Running from the Shadow
On and on they rode, rain and shine, mist and hail, dust and frost, morn and noon and eve, until the night fell and Thadorn would be forced to give the order to dismount, upon which the men hastened to unsaddle their horses and make camp. Tents were erected, but whenever it didn’t rain, many would fall asleep right by the cooking fires, bowls and spoons falling from slackened grip. Exhaustion was taking a toll on them all, though Akira was one of the few who still vocally complained about the hardships of the ride. Most of the others were shamed into silence by Thadorn’s steadfast determination. The Commander set his jaw and gritted his teeth and ignored the poor food, the hard road, the lack of sleep – and so did most of the others. The rest muttered quietly into their cups come evening, but did not dare to complain aloud.
Nicholas had surprised him in a positive manner. He never struck Thadorn as a man likely to withstand such a rigorous ride with no complaints, but the man from the-world-beyond seemed to accept the many discomfort of their journey with no word of protest. Interestingly enough, he was now often seen in the company of Torwen Mattar. The two of them sat many an evening by the camp fire in companionable silence, each man apparently immersed in his own thoughts.
Not that Thadorn paid much interest to the thoughts of other men. He had enough on his mind as it was.
They were now following an ancient road in the arid plains of the southwest, just along the border; it was paved many centuries ago, back when Tilir didn’t have a king and clans clashed together in bloody battles. The area was greener once, and the road was used by merchants who traveled between the flourishing villages, but that was a long time ago. Mountains have crumbled, rivers had dried up, villages were abandoned, and the road had long ago fallen into disrepair. Some of the paving stones were missing, and thorny brown weeds grew in those places, sometimes tall as a man’s waist... but still the road was good enough to take them south. Straight as an arrow it was, so straight that some believed it could not be made this way without the help of sorcery. This notion unnerved Thadorn when all was considered. A road paved by sorcerers in ancient times, washed by the blood of countless men, leading to the Everdark Forest and the Emerald Mountains... an ill omen. But of course, his duties did not include paying attention to omens and old wives’ tales. He had to take the swiftest and safest route, and he was doing just that.
Or so he thought.
The Western border and the task of holding it were not considered a matter of high strategical importance; true, the Totoks and Gorgors were numerous, but have learned it is not in their interest to challenge Tilir. An occasional battalion from South Watch was enough to keep them in check, and they were usually immersed in their own petty rivalries, which was all to the good, as far as Tilir was concerned. The Lyaki, in the east, were much more vicious – and more audacious besides, and the wild men of the Malvian desert were the biggest threat of all, because the Malvian king played a two-faced game: for every rebel he arrested were another two that he armed. All in all, Thadorn did not believe they would encounter any trouble until they reach Everdark Vale. He was mistaken.
On the third day of this uneventful and rather boring stretch of their journey, the earth shook with the thunder of hooves, and all the men sprang up in their saddles and looked west. Expressions of shock crept upon each face as a large host of wild men was seen approaching; swords were pulled out of their scabbards, arrows drawn, commands barked. Thadorn, who rode in front, squinted as he looked at the approaching riders. Horsehair trousers and belts, strips of leather in their hair. Those are Gorgors. They rode short and lean sturdy horses with shaggy manes, and were getting closer by the second. Thadorn filled his lungs with air.
“Stop!” he shouted. “In the name of King Alvadon and Tilir, stay on the far side of this road if you do not wish to die!”
He was not sure that the Gorgors ever learned any language besides their own rasping and guttural tongue, but the intonation of his words, and above all, the glint of sun upon steel, did its deed. The wild men brought their horses to a halt just before the road – so close that when Thadorn looked into the face of their leader, he saw the whites of his eyes. He was a broad-shouldered man, his skin red-brown from sun and dirt, and a fine layer of dust powdered his hair as well, making it look almost grey. He raised his right hand, and it did not hold a sword, and in the harsh lines of his bushy eyebrows and square jaw Thadorn thought he saw fear.
“Do not want blood,” the Gorgor leader said thickly in Tilirian, halting after every word as he searched for the next one, “but must pass.”
Something in his voice – the earnestness, the urgency, the terror – made Thadorn’s skin crawl. The wild tribesmen, he noted to himself, did not remotely resemble a band heading for a raid. There were not only warriors, but also elderly men and green boys, and women too – young and old, maids and crones and mothers with babes in their arms. Some rode double and triple with their children, others hid behind the broad backs of husband and brothers and fathers, and upon every face he saw the same expression of terror.
Still, it changed nothing. Even if they weren’t raiders, there was no way he could allow them to pass. As a representative of the armed forces of Tilir, he had to act upon the letter of the law.
“I do not want blood, either,” he told the leader, “but you must go back.”
The wild man shook his head and said in a flat voice. “Will not. It is coming.”
“What is coming?” Thadorn did not understand, but the Gorgor merely shook his head again, unable or unwilling to explain.
“Must pass,” he said again, then, unexpectedly, took off his belt and threw it at Thadorn’s feet. Not the horsehair belt made for holding his trousers in place, but a different one, clumsily forged of heavy metal links looped one through the other. When Thadorn gingerly picked it up and examined it, he saw that it was made of very old, very yellow gold. He looked up in surprise.
“Take it,” the wild man said. “Will give you more. Give our swords, horses. Will walk. Will not fight. It is coming.”
It is coming. The hairs on Thadorn’s arms and the back of his neck prickled, and secretly, irrationally, a part of him grieved for what he knew he would have to do, yet what choice was there? If I simply let a tribe of Gorgors cross our border, it will make me a traitor.
“You must return where you came from,” he told the Gorgor leader flatly, throwing the belt of gold links back at him.
He saw the wild man nod briefly and exchange grim looks with those who flanked him from right and left. These looks did not bid well.
A moment later, chaos broke out as the wild men rode headlong into their columns, swords bared. From behind, bows began to sing their deadly song.
They stand no chance against us, Thadorn told himself as he gave the war cry and rode on, and their bright steel clanged against the wild men’s dinted curved swords.
They stand no chance against us, he told himself as shields split and crude helms were knocked off and lethal arrows found their target.
They stand no chance against us, he told himself even as a battle axe swung in a mortal arc which was intended for the back of his neck.
Someone’s warning cry made him turn abruptly; one stroke of his greatsword made the attacker lose both the battle axe and his hand. But then something hit him on the side of the head, and all went dark.
When he woke, he was lying on the sleeping furs in his tent, which looked like it was erected rather haphazardly. He felt a little dizzy and weak, and when he reached out with his hand he discovered a nasty, painfully throbbing bruise on the side of his head, but otherwise it appeared he was unhurt. He supposed he ought to consider himself lucky.
The face of one of the Healers loomed above him, looking concerned.
“My Commander,” he said, “how are you feeling?”
“The Gorgors,” Thadorn replied, “did we drive them off?” Of course we did, you fool. Otherwise, do you truly think you would be lying here, with your own men about you?
“Oh yes,” said the man, relieved. “The battle did not take a long time. The moment you made their leader drop his battle axe, it was all but won. Many of their men were killed, and those who remained chose to flee back across the border, taking their women and children with them... as they should have done from the first.”
“Just so,” Thadorn winced as he took a look at his helm, which sat discarded upon the straw mat. A deep dint could be seen in the previously smooth steel, and he marveled at the strength of the blow which left a trace like this. Had it not been for the helm, doubtless his skull would be split open. “And on our side?” he asked the Healer. “Any losses?”
“No one killed,” suddenly, the Healer looked nervous. “But several men were wounded, my Commander, and one of them... worse than others.”
Driven by a sense of foreboding, Thadorn propped himself up on his elbow, then sat up. “Which man?” he demanded.
“I believe you are acquainted with him personally. It is Torwen Mattar, of Fort Sand... my Commander, I must advise you against what you are doing, it is most unwise – ”
For Thadorn, ignoring the dizziness and the throbbing pain in his head, already stood up on his legs, which shook slightly.
“No,” he said decisively, “it was unwise of me to pass out. Now take me to Torwen. I must see him at once.”
Worse than others was an understatement, it became clear to him as soon as he entered the tent in which the wounded men were tended and Healers and their helpers moved busily back and forth. Torwen was as good as dead; he saw it in the young man’s pale, bloodless face, but when he bowed his head in silent pain and turned to leave, he heard Torwen speak in barely more than a whisper.
“Thadorn,” he said, “I need you to send...” he coughed, and his lips reddened with bloody spittle. “Send message,” he went on weakly. “In Aldon-Sur... there is someone...”
But who that someone was, Thadorn did not hear, for the effort of speaking exhausted what little was left of Torwen’s strength. He closed his eyes and was silent again, drawing shallow breaths with tremendous difficulty. Thadorn felt a gentle hand on his arm. It was another Healer, older and more experienced than the one who tended to him previously.
“He feels no more pain, Commander,” the Healer told him. “The Spirit blessed him by choosing to soften his passage into the Land of Dawn.”
Blessed, Thadorn repeated to himself bitterly. That is one way to describe the end of a man who held no land, built no house, took no wife, fathered no sons. He wondered who it was in Aldon-Sur that Torwen spoke of, and also about the young man’s family. It was never discussed in detail, but Thadorn thought he once heard him mention relatives in Tallbridge Town. He turned away and walked out of the cramped tent, because there was nothing more he could do and he did not wish to disrupt the Healers’ work. And with every step he took, he felt more and more that he had put to shame his title as Commander.
No, it is not true, he said to himself firmly. None of the men who rode out with me were forced to go. They knew they were heading out to war; they knew they might fall sick, be wounded or taken captive or killed. They swore their oath of service willingly. Yet nothing could assuage the bitter grief he felt for the destiny of Torwen, a boy who died before they even reached their true enemy.
Nicholas seemed close to Torwen lately, he recalled. Perhaps he knew something about the young man’s family. More to give himself something to do than for any other reason, Thadorn set out to find the man from the Other world.
He found Nicholas near the cooking fire, gloomily prodding the remains of a hastily thrown and rather unappetizing stew. His left wrist was bandaged.
“Were you wounded?” asked Thadorn. Nicholas looked surprised at being asked.
“No, not really. I made a clumsy move and sprained my wrist; otherwise I came out unscathed. I consider this to be pure beginner’s luck.”
“Do you now wish you had stayed behind?”
Nicholas shrugged. “Would it have made a difference?” he mused. “You heard what the poor wretch said. It is coming."
Thadorn felt a sickening sensation of dread. “Do you think those words held any... meaning?”
“Don’t you?” Nicholas threw back. “Those men were frightened. They were clearly fleeing from something, and perhaps if you sat down to speak with their leader instead of being in such haste to draw swords and bows, you could find out what it was.”
Thadorn welcomed the hot upsurge of anger, because it helped to assuage his guilt.
“I had no choice!” he thundered. “They were storming across the border, and I had to stop them. I did warn them, I told them to go back – ”
“Perhaps,” Nicholas said quietly, “perhaps what they left behind was more frightening than you and your men.”
Thadorn looked grim, but said nothing for a moment. Several thoughts stormed through his mind, each vaguer than the last, but before he could grasp any of them and put it in words, they were interrupted by the older Healer, who approached with soft steps.
“Commander,” he said, “I have come to tell you that the brave lieutenant had just drawn his last breath. His passing was peaceful and painless.”
Thadorn gave a curt nod of acknowledgment. “And the others?” he made himself ask.
“They will make full recovery in time, I daresay, although there are two men who will need to be dispatched to South Watch. They will not be able to ride forward.”
Thadorn nodded again. “See that it is done, good man,” he said. “I thank you for your service.”
“I will need to write to the clan of Mattar,” he said when he and Nicholas faced each other again. “Tell them that Torwen died bravely, as befits a warrior... that they should be proud. And also – he tried to tell me, but couldn’t – he wanted to write to someone in Aldon-Sur. I wish I knew who it was.”
“I know,” Nicholas said quietly. Thadorn stared at him in surprise.
“Oh yes,” Nicholas assured, “but I do not believe Torwen would have wanted me to reveal her name.”
And having said that, he abandoned his half-empty bowl and walked away without another word.
They would march no longer that day. The hours left until sunset would be dedicated to rest and tending to the wounded. Yet when Thadorn announced that, Akira still found reason to complain.
“Rest, yes,” he said with a bitter laugh, “if one can rest with that beastly storm coming at us.”
“Storm?” Thadorn frowned. “What are you talking about, Akira? The air is still, and I see no cloud in the sky.”
“Have you looked west, Commander? Do you not see that line of black storm clouds on the horizon?”
Thadorn looked west. Akira was right. It seemed that a host of thick black clouds was advancing rapidly towards them. Still, there was nothing they could do; trying to evade the storm would only exhaust their remaining strength, and bring them even further from their destination.
“We will stay,” he declared. “The storm might miss us, and if it doesn’t, pull out the oiled hides and put them over the tents. That should stop the worst of the rain and hail.”
Nicholas squinted, looked west as well, and paled. “Are you blind?” he said quietly.
Thadorn’s head snapped in his direction. “What?”
“Look carefully, Commander. These are no clouds.”
With a sinking feeling in his stomach, afraid to look again, Thadorn asked, “What is it, then?”