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

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Chapter 6: Character

Chapter 6: Character

The men from the Shires had been pressed into two rapidly compacting groups. King Jashud, the remnant of his men, and some from Carnelian were in a circle fighting back as best they could in the center of the Pass. Meanwhile, Hai’asi with the rest of the forces left, held a somewhat better position at the rear. From their initial point of contact they’d been able to form a line across a narrow part of the pass using the wagons. This allowed the small group to keep their attackers from getting behind them thus far. Yet despite how courageously they fought, the remnant holding the line knew it was only a matter of time before their foothold was overwhelmed. Instinctively each knew this enemy would take no prisoners.

Ahriman surveyed the scene of carnage with a smug look of satisfaction on his face. He watched the rapidly compressing Confederation defensive position from a short distance away. Satisfied his initial revenge on a land that had never fully appreciated his talents was complete he turned to the dark riders that now surrounded him.

“Come,” he commanded, “we have much work to do.”

Before the former royal advisor departed the scene he sent another wave of energy crackling through the air for good measure. The magical blast took down all in its path both friend and foe. With a chuckle Ahriman rode off.

Arrows continued to steadily fall from above, finding their mark and thinning the numbers of Confederation men. Maddeningly, there was nothing they could do to respond. Their own archers were few and out of position. The foe could keep them pinned down and pick them off one by one. Once, the group with Jashud tried to break out to stop the threat but the men were cut down before they got fifty yards.

Then, the sound of a new conflict above caused many to see what was going on. In rapid succession three, then six of the dark figures tumbled over the side and fell to the floor of the Pass with arrows sticking in them. Confusion began to grow in both the Confederation men and their attackers at the unexpected development.

Arrows then began to fall upon the attackers from above. A few screamed in anguish and surprise, momentarily checking their progress.

Coming into view, a mounted figure in hunting clothes with a ewe bow slung on his back took advantage of the brief moment of uncertainty to ride straight down from above. Unkempt, shaggy hair blowing in the wind, instead of riding away he galloped straight into the fray. With a fierce yell the mysterious figure crashed into the cordon around Jashud and his men, slashing and hacking all the time with a two-handed sword he wielded in one. Dark bodies tumbled and fell to the ground in his wake causing a wave of shock to overwhelm the confident ambushers. A temporary shift in momentum arose though one man could not hold the tide back for too long.

Riding up to the beleaguered Confederation troops, the man with a long scar on his face wheeled his horse around scattering more attackers.

“Form a wedge while they’re unsteady. We ride to the rear,” he yelled in a commanding voice.

The King of S’Apphire quickly got his men organized. Those on foot doubled up with those on horseback so all were able to be mounted.

“All right men, lets get out of here,” King Jashud’s voice boomed. “Stay tight and we’ll get through this.”

Then with the blast of a signal horn they cut their way towards the rear.

The mysterious man didn’t come with them. Instead when the signal rang out and the Confederation men charged to break free, he spurred his horse in the opposite direction. The attackers were even more confused by this action, not knowing what to do. Instead of moving to relative safety he instead swiftly rode to the prostrate form of Prince Adonijah. Stopping his horse suddenly, the man nimbly leapt from the saddle. In one motion he scooped the limp form of the fallen noble up then threw him onto the saddle. As the horse started to gallop he bounded up and into the saddle. The agile man then did a semicircle riding partway up the wall of the Pass. Skillfully galloping over the rocky and pitched terrain he traversed the bulk of the enemy while moving towards the rear where the remnant of the column continued to hold a secure position.

Hai’asi had started to lose any hope. Then he began to see the dark figures fall from the wall of the Pass. The sound of an unexpected signal horn from their front caused the attackers of the beleaguered remnant of the Shires to hesitate. A general commotion to Hai’asi’s front left the attackers unsure what to do. Coming from behind the dark force pressing the defensive position they heard, then saw, horses coming towards them.

The powerful captain reacted instantly when he knew what was going on. With a fierce roar he surged forward swinging his axe back and forth chopping creatures down before him as if they were wheat. The other soldiers responded in kind. Quickly the Confederation men were able to create a funnel for Jashud and his remnant to ride safely through into their defensive position.

These men jumped from the saddle to join the fight, eager to seek retribution now that the tables seemed to be turning. Hai’asi, on the other hand, saw the incredible sight of a rider carrying the motionless form of Prince Adonijah on his saddle galloping towards them on the side of the wall of the Pass. The rider held the man and his reigns in his right hand while chopping away at any that tried to stop him with his great sword in his left. The surefooted horse soared over obstacles moving quickly towards the remaining shire position.

As the rider passed into the Confederation line Hai’asi saw that the man had dark blond hair and a scar on his right cheek. His opportunity for observation was interrupted by a creature coming at him with a jagged sword. The Captain of Amethyst easily knocked the smaller weapon away with his axe then with one smooth stroke on the backswing dispatched the attacker.

The mysterious man joined the soldiers on the line after laying the motionless prince beside his horse at the rear.

“Let’s press forward and break them,” the stranger yelled out in a voice that rang clear despite the din of battle.

“Yes!” Both Jashud and Hai’asi yelled in agreement. Eager to turn the tables the two leaders called out to their men, “Reform, prepare to advance.”

With that the remainder bellowed out war cries, oaths or just generally screamed, as they surged forward against the waning strength of the enemy’s attack. Releasing pent up anger the men found strength despite their fatigue to exact revenge on the creatures before them. Smashing into the hesitant enemy line like a hammer the disciplined troops began to push them back.

The counterattack was enough to tip the scales. Seeing no profit in continued attack the dark creatures broke and ran back up the Pass of Fellicore from where they’d come.

A few of the shire troops raced after them in pursuit but were quickly recalled by voice and signal horn. Suddenly the Pass fell quiet save for the groans of the wounded.

For the first time the Confederation men were able to get a good look at the unknown assailants. The sight horrified some so much they had to turn and look away. The creatures were slightly smaller than the men who looked at them but were not men. Their mouths were grotesquely formed with sharp, jagged teeth. Saucer-like, bulging eyes framed ugly faces. They were dark, almost black, but their skin had a scaly quality to it. Finally, the clothing and leather armor the creatures wore was all black. Altogether the creatures were a hideous sight. None in the group had ever seen nor heard of anything like this before. Yet the unknown foe had been close to wiping them out.

“What are they?” asked one of the remaining officers from Carnelian in exasperation.

It was the savior of the group who spoke.

“I don’t quite know who they are,” the mysterious, rough looking man answered, “but I do know that they come from beyond the Tartarus Mountains.” Giving one of the prone creatures a kick he added, “Regardless, their intent is nothing but evil.”

Finally, Hai’asi could hold his curiosity back no longer. “Who are you?” he asked while wiping gore from his axe with a rag.

“My name is Mitt Cela,” the tall man replied, offering no more information. “Let’s withdraw from here quickly before these cursed creatures can reform. There’re more coming into the area in numbers you have no chance of beating.” Pausing to look down the narrow valley Mitt Cela added, “Besides, there’s an even more deadly group coming, some form of black rider I’ve never seen before. I fear they’re unstoppable even for your axe captain.”

“And how do you know all this, sir?” King Jashud queried in a foul temper as he gazed at the remnant of his troop.

“I’ve traveled beyond the mountains in the past and have witnessed what I speak about. But I’ve never seen them in this number before. They were only scattered vagabonds then but now they’ve somehow concentrated.” Looking again down the Pass, Mitt Cela implored, “Please, we have to get out of here as swiftly as we can. We have little time for this discussion.”

It was only then the officers began to look around, realizing how few had survived. The sound of approaching forces from the opposite end of the Pass encouraged the remnant to haste.

Quickly gathering the wounded and any surplus weapons the Confederation men prepared to fall back. The wagons were set afire at Mitt Cela’s suggestion in order that the supplies would not fall into the enemy’s hands. The dead, including King Halek and wise but gentle High Steward Alline, were left behind.

In the end barely two hundred had survived from those who’d proudly entered the canyon hardly an hour before. Those who did survive knew they were lucky to be alive. They owed their lives to Captain Hai’asi for organizing the effective defensive position and to the mysterious Mitt Cela who had come to their rescue.

The withdrawal took place in an orderly fashion. Unfortunately for the Confederation men they began to be pressed by the enemy faster then expected.

The dark force’s numbers had grown so now they doggedly pursue the small remnant. Despite taking heavy casualties the relentless enemy seemed undetered. Full-on attacks were launched in addition to probing assaults along the sides. Like vultures circling a dying animal, the dark foe picked away.

It was a slow march back for the remnant from the Confederation. Hour after grueling hour they had to turn and face their opponent. The soldiers would push back, breaking out of their defensive shell and scatter those before them. Then the attacker would regroup and press on until the gap filled once more.

The excruciating dance began to take its toll as the Confederation men started to fade.

The treachery of Ahriman became generally known throughout the column, having a deflating effect on many. In addition, the warmth of the day, which earlier had felt pleasant, now turned to strength-sapping humidity. The fatigue of the exertions led to frayed nerves. Suspicions began to fester as men from different shires were looking for any signs of betrayal from others.

Daylight turned to dusk then to night. Any attempt to stop led to an immediate attack. So the exhausted column had no choice but to push on without rest.

Despite all this, Hai’asi and Mitt Cela continued to inspire the men to exert themselves beyond what they thought capable. King Jashud’s mood only grew fouler.

Finally after moving constantly throughout the night and into the next morning the beleaguered group came into view of the stone bridge over the Halcyon River. With bittersweet feelings it seemed like a lifetime ago that they had set out with such high hopes. Now the evident signs of their camp acted as a reminder and depressant of better times. Continuing to move and continuing to be pressed, the worn out troops finally crossed the bridge. With a properly defensible position they were able to stop there to rest, and more importantly, determine the next move.

The dark horde held back, finally appearing unsure of how to proceed, waiting to see what the Confederation men would do next.

The surviving leaders hastily assembled to consider their next course of action.

“This has been a disaster,” King Jashud blustered. “We must return to Carnelian and convene the Council. This threat could consume us all.”

“I agree,” Mitt Cela spoke up without invitation, “but we have to hold this bridge. We can’t allow them to cross the river.”

“And whose men do you propose to do that with since you speak only for yourself?” the king countered in an accusing tone.

“Your Majesty, don’t you understand?” Hai’asi implored. “If they break through we’ll never make it back. Besides, none of us would be here if it weren’t for this man.”

Mitt Cela was unfazed by the S’Apphire king. “This position hems them in. There’s no ford anywhere close by so they’ll have to either cross here or double back. If we abandon this position they, and any others who may be following them, will have a free run into most of the other shires.”

The patient reasoning of the man seemed to have an effect.

Jashud sighed heavily and relented. “You’re right of course,” he responded with resignation. “But this information must go back immediately. The other shires have to be warned and a plan to respond must be swiftly determined.”

The necessity of this course was obvious to everyone so the trio determined that the bulk of the force would remain to defend the bridge while a small group would swiftly travel to the capital of Carnelian.

The question then became: who would stay and lead?

Some leaders thought their voice should be heard in the Council Chambers. Others didn’t relish the thought of staying to face the massing black horde. An awkward silence that no one seemed to want to break fell on the group.

“I’ll stay.”

The steady voice of Hai’asi resonated through the group as he volunteered quietly. The eyes of the leaders fixed on the man whose statement showed more power then anything he’d accomplished physically over the previous day.

“I’ll join you,” Mitt Cela volunteered, stirred by the example of the powerful warrior. For years he’d been a loner, doing only what served him. Now, a different set of emotions surged within him.

“Impossible,” Jashud countered, overruling Mitt Cela’s desire to remain. “You’re the only one who seems to know anything about these creatures. You’re coming with us.”

The independent man’s temper flared. “Listen, no one tells me what to do.” Calming down as he looked at the anxious men around him he changed tactics. “Your experience with them is all you need to know. I’d be of no value.”

“I think we’ll be the judge of that,” the unimpressed King of S’Apphire countered. “Your experiences beyond the Tartarus Mountains are vital and need to be shared with the council. No, you’re coming along.”

Mitt Cela held his tongue this time.

The leaders shared the plan with the remaining troops. While not pleased at having to stay they knew it to be the only logical course of action. All willingly agreed to hold out as long as necessary. The resolve of Hai’asi steeled their confidence and so they prepared for a desperate defense.

As the escort moved out Mitt Cela rode back to the bridge. The assembled men were already beginning to cobble together a fortification from felled trees, rocks and whatever else they could gather. Finding the captain from Amethyst he looked down with a mixture of concern and affection. Their service together and the exertions to keep the group from being annihilated over the previous day had forged a bond between them.

Their pending separation agitated an already sore sensation for Mitt Cela. He felt as though he were abandoning his newfound friend.

“We’ll be back for you,” the bounty hunter stated with passion, “you will be relieved!”

Hai’asi strongly shook the man’s offered hand. He nodded his head as if wanting to say something but didn’t speak. Then releasing it the faithful warrior turned to return to the task at hand.

Wheeling his horse around, an emotional Mitt Cela galloped to catch up with the others riding east towards Carnelian, his pale blue eyes expressing his feelings more than any words could.

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