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

By Criosd_Pherein All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 18: A Change of Plans

Chapter 18: A Change Of Plans

The party rose early the next morning to continue their journey. Nothing was said about the evening before though Thummim seemed unconcerned about the way he’d acted. After a hearty breakfast they continued on.

Approaching the second bridge in Chrysolite over the Halcyon River Mitt Cela and five of the guardsmen rode ahead to assess the situation. Though refugees fleeing from the other side choked the bridge no sign thus far of their enemy could be seen. Two of the men went to bring up the rest of the party while the remainder kept an eye on the horizon.

Their plan for this critical juncture of the journey was to ride fast and cross the river swiftly. If good fortune favored them they might be able to bypass the forces of Mephistopheles, not having to cross his line.

The day turned out unseasonably warm and dry as the plan began to unfold. The roads were clear giving hope their goal could be attained.

They traveled as quickly and as far as possible based on the circumstances for the remainder of their second day on the road. Skies turning the color of copper signaled the close of the day. With dusk falling, the decision was made to bivouac in a grove of evergreen trees near the road. With no inn nearby they had little choice. Even if they could Mitt Cela and Zeriah would not have stayed in one. At this point they didn’t want to be hemmed in. A strong guard would be placed throughout the night and the travelers would be able to flee in several directions if the enemy chanced to come.

A stand of poplar trees within the woods provided a suitable spot to tie their horses so most of those who were not keeping watch took the time to groom their mounts.

Rebekah lovingly brushed the golden mane of her sleek brown horse, whispering into its ear with each stroke.

Mitt Cela watched the scene admiringly then sauntered over to speak to the petite young princess. “That’s a fine looking horse Your Highness. I can see he’s strong and no mere prancing pony either, likely pretty swift of hoof too. What’s his name?”

“HER name, sir, is Treasure and in your assessment you are correct,” Rebekah replied, smiling proudly at the compliment. “Though only three spring seasons old, she is the finest horse in the land.”

As if understanding what her master was saying Treasure nuzzled into Rebekah who in turn began rubbing the horse’s white snout. She smiled and Mitt Cela chuckled with delight at the scene. He felt the release of his burden back in Carnelian being replaced with one for this young lady who was so full of life.

I’ll see her through to the end no matter what, he thought to himself.

A small fire provided warmth against the encroaching chill of night so those who were not on guard sat around it eating from the rations of dried meat, oatcakes and cheese they’d brought.

While Umim and Thummim sat off by themselves, Mitt Cela, Hai’asi and Zeriah discussed their plans for crossing the river the next day. None wanted to enter into Chrysomas since each felt there to be too much risk of discovery. Both Zeriah and Mitt Cela knew though that before the capital there were many small docks where fishermen and others kept boats who would be able to ferry them over. The hope was that if the party could make good time they could cross the river ahead nightfall and be well into Sardonyx before being compelled to stop again to rest.

This was not to be.

The next morning, though the skies were again clear, save for some wispy puffs of white cloud, they found the road now packed with refugees heading towards the capital. Progress slowed to a snail’s pace. The crush of humanity forced the group to move at barely a walk.

After enduring this until past midday, Zeriah became visibly impatient. The soldier wanted to push his way through since they had the advantage of numbers and weight. Others had done so throughout the day almost setting a precedent. Each time Zeriah suggested it Princess Rebekah absolutely forbid him doing so. He muttered to himself about how they were losing time and that hard times made for hard decisions.

It wasn’t a weak stomach that kept Rebekah from allowing Zeriah to do what seemed very practical. She knew the officer was thinking that. Rather, the princess felt pity for these displaced people fleeing their homes and leaving everything behind. Could she add injury to insult by pushing these once proud people aside? She couldn’t. So Rebekah allowed their journey to be impeded.

The princess saw again the same desperate fear she’d witnessed in Haccalm. There the reality of what the shires faced became painfully real to her. Though scared on this journey, and part of her desperately wished to be back in the comfortable safety of the castle, she also knew that in reality there was no long-term safety in that. She followed a noble one and one that must be taken all the way. Rebekah would not allow it be sullied by such short-term thinking. Drawing strength observing these refugees the purpose for putting herself in harm’s way became solid as granite. No, these poor unfortunates would not be pushed aside like refuse, abused by the very people trying to save them.

Crawling along for the remainder of the day they weren’t able to find a boat to take them across the river. In truth the travelers were still some distance from the main concentration of docks so it would have been sheer luck if anything had been discovered. Unfortunately, it seemed as if luck had abandoned them.

The sun dropped below the horizon, dusk rapidly falling upon the road. With darkness beginning to envelope everything in its path a hasty council was held to determine their course of action.

“Well there’s nothing we can do now,” Zeriah snorted, “we’ll never make a crossing tonight.”

“Then let’s find an advantageous spot to make camp,” Mitt Cela agreed trying to sound calm. “I don’t think we can go any further.” Though equally concerned with the slow progress, he tried not to show it.

Hai’asi watched silently. The warrior had a stone out, sharpening his axe, running it up and down the two already razor-sharp blades. It was as if he knew something was coming up.

“Half a day! We’ve lost half a day to this lot,” the lieutenant of the guard exploded in frustration gesturing to the people on the road.

They too felt the approaching night so for the most part were beginning to take to the sides of the road forming makeshift camps. A few were attempting to press on but most knew the distance to safety to be too great.

Mitt Cela looked about spotting an suitable position for them to set up in. “Well, let’s not look to what’s been, but what is,” he replied evenly. “There’s little we can do in the present circumstance.” Gauging his words, the man spoke something he never thought would pass his lips again. “Let’s draw closer together in this situation rather than allow it to tear us apart.”

Zeriah seemed caught off guard by the words of the bounty hunter. The burly soldier seemed to calm down.

Mitt Cela pointed to the spot he’d picked. “Over there. That’ll work for us for the night.”

Zeriah agreed but before he rode off to gather his troops he looked back to Princess Rebekah, who observed the scene and heard the complete exchange. He gave her a bowing nod of the head and finally smiled at her.

The soldier would give his life to protect this young woman. His frustration came from a feeling she was making his pledge more difficult.

For the remainder of the night the encampment stayed quiet. Princess Rebekah sat silently be herself, lost in her thoughts. Most of the men rested when given the opportunity preserving their strength for what was to come. Taking advantage of the situation, Belac wrote in his journal by the fire. Up until this point there hadn’t been much to report but since his main role was chronicling their journey the excitement of the opportunity caused him to write in great detail. So went the evening until the camp fell to sleep.

Stars blinked in the clear night sky and the air grew sharp. Fireflies flickered playfully in the dark. Noise carried easily, so the sound of a baby’s cry, the curse of one stumbling in the dark and the argument of a couple feeling the pressures of their current state, kept the sentinels on duty company throughout their watch.

The following morning the group again rose early so to be ready to go by first light. Initially they made good time since others lingered in their blankets and makeshift tents along the road. By mid-morning though the road filled once again.

The party neared Chrysomas so the road followed closer to the river. Down a gentle slope of green grazing fields the water of the River Halcyon formed a natural divide. Four furlongs across at this point, the dark blue color of the river revealed the great depth of this body. The Halcyon was capable of sustaining even the draught of ocean-going ships all the way to Padda Aram. On the other side Sardonyx and the neatly arranged farms with stone fences separating them which characterized their shire sat.

Small docks used to transport mainly farming items back and forth became visible to the travelers. Many families in the area had members living on either side so kept boats to interact. This was an area where people had lived and prospered for generations, intermixing with each other, never having been touched by war or strife. Some larger commercial docks came into view as well. They were used in happier times to transport man and beast across saving them the long journey to the bridges. This day the docks were strangely silent, with no boats in sight.

With the sun high in the sky the company moved at a snail’s pace. On another day the leisurely pace would have been enjoyable but now it caused tensions to rise again as the party sought a source of transport across the river. They fervently wished to be heading north rather than continuing west. It seemed almost like they were being funneled in a direction not of their choosing rather than being masters of their course.

From a distance behind the party’s position came a loud din of confusion and fright. The entire group turned to see the source of the ruckus. In the crush of humanity to their rear the travelers could see people flying from the road while others were being bowled over like pins. Some group seemed to be aggressively forcing its way through the crowd causing considerable panic. Coming into view they were stunned to see dark riders approaching. Worst of all the minions of Mephistopheles were heading straight towards them.

“Black Knights,” Mitt Cela yelled drawing his sword.

The enemy had found them.

Though taken off guard by this turn of events the bounty hunter’s quick mind began to work out a solution. Swiftly scanning the area he spied a path down to a series of huts and docks below them. “Off the road,” Mitt Cela ordered. “We have to get down to the docks so we can find a boat or some other way out.”

Swiftly their horses leapt from the road and into the field cutting over to the river path. It now became a race against time to the crossing. Once the party left the road the followers of Mephistopheles forgot those to their front and turned into the fields as well. From their position on the road though the rocky, pot hole filled terrain slowed them down allowing the party from Carnelian the opportunity to gain precious seconds.

Reaching the path and with Mitt Cela in the lead, the party raced at breakneck speed down towards the three docks on the edge of the water. They passed the simple buildings that defined the small enclave pulling up abruptly, several in the rear almost crashing in to the others. The sight before them was sickening.

“Where are the boats?” Zeriah cried out in desperation with none evident.

“Belac, search for a boat to at least carry the princess,” Mitt Cela ordered. “The rest of us will form a line in front of the huts. We don’t have much time so let’s move.”

While they took up a defensive position their attackers still floundered in the field. It became evident they were a mixed party nearly sixty strong consisting of ten Knights of the Black Sceptre and the balance being mounted Natas.

Squire Belac desperately searched for anything to take them across the barrier but nothing could be found. Not even a timber or piece of driftwood that could be used to float them to safety was available.

“There’s nothing here we can use,” Belac called out desperately.

Mitt Cela thought to attempt flight along the shore until they found something useful. Looking more carefully, his keen eye found the terrain unsuitable for movement and would only put them in a more vulnerable position. By traveling further along the river’s edge they would find themselves in an even less advantageous spot to face their enemy and still without any form of transport to navigate the river.

The point became moot. Their attackers had reached the path and were deploying to strike. Any movement would find the party caught in the open. A hopeless stand must be made.

Mitt Cela and the other two archers fit arrows to bow and waited for the right range. Rebekah stood on one of the docks two dozen yards to the rear of her thin line of protectors with Belac standing to her front, sword drawn. Overwhelmed, she began to cry in fear and despair.

The Black Knights and Natas, seeing they had their quarry bottled up in the small settlement took their time and measured out their advance. It seemed as if they were attempting to increase the anxiety of those whom they outmatched for perverse pleasure. It was of little matter, soon it would be over.

Many of the people filling the road on the top of the rise stopped to watch the scene below in perverse curiosity. But none dared step forward against the intimidating force poised to strike. The party from Carnelian would stand alone.

A wave of admiration and fear for her outmatched defenders overwhelmed Rebekah. “Will someone not help us?” she cried out in desperation.

Treasure whinnied loudly, sensing the despair of her master, as if trying to do something.

Rebekah turned from the horrifying scene before her and looked longingly at the river and the safety represented by the other side, crying louder.

Then a significant ripple gave way to a definite stir in the water to her front. No wind blew but in reality none could have made such motion. Curiously the princess looked closer. She was startled to suddenly see a few yards out from shore the head of a horse pop out of the water. White as snow, the majestic beauty of the creature caused her to gasp.

Belac heard movement behind him, so turned to see what caused it. “Hippocampus,” he cried out in amazement, “I can’t believe it. This is a sea stallion…incredible.”

As he was saying this, Treasure began to whinny and snort as if talking. The water horse seemed to respond back in kind. Within seconds five more hippocampus had appeared. The six moved to within feet of shore revealing more of their strong torsos. The leader of the group turned its head toward the other shore several times as if signaling the princess that she should mount him.

Crying no more, hope lighting up Rebekah’s pretty face, curiosity overcame fear. She jumped into the shallow water then climbed onto the solid creature holding its muscular neck to stay on.

Belac saw deliverance before them. “Mitt Cela, look to your rear,” he yelled to the defenders. “We have sea stallions. They’re capable of carrying a man. It’s our way out.”

Mitt Cela and Zeriah turned to see what the squire was referring to. Both were shocked to see Rebekah mounted on a white horse in the water with five others beside her. The bounty hunter opened his mouth to speak but Zeriah spoke first.

“My guardsmen and I will hold the line. You and the others escape. Take the princess and see that she’s kept safe.”

Mephistopheles’ followers saw the movement below so increased their pace to try to intervene.

Mitt Cela tried to protest but Zeriah cut him off. “There’s no other way,” the soldier declared. “Now go or you’ll be overtaken and all this will be for nothing.” Before turning to his troopers he said, “I wish we’d had more time to get to know each other.”

Mitt Cela let his arrow fly, finding its mark and unhorsing a Natas. “I won’t forget this. I won’t…”

“Go!”

Leading Hai’asi and the two scouts, tears filling his pale blue eyes, Mitt Cela left Zeriah and the guardsmen to their precarious defensive position. They would buy with their lives the time needed for the others to escape.

The five reached the docks in seconds. Leaping from their horses and into the water they waded out to the waiting rides. When all were mounted the six began to head out into the river towards the other side.

“What of Zeriah and the others?” Rebekah screamed realizing the guardsmen were missing. She reached back as if trying to take their hands. “What about them?”

Mitt Cela rode up beside her, steadying the woman to keep her from falling off. “There was no other choice Your Highness,” he stated grimly.

“No…No...There has to be,” she argued between sobs.

“There was no other way,” Mitt Cela confirmed, voice breaking with emotion.

Both turned to watch the grisly scene to their rear. Already the dark horde had enveloped the men of Carnelian and half were lying motionless on the ground. Several Black Knights stood on the dock waving their jagged swords angrily but none would venture into the water.

With their charges safely away, Zeriah and those remaining fought desperately, trying to break out. But they’d been surrounded so couldn’t move. One by one they were being cut down.

Zeriah had dispatched three Natas but then one of the Black Knights almost contemptuously threw aside the now tired man’s thrust. The attacker then plunged his sword deep into the lieutenant’s chest, despite the chain mail he wore. The remaining two guardsmen attempted to surrender but were mercilessly butchered with their hands in the air crying for quarter.

Rebekah screamed in anguish at the sight, unable to contain herself any longer. The scene of those who had bought her life with theirs being destroyed overwhelmed the young woman.

Mitt Cela wept openly for the one who sacrificed himself, for he had planned to stay and have Zeriah go in his place.

The hippocampus they rode on turned their heads, rubbing the hands and arms that clutched them, as if trying to give comfort to their heartbroken riders.

Treasure cantered about on the shoreline, swishing her head back and forth. One of the Natas tried to grab hold of the empty reins and the filly rose up on her hind legs knocking the creature flat onto its back. Then she turned and galloped away to the west.

Rebekah witnessed this and tried to yell but couldn’t. “Run Treasure run!” she sobbed instead. “Oh Treasure.” Exhausted from all she had witnessed the princess collapsed into the strength of her mount.

On the other shore the black foes screeched in rage at having their mission thwarted while the other horses scattered and ran west. The strong sea stallions carried their riders swiftly across and into the shallows on the Sardonyx side of the river, depositing them safely on the other side.

For the men from Carnelian who had remained to ensure the safety of the others there would be no escape. Their payment was a warrior’s death, fulfilling with honor and dignity the pledge they had made when they joined the Royal Guard. Greater love has known no other than this, that they would lay down their lives for their friends.

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