Chapter 8: A Matter of Duty
Battle Seer began|
in issue 118.
Chapter 7 appeared
in issue 126.
Lightning flashed in the distance. The sun’s rays angled sharply at a slant over the dark encroaching clouds and the light only served to make the empty house dark and menacing. The prince and Eliath had walked back to the house after their fear had subsided a bit. They took the time to gather their wits about them as they saw the house over the next low rise. Larson had come then with two horses trailing his. The guard appeared unaffected, calm, and composed, although his eyes had told a different story.
It was soon after they had agreed to burn the house. It was a house of damnation, as far as they were all concerned. It could and would not remain standing for long. But first they had to gather all the men.
It had taken Palance over two hours to round up all his soldiers. They had run in every direction after the slaughter of the little girl. They were seasoned soldiers who had seen plenty of war and death. They were no strangers to the horrors of battle, yet they had returned with Palance to the scene of their terror reluctantly. They were shaken, for once the realities of living in a dark world proved too much. Some of the men were found with wild eyes, looking over their shoulders frequently, jumping at every noise and sound. Now they stood together, made brave by their sheer numbers.
With a torch set in hand, Palance approached the farmhouse. His heart pounded in his chest and his hand trembled slightly. He took a deep breath to harden his resolve and took furtive steps on to the rock-strewn path. His boots thudded softly in the open yard. Thunder rolled in the distance. He was glad the wind hadn’t started yet. Clouds were still a ways off but they advanced steadily like grazing cattle.
The house stood empty and silent in the middle of the overgrown yard. Tufts of dry grass had been placed around the house. Dry weeds protruded out of every step like webs spun from a very large spider. Snapped twigs littered the porch like picked-clean bones. The curtains from within had been gathered and placed over the doorway. The place would burn quickly.
The men of the Iinnin Lodar stood around the house. Many of the men looked ready to run. All eyes were locked on the open windows. Eliath walked up and down whispering words of comfort and reassurance. This was a funeral, and the commander’s voice did not rise above a whisper. Soulcryst watched Palance resolutely, his hands clenching tightly around the pommel of his broadsword. Larson squatted by the front gate, which had been knocked completely off its one hinge. He was ready to spring to the prince’s aid.
The little girl’s name traveled across his thoughts as Palance put the torch to the dry grass. The grass ignited immediately. Flames licked up at him as it quickly spread beneath the porch. The dry weeds caught next and they curled with the heat. Tendrils of smoke were already seeping between wooden floorboards, rising into the open sky like smoke signals.
A dark thunderhead was slowly creeping into view above the house’s roof. It was a dark ominous carpet that stretched as far as the eye could see. The wind would pick up any moment. There would be no more sunlight for the rest of the day when the storm finally reached them.
Palance moved away as the heat became unbearable. Fire traveled up the beam poles that held up the porch and soon the roof caught fire. The house stared back at the prince like a skull, the radiating heat its hot breath. The rooms were beginning to burn inside. The grass singed closest to the dwelling. Sparks flew into the bright sky like seeds blown in the wind.
The fire danced in Palance’s eyes. He stood at the front of the gaping skull, mesmerized by the fire’s rage. He took in its angry licks and sharp hisses as wood splintered and popped. The whole process looked like a dance. All the wood could do was surrender and succumb to the pressure of being wilted, scourged, and beaten.
“It is done, my lord,” said Larson coming up to him. “Let us be gone from this place. She rests in peace now, and that is more than we could hope for one so young such as she. May the light embrace her and take her to a place of peace and beauty. I’m sure wherever she is now is better than this desolate, awful place.” The beginnings of a strong wind kicked up the guard’s black cloak, making the Serpent-Claw insignia on his back ripple.
Palance looked at his guard surprised. “What keeps you so calm, Larson? You see the rest of the men. They have been shaken today. Look at Soulcryst. He seems ready to jump at anything that might move. These men will not be the same until their worth is proven to them again in their own eyes. Anything short of a battle will not do. They need a fight to sort them out. It is the way of men who live by the blade.”
Another strong gust of wind kicked at them. The house was completely consumed now. Palance looked away from the captivating fire. “Tell me, Larson, what keeps you so calm?”
The big guard nodded silently. His response was quick and to the point. “Duty, my lord. When madness threatens to overcome us and we have nothing to hold on to, we let our life’s work save us. Terror gripped me today worse than any wolf’s jaws. I ran for miles until I remembered my duty. I have trained my whole life to protect you. So I came back to your aid.”
Palance understood. The thought of Andina had saved him. His love for her had worked as duty had worked for his men. The Iinnin Lodar had been especially made to protect the prince of Acrene Tarrynth. After the Conquest, the Nations were little more than provinces. They had tentative control over the peoples of the lands. The lords were rogues and thieves with power; revolutionaries with ideas and ideals that surpassed most of other men’s dreams. Each Nation had its own story, its own tale to relate on their road to freedom.
As a result of this barely-controlled anarchy, many of the rulers were cautious of revolts. Many became the problem they wished to solve. They ruled with an iron hand over the peoples they wished to help. Even though their intentions were always good, their paranoia of a knife in the back or a poison in their drink usually drove them to severe lengths to secure their rulership.
In the days after the Conquest, strangers, acquaintances, friends, and relatives were all in danger of suspicions. To be suspected meant death, even for a king’s son. Too many times in the past, queens had to sit idly by and watch their sons get butchered or burned at the stake by a jealous father. Because many times the marriages were arranged, the queens were usually pushed aside and to the back able to do nothing of the matter.
One Queen, Ilirel Demondread, decided to take action into her own hands after her mad husband murdered her three oldest sons. She took peasants and farmers of the time and gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Never one to force anyone’s hand, she would only take volunteers. They had to come of their own volition. They were to protect her only remaining son. They were to be his loyal underlings, for him to order and for them to obey. The king had his own army and guards. With them, she would give her son his own protection. This way no one could, or was supposed to, plot against him.
In turn, she would train every peasant and farmer. She would give them and their families a formal education, land, money, and wealth. Most important of all, she would give them rank. They would be nobles if they endeavored to take her offer. Their standing would remain for as long as they wished it. In other words, their service extended down through the generations. This would guarantee that no bickering would allow for an internal war should another king of Acrene Tarrynth go mad. The king’s men would be related to the prince’s men and down the line and so forth.
As could have been expected of the times after the Conquest, men had flocked to the queen’s service. The first year of installing the plan, every man around the prince had served the queen. She hadn’t wanted it that way, but with time, she knew, they would follow the prince as if he were king.
The Iinnin Lodar were Palance’s men as a direct result of Queen Ilirel’s pact with her people so many hundreds of years ago. Palance had grown up with these men, trained with them, and had seen after them in their time of need and help. He had led these men in battle countless times. He was their lord, but more over, he was one of them. The Iinnin Lodar was one of the deadliest personal guards Acrene Tarrynth had ever seen.
Palance turned once more to the house. The fire had traveled the length of the house and was now beginning its consumption of the barn. Embers ignited small patches of grass here and there where the wind had fanned the flames.
“Don’t worry, my lord,” said the resilient guard as if reading Palance’s thoughts. “The rain will be upon us soon. It will douse the flames and the countryside will remain unharmed.”
“You’re right, Larson,” he said. “Indicate the men to mount. We will leave this place soon.”
Larson turned but didn’t walk away. “Mount!” he roared.
Palance didn’t wait to make sure his men complied. He dropped to one knee, bowed his head, and clasped a hand over his stomach. It was a traditional Acrene Tarrynth token of respect for the deceased. Instead of following the order, Palance heard his men follow his example.
They dropped to the ground as one. With only a moments’ pause, they put hands over stomach with one knee to the ground. As one they bowed their heads and rose to their feet. And then they did something Palance had only seen done once in his young life.
Each man, their visages grim and their bodies tense, drew their weapons. They took a step forward, tightening their circle around the house, as much as the flames would allow. With both hands clasped over the pommel of each weapon, they pointed their swords to the spot where Davina had fallen. They formed a man made wheel. Their bodies formed the rim, weapons the spokes, and Palance served as the axis. It was an ancient burial rite done only to queens and kings. These men were giving their highest forms of respect.
Palance made a silent prayer and vowed to return. He would make sure Davina was remembered. She had suffered at the hands of a dremion. The claw marks Soulcryst had found inside the house had belonged to a dremion.
The house had been ransacked, pillaged, and robbed of all its belongings. There had been no trace of the family. For all they knew, the family had been killed and consumed, as dremions were wont to do. How Davina survived was pretty obvious.
They all agreed that the dremions had left her alive on purpose. One of the foul creatures had obviously nurtured her body to keep her alive and healthy. It had dwelled in her, leaving the little girl to live with the knowledge that something lived inside her. Palance couldn’t imagine the horror of living with such a thing inside of him. He didn’t dare imagine how Davina had felt. She had been just a little girl. Her parents had taught her well. Even when the dremion had recognized Palance, she had struggled to warn him.
Such bravery could not go unwarranted.
When he was done, he stood up and walked away from the house. The muscles in his jaw were clenched as he wrapped his cloak tightly about him. The wind was picking up with the nearing storm. Larson trailed closely behind.
A couple of guards brought the horses over as he walked out of the yard. Weeds were catching fire here, too. The shrubbery was catching quickly and in some parts had reached the wooden fence. It wouldn’t be long before everything went up in smoke.
Palance and Larson walked out just in time. The guard had to slap little embers off his cloak with his hand, silently cursing. They mounted up, every single man followed suit, and without another word Palance led them away. He veered off the road and cut across small rises and low hills, angling straight towards the border of Ramendae.
The huge pyre remained always to their backs, but nobody turned. Not even when the fire began to hiss with the patter of rainfall did anybody look over their shoulder.
They rode hard trying to regain lost time. Palance hoped his urgency would give his men purpose again. He didn’t like the condition most of his men seemed to be in. The men of the Iinnin Lodar rode numbly in their saddles, their dull eyes staring at the horizon, dreadful of what the future held for them.
The dremion had known Palance. They knew the dire consequences of such a result. The Rune Man’s words were true. They knew it, as well as did the prince. They were sworn to protect and serve their lord to the very ends of the earth should he so choose it, and no one would shy from that duty. But now they knew a great danger followed, if not awaited them. They could only wonder at what would come next. The Rune Man never mentioned dremions. So why the dark forces?
What worried Palance the most was Why were they after him? What was he standing in the middle of? He just wanted to get married to Andina. He knew some of the Nations might not be happy with such a union, but what had he triggered unknowingly? Had his actions started a landslide of events untold or unforeseen? His mouth drew into a thin line. He didn’t have any answers. He didn’t know what was going to happen. If he were to believe Romen Garrenson’s words, then a lot was going to happen. He must prepare himself for everything to come hurtling itself all at once.
As much as his men would follow him because of their duty, Palance felt obligated to run to Andina’s aid, as well. He felt he needed to fulfill his duty to her. Most men would have turned back to face the danger from the safety of their homes and cities. But Palance loved her, and he would not let her go because of his fears. He would be with her even if it were only for a short time.
Now they were racing against time. Andina’s life depended on it. Palance’s life depended on it. It was no longer a mission just to get there to protect her. They needed her to reveal any visions she might have had. They needed her, as well, to reveal to them anything she knew. There was no doubt in any of their heads that many of the things the Rune Man had said were going to come true. Dremions. Nomel dracs. Raindogs. Which would come next?
As they rode, thunder rumbled and lightning split the sky at their backs. Palance felt his throat. It was tender to the touch. He could feel the bruises and scratches left from the dremion. He refused to believe it was Davina. That little girl had been incapable of harm. Palance thought of her large eyes and dirty hair. He thought of her grimy dress and her sweet, tender voice. It was a voice filled with innocence and purity.
He pushed his emotions back. He suppressed his emptiness behind a veil of anger. He couldn’t imagine what would hurt a child. Obviously, a dremion would hurt a child. He would have his vengeance against their kind. His hands tightened around the reins and his horse responded by charging forward with greater speed.
He was a seasoned soldier, yet he had remained unhardened by those lessons and atrocities that a soldier faced. In all his campaigns, each side had respected the lives of innocents. It was the way of the Nations. The lands were too dark and sinister to wipe away villages and towns for the sake of war. Battle commenced between armies, and armies only. But now it seemed the rules were changing.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler