“I will miss you, my heart.” Ga’briyel kissed his wife with such tenderness that tears filled her eyes and overflowed down her cheeks. Then he dropped to his knees and laid his forehead on her abdomen. He closed his eyes and let her love flow over him while he focused on his child. The images he received were still indistinct, but they had recently started to seem happy and content. He still could not see anything except blurry shapes and colors, but there was a sense of peace that mingled with Sophyra’s love. It almost made Ga’briyel feel content himself. Almost. What would have made him content would be to stay right where he was and not leave his family. To stay with his wife and to greet his child at its birth. But it was not to be.
Dinton and Tero and the boys were already waiting for him in the stables, but Ga’briyel was making a feeble attempt to put off leaving for as long as possible. Sophyra knew it, and she put her hands on his head and ran her fingers through his hair. “You must go, my love,” she said softly.
“I know,” he grunted, and then he stood. He kissed her one more time, told her he loved her, and then left his home. The fury that had filled him two nights before had not left, and it was burning him up inside, shining out through his violet eyes. Everyone he passed either snapped to attention or turned from him, and he knew they were all scared of him, guardsmen or civilian. He had not been a pleasant person to be around the past couple of days, and he knew it, but he was unable to get his anger under control. As he stormed toward the stables, he recalled the orders his king had given him the night before.
“There is a company of soldiers to the north of here, Captain Mistri, about ten leagues,” Tomas had said. “Fifty men who will be waiting for you. I sent word to them yesterday. They are yours to command.” Ga’briyel had been unsuccessful at keeping the scowl off his face, and Tomas had frowned at him. “What is the problem, Captain?”
“With all due respect, sire, they are fifty men who will probably die because of me. I do not want that responsibility, sire.”
King Tomas had stared at his young Captain for several minutes without speaking, seeing for the first time the turmoil on Ga’briyel’s face. “You need more help, Captain, do you not?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, I do, but--” Ga’briyel’s teeth had clenched tightly at that point, but he had taken a deep breath and tried again. “I cannot let them die for me, sire. I cannot.”
“They are soldiers, Captain. They know that death is always a possibility for them.”
“Not the kind of death that awaits them if they accompany me, sire. No one deserves that death.”
“Nevertheless, Captain, they will be waiting for you, and they will help you. They understand the risks and reasons for your quest, Captain Mistri, and they will assist you.”
Ga’briyel had just shaken his head, knowing that there was nothing he could say to change his king’s mind. That was only one of the reasons he was so furious. Fifty more innocent men would lose their lives because of him. The other reasons had remained the same for the past two days.
He made it to the stables where Dinton, Tero, and the boys were waiting in almost the exact same place the captains had been the first time they left Torkeln. Ga’briyel had already said his goodbyes to his parents, with both of them promising to take care of Sophyra, and to Ma’ikel, so he simply put his foot in the stirrup, swung himself into his saddle, and guided Kumar out of the stables without a word. His friends followed him just as silently, though Ga’briyel knew they were concerned. Everyone was concerned about him, and that only made him angrier. Especially because the images he got from Dinton were of Ga’briyel bending his knee to Sayatan and joining him in destroying the world. With a growl, he kicked Kumar into a trot as soon as he cleared the stable doors, and the people in the streets jumped out of his way as he headed toward the north gate, the others right behind him.
Not a word was spoken as the five rode out of the city. Ga’briyel stayed in front of his friends, and they rightly read his body language and left him alone. He couldn’t shed their concern, however, and that only added to his rage. After about a league, he abruptly swung Kumar around and faced them, eyes blazing.
The boys' eyes went wide with fear as they all reined their horses to a halt and stared at him without speaking.
“Stop worrying about me! I am fine! And no, Dinton, I am not going to vow allegiance to the Evil One! I would hope you know me better than that!” Without another word, he whipped Kumar around and brought him back up to a trot.
Not another word was spoken by any of them for the next four hours. Ga’briyel had no desire to talk about anything, and his friends respected that. Dinton attempted to keep his worry to himself, and Tero simply watched his leader with critical eyes. The boys were still frightened. Then Ga’briyel felt the presence of a large number of people in front of them, and he sighed, trying to force his eyes to dim, but he had no success.
“We are here,” he said, dropping from the saddle and walking Kumar forward. They were at the base of a small hill, and he strode up to the top, stopping once he reached it to look down into the small valley on the other side.
Twenty-five tents were lined up in two perfectly straight rows, one with twelve and the other with thirteen. A wide lane ran between the rows, and at the far end were the horse lines. Men were everywhere, some sitting in front of the tents polishing boots or cleaning swords, some tending to the horses. Others in an open area to the east of the tents were sparring, some with weapons and others without. Not one noticed the five people at the top of the hill, and that bothered Ga’briyel. Someone should have been watching. Not necessarily for them, but for threats. That was one thing that would change immediately. Ga’briyel led Kumar down the hill, and the others followed. He could feel Dinton's and Tero's anger building, and he welcomed it. At least they weren’t worried anymore.
They were almost to the first tent before anyone noticed them, and Ga’briyel was fuming. The guardsman who saw them dropped the boots he was polishing to the ground and snapped to attention with a loud, “Company, attention!” It was loud enough that several of the soldiers heard him, and they stopped whatever they were doing and also stood at attention. Like a pebble thrown in a pond, the ripple flowed through the camp until even the men who sparring were standing stiffly, their fists on their hearts. Ga’briyel stopped in front of the guardsman who had seen them first, his eyes blazing.
“What is your name?”
“Sadhan, Captain Mistri.” The man’s eyes were staring straight ahead, and he hadn’t dropped his salute yet.
“You know who I am, Sadhan?”
“Yes, sir. We received King Tomas’ message last night, sir.”
“Who is in charge, Sadhan?”
“That would be Captain Kajal, sir.”
“And where is he?”
“Watching the men sparring, sir.”
“Show me. Now.”
“Yes, sir.” Sadhan finally dropped his salute and led the small party along the lane toward the horse lines. The others were also leading their horses, and as they reach the lines, they all tied their horses to it.
“Take care of the tack, guardsman,” Ga’briyel snapped to the nearest man.
“Yes, Captain Mistri. Immediately, sir.”
They reached the sparring area where everyone but one man was standing stiffly at attention, their salutes still held. The one who wasn’t saluting was leaning against a tree on the far side of the open area, and Ga’briyel headed straight for him. Dinton and Tero followed close behind. The boys stayed by the horses. He let the captains' anger feed his, and by the time he crossed to Captain Kajal, he was struggling to keep his fury in check so he did not hurt the man.
“Captain Kajal, I assume?”
“You assume correctly,” the man said, his stance not changing in the least. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Ga’briyel with contempt. The Anmah towered over the man by almost a span, and he stepped close and stared down at the other captain who was forced to crane his neck to keep eye contact.
“Do you have a problem, Captain?” Ga’briyel growled.
“Yes, Captain, I do. This is my company, not yours. You have no right to come here and take over.”
Ga’briyel snarled. “I have every right, Captain. King Tomas gave me that right, and you will give me the respect due me as your leader, or I will send you back to Torkeln to explain to the king how you could not obey his direct command.”
Eyes wide, Kajal stood a little straighter, but he still did not salute the Anmah. “You would not do that.”
“You think not? Go ahead, Captain. Test me. I dare you.”
Kajal stared at him for a moment and then finally stood at attention and saluted Ga’briyel. “No need, Captain Mistri. I will follow King Tomas’ orders and yours.”
“Good. Your first order is to gather everyone here immediately. I have some things to say to them.”
“Yes, sir,” Kajal said quietly before moving away from him.
“No watch?” Ga’briyel said without turning. “This is unacceptable, Sekara.”
“I know, Ga’briyel, but they do not know what is out there. We do. They probably thought they were safe this close to Torkeln."
"Nowhere is safe!" Ga'briyel yelled, spinning toward his friend. "And the sooner everyone understands that the better!" His fist clenched, and Dinton took a step back.
"You do not have to convince me, Mistri," Dinton said, raising his hands a little.
"What will it take to convince them, Dinton? For some of them to die horrible deaths? Is that what it will take? Or just for me to die a horrible death? I will, you know, and soon."
"How do you know that?"
"The same way I know anything!" Ga'briyel snapped. "Yisu has graciously granted me this knowledge. He has apparently given me the ability to know how I will die next. Should I fall on my knees and thank Him for this knowledge? I do not think so."
"Perhaps if you know, you can avoid it," Tero said quietly.
"No, I cannot. It is a certainty, Tero. I know that as well as I know the sun will rise tomorrow. I know it as well as I know what will happen to Duniya if we do not reach those eggs in time. I just do not know when it will happen." Ga'briyel turned toward the tree Kajal had been leaning against and ran his hand down the smooth gray bark when what he really wanted to do was hit it. Hard.
He felt the confusion from the guardsmen still in the clearing, but he ignored it. He stayed facing the tree until Dinton cleared his throat. Only then did he turn, and his eyes blazed as he looked at the fifty men lined up in the clearing. They were all standing at attention in perfectly straight ranks, but that was the least important thing to Ga'briyel. He walked up and down the ranks, glaring at his new company, until their anxiety was too much to handle. Then he stopped in front of Kajal.
"Why was there no watch on the camp, Captain Kajal?"
"There is never a watch during the day, sir," Kajal answered, his eyes shifting to Ga'briyel.
"There is no need, Captain Mistri. We are only ten leagues from Torkeln."
"No need? There is every need, Captain. Did you know that we almost reached the tents before anyone noticed us? What if we were enemies, Captain? You would have lost half of your company before they could even arm themselves."
Kajal started to scoff, but he caught himself just in time. "Enemies, Captain Mistri? What enemies are we supposed to be afraid of?"
With a snarl, Ga'briyel turned from the man and stood in front of his company. "Starting right now, eight men will stand watch at all times. Four on the ground with swords and four in the trees with bows. Kajal, you will give me a watch schedule by last light. Include the three of us, yourself, and the boys, but do not put us together.
"Even the boys, Captain? Why them, sir?"
"Because I said so. That's why. You do not know what threatens this world, Kajal, but I do. I have fought it, and it has killed me. Several times. I did not want the responsibility of the safety of this company, but King Tomas commanded me to take that responsibility, and I will not disobey my king. Zahin will be one in the trees, and Mathi will be on the ground. He will have his staff, though, not a sword. There will be torches staggered around the camp when we stop at night as well. The watch needs to be able see if anything approaches us." Kajal opened his mouth, but Ga'briyel glared at him, and he shut it quickly. "Last light, Captain. We will stay here for the day and move out at first light. We will move quickly each day. I want to cover at least twenty leagues between first and last light." Some of the guardsmen frowned at that, but Ga'briyel simply continued. "If you are not used to it, you had better get used to it. The Neyagin volcano is almost four hundred leagues from here as the raven flies, and we have several obstacles in the way. The Sikhara Mountains and the Anupa Marshes are the biggest. We have four moons to cover that distance, so we will travel hard and fast."
"May I ask why we have to be there by then, Captain Mistri?" Kajal asked quietly.
"Because if we do not reach it by that time, dozens of Sayatan's creatures will overrun Duniya and kill most, if not all, the people living here."
"Sayatan? You are joking."
Ga'briyel stepped close to Kajal again, his eyes glowing brightly. "I am not, Captain. Things are happening in the world that would have you shivering in your boots if you saw them. Demons and creatures you could not even imagine. I have seen them, Captain. Trust me when I say you never want to encounter Dirack or Takosa or Daitya or Azazil." At Kajal's skeptical look, Ga'briyel continued, "Ask the other captains if you do not believe me. They have seen some of these. Not all, but some."
Kajal's eyes went to Dinton and Tero, and Tero said, "It is true Kajal. You do not want to be under the control of an Azazil or a Daitya. I have been, and I promise it is not pleasant. I have not encountered a Dirack or a Takosa, but I trust Captain Mistri when he says they are evil and something I want to avoid at all costs."
With a nod, Kajal brought his gaze back to Ga'briyel. "All will be done as you say, Captain Mistri."
"Good. Choose eight guardsmen for the watch now. Then I will inspect the camp and the men."
Not taking his eyes off Kajal, Ga'briyel said, "Yes, Zahin?"
"I would like to be with the first watch, sir."
"I also know what is out there, sir. At least some of what is out there. I think it would be good for one of us to be with each watch, sir, and would like to take the first."
"Very well. Choose seven guardsmen, Kajal. Zahin will be one of the bowmen."
Kajal stared at the boy. "How old are you, boy?"
"Twelve." This time Kajal did not hold back his scoff. "You are not old enough to be much help, boy."
"You think not, Captain?" Ga'briyel said with a smirk. "I will bet you two silvers that Zahin will outshoot your best bowman."
"It is a bet, Captain Mistri," Kajal said with a confident smile. "Ipsit! Get your bow. Ojas, set up the targets."
"Yes, Captain." Two large guardsmen dropped out of the ranks and ran toward the tents. One came back with a longbow longer than any Ga'briyel had ever seen, and the other had several colored strips of fabric in his hand. The former stood next to Captain Kajal and strung the bow, grinning down at Zahin who had his own bow in his hand. The second guardsman started tying the fabric to various limbs of trees after walking a distance of twenty paces and continuing every ten paces after that.
"How many arrows will I need, Guardsman Ipsit, sir?" the boy asked quietly as he strung his bow and tested the draw.
"That depends, boy. There are ten targets, so I'd say you'd need about five." The large man laughed loudly, and Kajal joined in.
"Ten it is, then," Zahin said with a grin. Mathi suddenly appeared with the younger boy's quiver which was quickly slung at Zahin's hip. "Tell me, Guardsman, what is the target? The branch or the cloth?"
Ipsit frowned. "The branch, of course. No one could hit the cloth, especially with this breeze."
Zahin just shrugged one shoulder as Ojas came back to stand by his captain. "If you say so, sir. Would you like to go first, sir?"
"Yes," Ipsit snapped, and he brought his bow up with an arrow already nocked. Zahin did the same, and Ga'briyel grinned. As soon as Ipsit's arrow flew, Zahin's was released. The first arrow planted itself deeply into the branch, but the second cleanly sliced the tail of the cloth in two before hitting the trunk of the tree beyond.
"Impossible," Ipsit whispered, but he quickly nocked another arrow as did Zahin. Once again, the man's arrow flew with the boy's half a second behind it, and once again, the man's arrow was imbedded in the branch while the boy's cut the cloth in half.
"Forty paces next, boy," Ipsit said, not sounding as confident now. "Will you still aim for the cloth?"
"Yes, sir. It is not enough of a challenge to hit the branch, sir." It was not boasting, although the guardsmen who were watching took it as such, and they frowned.
"Fine, but if you miss, I win," the man said, his own frown growing darker.
"I understand that, sir."
Four more times the arrows flew, and four more times the man's hit the branch and the boy's hit the cloth.
"You are good, boy, I will give you that," the guardsman said as he readied his next shot, "but you can't possibly hit that next cloth. It is the size of a copper from this distance."
"You just worry about your own shot, Guardsman," Ga'briyel said with a chuckle. "Zahin will worry about his."
"Yes, sir," the man said, and he released his arrow. It was the first time the boy's did not immediately follow. The target they were aiming for was eighty paces away, and it took a while for the arrow to reach it, but finally, a dull thud was heard, and the guardsmen cheered. Ipsit smiled down at the boy who was readying his own shot. After the first three shots, Ga'briyel had sent a guardsman down to verify that Zahin actually hit the cloth each time since they couldn't see the tears anymore. Zahin sighted his shot and released his arrow. After a few seconds, the guardsman downrange held his thumb up in the air, indicating that the boy did indeed make the shot.
Ipsit growled when he saw the signal and let loose his eighth arrow. It hit the branch over a second later, and another cheer rose from the guardsmen who were gathered. Many slapped Ipsit on the back, but he shrugged them off with a scowl. Zahin shot his arrow, and soon, the guardsman held his thumb up again.
"A full stade away, boy," Ipsit said. "You can't even see the cloth anymore. How do you expect to hit it?"
"Oh, I can see it, sir," the boy said confidently. "And I'll hit it, sir. You first, sir."
With another growl, Ipsit let his arrow fly. It flew toward the ninth target, but there was no thud this time, and the guardsman standing next to the tree put his thumb toward the ground.
"Son of a goat!" Ipsit swore and threw his bow to the ground.
Zahin just smiled, set up his shot, and sent his arrow toward the target. Then he grabbed another arrow, raised his bow slightly, and let loose another shot. The guardsmen were staring downrange as if they could see the result, but all they could see was the man judging the shots. After almost two seconds, he held up one thumb, and almost immediately afterward held up the other. Ga'briyel had told him to untie the cloths on his way back, and he did so. When he got back, he handed them to the Anmah without a word, but he patted Zahin on the back.
"Very nice shooting, son," he said, admiration obvious in his voice.
"Thank you, sir."
"Just in case any of you still have doubts, you can see for yourself he hit every one of them," Ga'briyel said, holding out the cloths in his hand. Ipsit grabbed them from him, and frowned deeply when he saw that they were all cut cleanly down the center. "Go get your arrows, both of you. We cannot afford to lose them."
"Yes, sir," they both said, but Ipsit's was more of a growl. He dropped the cloths on the ground, and they were instantly snatched up by Kajal. Ga'briyel felt better than he had in days, and he stared at the captain. "I believe you owe me two silvers, Captain Kajal."
"Yes, sir, I do. I apologize, Captain Mistri. I was wrong about the boy." He cocked his head and stared at Ga'briyel. "Perhaps I was wrong about you, too." He held out his hand, and Ga'briyel clasped his forearm.
"Apology accepted, Captain, but I still want my money." The Anmah grinned.
"Yes, sir, I would, too," Kajal said with a return grin as he reached into the pouch at his waist. He pulled out two silvers and handed them to Ga'briyel. "Your boy earned them for you, Captain."
"No, he earned them for himself. Zahin, come here."
"Yes, Captain Mistri?" The boy was putting his arrows back in his quiver while Ipsit was still trying to pull his from the branches.
Ga'briyel handed him the silvers. "These are yours. You earned them."
"No, sir," the boy said, shocked. "It was your bet, sir, not mine."
"Still, they are yours. I do not need them, nor do I want them. Take them, please."
"Yes, sir," Zahin said as he slowly took the money, "but it is not right, sir."
"Nonsense. Do not argue with me. Kajal, choose your seven men, and I will tell them what I want from them."
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir."
Moments later, Zahin and seven guardsmen were standing around Ga'briyel, listening to him tell them where he wanted them stationed. When they moved to their positions, Ga'briyel walked to the camp to inspect everything. He wanted to make sure things were run as they should be and that the men would be able to take the punishing speed at which he needed to travel.