They had searched the marketplace, every known corner of the city, and every back street and side alley for the gaunt, gangly man. But it was to no avail. They had given up their search long before the sun had set this day. Nomen was a large city, and Palance knew the Rune Man could be anywhere.
Now he would have to heed the Rune Man’s words and hurry to the borders of Acrene Tarrynth and Ramendae. There could be no delay. He could not allow himself the chance to be late and not be there for Andina when she arrived. He also knew now that he had other things to worry about. He would have to keep a lookout for nomel dracs, and if he were to believe Romen Garrenson’s words, he would have to beware of daemons and angels. He would have to watch his back for dead souls and living spirits.
In the predawn morning, Palance shook himself. He could still see the burnt bodies of blue and red-eyed people that had exchanged their love of the light for a vast infernal home. In retrospect he could still remember their charred and sizzling skin. He could still recall the dirt and grime that mingled with their sweat and tears as it coursed down the creases of their parched existence. He could still feel the heat they radiated.
He tried to convince himself they had only been dreams. They had only been figments of his imagination. But even as he convinced himself, he knew it for a lie. He would not deceive himself. He could not afford it. But most of all, Andina could not afford it.
Palance had seen the eyes of the Rune Man. He had gazed into the portals of self-chosen madness and in them he had seen into his own soul. They weren’t just dreams anymore. The Rune Man had proven this. And because of this, Palance had to hurry. He would have to hurry to save Andina, wizard or no wizard that might be at her side. He would have to make haste to avoid warfare against other Nations. And he would have to be swift to avoid unseen enemies and nonexistent threats he knew would come.
As a Seer, could Andina foresee all of this? The thought had occurred to him the day before while trying to find Romen Garrenson. Could Andina have explanations to some of the things he had been told and shown? He hoped so.
But this line of thinking only reminded Palance of one other thing. He had a hard time even thinking of such a possibility. Even now, on his horse, he pushed back his sense of dread that came when he remembered the Rune Man’s words. The man had said she would die. He had stated he would go to her and that despite his efforts Palance would not arrive in time. Palance almost wrung his hands in overwhelming despair. This cannot be allowed to happen, he told himself.
With a renewed sense of urgency, Palance turned away from the darkened alleyway. The stable yard was filled with men and horses, the soft din of hushed conversation filling the open place. Light Bearers, their soft robes brushing against the hard ground, ran to and fro making final preparations. Horses were girdled and saddled, their coats brushed and cleaned. Men polished armor, leather, and weapons eager to be on the journey to Ramendae’s border.
Palance would be taking only one hundred of his men. The Iinnin Lodar was made up of five hundred well-trained and seasoned warriors. After the Rune Man’s words, Palance along with Father Rayul and the Lord of Nomen had decided to make this trip as quickly as possible. Because of this, Palance reluctantly ordered the rest of his four hundred soldiers to remain behind. They were ordered to serve the Sun Cathedral and protect it, as they would protect him in his absence.
Eliath had consented only after hearing Palance’s reasoning. One hundred men was a large enough group to protect the prince effectively, yet small enough to remain unnoticed while traveling quickly. The commander of the Iinnin Lodar had insisted on two things, though. First, he had to come along. Second, Eliath wanted to personally select the men that would accompany the prince. It wasn’t very difficult for Palance to concede to both demands.
Now, as the time to depart drew near, Palance regarded men warmly. One hundred men were already climbing on to their steeds. Some of the other four hundred men were helping however they could. They handed up supply bags and weapons making sure all were in readiness and the riders comfortable. Many others fed the horses wheat and grains one last time. Most of the men, however, stood back against the far wall of the stable yard at attention. Palance knew they all wanted to come. They were eager to protect him and see him safely to the borders, but they would not disobey his orders.
It was time to go. Men shuffled into place behind him. Their horses, beasts trained for warfare, had little difficulty being guided. It only took a minute for his men to find their proper places according to rank. Soon everyone waited expectantly for the prince’s word to signal the beginning of their trek. He watched them silently. In the dark morning he appraised what he saw.
He liked what he saw.
The sound of footsteps coming from a side door of the stables cut through the respected silence. Nobody, except for Palance, turned to see who it was. The Lord of Nomen, wearing a simple white coat with gold buttons, strode purposefully into the stable yard. He rubbed black-gloved hands back and forth as if trying to bring circulation to his fingers. He paid no mind to the soldiers and came to stand by Palance. “Good morning, my lord,” he said.
Palance bowed slightly from up on his saddle. “And good morning to you, Ian. I fear it is time to go. The day draws near and it will be upon us soon. I want to be out of the city when it does.”
“I understand,” came the sincere reply. He reached up and put a hand on Palance’s arm. “I will find him. Romen Garrenson will be found. This I promise. By the time you get back, he will be here. Then you can ask him all you want. And believe me, he will answer honestly what you ask of him, or he will be a dead man.”
Palance looked down at Ian from atop his horse.
Ian regarded his friend silently. “Don’t worry about the nomel dracs. When you get back, we’ll think of what to do about them. I will not have you fearing for your safety because of them.”
Palance leaned down in his saddle. “Do you believe what he told me? I mean, do you believe in daemons and angels? Do you believe in raindogs?”
Ian thought for a moment. “My lord, I don’t know about daemons and angels, but I have seen sketches of raindogs. I have heard countless tales and stories in and around Nomen, all from men who have suffered the worst of injuries. If they don’t have injuries or wounds to prove their stories true, their eyes while they tell their tale speak volumes to me. And you, Palance? What about the dreams?”
It didn’t take long for Palance to answer. “I thought they were mere dreams. But now I’m not so sure. I have dreamt of everything Romen Garrenson said to me. This is the only reason why I heed his warnings. I must get to her, Ian. I must!”
Ian understood. It showed on his face. “Then go, my prince. Make haste! Beware of the path you travel on for a future as grim as our world is taking shape. Who knows what you will find? But your men and I will await your return. No matter what consequences our actions bring, we will face them together. I don’t care if it is the rest of the Nations who knock at our borders, or daemons, angels, raindogs, or nomel dracs. Go and get your bride.”
Palance gave his old friend a warm smile. This time it came easily. “Let’s ride!” he called over his shoulder. Suddenly the stable yard was abuzz with eager anticipation.
Palance turned away from his old friend and began to lead his armed procession through the city of Nomen. They filed out into the dirt alleyway one by one, forming two lines to travel side by side. Out in the street, twenty men went down side streets to check and make sure their sides were clear. Ten men rode up ahead to act as scouts, patrolling the charted route in advance for any signs of threat. When they were all out of the stable yard, the gates swung loudly inward and closed with a bang.
From outside, Palance could see the remaining men of the Iinnin Lodar stand behind the gates. Their faces were grim, showing no emotion. They didn’t say a word. They just watched placidly as their prince rode away. Light Bearers were already shuffling out of the stables; it was too late for them to return to warm, waiting beds. The Lord of Nomen stood with them, a silent bystander watching the separation of one of the greatest forces ever to unite under Acrene Tarrynth rule.
Up above the highest building of the holy palace, in an old tower made of stone and wood, swung the Garen Bell. The bell was ringing to wake the Light Bearers. It was time to rise and praise the light of the sun.
He could tell the sky was already brightening, if only slightly, when he started to lead his men through Nomen. Buildings rose to either side of them like giants at attention. Occasionally, he would catch a glimpse of a light through a window, but for the most part everything still lay asleep. Windows at ground level appeared black and devoid of any human habitation: there were doors into crypts long haunted and barren of life.
Up above, windows stared down at him and his men like eyeless sockets. Palance knew nobody was looking down at him from behind curtains. It was quite unnerving. In Geamehn, no matter what time of day or night, when a procession passed, people looked. Processions were like parades and people always wanted to know what it had in store for them.
He had to remind himself that this wasn’t Geamehn.
He led his men to the end of the black enshrouded block and then took them into an open street. Here shops and stores lined the street. Empty carts, chained and bolted, sat next to every shop like silent guards that were hired to protect. Doors were chained closed and guardrails protected windows. Nomen was not known for robbery and thievery. Such careers took place in the dark. Nobody was that crazy.
A slight breeze careened through the streets and Palance huddled in his cloak and saddle. His men rode behind him in silence, each wary of the shadows around them. Eliath hummed a tune silently to himself. Down the street as they moved south, he could see the faint outline of his men patrolling up ahead. To the sides, as they passed each street, he would catch a glimpse of two more groups of his men paralleling him. Despite their vigilance, he wondered if they were really safe.
What would they do against nomel dracs? Or any of the number of beasts he had heard mentioned in the past week?
As if reading his thoughts, Eliath brought his horse up next to his. “My lord,” the commander looked up to the skyline of buildings that surrounded them. “The sun shall break the horizon soon. We will be safe then. I really don’t think we have anything to fear now.”
Palance knew Eliath was right. Despite the consent, he couldn’t bring himself to relax. So they had made it safely up to this point. True, attack from dark creatures was not likely, but what of the next night? And the next after that? Palance cursed under his breath. We should have brought a wizard with us, he thought darkly.
He turned down another street and found the market place. It was a huge expanse of an area. Trash dotted the floor at frequent intervals where it had collected against the sides of booths and wagons. Wheel ruts lined the dirt floor, crisscrossing in infrequent order, along with people and animal tracks. A ring of buildings circled the market place and these to rose dark and forbidding. Palance couldn’t see how anyone could live in such sinister looking buildings. He would not be surprised if he explored them and found them abandoned.
He took in the whole market area solemnly. In Geamehn, with the first hint of dawn, merchants and people alike quickly began to make their way to the market. Business was time, and time was money, and sunlight proved to be both vital and essential in order to prosper. In Geamehn, people did not waste precious daylight hours.
But this is not Geamehn he chided himself as they passed the halfway point of the vast clearing. This was Nomen. This was a city where people spent half their lives in fear. Palance tried to envision people crowding the market place. They would crowd around together so much they would press up against his horse’s flanks, slowing his progress.
He wanted to feel the pressing presence of a crowd at his feet. He wanted to smell the heavy scent of sweat and animal alike. He wanted to taste the foods and drinks sold in this beautiful city. He wanted to hear the shouts of vendors and merchants along with charlatans as they fought for potential buyers mix into one great noise. Palance wanted to see the bright colors of carts, booths, and wagons as they vied for the best spot in the market. He would relish the sun upon his shoulders and back.
His thoughts contrasted sharply with the state of his surroundings. The silence that shrouded the market was pierced by the sounds of the horses’ hooves, the jingle of weapons, armor, and leather. The breeze picked up a little, and for a second, it swallowed everything in its wake. It drowned all other sounds from Palance’s ears. It was creepy to see a place of gathering to be as lonely as a graveyard.
When they finally left the market place, Palance was glad. The place had begun to make him feel burdened and hopeless. It gave him dark thoughts about his future and decisions. He tried to expunge them out of his mind. Such thoughts could lead to darker thoughts and eventually drive him to despair. His heart had no room for despair at the moment. Andina needed him.
So he thought of the three men he had sent to Geamehn. They would travel northeast parallel to the monstrous ranges known as the Raven’s Reach. They were supposed to go north with the mountains always to their left. The three men were instructed to stay away from the foothills at the base, as well. The foothills were as treacherous as some of the high passes.
Nobody traveled along or through the Raven’s Reach Mountains willingly.
The Raven’s Reach were the highest, coldest, and harshest mountain ranges in the entire Nations. They stretched for miles cutting across Acrene Tarrynth like a sharp knife, severing the kingdom into two clean parts. They would take days to cross at their narrowest gap.
The Raven’s Reach Mountains were so huge no one had ever seen them completely. There were parts that had yet to be charted, much less seen. The wondrous peaks at the very top had remained a mystery since ages past. Endless streams came down constantly as the snow melted continually throughout the year. Waterfalls said to grace cliff sides and lakes the size of small towns rumored to fill valleys had lain undisturbed since long before the Conquest.
They were all rumors, of course. Not one person had ever dared disprove the tales.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler