Chapter 8: A Matter of Duty
Battle Seer began|
in issue 118
Chapter 8 began
in issue 127.
But I’m not dealing with people, he thought, silently. I’m dealing with dremions and the light knows what else. Lightning crackled overhead. He flinched, startled by the piercing boom. In his reverie, he didn’t notice the storm catching up with them.
The sun was covered behind a thick layer of dark clouds. Palance knew they would not see the sun for the rest of the day. The coming storm was too thick for such hopes.
The rain started quickly after. It came softly at first, just a light drizzle to wet the ground lightly. Then the storm began to rage. With the fury of a madman, the rain increased to a drowning buzz. Drops the size of thumbnails pounded on Palance and the Iinnin Lodar. They were soaked instantly as they spurred their horses onward. The war trained horses found it difficult to gallop in the ground beneath them. It was quickly turning soft and muddy.
Palance was forced to shield his eyes as he urged his horse forward. The rain was relentless. It came in droves and in waves. Never for a second did it give a moment’s respite. The surrounding landscape was lost behind the sheets of water that came down.
His men struggled just as he did. The large contingent of men formed a large ring around their prince. Eliath dispatched several men to look for a place they could wait out the storm. The men charged off into the rain, their horses only sliding a little. A strong gust of wind suddenly blew. Rain, dirt, and grass blew into everyone’s face as everyone tried in vain to scamper out of the way from atop their saddles. Several men saw it coming and covered their faces just in time.
Through the rain, the commander looked for a place of shelter. It was hard out here in the middle of low hills and small rises. There were hardly any trees. In any case, in an open area like this seeking shelter under trees was not a good idea.
Larson and Soulcryst pressed close to him. They could already sense as much as Palance that something was wrong. This storm had caught up with them too quickly. At the speed they were going, they should have left the storm behind for at least several hours. With everything they had heard and seen in the past two days, they weren’t about to dismiss this happenstance for a coincidence.
Through the rain they watched everything around them, looking and gazing in between poundings of rain. They were all soaked to the core and their clothing clung to them like insects on a spider’s web. Some weapons had already been brandished, but it hardly helped in guiding their horses over hills.
Palance couldn’t get his horse to go up the next hill so he did the only thing he could. With a shout, he ordered everyone to follow him. It took several more shouts to get everyone’s attention, but soon they were all moving. He led them around the hilly country traveling through the troughs between hills. Water was already collecting and mud was splashing at their feed as they made their way.
They did everything they could to calm the horses, but even they knew that something was amiss. Palance looked over to his commander. Eliath’s look told him everything. The men sent to look for shelter had not returned. He gauged their numbers. He had enough men should anything attack them.
Suddenly, the rain started coming straight down and the wind subsided. Then the rain calmed immensely and came down in a slight drizzle. Palance and his men were left cold and wet in its aftermath. His teeth chattered in the chill of the day. He wished the rain would stop.
Eliath came over to him. “My lord,” he said, worry lining his voice. “This isn’t natural. We must find shelter. The other men haven’t come back. The storm was quick and violent, but it shouldn’t have kept them long. I fear for their lives.”
Palance watched his commander expressionless. What in the light was going on? “Have everyone gather close. I don’t think this is over yet. We may need to fight for our lives before this is over.”
Eliath didn’t say a word as he gave his orders to a slender young man at his side.
“We can’t wait for our men if you think they are dead, commander,” said Larson suddenly. “Let us move from this place. I think we can all agree that this rain is unnatural. Palance should be kept moving at all times, if something is out there.”
It was obvious Eliath had been thinking the same thing. “Yes, I know,” he said, urging his horse forward. “Let us move. The rain is starting to abate a bit.”
With that said, Eliath took the lead. Larson and Soulcryst took up Palance’s flank while the rest of the soldiers gathered around. They followed their commander through the hills that were gradually getting larger and larger.
The rain didn’t stop neither did it pound on them mercilessly. It just kept coming and coming, like a wave without end. The morale of the men sank with every trudging step. The horses dropped their heads as the monotonous drone of falling water turned into something like a bad wail with no end. The wind picked at them occasionally, always threatening yet never committing. It was just enough of an annoyance to cause misery, but never enough to break the soldiers.
They never heard or saw a trace of the men they had lost. They disappeared from the face of the Nations like ghosts with no purpose. Palance grieved silently for them. Whatever had caused their demise would never be found. The rain would make sure to wash away any trace of their existence.
It was a hollow feeling that dwelled within him. First, he had been forcibly committed to order the death of a little girl. Her life had been cheated of living to its fullest. And now, four of his men had been destroyed. There was no doubt in his mind they were dead.
The men of the Iinnin Lodar did not abandon their post when duty became harsh and heavy. They had been ordered to scout for shelter and did not return. The rain was hiding something. The thought made him look back in his saddle. Behind the last man of his contingent of soldiers lay nothing but vast emptiness, a dark clouded sky, and rain.
He didn’t see anything, but he knew it was out there. In the rain. Hiding.
The rain continued. Palance was soaked and cold. His teeth began to chatter incessantly. He saw more than one soldier put their arms around himself protectively. They needed to find shelter and fast.
“There!” he heard Eliath call out from up ahead. “Follow me!”
The whole group followed without comment. Palance suddenly ached for the nice, small campfire that would soon greet his bones with warmth. His stomach rumbled hungrily and he wondered about the time. It would be dark soon.
Eliath took them around a small hill, across a crevice where water mixed with mud splashed lazily in a small river, and through a low wall of brush and weeds. From there, Eliath led them to a clearing between two hills where a large clump of trees stood to match the height of the hills.
“This is a good spot as any to wait out the storm,” said the commander as Palance moved beneath the branches that cut off the rain. “The trees are not tall enough to cause us any danger from lightning. We can make small fires with some of the supplies we have. I think the wood will be too dry to start any fires with.”
Palance was already feeling warmer. The trees blocked most of the water from hitting him and the hills cut off any wind that might come there way. His men quickly build camp. Guards were posted and tents were put up. Everyone knew they would not be traveling for the remainder of the day. The day was wasted. They would be late to reach Ramendae. But Palance didn’t argue the point. He was tired and wary. They were close enough to wake up early and get there before the sun broke the horizon completely. He would reach Andina as planned.
Knowing this, the prince turned over in his wet bed and tried to sleep. He tried to put out of his mind Davina and her innocent voice. He tried to calm his grief over his fallen men. He tried to reason out his fears for Andina. The Rune Man popped into his head unwelcomingly, with his words of madness and false reality. But it wasn’t a false reality. It was a reality that was coming to consume Palance’s world.
He shivered unknowingly. What was he to do? The same feeling as before came to him like an unbidden servant. He felt like a mouse put at the center of a maze. It was up to him to gauge his actions and solutions. He would have to solve and confront each problem as they presented themselves.
Somewhere out there, an enemy unseen and willing to shred him to pieces awaited for him to step into its trap. But which traps would he spring unknowingly? Which ones would prove the better and consume him? Worst of all, which ones would prove his master?
He shifted in his uncomfortable bed of wet ground and drenched blankets. His men warmed next to small fires. Some slept uneasily, their mutters louder than the weak rainfall that still fell. Guards paced around the camp, their heads occasionally turning back the way they had come. But their comrades never appeared.
It had been a long day, longer than any Palance could remember. He was sure most of his men felt the same. The fact that no one spoke was evidence of that. A pang of sullen dread covered the camp like a blanket. Men, the ones who laid down, slept with one eye open. Weapons weren’t far from reach.
As the dark day turned to night, Palance again let his mind wonder. What would Andina think of all of this? Would she still want to marry him, knowing that their actions had started a line of events neither might survive? He hoped she would. If not then he would deal with that when the time came.
If his actions led to her being threatened, then as lord, it was his duty to protect her. As a citizen, it was her right. One day, he didn’t doubt, she would be the Light of Acrene Tarrynth. The Light of Acrene Tarrynth was a title given to every queen of Acrene Tarrynth. She would rule next to him, side by side. The people would love her and protect her. And we will live happy, he vowed. He would make sure to save her before death came to claim her. Just one more night, he told himself, and I will be with her.
His thoughts continued to churn as steadily as the rainfall.
He didn’t realize when he fell asleep, but his dreams were bad that night. He dreamed of ragged hands clawing at his face, tearing out his eyeballs and ripping his cheeks like a knife through paper. He dreamt of claws, not unlike Davina’s claw, choking him, threatening to end his life, as he lay there helpless.
He dreamed of red glares and icy stares. Only this time they didn’t fight. As his dreams shifted, they came in a rush, a thousand bodies charred and sizzling rushing into his consciousness. They waited for him, he knew even as he slept, just like they had waited for him until he slept. They waited for him to commit a mistake. His error would be their release. He knew without hope that the error would come.
He saw nomel dracs. They stood underneath a large clump of trees unlike the one he slept in now, their ghostly bodies hovering just above the ground. They called to him, goading him into their ranks where sleep awaited, they assured. He watched as ladies and men gathered around with children in their arms. He could see through them, their bodies as transparent as the thinnest sheets used by the whores of Mor’Sham.
Some of the women were beautiful, their long hair hanging loosely about their shoulders, even the men would have been considered attractive by many women. The children giggled innocently as they stared at him. He was sure one of them looked like Davina. He watched as elderly ghosts, with eyes as piercing as Father Rayul’s, came to watch him, appearing out of thin air. Their bodies were hunched and stooped with the burden of age. The beginnings of a smirk played at the corners of their mouths. This troubled Palance.
Right as he was sure something was going to be revealed, his dreams turned to blackness, a night as dark as the hilt of his sword stretched over his entire world. Stars didn’t blink back. Nothing moved in the foreign terrain that stretched out before him. As far as he knew, he wasn’t even breathing. This startled him a bit and brought him close to the surface of consciousness. The view was lost.
Then he heard a voice, a little girl’s voice. It was Davina’s voice. Find my mother, she said into the vast cavern of his mind. Remember her name? It’s Eshleny. Tell her that I’m okay. Tell her that you saved me. Please? Will you do this for me?
Palance nodded. He couldn’t see her, but he felt a tingle on his cheek. It took him a moment to realize what it was. A kiss.
You are a good man, Palance, she continued. I tried to warn you, but I guess it had to happen. Now you know there is something out there lurking and waiting for you. It will eventually come for you, but not for a long time, I think. No matter, you must sleep now. Just remember to tell my mother about me.
The voice began to recede, as well as the presence. Remember, she called out again. My mother’s name is Eshleny. It’s important that you tell her.
Then she was gone.
He blinked and came awake. The storm had moved on and the sky clear. He was still wet and the ground was covered with a sheet of dew. The camp lay in silence. He shook the last remains of sleep, however fruitless, and lifted himself up with his elbows. Dark bundles littered the floor in the grayness of the morning. It’s time to move, he told himself.
He tried not to think of all the dreams he had. He pushed through them as he rose to his feet. He brushed himself off and staggered over to a small campfire that burned with seeming reluctance. Soulcryst greeted him as he drew close. The guard was poking at the fire with a long sword.
He could see guards patrolling the area. The horses were already being tended to by one of the soldiers. “We should get going, Soulcryst,” he whispered.
The hawkish face of his guard took him in. Those sharp eyes appraised the prince. “We are in a lot of trouble, aren’t we?”
Palance didn’t answer out loud. With a heavy heart, he nodded that they were.
“I’ll get the others, my lord.” With that spoken, Soulcryst stood up and walked into the silent campground. He started nudging men with his boot. They awoke without complaints. The camp was put up in silence, just as the sun broke the horizon. Then they headed towards Ramendae.
They traveled swiftly. Palance’s heart raced in his chest. Soon, he told himself as they made their way between hills, she will be at my side again. The happenings of the previous day still lingered in his mind, but the urgency of reaching Andina finally pushed them aside all together. He would not forget the little girl, his lost men, or his dreams, for they could prove important, but he would not let them bring him down. He needed to be clear of mind.
If Romen Garrenson’s words were true, then Andina was being followed even as he rode to meet her. If she were on time, they would meet her this very morning, which meant that if she were being pursued, his Iinnin Lodar would do battle before the end of the day.
The hills grew larger and wider. It took them a lot more time to travel between hills than it did in the beginning. The scenery began to change. The shrubbery receded gradually and gave way to small clusters of golden grass. As they traveled south, the grass began to grow taller. By the time they reached the border, the grass was knee high. The blades of golden grass were sharp and shiny in the morning sun.
They had reached the Hills of Fae.
Palance took a deep breath as they came to a stop. The Hills of Fae marked the beginning of Ramendae, a place Palance had no say in; a place he could not charge into to save his future bride and queen. She could be a dozen yards away, being attacked by the cruelest of monsters, and he could not lift so much as a finger to aid her.
Acrene Tarrynth, and his rule and protection, ended where he stood. He would be inviting open warfare to go further. Nazarah Fey was not a cruel man, actually proving friendly the few times Palance had met him in stately dinners, but he was ambitious.
Palance would have to tread carefully from here on out. The borders of Ramendae and Acrene Tarrynth were not guarded borders. Each kingdom relied on the good faith of their neighbor to remain at peace with each other. But that did not comfort Palance. If trouble followed Andina then someone might be watching the borders for once. They could be watching him now, waiting for a wrong move. Waiting for an error, a reason to raise a cry of foul play.
With a deep breath, he got down from his saddle and walked up the hill. Stretching to the southern horizon he saw nothing but hills. Golden grasses covered the hills like a carpet would a castle chamber. The sight was awesome. It took away his breath for a moment, before reality set in.
A trail, tiny compared to the vast landscape, wound its way to the south. There were no signs of life anywhere on the trail. It remained empty as far as the eye could see. He pushed down a rising ball of panic. His throat went dry and his heart lurched in his chest.
He tried to suppress the thoughts that came rushing to his mind; the sense of hopelessness that Romen Garrenson’s words had come to pass. He tried to steady himself on that hill that held him up above the terrain like a mantle for a trophy. He was stunned. The world spun and only Eliath and Soulcryst caught him in time before he would have struck the ground.
He didn’t have to explain anything. Eliath’s eyes spoke volumes as he took in the view below. Palance knew what his commander was seeing; miles and miles of empty road.
Andina, with her guard of one wizard and one hundred horsemen, was nowhere to be seen.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler