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

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Chapter 15: Reunions

Ashbel decided it was time to make his move. It was bold and calculated, very uncharacteristic based on his record of the past, but deep down he knew the time to be right. Before the union had been fractured, Chrysolite was second in land holdings within the Confederation only to Carnelian. The kingdom had grown in recognition and stature through not only aggressive annexation under Ashbel but also the passive compliance of the other kings. This was especially the case in the last three years with the king of Carnelian gone. Now wealthy and powerful the king knew his Shire was a light that drew people to it. His army was strong, by his measure the strongest in the land. Fresh, well equipped and motivated, they were a force with which to be reckoned. An opportunity for profit still existed in his estimate.

The army of Chrysolite was already massed so it took less than a day to put into place that which only a week before would have been inconceivable. First they marched south to Beryl, then north to Sardonyx and finally into Emer’Ald offering protection but in reality claiming each territory as vassal for King Ashbel.

It was not the sheer number of arms that caused the people to pledge their fealty to Ashbel, but rather the splendor and confidence of the host. With their own kings missing due to what had happened only a short time ago these people lived in fear for what they knew to be coming from the west. In desperation they chose one who gave them a sense of confidence. Under Chrysolite rule the people believed their lands would not be touched, that fire and sword would pass over them. So within ten days Ashbel was the lord of four kingdoms.

He knew his newfound position was tenuous and needed to be held. While it had been less than two weeks since the slaughter at Kir Hareseth the forces of Ahriman had not yet crossed the River Tirzah nor had they entered into To’Paz, or so it had been reported to him. Ashbel figured that they were consolidating their position and also moving south towards the Halcyon River. This would bleed troops from Carnelian, which would be good for him. The powerful ruler still thought that some plan of peaceful co-existence could be struck. If not, he was confident in the strength of arms he possessed to exert his point with force if necessary.

Ashbel congratulated himself again for the foresight he’d had at holding back his best troops from the expedition three years before. Instead he sent conscripts from a group within his kingdom that opposed his cause and led by nobles of his land that possessed too much ambition. It had been easy afterwards to acquire their lands since none stood in his way. All around it had been a tremendous exercise for one whose claim to the throne only four years earlier had been hotly contested not only within the kingdom but also the broader Confederation as a whole. Now here he was, master of the biggest track of land in the World as it Matters. All that remained was to hold it.

Leaving a strong garrison of troops in Ezian Geber, the capital of Beryl, he focused his army north of the Halcyon where it seemed certain he could face Ahriman. With scouting parties aggressively patrolling west, envoys were also sent out with offers of peace. It was simple really, he thought, he would keep the lands he had and the former Advisor could have everything else. Not only would a large-scale fight be unprofitable for Ahriman but also Ashbel’s holding of the fortresses on opposite sides of the Halcyon River meant it was impossible for any trade ship to leave the river. Common sense really should prevail here. Besides, he mused, there would be time to regroup and acquire the rest in due course. He’d already shown himself to be a patient man.

With a strong, well-armed force posted on the road to Dan Dera just outside of Tel Melah, the bulk of the Chrysolite army, now bolstered by troops from Sardonyx and those of the other kingdoms he controlled camped north of the town. Their chosen position put them just before the forests from which the road to Kir Hareseth had been cut. Ashbel’s army was flanked on one side by a lake while on the other the barren and wide-open Plain of Tel Melah. With scouts all about and his army ready to respond to any move the position was an excellent one. There would be no surprises this time, he thought, as there had been in the past. Defensive works consisting of a trench and three rows of sharpened tree trunks planted in the ground on an angle had been thrown up across the road and to the front of the anticipated axis of advance of those coming from Chalcedony. All Ashbel waited for was word.

The ruler of the now four kingdoms sat in his large, airy pavilion sipping wine with the commanders of his army enjoying the bright fall day and speaking idly. His standard bearer sat mounted just outside, the flag of Chrysolite with the two-castle emblem waved in the breeze.

The symbol on the flag has always irritated Ashbel every time he’d looked at it. The device had been designed generations previous when the two castles of Temon and Chrysomas, which flanked the mouth of the River Halcyon at the Great Sea, had been part of the Kingdom of Chrysolite. The Confederation though had decided that was too strong a position for one Shire to hold due to its strategic and economic nature. So the ruling council of the day decided to cede control of the northern castle and town surrounding it to Sardonyx in order to create a sense of balance. The device had remained on the standard though and had been an open sore among some for years. The king smiled at the thought that what was rightly part of his kingdom had finally been restored.

His blissful thoughts were interrupted by a cry of alarm from one of the guards in a makeshift tower.

“Enemy approaching to the front,” he called out to the camp. “Enemy approaching to the front.”

Ashbel sprang to his feet in disbelief, a stunned look upon his face, since no word had been received of any advance from his scouts. The shock lasted for only a moment. Quickly he told his commanders to form the army up in their appointed places. The order was carried out with speed and a new sense of urgency.

The enemy didn’t match this haste but rather moved with methodical precision. A large host began to deploy into position but didn’t numerically overwhelm the defenders who by now were in disciplined lines, the sun reflecting off their bright plate and mail armor.

Two riders left the advancing line. One was Ahriman, dressed in finery, the other, his standard bearer. They rode out partway between the assembled armies and stopped. The flag boldly showed the emblem of a blood red dragon holding a sceptre on a black background. Though no one recognized it, this was the symbol of Mephistopheles.

“Perhaps he does want to talk after all,” Ashbel mused to his officers, so rode out to meet him with the two-castle standard of Chrysolite flying in the wake. Matching Ahriman’s utilitarian party but also wanting to make a point of his superiority of numbers he took one of his generals and two guardsmen with him. They quickly closed the gap to the now stationary pair before them.

A broad smile on his face, Ashbel spoke magnanimously. “So Ahriman you have decided to see the logical course and divide the lands. That is good. Well, you always were a wise man. Will you join me at my pavilion for some refreshment and we can discuss this further?”

Ahriman responded with a deep, strange laugh. It sounded almost like a clucking sound down in his throat, which grew in wickedness until he was roaring open-mouthed before finally stopping suddenly.

“My dear Ashbel,” he replied, “I have paused only to offer you the chance of surrendering to We. Your sniveling letters proposing peace amused Us and have shown that you could be a useful servant. We thought We would offer you the chance to save your feeble life.”

Ashbel’s chuckled at the declaration but a tinge of irritation in his voice showed the king’s true mood. “You vastly overstate your abilities, sir. You are outmatched here and have not the surprise you’ve used in the past. Accept the inevitable or stand and fight then to your ruin.” Wheeling his horse about to return to the line he was interrupted by Ahriman.

“Inevitable? Yes indeed,” the former royal advisor called out. “Oh, I almost forgot. I have a gift for you.” Then taking a leather satchel from his saddle he handed it to the king and rode off.

Looking inside, Ashbel was sickened to see the head of his son. He didn’t say a word to the smirking man who had given him the grisly offering but with a look of fury on his face rode back to the line.

When the two parties returned to their positions neither force moved initially, almost daring the other to make the first play. Then from Ahriman’s line came five horses and riders galloping towards the Shire position.

At first the men tensed to receive an assault but once the dark line was cleared they saw that only the five were advancing. Their curiosity at this move soon turned to horror as they recognized two of them as being the envoy’s Ashbel had sent to Ahriman and the other three were some of the scouts that had been screening forward. All five had been decapitated and their bodies tied to their mounts, which by now had reached the Confederation position running wildly about. The horses were finally captured and led to the rear. All now knew the reason why no alarm had been raised.

The shrill blast of a single horn from the dark line grew as many others joined in signaling the advance. A loud shout broke from the line as the army of Mephistopheles began to advance.

Ashbel had his men prepared, ready to respond to the attack. But as the array was about to come into range of his archers they suddenly stopped instead beginning to pound on their shields and yell hideously. A fresh call from one horn sounded leading to a chorus of other horns beginning one long, continuous blast.

The men of the four Shires held their ground, remaining confident despite this strange twist of events. Then above the general din to the front the sound of beating hooves could be heard coming up the road from the rear. Ashbel and many others turned to see who who had arrived and were stunned to see a group of seventy black riders pounding down the road. Once reaching the rear of the Shire position they simultaneously broke in perfect order into two arrow-shaped formations slamming into the undefended back of the line.

The advance of the Knights of the Black Sceptre had been so rapid there had been no time to react. The devastation their attack wrought was complete. As they hit the Chrysolite position the unified horn blast stopped and the Natas line burst forward running as fast as they could, closing the distance in short order.

The men of the Shires didn’t have a chance.

The Natas hit the line like a tidal wave, no arrows flew to meet them and quickly the defensive position was overwhelmed. Men were falling under the spears and swords of the now bloodlust-filled Natas troops. The battle hung in the brink, within minutes the pride of Chrysolite and the other Shires would be completely obliterated. Something needed to be done to rally the beleaguered men on the line.

Instead of attempting to regroup his army, Ashbel, stared in shock. From his position on a small rise at the rear of the army he hadn’t been able to react since the appearance of the black riders. Then when the main body of Mephistopheles advanced he couldn’t respond either since this turn of events was more than he could handle. Rather than do anything he turned and fled the field leaving his men to their fate. With his advisors and personal escort desperately trying to catch up, he didn’t look or stop to see the slaughter of the defenseless, which even now had begun.

Ammon Ramlah was bursting at the seams, filled not only with people from Carnelian but from many other shires. The able-bodied men were being put into companies then armed and trained to fight. They knew a time was coming when all who were able must stand, not just the warrior class. Those not able to fight, the women and even the children, were given various tasks to support the defense of the realm and the comfort of the displaced. Activity became critical.

While some complained about the work, Samej knew that inactivity bred panic and so he kept everyone busy. Better to keep people active then idly thinking about what was transpiring.

Word had been received days earlier from Jashud that his territory had fallen but that he would continue the fight as best he could from the mountains. Songs already were being composed and sung of the brave and fearless act which bolstered the collective spirits of the refugees and citizens of Carnelian alike.

The other kingdoms that had decided to forgo Elder Samej’s plan of co-operation were being pummeled and beaten piecemeal, not able to stand against the whirlwind unleashed from beyond the Tartarus Mountains and the Forests of Gershon. While this was bad enough, the day previous word had come of the utter decimation of Ashbel’s army on the plains north of Tel Melah. Ahriman’s army had now crossed the River Tirzah, spreading a new fear through the people: that of encirclement.

Hai’asi rode alone into the capital, observing the hustle and bustle going on, trying to not think of what these activities meant in the big picture nor to be distracted by them either. He was unhappy about having been called off the line by High Steward Samej to return to the council chambers for a meeting. Pagiel had been left in charge and while the captain had every confidence in his friend the man still felt there was unfinished business. He hated to be away from his troops at this critical time, being beckoned instead to go to a place where discussion and debate seemed to trump action. His mood became fouler as rain began spitting down on the capital.

Nosing his war-horse through the throng in the capital he barely heard his name being called out.

“Captain Hai’asi! Captain Hai’asi!”

The soldier stopped and looking around saw young Gideon, the refugee boy from Haccalm waving frantically, pushing his way through the crowd towards him. Hai’asi, feeling something stir deep inside of him, decided he would take some time to see the eager lad. Dismounting, the captain could see that the boy had the dagger still proudly tied to his waist that he’d given him two weeks earlier. Gideon, who Hai’asi observed only now had a mop of carrot colored hair and freckles all over a clean face, ran up and spontaneously gave the strong warrior a hug. Realizing what he’d done the boy pulled back.

Hai’asi chuckled, his spirit changed as if a storm cloud broke to reveal rays of sunshine. ”It’s acceptable for guardsmen to greet each other this way,” he said, tousling the boy’s hair. “It’s good to see you Master Gideon.”

“I knew I would see you again Captain Hai’asi, I just knew it! We’ve all heard about your great victory. I heard a song sung about what you did last night. I didn’t think it was very good but mother said I don’t know of such things so I should just listen,” the boy gushed.

At the mention of the boy’s mother Hai’asi looked up noticing a smiling woman watching them from a short distance away. She bore a resemblance to the one he’d remembered. Their painful interaction at Haccalm caused him to stop.

She walked over and he noticed that she had fair skin, though possessing a healthy glow from being outdoors along with high, defined cheekbones and full lips. Big green eyes, deep like ocean pools, distracted the man out of his personal concerns. Her hair was shining red and while tied back in a simple fashion was still long and flowing. A plain blue woolen gown and dark green cloak could not cover her statuesque, well-proportioned figure. She was an altogether different picture from that presented before, humble still but elegant.

An excited Gideon took her hand. “Captain Hai’asi, let me present to you my mother Talitha, daughter of Brenak,” he introduced as gallantly as an eight year old was able.

Hai’asi bowed low. “I am honored madam to make your acquaintance, though we have met before,” he replied.

Talitha’s mouth contracted into a pained expression. “Yes, I know,” she responded. “Please allow me to apologize for the way I treated you when we met. I didn’t understand what was going on and so I reacted poorly.” She could no longer look Hai’asi in the eyes. “I truly am sorry.” Then looking at her son she said, “Gideon, I would like to speak with the captain alone. Would you give me a moment please?”

The boy didn’t seem happy with the request so Hai’asi asked him to tend to his horse. Gideon readily did this, allowing his mother to speak more freely.

“Captain Hai’asi…”

“Please, just call me Hai’asi.”

“Hai’asi, I meant what I said when I apologized. I judged you unfairly and I feel terrible for it. You gave hope to my boy, bringing him out of the despair he felt. I cannot…” Her voice broke and her eyes began to mist over. It took her a moment to compose herself before she could continue. ”I can’t tell you how badly I feel.” Looking down her voice dropped. “It’s been hard. Ever since his father…my husband…left. Then our village was attacked…my father,” she paused, words became difficult, “was killed and we were forced to fly from our home. Nothing’s been right. I’ve…I’ve acted badly towards you. I hope you can accept my apology though I don’t deserve it.”

The painful concession of this both proud and beautiful woman touched Hai’asi deeply. “No madam, it’s I who should be apologizing to you,” he said, shaking his head. “I acted rashly that day and should have looked for your permission before offering such a gift. I didn’t think, for that I’m sorry as well.”

She laughed, light and airy, rubbing the tears from her eyes with a delicate hand. “We’re a fine pair, aren’t we, captain? Each attempting to out apologize the other.”

They both laughed at this. For a moment the cares of the world were gone and the urgency of the moment forgotten. Then Talitha noticed the wound on Hai’asi’s arm. Reaching out instinctively she touched the bandage but then becoming aware of what she was doing pulled back.

“Sir, you’re hurt!” she cried out.

“It’s nothing. It happened at the battle two weeks ago and will soon be healed.” Then looking with deep concern at Talitha he said shyly, “You have been wounded, I think, far deeper than I and in a much more terrible way.” Hai’asi paused, not sure if he should continue speaking, but instead blurted out, “I fear for your recovery from that.”

This time she put her hand on his good arm, not removing it. “All wounds heal eventually whether of the body or…the heart,” she replied looking up and into his eyes.

Again the two were lost in each other, oblivious to the world around, each providing a balm for the hurts they had experienced. But like the first whiff of a fragrant spring day it faded when Gideon bounded over, oblivious to what had just happened.

“Your horse is magnificent captain,” he enthused, “What’s his name?”

Hai’asi grinned not just at the boy but because of the new warmth in his heart. “His name is Scobeo Deo which means ‘fearless charger’ in the tongue of old.” Patting the horse on the nose he added, “and it’s a fitting name for my faithful companion.” Then his smile turned to a grim look. “I’m sorry but must leave,” he told them, grabbing the bridle of Scobeo Deo. “I’ve been called from the front to the castle on urgent business.”

After swinging up into the saddle he reached down and patted Gideon on the head. Preparing to ride off the again melancholy warrior took a lingering look at Talitha.

She returned the gaze. “We’re staying in the town with my cousin Holdar,” she informed him. “Your presence would always be welcome.” Then she asked hesitantly, “You won’t be a stranger to us, will you?”

“No indeed captain,” Gideon agreed, “you must come to see us when you can.”

“That would be very dear to me,” Hai’asi said with sadness in his voice, “but for the time being I am not master of my own fate. Though if it’s in my power, we’ll see each other again.”

With that the once more solitary figure, who had experienced a moment of warmth, rode off with a slight shiver towards the castle, towering over them like an approaching shadow squelching the sunlight.

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