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

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Chapter 26: To the South

Chapter 26: To the South

The grassy plains in front of the main gate into Mahl Jaktan were beginning to fill with more levies of the Northern Alliance arriving and being marshaled into position for the march.

Hai’asi stood on the wall of the capital surveying the scene. The warrior felt beads of sweat running down his back despite the coolness of the day. The blazing sun shining above was not the source of his perspiration. That lay deep within the man. Heart pounding, he watched the groups being arranged, thinking of what lay ahead.

“An impressive sight is it not?”

Hai’asi was startled out of his thoughts by the presence of Deuel. “Yes, they’re very well turned out, my compliments.”

“True, but they are in need of a leader to unite them and lead the body as one whole.”

Saying nothing, the captain of Amethyst politely nodded his head in agreement. He still found this hard to believe, but already minor squabbles had broken out about position in the line and the marching order.

The elderly Mahlite looked at him earnestly, dark eyes aglow with compassion. “There is conflict within you Hai’asi, son of Hai’asi, I can see it,” Duel confirmed, stroking his long beard. “Ye’re a man torn. Ye must reach deep within to release not only what you have been given but also have been preparing for your whole life. This is your moment to display the unique character lodged within.”

The powerful warrior was startled by the frankness of the statement. Snorting, he tried to mask his distress at the thought. “You remind me of another who told me something like that.”

“Ah yes, Elder Samej,” Deuel declared. “Aye, I see we are of one mind as to your fate.”

“You know him?” Hai’asi responded in surprise.

“I do and I am pleased to see that the race of man has finally seen fit to seek the wisdom of experience. His letter to the council held much sway with those who previously saw this expedition as folly.” Deuel looked up and into the eyes of the conflicted man. “Yet even though we are in agreement, there is still uncertainly about leaving the north to support those we have had little relationship with. Much hangs on this.”

Hai’asi looked down at the stone parapet, the weight he felt almost oppressive.

Deuel took the warrior’s hand and placed it lightly on the man’s chest. “Everything ye require is within,” he said softly. “It has already been given to ye by the divine, only waiting to be released. Look into yourself, not at others, not at expectation, but here,” he patted Hai’asi’s heart. “Ye’ve been chosen for this great moment. Allow yourself to participate in it, unhindered by the anxiety that cuts one down to the level of mediocrity. Let the eagle soar.”

Just as silently as he had come, the elderly Mahlite turned and quietly walked away leaving Hai’asi with his thoughts.

In the end, over seven thousand warriors of the Northern Alliance answered the call to arms. They were well equipped and resolute.

Hai’asi took the time to meet the various clan leaders in order to understand not only who they were but also what motivated them. Since the Alliance had no formal structure beyond their clan he then assembled them into more tactically efficient companies of one hundred and then divisions of one thousand. This took patience at times and a forceful presence at others to accomplish but in the end he was able to do it with remarkable speed. The members of the ruling council who observed this going on were impressed by the ability of the young man to quickly overcome the inter-clan rivalries and differences that cropped up during the period of gathering. In the end he organized the troops swiftly and effectively, something many in the land thought would be impossible.

The day of departure arrived. The entire city of Mahl Jaktan turned out to watch the spectacle. Horns blew salutes and drums beat in cadence. A few of the Mahlite leaders who would accompany them were mounted on small mountain ponies, while the travelers from the south had their horses, but other than the scouting party who made up the advance guard the rest would go on foot. A small supply train would accompany them but for the most part the army would travel light since speed was of the essence.

While various leave takings were being made the remnants of the group that had left from Carnelian two weeks previously said goodbyes of sorts as well. Hai’asi, as commander, would be just behind the vanguard with the other leaders to give direction. Belac, acting as an interpreter, would join them. Princess Rebekah was to ride with High Chieftain Deuel and the other council members who had decided to join the expedition in the center of the column with the supplies. Umim would range out in front of the array with a party of Mahl scouts and flankers. Mitt Cela, who sorely wanted to be out in front with Hai’asi, or better yet in the van with Umim, knew his place was with the Princess and with Deuel to act as their protectors. As a result, the group had been split up for the first time since they’d left Ammon Ramlah.

It was a strange feeling for the travelers who prior to that knew little about each other. Yet now every one of them felt a bond which seemed like it had been formed over a lifetime. Longing looks and lingering waves were given as the four took their respective places in what now was though of as a rescue mission.

With everything in place and ready to move, Hai’asi prepared to give the command to move. As he pulled sword from scabbard to give the order to sound the advance, Belac grabbed his arm holding it for a moment.

As if sensing what was happening, the troops turned to face the city and went down on one knee. From the position of those gathered on the plain, they could see the Keepers of the Sacred Hall, clad in white gowns, hands raised in the air, calling a blessing down upon the gathered. This went on for only a few minutes. Then with a fearsome shout that echoed through the mountains, the army stood as one, turned to the south ready to move, resolute in what they were being called to do.

Horns signaled the advance, the army lurched forward and the largest unified array the Northern Alliance had ever mustered moved out. It was a marked accomplishment for the one’s who had come from the south with such uncertainty in themselves.

The army made excellent time through the wide mountain pass they took, traveling five abreast in their companies of one hundred. The mounted scouts had ridden off as fast as they could to reach the border in order to assess the situation there. The pace was pressed as quickly as possible so by the end of the day they had reached the boundary with Chalcedony.

A mid-sized stone keep stood at the border not only to protect this key avenue of trade but also regulate contact with the south. This was where the army made their camp. While fall seemed to be desperately holding on during the day, the night was cool. None of the members of the Northern Alliance seemed bothered by this, forsaking tents for the open sky and a single rough blanket. As a matter of courtesy though the older chieftains and Rebekah were given lodging inside. The leadership met here as well to assess the situation and plan their next step.

Gathering together, and with the princess silently looking on, they heard reports from the border guards that no attacks had been made against their post. In fact, they had not even seen any of the enemy. This was the report they had sent previously to the capital so was known to all save those from the south. The situation had still not changed. The border captain casually added that several weeks earlier large numbers of refugees had attempted to obtain shelter but were rebuffed and sent away.

A pained expression crossed Deuel’s face. “Do ye know where these people went?” he asked the guard, fearing the answer.

“I don’t know, my Lord,” the leader of the guard said with a shrug. “After they left the border I didn’t really concern myself with the matter. We were safe.” They did not know nor seemed to care.

Duel walked away shaking his head. “What have we become?” the High Chieftain was heard sadly saying to himself. “Shallow and isolated, caring for nothing save ourselves.”

The guards seemed embarrassed by the statement of one so revered, avoiding eye contact with their leader. With nothing more to add and a somber tone hanging in the air, the report ended, the guards were dismissed to return to their posts.

Being less than a day’s march from Kir Hareseth, camp broke and the army crossed into the lands of the Confederation of the Shires mid-morning. Many felt it would be their last opportunity to relax.

Since they didn’t know what to expect, a strong party led in the van while flankers were sent out the length of the column. Even a hefty rear guard was in place to ensure no attack from that quarter. Hai’asi left nothing to chance considering his past experience with Ahriman.

Nearing Kir Hareseth, the body halted. The commander rode to the front to assess the situation. Spotting Umim leading the group, he went over to find out what they had observed so far. Looking towards the capital of Chalcedony he was shocked to see in the distance nothing but charred remains and rubble of what once had been a large city. Murmuring an oath to himself, he asked the scout if they’d found anything.

“No. Nothing. We ranged to within arrow shot of the town but saw no sign of the enemy nor of any life for that matter,” Umim replied without emotion.

“Very well,” Hai’asi replied, trying to calm his beating heart. “I’ll bring up the rest of the column. When we arrive take your party to the south end of the town and wait for us.”

“Are we going to look for any life?” Umim asked, betraying his inner feelings with this statement.

Shaking his head Hai’asi responded, voice filled with regret. “No, there’s no time. We must press on. Hopefully there’ll be opportunity afterwards for such things.”

The commander of the relief column to the Confederation returned to the main body and brought it up to the vanguard, signaling them to press on. No sooner had the main body entered the town than the sound of battle nearby brought them out of the stupor of looking at the devastated place.

Hai’asi reacted immediately. “First division with me,” he ordered. “The rest follow as quickly as you can.”

Without waiting he rode off and the Mahl troops sprinted forward. Breaking through the town they saw the advanced guard in pitched hand-to-hand combat with an equal number of Natas.

“Forward!” Hai’asi commanded.

He scarce needed to give the order as the troops within range of his booming voice streamed past him in support of their kinsmen. With several hundred men adding to their opponent’s numbers the Natas could not hold. Instead of trying to break contact, though, they stayed to fight.

Hai’asi wanted prisoners but the blood lust of the Northern Alliance was up, especially since they had taken casualties of their own. Axes swinging, the ferocity of attack sent the dark enemy back on their heels. Unable to counter the aggressive Mahlites the Natas tried to fall back. Instead, the fierce dwarves swiftly cut the enemy down to a man. It happened so rapidly Hai’asi didn’t even have an opportunity to swing his axe.

As the last attacker of Kir Hareseth fell, the rest of the army had come up and deployed for combat on the open field whose crops had long before been trampled and burned. The victory had been total so there was nothing left to fight.

Hai’asi decided to halt the advance temporarily and assess the situation in order to find out whom they had faced. “Double the number of scouts and range two leagues forward to see if any other enemy lurk about,” he ordered. “I want picquets set out and the army to stand under arms,” he added to his leaders.

The commander’s orders were efficiently carried out. Since they now had some time several companies were sent into the town to seek any survivors or information of use.

Umim had stayed back from the party sent forward in order to converse with the commander about what had happened. Hai’asi was frustrated to have no prisoners but wisely held his tongue until they stopped and could convene a meeting of the clan commanders.

“What happened?” the captain of Amethyst asked.

“We advanced through the town without incident,” Umim reported. “In fact we saw nothing, no man or beast. But once we exited the town we came upon this lot,” gesturing to the fallen enemies who lay about on the field, “holding position on the edge of the woods framing the road. We didn’t know their numbers so formed up, holding our position here. Well, they decided not to wait and charged us. We had a tough scrap but I’ll tell you, these Northern Alliance troops are tough, an equal match in fact, for the Natas. We knew you were not far behind so decided to hold our own until help arrived.”

Then a dark look crossed the scout’s face. “I knew you would like some prisoners and tried to get that point across, but I dared not cross their blades to stop them for fear I would become like one of the Natas.” He stopped momentarily to rub his neck, letting the words sink in. “We have no sign of anything else about, so it seems like this was perhaps an outpost, likely to keep an eye on the town and ensure no one came back.”

Reaching for the water skin that hung from his saddle, Umim signaled his report was done by taking a long draught to slake his thirst. Hai’asi could do nothing other than wait for the advance party to return.

The leaders of the various tribal groups formed in the evening since eventually it had been decided to stay where they were for the night. The members of the Clan Council who had accompanied the expedition also joined the group, as did Princess Rebekah. First off, they heard a report from the scouting party. After having gone forward three leagues on the road they had found no sign of the enemy or other life. Other parties reported that after having gone east and west nothing had been found either save the wanton destruction of the lands as they had witnessed in Tel Hareseth.

It became obvious they faced no army of occupation but rather one bent on annihilation. All the buildings in the town had been systematically destroyed, crops burned, and even fruit trees had been chopped down. There was no sign of life. Only decomposing bodies could be found where they had been slain. Disturbed by the sight the leaders of the expedition sent work details out to bury the unfortunate victims. Surprisingly the fierce Northern Alliance troops had done this without protest and in fact with an unexpected gentleness.

After receiving all the reports, Hai’asi stood to speak. “Gentlemen, I want to congratulate you for scoring our first victory today,” he began, looking around at the group. “Those who were engaged fought with bravery and tenacity. My compliments.” This praise brought a smile to the faces of the leaders assembled. But then the warrior’s face clouded. “But I would ask that in the future you keep better control of your troops. It was unnecessary today to bring down all of the Natas in the end when our numbers overwhelmed them. We sorely need information on our enemy. That will likely only be accomplished if we can obtain some prisoners.” He paused, visibly shaken, to control his emotions. “Besides, after what I saw today of this town, I’m determined that we won’t act in the same fashion as our opponents. Let us seek victory, but let’s do it in a humane fashion.”

Deuel nodded in agreement while the others remained silent. No further discussion on the point was necessary. Dismissing the group the leaders went to their various duties while Mitt Cela stayed behind to talk to his friend.

“You did well today,” he began.

Hai’asi rubbed his face and then fingered his axe. “It was a good start. I’m impressed with the spirit of the troops. They’re as fine as I’ve seen.”

“Yes, but you did well,” Mitt Cela responded pointedly to his friend who had missed his point.

“Thank you,” Hai’asi replied, looking down at his feet. “I’m still not sure I’m the one for this task.”

Mitt Cela patted his friend on the shoulder confidently. “You’re the man for this critical moment. You demonstrated that in the way you got this army organized back at Mahl Jaktan and how you have us working as one whole since then. Even tonight you displayed the natural ability you possess by how you handled not only the leaders but also your own disappointment.”

Hai’asi smiled grimly. “We’ll see. Tomorrow’s another day,” he said with a new look of determination in his eyes.

Arising before dawn, the army marched at first light making swift progress. The town of Tel Teman was retaken as Tel Hareseth had been, but with a difference. The Mahl fighters took to heart their leader’s words from the previous night and were able to bring in seven Natas prisoners. Consolidating their position, and seeking to render aid in the devastated town if possible, they stopped. Again, a large party went forward to scout the road. This time though Mitt Cela went with them as they were crossing into Carnelian. Flanking parties also pressed out to ensure their safety on the sides.

The trussed up prisoners proved to be sullen and uncooperative. They refused to give up any information. In the end, a frustrated Hai’asi almost wished that he had allowed these belligerent creatures to be slain. But then looking at the ravaged town knew that was no solution.

Again no life remained, only bodies lying indiscriminately about. Sadly, many appeared to have been killed in the act of fleeing. More than one of the previously isolationist Mahlites were seen to shed tears over the scenes repeated from the day before. They now knew this to be not just a fight to ensure trade but one to preserve decency and humanity.

At a quick council meeting the decision was reached to camp where they stood for the night. Although now only a little more than a day’s hard ride from Ammon Ramlah it would take at least two on foot and no one wanted to go in recklessly. Reports from the advance party showed signs of greater enemy numbers ahead so the army would need to proceed with caution.

Settled in for the night and with a strong guard mounted the leaders expected it would take them a little longer to reach their objective than initially thought.

The next morning under an orange fall sun, they crossed into Carnelian. Princess Rebekah felt her heart beat faster wondering what she would be returning to. Would Ammon Ramlah still stand or would she find the same devastation they’d experienced so far?

Near the town of Boznak the advance guard surprised a small party of mounted Natas. After a short, sharp fight two prisoners were yielded. While attempting to interrogate them, the sound of several signal horns coming from the town warned of more enemy about.

Already coming forward rapidly due to the other fight, Hai’asi heard this too. He quickly deployed his two forward divisions in a defensive formation as a huge wave of Natas streamed out to attack. The decision worked. Though the fighting proved to be intense, the Northern Alliance army checked the Natas assault, holding them in place.

Hai’asi desperately wanted to by part of the fight. But the captain of Amethyst knew his place was to maneuver the pieces like a master in a chess game rather than turn himself into a pawn. Observing the furious battle going on, he sent one division as it came up to the right flank and the next to the left in the hopes of enveloping the enemy in a pincer movement. He held two divisions in reserve, keeping the last to protect the rear, the council members and their supplies.

Though fighting furiously, the forces of Mephistopheles didn’t stand a chance. Checked to their front, while being steadily squeezed on either side by superior numbers, they were caught as if in a vise. Horns from the rear of the dark line seemed to signal a withdrawal so they retreated, running as fast as they could out of harms way.

Rather than hold their position, the troops of the Northern Alliance broke ranks to chase after them. Hai’asi sounded the recall, yelling at them to return. He knew the danger so didn’t want his army to scatter all about. But it was to no avail. The blood lust was up, so they charged in all directions. As the blasts continued to sound finally those who had chased after the enemy reluctantly began to trickle back. The field was theirs and at the realization of this a mighty roar went up from the victors.

Losses were heavy for the Natas but light for the Alliance. The defeat in a head-to-head fight of a substantial enemy force encouraged the spirits of the army.

Hai’asi though was not one of them. Walking the field where they’d fought with a look of concern on his face he spoke to Mitt Cela and Belac. “These troops fight bravely but lack discipline. I fear what’ll happen if we get into a tougher fight.”

“They respect you Captain and will follow you,” Squire Belac encouraged him. “I hear this not only from their chiefs but also from the rank and file. Continue to work with them as you have been. They’ll come around.”

Hai’asi didn’t share the youth’s optimism but held his tongue. His concern lay not only with the lack of discipline of the Mahl fighters but more so in his own ability to lead them in the way they needed to change.

The decision was made to continue on not allowing the enemy to consolidate. So leaving a burial party and rear guard, the main body pressed on with two full companies deployed to the front, fanning out on either side. Reaching the intersection of the road to Tel Melah just before the town of Dan Dera, they found what they had been searching for: the main body of the army of Mephistopheles.

From a small knoll commanding a view of the array before them, Hai’asi and the leaders could see the enemy preparing for the approaching relief force. They could see the defensive alignment of the waiting Natas troops before them. Convening a quick meeting, the commanders and leaders decided that since their army was not fully in position and the hour too late they would not attack right away. This effort would take careful planning and the commitment of all the troops they had in order to break the line before them and sweep aside those blocking the road to the capital of Carnelian.

The Northern Alliance army set up their encampment well back from what would be the forward line, behind a screen of dense pine trees so thick the sun was blackened out within. There all the men and supplies were gathered in preparation for the next day.

Because they had come down so swiftly on Boznak there actually were people still alive in the town who now clung to the army that had rescued them from massacre. Their tales of the brutality of Ahriman’s troops and the carnage they had indiscriminately wreaked caused their relievers to burn with anticipation of revenge. That would have to wait until the morning.

With one third of the men mounting guard and the rest sleeping under arms the forces from the north settled in to a restless night, anticipating the day to come.

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