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

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Chapter 22: Flight to the Bay

With difficulty, calm was restored in the great hall after the attack. Hai’asi and Umim returned from their patrol to report no other intruders were on the grounds. As for those injured in the assault, Mitt Cela had been moved to a chamber to have his wounds tended while Belac could painfully stand. Many of the guests had left in shock at what had happened though others stayed behind. Nervously discussing the events that had transpired in small clusters they curiously examined the dead bodies of the mysterious attackers still lying on the floor.

Assisted by Rebekah, Belac joined the others as the apothecary worked to restore their leader. While the squire had suffered some deep bruises to his ribs and general body other then several nasty cuts on his face he was otherwise undamaged.

Lord Sirhc had ordered Lady Noner to her room to rest despite his sister’s protests when calm had been restored. Ensuring everything was organized in his home he then joined the travelers with Mitt Cela. The usually jovial man had an uneasy look on his face.

Umim stood alone quietly as the others talked amongst themselves. He looked at the shirtless Mitt Cela having his shoulder and arm wounds tended to and noticed a strange birthmark on his chest above the heart. It was circular in shape and raised above the skin. In it were twelve distinct points knit together like a web, covering the image of a jewel.

Despite his discomfort Mitt Cela caught the scene of the man who was now alone. The thought that for as long as he’d known him the scout had always been with his sibling suddenly moved the wounded leader of the group.

“Umim…what of your brother?” Mitt Cela asked quietly.

“He’s chosen another path, the path of darkness and, I fear, destruction,” Umim replied sadly, though with a resolute look. “I tried to steer him towards the light but the evil consuming this land I suspect was too much temptation for him to overcome. It called him like a Siren calls a ship towards its destruction. I’ve lost my brother forever.”

Reaching out a hand from the bed where he lay, Mitt Cela took the mans. “You may have lost a brother,” he replied, “but you’ve gained a friend.”

Umim’s eyes glistened. He shook the hand in response but said nothing.

The apothecary finished his mending. “There now, he should live though he lost much blood. He must remain here, and stay still for at least a day. Better yet would be two,” he said in a definitive tone to Lord Sirhc. Then with a wave the doctor left them.

“Well, this is a tough situation,” Hai’asi commented. “Umim was able to find us a boat for tomorrow,” the warrior reported. “So what are we going to do?”

“We leave within the hour,” Mitt Cela responded with conviction.

The bold statement shocked Lord Sirhc. “Did you not listen? You are wounded and must rest. There is nothing more you can do. You need to recover.”

“My Lord,” Mitt Cela replied in a grave tone, “do you still not realize what’s going on? This was no mere attempt at kidnap. We’ve been betrayed to our enemy who even has spies in this grand town. To stay even the night puts us all at great risk. Regardless of my condition or personal comfort we have to leave because I fear a more gruesome host will follow.”

He could see that the leader of Tel Melah respond uneasily to the declaration, unsure of what to do. Drawing a breath between gritted teeth Mitt Cela felt a flash of pain as he tried to speak. “You must abandon this town, as fine as it is,” he articulated what the other didn’t want to say. “This day was coming regardless of what happened tonight. It’s only has been hastened by our discovery. But leave you must, or perish.”

Nevest Sirhc, one who always had enjoyed an ease of life, suddenly felt the burden of his position and the weight of the decision he must make. Looking at the wounded man he had lightly dismissed earlier in the evening, he now sought his council.

“What shall I do?”

There was no condescension or triumph in the response, rather a concerned sense of urgency. “You must quit Tel Melah en masse, before first light if possible. To stand would be suicide, to stay your destruction. Take only what you can carry then move your people to the Mountains of Tirzah. Find a glen, find shacks, whatever, but find a place that takes you out of our path and the path of the consuming darkness. They will likely raze the town but that can be rebuilt.”

Nevest Sirhc, Lord of Tel Melah, stood from the crouched position he was in and squared his shoulders. A new look of determination crossed his face. “I agree. We shall abandon this town with all haste. What we have built here is not in the structures, but in the people. We will persevere and we will overcome. No base creature will snuff out the light of this beautiful place.” Then with the old shine returning to his eyes he said, “It might even turn out to be good sport!”

The travelers were back on the road within the hour. Mitt Cela sat unsteadily on his horse so Belac and Rebekah rode on either side steadying him. Umim led the way while Hai’asi took up his familiar position in the rear. After leaving the limits of the town they found the track to the Bay of Tirzah. They traveled on a good path of firm, hard-packed dirt. It turned out to be almost as good as a road due to its constant usage making it easy to follow in the pitch-blackness.

Pressing on, the travellers made decent progress despite the fact that they had to move slower than desired due to Mitt Cela’s condition. Though the leader of the party urged speed he obviously was in extreme pain so the scout set what would have been an enjoyable, leisurely pace if not for the fact they were in flight.

As soon as the declaration had been made they’d be leaving Umim went to rouse the skipper of the boat that would take them on the crossing. Initially he didn’t want to stir from the comfort of his bed. Then when he found the reason for the haste he became reluctant to aid a group that had drawn such particular attention. But after several entreaties, along with the promise of additional payment, the man roused his mate and they left to prepare their schooner for the crossing.

The scene of their departure had been an emotional one. Now away from the town and well on the trail, each had time to reflect upon it. Nevest Sirhc had more difficulty convincing the people of the town of the danger and necessity of leaving then he’d expected. Finally though, in a commanding tone, which the citizens had never witnessed before, he ordered the abandonment of Tel Melah. Unfortunately many of the people became more engaged in what they should bring along rather than the urgency of fleeing from the approach of Mephistopheles’ followers. By the time the group heading to Mahl left, none others were on the road. The lord of the town waved goodbye to the travelers as he waited nervously for his people to assemble. Though ready to leave himself he would not leave without them.

Lady Noner had still not recovered from the shock of the events earlier in the evening. She continued to be distraught over Mitt Cela’s condition so fluttered around. Pressing fresh linen bandages into the hands of Rebekah, Noner ordered her to look to the health of her wounded protector. As the man who had changed so dramatically in her esteem was about to mount his horse she rushed to his side and embraced him gently.

“I will never forget you Mitt Cela,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes, “You made me see the ugliness that lies within my soul. I am determined to stamp it out.” The humbled noblewoman pressed a piece of material into his hand. “Take this and I pray remember me in a better light.”

Mitt Cela opened his hand. In it was a delicately stitched piece of embroidery with the image of the sun rising over Sirhc Hall on it. He smiled at the lovely woman, took her hand and squeezed it. “I’ll treasure this and my memories of you always,” he responded honestly.

Hai’asi had helped the wounded bounty hunter mount, than with nothing left to do they had departed. Once more they were a group of refugees, with no place to rest.

The sun was rising above the horizon and the day, though cool again, promised to be clear. The grim mass of the Tirzah Mountains filled their view to the front, rising from the ground on a sharp angle like the heads on a number of spears placed close together. Charcoal gray in color, they showed the high iron ore content found within them. It was an altogether desolate looking spot.

As the shadows of the morning gave way to a cloudless day, Princess Rebekah looked around curiously at the unfamiliar territory. Gazing behind she gasped at what she saw. “Look,” she exclaimed in a shocked voice.

The group stopped in alarm and turned to see what had caused such a reaction. Faint but distinct, a plume of smoke rose to their rear in the general direction of Tel Melah.

“So it’s begun,” Mitt Cela said to himself. “I hope they got out in time.”

The group quickened their pace and became more vigilant, especially towards the rear.

The thought of what was happening in the beautiful, defenseless town made the wounded man forget the pain pulsing through his body. He said a quick prayer that the people had gotten away, one in particular.

The party didn’t stop for any break, pushing as quickly as they could under the circumstances, snatching bites of food in the saddle. Despite their pace they did not overtake the skipper of the boat who was to conduct them across the forbidding bay. As the mountains loomed closer and the end of this leg of the trip rapidly approached each began to become concerned with this thought.

Past midday the vulnerable party arrived at the base of the mountain and continued to follow the trail heading right through a break between the two towering masses. Belac craned his neck high to see the peak, though he observed nothing more interesting than a raven’s nest high on the crags.

The sound of water greeted them before they could see it. Breaking out of the shadows that the towering mountains cast the travelers ended on an open beach area. The group involuntarily pulled up, stunned when they saw a large deep-water dock and nothing else.

Mitt Cela looked all along the bay, as everyone else did, but saw no sign of man, beast or more importantly, boat. Not a sound could be heard either but the lapping of gentle waves on the shore.

“Hai’asi, back to the trail to watch our rear,” he commanded.

“What are we going to do?” Rebekah asked, a note of fright in her voice.

“I’m not sure,“ Mitt Cela mused flatly. “We can’t go back. The route to any other destination would take us right back to Tel Melah.”

For nearly an hour they sat uncertain of what to do. Belac gingerly moved about, feeling his bruises while Mitt Cela silently winced from his wounds. There seemed no course open to them.

Then from around a point upstream a boat suddenly came into view hugging the side of the shore. Anxiety over who it was quickly gave way to relief as Umim recognized the pilot of the craft standing tall behind the ship’s wheel. It was Zuar, the man he had contracted to deliver them across the bay.

Skillfully sailing the sleek two-masted ship alongside the pier, a lithe young man jumped onto it holding a rope, which he lashed to an abutment, then went to the rear of the boat and did the same thing.

Umim felt his anger rising at the delay. After Hai’asi returned reporting no sign of anything approaching he relaxed. Nonetheless he felt it necessary to rebuke the skipper. “You’re late,” he stated bluntly.

The heavy-set man who owned the boat had skin a dark mahogany in color and thick black hair. Shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly he replied with little care, “What do you expect? You wake a man from his slumber in the middle of the night saying you wish to sail immediately.” Then as if realizing the inconvenience, he began to get surly. “I have to travel to where I berth my ship you know. I keep it hidden in a cove some distance from here not left foolishly out for some thief to claim. It also takes preparation and then time to journey to this spot so that I may deliver you on your hasty journey. Do not be so presumptuous as to pass judgment on my punctuality until you know of what you speak,” the swarthy man chastised in a thick accent.

Hearing an edge growing in the sailor’s voice and knowing they were at the man’s mercy, Rebekah stepped forward, cutting off Umim’s response. Instead she diplomatically said, “We are sorry for the inconvenience that has been caused you and thank you for coming as soon as you could.” Flashing a brilliant smile, she added, “Your willingness to assist us is deeply appreciated. I know we are in the hands of one with great skill and ability. None other could be trusted with such a duty.” Seeing the compliments hit the mark the princess asked, “Now may we board please so that the crossing can commence? My friends and I are anxious to make it to the other side.”

Zuar’s face beamed at the compliment. He responded by taking Rebekah’s hand and kissing it. “I am at your service fair lady. We can set out immediately. You and your party may board at your convenience.”

The others were relieved to hear this. After a gangplank was lowered the travelers led their horses onto the boat, hobbled them in the hold, then gathered on deck for the trip across.

The sea captain yelled in an unfamiliar tongue to his mate who unlashed the ropes then nimbly jumped back into the vessel. The man then turned the ship’s wheel about while the mate, who possessed surprising strength for one little more than a boy hauled up one of the mainsails.

A fair wind blew so the ship quickly caught the breeze, turning the 180 degrees necessary to head towards the opposite side. Only when they were a good distance from the shores of Emer’Ald did the group relax. For the first time Mitt Cela felt as if he could let his guard down since there would be no surprises on the water.

Though the wind picked up once they broke past the shelter of the mountains it was still a long distance across the Bay of Tirzah. As a result, it took them the balance of the day to make the trip.

Zuar turned out to be an amiable host and entertained them with tales of the sea as they sailed along. He also fed them with tasty salted fish, dried fruits and ale. All together the journey was extremely pleasant for the travelers. As enjoyable as it was they knew that in a short period of time another level of challenge was about to be upon them. Though perhaps not as dangerous as avoiding the servants of Mephistopheles, it was the part on which the fate of man in the World as it Matters hung.

The schooner reached the shores of the land of the Northern Alliance near the end of the day. Instead of pressing on the group decided to make camp for the night on the empty sandy beach that greeted them. In truth all were exhausted from the non-stop endeavors of the previous two days and desperately needed rest. They would regain their strength and press on refreshed the next morning rather then drive themselves further.

With his ship bobbing gently at anchor just off shore Zuar stayed with the group as well. While friendly, he became inquisitive about why in times of trouble the group would be traveling unprotected to the land of the Northern Alliance. The travelers were guarded in their answers, saying in response that theirs was a mission of trade seeking profit. Fear of discovery of who they were and their true intentions drove every decision.

Zuar seemed satisfied with the responses to his random queries so he resumed telling tales and singing songs of the sea. He returned to his vessel to sleep for the night on board while the others bedded down on the soft sand of the shore. The peaceful sound of lapping waves had a hypnotic effect and very quickly all save Umim, who had volunteered for the first watch, soon fell into a deep sleep. That he was readily allowed to do this gave testimony to the newfound relationship between the scout and the party. No one felt the need to keep an eye on him anymore.

Dawn seemed to come late and lazy the next morning. With no sign of anyone following across the body of water or to their front, it was decided to have a more relaxed breakfast. With a driftwood fire blazing, the travelers enjoyed a hot meal from the traveler’s rations and the stores of food on the boat. Unharassed and in the rugged beauty of the new land, the meal tasted as good as the grand feast served by Nevest Sirhc. Thus feeling renewed, the party set out on the road to Mahl Jaktan after saying goodbye to Zuar. More than pleased with his payment the sea captain gave hearty hugs all around then returned to his ship. Instead of crossing over to the other side, however, he headed to the center of the Bay and sailed out towards the Great Sea.

Umim stood on the shore before they left in the morning, the water tickling the toes of his boots, staring at the other side. He had the forlorn look of a lost puppy on his face as he thought of Thummim and what had happened. His brother’s betrayal was obvious and his intention diabolical. What now did the future hold for his family? Feeling an arm on his shoulder, he looked over to see Hai’asi standing beside him, gazing across the shore as well.

“You did all you could my friend,” the brawny warrior pointed out, reading Umim’s mind. “You were not his keeper. He chose who he would follow. Your service on the other hand these past few days has earned you a place of respect. I know it’s hard to look away from what you’ve lost but instead, why not look to what you’ve gained.”

The scout nodded his head slowly in agreement and with a lighter look on his face turned back to the camp and prepared to leave.

The party from Carnelian began the final part of their journey by traversing a long narrow avenue of towering mountains before joining another hard-packed and well-worn trail. The route was obviously well used but there was no sign of life on it this day. With the heights of the mountain blocking out the morning sun the route presented a dusky, quiet picture. The solitude allowed each of the traveler’s time to reflect anew on what they had been through and wonder about what lay ahead.

Mitt Cela, shoulder throbbing with pain, adjusted the fresh bandage he had put on that morning. He knew others, the princess especially, were carefully watching him to monitor his condition. Thus it had been difficult for him to not let the others see the blood which still seeped from the open wound. He’d quickly changed the dressing then bound it tight to his shoulder. The cut on the arm had scabbed nicely but he also knew he didn’t have the strength in it to fight even a light battle. He prayed that it would not be necessary.

Pray. Mitt Cela considered the word and the meaning behind it. He’d never been much for that manner of thinking. He’d always thought it the way of the weak. Yet many things had changed in the last number of weeks and he found himself doing this more frequently. A number of questions came to light foremost of which was who in fact he prayed too. Any answer would have to wait. The pressure of leadership weighed heavily on him so he had no time for philosophical questions.

Belac knew that his time of particular exertion would be coming soon and he must prepare himself mentally for it. Though uncomfortable still with his bruises he was more uncomfortable with how they’d happened. He chastised himself silently, as he had done all the last day, for not being able to protect the princess himself. He saw her attentions towards him as pity only. The journey thus far had been frustrating for him since he felt he hadn’t been able to really contribute in any tangible way. Here lay yet another example of his perceived failure. Besides, he wanted to show these people, who were now dearer to him than his own family, that he could help them as he’d been helped.

The opportunity would come sooner than he expected.

The mountains flanking the trail were dense and close together but throughout there were wide cracks and fissures running deep into them. The openings though were inky black allowing an observer to see no more than a few feet within.

The individual thoughts of the travelers were broken by the sharp caw of a bird that suddenly flew overhead. It seemed almost like a signal, causing them to pay sudden attention. At the same time they sensed movement on either side of the trail in the breaks of the mountain range.

Unexpectedly, a large number of small, armored Dwarven humanoids carrying spears and axes appeared from all points around them. Weapons held in a menacing fashion, they were yelling in an unintelligible gibberish.

Vastly outnumbered, the travelers drew their weapons looking for a route of escape from the hostile band but saw none. A steadily compressing cordon had been swiftly placed around them, bristling with wicked looking spears. There was no room for escape. They were completely surrounded.

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