Chapter 11: First Blood Drawn
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Chapter 11, part 1 appears
in this issue.
The fires spread all across the hills like bugs crawling over a large beast. They covered half the region to the east and south, trampling the beautiful grasslands. The far-off campsite ran parallel to the borders of Acrene Tarrynth and Ramendae. In the night, beneath the stars, the Hills of Fae were nothing now but a rolling sea of tents and small fires; fires that taunted Palance like the eyes of a dead child. The men of those fires had arrived at some time during the night, under cover of darkness and prying eyes.
Palance watched the distant campsite with trepidation. Laying flat on his stomach, on top of the highest hill he could find, gave him the advantage to spy. Eliath lay next to him, his own eyes deep with concern. The commander had not said a word since the arrival of the enemy.
Who were they? They did not know.
Larson, keeping his vigilant watch, had first caught sight of the fires. The whole camp of the Iinnin Lodar had been stirred awake and now they stood solemnly awaiting their orders. Palance had seen an eager glint come to every man’s eye. The enemy had arrived. This time the enemy was made of men, men they could all fight. The hunger for battle that registered on the faces of all his men gave him hope. He had thought their spirit broken, unable to regain their senses after losing men to the rain and fighting a possessed child.
Palance observed the unfolding drama before him. He felt like a man in a play given the role of a hero who was about to drown in his own hubris. The wait all day for Andina exhausted him. He couldn’t bare the thought of anything happening to her, and every second that she didn’t appear on the horizon was like nails through his heart.
But now, watching the enemy prepare itself for sleep gave him the anger needed to replace the loss he felt. He didn’t know who the men were, and he didn’t care. They had no right to come here and stop Andina from crossing into her kingdom, into her home.
All thoughts of safely returning to Nomen had disappeared like a puff of smoke, he realized. Looking down into the camp, he burned to destroy these men who were of no consequence to him. He saw them as a danger to his love, his life, and happiness. They were the harbingers of destruction to his world, and everyone in the Iinnin Lodar camp knew it. They, like their prince, would not tolerate such dangers and threats.
Palance could see men in red, sleeveless vests walking around. They were too far to make out any minute details, but the occasional glint of firelight at each hip told him they were armed. It was all the proof he needed. Nobody came to the Hills of Fae, especially to the borders of the two neighboring kingdoms, with scouts, postmen, sentries, and a patrol guard. They were not Ramendae forces, Palance knew. So who were they?
Who would know of his plans? Who would dare risk the wrath of all Acrene Tarrynth to stop a marriage? All thoughts of nomel dracs, dremions, and thunderstorms exited Palance’s mind. Romen Garrenson’s words echoed faintly somewhere in the back of his head and they were ringing all true.
The fury that threatened to destroy his calm surface almost overwhelmed him. He had struggled endlessly to keep his plans a secret. He had lied to his best of friends, had suffered the prudence of holding his tongue, and had tolerated being talked of in court for his lack of companions, to make sure that he and Andina would be together. Now these people were here, and the prince knew why they were here.
They wanted Andina. The one thing Palance was not willing to give.
Palance turned away from the burning flames and scanned the horizon, that crease where land and sky met. He would have better luck searching for a needle in a haystack. The horizon was hidden to his eyes by the very night that seemed to be coming after him. Andina was out there, he knew. What if she were on her way now? She would have no way of getting through the men that now occupied the Hills of Fae. She would be so close to him, and yet unreachable.
He could not bear the thought of losing her as she came into view. He knew he would not be able to resist the temptation of going to her rescue. He would be violating the laws of Ramendae. He would be risking war with such a move, but the prince didn’t waste time trying to fool himself. He knew that if and when the time came he had to decide to help Andina, he would. He would not give it a second thought.
“So what do you plan?” asked Larson at his other side.
“I say we take them now,” growled Soulcryst, a body down from Palance, his visage filled with scorn and eagerness. “We can take them by surprise. They don’t even know we are here. They would have walked straight into an ambush if we had set one up.”
Eliath nodded slowly right next to Palance. “He seems to have a point. If we attack now, we can destroy them. If we do this properly and effectively, none would be the wiser of the attack. Those are not Ramendae uniforms. These are not Nazarah Fey’s men. I’m sure he knows nothing of these idiots who have come into his kingdom seeking the prize of Acrene Tarrynth.”
Palance agreed. “But this is the very reason why we can’t attack them. We know what they are here for, but we have no proof. We can risk an attack, but if any of those men escape, we are lost. Ramendae will take our actions as signs of aggression. We don’t want that.
“For now, let’s just watch them. If Andina shows up in the morning, and they try to stop her, then we will strike. Only then. That way, if any of those men escape and they go running with reports of our army crossing the border, we have a valid reason. Nazarah Fey is a firm ruler, but I’m sure even he would see the reason behind my actions.”
Eliath clapped the prince on the shoulder. “Good thinking. We need to keep an excellent watch on them tonight. It would not do if they dared to send scouts across into our side and discovered us here. They would have us in a bind, and our discovery could aid their cause. If we can keep this a one-sided chess match, we will have a much easier time doing what we have to do.”
Palance understood. He turned to Larson. “Go and inform the men of what has transpired. Keep a double watch this night and douse all fires. We stand protected from sight by these hills, but I will not take the chance.”
Larson crawled down the slope and ran back to the camp, which lay huddled several yards away. The men of the Iinnin Lodar stood passively as Larson issued the commands. More than one man gathered his equipment as they moved off to sleep. They knew this night would hold no action, and for now they were willing to live with the peace that was only temporary. They were willing to live with the peace they would willingly shatter come the morning. The men of the Iinnin Lodar spread out around the hills. Spread out like this would keep an attack from taking them by surprise should the enemy breach the watches during the night. As for the night’s coolness, blankets replaced fires and not a man complained by the lack of warmth.
Palance continued his watch over the enemy encampment with Eliath and Soulcryst into deep in the night. They slept at intervals, all three men never leaving their positions. Larson left them to over see the preparations. In his times of watch, Palance thought of many things. But the mood of his camp, even as his men pretended to sleep, was dominated by anticipation.
A fight lingered just over the horizon, and beyond that, a lady he loved very much. In the morning, men would die. He could perish, as well, but it was a chance he was willing to take. Palance Demondread never sent a man to fight a fight he could not and would not take himself. The thrill of battle was never a welcoming one, but for once the prince felt the eagerness like the rest of his men. He would take out his frustrations on these men, if they did prove to be the enemy. He would show them no mercy.
Palance watched the camp a mile away. He didn’t know how many men were out there, but by the number of fires roaring, he knew they were a considerable size. They certainly outnumbered the Iinnin Lodar by far, probably two to one, but this didn’t concern Palance. The members of his Iinnin Lodar were some of the best-trained soldiers in the Nations.
Their skill and precision would compensate for their small numbers. Besides, the enemy didn’t know they were there. The prince was sure of it. Those men would wait for Andina, oblivious to the threat that watched them. When the time came to fight, the Iinnin Lodar would take them by surprise and rip into their ranks before they knew what hit them.
Palance almost smiled despite his concern. The whole plan was risky. He only hoped Nazarah Fey would understand when they explained their actions to the Nation of Ramendae.
The stars rolled by deep into the night, a roof of twinkling lights illuminating Palance’s dim situation. He sat on the hilltop for what seemed like hours when a howl pierced the night of to the east, miles away. He found a tremor of nervousness squirm in his body. The howl was not from a natural beast. He waited for it to come again.
It came again after a couple of long, stretched-out seconds. He considered waking his men to deal with the beast, but decided against it. He could not spare the men it would take to bring it down. With any luck, he thought, the beast would attack the fires in the distance. It would help his cause if the beast could take several of the men in the enemy camp. Help dwindle their numbers.
The howl came again and this time sent a chill down Palance’s spine. It was coming closer. There was no telling if the thing would come his way or to the enemy a mile away. If the beast came at them, he would need to wake his men. The struggle to bring down the beast would alarm the enemy of their presence. This would not do.
Palance stared east, in the direction of the beast. He couldn’t see anything in the night-shrouded plains, but he sensed wolves out there. He could feel its eyes searching for prey, its mouth drooling and agape. He could hear it sniffing the air, looking for human spoors. The beast was massive, and it was walking on its hind legs. The glow of its red eyes gave it away, and the beast didn’t bother turning when a rabbit scrambled out of its cubbyhole and away from the monstrosity that was out to extinguish its life. The werewolf sniffed his scent, and then the overwhelming power of roasting meat over took its senses and it galloped into the night.
Palance felt it and then the thought slipped away. The prince chided himself for letting his imagination get the better of him. It was all in his mind, of course. But he couldn’t shake the image from his thoughts. It had been so real.
The howl came again. This time, with a sense of mild satisfaction, he noticed it was moving away from his vicinity. The howl had come from the southeast. The beast was drawn by the fires of the enemy camp, and was moving in that direction. It would go there.
Palance felt a shiver of dread replace his mild satisfaction. Sometime during the night, as morning came, he knew, he would hear the screams of dying men as the beast on two legs attacked. Those men were the enemy, he told himself. But he wouldn’t wish such horror even on them.
Warily, Palance tried to sleep.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Lawler