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Shadows of Forever

by Bryce V. Giroux

Table of Contents
Part 4 and part 5
appear in this issue.
part 6

* * *

Captain Giric steadied his horse. Looking back at his troops, he studied his strength. The force consisted of two dozen light-armored infantry and half-dozen archer-scouts. It wasn’t a strong force. Perhaps their knowledge of the lands would be enough to push these Visharians back to the sea. Giric’s fingers played at the shaft of his battle-axe. It had been a long time since he’d ridden into battle against anything more than bandits. His heart pounded heavily in his chest.

“Men,” he called out to his army, “today your days of idleness are over. No longer shall you worry about bandits, or wolves. A threat has landed in Ægrin; a threat our people have never before seen. The Visharians, as they call themselves, claim this land as theirs. Today, we shall show them who the land really belongs to.”

The army roared in approval. Giric turned his mount toward Glærn and spurred his steed on. The army followed, playing bagpipes and singing Nin Colaim’s praise.

Giric spied movement down the road within a few hours’ march. He drew his spyglass from his saddlebag and surveyed the road ahead: four soldiers guarded the road. They had with them six Messatulans who were busy constructing an outpost tower.

“Battle is drawn,” Giric said. He drew his axe high and shouted, “For Nin Colaim!”

The army replied in kind.

With a heavy spur, Giric tore down the road to the first Visharian tower. His army charged behind him, launching volleys of arrows, and shouting out to Nin Colaim.

The Visharians, caught off guard, scrambled to gather their weapons, but Giric was faster than they were. His axe screamed through the air, its target the skull of a Visharian. Brain matter spilled as the lifeless body crumbled to the ground. In a fluid chop, Giric took the head of another soldier, and the arm of a third. The last enemy soldier thrust his blade into the chest of Giric’s steed. Giric fell heavily to the ground as his horse screamed out in pain.

Giric’s men hacked the unfortunate warrior down before he could land another fatal blow. Giric gathered himself and holstered his axe. He regarded the Messatulans, who stood frozen, staring gape-jawed at the warriors. A soldier ran to Giric’s side, ready to draw his blade. Giric steadied the young warrior’s hand. “Easy, they’re harmless slaves.” Giric nodded at a Messatulan. It remained motionless. “Go on. You’re free.” Still, the Messatulans dared not move.

Giric turned to his dead steed and shook his head. “May you run free forever,” he said softly, pressing his thumb to his head, “Come, men. We’ve a village to save.”

* * *

Mairghraed was feeling much better after the night’s rest; the hermit’s stew was also hearty and made her stomach turn a little less. He had proved to be a proficient healer, and the wounds on her head didn’t hurt that much anymore.

After a lengthy conversation, Padraig and the old man decided it was time to leave. Mairghraed couldn’t agree more. The sooner she was out of these forsaken woods, the better. If they were lucky and they didn’t face any more obstacles, they could be in Éuarægh by nightfall tomorrow.

Finally, they were on their way with a sack full of fruit, and bellies full of stew. The old man pointed the fastest way out of the woods.

“How’s you head?” Padraig asked, trying to catch a glimpse of her wound.

“I’m fine.” Her head still throbbed, and her vision was a bit blurred. At least I’m alive, she thought.

Padraig and Mairghraed walked in relative silence through the rest of the woods. Every now and then, Padraig would ask her a question. “How are you feeling? Does your head hurt? Are you hungry? Tired?” She didn’t feel much like answering and just grunted for answers. Eventually, Padraig quit asking questions and walked silently beside her.

Finally, they left the woods and the light of the sun made them squint. It dawned on her, suddenly, just how dark the woods were. The field that stretched before them was alive with rich greens and bright yellows. Padraig laughed and ran into the field, dancing and skipping. “Come on, Mairgie, dance with me. We’re out of that cursed forest.”

Mairghraed looked over her shoulder at the dark woods and shuddered. A chill of ice ran down her spine and across her toes. She turned back to Padraig and ran. The farther away she got from the woods, the more alive she felt. Soon she was laughing and giggling with Padraig as they sprinted across the fields in the dazzling morning sun.

Before long, the two came upon a wide river, its cool water flowing lazily eastward. Another forest stretched out beyond the river. The river was far too deep and wide to ford at this point, and Mairghraed had no desire to pass through another forest.

“So, which way?” she asked.

Padraig closed his eyes and thought hard. “If I remember correctly, this is Gælin River. If we follow it west, we should be a day outside of Drustanrægh. If we go east, we’ll be right outside Éuarægh. East, we’ll have to follow the High Road. West is just wilderness.”

Mairghraed looked to the west. The rolling landscape disappeared to the horizon. East was much of the same. If we travel west, she thought, it will be days of walking through wilderness. East, they could be at Éuarægh in just over a day. “We shall go east,” she decided.

The two started their journey to Éuarægh.

* * *

Giric’s men gathered in a patch of bushes just out of the Visharian invaders’ view, but from this vantage point, Giric also found it difficult to estimate the strength of the enemy. He could see they had built a perimeter wall around the village; it wasn’t anything Giric’s men couldn’t handle. Just outside the gates, two Visharian soldiers stood guard as a half dozen Messatulans gathered lumber from a nearby copse of trees.

Giric gave a signal, and the archer-scouts knocked their arrows; another signal and they released them. The two guards dropped before even noticing the attack.

Giric wasted no time — he sprang from the bush and charged down the road. His two-dozen foot soldiers stayed close by him.

The Visharians were unprepared for the attack. By the time Giric and his men crashed through the gates, only six Visharian soldiers were ready, but were no match for Giric’s swift axe as he hewed through the wall of flesh. Giric’s men followed close behind and made quick work of any Visharian soldier standing near.

Then Giric froze as an arrow screamed through the air and passed through his sergeant’s throat. The man collapsed to the ground and died. Another arrow found its mark in a private’s chest. Then another and another. In moments, arrows had hit and killed all of Giric’s men.

A tall Visharian stepped out from behind a building and held his hand in the air. The archers stopped their attack and kept their bows drawn, arrows trained on Giric.

“So, we have a warrior come to visit us?” the black-clothed Visharian asked in a low voice. “Allow me to introduce myself: I am Tao, Gavin to Negren.”

Giric stood still, his chest heaving.

With a swift blow, Tao slammed his staff against the side of the Ægrinian captain’s skull, dropping the man to the ground. “Load him in that merchant’s cart,” Tao commanded, motioning toward an unused merchant’s cart which rested beside a booth. “Bring the Smith, as well. We’ll take them to their precious king. It’s time these people see what they’re dealing with. Go under a banner of truce, and when you speak with the king, you may reveal our plan. Your sacrifice to the Visharian Empire will be commended, and we will request that you return in your next incarnations.”

A sergeant looked at him sidelong. “But Gavin, what about the Norin?”

“Never mind the Norin; he has other things on his mind right now.” Tao grinned from the side of his mouth. He leaned heavily on his staff and glanced at the Norin’s tent. Two guards, who’d been instructed not to allow any interruptions for the next two hours, stood at rigid attention at the front flaps. Faint moans could be heard from within. Tao’s grin broadened. Bringing Elia here had been the perfect thing to do — with Norin Wynrich’s attention turned to her, Tao could issue whatever orders he pleased. It was easy to advise, when the Norin was pre-occupied. Perhaps, Tao would be Norin someday. No, then he’d have some wry Gavin trying to usurp his power. It was better remaining the Norin’s Gavin.

Two guards gathered the wounded soldier’s body, and bound him. They tossed the limp body on the cart with a heavy thud, and headed to the Smith’s hut for their second prisoner.

* * *

A storm began to gather over the sea to the east. Air that had once warmed Padraig and Mairghraed now made them shiver. Willow trees danced in the cool breeze, and the grass bowed and swayed. The air was heavy with the smell of rain, and the blue sky was now bruised a deep and dirty black. Tongues of fire licked the distant horizon, and the sky roared like an ancient dragon.

“We should be getting to shelter,” Mairghraed said between shivers. A raindrop clung to the tip of her nose.

“The road is another five miles or so east of here. There’s surely a farmhouse or wayside inn along the way.”

“Do you hear that?” Mairghraed turned back and faced upstream. Nothing moved along the riverbed save the bobbing cattails.

Padraig shrugged and continued. Mairghraed stumbled forward, keeping her eyes locked behind her. It was a bit of a distance before she trusted her senses again, and continued after Padraig.

The sky rumbled, turned dark as dusk and then the rain began to pour down in sheets; the two youths were drenched by the time they reached the High Road, which was a river of mud. The bridge that crossed the river had become a waterfall. Padraig stood on the road and squinted to the south. He thought he could hear shouting through the downpour. He focused hard through the gray wall of water.

“What is it?” Mairghraed shouted over the hiss of rain.

“I’m not sure. I thought I heard something. A caravan, maybe.”

Mairghraed and Padraig both stood in the middle of the road, trying hard to focus through the rain. Padraig could make out the faint silhouettes in the gloom. There were six shapes, maybe, and a horse-drawn cart. The figures approached in the gloom.

“It is a caravan.” Padraig smiled. “Come on, Mairgie. We’re almost there.”

The shapes became clear. Padraig froze in horror when he saw it wasn’t a merchant’s caravan after all — it was, in fact, a Visharians slave caravan.

They were spotted. A Visharians soldier drew his blade and shouted. Padraig and Mairghraed turned and ran. If they could just get to the bridge, they would be safe.

Then Mairghraed cried out. She dropped to her knees and grabbed at Padraig. Padraig stopped and looked down at Mairghraed. She looked back at him with glassy eyes. Time seemed to stand still. A trace of blood escaped from Mairghraed’s mouth as she gasped for air. Padraig tried to help her to her feet. He felt her back. An arrow protruded from her spine. Mairghraed fell to the soaked earth, despite all of Padraig’s efforts to keep her standing.

The blood from her mouth mixed with the mud and water. She didn’t move, didn’t breathe. Padraig screamed to the heavens. An arrow zipped through the air; the feathers grazed past his cheek. Padraig stood and charged at the Visharians. He never remembered the next moments except as a blind fury: He wrested a sword from a warrior and began swinging. The blade cut and dug through his enemies. Despite the six soldiers’ best efforts, Padraig managed to hack them down. He finally stood still among the carnage, an arm soaked in blood and his face soaked in rain. He was numb to the pain, and his deed. He could think only of Mairghraed lying in the mud, her life pouring from her back and her mouth.

“Padraig,” a weak voice called out. Padraig focused. The voice came from the wagon, not from Mairghraed. His heart sank. He tripped over the limbs and bodies and worked his way to the back of the wagon. The rain poured down on two weak and beaten bodies. One was a soldier of the king’s army. Padraig immediately recognized the other: Colban the Smith.

Colban weakly raised his head to see his apprentice. Padraig worked quickly to loosen Colban and the soldier’s bindings. “Padraig, the guards,” Colban said between huffs.

“They’re dead, Master Colban.” Then, his voice drifted. “So is Mairghraed. Oh Colban, I’ve failed. I’ve failed.”

“Padraig, the sword, where is it?”

Padraig wailed. “It is lost. I lost the sword, Master Colban.”

“Good,” Colban huffed before he passed out from the pain.

* * *

Tears poured from Padraig’s face in rivers. He made up his mind to track down those cursed Visharians and bring them Mairghraed’s revenge. He started back toward Glærn; by the Nins, he vowed, he would to kill as many Visharians as he could before they killed him. He walked until his legs couldn’t carry him farther. His thoughts raced; Mairghraed’s face filled his every thought.

Padraig, the wind whispered.

“Mairghraed?” The voice he heard was familiar.

Padraig, don’t go back. They’ll only kill you.

“Mairgie, I must. I need to avenge you.”

Not this way, Paddie. Not this way.

“How can I avenge your death?”

When the time comes, you will know.

“Mairgie, I can’t go on.”

You will find the strength.

Padraig stirred and woke. Colban sat in the cart looking down at the lad; the soldier slipped in and out of consciousness in the back. “I’m glad we found you, lad. We feared the worst.”

“Master Colban, you followed me?” Padraig sniffed and wiped back the tears.

“We couldn’t leave you behind.” Colban glanced uneasily at the horizon. “Now come, the shadows approach and we must reach safety before they catch us.”

Padraig climbed on the wagon and took the reins from the weary Smith. With a snap, they were off toward Éuarægh.

The trio had been traveling the High Road well into the night when they reached the Lady’s Bridge; just beyond it was the safety of Éuarægh. Padraig’s heavy heart lightened at the thought of reaching the Lady’s city by dawn.

Ahead, near the bridge, they spied a fire with a half dozen figures huddled around it. Colban squinted through the night. “Could it be the Lady’s Guard on patrol?”

Padraig frowned. “Not likely. Highwaymen, I fear.” He unsheathed his sword and laid it across his lap. “Do you think you could fight, Master Colban?”

“I don’t know, lad. I can sure try.” Colban, too, drew his sword and laid it across his lap.

As they drew nearer, three of the figures sitting around the fire rose and started down the road toward the cart. Padraig handed the reins to Colban. “What are you doing?”

“They haven’t seen us yet. I’m going to sneak up behind,” he said before slipping off the cart into some bushes.

“Stop where you are,” one figure called out.

Colban stopped the cart and allowed the three to approach. From the bushes, all Padraig could see were tattered boots.

“Just where do you think you’re going?” one of the strangers asked.

Colban tried carefully to not make eye contact. “We’re on our way to Éuarægh.”

“Not without paying the toll, you’re not.”

“What toll?”

“The toll for passing this here bridge, that is.”

“We have no money.”

“Then I’m afraid you’ll have to give us what ye got.”

Padraig heard the unmistakable sound of steel sliding through leather, which he took as his cue and jumped from the bush. Before any of the bandits could react, Padraig’s sword drove through the back and out the front of a bandit; the Visharian swords were keen indeed, and slid easily through leather armor and flesh; the thought frightened Padraig.

The other two bandits spun around and called out. Colban’s sword landed heavily on one bandit’s skull, tearing the flesh from the right side of his face.

Padraig spun and saw three more bandits running toward the cart. “Colban, get down,” he shouted.

Padraig took a stance facing the remaining bandit.

“You’ll get yours,” the toothless thief growled, swinging his dagger at Padraig. The apprentice deflected the blow with his sword, his thrust easily severing the bandit’s right hand. The bandit dropped to his knees, howling in pain.

Padraig ducked as a mace soared through the air behind him; he rolled and chopped at his assailant, removing the man’s leg at his knee. The second was stabbing at the ground near Padraig when the youth’s sword sliced through the bandit’s groin and into his gut. The bandit barely had time to gasp as he fell lifelessly to the ground.

The third was smarter when he saw the havoc Padraig was unleashing and dropped his weapon, running and screaming into the night.

Padraig stood, wiping the blood from his sword. Cold eyes fell on Colban as the once-boy wiped his face. “Come, Master Colban. The highwaymen won’t bother us any longer.”

Padraig walked slowly before the cart as the trio made their way silently to Éuarægh.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2006 by Bryce V. Giroux

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