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

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Chapter 17: To the North

Stars shone high in the night sky over Ammon Ramlah. The crisp night air stung the face as dawn’s first light had not yet brought the warmth of dawn. The castle stood silently in the night, save for her sentinels watching vigilantly in all directions. The town of Ammon Ramlah still slept, waiting for the sun to rise above the horizon signaling a new day. Both places dreamt of happier times before the troubles came.

Sixteen riders slid from the castle onto the eastern road to Chrysomas. No train followed them. Instead all carried whatever they might need. With packs upon their backs, saddlebags and bedrolls on their horses they looked like travelers leaving on a long pilgrimage to some sacred spot. Few noticed the group, fewer still cared save two.

Queen Refinnej and Elder Samej stood looking over the battlements on the eastern tower of the castle watching the small, frail looking group slip into the inky darkness. Not a sound could be heard except for the soft weeping of a mother parted from her only child. Samej, too, became deeply moved by the scene and the desperate mission he’d sent them on. His only movement though was to slip a fatherly arm around the woman’s shoulder to give her comfort. Refinnej laid her head upon the man’s chest, crying openly and without shame. The thought of what lay ahead became more then she could bear. Increasingly she was finding the role of queen harder and harder.

With the scouts in the lead and guardsmen in front and back, once the group cleared the town they began to ride hard. While still dark, they were in Carnelian land familiar to all. They also knew the faster the uncontested part of their trip could be completed the quicker the travelers would get to their ultimate destination. All knew that at some point, any point in fact, they would be forced to cross Mephistopheles’ line. Scarce little information of use had been secured as to the exact positioning of the black army so vigilance even now would need to be kept.

In order to ensure secrecy, as well as avoid unnecessary confrontation, the plan was to take a circuitous route and hopefully be unimpeded in their journey. They would stay on the Eastern Road until just before Chrysomas then cross the Halcyon River on one of the numerous ferries that worked back and forth. Next, the party would then move north past Temon towards Tel Quesel not on the main road but rather on some of the many back trails which existed. From there, they would turn north again through the mountains to the Bay of Tirzah where they would find a boat to take them across, then follow the old sea road to Mahl Jaktan, the capital of the Northern Alliance. In all the journey should take them between eight to ten days depending on conditions and seemed in theory quite simple. No one believed it would be.

The advance guard of Natas came into view so the hidden soldiers prepared to spring their trap. But the two-dozen in the lead were followed by well over two hundred and they were heavily armed. Jashud raised his hand to wave his men off. The band under his command efficiently melted back into the shadows and watched.

The remnant of Jashud’s army had been moving about all parts of S’Apphire raiding and attacking at will. They had even entered into the capital of Kir Garasa once. Success thus far was due to the fact their leader had an almost instinctive sense of when to strike and when not to. He now had patience, not rashly rushing into things. So on this day they silently watched the column heading towards the Tartarus Mountains on the road west of their capital.

The Natas they watched were wholly uninteresting and the men simply waited for them to pass.

Jashud’s thoughts were on his next move. Gazing absently at the swiftly moving body something caught his eye. He noticed three figures dressed in the Natas fashion that moved like men. Closer examination revealed they were bound and tied. Jashud noticed they were all being led by a leather rope and prodded from behind at spear point. His body tensed as they came into view. He recognized them as Beriah, Naeman and Shupham, kings of the Shires. The splendor and majesty of the three no longer remained, instead even at this distance it was obvious they’d suffered. Desperately Jashud wanted to sweep down attempting to rescue them but he knew that would be foolishness. Not only would they end up dead in the end so would his men against such numbers.

Gritting his teeth and saying a quiet prayer for the kings Jashud watched them pass over the horizon, not thinking of the horror that lay ahead beyond the mountains.

The road was quiet within Carnelian. Few travelers impeded the delegation to the north so they made good progress. At the border the party came across a strong defensive position of royal guardsmen. The soldiers had erected a stout log palisade from the edge of the river across the Eastern Road to Chrysomas running beyond to the horizon. Even now men were on the outside digging a trench to the front strengthening the works. A double gate two logs thick covered the road. While it currently stood open a pair of men on either side stood ready to react and close it at a moment’s notice. Manned watchtowers built at regular intervals along the wall kept further vigil. At the river the travelers noticed the wall extended a distance as well to cover them along the flank. On the south side of the road a large tent camp rested in good order housing the great number of troops protecting this key position. Cooking fires dotted the camp showing the place to be a hive of activity already as the day dawned.

Zeriah pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, keeping it low. The officer hoped that as they rode past the soldiers on the gate none would recognize him. The others in his detachment did the same thing. To disguise their appearance none wore the distinctive helms and cloaks of the Carnelian Royal Guard. Instead, not only were their heads uncovered but they all wore different, homespun garments. Underneath, though, they all wore hauberks of chain mail coming down to their waists and past the elbow.

The day had dawned cool and overcast hours earlier with a biting chill in the air. Princess Rebekah dressed like the soldiers to not only give protection from the elements but also to hide her identity. She wore a woolen hat pulled low and a thick scarf wrapped around her face which did the trick.

To further mask their indentity, none carried lance, spear or shield, which again would have given them away as an armed party. Instead the soldiers carried swords of varying length save Hai’asi who had his trusty double-headed axe. Mitt Cela carried a Yew bow on his back and two of the Guardsmen had bows as well. Princess Rebekah bore a jeweled dagger for personal protection rounding out the party.

They passed the post without incident or recognition. In fact the men on the gate barely noticed their departure. The sentinel’s minds appeared occupied with other things so their gazes were fixed to the east beyond the wall.

The small party eased their pace since going forward they didn’t know what might be before them. Tension began to rise for the men. A few of the group readjusted their sword sheaths to make the weapon more readily accessible.

At the first bridge over the River Halcyon in Chrysolite, with the day drawing to a close, they stopped for the night at an inn set up for travelers. Zeriah found out from others already there that the Natas had entered into Tel Melah, only a quarter day’s ride from where they were. Mitt Cela and two of the guardsmen crossed the river to find out the situation for themselves. Determining there was no enemy activity in their immediate vicinity it seemed safe to stay the night. All would sleep, though, with swords in hand and half, save Princess Rebekah, would be awake at any given time.

Able to secure lodging for the evening each looked after the feeding and grooming of their horses. Finally, they could enjoy the opportunity to eat. After a long day on the road each looked forward to the meal. While rations filled their bags a fresh supper was favored over the dried foods they’d brought. Besides, it would extend the supply.

They found the fare available at the inn simple, but hot and plentiful. Meat stew, cheese and fresh bread were eaten out of trenchers. Mugs of robust ale in large tankards would wash it down. Now with food and drink, the group sat down in one of the corners of the dining area.

The large, airy public room had an open-hearth fireplace against the center of the east wall. Stout wooden tables with benches on two sides were placed randomly throughout the room for the use of traveler and lodger alike. Four iron, candle-filled chandeliers hung from the ceiling by chains to provide illumination. Three windows provided additional light during the day.

With the room nearly filled none paid attention to the party from Carnelian who sat at two tables. Instead most quietly spoke among themselves being less curious and more engaged in their own conversations. Snatches of discussion about the Natas and Tel Melah could be heard. Most, it appeared, were heading to Carnelian rather than the Chrysolite capital of Chrysomas.

Finally able to settle in, the armed escort sat at one table while Zeriah and the others took up the second. Little conversation happened between the travelers since each was tired from the early start so each ate quietly.

Dusk was only just giving way to night when Umim and Thummim went back for their fourth mugs of ale. Reserved throughout the day, the pair seemed to be getting more talkative and boisterous. Only one year apart in age, they looked as if they could be twins. Each had brown eyes, matching their deeply weather-browned skin now the color of mahogany. They were dressed in practical, earth-toned clothing and thick boots. Their faces were stretched leathery tight from many sunburned days in the saddle, framed by long and unkempt hair. It would have been difficult to tell them apart from a distance save the fact that Umim, the eldest, stood two inches taller.

After reseating himself Thummim took a long drink from the pewter tankard. Wiping foam from his mouth with a sleeve, he looked over at Belac. The scout noticed the squire carried a hand-and-a-half sword. “You there, scribe! Why would someone who spends his whole day pale before books and parchments need to carry a man’s sword?” he demanded with a lop-sided grin on his plain face. “Can you even draw it or do you wear it to balance the weight of your books in the saddle so as to not fall off?”

The muscles tensed in Belac’s neck and his blue eyes flared as the scout laughed heartily at the squire’s discomfort. Though his heart pounded he said nothing to the now smirking man. Belac initially had been excited to be included in the party but now felt awkward around the vigorous warriors and outdoorsmen. The presence of the princess also left him unbalanced and unsure. In a different circumstance he would have challenged this oaf but now he sat paralyzed, berating himself for saying nothing.

“Leave him be you. He’s done nothing to attract your attention,” Mitt Cela demanded from the other end of the table as if sensing Belac’s discomfort.

“Ah, the great Mitt Cela speaks high and mighty,” Thummim continued with condescension, turning to face him. “You are no more than we. I know you Mitt Cela. You’re a simple bounty hunter paid for your services. Though the value of them is questionable.”

Conversation had stopped at both tables as Thummim laughed derisively. Each could sense the rising tension caused by the scout’s mocking.

“How were you able to elevate yourself to one so grand?” the scout continued, not catching the look from his brother. “Escort to the High Steward? Impressive. These are remarkable days when those of low breeding and character can advance so high.”

Mitt Cela didn’t say a word, instead looking hard at the man. Thummim tried to look back but couldn’t match the stare. Taking another long drink of ale he turned away, backing down from the silent challenge.

It was then that the scout discovered the princess, giving her a long leering look. Rising to his feet he gave an awkward, sweeping bow. “Milady, while there are some on this journey whose presence is a burden yours is one that I find very desirable,” he said loudly, spilling ale on the floor and staggering slightly. “I look forward to making your acquaintance princess in a more tangible way over the course of our travels together.”

Rebekah recoiled in revulsion as the man gave her a wink and licked his cracked lips. Belac could not contain himself. About to speak, instead Zeriah stood first.

“That’ll never happen, scum,” the soldier declared, voice quiet but tone firm. “Turn your eyes away. You’re not worthy to so much at look at her,” he stated with deadly seriousness. “Don’t even come into her presence unless it’s to bow in fealty. You’re here to show us a path. No more.”

Unfazed, Thummim placed his hands on his chest in mock pain. “Not worthy, me? Then what is there for me? Ah yes, to show you a path. Is it not curious that your fate is in the hands of one deemed so unworthy? Memories fade and the mind uninspired may be tricked to a wrong course unless properly motivated,” he stated with a wicked grin on his face.

Mitt Cela sprang to his feet. Hand going for the dagger on his belt, anger flashed like lightening on his face. “Villain! You would betray us for mere copper coins I declare. You’ll show us the way or I’ll motivate you by the point of sword.”

Friction electrified the air. A few of the other patrons in the inn began to take notice of what was going on in the corner. Some took note with particular interest it seemed.

Umim put the knife he was eating with down on his trencher, finished chewing what he’d been eatting then stood up. Placing a vice-like grip on his brother’s arm he cuffed him on the ear. “That’s enough out of you Thummim. You’ve had your fun, now off to bed.”

The younger of the two grumbled but didn’t challenge his elder. As the pair walked towards the stairs Umim stopped. “Don’t mind my brother. He has a thick head sometimes but a stout heart. Don’t misjudge us either,” he added. “We can both be counted on when things get thick.” With that he walked away and up the stairs to their room.

The remainder felt the release of tension from the encounter. The void left was filled with the realization of how tired they were from the early start and long journey. They knew, as well, there would be much more to come. Without saying a word the group collectively decided to retire and get what rest they could.

So ended the first day. Most sensed this was going to be a longer trip in many ways then they had first thought.

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