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

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Chapter 4: Inevitable Results

Morning dawned clear and crisp in the village of Madaba on the western border of the Kingdom of Ja’Sper. The day began as it always had for so many months and years before. The sun would illuminate the jagged peaks of the Tartarus Mountains and the people would come to life. With the base only a short distance away, later in the day the forbidding mountain range would cast dark shadows on the quiet village. The barrier had been a constant feature since the village was first settled in the early days of the kingdom. It had sheltered Madaba for many centuries from the westerly storms, but not this day.

People began to stir as the sun peaked into shuttered windows and under closed doors. The cheery light signaled the beginning of their age-old routine. These were simple farmers, ones who worked the earth. With fall upon them, more were up earlier than usual preparing for the harvest. Smoke from cooking fires curled lazily above the sod-thatched roofs announcing breakfasts were being prepared. Another day of quietly tending to the crops and animals had begun. Little had changed over the centuries for Madaba.

That was about to change.

On the edge of the village a small man was already hard at work, hoe digging out pesky weeds. Gomdar, a slight, quiet farmer, was up and working hard early, as he did each day. The sheep pen had been repaired already but still the weeding of the herb garden needed to be done. If that were not accomplished before breakfast he would hear about it from his wife. In the routine of his work the balding man’s mind wandered to what the conversation would be in the tavern that night. He chuckled to himself about the antics he’d witnessed the evening past.

Everyone in the village was buoyant since the anticipated crop yields were expected to be the best in years. Sunshine and rain at the right times had ensured this. Life was good. It seemed as if the gods had been favoring them.

Or perhaps the answer lay in the patience of one waiting to take something they chose not to work for.

A growing rumble from the mountains caught Gomdar’s attention. He gazed upward, puzzled, at the cloudless sky. It sounded to the man like a storm descending upon them yet nothing indicated this was about to happen. He shook his head in disbelief, turning to go back to his work but suddenly froze. With a sick feeling the man saw bursting forth from long hidden passages in the mountains a dark army on horse and foot.

Chilled to the bone despite the still existent warmth of early fall, Gomdar instinctively knew the danger to the village. Dropping his hoe he raced towards the hut where his family serenely lay.

“Magda,” he screamed to his wife, “get to the shelter!”

Others too in Madaba were running in every direction, trying to gather their family and flee from what they knew was their impending destruction. There were no soldiers and none had weapons other than for hunting. It was a place entirely unprepared for what descended upon them.

Instead of following his instructions Gomdar’s wife came out from their comfortable cottage to see what her husband’s problem was. At first she could not see from the angle of the door what had excited him so became irritated by his tone.

“Go,” he yelled, waving his hands, “get out of here.”

Then Magda she saw what caused the terror in her husband’s eyes. With a scream she turned and slammed the wooden door closed.

It was too late.

Already, mounted attackers in black carrying lance or spear galloped across his field. The herbs he would never get the chance to harvest were left trampled in their wake. Gomdar bravely turned and stood with hoe upraised to try to buy his family time. It was a courageous effort that if any had survived to relate would have been sung about by the bards.

Like a black flood the horde swept over the peaceful village slaughtering the inhabitants without mercy. Not content with the destruction, everything other than the crops burned in their wake.

No resistance was offered by the people of Madaba and no protection available from the king. There had been no need since no threat had been evident in the Shire for years. In the darkest nightmare of the people of the area something of this magnitude had not been expected.

In truth, no effort to repel the mass that day would have stopped what happened. This was no raid but rather the beginning of war.

Something had stirred in the land beyond the Tartarus Mountains, like a dark and menacing cloud. Besides the village of Madaba, attacks from the west occurred at the same time all along the border. A relentless force began pushing east in a compassionless fashion. All along the western border of Ja’Sper flames burst forth as attack upon attack happened. Most concerning for the people of the land, rather than hit and slither back into the mountains, the dark forces continued to press east towards the capital of the kingdom.

As of yet no one knew who they were or what their purpose was. No one stayed in their path long enough to find out. Those who tried died under the onslaught. Panic spread beginning to grip not just the kingdom of Ja’Sper but all of the western shires.

At the same time groups of Gershonites began to push out of the Forest of Gershon. The hairy creatures launched their own string of aggressive attacks aimed not only at Amethyst but also into Jacinth. They too had a relentless bent to them, capturing and holding lands along the southern border.

Uneasiness swiftly overtook the tranquility of the Confederation of the Shires. The people waited anxiously for their leaders to respond, praying that something would be done before this unexpected threat caught up to them.

Word spread quickly by messenger of what was happening. The Confederation of the Shires began to take note and so leaders of the land gathered at the royal castle in Carnelian.

The assembled nobles talked nervously among themselves while their escorts waited in the courtyard. An emergency session of the Royal Council of the Confederation had been called to deal with this threat. Due to the short time frame only five had arrived.

High Steward Alline confidently strode into the room calming the assembly. While the others may have been kings, the men had no pretense to superiority of wisdom over the caretaker of Carnelian so deferred to the old administrator. Sadly though, the airs of the gathered kings did not relay the truth. Pride superceded practicality in this group to their detriment.

Halek, the slight, pale King of Ja’Sper spoke first. “Gentlemen, I seek your immediate assistance. The attacks continue on my kingdom unchecked. I am at a loss to explain what has happened and seem to be able to do little to stop it.” The king mopped his brow with a shaky hand. “It’s like a nightmare. I need you to come to my aid to end this menace.”

“That is well and good Halek,” Machir, ruler of Jacinth, cut him off before he could ask for anything specific, “but I’m facing raids by the cursed Gershonites on my own lands,” he declared with an exasperated air. “I’m well occupied dealing with that threat and could just as easily be asking for aid myself.”

Sasman, envoy of Amethyst, nodded his head in agreement. The king of Amethyst had not come but rather sent an envoy. The timid man instead thought the difficulties he faced were too much for him to leave for this meeting.

Halek opened his mouth to respond but was cut off by the deep bass voice of Jashud, King of S’Apphire.

“Gershonites?” the aggressive S’Apphirian exclaimed towards the two representatives from the south. “Those flea-bitten trolls are no threat! Just march out to face them and they will fly to the forest.”

Then with a look of scorn he faced the shrinking King of Ja’Sper. “And you Halek, if you had spent more time looking to your army than to painting and music you would not be here begging for help.”

An anxious quiet filled the richly paneled room. The veneer of unity was beginning to show signs of friction.

“There is no need to be antagonistic Jashud,” a yet unheard voice countered entering the discussion. “That will not help.”

The unemotional, calculating ruler Ashbel of Chrysolite now spoke up.

“Let us instead know what Halek can tell us of these foes.” In an efficient tone the king pressed on with an unrelenting stream of questions: “Who are they? Where do they come from? What is their purpose? Who is their leader?”

“I don’t know!” Halek cried out in exasperation under the deluge. Catching his breath he answered, “All I do know is that these demons are pressing further east. My troops cannot stop them and I fear they are bent on capturing my whole land.”

“Demons?” Alline interjected quietly. “That’s an interesting choice of words sir.”

“Let us not stray from the point onto descriptives,” Ashbel countered. “We have a matter of great importance to attend to.”

“I am not, sir,” the high steward countered. “This is no mere exercise in word play but a desire to understand who it is we face and what their purpose is.” The representative of Carnelian and head of the council paused before he continued. “In addition let us not forget from where these yet unknown attackers began their invasion.”

“An invasion?” scoffed Jashud, “Nonsense! This is merely a raid by some yet unidentified attacker, nothing more.”

“Regardless, the critical question remains, where does this originate?” Alline countered, holding his ground.

“They could be from Sheol.”

All eyes turned to the young voice that had made such a seemingly outlandish statement. They came to rest in the Squire’s Gallery on the one who made the unsolicited comment, Squire Belac.

“Sheol?” one of the nobles exclaimed with surprise.

The gathered crowd erupted in laughter at the youth’s declaration.

Face reddening, Belac hung his head in embarrassment saying nothing further. The teen knew instantly as the words left his mouth he shouldn’t have spoken. But the obvious conclusion seemed to be eluding the leaders of the Confederation so he thought his comment would be welcome. A fierce glare from Master Hattush from his chair to the side showed Belac the error of his thinking.

The group went back to their arguing until Alline, who was mutely pondering what had been said, silenced them.

“While somewhat impetuous to talk out of place as he did the squire may have a point,” he stated. “There have been strange rumblings reported and disturbances beyond the Tartarus Mountains. This possibility warrants careful consideration.”

“Oh that is ridiculous!” Jashud exploded, his barrel chest thrust out. “Are we going to have our course of action dictated by a child and his fairy tales? Let us act now, before there are more encroachments and death, with the men we can muster.” Looking each of the spokesmen in the eye he declared, “Send a message to the other kings that time was of the essence. Most don’t want to do anything anyways so let us be done with this. Once we have these brigands by the scruff of the neck we can determine who they are and from where they come.” The King of the S’Apphire glared at the men in the room. “Now let’s act for we’re wasting time here!”

The King of Ja’Sper, still looking nervous and unsettled, jumped into the debate. ”Yes,” he burst out. “Yes, we must act. I am with Jashud on this. We can meet them with the forces we are able to muster. They’re only a rabble and will break against formed troops.” The defeated man looked down, continuing in an embarrassed tone, “It was only due to surprise we lost such ground.”

Alline remained unconvinced. “Gentleman, premature action could only lead to further difficulty. While I know time is of the essence, to go in unprepared might compound our difficulty.”

“And risk further loss of innocent life and Ja’Sper land?”

All eyes turned towards the yet unheard smooth voice of Royal Advisor Ahriman who had sat silently in a corner of the room so far.

“We, my friend”, Ahriman pointed to Alline, “are in the position to ponder here in Carnelian but every delay may lead to additional tragedy in the lands of these men.”

Stung by the implications of the rebuke, Alline paused, shifting his tall frame uneasily. The thinly veiled accusation had caught him off guard.

“I can have three hundred and fifty mounted men ready to ride within the day,” Jashud announced, taking advantage of the opportunity.

“Carnelian can bring six hundred within the same time.”

Heads turned in surprise at the one who had spoken. Striding confidently to the center of the room was the usually silent Prince Adonijah, nephew of the King of Carnelian. Never one with an interest in politics, the handsome 20 year-old man seemed more interested in adventure and this one caught his attention.

When his uncle had left him behind due to a perceived lack of maturity, this had gnawed away at Adonijah. Three plus years later the prince’s vigor and charisma were well known throughout the Confederation. He was admired as being as fine a physical specimen as one could find. With golden curly hair, brilliant smile, and pleasing features few could resist his charms.

Yet the issue of maturity remained unanswered.

“And with you leading us Your Highness, what spirit that would bring to all the troops,” Ahriman encouraged to the smiles of the others.

Alline attempted to intervene before things got out of hand. “Your pledge is admirable Your Highness but I fear somewhat premature. This kingdom has the troops but we should allow more time to gather and prepare, time that can be used to seek more information.”

“Come now Alline,” Prince Adonijah’s spoke highly, “the hunt is upon us. We can’t wait. Besides, if these raiders turn back we may never have a chance to punish them.”

Heads nodded vigorously in approval.

“Your desire is commendable, but I fear,” Alline paused, weighing his words carefully, “with respect Highness, your youth and inexperience for a matter of this magnitude.”

The prince waved a gloved hand nonchalantly to dismiss the concern.

“Why don’t you accompany him then as high steward?” Ahriman spoke soothingly to Alline. “That would balance the enthusiasm of youth with the experience your maturity and universal respect would bring.” Then stroking his pointed chin he added, “In fact I will come as well so we can see who has caused such great troubles.”

As if a cloud had lifted, the gathered assembly began to shout out their approval of the plan. The enthusiastic prince, along with Jashud and several others commenced the next step of strategizing.

Alline felt something was amiss but couldn’t put his finger on it. With a growing sense of dread the high steward felt trapped and didn’t know how to counter the growing momentum. He looked pleadingly at Queen Refinnej and Princess Rebekah who were in the chamber observing for intervention. But from their position on the dais reserved for the royalty of Carnelian came not a word. The women sat silent, almost stunned by the rapidity of events.

Refinnej had a similar sense of unease but wasn’t sure what she could do. Never had the queen of Carnelian spoken in the chamber other than to congratulate some accomplishment or effort of note. For her to speak against the others, regardless of how she felt, had never happened. The proud, independent woman chided herself for her inaction. Often she’d longed for the opportunity to do what had come so naturally to her husband. Now here was a chance and she couldn’t speak, frozen by the moment and uncertain what to say. Further shame came when she knew that an hour from now, when it was too late and all were gone she would have the perfect statement to make. For the first time she began to see her absent husband in a different light.

“I’ve been so wrong about so many things,” she whispered to herself, eyes beginning to well up.

“Mother?” Princess Rebekah asked, not hearing what had been said but thinking perhaps her mother had been speaking with her. “Did you say something?”

Alline leaned in, hoping there was something coming that would help him. Several of the other nobles watched the exchange, wondering what would happen.

Refinnej shook her head, staring down at the marble base the dais was built on and said nothing.

The die had been cast.

Belac caught none of this subtle exchange. The squire desperately desired to speak, to come to the aid of the man whom he respected so deeply. Unfortunately his impetuous outburst had already ruined his credibility and a sharp look from Master Hattush reminded him it was not his place. Instead the matter rested with those deemed wiser than he to decide. He was merely to observe and record. Yet his opinion hadn’t changed, the uneasiness he felt only grew.

To counter his growing despair Belac stole a glance out of the corner of his eye at the princess who he’d always found beautiful. The youth almost fell off his stool when he saw her looking back at him with a mixed expression of curiosity and admiration.

The moment was stolen by Prince Adonijah who ended all discussion and thoughts on how to proceed.

“Then it’s settled,” the clear tenor voice of Adonijah brought everyone’s individual thoughts into focus. “We’ll all join up at the west fork of the Halcyon River in Ja’Sper two days from the morrow with whatever we can muster.”

His excitement had the desired effect on the others. Even the spirits of King Halek were visibly lifted.

Silver goblets of wine were passed out the prince raised his glass in salute. “Here’s to the glory of the Confederation,” he toasted. “The hunt is on!”

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