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

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Chapter 23: A Shaft of Light in the Darkness

Queen Refinnej stood once again on the highest tower of the castle as she had done each day since the departure of her daughter. Initially her daily routine had been filled with hope. Lately though she’d looked with forlorn eyes first east and then to the north. Nothing changed each day other than the progress of the line of fortification being constructed to support the thin stone wall around Ammon Ramlah.

Ever since several of the horses belonging to the Royal Guardsmen who’d left with Rebekah had been brought back from the fortification on the border a cold fear gripped her heart. Though hope still remained despair had been squeezing it smaller and smaller. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of clattering hoofs on the stone courtyard below. She looked to see Elder Samej returning from yet another tour of inspecting the defenses and encouraging the troops.

The leader of Carnelian looked up at the familiar sight of the willowy woman alone and trying to look beyond the horizon. This sad scene made him aware of the bone-numbing fatigue consuming his body. The whirlwind of activity was wearing him down to a nub.

Despite the worrying of the queen and the efforts of the high steward things were not going well for the defenders of Carnelian. In the ten days since the delegation to the north had left all the other shires had fallen to the black menace. They now stood alone facing the full weight of that which Mephistopheles had unleashed.

While the defenses along the eastern border had held despite numerous attacks, the southern stronghold at Haccalm been overwhelmed two days ago under severe assault forcing the abandonment of that position. The evil forces pushing north had been reinforced with fresh battalions of Natas along with twice the numbers of creatures out of the Forest of Gershon allowing them to break that key location. Now the Carnelian forces were being steadily pressed back, desperately trying to hold until a new foothold could be built.

North of the Halcyon River the line between Boznak and Dan Dera had been overrun, attacked simultaneously from the north and the east. The commander of the army, Captain Eldad of the Carnelian Royal Guard, had been killed leading the rear guard action putting the remnant to flight. Now all that stood between the capital and Mephistopheles’ northern array was a solid chain of stone towers just outside Dan Dera. Their original purpose had been to protect the main bridge over the river into Ammon Ramlah along with the docks and warehouses, which in happier times acted as the main shipping point for the shire. They were now being reinforced with several hastily constructed earthen redoubts and a log palisade it was hoped would stop the enemy’s progress cold.

As the Natas advanced they seemed content though to hem in the defenders on the north side of the river. With all the attacker’s efforts appearing to be concentrated on the south, the furious building activity by the defenders to create a ring around the town went on in that direction. Despite the efforts ongoing all day and night it was feared it would be too little to late.

No, little had happened lately to encourage the beleaguered defenders.

As far as the other lands went, nothing had been heard from King Jashud for weeks. Most now thought he’d perished despite his valiant efforts. That meant no others remained who were actively fighting back, save those in Carnelian. The few troops that had escaped from elsewhere, or come to the shire ahead of Mephistopheles’ array, had been absorbed into the existing units on the line.

Only one army now stood to counter the plague sweeping the world.

Despite all the setbacks though, no one had given up since they knew what the alternative was. A new spirit of resolve, long thought dormant, had begun to bloom. Complacency had been replaced by determination. Men, women and children now worked side-by-side with soldiers doing everything they could to hold out, hoping, praying for relief.

Still, many things conspired to pull down the resolve of the people.

Those refugees who had come in contact with the enemy spoke in hushed, frightened tones of the fearsome devastation being wrought on the land. They recounted tales of the people that were being consumed like ripe fields before a swarm of locusts. Most of those who had not been slaughtered or led off as slaves were forced into hiding in the forests, hills or wherever they could get out of the way.

Thus, the alternative was fight or die. For those remaining they stood determined to not allow themselves to go passively.

Refinnej heard the sound of someone slowly ascending the steps to the tower knowing who it would be. It took longer than expected for that person to appear at the door leading out to the observation deck. The form of Elder Samej bent over in fatigue and discomfort shocked her. Seeing the black rings around his eyes from a lack of sleep renewed fear gripped her. The only thing she could say came out curtly. “So?”

Immediately she regretted her tone and the lack of civility towards one who’d been doing everything he could to hold the kingdom together. But Refinnej, fearing the response, could say nothing else.

Samej arched his back to stretch the kinks out. Rotating his neck around it caused a faint crackling sound that made Refinnej wince. “I would be lying to you, Majesty, if I did not tell you that things are going poorly.” He looked compassionately at the scared woman which made her feel even worse.

“Our troops are fighting hard but they are outnumbered and cannot be reinforced,” he continued. “The enemy fights a war of attrition willing to lose ten of his for every one of ours. We cannot overcome those odds. Then those cursed Black Knights pop out of nowhere, devastate whichever area they show themselves in then ride off without a scratch. We cannot lay a sword or arrow on them despite our every effort and cost. The result is whatever of our people remain after these demons show themselves are left with a curse of fear upon them.” The high steward, his mind still planning and calculating despite his weariness, offered a chilling conclusion to his thoughts. “A week at best, maybe sooner, I give it before we see them pressing against this very tower here. If relief from the north does not come soon, I fear all is lost.”

Refinnej, shoulder’s sagging, hung her head low. “Then we have no hope,” she whispered.

Realizing he had caused further despondency in one who was already low Samej took her hand. “Forgive me my queen, I should not have despaired. I am just tired,” he confessed almost apologetically. Then the high steward realized he had almost fallen into the trap of despondency he was fighting to keep the others from. This epiphany caused the dullness that had been in his spirit a moment before to be replaced with fresh resolution.

“There is always hope!” he declared with renewed vigor. “Relief from the north may come any day, perhaps any hour. If we can break our attacker’s momentum and free some of the entrapped lands we can raise fresh troops. The atrocities being committed will do nothing but seer the resolve of all those who have been touched by this plague. No, we are capable of fighting back. Do not give up hope, for that is something which always exists if one looks for it.”

The bleary-eyed squire almost missed it after staring at ancient documents for hours. Pausing to rub his face and yawn, he returned his gaze to the book, expecting to find nothing. Initially it appeared no different from the dozens of others he had been pouring over during his allotted times in the archive. Suddenly though, like the first light of a new dawn, he saw what they were searching for. Gasping, but without saying a word to the other two with him, he hastily closed the book then dashed from the room in search of Elder Samej. Frantic to reveal the critical discovery he ran up the stairs two at a time from the Royal Archive, breath rasping from the exertion. A guard directed him to the chamber of the high steward, where the man who desperately needed the information the squire now possessed might be found.

The young scribe burst unannounced into the room causing Samej to look up with a perturbed expression from the table of documents he’d been studying. Ready to rebuke the intrusion he noticed the large volume under the squire’s arm and checked himself. Instead he asked, almost fearing the disappointment of being wrong, “What do you have?”

Several hours later the Royal Council Chambers were full for the first time in many weeks as word of the finding circulated quickly. The remaining exiled kings being sheltered in Carnelian came as well eager to know about their anticipated deliverance. A sense of anticipation, steeped in hope, drove the anxious chatter filling the hall.

Samej had been in a corner alcove going over documents and speaking in hushed tones with Master Hattush. He finally came to the center of the room yet said nothing. With a stare all around the richly appointed room he caused those collected to fall into silence.

King Machir of Jacinth, impatient for information was the first to speak. “So Elder Samej, what of this great discovery that we have heard? Has the course for our deliverance been discovered?”

“For many days the squires of the Confederation have been tirelessly searching the collective wisdom of the ages,” Samej began. Looking around the room to see that he had everyone’s attention he continued. “Finally this morning has been found by this vigilant group the answer to the question that has been haunting us. While we have been able to counter the Natas and the other minions Ahriman leads, the burning issue has been this: How do we counter the threat of the Knights of the Black Sceptre therefore breaking the spine of Mephistopheles? It is here.”

Opening the thick, musty book he held the elder began to read:

Matters Pertaining To The Captains Of Mephistopheles…

When is 12 superior to 70? When the lesser is representative of all that is good and pure, while the greater that which is evil and corrupt. Thus, while seemingly without weakness and capable of casting a palsy across the whole of our lands, nonetheless Evil Personified cannot sustain itself for long, it must be fed. Thus those created for pure evil cannot either. While the tornado is deadly to those in its path unable to be stopped, once it loses its bluster it becomes like a terrible memory often causing more damage than the actual event. The Knights of the Black Sceptre, Evil Personified, are like a bucket of water poured out, the shock of contact is quick, seemingly able to choke out everything, but ends just as quickly. But then the bucket must be refilled before reuse, taking time, as if being drawn from a deep well.

But light, light unleashed does sustain and is an endless fountain.

Which is stronger?

The depth of midnight gives way to the light of dawn and as such the Black Knights bow, or fall, to those who bring the dawn. The Knights of the Crystal Orb, ancient and noble of order, protectors of all the Shires, a gift to all freedom loving people, bring to their knees the wicked servants of Mephistopheles. Though viewed as no more than diamonds in the rough, the inner strength of The Twelve, since that is all which is necessary when those called are good and pure, shatters the darkness with unstoppable light. These noble warriors have existed for all the ages and will do so into eternity as defenders of the right. One can tell them by The Mark.

Samej paused, a triumphant look of satisfaction upon his face.

“That’s all?” blurted out Shemida of Chrysoprase, unable to believe what he’d just heard.

“That’s all,” Samej confirmed.

The king could not let this go. “Forgive me for my lack of elation but I had thought there would be more, well, substantial direction.”

The others in the hall nodded their heads vigorously in agreement, a heavy wave of dissention beginning to overtake the optimism previously evident.

Samej sighed heavily. Locking his hands together behind his back, he began to pace about as if disappointed with the actions of a young child. “Gentlemen, we are not baking a cake and in need of detailed directions. This report from our recorded history gives us affirmation that the Black Knights not only cannot sustain themselves indefinitely but more importantly can be defeated. Now we finally know why it is that when they strike we do not see them for so long. The answer is here. They must go away and refill themselves. This knowledge can be used to our advantage. For now we can perhaps try to draw them out prematurely to lessen their damage. We also know that those with ‘The Mark’ can best them. We must take joy in these great revelations. There is hope.”

An embarrassed Machir still didn’t see the significance of the discovery. “Well fine, so there is a slight vulnerability, but what is ‘The Mark’?” he countered, not wanting to let go of the sour feeling.

“It does not say in this passage. We must read further.” Samej flipped a few pages in the record and put a finger on the spot. “Ah, here it is:”

The Mark

The only way of distinguishing one of The Twelve, who are spread out equally among the lands so that all may lay claim to the possession of such nobility, is by their possession of The Mark. From the beginning of the lands and throughout it’s future The Maker has placed these champions. The Mark is found upon the breast and above the heart, showing their fidelity for the Shires, this mark of birth is circular in shape and raised above the skin. In it are twelve distinct points, representing each of the Shires, knit together like a web and covering the image of a jewel. This alone signifies one who has the fidelity and strength to throw aside that which Mephistopheles conjured up.

“Oh, that is tremendous!” Shemida blurted out, stepping forward in frustration. “How are we to find someone with such a mark? This is where our hope lies, in this scrap of nothing?”

Elder Samej held his tongue at the constant dismay being shown. “Never the less, it is a starting point,” he instead reminded the group.

“What if these precious knights are already dead because we didn’t know of this supposed gift?” Machir declared.

“Yes, there was nothing written about them being indestructible,” another king added.

Samej didn’t reply, instead standing silently for several minutes allowing the rising storm of discord to calm. Looking around the hall, as he was prone to do in these situations, ensuring he had caught the eye and attention of all those in authority, he spoke with a voice ringing throughout the room. “So again we face an opportunity but seem to choose to disregard it as nothing? We find information that can be used, that can allow for the forging of a response but some of you wish to rather crawl into a hole and disregard it.”

He stopped again and his eyes narrowed. “How long will it be,” he thundered, “before you who are leaders begin to do so, rather than act like whining children? You are kings! If we are to die than you should die in such a glorious fashion that your example will be a shining light for the ages instead of scurrying about like nervous servant girls hiding behind your skirts.”

Samej looked contemptuously at the red-faced men hanging their heads in shame, the defiance beaten out of them. His expression softened as his heart went out to those in a position beyond their capabilities. His tone of voice changed also, to one of a schoolmaster teaching his pupils. “We have been given an opportunity, a gift. We now have knowledge of our most serious foe. They have a weakness but those who will try to exploit it need confidence, the confidence that can only be instilled by you.”

Elder Samej of the Vestry of the Elders then went on to illuminate his point encouraging the remaining leaders of the Confederation to look at things in a new light. As the elderly man spoke an air of electricity filled the hall. Those in the room who had thought of themselves as high and mighty were enraptured by the speech then stirred to look beyond themselves with a renewed desire for action.

Hope had been restored.

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