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Cast In Shadow

By Suzanne Rachid All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

I

The torchlight flickered as the fire danced around, casting shadows on grim faces whose eyes carefully examined the map before them.  Kel swallowed, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as she stood dutifully behind her commander.  Low voices murmured, pausing as a question was pondered before the quiet din resumed once more.  Kel shifted again, uncrossing her arms in order to stifle a yawn.  A quick glance towards the high arched windows told the girl that they had been there for much longer than anyone had anticipated.  As time had crept along, servants had bustled in, lighting torches, refilling drinks, and doing their best to keep the crowd of onlookers happy.  Several of the nobles had nodded off and Kel suspected that there was one slumped under an end table, if the feet on the floor was any indication.  It seemed as though the only ones left standing were those who stayed on their feet, leaning against the table as every option was considered.  Not many people had been prepared to take this sort of action or even to consider any options at all.  In fact, it had never been raised as a possibility.  Now, the impossible was the inevitable.  Kel could remember every single detail of the moment that it had become clear.  It had been three days prior.  Kel had been staring at the newest batch of recruits, listening as her commander barked orders and directions.  She occasionally weaved through, fixing a stance or correcting a technique.  They had been sloppy, but all green kids were.  The distinct clashing of swords and shields had given Kel a headache and she couldn’t wait to get rid of it.  A rogue pass had her sidestepping and Kel growled in irritation as she ignored the recruit who was practically groveling at her feet for all the apologies he was making.  The girl brushed him aside, not even casting another glance in his direction as she moved swiftly to her commander’s side.  He had fallen silent, taking to watching when Kel herself moved around and interacted with the trainees.

“They’ll never make it,” she mumbled when she knew he could hear her.  She settled into place beside him, hands folding behind her back as she swept her eyes over the scene in front of them.  “O’Riell can’t seem to figure out which end of the sword to hold, Strathen nearly took my head off just then, and Rautherian can’t even hold her shield up let alone deflect a blow and it just so happens that they are the only ones showing any potential!”  Kel nearly tossed her hands in the air as yet another prospect failed to deflect a blow, earning the eager boy a bruise he would feel the next morning.  She knew at this rate that none of them would actually be able to lift a shield or pick up a sword the next day.  She ran a hand over her forehead, briefly wondering how she was going to work with them the following morning.  Her eyes shifted to her leader who had yet to speak.  Tired eyes stared out past the trainees.  Kel realized that her superior was in no way interested in the standard reports she gave on the recruits.  At least that was what she believed, and as two pairs of grey eyes met, Kel knew that her assumption had been accurate.

“Give them time Kel,” he said simply.  “I still remember a girl just shy of twenty that dropped her shield more than once during her own training.”

Kel held back a snort as she replied.  “Well yes, but I showed more promise than all of these kids combined!”  Kel could recall with come certainty that she had indeed dropped her shield, but she had put in the effort to improve.  In the pace of a few months, Kel had gone from a green recruit to being as experienced in training as those who had been in the army for twice her time.  In the three years after that, Kel had ensured herself the spot of second in command, a feat in one such as herself.  She shook her head, it wasn’t the same.  Kel opened her mouth to say as much when a bell tolled in the distance.  A collective groan of relief rose from the recruits and Kel snorted as she pushed herself up onto the low wall that had been behind her.  She waited for the commander to call dismissal for the recruits, but the order never came.  Instead, his head whipped toward the bell tower, confusion written on his features.  With a glance towards the skyline, Kel slid off the wall with a start.  The sun still hung in the sky, nowhere near the horizon.  The bell towers normally didn’t toll until the first rays began to disappear behind the hills in the distance.  There was an awkward shuffle from among the recruits as they nervously awaited orders.

The silence was broken by the steady sound of hoofbeats against the worn ground along with the clamour of people scurrying out of the way.  As the stallion rounded the hill and came into view, Kel shadowed her commander, moving forward towards the rider.  The soldier reigned in his mount, keeping a tight grip as the animal stuttered to a stop.  Just from the look of the pair, whatever this rider was here for was urgent.  The poor horse looked as though it was about to drop from exhaustion and its owner seemed to fare no better.  The young man nearly fell off his horse, barely pulling himself to his feet in order to salute his superior.  Kel watched from a slight distance as her commander waved his hand in dismissal.  The soldier set his hands on his knees, doubling over.  Kel could hear the faint sound of his voice, but the words were lost in the space between them.  It only took a matter of moments for the message to be relayed.  Kel stiffened as her commander turned back towards her, his features set into a serious stare.  With doubt in her mind, Kel turned to the recruits, dismissing them for the day before joining her leader.  As they walked, Kel could feel her blood thundering through her body.  Something was wrong and she felt a shred of uncertainty towards making any inquiries of the man who was moving quickly towards the council room.  Kel tried her hardest to keep pace with him, taking two strides for every one of his.  For what must have been the millionth time in her life, Kel cursed the fact that she was short.  Although it occasionally proved to yield an advantage during certain situations, it was mostly an adherence that the woman had no desire to deal with.  Even so, her military lifestyle allowed her to keep up with most things that would have normally caused her trouble due to her stature.  People seemed to scatter out of their way as the pair moved steadily towards the high steepled building that housed the main activity for their base of operations.  Kel found herself thanking the creator that these were not peak hours of the day for the small market stalls that were set up around the outside of the building, if it had been Kel was sure that she would have been long lost behind her commander in her attempts to reach the high double doors.  While most of the soldiers of higher ranks stood tall. Kel teetered on the edge of five foot three.  What she lacked in height however, the small officer made up in her ambition and passion towards whatever she was confronted with.  If she wanted to be taken seriously, she had to appear as though nothing could cause her to falter.  That was how Kel had lived her life ever since she had left her home.  

As she took the steps two at a time, the double doors ever closer, Kel felt a sense of pride to be one of the few who frequented the old building.  The monastery was the oldest building in the small hamlet that the remnants of the army had taken up, any other buildings were wooden shanties that only just kept out the long winter nights.  The stone building that housed the religious folk and the high bred nobles was the only one that had actually been part of the original foundation of the village.  When they had happened upon it, the army had found the place burned mostly to the ground.  The stone structure held scars from the onslaught that had happened long before Kel and her people had come to stay there.  Black streak marks from where the flames had licked and eaten away at the stone glared out against the white marble that the structure had been formed out of.  By far, it was the most unique thing that Kel had ever seen, carved out of the side of the mountain, an idea stronghold.  It was because of its defendable position that they had decided to remain instead of continuing on, it was reasonable and big enough for what they needed.  Everytime Kel walked beyond the double doors, a small piece of her soared at the natural beauty of the place.  The majority of her however, cringed at what the haughty lords had done to it.  Out of small sections, one could tell that pieces of marble had been cut away.  Gaudy paintings and tapestries hung high, causing the atmosphere to become overcast and murky.  The marble alone had given enough light and beauty, but just as they did everything else, the nobles had twisted it.  She despised them with every fiber of her being and often refused to interact with them even when it would be to her benefit.  Instead, Kel clung to her commanders side or was always shadowed by recruits.  She would never willingly leave her mantle of authority elsewhere and being with those who she was meant to watchover, or support in the case of her leader, kept the air of superiority around her.  She was important.  It was with such an air that she followed her commander, head held high as she walked into the council room.

As soon as the large doors had closed behind them, a dozen seasoned soldiers as well as several nosey nobles had pounced upon them.  Voices rose, each one competing for the attention of the man that stood beside Kel.  The officer hesitated, leaning away from the onslaught of people that were swarming towards them.  Kel took a few steps back, the noise boxing her in everywhere but behind her.  Subconsciously, her hand reached towards her side, fumbling for her sword.  She paused however, when a weight fell onto her shoulder.  Kel turned her head, looking over at her commander who gave her an understanding tilt of his head.  The girl brought her hands behind her back, ducking her head slightly.  It was a reflex that she had picked over her years of fighting, a crowd came at her and her sword usually met with the stomach of the fool to get close enough to her first.  The reassuring weight on her shoulder gave Kel enough time to recompose herself.

“Alright you lot,” she shouted, doing her best to echo over the din that was being created.  “Settle down before I start knocking heads together.”

Kel felt the hand on her shoulder squeeze sharply and she could have sworn that she saw a slight quirk of her commanders mouth.  She took a deep breath before stepping forward, causing a ripple effect in the people.  They spanned out away from her and slightly created a path towards the large rectangular table the stood in the middle of the room.  Kel stepped slightly to the side, allowing her commander to take the lead once more.  She fell in behind his left shoulder as another soldier came up beside her.  The woman looked to her right and was met with grey eyes staring back at her.  Blonde hair hung starkly in the face of Galorian Wymer as he kept pace with her, eyes alight with curiosity.  He glanced around quickly, determining who was around him.

“What is happening?” he asked in a low voice, the raspy quality of it sending shivers down Kel’s spine.  “First the bells go off and now there’s been a messenger?  Apparently this hasn’t been the first missive either, are you hiding things from us Kelandry?”

Kel wrinkled her nose at the man’s use of her full name but brushed it aside in favor of looking at him with a bemused look on her face.

“If I’d known, why would I have told you?”  Long fingers reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose as she fought the urge to sneeze.  At this point, they had reached their respective positions against the wall yet still hovering behind their commander.  Kel glanced over to the man beside her once more, taking in the older soldier.  Galorian had been part of the Astosian army for as long as she could remember.  Before Kel herself had become part of the ranks, she had thought him a noble soul.  When it came to his actual personality however, the woman had come to loathe his ethics.  Of course, he had the determination and commitment that was required of a soldier, but as an officer, his easygoing, sarcastic ways were what kept him in the lower ranks.  On a personal level, the most irritating thing that he did was call her by her full name.  Normally, something as simple as that wouldn’t even be a fly on her shoulder, but when it came to him it was like a sledgehammer straight to her resolve.  It was bad enough that he called her Kelandry in the first place, but usually it was said in such a nasally obnoxious tone of voice that made her despise it even more than she already did.  But there was a part of her that still admired the man that he was and the way he held himself, after all he was every part the warrior that she had aspired to be when she was young.  But she had achieved that level and now she was better than he was.  So she stood behind her commander, arms crossed over her chest and feet set shoulder width apart.

The main group of leaders, composed of Kel’s commander, the head of the religious people, and the highest noble stood around the low table.  Those remaining were either counselors, important contributors to the army, or in Kel’s case, an officer who was required to be there.  A call to order ran swiftly through those gathered.  Kel straightened up, leaning closer in order to hear better.  She felt Galorian do the same beside her and fought the urge to lean away from him.  Once everything was silent and all eyes were turned towards the center of the room, it began.  With his hands braced against the table, Kel’s commander spoke first.

“As you all know, we have been called here for a purpose.  As few of you are aware, we have received several missives from the Western Front.  Each has become increasingly more urgent in the movement towards extending the effort of defense of our borders.  Until recently, such reports have been noted and taken into consideration.  Now, as recent reports have begun to show, more immediate action is required.  Ladies and gentlemen, we are here to discuss the prospect of war.”

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