Chapter 13: A Haunting Realization
by Julian Lawler
Table of Contents|
Chapter 13, part 1 appears
in this issue.
Suddenly Palance remembered where he was. He remembered why he was here and the loss of men at the arms of an unnatural rain. He remembered the little girl who tried to kill him and the state of her once warm home. He remembered Romen Garrenson’s words, and the dark future they proclaimed.
As the man passed him, he remembered the Rune Man’s words of Andina’s death. He would not hesitate to save her. His mind decided to act.
With one quick motion, he burst from the ground and jumped to his feet. He didn’t bother to wipe the dirt and grass from his hair, his clothes, or face. Gritting his teeth, he whirled on the scout who was just starting to run. He took two steps after the enemy when Larson burst from his hiding place on the side of the hill.
The blonde guard brought his sword down heavily and the scout was able to move out of the way but Larson was an expert fighter. Using the bulk of his body to block off any escape route, he guided the man to the left and right into the hill. The scout stepped back and brought his bow to bear, but not before Palance stepped in and impaled the man with his sword.
He hadn’t pulled his sword out of the dead man’s body when he heard the shouts and cries of the other man coming from the other side of the hill. He considered going after the man, but knew the chase would be futile. The hill was too large to run around, and to go over it would be suicide. The enemy was alerted now. No doubt they were making their way towards their position already.
Cursing, Palance turned to face his men who were all out of cover. Stark, hard eyes peered back at him from under dust-covered bodies. Everyone’s weapon was drawn. Their armor was dusty and streaked. They had a look for war. They were committed and in foreign territory. There could be no survivors.
Eliath stepped forward. “My lord, take twenty men and go after Andina. You can reach the horses in no time. Go to them and make for the horizon. Andina is there. They will no doubt send their own troops now that they know we are here. They will split their forces into two. One to deal with us, and one to take care of her. We will see what we can do with the half that comes our way. You can take care of the other.”
Palance shook his head. “There are over five hundred soldiers over there. Split in two and that still gives them two hundred and fifty men each, more than enough to handle either group that we might form. No, we can’t do it. We need to stay together.”
Larson spoke first to protest. “No, my lord. Eliath is right.” Behind him shouts and cries of alarm were being taken up. The sound was being carried across the hills by a gentle breeze that did little to cool Palance from the hot rays of the sun.
“If you can reach Andina,” continued the blonde guard, “you will have another one hundred men to help in our cause. The most important thing is for you to reach her and warn her. She knows nothing of what happens here this day.”
“Yes,” entered Soulcryst. “I’ll go with you. Fear not for the rest of these men.”
“True,” conceded Eliath. “We are not fools. We will not take so many men head on. We are well trained, my lord. We know well what we are doing. Now go.”
Palance heard the shouts and yells coming over the hills. He reluctantly gave in to their plan. He didn’t like it, but he saw the sense of it. The main objective was to get Andina and get back across the border.
He nodded his head conceding. “Okay. Let’s do it. No matter what happens, we’ll meet three miles down the border. No, make it six miles. We need spacing. No heroics! You do your duty and let’s go home! Remember, everyone do their part and everything will be okay.”
Eliath slapped Palance on the shoulder. “My lord, go! You don’t have much time. After we’re done here, we’ll do what we can to help get you and Andina back safely.”
Coran, the same man who had organized the search for the rune man outside the Sun Palance, stepped forward. Immediately he separated the entire company.
“Let me handle this half, Eliath,” said the gruff man. “You go with Palance. Take Larson and Soulcryst with you.” He quickly pointed out other men. “You go with them, as well. Go. Keep to the hills. Stay in between. Don’t go over any. You’ll be outlined against the sky if you do. Now go!”
Palance didn’t wait any longer. He put a hand over his stomach and bowed. Stone faced, he watched as all his men returned the salute. No one said a word as he turned away and started off, Eliath, Larson, Soulcryst and the rest of his men following suit. They waded through knee high grasses towards the next pair of hills. As they drew away, all of them could hear Coran barking orders.
“Move! Let’s go!” Then the second commander’s voice was lost behind the first hill.
Palance and his group of men came upon the tethered horses in a small grove. Everything was still except for the whining of the mounts. Palance felt himself shaking. This was it. There was no turning back, no rewinding of time to undo what was done. Men would die this day. Hopefully, with a little luck and skill, more of the enemy would die. With little more than seventy men, Coran would have to undertake an ambush-style attack. The Iinnin Lodar’s chance at survival would depend on their ability to evade.
Palance didn’t know what he was going to do. He needed to reach Andina, that was obvious, he only hoped he could beat the enemy to her. A hundred twenty men were still not enough to defeat two hundred fifty armed men, especially if they fought head on. Their only chance would come if Andina’s wizard joined the fray.
They mounted wordlessly and Palance guided them out of the clearing, out of Acrene Tarrynth and into the hilly grasslands known as the Hills of Fae. There were dangers here. More importantly they were now in Ramendae. His jurisdiction was at an end. From here on out he was at the mercy of the fates. He only hoped fate was kind to him.
They rode around hill after hill. The grass grew taller and it whipped at his knees mounted as he was. Somewhere to his right, he could hear men trudging towards his Iinnin Lodar. Battle had yet to commence. How he wished he could be there with his men. They needed him but he longed to be with Andina more.
He was brought out of his contemplation as they came around another hill. At the top of the crescent, he saw a large wolfing head stuck on a spear. The head was contorted in a strange mutation between half man and half wolf. Its large, red eyes glazed over. Flies covered most of the muzzle where drool had dried over. A large tongue stuck out between clenched teeth where the beast had bitten itself in its final death throes. Blood covered most of the spear shaft, leaving it covered in a crusty brown film.
The stench was palpable and Palance stared at the grizzly sight until they left it out of view.
“That looks like a mighty beast to slay so easily,” stated Eliath.
Palance nodded. Werewolves were never easy to strike at, much less defeat. It had probably taken ten men to take the thing down. Palance felt his calm center fill with nervousness. He had expected to hear the cries and yells of the wounded men during the night, but none had come. Either the dead had died swiftly and cleanly, or their enemy was mightier than the terrors of the night. If the latter were true, then Palance feared the outcome at the end of the day.
With the creature at their backs, the group slowed their horses to a slow trot. They had yet to push their horses for speed. With the scene of the beast, Larson and Soulcryst took up the front. The rest of the men spread out around their prince.
“After this next hill,” stated Eliath, “we push our horses to the limit. We have passed the enemy camp to the west. Next hill we ride to catch the men who want to slay Andina.”
Palance’s hands tightened around his horse’s reins. Things were happening too fast. Just four days ago, he had been in Nomen, within the safety of his borders. Then Romen Garrenson and his rune magic had come along with his dark words. It all seemed so distant now.
He couldn’t remember what Geamehn looked like. His beloved and powerful city was something of the past. If he never made it back, he didn’t think he would miss it much. He felt strange. It was odd to feel such detachment from the city he had grown up in, from his parents, and his people.
He hoped his letter explained much. The three riders that had been ordered to take the royal message to the king were somewhere close to the Raven’s Reach mountains. They were about four to three days out of Geamehn.
If they still lived.
Palance forced such thoughts out of his head. He still remembered the day after being mesmerized by the nomel dracs. If that letter didn’t get to Geamehn, then Palance, Andina, her armed men, her wizard, and his Iinnin Lodar were in a lot of trouble. There were still parts of his plan that had yet to take effect. He hadn’t told Ian and Father Rayul everything. There were plans his friends didn’t need to know of, yet. These weren’t secrets, just business of state he wished to keep to himself.
With the sun beginning to beat down on them, Palance frowned. In his baffled state he had forgotten to inquire about his opened letter. Come to think of it, he still didn’t know if he had sealed it the night before.
“Yes, my lord?” came the immediate reply.
“Who took me to my room the night of the nomel dracs?” he asked, hoping to hear they had.
“We did, my lord,” came the commander’s reply from his right.
Palance nodded, breathing a sigh of relief. They were almost around the indicated hill. “Good,” he said. “I was afraid someone else had.”
Eliath frowned, his eyes searching ahead despite Larson and Soulcryst’s scouting. “Why, my lord?” asked the commander. “We are almost there. Get ready to ride.”
Palance thought a moment. He felt very calm considering they were about to go into battle. Once they passed this hill, they would be out in the open. The enemy would be able to spot them as they charged toward Andina. He wondered if Andina was aware of what was transpiring.
He focused back on Eliath’s question. “No, nothing really. It’s just that I had to reseal my letter to father the following morning. I haven’t thought about it, really, until now. I thought I had sealed it the previous night, but if you took me to my room, then I have nothing to fear.”
Palance focused his gaze ahead. They were almost to the point. Beyond, the hills flattened a bit and the grasslands stretched out to the horizon. He felt excitement rise in his chest. Maybe he would get a glimpse of Andina’s carriage once they galloped ahead.
Through all this, he didn’t notice Eliath frown.
“My lord?” came the commander’s unsure voice something the prince was not used to.
Palance forced his eyes away from the broadening horizon. Larson and Soulcryst already waited at the edge of their self-imposed boundary. The men around him shifted in their saddles. This was it. Behind them, they could hear the ring of steel meeting steel.
“What is it, Eliath?” he asked impatiently. They were committed now. There was no turning back.
Eliath’s eyes looked haunted. “The night of the nomel dracs, we took you to your room. We also prepared you for the night. The letter was with you. I remember putting the case it was in on your desk.”
Palance nodded. “Good, then. There is nothing to fear.”
Eliath shook his head. Palance frowned. He felt a sense of dread creep up on him. Eliath never frowned unless something was dearly amiss. They were so close now. Somewhere to the right, ahead of them, he could hear the pounding of hooves drawing away. The enemy was going after Andina!
“What is it?” he asked as he turned in his saddle to stare at his commander. “Tell me! There is no more time. We have to move! Andina is out there. Tell me, Eliath! There is no more time!”
“Palance,” said the older man, “when you fell asleep, I put the letter on your desk. It was sealed.”
Palance’s jaw dropped open. They were in a lot of trouble. He had a hard time getting his eyes to focus on what lay ahead. His thoughts were on the past. His plans. All his plans were for nothing. If he had to reseal his letter that meant someone had been in his room reading the yellow parchment during the night while he slept.
Betrayal. But by whom? Definitely none of his men. If someone had read his letter, and he was sure someone had, the three riders he had sent to Geamehn were in great peril, maybe already dead.
He needed to save Andina fast. If he were caught on this side of the border, he could get arrested for invading. If he was going to save Andina and still get back to Acrene Tarrynth in one piece, he needed to finish this quickly.
One thing at a time. He would worry about the three riders later, and about his letter. He would find those responsible, too. He just needed to finish this business at hand.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Lawler