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

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Chapter 16: A New Direction

Chapter 16: A New Direction

Night fell over the capital of Carnelian hanging like a heavy cloak yet giving little peace and no security. For those gathered at the Royal Chamber of the castle representing the remnant of the Confederation there was little talk as a sense of foreboding hung thick in the air. All gathered could count and knew what they were up against. It was not only the sheer number of the invaders that seemed to stymie their planning, but also the unstoppable Knights of the Black Sceptre. With no way to counter them discovered any strategizing seemed a matter of futility. They couldn’t win a war of attrition and negation had been shown to be no option. It only seemed a matter of time before the entire land was overrun and man either subjugated or destroyed. Some thought of leaving, but to where? They had no options.

On the bright side, a number of the Shires had come back to the Confederation due to the enveloping threat. Jacinth, now entirely overrun, had no other choice but to return. Shemida of Chrysoprase knew he was next so rather than bottle himself up in the fortress of Padda Aram had decided that to stand alone was folly. Finally, Hamul of To’Paz, always a friend of Carnelian, had regretted his action at leaving weeks earlier when Elder Samej had suggested the necessity of a collective strategy. His elegant, heartfelt apology to Queen Refinnej and the High Steward had set a new tone. He now knew the wisdom of that counsel. In fact all in the room had come to realize it.

Regretfully, hindsight carried no advantage. It now appeared all would suffer for this lapse of judgment since the troops they had at their disposal was only a fraction of what they’d had when the threat first arose. That lament, though, was thankfully left for the taverns and fires where armchair generals ponder ‘what if’ scenarios. In the Royal Council Chambers no such luxury existed but rather the task of dealing with the reality of what they did have.

Hai’asi and Mitt Cela sat in one of the alcoves off from the main hall discussing what had taken place the last two weeks, enjoying the brief relief from action. Both were grateful they followed orders and didn’t have the pressure of the final decision resting on their shoulders. The captain of Amethyst was thankful not only for the break from action but also now eagerly anticipated his planned visit to see Talitha and Gideon that evening after the meeting.

His bright expression turned dark when King Arod entered the hall flanked by Bebai the Advisor and Sasman the Envoy. With a mood now soured, he reflected on the lack of genuine leadership in Amethyst. It bothered the powerful man that what he saw was a de facto ruling triumvirate rather than a kingdom. Arod seemed to have difficulty even choosing where to sit so the ever-present Bebai, like a dark shadow, steered him in that decision as well. For the first time in his life Hai’asi was starting to know what shame felt like.

Queen Refinnej, along with Princess Rebekah, sat quietly on their respective thrones. The pair absently gazed at the various depictions of the history of Carnelian and the Shires hanging on various long, colorful tapestries in the hall. The looks of sadness on their faces reflected the fact that they were each silently pondering what it would be like to lose it all.

The Squire’s Bench, usually a hive of activity, was strangely empty since all of the members of the guild had been summoned early in the morning by Elder Samej. The group had been cloistered ever since. The Advisor’s Gallery had only a few members in it and they all sat sullenly. It was a pale reflection of what had once been a hotbed of vitality.

Everyone in the room seemed to give an involuntary start at the loud echo of the chamber’s thick doors. A number of men instinctively reached for their swords as if expecting Ahriman and the Natas to be the ones coming into the hall rather than Samej and the squires.

Walking to the center of the room the High Steward gave the collected gathering a dry, but amused, look as if he could read their minds. While the squires took their place he looked from one side of the room to the other. It seemed as though he were gauging the spirit of the collective leadership of the lands as it stood.

An uncomfortably long silence filled the room before Samej spoke. “All of us here know the reality of the situation we face and many of those outside these doors do as well,” he began in a matter of fact tone. “So while there may be little profit in recounting the obvious, I do believe it is appropriate to state in this room what precisely that is so we all understand each other and the course we must take.“

Samej knew he had everyone’s attention and each of these supposedly powerful leaders now looked to him for guidance. He thought again how ironic that was. “We have no opportunity to raise fresh armies,” he continued. “The ones that we have are hard pressed and being pushed back in fits and starts. In addition we have lost the strategic and tactical areas to the south. While we control the crossings of the Halcyon in Carnelian, there are enough others that we do not hold that we can be flanked and entirely encircled. We do not have the manpower to counter, and barely enough to check what is happening and will continue to happen unless we gaze beyond the obvious.”

A look from Machir of Jacinth compelled Samej to articulate what he meant by this. “If there is any hope for survival we must look beyond our own boundaries for assistance. We must look to a new alliance in order to survive and throw off the darkness consuming us.”

“What do you mean a new alliance?” an exasperated King Shemida said. “All that’s left of the Shires is here. The others are being consumed and likely have precious few fighting men left. What point would there be to reorganizing that which we don’t even control? As for my kingdom and the others here the reality is the only lands really in our control are in Carnelian. It would be an alliance of nothing.”

“You are thinking only of that which is within your knowledge King Shemida,” Samej countered, shaking his head. “I will say, though, you are quite correct in stating the Confederation is in name only, a pale shadow of its former glory. No, I am speaking of an alliance with those outside our collective experience.”

“Pray what are you speaking of then?”

“I am speaking, sir, of those who live and thrive in the north beyond our borders.”
“You don’t mean…”

“Yes I do,” Samej cut off the King of Chrysoprase, “I propose that we seek the aid and assistance of the Northern Alliance.”

“Mahlites? Are you mad?” Machir spat out. “Even if they would be of any use, they likely would betray us to Ahriman.” Exasperated he threw his hands in the air. “That’s the best you can come up with? This is insanity.”

“The recorded history tells of a time when the Mahlites were enslaved by Mephistopheles and under his oppressive yoke,” Samej patiently answered. “It was man who broke the chains, freeing these creatures. While they may have no kinship with us, they have no love for our enemy. The Northern Alliance may be convinced to fight with us if reminded of what happened in their past and surely will happen again if we fall.”

The fight was out of the group. Though their faces showed a distaste for the proposal their body language displayed the reality of their desperation.

The High Steward faced the silent, skeptical leaders and summed up. “They have strength, they have numbers, they have courage and they have weapons. We need them. If we do not receive substantial armed aid then we fall within weeks. It’s as simple as that.”

“But how do you know that they would even heed our pleas?” Shemida, beginning to understand asked. “How will envoys be able to convince them?”

“I do not know that they will see the importance of action. They may in fact continue their isolationism and be shortsighted, but we must try,” Samej responded matter of factly. Then with a look of great seriousness he honed in on what must be done. “This is no mere task for a rider. That will not convince them. No, a delegation from this body must travel to their capital, seek audience with their rulers and then present this.”

Waving towards the Squire’s Bench one of the scribes brought forward a leather-bound book, placing it into the Elder’s hand. Seeing he had everyone’s attention, he held the book aloft. “In this book, painstakingly researched and translated into the Mahl tongue by the squires is a synopsis of the history of their land along with man’s service to its people. The record then concludes with what we face, what will inevitably happen to them and finally our plea for their assistance.”

Mouths opened in surprise at the document. None in the room even knew the story of what had happened in the past. They’d all been too busy, engrossed in the empty materialism of the present.

Again Samej fixed those in the room with a hard look. “I expect everyone here to sign their endorsement on it,” he said pointedly.

“I’m sure it is a fine document and very compelling but you want a group to travel there?” Hamul asked incredulously. “That’s crazy! What with our enemy holding all those lands? The Natas and those black riders are running rampant between Carnelian and the north. You’d need an army greater than we can muster to reach their ruling seat of Mahl Jaktan,” he blustered, getting himself worked up. “It would get bogged down trying to fight through and likely never even reach them. Come now, there must be some other way than this madness.”

“Yes, it is dangerous, but yes, it must be done. A small party, moving swiftly and in secret, could slip undetected past Mephistopheles’ followers,” the High Steward rebutted. “There is no other option,” he stated with conviction. “That is why I will go.”

“To certain death?” Shemida interjected. “You cannot. You’re our leader and are needed here. The people would see it as you abandoning us.”

Samej was torn. He didn’t want to send someone else on such a dangerous mission, but he also knew the truth of Shemida’s statement. The rub was that whoever would go must be one who could speak with authority. While someone of royalty was ideal, who could articulate the plea from a position of leadership? He knew the collected leaders of the lands that were present would not be willing to go and in truth, he didn’t want them to since he saw them as unfit for what was required.

“Then who?” the High Steward asked, thinking he was asking rhetorically.

“I will go,” a delicate voice responded.

Queen Refinnej went ghostly white as Princess Rebekah stood up and walked beside Elder Samej reinforcing her words. The queen desperately wanted to scream out her disapproval but what other option was there? The men in the room were already shrinking away at the thought of the mission. None other could speak with authority on their behalf. It must be her daughter.

Simeon sprang up to protest from his usual place behind the royal dias. Fighting off tears, the queen raised her hand to quiet the chamberlain. Refinnej then silently rose to her feet and nodded ascent. Samej breathed a barely audible sigh of relief and Rebekah smiled brilliantly.

Captain Eldad immediately stepped from where the guardsmen were congregating. “I will go with her and ensure she is well Your Majesty,” he declared.

“Your pledge is honorably done,” the High Steward responded, “but you will stay here. Your skills are required to command the Royal Guard and what is left of our northern armies.”

“But who then will look to the safety of the princess?” the captain asked bluntly, torn in the calls of duty.

Samej went over to Hai’asi and Mitt Cela. He looked at the bounty hunter. “You are to go.”

“But Elder Samej, my place is with you,” Mitt Cela replied with passion in his voice.

Shaking his head he contradicted the upset man. “No, your skills will be needed on this journey more than an old man will need your company.” As Mitt Cela looked down in dejection Samej added, “No matter how appreciated it is. The group must be small so your sword and your bow will be required.”

Hai’asi looked with sympathy at his friend, seeing he was being pulled in two directions. His mood soon turned to stunned disbelief when the elder spoke to him.

“You also will be going to the north with this party Captain Hai’asi.”

“What? But what about my men?” the shocked warrior countered. “I can’t leave them.”

“Tiglath will take command in the south,” Samej answered, anticipating the reaction. “His spirit is restored and with Pagiel as his lieutenant he will be fine.”

Hai’asi couldn’t understand the motivation of something that seemed so illogical. This was especially the case after his successful defense of the south. “Why me? I’m needed here,” he asked in confusion.

“Faithful Hai’asi, this is like a game of chess. We must think ahead. Let us look to our hope for victory, not to the status quo. Your service and leadership so amply displayed of late is precisely the reason why you must go.”

“But…”

Samej cut off the even more confused warrior to explain. “The people of the Northern Alliance are fierce and proud but lack the unity necessary for large scale war. While excellent fighters, their chieftains do not possess the needed tactical skills. They will require a strong commander in order to become organized into a powerful whole who can then bring the army down from the mountains and finally lead them against Mephistopheles. You are the man to do this if you will but believe in yourself and release that which you carry within.”

The captain of Amethyst’s face turned to a mask of uncertainty. The enormity of the statement intimidated the proud fighter.

The High Steward gazed sympathetically at the man, who while powerfully built, carried such uncertainty within. “As for me, I have tremendous faith in you. I know you are the right man,” he said with conviction.

Hai’asi hung his head but remained silent, doubt about his abilities filling it.

Elder Samej left the man to ponder his thoughts. He walked over to the Scribe’s Bench, looking intently at the group. “The party will require the services of one of your learned young men, Master Hattush,” he declared. “There will be need to interpret as well as record what happens on the journey. While our backs may be pressed against the wall that does not mean we do not leave ourselves open to learning something. Even in the grimmest circumstance deliverance may come from the strangest direction.”

The scholarly head of the guild nodded his head in agreement.

Samej looked probingly at the collected group. All, save one, were focused intently on their writing tablets not wanting to draw attention to themselves.

Squire Belac stared intently at the High Steward. Heart pounding and hands clammy with nervousness, he desperately wanted to be chosen. The youth knew though that in the order of precedence he was the lowest amongst the gathered group and Hattush, Master of the Squires, would not pick him.

Rather than defer to the head of the order as all expected, Samej instead made the choice. “Squire Belac,” he announced, “you shall accompany the party to the north.”

Belac leapt to his feet in joy but just as quickly, Tencev, senior amongst the squires rose to challenge the decision before Hattush could speak.

“With respect my lord,” Tencev said with false deference, “Belac is the youngest and least experienced of our order, barely out of his apprenticeship. He cannot go.”

“Then will you go in his place?” Samej challenged.

The pale academic recoiled at the statement as if bit by a snake.

The high steward looked hard at all the young men sitting at the Squire’s Bench. “Or you? …Or you?” he queried the group, who to a man cowered before the opportunity.

As the group looked to their leader to intervene, surprisingly, Master Hattush nodded his head in ascent.

Seeing no other dissent and with Belac grinning from ear to ear the high steward ended discussion on the matter. “It appears as if this day the least shall be first. Squire Belac goes, unless there is any further argument.”

Captain Eldad, still unhappy with not being allowed to go, regardless did the best he could to ensure his part in the equation was done right. The soldier handpicked ten of his most trusted guardsmen, placing them in the charge of Zeriah, one of his senior lieutenants.

Completing the party would be, Samej announced, Umim and Thummim, two brothers who were to act as scouts. Former bounty hunters, they had been in the employment of Carnelian for less than a year.

Mitt Cela immediately moved to speak quietly to Elder Samej about the decision. “Why these two?” he asked with obvious concern, “I know them, they’re still nothing more than bounty hunters at heart. Neither of them care about anything but being paid. They’re not faithful and definately not up to a task this important.”

“Do not fret Mitt Cela. Would you judge them as you have been judged?” Samej responded in a gentle, paternal way. The tall, lean man winced at the statement. “No, desperate times lead to desperate measures. I trust them. Besides, they know the eastern shires intimately. That information will be needed to reach the north for it is a long and dangerous journey you are going on.”

Mitt Cela couldn’t argue that point. Still, he silently vowed to keep an eye on the two for any signs of treachery.

The entire party was then assembled quickly and all stood in the Great Hall. Each had a unique role in the overall undertaking. Princess Rebekah would speak, Mitt Cela and Hai’asi would lead, Squire Belac would interpret and record, Zeriah and the guardsmen would protect and finally Umim and Thummim would guide. Though a small group, it was deemed one sufficient for this vital mission.

As Elder Samej gave final instructions for the journey, he reinforced one critical element. “Secrecy is critically important. You must not reveal who you are and what your mission is. Mephistopheles will be watching and waiting for our response but he will not expect this one. His spies will be everywhere, even here in the capital I expect, so be alert.”

That statement had several reflexively look over their shoulders. None doubted the risk at hand.

“He will expect our prejudices to get in the way of our seeking aid. We must use this to our advantage!” Samej encouraged them. “But if you are discovered he will channel all his energy into stopping you. Therefore you depart before first light and cannot leave this castle tonight. No one must know where you are going or when you will come back. Do you all understand this?”

As the others nodded their heads in agreement no one noticed the look of pain on Hai’asi’s face as he nodded along with them. The captain of Amethyst sorely felt the loss of the much-desired invitation he now wouldn’t be able to accept. He also worried about how his unexplained absence would be interpreted by those who had extended it. The warrior tried to keep his emotions in check but an uncontrollable sigh of despair escaped him. Face reddening in embarrassment, Hai’asi hoped none would ask him about it.

His concern was unwarranted, no one noticed. Each were already deep into their own thoughts.

With no further argument able to brook the course, no more counsel to give and the princess determined, it was set that the party would leave Ammon Ramlah before the new day dawned. The only thing left was for those going to steel themselves for the journey ahead. With first light coming before most wanted it, the group spent their remaining few hours preparing not only physically but spiritually for the critical task to come.

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