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

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Chapter 13: The Whirlwind Concentrates

Refinnej wiped tears from her deep blue eyes as she left the suite where Adonijah still lay unconscious. The physicians had told her they still could not say if he would live or die. Seeing her nephew in such a state and not being able to do anything about it hurt deeply. All she’d wanted to do was gather the broken young man into her arms. Ever since his parents prematurely died she’d tried to act as a mother for him. The reality though was her vision was more often clouded. She’d been proud of his strength and charm so often allowed him to go unchecked. Another lesson for me to learn, the queen contemplated ruefully to herself.

She swiftly walked down the long stone corridor, impervious to the beautiful pieces of art around her, still pondering the past. She had to chase those thoughts from her mind since she wanted to speak to Elder Samej before he went off to inspect the defenses in the Western Marches.

“How my life has changed,” Refinnej sighed to a large painting of the king and herself.

Only a few weeks ago her biggest concerns were sorting out court rivalries, managing the household and watching out for her daughter. Now, matters of life and death hung on her decisions. Initially she had resented Samej for his insistence that she be involved in the matters of state. Alline had rarely consulted her before. These were different times though she knew and her station demanded participation. Walking alone Refinnej realized that for her whole life she’d been served and pampered. Now it was time for her to serve and to repay the people for the privileges they had afforded her.

Coming into an assembly hall she was surprised to see not only the High Steward and his entourage but also Princess Rebekah clad in riding habit.

Instead of discussing what she had intended Refinnej’s focus went onto her daughter. “Where do you think you are going young lady?” the queen demanded.

“I’ve asked to accompany Elder Samej on his rounds. He said he would allow me.” A sharp look from the man caused her to clarify. “That is as long as you will let me.”

“Absolutely not!” Refinnej declared. “I will not have you risk yourself on some whim. I forbid it.”

Rebekah took her mother by the elbow moving her aside so the others, who by now were looking away in embarrassment, would not hear. “If I’m ever to be a queen I must see outside these walls,” the young woman said with conviction. “Our people need to see me showing the same courage you have shown in the face of danger and what we’re asking them to do.” Then with a whimsical grin she added, “Besides, Eldad and the Guard will be with me. I’ve already been told I must stay at least two leagues from the front.”

Refinnej, still stung by the image of Adonijah and fearing the same fate for her precious daughter, knew the girl was right. She couldn’t allow selfish desire to dictate her course despite how desperately she wanted to have that luxury. Knowing the positive impact this would have on her people she agreed to the scheme, albeit reluctantly. This was no time for self-interest to prevail over the good of the kingdom.

The party left a short time later after Elder Samej had given instructions for his absence. Refinnej’s sensibilities didn’t stop her from going to the highest tower in the castle, the one holding the empty eagle’s nest, to watch the entourage ride away. She stared with wrung hands until they were past the horizon. Then she went to the private chapel in the Royal Suite to pray.

For those riding from the castle the day started off sunny with temperatures rising above what was usual for the now mid-fall season. The mood was light among the party with most enjoying the opportunity to do something. Rebekah rode in front with Samej, chattering away, her spirits high at being allowed on this mission. Mitt Cela rode behind the High Steward flanking off to the right. Eldad, Captain of the Royal Guard and personal escort of the Royal family, followed in their wake with the rest of his heavily armed troop.

As they proceeded west the wind picked up from the north. Dark clouds began to fill the sky causing the temperature dropped. The travelers passed through the market town of Haccalm, which was filled with people of other Shires fleeing the enemy. Stopping to rest, Rebekah was stunned by the fear she saw in the people she interacted with. The sheltered princess had never experienced anything like it before. Silently the teen congratulated herself for coming on the trip. It was time she found out the reality of the world around her.

After staying at Haccalm for the night they pressed further west joining up with Hai’asi and his camp at Nelia. Samej, Mitt Cela and the solidly built warrior of Amethyst had an intense meeting while Eldad and his Guardsmen nervously ringed the whole group. Everyone slept lightly that evening as the whole assembly felt that something was about to happen.

The following morning was colder still. Thick grey black clouds hung heavy in the sky. No rain had fallen but it lay heavy in the air. Bulky woolen cloaks were worn rather than the silks they had left with in order to fend off the chill. The group made steady progress through the morning to the border. The plan for the day was for Princess Rebekah and her escort to wait at the turnpike of the Northwest road to Kir Gerasa while Samej and his party would carry on, meet with Commander Tiglath, then return. Approaching the intersection the party met small groups of soldiers fleeing in the direction they had come from in complete panic. Elder Samej and Eldad quickly realized these were elements of the army they were going to see.

Trying to ascertain what had happened was pointless since none of the panicked men would stop long enough to answer their shouts. Finally they saw a mounted party galloping towards them. It was Tiglath and his officers.

The commander was shocked to see first Samej then Princess Rebekah in the group. “What are you doing here?” He said with a sound of fear in his voice.

“What happened Commander?” the steward calmly replied, ignoring the question.

“We were holding our defensive position just inside the Ja’Sper border. It was well laid out I assure you,” Tiglath answered in a hurried tone. “All seemed well. It was quiet in fact but this morning we were attacked without warning.” The soldier looked behind him anxiously, licking his dry lips. “I had picquets out but they didn’t report and I know not what happened to them. We were unprepared so attacked from the flank and rear nullifying our works. The men broke and ran, falling before the dark horde. I’ve been trying to regroup them ever since.”

Suddenly there was a primal shout from the left.

The group turned to look with horror as grey-clad Natas came streaming out of the woods along the side of the road to attack them. The men of Carnelian had only a moment to prepare.

“Rally!” Captain Eldad shouted, spurring his horse in between the two groups. “Protect the princess! Protect the steward!” The soldier met the charge, slashing out with his now drawn sword.

The Natas swept into the cluster from Carnelian, intent on cutting them down. Mitt Cela, with lightning fast reflexes, was able to draw the bow he had slung on his back. Letting one arrow fly he dropped the creature in the lead before the attackers closed in on him. Then in close quarters the powerfully built man swung his two-handed sword in one hand, hacking and beating down any that attempted to draw close to the distinctively dressed high steward.

“Watch out for your own fortunes my friend,” Samej yelled seeing the bounty hunter’s actions, “I can look after myself.” Mitt Cela noticed the elderly man had drawn a short sword from underneath his emerald green cloak. As a creature jumped on his horse with the desire of knocking him off Samej reached around behind him thrusting the weapon back with force to dispatch the foe.

A now hard pressed Mitt Cela thought quickly that the high steward seemed capable of looking after himself. Encircled by attackers the bounty hunter spun his horse around and around, using it to knock down any that tried to pull him off. All the while he continued hammering down with his sword, enemy bodies flying in all direction. Several dark creatures tried to grab the reigns of the horse, part of the saddle or the man but were instead knocked down and crushed by the steady mount. Those lucky enough to escape the spinning horse were soon met with the sword.

Seeing the changing fortunes, a number of Shire men who had been fleeing stopped to join the fight. They stood with the mounted group so the defenders were able to begin to organize and counter the spontaneous quick attack.

The Royal Guard had completely encircled Princess Rebekah so none of the Natas were able to get close to her. All she could do was look on in horror as creatures fought desperately to get at her while those sworn to protect her fought even harder to keep them at bay. More upsetting for the princess, some were beginning to fall in her name.

Commander Tiglath had joined the fight as well. After his surprising defeat the officer seemed renewed and fought as an individual warrior with newfound ferocity without the burden of command.

While the official leader battled on the others looked to Mitt Cela for leadership. By his example along with shouted encouragement and instruction, the bounty hunter became the de facto leader, getting an organized resistance mounted.

Finally, with the tables turned, the attackers became the attacked.

When the Natas broke to try to run for safety they were not allowed to. Horsemen and men on foot didn’t let them disengage, now seeing an opportunity to exact revenge. The fleeing enemy was not permitted to return to the safety of the forest. Instead, in their disorganized state they were cut down as they fled.

Then it was over. What had begun so quickly had finished just as fast.

What seemed like hours had in fact only lasted less than ten minutes. Men panted from fatigue and those who had them reached for skins of water to slake a thirst built not from heat but exertion. Then in selfless acts ensured enough was left of share with those who had none. A new bond, built on the blood spilt on this field, existed between those who had stood.

Samej quickly surveyed the scene. “This seems to be only a vanguard for the main body,” he declared. “We cannot defend this piece of ground with the numbers we have, though I hate to give up this road and bridge,” the vigorous old man added. “Yes, unfortunately we must pull back to Nelia and regroup.” Looking intently at the captain of the Royal Guard he ordered,”Captain Eldad, take the princess straight back to the castle and give the queen a report of what happened. Do not stop! I will be back shortly but we must reorganize our western flank.”

Rebekah, still stunned by what she’d witnessed, her stare fixed on the men who had fallen to protect her, did not give the man any argument. So the Royal Guard, with the princess still in the center, turned around and galloped off.

The High Steward grabbed a mounted soldier. “Ride as quickly as you can north and find King Jashud,” he instructed. “Warn him of what happened here, then cut cross-country until you meet up with the North-Center road and travel back to the capital. Now go.”

The man galloped off as if he had a demon on his tail, which in truth some thought he did.

Mitt Cela was looking about with a sharp eye the whole time, anticipating another attack as Samej calmly gave his orders. Finally, concern for the well being of their leader filled him. The bounty hunter was able to contain himself no longer. ”My Lord, you must fall back now. Not just to Nelia but back to the capital. You have to think of your safety. You can’t risk being caught in the open like that again. You’re too valuable to this Shire.”

A group of men had formed around the party of leaders, anxiously listening to the exchange. Mitt Cela’s declaration made them appear even more nervous then they were before.

The high steward reached out, grasping the arm of his protector in emphasis. “Thank you for your concern my dear friend,” he said in a fatherly way, “but I cannot leave these men here to stand alone without hope. No, I will ensure we have reorganized and can hold a new defensible line before I return.”

The declaration had a visible impact on the dejected soldiers. Resolve returned where fear had dwelled.

“While I may hold title and have responsibility,” Samej continued, “I am no more valuable then any of these men here or those who have fallen. I will not do less for those than I have asked them to do for me. Now let us return to Nelia and rouse as many of our scattered troops as we can find along the way.”

“Three cheers for High Steward Samej!” came a cry from one of the soldiers. The declaration was met by an eruption of approval as they saw the character of the man who was to lead Carnelian. With bolstered spirits the men no longer fled, rather they moved back in an orderly fashion. Hope had been restored.

The rider flew down the road as if he were being chased, nearly riding past the camp of King Jashud and his cobbled together army. Breathing heavily he went before the king, who although having dinner at a makeshift table was still wearing his armor. Jashud had traded the silver finery of the past for plain hauberk and greaves. With dark eyes and a full head of curly black hair he looked like a savage outdoorsman rather than a pampered monarch.

“Elder Samej’s compliments Your Majesty. I’ve been sent to inform you that the West Marches have crumbled.” Then calming himself he continued, “If you don’t pull out now you’ll be cut off.”

Jashud continued to eat, seemingly unmoved by the report. “Thank you for your report,” he replied. “Be sure to thank the High Steward for his update. Give him my compliments and let him know we’re holding our own here. Also say I look forward to seeing him again when practical.” He then went back to the plate of meat before him.

The rider was surprised by the apparent lack of concern. “King Jashud, do not think me impertinent, but do you realize what I’ve just told you?” he felt compelled to ask. “The Natas may be hot on my heels. You may have no place to go.”

Jashud slammed his fist down on the table, knocking over a goblet of wine. “No place to go! Look around you! Where do you think this is? This is no place to go but it’s all I have left! My capital has fallen and these vermin consume my land.” The volatile man took a breath to calm himself down. “I will do my duty as befits my role and will not abandon my charge. If I am to fall so be it. May it be looking them squarely in the face, not showing them my back.” Then standing in order to look directly into the face of the thin man who had given the message he asked, “Did the High Steward ask me to withdraw?” Hearing no reply but seeing a perplexed face he said, “No, he didn’t. He knows what we’re up against and I know what he asks.”

The rider left as fast as he could while Jashud returned to his meal though guards were now posted looking south.

The village of Haccalm, usually a place of bustling commerce, was now somber and full of reticence. The refugees who passed through it had not only the hollow stare of fatigue etched on their faces but that of fear as well. Hai’asi thought they looked like the soldiers that had marched through their position the previous day. When Commander Tiglath rode past he did not make eye contact with the Captain of Amethyst or return his salute. The remnants of the main army of Carnelian were being shifted east to protect the other roads and territories. A portion had been peeled off to provide a screen north to the Halcyon River in hopes of setting up a new and solid line of defense. Ground had been given up in order to buy time but now what was left had very little room for error or for withdrawal. Along the current line they must make their stand.

Coming out of his thoughts Hai’asi watched as the steady line of people braced themselves against the bitter wind coming from the north. The overcast skies gave no warmth, nor encouragement. Many of the travelers would often look behind them as they moved steadily forward as fast as their exhausted bodies would take them. These were not just citizens of Amethyst but now also Jacinth.

An air of defeat hung thick and the levies from Carnelian were beginning to appear nervous. Hai’asi rode up and down the line, encouraging the troops standing at arms on the position they would hold just as he’d done for those back in their main camp. A good number of soldiers from Amethyst had made it out and joined him. He had a few guardsmen from Carnelian but the bulk was simple farmers and workers, not used to the pressures of war. The burning question was: would they hold?

From an original position just across the border from his home shire Hai’asi had been forced to move back two times when word came of the fall of Jacinth and then the Western Marches. While many of his men silently fumed at the perceived retreat his fear was that in their original position south of Nelia they could be cut off and surrounded. As riders brought in regular reports of the advance of his enemy from the west and from the south he finally was compelled to pull back to Haccalm.

The soldier hated to trade land for tactical advantage. These lands represented people’s homes and efforts, but homes could be rebuilt and crops resown. Lives could not. This was a fight for their very existence. Now here they were with no further room for withdrawal. Here they must make their stand in the abandoned town.

Most of those moving towards the capital of Carnelian steadily trudged on, heads down looking straight ahead, carrying whatever meager possessions they could salvage. But as Hai’asi’s gaze rested on the last group to cross their line, one young boy stared up at him with a mixed look of hope and defiance. The strong warrior looked at him in interest. The boy met his look and did not break as he walked on. Hai’asi smiled at the dirty, rag-covered figure, giving him a salute. The captain laughed in delight when it was smartly returned. Hai’asi jumped off his horse and went over to speak to the boy who by now had stopped in his tracks.

“Well met lad, I thank you for your salute. What’s your name?” Hai’asi gently asked.

“Gideon, son of Elishama, sir. What’s yours?” the boy responded proudly.

Hai’asi was surprised at the strength in the boy’s voice. “My name is Hai’asi, son of Hai’asi, Captain of the Royal Guard of Amethyst. I am honored to make your acquaintance Gideon, son of Elishama.”

The boy’s eyes went wide with recognition. “Captain Hai’asi?” he asked with a look of reverence. “I’ve heard of you! You’re a mighty warrior and great defender of our lands.”

Hai’asi grimaced at the thought since his lands now lay in ruins, ravaged by an enemy he was helpless to stop. “I am a servant of our people,” he replied quietly. “Where did you hear such tales?”

“From my mother,” Gideon said with reverence in his voice.

“And where is your father?” Hai’asi asked looking around.

“He been gone sir, I’m not sure where. It’s now just my mother, sisters and I left.” Only then did a hint of what really was going on inside of the boy come out, his voice quivering slightly at the admission.

“I’m sorry,” Hai’asi’s replied honestly. His heart went out to this simple looking, yet dignified, boy standing before him. “You will find peace and safety where you’re going. We will protect you and your family,” he assured Gideon.

“I don’t care about that. I want to stay and fight!”

Hai’asi was caught off guard by the declaration. “How old are you lad?”

“I’m nine years old,” Gideon said with conviction. Although appearing frail, the boy looked hard towards the rear as if he would move no further from the spot, determined to make a stand.

Reaching up into a saddlebag Hai’asi pulled out a dagger and sheath. He held it before the now saucer-eyed boy. “I would be proud to have you in my company, but you must stay with your mother and your sisters to protect them. Will you do that for me? Will you accept my charge for you into the Royal Guard of Amethyst?”

The awestruck boy mumbled his agreement, so Hai’asi took a piece of rope, gently tied it around the boy’s waist after threading it through the belt loops of the scabbard.

Gideon’s mother, noticing that he hadn’t kept up, left the group she was traveling with to retrieve her son. The woman was startled to see him talking to the armored soldier and was disturbed by what she heard of their conversation. She shooed her son out of earshot.

“Why would you do that, letting him think he can fight?” the woman demanded, her voice rising in anger. “And then to give him a weapon? Why would you fill his head with such ideas? That was poorly done!”

Hai’asi looked at the woman noticing how pretty she was despite her dirt-stained face and layers of clothing to protect from the cold. For some reason this not only touched the warrior but saddened him as well. He felt the weight of what he was asked to do along with the loneliness and uncertainty it brought. “I...I meant no offense ma’am. Everyone needs hope and something to hold on to, a little boy or a captain of the guard.” He averted her gaze, looking at the ground. “We all need hope. I was just trying to give him something to hold on to. I’m sorry.”

The woman looked at him strangely, her sad green eyes seeming to brighten somewhat. Without a word she turned, gathering her son then returned to the column.

The boy though waved vigorously. “I won’t fail in my duty Captain Hai’asi,” he shouted. “I won’t let you down.”

Hai’asi returned the wave. “I pray I don’t fail and let you down,” he said quietly to himself.

Remounting his horse he noticed Pagiel, who had rode up to him moments earlier but did not wish to disturb his friend’s thoughts. With a look Hai’asi bid him speak.

“Our quarry approaches hard in large numbers. Two columns joined together at Nelia and travel along the West Road according to my scouts. Another travels up the Jacinth Road from Gadara. They’ll be here within the hour.”

Hai’asi watched the refugees traveling north but now at a quicker pace. “It’s time to make a stand Pagiel,” he declared. “Assemble the men.”

In his mind he asked the same question he’d been pondering before meeting the boy: ’Could they hold? Now it seemed to have an even greater sense of urgency.

Jashud wiped the blood from his sword onto what had once been an elegant cloak. The king no longer cared about his courtly appearance. They had successfully attacked and destroyed another body of Natas trying to come through the hills from the north.

One of Jashud’s officers interrupted his moment of contemplation, exhaustion from days in the saddle etching his face. “How long will we keep this up?” he asked. “This is folly. We’re soon to be overrun and all killed. Your Majesty you must withdraw.”

“I said I would hold this territory and I mean to do it,” the king replied, looking intently at the tired man. “Once was I caught off-guard by this scum. Now my subjects are suffering dearly for this…for my lapse of judgment.” The king became reflective anew, hurt by the implication of his statement. “I will not allow that to happen again while I live and can draw a sword.” Then with fresh resolve he gathered his men. “Come! Let us ride and see what other mischief we can find!”

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