He lay dazed floating in and out of consciousness. Hearing the sounds of battle around him, but he could not move. He had reached the stage of exhaustion where all seems to be but a dream, and where a dream seems to be all...
He heard the crunch of feet in the sand around him and knew that he was a dead man. Voices, arguing. Too tired…delirious…exhausted, to even comprehend what they say… Slipping again…into unconsciousness. Can’t. Must fight it…save…girl…got to…find…make sure she’s safe…
His will fighting against exhaustion, was like the wind trying to fight the plumb blossom’s fall. It was inevitable. It could be prolonged or delayed, but it could not be stopped…
He tried to rise. To strike. Gruff hands took his sword away. Gentler ones lifted him upon their shoulders.
“Quickly! We must leave before they return!”
“Bring the Princess and Storm! We must ride!”
The arrow was jerked unceremoniously from the freshly bleeding wound and he was hastily thrown across an ornate saddle.
He vaguely heard what sounded like many voices raised in a massive war cry. He heard a voice above him say,
“Hopefully the ride will not kill you my friend, because the brigands surely want to. It’s hard to believe that all this was done by one man…” He stopped.
“Here they come again! Mount and ride!! Follow me! Chaaa!!!”
And off they galloped, the roughness of the ride cushioned by the pillow of unconsciousness…
“Riders! Riders coming in!!” The early morning lookout shouted from the north castle wall.
Feet thudded down the hall to the King’s guarded bed chamber. Pounding fists roused him from an uneasy sleep.
Just then the new Chamberlin slipped past the excited messenger and into the darkened room with a swish of his new silk wardrobe as the chamber guard swung open the door at the King’s command. The impatient messenger hurried to the center of the grand room to kneel before the regal four posted bed as the King propped himself up to hear the latest news…
“What is it?” He said sleepily.
“Sire there are..” began the messenger breathlessly, pointing behind him like the subject matter he was about to relate would burst into the room behind him at any moment….
“Is this too much light your highness?” interrupted the Chamberlin as he opened the gold and red ornate ceiling drapes of the Kings’ bed chamber.
“No, not at all,” Then to the messenger, “Continue, what news have you?”
“Sire we have spotted..” he began, pointing again.
“What would you like for breakfast, your highness?” Came the interrupting voice again.
“What ever the cook has prepared, Chamberlin. Now…”
“Yes sire. We spotted riders headed in, and we…”
“May I suggest eggs for the Kings breakfast, with a slice of…”
“Kierstat! I made you my Chamberlin, not the royal grandmother! Now fetch me a breakfast of what ever has been prepared, from the royal kitchen!”
Flushed, the new Chamberlin silk-rustled his way across the floor and out the room.
“By the gods! A good man, but his head has grown to be larger than the office. He elevates every minor thing to the level of an affair of state. Now, please continue…!”
“Thank you! Sire, we spotted riders headed from the north pursued by what appears to be a large force of brigands. And…”
“Over a hundred, Sire, according to the lookout.”
“What! By the gods eternal. Quickly, hand me my clothes,” he said as he swung out of bed stripping from his night clothes.
“Here you are sire. Sire, please, there’s more…”
An attendant stepped unseen from the shadows from the other side of the room and silently and obediently began to help the King to don his fighting attire,
“Well!!!???”, said the impatient King as he dressed hurriedly.
The young soldier turned discreetly away and continued to speak.
Outside, more feet pounded their way down the hall toward the King’s bed chamber…
“Sire, the riders are the men of Lt. KarSalas’ patrol.”
“KarSalas? Yes good man, good soldier, like his father. Now, what about him. Speak up lad!”
He hesitated. Suppose the lookout had been wrong about what else he’d thought he’d seen slung across Storms’ back?
“Well??? You try my patience boy,” said the King snapping on his buckler.
“Sire the patrol bears two bodies and the lookout swears, even at this distance that one of the bodies looks like that of…”
The pounding feet outside the door suddenly exploded into the King’s bedroom past the protesting arm of a King’s guard and in front of the startled messenger to fall prostrate at the King’s feet and say between gasps…
“The…the Princess…Arnenia is….”
The Chamberlin, still oblivious to the cause of all the activity, was just rounding the corner at the top of the stone stairs, breakfast tray in hand, enjoying the hush-hush of his new custom made “official garments”, when the scream began…
It was the cry of ultimate anguish…Intolerable pain. The anguish of it was like a physical blow which shook him and everyone within the castle who heard it…
And it was heard by all.
The walls then took up the soul-wrenching cry, and before he realized it, he had dropped the tray and was running for the King’s chamber. The steaming food skittering across the floor like hot pieces of a shattered dream…
He rounded the corner, his silken garments held high out of the way of urgent feet.
A messenger was just leaving, with another, the one he’d seen earlier, close behind.
“The Princess is dead”, he heard them mutter in a depressed whisper to the door guard, “And the King doesn’t wish to be disturbed...”
“What about the brigands?” The guard questioned urgently, closing the door almost reverently.
“For the moment, that appears to be up to us," said one of the messengers. "We must see to it…” And then, as he walked away, hand upon his sword, over his shoulder he said quietly,
“…Even a King needs time to grieve…”
Captain KarSalas and his patrol hit the flank of the brigand hoard with the impact of a giant crossbow. The flank collapsed before him like the side of a wounded animal cringing in pain. Like a wounded animal trying to protect it’s exposed side, the pack stopped it’s hard charging chase of the younger KarSalas and his patrol, and the forepart of the pack, turned and swung round again, reaching, like some great beast trying to bite and remove the thorn in its side.
It sought to crush the courageous Captain in it’s steel jaws. However this thorn piercing the side of this great pursuing beast did not stop to allow such, but in accordance with the Captains’ orders, sliced it’s way clean through at full speed. It angled across this great body of fierce warriors to burst through the other side, racing straight for the castle. Like an enraged nest of hornets, the body of warriors turned round upon themselves vainly trying to get at this horse-driven thunderbolt, killing some of their own in the confusion. While the Captain’s patrol—never breaking stride for a moment, thundered through the closing castle gates only moments behind his son and his precious and mysterious cargo, their swords nicked and bloodied by the rapier-like military move.
“A brilliant strategy father,” said the younger KarSalas dismounting in an instant, “But quickly, help me get the Princess inside to the royal physician!”
“Is she dead?”
“Only if we tarry! Bring the Outlander too!”
Then he was off, bounding up the stairs from the courtyard into the castle, the Princess cradled in his arms, headed for the physician’s chambers.
Outside, mailed feet could be heard rapidly clanking their way along the top of the Castle walls. Crossbows were prepped, armed and raised as heaving horses could be heard coming to an abrupt and angry halt outside the giant wooden gate…
“Irr, tat chill tak karaak da um da-te- Xazal-Tak!”
“Give us the Killing-Demon who has slain our King’s son!”
“Kruum taban dama tak daga umn kra amm dal krat Xazal-Tak. Dabuul tad zak! Kruul damak tm vadoo-“
“DaladKall, can you translate what that barbarian is saying?”, asked the Watch Captain.
“I’ll try sir”, came the reply.
“And if you do not deliver to us the Killing-Demon, we will destroy your city and feed the hearts of your children to our young and savor the taste of your blood like a heady wine. You cannot stop us! So…give us the Killing-Demon and give him now! Or we will make your wives, widows, and your virgin daughters weeping and ruined reminders of your insolence in hiding such a murderous dog!”
“That’s it sir, he’s awaiting our reply.”
“Killing-Demon”? What, in the name of the Southern gods is that?”
“I don’t know sir, but we better answer, he’s growing impatient.”
“Let him wait.”
Another voice chimed in,
“Could he be speaking of the stranger? I heard one of the men of Lt. KarSalas’ patrol say they came upon him fighting the brigands and that he had apparently slain many of their number before being arrowed in the shoulder. As many as 30 or more!”
“What!!?? Impossible! But…if that’s true …Yesss,” said the Captain with a knowing smile, eyeing the brigand fidgeting outside the wall down below,
“I can see why they would want him so…”
“Before too sir, the brigand said something about the “Killing-Demon” killing the king’s son…”
“Clear off the table quickly, I’ll lay her here.”
The young Lt. gently laid the wounded Princess on the long wooden table in the small hospital room.
“Where is the physician!!” He yelled, as her handmaidens tended to her and the stranger.
“Someone went to fetch him, he’s with the King. We all thought she was dead!” said a young palace guard.
“She will be if we don’t hurry! Father, how is the Stranger doing?”
“He’s alive, but somewhat delirious I think. He keeps—“
Another solider rushed into the already crowded room.
“The brigands are demanding that we turn over to them the Stranger!”
“Yes, sir. They are demanding of the Watch Captain that we turn him over now or they will storm the castle.”
The Lt.’s face clouded over suddenly in thought, And they have enough men to do it. The look was not wasted on his father.
“What is it my son, you look concerned,”
He had not had a chance to share with his father yet what he had seen in the valley. He shot his father a look which said, “Not here, not now…” No one but he knew of the massive force. But to surrender this stranger who had fought so valiantly and, evidently, to save the Princess, could not be turned over to certain torture and death. He looked over at the bleeding and restless Stranger being tended to by one of the Princess’s handmaids. He could not allow such an ignoble death to overtake such a noble man…
“So what does the Captain propose to do, turn the Stranger over to them!”
“Oh no, sir,” said the smiling soldier, “He sent me to make sure he was well, and if conscious, to tell him that if half the tales we’ve heard of him are true , he has the Captain’s admiration and everlasting respect. The brigands call him ‘Xazal-Tak’. “The Killing-Demon”. Apparently he killed a great number of their men single handily with that.” He pointed to the solemn black sword standing in the corner near the soft cot upon which the tortured stranger lay. They all stared for an awe inspired moment in total silence at both the man and his weapon.
“Aye,” said the young KarSalas in hushed, almost reverent tones,
“If all the carnage I saw on the beach in the wilderness was caused by this one man, then the brigands have finally met their match in this One, who has given them a taste of a savagery as fierce and as merciless as their own…And perhaps we have found an ally….”
The physician and the King burst into the room with all the concern of two fathers rather than one.
“Out! Clear the room, no one but my assistants may remain! And the King… for a time.”
Then, he immediately went to work. The arrow had been removed but the arrowhead remained embedded in the Stranger’s shoulder. But the physician tended to the Princess first.
The King hovered over his daughter like a brooding hen, delighted she was still alive, tho barely. Messengers and runners routinely kept the King advised of developments by shouts through the closed door. Captain KarSalas went to the walls where they watched the Watch Captain respond to the brigands request, with a rain of arrows that sent them scurrying for distance and shelter like old women caught in a sudden hail storm.
Their leader turned, cursing, and shook an angry fist that was promptly pierced by a well placed bow shot and he rode away in as much pain and agony as fury.
They would rue the day they did this to a son of the Ton… And the number.2 son sped off to report this latest provocation to his father. They would pay dearly for this…
He wept. Silvari, his friend, his confidant and brother in battle lay butchered on the battlefield. The whole half of his face, gone. The victim of a Tactrian war hammer, a feared and gruesome weapon of iron and spiked head. Thunder bore him along silently. He too was weary, nay--exhausted, from battle. As was the custom of his people the solemn rider composed and sang a funeral dirge for his friend, only here in this land that he had adopted far from his own, there were none to sing it with him. He was glad to be going home at last. Home to the dancing eyes of his son and the comforting arms of his wife, Arzana. Arzana…Yes she was worth forsaking a Throne for, even the Power Throne of Gallaban…
He began in hoarse voice to chant…
Your bravery is the yarn
From which legends are spun and told
Your loyalty, a treasure,
More costly than Sackenian gold
Your friendship a warm mountain
In a cold and heartless land
Your honor spotless and implacable
The highest known, to give your life
For another man…
Thunder plodded slowly, unerringly down Brisro Road. The dark rider could barely keep himself upright in the saddle. His head lolled from side to side with each step Thunder made. But the elements helped him. The wind was a gentle hand at his back, urging him on, gently nudging him home. The air was sweetly scented with the smell of Honeysuckle, Arzana’s favorite flower. He was dreaming. He saw Arzana, his son in her arms, running slowly down the road to meet him. The slow motion dream was a heady elixir that intoxicated him with its warmth and beauty. She looked beautiful…He was a fool to have ever left her to fight in another man’s war. Sure the Tactrians may have indeed beaten the Quillmarians at Ynagkurr without his help, but there were enough good, stout men of good heart and courage left in this province to have staved them off…
“Stop…”, his conscience chastised, “you are lying to yourself and you know it, they needed every man available…And even then victory was won by the most narrow of margins…”
By the Strong God, Eloah. Even in his dreams, duty hunted and haunted him. He awoke briefly, gave a reassuring pat to Thunder, looked about them to get his bearings,
“Only a few more miles…Good boy, Thunder, take us home,” then drifted back off to sleep…
The scent of Honeysuckle again swept him back into the sweet land of dreams….
“Arzana….” He saw her again as he and Thunder made their way up the slight incline to the wood and stone cabin he had built with his own two hands. Again, she held their son in her arms. Again, he caught his breath at her beauty. She was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman in the world. If those in his home land that questioned his decision years ago to leave, could see him, here, now, in this humble scene, with ….her, they would know why he had to leave….
They would know why he gave up his right to the Throne.
“Eloah, without doubt, she is the most beautiful woman you have ever created…Thank you that she is mine, and that I, am hers…” he prayed.
He dismounted from Thunder and kissed her, hard. Like a man dying of thirst discovering a cool spring, he drank long and deep of the sweet freshness of her love. He was like a desert rider who uses cool water to wash the dust from his throat. So her kisses washed the gritty memories of the past six months from his heart and mind….
His son began to squirm between them and whimper and he chuckled and took the infant in his scarred hands and held him above this head, smiling.
“Ha! No, I didn’t forget about you, my young warrior! How could I!” His gaze fell again upon Arzana as he placed the now cooing infant gently across his shoulder and patted him soothingly.
“…It’s just that when your mother happens to be the most beautiful woman any man has ever seen, it makes one forget temporarily everything, but her matchless beauty…” He said gently stroking her tanned cheek. She held his hand there, cradling her cheek in the appealing roughness of his palm. Her hazel eyes melted him. Her raven waist-length hair was tied up in a shiny interwoven bun, out of the way for the chores that had to be done while he had been away. Her simple brown printed dress, cinched at the waist, could not hide the sweet suppleness of her form. He slipped an arm around her and drew her to him. She was warm and yielding and smelled of Honeysuckle….
“It’s so good to have you home Theron…I missed you so much…”
A pull of the single hair pin sent her hair tumbling the length of her back like dark water. He loved its dark silkiness….
For a brief moment however, her eyes were sad magnets that drew him inside and he saw and felt the pain and loneliness of the past six months displayed there. He cursed himself for ever leaving her in the first place.
Duty. What a fool he’d been. His duty was here! Thank Eloah, she and the boy were alright. He released her and his faced turned solemn as his eyes became sword points boring into her’s. He gripped her hand as if holding on for dear life.
“I swear to you, my Love. As long as you and I both shall live. I will never ever leave you and the boy again. Never…”
Her heart warmed to him, swelling with an emotion and pride that brought tears of joy to her eyes. At long last the warriors’ heart within him had been tamed. The sense of duty to cause, at last gave way to duty to love, from honor and valor alone, to the warmth of the hearth and a loving families’ arms. No more wars or skirmishes or such dangerous things. He’d known them since he was a boy in his own country. They were a part of him, his nature, his breeding. And for him to give up all this for her! It simply swelled her love for him! She clung to him suddenly, nearly toppling him over and wept heartily. At last. Not to have to worry about him. Her relief was a summer rain storm on his free shoulder, and initially he had laughed in delight at the joy of her relief, then, as he realized how much it had meant to her, and she to him…He wept too….
After a long moment they looked at each other with reddened eyes, smiling sheepishly. She sniffed away her last tears and smiling said,
“I see that you’re wearing the cloak and clothes that I made for you before you left. You must like them to be wearing your, um, what did you call them?”
“ ‘Savah’, my Love,” he said quietly, his face suddenly clouding over. She caught it instantly and he knew it and tried to turn away before the tears flowed gain. He would tell her, but not here, not now.
“They are the night-fighting garments of my people. I knew that the Illmarians dreaded fighting at night so I used that to my advantage…” He must tell her. Strong but gentle fingers drew his face back to hers and to her curious, and now concerned, hazel eyes….
My God. Their beauty always made him breathless….
“…And…?”, she said raising a quizzled eyebrow.
Over his shoulder the boy giggled and reached out to Thunder who knodded his head approvingly as the infant cooed and reached out to him again ….
“…Theron, what is wrong, and why are you wearing this ‘Savah’ here, now. You told me once there were only two occasions that your people wore this garment. One was for night fighting, now, tell me. What is the other?”
He tried to turn away but her strong hands, like her love, held him fast.
“…The other occasion,” he began as his throat went dry, “…Is…is for mourning…,” he said and dropped his head.
She retreated a step and caught her breath.
“It’s Silvari…isn’t it. He’s dead isn’t he…”
Now, it was his turn to cling to her. His turn to seek release, only his release was not from the tortures of the unknown fate of loved ones. No, his was from guilt….
“I’m so sorry Arzana….”, he wept as he pressed his head to her bosom as if it were a warm nook one could enter to hide from the fiery arrows of onus that pursued him, for what had seemed an eternity.
“I’m so sorry about your brother. I wish…I wish it had been me instead…”
“Shhhh”, she said cradling him to her bosom to comfort him.
“I know how close the two of you were. I know, I know,” she said comfortingly, her eyes faraway in thought.
“…Somehow, I knew that only one of you would be coming home this time….And I prayed to Eloah that at least one of you would come back to me safe and unharmed….and as much as I loved my brother….”, she held him close as he felt her tears on his cheek.
“…I prayed, that it would be you….”
There was a long silence...He felt speechless. Humbled somehow. Numbed by her confession.
“I loved him”, he said at last, not knowing what else to say.
“I know….” She whispered soothingly, holding in her own grief, to help him contend with his… She was magnificent. He knew that if anyone could help him live with what had happened, it was her. Only her love could comfort him.
Thunder had walked over to them and quietly endured the boy’s feeble attempts to pet him. But he ‘was’ hungry, and his master had had enough attention. It was time for him to receive some, by way of fresh carrots and soft hay. He knudged his master’s back with his nose.
Theron chuckled and turned sniffing and smiling to look at Thunder. Arzana looked around him at Thunder and said,
“One doesn’t stand on ceremony when there’s eating to be done, eh, Thunder!” The horse whineyed in reponse.
Theron patted his nose.
“Well, let’s get my three hungry men some food then, eh?” she said drying her eyes...
The black garbed rider awoke with a start. Lightening x-rayed everything around him then fell away. And in an instant all was black again. In it’s briefness it had showed that they were still on the road home as wind and rain whipped about them. He pulled his wet cloak about him tightly to keep out the cold, and in spite it and the rain he drifted off again into a fitful sleep. Dreams. The only thing left now to keep him warm…
Odd…His dream began where it had ended. With Arzana promising to feed Thunder. But then a large black shadow swept low over them and then he heard a scream, a man’s scream…his scream, and everything swirled into blackness around him. He awoke again with a start, his heart an uncontrollable hammer inside his chest. His thoughts, fire arrows that darted back and forth across his weary mind. His gut, a warning clarion sounding an unseen alarm that sent chills down his spine.
It was the storm, it must have been the storm, the blackness of the rainy night had invaded his dreams, that was it…
His were not a superstitious people, but even he knew a bad omen when he saw one…
The thought that hit him was a thunderbolt that blasted away all weariness and need for sleep…and filled him with dread.
“Heyahhhh!!!” He drove his heels so suddenly and forcefully into Thunders’ flanks that the horse reared and glared over its’ shoulder briefly at its’ master in surprise. The two then bolted through the rain up the muddy road like mad wraiths. The black cape twisting in the wet wind like a tormented soul in hell's flames…
Thunders’ hooves pounded the muddy road unmercifully demanding better traction to speed their way. His masters’ eyes were cold slits against the rain. Something was driving him. An urgency that Thunder had never seen before. A feeling of pressing need emanated from his master and seem to run before them beckoning them and indeed pulling them along. And they followed hard after it.
They crested the last muddy hill leading to the rustic cabin and Thunder felt rather than heard the swift intake of breath from his master.
The cabin was a dark run down shifting shape in the eery lightening streaked darkness. The wind whistled in mockery around the distant little form. A hollow shell of it’s former self. Instead of the welcoming billows of a hearty fire that they had expected to see as in times past, there was a single wind-whipped pale string of smoke that twisted about at the winds mercy.
Thunder didn’t wait to be goaded this time, he bolted toward the sad homestead with an urgency of his own…
It was his home too, the only home he’d known since he was a colt and something was strangely wrong.
They plummeted down the grassy knoll to the house like a dark star. They thundered to a dead stop in front of the cabin. The cape caught the wind and the rider looked like a great bat descending from the saddle…calling her name.
He bolted to the rickety door and swept through it in one motion.
The sight that greeted him wrenched his heart. The cabin he had worked so hard to build for his family, was a decrepit mess. He ran to the bedroom calling her name…
Nothing…but the howling wind outside.
The walls leaked and oozed a putrid looking fungus. The air was heavy with a choking fetid smell. The floorboards were warped in many places and broken or missing in others. He ran from room to room in the small cabin repeatedly calling her name…Still, there was no answer. In the bedroom he found the crib full of dust, unused apparently for months.
Where was she??? And where was his son???
He returned to the living room. Dust covered everything.
The large dinner table he had made and hand carved for her, lay before him, the legs missing at one end, broken bowls and hard moldy food scattered on the floor at the other. Chairs, dry rotted. Books, unread in months, sagged like dusty old soldiers in the oak bookcase. Cupboards open and empty…
WHERE WAS SHE!!!
His tracks were a muddy trail on the dusty cabin floor. A puzzle of confused prints, like his thoughts. He felt desperate. Was his premonition right?
Just then, Thunder whineyed outside and he heard the sound of voices. He drew his sword and melted back into one of the many shadows thrown by the dying fire in the hearth…
“If they have harmed the woman and the boy, I will make Death an intimate friend to them and my face the last thing they will see before they meet him…”
The sword, a shiny mirror of death, threw his reflection back at him. The hate and venom he saw there, shocked even him…
The voices hushed as they saw the horse, and, muddy feet thumped cautiously onto the porch.
The door swung slowly open. Lightening arched the midnight sky outside silhouetting two figures in the doorway.
My woman… he thought, To kill my woman and my child was unforgivable. He wouldn’t kill them, these murderers, whoever they were, he fumed in his fury.
No, he would use their bones to sharpen his blade, then he would kill them. But first they would tell him what they had done with his woman and his child…
He let them emerge into the room. A hand reached slowly for a candle on the shelf beside the door.
He prepared to slice it off.
He silently raised the sword above his head and took a half step forward so his weight would fall behind the blow making it a clean strike. Severing bone and muscle tissue in one cut. But in his fury he made one mistake. The light of the fire caught the blade and flashed through the cabin like quick silver. His mistake saved a life.
“Theron? Is that you?”, said an aged but familiar voice…
For a moment he stood frozen, in shock. Recovering, he swallowed his wrath and slowly sheathed his sword.
“Yes…” His answer was hollow, his mind still so flushed from the thought of vengence it took great effort and several moments to calm down.
A match flared and they gasped as he stepped from the shadows, no more than three feet away from them and they had not known it.
“My Shamma! The wars have made you quieter than a cat! Mother look whose here! It is Theron!” said ole Samsa.
“By the Strong God, it is you!!! You’ve come back to us safe. Oh, we prayed for you and Silvari!”
He endured having his face taken by cold wrinkled hands and kissed. Mechanically he hugged her. She was a good friend, they both were. He had asked them before he left to keep an eye on Arzana and Drasaal, make sure they were ok.
“Where is she? Where is Arzana?”
The old man and old woman’s eyes met for a brief moment and Theron caught the look.
The lad was hurting, Samsa could see that. He looked like a ghost stepping out of the shadows toward them a moment ago. His sunken eyes held the sorrow of war in them and something else…But now, they would hold even more…
“Come my son, sit down. Mother, get the lad some dry clothes. I’ll go bed Thunder down for the night.
“I want to know where…!”
“I know boy, I know. And I will tell you the truth. I always have, haven’t I?. Good. Now, sit down and let Ola get you some dry clothes and we’ll discuss it when I return.” He turned, pulling his coat around him and opened the door to the wind and started to step out. The old woman had slipped into the bedroom to get some of his old things when he called out to Samsa. The old man paused in the doorway. But didn’t look back.
He did'nt look back...
“Samsa!! Where is she…Tell me…”
Thunder in the heavens rolled like cannon shot across the sullen sky. Lightening darted like a bright thief in the sky, and was gone.
“We, just buried them…” He said quietly and closed the door…