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

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Chapter 5: Wolves in the Fold

Chapter 5: Wolves In The Fold

A huge crowd gathered, lining the streets, as the troops from Carnelian marched out of the capital. Excitement filled the air and people were reminded of the army that had left with such ceremony over three years ago. It was strange that this didn’t elicit an air of melancholy.

Leading the way, Prince Adonijah looked every part the hero resplendent in armor and colorful surcoat, his head covered with a golden helm. The banner of Carnelian fluttered regally in the breeze behind him while the horses of the mounted soldiers almost seemed to dance as they trotted along the cobblestone road. The rest of the troops matched the color and confidence of their leader.

The only dark spot in the parade was Alline, who seemed reserved and unmoved by the spectacle. The high steward rode silently in the middle of the column presenting an almost sullen picture beside Ahriman. The royal advisor, on the other hand, with a broad grin on his face seemed to be enjoying the event tremendously.

The column pressed steadily on to the west. All along the route people came to greet and wave to the soldiers. A festive mood filled the air with more than one seeming to forget their purpose. Adonijah was in high spirits, riding up and down the line encouraging some, joking with others. His optimism continued to be infectious to everyone.

The troops from Carnelian reached the Halcyon River ahead of schedule, crossing to the west side over a wide, stone bridge. There they found a large field, which would serve as their camp and rendezvous point.

Alline was disappointed to find King Halek there with less then two hundred soldiers. Tired from the ride he allowed his irritation to show.

“Is that all you are able to muster to defend your own land?” the usually calm man shot out. “Where are the rest?”

Face reddening, the ruler of Ja’Sper Halek was visible uneasy at the condemnation. “The rest are on the line trying to hold back our attackers. This is all I have left,” he could only reply.

Embarrassed, Alline realized he had spoken out of turn. Opening his mouth to apologize he was cut off by the soothing voice of Ahriman.

“Do not trouble yourself Your Majesty,” the royal advisor comforted. “I am sure you have done the best you could. Help has arrived and your friends are here.”

The blast of a horn interrupted the conversation. Over the bridge proudly rode the troops from S’Apphire led by King Jashud clad in silver cuirass and helmet. He greeted the assembled warmly and so without further ceremony camp was set up.

During the afternoon men from several of the other kingdoms arrived at the camp but in no more than twenties and fifties. This was all that the rest felt they could send on such a quest.

Two soldiers were busy cutting firewood when they spied a group of twenty-five ride in. Though the numbers were not imposing, their leader was. Carrying a fierce looking axe and riding large in the saddle, the very sight of the man struck fear in those who saw him. At the same time though the sight also instilled confidence for he was there to join them.

“Who is that man?” the one trooper asked to the other.

“That my friend is Hai’asi, Captain of the Royal Guard of Amethyst. He is the finest warrior now in this camp,” the foot soldier replied with a grin growing on his face.

Nodding in acknowledgement to the two gathering wood, Hai’asi rode directly to where he perceived the leaders had gathered. They observed his arrival as well.

“Well met captain. How very good to see you,” Jashud welcomed him with a broad smile. “Are we to expect the company of King Arod as well?”

“No Your Majesty. Regrettably my king is…unable to attend,” Hai’asi replied uncomfortably.

In reality the Amethyst king had once again been unable to make up his mind what to do. Also once again his advisor Bebai and the strong warrior had clashed over how to respond to the call to action. In the end Hai’asi declared he would ride out with his personal troop of twenty-five to do what was right. The king neither approved nor forbade the expedition. Bebai remained silent. So here they were a token force, yet Hai’asi felt good to finally be doing something.

For the rest of the day troops trickled in but in no major numbers. Camps were set up, pavilions erected, fires prepared for evening cooking and acquaintances were renewed. In the end the force numbered under fifteen hundred. This greatly concerned Alline, who voiced these fears to Prince Adonijah. The prince glibly rebuffed the warning. He was more than satisfied with their numbers, confident they could outmatch anything they faced. Alline knew it was no use arguing so left the festivities dejected in order to get some air.

The evening turned out to be warmer than expected, brightening the spirits of the men in the camp. No news came from the front lines so this was taken as a sign that all remained as expected.

In the center of the gathering the colorful pavilion of Prince Adonijah stood. A fine meal was prepared for the commanders of the expedition with ample wine and ale provided by the prince. A mood of anticipation steadily grew as the night progressed. Most of the leaders were laughing and joking with Adonijah instead of viewing the map spread out for them to study. By contrast Hai’asi did not touch the goblet of wine before him. A troubled look riveted his face as he stared at it.

High Steward Alline returned to the gathering and immediately called for order and thus attempted to bring the men back into focus on the task at hand. “So King Halek, what further can you tell us about your attackers?” he opened.

“Well they moved very quickly and seemed unstoppable. But we were finally able to arrest their progress just to the north and to the east of my capital,” he replied.

Heads nodded in agreement which emboldened the man. “I believe, no, I know, that with the forces gathered here we will be able to sweep them.”

“Well said!” Jashud thundered.

“Hurrah my friend,” added Adonijah, “We will indeed! There we have it,” the prince declared, comfortable with what he’d heard. “So we’ll travel tomorrow after breakfast journeying through the Pass of Fellicore and will meet them here,” he placed a gloved finger down on the map to mark the spot, “likely before the end of the day and defeat them.”

Captain Hai’asi finally spoke after brooding through the whole speech. “Traveling through a pass Your Highness? That sounds like a good place for an ambush. Isn’t that route somewhat risky?”

“No, it’s not,” Adonijah responded with emphasis. “The enemy is contained. It’s the direct route and will bring us to our quarry the fastest.”

Hai’asi knew that no debate on the route would be allowed so held his concerns to himself.

“That is well and good, but what numbers are they in?” an agitated Alline interjected, picking up the captain’s concern. “What tactics do they use? What weapons do they possess?”

Adonijah patted the wise man on the shoulder. “Yes, yes, we shall address all those issues. Here,” he offered, passing Alline some wine, “drink this and we will discuss tomorrow’s victory.”

The meeting continued on with tales of anticipated glory, strong boasts and many toasts. The issues of concern raised about the next day never did get addressed.

Hai’asi took his leave early, returning to spend the evening with his men. The others stayed until late in the evening speaking of the victory to come.

The following morning when the column finally got organized and ready to move the sun sat high above the distant mountains. While most were enjoying the leisurely pace of the new day, the contingent from Amethyst became agitated.

Although the body of the troop sat in frustrated silence it was Pagiel, Hai’asi’s friend, who finally spoke, voicing all of their concerns. “What is with these incessant delays? We should have left 2 hours ago!” he spat out. “Eat in the saddle, that’s what I’d do and get us moving. Who knows where our enemy now lies! Plus we have no reports or intelligence. We’re going in blind I say.”

“Nobler minds than we are in command Pagiel,” Hai’asi replied with a grim look on his face. “Our role is to follow and obey.”

That didn’t soothe the lean, frustrated warrior. “And what about our position in the column? The rear! We should be in the van scouting ahead. That’s the proper use of us.” Unable to contain himself longer the passionate man exploded, “This is just madness!”

What Pagiel didn’t know was that Hai’asi did voice his objections on the timings and the troop arrangements at the morning council. All save Alline, who had agreed with his assessment, rebuked his warnings. He was instead commanded to return to his troops and follow orders, which he sullenly did. The order of march was set, no deviation from the plan would be allowed.

Thus the forces from the Confederation went through the process of lining up. The party from Ja’Sper was in the lead to show the direction to the front while Jashud and the S’Apphire men were next. Alline and Ahriman followed them with the body from Carnelian, which turned out to be the largest. After them were the mixed troops of the other kingdoms who had bothered to send men. The wagons of supplies were next and finally in the rear the troops of the royal guard of Amethyst.

No, Hai’asi was not pleased being relegated to babysitting the wagons but he had little choice.

At last a horn blew and they finally began to march.

The column progressed slower than expected over the morning. Those leading moved forward tentatively, causing the rest of the body to bunch up in stops and starts. Movement ceased for a leisurely lunch so it was late afternoon before they finally reached the Pass of Fellicore. At this pace it would be nightfall before they reached their objective, certainly leaving no time to engage the enemy. Though unspoken, this thought seemed to cascade down the line causing the soldiers to relax from their state of readiness.

The rocky walls of the Pass and clumps of grey rubble of all shapes lying on its floor cast strange shadows due to the lateness of the day. Juniper thickets creating random mats nearly ten feet across were the only foliage visible in this dreary place.

The men from Ja’Sper with King Halek had been joined by Prince Adonijah who’d gotten bored with the travel. After his personal guard the troops from S’Apphire lumbered in tight formation. Despite the peaceful state of those leading, something caused a growing tension with King Jashud and his well-trained soldiers.

Alline noticed the shift to readiness and this only increased his anxiety. The frustrated high steward knew he could do nothing since he wasn’t in charge. Trying to relax, Alline knew he needed to think straight. Something didn’t add up for the quick-thinking man but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

A small flash of light shone momentarily ahead of the column on top of the Pass. It almost looked like a signal. Those in the lead couldn’t have missed it but didn’t pay attention or seem to care. Instead they continued to press on without reaction.

As the Carnelian soldiers descended into the small valley Alline looked over at Ahriman, noticing the advisor had the same sly smirk pasted on his face that had been there all afternoon. Alline had tried to counsel the prince on the need for speed and also for scouting ahead once more at their lunch break, but once again his advice had been unheeded. The high steward’s anxiety turned to a sudden sense of dread as the shadows of the Pass engulfed them.

The Amethyst men continued to plod on behind the wagon, silent but in ill humor. As the end of the column reached the beginning of the Pass, Pagiel spoke out in frustration. “I hope they’ve at least sent out flankers,” he declared.

They hadn’t. The party’s leader didn’t find it necessary.

Adonijah felt a nervousness creeping he couldn’t quite figure out. Several times he thought he’d seen the shadows move which only added to his growing anxiety. The counsel of the high steward and Captain Hai’asi on scouting ahead now didn’t seem so silly. The force was going through this area blind and the young prince didn’t like it.

Swallowing his pride the prince wheeled his horse around to consult with Alline. Passing Jashud of S’Apphire he nodded in acknowledgement, noticing the grim expression on that man’s face. The aggressive king seemed to share the prince’s growing unease as well. Within view of the high steward the prince couldn’t catch his attention. Instead Alline stared transfixed above them. The prince noticed Ahriman shifting his head back and forth as if looking for something.

Suddenly dark creatures clad in black leather armor erupted from both sides of the pass, engulfing the column. From the front armed riders stormed down on the head of the formation.

Alline reacted instantly. Turning to shout an order to the Carnelian contingent he looked straight at Ahriman. The royal advisor swiftly pulled a wicked looking dagger from a secret pocket in his cloak. Before the high steward could react, Ahriman plunged it deep into the man’s chest.

“So changes the balance of power my friend,” Ahriman said almost in a whisper, as life left Alline’s eyes.

A group of soldiers from Carnelian who witnessed the betrayal turned to intercept the royal advisor. With a wave of his slender hand the sneering man sent a wave of energy coursing through the air knocking them from their horses. The soldiers lay stunned on the ground and were consumed by the dark attackers.

Besides treachery, it seemed that magic had returned in force to the World as it Matters.

Ahriman, a look of triumph on his face, spurred his horse hard, riding straight towards the attacking horde. Rather than use his newly revealed skills to assist the beleaguered column he joined in the assault. Revealing the true nature of his character, he helped destroy those he’d pledged to assist.

Long had Ahriman resented Alline and the influence the man was able to exert. This resentment turned to rage when the king named the wise man high steward over himself before leaving on the campaign three years before. The advisor felt unappreciated, his ambitions unfulfilled. The rage festered and boiled with no outlet. So Ahriman turned to something he knew he shouldn’t. He’d felt the power of magic coursing through his body. He knew the temptation and knew the risk involved for him. Yet the sense of injury, of insult was too great. From a secret chamber in the castle he began to explore the power and found not only skill in these arts but an appetite for them too.

Then like a small voice calling from afar, a whisper perhaps, a thought came to Ahriman’s increasingly twisted mind. A plan began to form as he listened to the voice to strike back at those who disrespected him. The power he craved was within his grasp. What at first shocked him then became resolution. Never did the royal advisor question the source of this little voice until it was too late. He had been consumed and the die cast.

Prince Adonijah witnessed the scene of Ahriman’s betrayal with horror. Before he could react two arrows struck him in the back, his colorful surcoat making an excellent target. The young prince fell heavily from his saddle landing with a thud on the ground. His guard couldn’t react being quickly cut down also as the attackers slammed into the bewildered Confederation troops like a tidal wave.

King Halek didn’t know what to do. In a panic he reined his horse around in circles as mounted creatures pounded down the Pass. They descended upon the beleaguered king like a swarm of locusts. One attacker leapt from his horse to the king’s. For the first time the frightened man could see their assailants. A dark, horrifying face, worse than any nightmare could conjure, screamed into his. Frozen with fear, unable to fight back, and still in shock at the situation, the King of Ja’Sper allowed himself to be killed on the spot without resistance.

Jashud, on the other hand, fought back with ferocity. Reacting swiftly to the situation he and his besieged troops pulled into a tight defensive formation. They were swiftly surrounded and pressed in on all sides by the swarming attackers. The disciplined soldiers held their ground behind shield and sword dropping five aggressors for every one man from S’Apphire that fell. Numbers were against them though and the vice began closing. It was only a matter of time before he and his men fell as well.

At the rear Hai’asi had anticipated what happened so reacted instantly to the initial assault.

“Line formation,” his voice boomed and the men from his troop changed smoothly to an aggressive posture.

They met the weak attack from a small group easily, their captain taking two out himself with his mighty axe.

With a momentary pause before more of the dark attackers swarmed Hai’asi took charge.

“Pagiel, get the wagons into a defensive perimeter,” he ordered. “We’ll use them for cover and set up a rally point. The rest of you, compress back in a semi-circle. Give the wagons time to form.”

Time though was a commodity they had little of. Arrows began to fall from above taking one of Hai’asi’s riders down. The black tide reformed and steadily surged towards the beleaguered men.

The now dismounted Captain of Amethyst stood tall in the center of the renewed action. Two black foes came directly at him. He bent down low cutting the legs out from under the first. Then reversing the momentum of his axe he caught the other under the chin with the butt end sending the foe spinning away. Another came into the gap scoring a glancing blow with a curved sword. The muscular warrior shrugged off the slight wound and pushed the attacker back with his shoulder causing it to stumble. Gaining an opening Hai’asi then chopped it hard with his axe, the force nearly splitting the opponent in half. Yet for every one that he took out, three were ready to take its place.

The situation was desperate for the men of the Confederation, slaughter seemed imminent and no hope remained.

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