One Man’s Vengenful Quest …..Against Death Itself
Deep depression clung to him like the black garb he wore as his horse ‘ker-plocked’ along the deserted road. He saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing. The gaunt black stallion had borne him through peasant towns and villages. Past farmers with ox carts laden with goods and silk traders from the East and furriers from the mountains north of Zurabbale…and all stared. For, in all their travels in various lands and climes they had never seen a man nor his steed so guant and sullen, forlorn… and downcast.
He sobbed silently. Like rivlets from a brief storm tears cascaded from reddened hollow eyes that ever lay fixed on the road. Never looking up at passers by. Always down. As if they feared to look to where they were going, and mourned the fact of where they’d been…
Nothing moved him any more. Not laughing children or weeping women. Not boisterous men nor hungry wolves. All avoided him as he passed, his melancholy a pall the followed him and a shield of dread that surrounded and preceded him so that even animals were repelled or grew edgy when he passed.
A black sword imprinted with silver studs ‘tinked’ against his metal stirrup. It was the only sound that either he or his horse made. He had been riding thus for three days. Non stop. Day and night. The horse, walking…walking…no strength to gallop. No food for man nor beast for three days. No desire to eat. It was as if the horse too were as melancholy as the rider. So, on the fourth day it collapsed. Spilling black-caped rider, mood and all, to the wet ground. It whineyed once and died. He—the rider, lay where he had fallen, still-listening to the horse breath its last breath, wishing he were dead too.
Here, again, he thought wearily, I am responsible for the death of another…
For hours he lay beside the beast, again weeping, so wrapped up in his own sorrow he had now lost the last true friend he’d had in this wretched world. He thought about falling on his own sword. The razor-like blade of Kelstarion steel would pierce his chest easily and what little weight he had left would aid the incredibly sharp weapon in slicing through bone to quickly skewer and stop the painful beat of his broken heart…
He unsheathed his sword where he lay. Breathing heavily, he sat up. Odd, how heavy it was now compared to a few weeks ago when he wielded it so easily in battle against thieves, brigands and murderers of the sect of the Tactrians. He laughed, his voice husky and hoarse in the dusky wood. Crows scattered in fright and cawed back to a voice as grated and as raw as their own. He laughed again as the same thought like a circling bird reentered his thinking. The Tactrians, now if they were here, “they” would kill me, freely! I wish they had! Oh, by the Strong God, I wish they had…
He staggered to his feet. Delirious from the final stages of starvation. He saw the battle of Quillmarr again. He saw himself drawn in battle array. He saw himself lead the charge, he smiled as he saw the Quillmarrians part before the Wave Attack of his troops.
“The Quillmarrian breakers would dash the strongest waves of the furious Northern Sea, how much more the cavalry charges of the Illmarrian host! That’s what they said!”, he shouted, to the empty woods around him, swaying on hungry legs and heavy feet, waving his battle sword.
“Yes! That’s what they said, but “we” showed them, eh Silvari?”
He turned in his stupor to his friend and fellow sojourner who, like him, sat astride his war steed. Silvari looked sternly straight ahead in polished silver armor and helm, the sounds of battle crashing around them.
When suddenly he turned and smiled at his friend showing that the entire left side of his face, helm and all-were gone.
“Aye”, he said calmly, “We showed them my friend, we showed them all…”.
The apparition then moved toward him as if to take hold, and the exhausted rider cut through the vanishing figure in a lightening like sword maneuver that decapitated his best friend and took all of his remaining strength.
Before he collapsed, he resolved to live. And not let Death take him as it had his friend and most hurtful of all…his love.
Pain was the only thing that managed to convince him that he was still alive. He had cheated Death once again it seemed. These thoughts like slugs slowly crawled thru his mind. A mind that has been slowed and dulled by lack of nutrients and any kind of substance for three weeks and four days now.
Pain. Again the nagging, tugging, intense pain. Stop it! What was pulling at him so? Was it Death himself, indeed, unwilling to let him go so easily, refusing to relinquish its’ hold as it saw him slowly rising to consciousness like a drowning swimmer in a lake, seeking to pull him back down?
Arrg! Pain! Again the pain, ripping a t him, threatening to pull him apart.
"Stop it!!!”, he yelled and sat bolt upright.
The sudden movement nearly gave the ring-neck buzzard a heart attack. It was not use to its’ meals fighting back, least of all while it was endeavoring to eat them. It dropped the small piece of flesh in its mouth and flew away squawking a warning to its compatriots who were feasting just as eagerly on the dead horse. Beware your meal does not come back to life, he squawked, as mine has…
The other birds eyed the weakened stranger warily for a moment. Watched him stagger two steps in their direction venting his impotent fury. Watched him fall heavily and lay still and then they returned to their feasting. No need to hurry.
He would be next…
The King’s daughter jerked the reins of her gelding hard to the right. The tan and white stallion, as stubborn as she, jerked to the left and bolted through a line of thick trees. She whipped his flanks and pulled hard back on the reins.
"Curse you Storm! Obey me! Now! “
Instead, the powerful animal lowered its head and raced down a steep hill and Princess Arnenia clung wide-eyed to the galloping young stallion for her dear life. She wished now she had listened to her father’s advice that morning.
“Stop leaving your Guard behind. Every time you go riding you needn’t demonstrate that I have given you the fastest—“
“And the craziest”, she had interjected.
“--horse in the kingdom.” He sighed, slouched back upon his Emerald throne and looked at her. She was every bit the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Just like her mother had been. He smiled.
And sometimes just as stubborn.
She was also every bit the tom-boy still. He thought by now she’d have grown out of it. Always trying to out ride and out shoot his guards. Leaving them in a quandary of either embarrassing the king’s daughter or of feigning defeat.
But that had been earlier.
Now she was indeed a match of nearly any man in the kingdom with either horse or bow or sword. Still she was so tom-boyish. He wished there was some way to get her out of it. Out of breeks into a dress…she looked so like her mother…
“Father, you’re doing it again. You’re looking at me with that “oh-if-my-daughter-weren’t-so-much-like-a-boy” look again. I enjoy my life father, just as I am. I shall never marry because I shall never marry a man who cannot beat me in everything and there are none in all of JildiZar who can. I shall remain here to take care of you. So you had better get use to the idea—“
“That you are as stubborn as Storm and that I have as much chance of changing your mind, as you do of breaking the spirit of that new gelding!”, he said chuckling.
“No, father,” she corrected “…Less.” She turned on her heels and headed for the stables. Having the last word, as usual.
“Wait, Arnenia,” he called after her, laughing at her quick flaring temper.
“Wait for the guard to accompany you!”
She kept walking.
“Yes, my lord,” said an attendant instantly at his side.
With a casual gesture the King told his steward,
“Quickly, go tell the Captain of my Guard that the Princess is going riding on the gelding again and to have a few of his best men to ride with her.”
“Yes, sire”. The attendant bowed out, and left. He returned however a short while later. The King was still smiling remembering his exchange with the young feisty heir to his throne.
“Sire, I’m afraid the Princess has already left and the guards cannot find her—anywhere.”
“What?!” He rose to his feet, tall, majestic, powerful and angry.
"Search! Tell the guards I said to search till they find her! It will be dark soon, and I want her found !!!”His voice boomed throughout the throne room and seemed to carry the steward out through the giant double doors.
Foolish girl! thought the King to himself.
“How in the world will she ever be able to rule a kingdom, when she cannot even rule her own emotions!” he said aloud…
The horse burst through a hedge of thorns and Arnenia threw up her hands to protect her face. He leaped over a huge downed tree and landed with a bone-numbing jolt.
It seemed the steed had run for hours, they must be at the furthest reaches of the kingdom by now.
She caught her breath.
There, in front of them, was a low level of brush and beyond it she could see was nothing but empty air and this mad stallion was speeding her right to it!
Guards! Guards! Where were her guards!!
She leaned forward and grabbed the bridle on either side on the horses’ head and pulled back hard. The bits dug hard into the horses’ mouth. The pain caused him to turn and glare at his young rider. Their eyes met and both flashed their determination and anger. The horse turned hard to his right avoiding the precipice, it lost it’s footing on loose rocks and horse and rider tumbled down a steep embankment and crashed into a small clearing. A huge pack of ring-necked buzzards rose like a frightened black cloud leaving the remains of a black stallion, the white bones and pink flesh bathed in the warm reddish light of the setting sun…
The young girl staggered slowly to her feet. Backhanding away the blood from a gash over her left eye. The tight bun had come free and her hair fell like a golden brown waterfall over her shoulders. Her cheeks were flushed with fear, exhilaration, and even moreanger. She felt dizzy and sat back down quickly on the leaf covered ground. The valley floor was covered with the bright signs of fall, and here in this clearing the leaves were a multi-colored carpet on the green grass. She looked about her for Storm. He stood several yards away grazing, and apparently unhurt.
Her nostrils flared, her green eyes flashing fire.
“You crazy animal!” she shouted,
“You nearly killed us both!!”
Storm cast a lazy glance in her direction, whineyed disrespectfully, and returned to his grazing.
She was furious.
She felt he had just given her the equestrian version of “shut up”.
She rose again…slowly dusting off her brown breeks and glancing about her. She turned away quickly repulsed by the sight of the scavenged body of a gaunt black stallion. She slowly turned and looked at it again, revulsion giving way to sympathy for what must have once been a very proud animal. She slowly moved closer. Warily keeping an eye upon the trees on the other side of the clearing where hoards of buzzards waited and squawked their impatience for her to leave so they could finish feasting…
She came to within a spears length of the animal. The oppressive smell of dead flesh and day old blood offended her royal nostrils. She studied the saddle and stirrups.
Strange. The runes and markings were like nothing she’d seen anywhere in the kingdom. She reached for her slim sword and drew it.
She’d heard rumors about such since she was a child. Wide-eyed barbarians that drank blood and swallowed fire. Huge man-like beasts that would kill and eat their own young and—“
She stopped and chided herself.
These were mere wives tales.
She sheathed her sword. These were simple stories told by the peasant folk to frighten children off to bed.
She was a grown woman, 18 yrs old, knowledgeable in the things of the world and had no time to be bothered with such rot. Besides, it was getting dark and she had many leagues to go thanks—to Storm, who watched her carefully but kept a very discreet distance from the dead stallion.
It was as she turned to go, thinking that the rider had probably met the same fate as his horse and that she must tell her father about this adventure upon her return, that it grabbed her around her ankle.
For just a moment a frightened little girl once again. Fighting reflexes however quickly took over and her hand leaped for her sword to cut whatever ground monster had grabbed her, in to.
“Shhringg!!!” Her sword sang out as it swept in figure 8 arc toward the monster.
The ‘monster’ was a scarred and dirt-blackened hand. An Outlanders’ hand—emerging from a pile of leaves at her feet.
This hand wore a large gold signet ring with runes like those on the dead horses' saddle, surrounding a strange looking blood-red ruby.
The men of JildiZar never wore rings.
She knelt and brushed back the blanket of leaves and gasped in horror. The black-garbed figure was so emancipated, it didn’t look human anymore.
There was a hole in the right shoulder caked with leaves and dried blood.
“Arzana…”, the figure whispered in hoarse tones in a voice barely audible,
She knelt closer to hear what he was trying to say. It was painfully obvious he was dying…She cradled his head in her lap, her ear and face inches away, straining to hear each word…
“I’m…sorry…I wasn’t there for you and Drasaal…but I do love you…I love you both. Please…forgive me..”.
He kissed her briefly in his delirium. She recoiled in shock. Her hand rose to her lips involuntarily. Her eyes wide with surprise. She recoiled not because of the coarseness of his lips, cracked, blistered and raw as they were. She recoiled not because he was a stranger, Outlander, foreigner and a part of the fearful unknown. She recoiled, in
surprise. And at not only the act, but because she had never been kissed by a man before, and she’d found in that brief second, amidst all the strangeness of it all--that, that she had liked it…
He lay sprawled at her feet as if dead. He had fallen from her lap when she had recoiled from him. Had she killed him by reacting so hastily??
She knelt beside him quickly and cradled his head again. Guilt, remorse and sadness like solid waves swept over her as she rocked back and forth and wept over this sad and wounded stranger. Who would morn over him? Who would bewail the battles he could have won or the battles he already had? She looked to the Heavens as she felt the pain of this stranger, this traveler from afar. Something tore at her from the inside, an emotion so deep, that she felt as if she were giving birth with each wail, and she was. Giving birth to all the pain and hurt that this dead traveler had held inside and endured for so long and that he himself was unable to release. She looked down into his face, her tears fell upon his face like a warm gentle rain. As if in response to her cries, a solemn but steady wind began to blow... Her tears washed the drawn and soot-blackened, but handsome face. She caressed his right cheek and caught her breath and suddenly froze. His eyes had stirred.
“Don’t…cry Arzana….” He said weakly, “I’ll…be alright…Your love…is life itself…to me…”, then slipped into unconsciousness, and she then, in her delight at finding him still alive, kissed him…
Darkness fell like the tolling of a death knell. It would be insanity to try and find her way back to the castle now. They would have to spend the night in the woods and strike out fresh in the morning. She went over to the dead horse and stripped it of the strangers' camping gear.
It was autumn and in the fall the brigands came. Raiders from the north from Norsdad~Um. Killers and mercenaries. The only thorn in the rose of JildiZar. She knew she would need to build a lean-to over the fire to keep it hidden as much as possible so this night in the woods would not be their last in the land of the living…
“Sire, we…we’re sorry but we’ve searched all night and still there is no--“
“Sorry! SORRY!!!" The King rose from his throne in red-faced fury stepping forward on the dais, his robes flowing about him like the swirling thunder clouds of an angry god…
“I will TEACH you the meaning of the word “sorry” if the Princess Arnenia is not here, before noon today!!”
“But sire,” began his Chamberlin, “The men have been doing the best they can under-“
“More excuses?" interrupted the King over his shoulder to the chamberlin.
“Perhaps I should place you then here, beside the Captain of my guard, because both of you are totally useless!”
The captain, chastised and exhausted, hung his head and endured the wrath of his King.
“Sire,” the chamberlin began again. “You’re tired you don’t mean--“
“I KNOW WHAT I MEAN CHAMBERLIN!! INSTEAD OF ARGUING WITH ME YOU SHOULD BE OUT SEARCHING FOR THE ROYAL HEIR TO THE KINGDOM!!!”
He regretted it the moment he said it. It was true , he was tired and the chamberlin was right. Taking it out on his Captains and servants did nothing to help the situation or them. He had never raised his voice to his friend in twenty years of rule and to do so now in front of the entire court was a huge error on his part. Embarrassed and angered the chamberlin stormed from the throne room, before the King, realizing his error, could apologize…He, the King, would regret it for the rest of his life, because he would never see his friend alive again…