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

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Chapter 12: Grim Realities

“What do you mean by that Samej?” Jashud questioned. The king had coincidentally been back to the castle to report the latest developments in his shire. Although he didn’t entirely understanding the exchange he did have a sense that it wasn’t good.

Samej paced back and forth silently, hands clasped behind his back in contemplation. He then stopped, rubbing his chin. “It is written in the annals of the lands,” he answered, “that the evil master Mephistopheles has at his beck and call a more deadly force than the Natas. Though small in number they possess supernatural powers, which make them virtually unstoppable. They have been referred to as ‘The Seventy’ but their formal title is Knights of the Black Sceptre. Their origin I do not know. It is said they were once men who pledged a blood oath to the dark master Mephistopheles who in return will allow them to rule as his princes when he claims the world.”

Samej let the words sink in then returned his gaze to the three refugees from the attack. “Who led them?” he asked.

“I heard my lord call him Ahriman,“ the soldier responded.

“And you are certain of this?”

“I am sir. I was mounted directly behind him when he called out to the man.”

It was obvious the soldiers were quite fatigued from their journey and the trauma of what they’d experienced. The queen dismissed them along with a number of servants who were sent to ensure each was looked after.

The Council Chamber fell silent, save for the crackle of a fire. Though it gave off warmth a new chill filled the room. Everyone looked at Samej, waiting for him to speak.

He obliged them after a short pause. “There is no doubt now. The Sceptre has been raised. Ahriman has become the host if he can command The Black Knights.” The elderly man began to pace around the room. “The circle of evil is complete, the whirlwind has been unleashed. Like it or not, fire and brimstone have come to the Shires so we must set up a bulwark against them. With the Knights of the Black Sceptre at the head of his army Mephistopheles will seek to claim all the lands.”

“The history lesson is fine, but how do we stop them?” Jashud asked.

“That sir I do not know,” Samej replied matter of factly.

“Excellent,” the King responded, a note of sarcasm in his voice. “We face this supposedly superhuman foe and you don’t know how they can be overcome?”

“I do not know yet,” Samej responded firmly. “I will have to consult the Records of the Shires which are kept in the lower vaults of this castle.” He looked expectantly at Refinnej. “I presume they are still there.”

“ not know,” she answered with a puzzled look. “I’ve never heard of such a record nor have I ever personally gone down into the bowels of the castle. I’m sorry.”

Simeon, the somewhat harsh but efficient Chamberlain, was called and asked if he knew the location of the archives that Elder Samej described. He too was bewildered, not able to recall any repository of such records. The implications of this realization were no less pleasing to him than it was to the others as they surmised what it meant. It appeared as if they as a people had turned their backs on the recorded heritage of the land. Now they may suffer for this shortsightedness.

Visibly frustrated, Samej knew further discussion was useless. “We must have those records. They have to be found,” he declared.

Queen Refinnej called several servants to her. Receiving a detailed description of what to look for they were dispatched to seek the vault containing the information so critical to their future.

The field outside Kir Hareseth, always one viewed as quite beautiful, was now a horrible sight. The skies were dark and angry, threatening rain. Littered about were bodies and parts of men and horses that only minutes earlier had been full of life before they had been cruelly snuffed out. Only four from the nearly two hundred original men of the four shires were left. They now stood surrounded by the seventy Black Knights. Dejectedly the remaining members of the delegation of peace watched on as streams of Natas were coming over the hill moving towards the capital. Already screams could be heard along with the smell of smoke was in the air.

Beriah, Naeman, Shupham and Ashnel were the only ones left, not through any fighting prowess but rather because their lives had been spared for a fate each was now beginning to dread. Into the circle strode Ahriman. He stared at them silently as if they were animals in a cage, still not speaking.

Finally Naeman could stand it no longer. “Well?” he yelled.

“Well what?” Ahriman coolly replied.

“Well what are you going to do with us? Name your ransom price. My people will pay it.”

Ahriman chuckled softly. “Ransom? Do you not think ‘We’ are capable of taking whatever ‘We’ want? ‘We’ and our followers will have everything so do not need your coins. ‘We’ will be ruler of all the lands then ‘We’ will own it all. All will bow before us.”

The way Ahriman referred to himself as ‘We’ sent a shiver up the spines of the men. His voice also was deep and had an odd, unsettling, echo to it. The voice and the man were different than they had remembered in the past. The former advisor had changed.

“Who are you boy?” Ahriman demanded, looking at Ashnel.

The already frightened youth was now terrorized by the attention. “Ashnel, son of Ashbel, Prince of Chrysolite,” he stammered.

“Where is your father?”

“He…he left last night to return to our shire on a matter of important business.”

“Ha,” Ahriman laughed, “the urgency of saving his neck I wager. Well that is of no matter. I will visit him soon enough to pay my respects. You are of no use to us,” he snapped, cruelly looking at the shaking youth. With that declaration he whipped out a jagged sword and in one stroke cut off the head of Ashnel leaving both parts to dully thud on the ground.

“You villain!” Naeman screamed lunging forward.

No one moved but Ahriman who with a wave of his hand froze the king in his tracks. “Naeman, that is enough from you,” he commanded coldly.

Extending his arm he pointed at the king who was standing five feet away from him. With a soft incantation, by some unseen force when he opened his hand Naeman’s mouth opened and his tongue hung out. Then closing his hand into a fist, with a pulling motion the tongue of Naeman was ripped from his mouth. The king fell to the ground, choking, with blood flowing from his mouth.

The remaining two stood still and silent, a look of shock on their faces. Rain began to pelt down but the blood on the field was too thick to be washed away just yet.

Ahriman calmly placed his hands together in front. “Any other questions?” he asked.

Ashbel arrived back to his castle after leaving the summit. It had been a swift yet long ride to Chrysolite. The time was put too good use for it had allowed him to think even more. A plan was beginning to develop.

Something in the tone of Ahriman’s letter, then the scene that had greeted him in Kir Hareseth gave him cause for concern so he had decided to quit the meeting. He’d left his son as insurance in case he was wrong and the meeting went off as planned.

In the end he’d been right as word reached the capital, shortly after his arrival, of what had transpired in Chalcedony. He congratulated himself for his foresight. After recounting what had happened to his advisor and the commander of his troops he received their reports that had come in via dispatch from Carnelian.

The quick mind of Ashbel was already beginning to work, seeking a solution to the puzzle before him.

His commander couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Your Majesty, do you mean to tell us that you suspected something was amiss, yet you still left your son there to die?”

“It was not certain and sacrifices sometimes must be made,” Ashbel replied coldly. “Besides, I have other sons.”

The servants thought they had found the records the new High Steward had spoken of. Confusion was evident, though, when they reported their findings to the rulers. The uncertainty was based on the description given of what they should seek and where compared to the reality of what they found.

Without ceremony Samej swiftly traveled from the queen’s throne room where they had been speaking. Gathering Belac and two other squires he followed the servants on a descent along a spiral staircase to the lower reaches of the castle. Refinnej followed him, as did Mitt Cela. Passing ground level, the natural light cast by windows was lost necessitating torches being lit as they went lower and lower. They passed two other levels, finally arriving at the lowest vaults of the basement. Dampness and a musty smell hung thick in the air.

Mitt Cela sniffed the air while Samej said with a look of concern, “There can be no archive here.”

“We did find a room on a higher level, My Lord,” the servant leading the way responded. “It did seem at one time to have been a library of sorts based on how it was appointed but it’s now used for storing wine.”

The Elder grimaced at the thought as they reached a rough-hewn wooden door. His heart began to beat faster in fear of what he would find.

The servant in the lead pushed open the door while another, who also held a torch, followed him in to cast light so the group could see.

Samej gasped as the light of the torches illuminated the room. Heavily bound books were stacked one upon the other almost to the ceiling in random piles. Parchments and documents were stuffed into knotted wooden boxes, placed wherever there was space. The foul aroma of mold hung thick in the room.

“What….what has happened here?” he whispered picking up a thick book from the top of one of the piles. Samej could feel the pages decomposing as he gently leafed through it. “The collected wisdom and history of these lands, discarded as refuse and left to rot,” he whispered sadly. “What has come of us?”

Queen Refinnej stood embarrassed at the sight as the reality of what she was viewing sunk in. She had never heard of these items or paid any attention to the heritage of the Confederation. In truth, if she had been told of their existence she wouldn’t have cared. She might even have ordered what they were now experiencing.

But much had changed in the past few weeks.

Necessity had forced Refinnej to now reach deep inside and rise to the challenge. She would not allow what was happening to defeat her and cause fresh despair. Yes, she thought, I must rise to the test. This is an opportunity to set things right.

“You there,” she said pointing to one of the servants, “take as many men as you need and clean out the room you mentioned. Then take these items carefully there. I do not care what you do with the things in the other room just clean it out as quickly as possible and bring what is here to it.”

The servants along with several of the men-at-arms began immediately. They didn’t stop for a break or rest, even working through the night to accomplish the task the queen had given to them. What drove them was not the order but rather a sense of honor. The look on their queen’s face and the urgency in her voice challenged them to exertions beyond what they’d normally do. Despite fatigue the group from Carnelian toiled on because they saw the weight their beloved sovereign was carrying. This was something the men could do to show their support so they did it with fervor.

Finally the next day as noon approached the group tasked with restoring the archives was completed. They triumphantly went to the throne room to make their report.

The queen was visibly shocked. “Everything’s been moved?” she said incredulously.

“Everything Your Majesty,” replied the one who had been originally put in charge of the endeavor.

“Nothing was broken or damaged?”

“Nothing from either room.”

Astonishment filling her face she shook her head. “Remarkable,” she declared. “We had thought it would take several days. You all must have worked through the entire night.”

The grins on the servant’s faces let her know she was correct.

Refinnej was deeply moved by the meaning of their efforts. “Thank you. Thank you for your exertions. They mean more to me than you can imagine.” Emotions welled up from deep within in the woman who felt so out of her league. This display showed her that she was on track.

“Excuse me,” Refinnej could only choke out at the welling joy. Her beaming face said more than any words could articulate. She curtsied elegantly to the men and left the room.

“Well done lads,” Samej declared, clapped the beaming spokesman on the shoulder. “Your efforts have brought brightness to an otherwise bleak situation. We will find what we are looking for and we will win.”

Turning to another servant the High Steward ordered food and drink for the men who had worked so hard to restore the confidence of their rulers. As the distinguished looking man left to begin examining the records, the smiles of those who were left lit up the room.

Samej, Belac and the squires that had journeyed to the depths of the castle spent the better part of a day searching for an answer to the question that was so pressing. How could they defeat The Seventy? It drove them like a taskmaster’s whip.

Initial optimism gave way to resolution over the hours then slipped into despair. Realizing there was no cataloguing system left the search became one for a needle in a haystack. The sheer number and content of the books in the archives would require a careful search if they were to find what they sought.

“Progress!” Samej spat out in frustration, slamming his hand down on a table in the room. “This is what we get for all our advancement, the destruction of the collective past. We have nothing left but the daily experience and the here and now! We are a people without foundation.” As quickly as the storm of the Elder’s mood was unleashed it faded away so he went back to searching through the volumes he had chosen.

The hour was now late, the sun had long since dropped and night had fallen. Yet still the candles burned while the search continued in the newly re-dedicated Royal Archive.

“This is pointless!” one of the squires declared in a defeated tone. “What do crop yields and genealogies have to do with stopping our enemies? There’s nothing here of use. We’ll never be able to defeat this plague.”

Samej understood the young man’s irritation. “All that is written is important squire, even the smallest thing. All that is found here has to do with who we are as a people. Contained within you find an understanding of who we are and what we have been.”

“But how can this help us defeat Mephistopheles?” the young man shot back.

“It is these types of things that tell us our character and composition, in it can be found strength and resolution,” Samej patiently answered. “We learn in our past the very resolution we will need to continue when a situation is the bleakest. And what are we?”

“I’m…I’m not sure,” the squire answered, not realizing it was a rhetorical question.

Samej smiled and patted the confused man on the shoulder. “I will tell you. We are not a people with shallow roots. No, there is depth in these lands, and character to hang on to in the storm as we have done in the past. These books are our map for charting the future.”

“There has to be a way to stop them!” Belac interjected pasionately. “Mephistopheles was defeated in the past. He can be beaten again.”

“A mighty thought Squire Belac,” Samej said with nod of his head. “You are correct. It must be here somewhere so we must find it. We are all tired though so let us retire for the night. I will ponder this setup and attempt to surmise what to do.”

The next morning Elder Samej gathered a number of squires, giving them explicit instructions as to what to search for. He told them first to organize the room in some sort of order based on the information in the various volumes. This would allow for a more disciplined search. With that done he left them to their task. It was one step back to hopefully take two steps forward. For him there were other matters to attend to as the High Steward. Unfortunately he could not spend his time searching through books. He would have dearly loved to reacquaint himself with something he’d long been denied but suppressed his personal desires. The pressures of time were dictating his course of action now.

Looking at the emerald green robe he now wore, the mark of his office, with its fine gold thread and the symbol of Carnelian upon the left breast Samej sighed. Walking alone he thought of how his life had suddenly become complicated. He longed for the simplicity of his cottage, for his scrolls and papers. The new advisor reminded himself that not only had he prayed for this day but it was also his calling and destiny. An order once lost was now restored. His personal comfort and desire were secondary to the needs of the people.

Turning towards the audience chamber, Samej felt a thrill course within. As vexing as not finding the information they sought was, the chance to experience the history of the lands lodged in that room if only for a few hours had been sweet. Another day, he thought to himself as he went to fulfill his duty.

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