The Color and Shape of a World
by Julian Lawler
He turned his horse down another street and came upon the Lord of Nomen’s house. A large, beautiful castle the color of the gray morning rose above him, towering over the city. A deep moat surrounded the castle, its surface black and smooth in the dimness. Large parapets rose high above the background and towers squatted at every corner. Flags wavered and rippled on tiny poles overhead. Most of the structure was still shrouded in shadows except for a tip at the top, exposing a colored window high above an arch, where the sun was finally hitting. None of the windows showed any sings of life. The elegant home could have been a vast catacomb.
He passed it without a second glance and continued to ride at a stiff, leisurely pace. His men said nothing behind him. His commander kept quiet, as well, his eyes always scrutinizing the rooftops and windows for signs of threat. Patrols still stayed ahead and to the sides, but Palance couldn’t see them now. With each turn he took, he saw them less frequently. They were moving up ahead.
He would be out of Nomen soon. Buildings were getting smaller and less crowded. They didn’t hunch together like families anymore. Alleyways and streets were more frequent. As they angled forward down the street, the sky began to brighten steadily. He could see beyond the streets into surrounding fields and lands. Trees spotted the landscape in small clumps. Underbrush and shrubbery were the main vegetation in the region.
He would be out of the city just as the sun broke free. He took a deep breath. It was all going as planned. By midday, they would be away and Nomen would be a spot on the horizon at their backs. There was no turning back now. Now that he was moving he would be at the mercy of the land. He felt great comfort knowing he had his men with him. The Iinnin Lodar would protect him.
What of the men on the way to Geamehn for him?
He had likely sent them to their deaths. An eight-day trek through countryside and wilderness of Acrene Tarrynth often brought an end to journeymen’s lives. Things of grisly horror dwelled in hillside burrows and dead forests. Grasslands, beautiful and enthralling during the day, often became deadly under pale moonlight. Beasts with fangs and glossy eyes hid beneath the grasses, cutting and killing travelers with swift ease.
The sun finally broke through the jagged peaks in the distant east. Its warm tendrils stretched across the horizon releasing every shadow across the landscape from its imprisonment to the night. Night receded like a coward escaping through the city in its flight to the west.
Now they could travel hurriedly without a sense of alarm. With the coming of the sun, they had nothing to fear at their backs. They could concentrate all their efforts into reaching Ramendae before Andina. How he longed to be with her again. He wanted to smell the scent of her clean hair as he held her to him. He wanted to feel her delicate body in his arms. It had been too long. Her time had Stonegate had passed quickly, but to Palance it seemed like an eternity now since the coming of the winter.
He picked up the pace to a fast trot and his men followed without hesitation. The large contingent of men now rode single file through the countryside. The prince took in his surroundings, scanning from horizon to horizon with his blue eyes.
Though the horizon was brilliant with the rising sun, the scenery bore the semblance of weariness. Trees, clumped and clustered together, sloped slightly, their leaves fallen and spread throughout the ground like tears. Thick shrubbery that was common in this part of the world was wet with dew. Patches of yellow grass lined the road like trimming on a coat as it wound its way through the terrain.
The sun hung warmly in the sky when conversation finally began among the men of the Iinnin Lodar. The tension was gone and tongues wagged carelessly. Some of the men even laughed. The camaraderie of his fellow soldiers lifted Palance’s thoughts out of the darkness they dwelled in. He never stopped worrying about Andina, but was able to push it to the back of his mind. They rode on until midday always keeping track of the time and the distance being made. Patrols kept scouting ahead and to the sides.
Finally they rested by the side of the road finding a spot to lounge beneath a large maple tree. It was the only tree for miles. Its shade was enough to give half the men a cool respite from the warm sun. As they ate, some of the men took the time to water and feed all the horses.
Across the way stood the shambles of an abandoned farm. The shutters were thrown wide and hung limply on single hinges. Most of the few windows the place had were gone. Its front door was busted and thrown across a low hanging porch. Shoots of grass grew between the floorboards. Weeds sprang up everywhere concealing the once luscious ground. Fields stretched behind a barn to the rear. With no one to tend them, the rows of irrigation were fading away giving sway to advancing wilderness.
Palance watched the shadows within the house with interest. Sunlight spilled through the doorway revealing fragments of furniture. From where he sat, he could see debris and trash littered the room. Then he saw a shadow move. The shadow detached from a beam that was a keystone to the porch’s stability and entered the rickety house, disappearing into the blackness within.
Palance frowned. It happened so fast. He wasn’t sure if he had seen it at all.
“What’s wrong?” asked Eliath.
Palance cursed as he rose to his feet. Eliath was already issuing orders. Palance couldn’t believe how in tune his commander was with him. Where they getting alarmed for no reason?
He wasn’t sure if he wanted to find out. Nevertheless, he walked across the road with his men. Their riding boots crunched hard dirt underneath. It only served to accentuate the silence that pervaded the air. Palance motioned with his finger and men began circling the house. Another group, at Eliath’s command, sectioned off and headed for the back of the farmhouse. They would enter the house through the rear.
Palance and Eliath would enter through the front.
When they reached the fence, Eliath motioned Palance to wait. Larson and Soulcryst stepped next to the prince. The commander of the Iinnin Lodar flicked a wrist and a shiny blade appeared in his hand. It was small compared to his hand, but the blade glinted sharply. Eliath was deadly with such a small knife.
Eliath walked down along the wooden fence until he reached a small gate. The wood was splintered and weathered. Eliath pushed it open slowly with the point of his knife. It opened with a loud creak. As it opened wide, it fell off a hinge. The commander watched it impassively. Turning sideways, he squeezed into the yard. As silent as a ghost and as smoothly as a shadow Eliath walked down the rock-strewn path to the front porch.
Palance held his breath. He expected something to jump out at any moment. He unbuttoned his sword. Men lined the front fence, arrows nocked and aimed at anything that might move. These men would shoot at empty air if they considered it a threat.
Eliath stepped on to the first wooden step. Palance was surprised the board didn’t creak under the weight. Then the old man took another step. Before long, the commander was taking tentative steps toward the open doorway. He peeked in and after a quick glance slipped into the house.
He was gone for a long while. The seconds passed and stretched into minutes. Palance considered ordering his men to storm the house. It would be easy. Whatever was inside would be caught. It was already trapped with so many men surrounding the house.
He was about to issue the order when the middle-aged man finally appeared again. “My lord,” he called from the porch. “I think you need to see this. There is no threat here, just an innocent little girl.”
Palance let go of a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Larson and Soulcryst followed him in. The rest of his men were ordered to wait outside.
Inside, Eliath led him down a long hallway that stretched the length of the house. Palance could see his men waiting outside in the back through an empty doorway. The commander took him into a room filled with broken wood and then into another room. Then another. His two guards walked quietly behind him.
The house was larger than it seemed from the outside. Dishes were broken everywhere and glass pieces hid the floor. Furniture, remnants of a simple life, lay piled in corners. Curtains, once white and clean, lay shredded beneath every open window. Certain rooms had the last remains of beds: huddled in corners, their sheets and inhabitants long gone, these were crypts for the sleepless.
Eliath led him into a tiny, windowless room near the back. Minute cracks in the wall allowed tiny beams of sunlight to filter through. Palance didn’t see anything at first, there was enough light to reveal whatever secrets remained undiscovered. In a corner, huddled away from sight, trembled a little shape. His eyes adjusted enough to see it was a young girl. She had her legs tucked underneath her small frame. Palance smiled reassuringly as he put his sword away.
Eliath scowled. “I think my knife scared her.”
Larson grunted, “I think you scared her.”
Eliath scowled. “Be quiet.”
Palance turned to them. Both men fell silent at his stare. Palance crouched down. He tenderly reached out and brushed a strand of hair aside from the girl’s face. He drew back when she flinched. She began to cry.
It wasn’t a loud sob or squeal, but a tender shake of the shoulders that gave her away. She hugged herself as she tried backing away from him. He thought she would burrow through the paneling if he didn’t do something quick.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “It’s okay. We are not going to hurt you.” It pained him to see the fear that held her in its thrall. No one should live with so much fright. What happened here? He suddenly wondered. Why was she all alone and destitute?
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler