In The Absence of Eagles: Book 1 of the The Chronicle of the Shires

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Chapter 11: Setbacks

Walking back and forth in her private quarters Queen Refinnej was deep in thought. Outside thick gray clouds cast a gloomy pale over the castle. Fires were lit in the suite and she wore a cloak to ward off the chill in the fall air. Doubts about her decision in naming Samej as advisor were running rampant through her mind. Carnelian now stood alone. With its army already diminished she knew there was little hope of succeeding in offensive actions. Refinnej paced restlessly. She was no strategist that was her husband’s realm. A thought kept filling her mind, one she did not want to entertain but couldn’t counter. Their only option now lay in a war of attrition and wearing their enemy down from a defensive position. It was a solution that didn’t guarantee ultimate success but did spell disaster for those innocents who would come in between the two forces. The thought made her sick. Her musings then turned again to how this had all come about.

Princess Rebekah had come to her the evening past. The teen had been spilling over in her enthusiasm for the contents of the discussion she’d had with Elder Samej. Never had Rebekah shown any interest in politics so this caused the queen to take note. After speaking with the pair Refinnej had felt something stir within her. There was a need for mature counsel and leadership, which this man seemed to possess. At that time the decision to invite him to assume the role of High Steward had seemed simple and wholly appropriate.

The next morning after being summoned, he readily and graciously accepted the charge. Then the events of the previous day unfolded so differently from what she’d expected. In the span of a few short hours the Confederation, which up until then had been an example of co-operation and unity for years, was shattered. Now Shires didn’t trust each other and were working alone. The enemy was continuing to steadily press in and she didn’t know what to do.

“Have I been wrong?” she asked the empty room. “Was it this Samej’s fault?” she pondered further.

Then all sorts of wild thoughts about what transpired began to race through her mind. Was it even worse than his fault she considered silently, was it his doing?

The queen, always presenting such an air of confidence, was shaken to the core. No, she didn’t know what to do. This was more than she had bargained for when she said yes to Criosd Pherein all those years ago. If only the king had been there. Her musings continued to take her to a place of depression.

Refinnej had not called for Samej since the meeting, nor had she seen him either. The queen no longer wanted anything to do with him.

At the same time Princess Rebekah was walking in the palace garden with Elder Samej. An entourage consisting of Mitt Cela, Squire Belac, several servants and advisors were close at hand but the two walked together, talking alone. The garden was a place of refuge in times of struggle since the pleasing sights and smells had the power to distract the concerns of those so burdened. Besides the multihued flowers and sculpted bushes, mulberry and magnolia trees created a lovely effect while willow trees provided shade.

“Your mother does not trust me,” the man said matter of factly.

“No,” the Princess replied uneasily, knowing it to be true but not wanting the truth to come out, “no, she’s just concerned for the kingdom and the rest of the Shires.”

“As she should be and as befits her position. Come Your Highness, you do not need to protect my ego or my feelings. I am an old man and have no time for such things. If I were in her position I’m sure I would feel the same way after what happened yesterday.”

“Oh Elder Samej,” she finally burst out, “what happened? I know you were right but why did the others react the way they did? I know they’re scared. My mother’s scared too. That’s why she’s hesitant...we all are, but why couldn’t they work together?”

Already the heart of the somewhat impetuous princess impressed the old man. He stopped, sat on a stone bench, than motioned for her to join him. “Those are good questions Your Highness, one’s showing a quick mind. The problem has been that for years you’ve not really had to rely on one another for anything other than the accumulation of wealth. That is fleeting, like chasing after the wind.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Wealth gives a veneer of unity but it does not bind together. Only through adversity are bonds unbreakable. Look at Jashud. He has remained because he’s suffered. The Confederation has not faced such times for generations, so could afford the luxury of individuality. No, it is only through the refiner’s fire that something pure comes out.”

“Then there’s no hope?” Rebekah despaired.

“Don’t give up hope, my dear!” Samej responded with a look of resolution. “True, there are some that cannot see beyond their own aspirations but most will come to the proper course given time. It’s that time we must buy them.”

The princess’s eyes brightened and her smile radiated again. “Come, let us go and talk to my mother,” Rebekah said with conviction. “We must show the unity we pray the others will eventually come to realize is our only chance.”

The entourage traveled with purpose to the queen’s private chamber. There a lively discussion ensued between Samej, the princess and the sovereign of Carnelian. The queen asked many pointed questions, than had the opportunity to share her fears and frustrations. Samej was patient in his explanations, showing understanding and giving encouragement. He didn’t pander, at times speaking quite bluntly, but it was that frankness Refinnej was seeking. Finally the queen’s deep blue eyes lit up and she had a look of peace. Order was restored in her spirit. Now it was time to restore it in the kingdom.

Those that waited outside the room were tense with anticipation. Each silently wondered what was going to happen. As the three came out in obvious unity their relief was obvious as well. It was time to get to work. Their thoughts now changed to the task at hand.

As if to illustrate the new resolve that was building, the clouds that had hung over Ammon Ramlah suddenly broke, bathing the capital in warmth-bringing sunshine.

The following day the capital was a hive of activity. A fast schooner was sent out to attempt contact with King Criosd Pherein over the Great Sea. Jashud and the remnant of his officers left to organize their forces in the southern part of S’Apphire, in addition, taking control of the Carnelian troops in the northwest. Commander Tiglath took charge of the largest part of the standing army of the kingdom, moving them to the western marches of the shire. Captain Hai’asi gathered the bits and pieces of what had trickled in from Amethyst as well as levies from southern Carnelian in order to throw up a screen in that part of the country. Mitt Cela attached himself to the Royal Guard, unofficially becoming Elder Samej’s bodyguard. While that group focused on protecting the area around the capital the new steward planned to ride the defenses not just to encourage the troops but assess what was happening.

Thus into the whirlwind was placed a stake in the center of what had been the Confederation. The question now was: could it hold?

The sound of finely manicured, tapping fingers on the highly polished table was all that could be heard coming from the King’s Assembly Hall in the Royal Castle in Chrysomas, capital of Chrysolite. Ashbel drummed the table in deep thought with one hand while holding a letter in another. Messages had previously been sent to Ahriman and finally a response was received. The forces of the Tartarus would halt and the former Royal Advisor of Carnelian would meet the delegation of peace in the valley just west of Kir Hareseth, the capital of Chalcedony. King Ozni had readily agreed to host the meeting. So it was only left to him to leave from his capital and join the other leaders who would gather for the Summit of Reconciliation as it was being called. Beriah of Beryl, Naeman of Sardonyx and Shupham of Emer’Ald had pledged to attend and had left already for the rendezvous.

Ashbel stood silently now, looking out the window towards the ocean, thinking. The rhythmic sound of the waves hitting shore was no balm for the others in the immediate sphere of their liege. His retainers were waiting silently in the room as was his eldest son, Ashnel. His escort was saddled and in the courtyard waiting to leave for the rendezvous. No one knew what was causing this delay and none would ask.

The King gazed at the letter one last time then looked at his slight, pale son. “Well my boy,” he said, “you shall accompany me on this mission. It’s time for you to become involved in matters of state.”

“Really father?” a shocked Ashnel responded since the king had never allowed him such an opportunity. “I would be honored to come with you. I’ll do my best to do justice to the prospect you’ve given me.”

Ashbel looked evenly the 21-year-old boy. “That is what I am counting on,” he replied.

The entourage rode out hard and fast to make up for the time lost by the king’s delay. They travelled north through Sardonyx then through Emer’Ald until finally reaching the capital of Chalcedony. The group was silent most of the way since there was nothing really to say. Throughout the trip Ashbel seemed deep in thought.

Kir Hareseth was uneasy as the delegations of the various kingdoms gathered. While there were to be no large bodies for this summit each had brought his personal escort. So in total there were nearly two hundred men at arms waiting about.

Ashbel noticed the nervousness as he rode into town at the head of his contingent. Adding to the tension, thick, black clouds evident only to the west filled the horizon. Even from the distance it was to the border, the smoke of fires from S’Apphire was evident, blocking the sun from that direction. But true to Ahriman’s word, none of the Natas had crossed into Chalcedony. As a result no preparations were made for defense since this was viewed as showing lack of faith in the peace process.

King Ozni hosted a gala dinner for his guests the night before the anticipated meeting was to take place. Laughter rang out from the Great Hall. Stories were shared, while fine food and drink consumed in great quantity. Ashbel stood towards the end of the evening and gave a rousing speech. He congratulated those who had come for their courage to look beyond tradition and to seek compromise with their foe. They had sought dialogue instead of confrontation he told them and the replies to their correspondence received from Ahriman showed he desired the same thing. The charismatic king predicted that from the next day would dawn a new era, perhaps even leading to a new Confederation. Nothing was mentioned about those who did not hold this view nor about the destruction that had been reported in S’Apphire since no one wanted to spoil the upbeat mood. After a rousing cheer the body broke to return to their generously appointed guest suites for the evening.

In the Chrysolite chambers Ashnel was surprised to find his father packing to leave. “What are you doing father?” he said with shock. “The meeting’s tomorrow. Everyone’s expecting you to be our voice.”

“A matter of great importaance has arisen in our Shire,” Ashbel replied in an even voice, not looking up from his packing. “I must leave immediately to attend it.” Then as if his mood shifted, he smiled, opened his arms and placed them on the shoulders of the timid Prince. “Besides, it’s high time son that you begin to exert yourself for the good of our kingdom. I shall not live forever and someday you will be the king. What better time to show the others what you’re made of? You shall go in my stead, speaking on my behalf and with my authority.”

“You… you want me to speak for Chrysolite?” Ashnel stammered. “You’ve never allowed me such an important task. I’m…I’m not sure I can do it.”

“Nonsense boy,” the King retorted impatiently, “of course you can. Besides, Naeman and the others will be there.”

“If you think I’m capable then I would be honored.”

“Good, good. Everything will be perfect,” Ashbel said, ending the discussion.

The next morning the contingent from Chrysolite not only dined in private but also was late arriving at the forming up point for the delegations. Finally Ashnel rode in at the head of the now smaller group from that shire.

“Good morning Prince Ashnel. When can we expect your father?” King Naeman called out with curiosity. “There’s business to conduct.”

“Your Majesty, my father sends his compliments. He bids me tell you that a matter of great importance came up last night so was forced to return to Chrysomas,” the prince stammered out uncomfortably.

“What?” Naeman cried out in astonishment. “What could be more important than this meeting? Who will speak for your shire?”

“I will,” Ashnel said unconvincingly.

A scout rode up to the group, interrupting the exchange. “The delegation of Ahriman is arriving from the west Your Majesty,” he reported after a salute. “They’ll be at the valley in but a short time.”

Wheeling his horse about with a look of disgust on his face, Naeman turned from the embarrassed youth to signal the others to follow him. He would speak for the gathered and address the matter of Ashbel’s fickleness afterwards, he thought. For now greater issues were at hand.

The pennants of the represented shires snapped proudly in the morning breeze. The array made a handsome picture standing on the hill outside the capital after a short ride to the rendezvous point for the meeting. All were looking west across the valley to the summit of the other hill where they expected to first see Ahriman. More than one of the assembled thought that an artist should be summoned to capture the beauty of the moment.

There was still no sign of their counterparts. None worried about that though since none wanted to spoil the mood. After a short wait, the sound of horses could be heard in the distance followed by the sight of the head of a small column coming into view opposite. The resonance of them, though, was strangely eerie. The horses of the Confederation men reacted in fright. Neighing and whinnying the beasts twisted about attempting to leave their positions. The reaction forced the riders to tighten the grip on their reigns to hold them in place. The perfect picture had been disrupted.

Finally the newly arrived delegation from beyond the Tartarus Mountains came into view. While the numbers were less than half that of the Shires, the look and sound of them caused the assembled array to fidget nervously.

Even from that distance, it was evident that the riders were all dressed in the same black outfits. Armor, cloaks, equipage and even the horses were as dark as midnight. Their faces were shrouded in black masks not revealing any identity but more than one man thought he could see red eyes peering intently at them. The single rider who led them was dressed as finely as the nobles of the shire. Mounted on a charcoal colored horse, he contrasted the uniformity of the mass. It was Ahriman.

Naeman raised his hand in salute, which was not returned. Ahriman and his party sat rock still.

The king was somewhat perturbed by the lack of courtesy but felt it was time to press on. “Let’s get this over with,” he said looking at the others. “Guards, keep an eye on this ‘gentleman’ and his friends. If I don’t like how things go we can at least cut down his feeble escort and capture the man.”

Spurring on his horse Naeman led off with the others following him down the hill then into the valley. Still their quarry didn’t move. Finally reaching the base of the opposite slope they stopped.

“Come now Ahriman! Will you make us ride all the way up to parlay with you?” Naeman shouted up in a state of irritation. “Come down and let us talk of the peace we all desire.”

“Ah peace! Yes, let me show you the peace I come to speak of,” Ahriman responded with a sneer on his face.

With that his riders appeared to leap into motion, going seemingly from the halt to gallop in an instant, drawing swords with a wicked rasping sound along the way. The black riders stormed down the hill almost like the shadow of a nightmare towards their stunned adversaries. As a scythe cuts wheat the servants of Mephistopheles raged through the assembled troops from the remnants of the Confederation. Feeble attempts at resistance were hacked aside, attempts to seek quarter were met by the sword and in moments it was over. The pride of four shires lay dead or dying, their hopes for peace and compromise shattered on the ground, paid for with the blood slowly seeping into the ground.

“Open the gates. Hurry!”

The clatter of hooves on the flagstone pavement along with the urgency in the shouted voice from the watchtower of the gatehouse made those who heard it look to see what was going on. A patrol that had been north of the Halcyon River was back sooner than anticipated, having in tow three dirty, wounded soldiers.

Rushing to the castle, the party was quickly ushered into the Royal Council Chambers where Queen Refinnej, Elder Samej plus several officers and officials were meeting. Only Samej didn’t appear surprised by their arrival and the report of the patrol.

“Your Majesty, we were riding on the Northern Road to Kir Hareseth when we spotted large clouds of smoke to the front of us as if something large was burning,” the officer in charge recounted their experience. “We proceeded more cautiously when only a few leagues further we came upon these men.” He paused then a note of fright crept into his voice. “They’re from Emer’Ald and were part of a peace delegation that was to meet Ahriman. The…the whole group was slaughtered.”

After hearing the patrol leader’s report the queen got the disheveled men chairs to sit upon and something to drink. “Can you tell me what happened?” Refinnej asked.

“We were set upon. They didn’t even stop to speak,” one of them declared, “they had no interest in it. We outnumbered them but that made no difference. We were hit with a whirlwind. We never had a chance,” the man added, his voice dropping.”

“Who were your attackers?” Refinnej asked anxiously. “What were they like?”

“They were inhuman, tall…black…driven…unstoppable,” the soldier replied hollowly, his voice filled with terror at the recollection of what happened. He then paused, took another drink and was able to recompose himself. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Samej had been quietly listening thus far. “How many were there?” he asked with a sense of urgency in his voice.

“I don’t know,” the soldier shook his bandaged head. “It seemed like thousands but was less than one hundred I would guess.”

“Don’t guess boy,” Samej said with a sharpness that caught those assembled off guard. “This is of great importance. You must be as accurate as you can.”

“Well, I would suspect about two score by my count.”

A grim look clouded Samej’s face. “There were seventy,” he said with conviction.

“How would you know?” the queen pressed nervously.

“I know for these are ‘The Seventy’…. demon riders. They are the Knights of the Black Sceptre, the personal escort of Mephistopheles. Our situation is worse than I had thought.”

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