Part Two: Chapter 21
It was a dreary night in the Vale of Eredus. On the banks of the swollen river Olendarth, the great sister city Relinydd solemnly defied the deluge issuing with violent ferocity down upon her stone shoulders. On some other eve, the lights of the metropolis might’ve been misconstrued by a remote and weary traveler as innumerable and brilliant stars against the black backdrop of the night sky. But on this night, from the same vista, the city likely could’ve been mistaken for no more than a meager outpost. Not a living thing stirred in the open places within the confines of its heavy walls, and all lights save those permeating faintly from a few buildings had been extinguished by the storm. The majesty of the spectacle was diminished.
Within a small room of the northwestern guard tower, two soldiers sat facing one another, hunched over a little table that rested uneasily on the floor beneath their feet. The tower formed one cornerstone of the city’s meaty wall, and both men had sought refuge there from the storm, unable or unwilling to stand guard amidst the sheets of torrential rain blowing wrathfully high atop the parapet. It’s too dark, they must’ve told themselves. Pitch black! What good’s standing guard if you can’t see your hand in front of your face? This seemed justification enough for abandoning their post.
Each man had placed his betting funds for the night on the table. Unlike his partner—a native Domalin who seemed to be content with his money disorderly strewn about—the Sinian had meticulously stacked his coins into three equal but squat columns. In the board’s middle were piled enough coppers to make half a silver: a considerable wager for two grunts. The Domalin nervously reordered the six rigid cards he held fanned out under his nose. “Well,” he said at length, “…I hope for your sake you’re not bluffing.”
The Sinian grinned slyly then spread his cards out face-up on the table. “I never bluff. Two tall men and two crowns.”
The Domalin peered down at his opponent’s cards with wide eyes—then his mind began scrambling for some new sequence within his own that could trump his companion’s. But eventually he conceded, angrily slamming his fist down on the table. “If I’d had just one of them damn crowns of yours…”
“Betting on coming, huh? That’s risky,” said the Sinian as he raked the pot to his side of the table. Immediately he began forming a fourth money tower.
“That’s why they call it gambling, right?”
“Right,” replied the winner, smiling inwardly at the prospect of a prosperous night as he scooted his chair away from the table and stood, stretching his arms wide. He stepped close to the room’s only window: an array of translucent glass bricks set permanently into the tower, not large enough for a man to fit through. Wiping the condensate and dust from the smooth surface to feign at peering out into utter blackness, suddenly he recoiled when a bright flash lit the murky glass.
“I’m definitely not going out now!” he exclaimed as the inevitable crack and boom of thunder found their ears.
“It won’t let up all night,” said his companion. “You know what that means, don’t you?”
“It means Captain won’t be bringing his lazy ass out here to check on us.” The Domalin reached in the satchel stowed under his chair and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and two bronze shooters. “So what do you say? Let’s have a drink.”
The Sinian rubbed his chin’s whiskers contemplatively before returning to his seat. “So it looks like we’ll gamble on more than cards tonight. A month is a long time in the jug for a jig of liquor.” Then he smiled. “But Daemon…I’ll take that bet!”
The other soldier nodded happily and quickly filled the tiny cups. Both men then promptly tossed back the booze, fighting to suppress looks of distaste as the cheap alcohol burned its way to their bellies. Another flash of light burst in the window. The pair silently awaited the thunder as if they could do nothing else until it came—as though if it never came they’d be frozen there for eternity. But it did arrive a moment later, shaking with it all loose things in the room. The Sinian’s eyes danced around to verify nothing had fallen; then he shuffled the cards and doled out six per person for another round. The Domalin drew his up and fanned them out, once again, beneath his nose. Three whores. Ha! Beat that, plainsman, he mused as he dropped four coppers into the pot. “Word from the northern outpost is a fog blew in from the west a couple weeks ago and settled over Lake Hudron so thick you couldn’t see three fathoms in front of your face. Stayed like that four days, they say. Wonder what could’ve caused a thing like that?”
“I don’t know,” responded the Sinian, matching the native’s bet, “…but the forest’s been foggy for the past few days. Maybe it’s the same one. Some folks say a dragon came down the river and moved in.”
“I noticed,” said the other, indicating that he wanted two replacement cards. “Maybe this rain will be the end of it.”
“I doubt it. Probably make it worse…with the moisture and all.” The soldier from Sinia took three cards for himself and tossed a few more coins on the pile.
The native counted out an equivalent amount and pushed them into the pot. Topping off their cups with another two jigs of the good stuff, he held his shooter in the air for a toast. “Here’s to the dragon of the forest. If I see him, I’ll shove my sword up his butt!”
Both men laughed and tossed back their liquor as another low, thunderous rumbling found their ears. The Domalin furrowed his brows in curiosity, staring at the window. “Didn’t see lightning that time…”
The Sinian shrugged his shoulders.
His partner laid down the three whores, one at a time, never taking his eyes off his opponent. The soldier from Sinia didn’t seem perturbed—but he took one more long look at his cards before saying: “Can’t beat that, I guess.”
The Domalin clapped his hands and began to collect his winnings. “I was still a little nervous, the way your luck’s been tonight.” Then he stood and threw his cloak over his shoulders. “I need to piss.” Drawing the cloak’s cowl over his head, he warned: “You know, having you plainsmen around hasn’t been all that bad…but don’t think I won’t box your ears if any of my money’s missing when I get back.”
“How would you know?” laughed the Sinian, indicating the jumbled mess of coins on the native’s side of the table.
The Domalin grinned, unlatching the steel reinforced wooden door leading directly onto the parapet atop the city wall. Rain and wind burst into the modest room like an unwanted guest as he opened and slid through the crack he’d made, man cursing weather all the while.
The Sinian shuffled the cards a few times before setting the stack neatly back on the table then turned his attention to the window. Gazing into the blackness, he consciously didn’t blink in anticipation of the next thunderbolt. Soon enough, the black void of glass was filled with a brilliant white light, and immediately he perked his ears, awaiting the primal rumbling that inevitably would follow…but instead he heard only a loud crash as his companion burst through the door—so frantically that the man stumbled and fell, smashing his head against the table. Money, cards, and whiskey bottle were sent airborne, scattering and shattering respectively as they rained upon the hard floor. The Domalin rabidly fought to gain his footing, crying in a fear-laden voice: “Sound the goddamn horn! Sound the goddamn horn, you idiot!” Then he was gone: a madman dashing out the opposite side of the room and up the spiraling staircase that terminated atop the tower roof.
The Sinian shouted after him for an explanation, but none came. Heedless of the weather, he jerked the tower door open and leapt onto the parapet. Shielding his eyes from the rain, he strained to see into the darkness—and at that moment another lightning bolt lit the world for a split second, causing the soldier’s heart to freeze in his chest.
No more than a stone’s throw from the city, serried in the field like ants on a mound, a multitudinous army approached.