tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Solitary Arrow Ch. 19

The Solitary Arrow Ch. 19

bymack_the_knife©

Harlen could scarcely remember being so tired. The horses, even as powerful and hardy as they were, now dragged their feet along the mossy soil of the wood. The sun had risen several hours before, as they forded the river separating Windir from the duchy. Without the enhancing magics that the cavalrymen had been using, the trip was very long, indeed.

Several times, Harlen had watched Ceriandel nearly slump forward in his saddle, only to snap his eyes open and sit back upright.

"We must rest a short while." Harlen finally said as Ceriandel once again levered himself upright in the saddle. "It will serve no purpose for us to make a grave mistake due to exhaustion."

The elf nodded agreement, and brought his horse to a stop near a thick patch of shrub. The stunted trees were easily high enough to hide within, and mercifully hollow inside their leafy shroud. The pair guided their horses into the canopy and then laid upon the saddle blankets.

With only a very few words exchanged between the two men, they cast themselves into sleep.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Hyandai watched the companies of Isolationists march out of the wood and take up positions across the valley from Embalis. The guards upon the wall watched, too, nervously. It was a sizable force, already larger than their own, and the scouts said that more were on the way before they retreated, themselves, behind the village's defenses. The last of the moving forces would be here by tomorrow night.

Embalis was besieged.

Truth be told she was not at all sure she could do this. Lead an army into battle and order people to their deaths. Her hands shook and her stomach turned over painfully as she clutched the railing of the catwalk. The sun was low in the sky, and still no help came. None had been promised. The Ghantian offensive was sapping all the forces that the small nation could spare and this little skirmish along their northern frontier would have to wait.

"They shall send reinforcements." She said in a low, almost male voice. "About six months after we are all dead."

Her personal aide, Ealina, looked at her. "Lady Hyandai?" She asked.

"Sorry, I was simply thinking out loud." Hyandai said, turning to the lovely elven girl.

She was several years younger than Hyandai, and not even close to being of age. The girl blinked down at the massing army.

"Lady, do you foresee defeat? Or victory?" Ealina asked, her silver eyes wide and worried.

Hyandai gave out a long sigh. "I foresee death for many." She said. "But I cannot foretell of who will emerge victorious."

Ealina smiled gently. "We will be victorious." She said, with a small amount of self-assuredness. "We are on the side of right."

"I wish I were so certain that correctness granted victory." Hyandai said quietly. "But it does not seem to be so." She turned and walked back into the small room she had turned into her command post.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ceriandel awoke first, the sound of nearby footsteps rousing him from his fitful slumber. He peered out of their concealment to see one of the scouts of the village, injured but still afoot. He was moving away from Embalis, though. The young scout's eyes were haunted, like those of a panicked animal.

It grieved Ceriandel to see a fellow elf, or any intelligent being look thus. He hailed the elf, holding out a peaceful hand.

"Scout of Embalis." He said. "Come and rest, we are friends."

The scout started at the sound of his voice and spun about, flashing out his hyandai. "Who is there?" The scout demanded. The look of panic was now a flashing hostility, worry, yes, but more determination and anger. Ceriandel was glad to see it.

"I am Ceriandel of clan Yavanhaur." He said. "And we are allied, lest you be serving the traitors."

Harlen had awoken to the speech, unused as he was to elven words that they demanded attention.

"I serve no traitors." The elf said. "I am Mathalas. I was sent forth to scout this way, but when I tried to return, I found my way filled with foes."

Ceriandel nodded. "Come, rest and be comforted." he said.

The elf nodded, deciding he had little to lose at this point. He sheathed his weapon and slid through the branches of the shrubby tree and started at the sight of Harlen, standing and stretching in the dimness.

"A human?" Mathalas asked. "I had heard they sent him away."

Ceriandel chuckled. "They did." He confirmed. "I am bringing him back."

Harlen said. "Well met Mathalas." He had overheard them outside and gleaned the scout's name.

The elf executed one of the quick head-bows, then stood again, a wicked grin crossing his rather roguish face. "The leadership will be sorely put off that you have brought this man back." Mathalas said to Ceriandel.

"They will have to cope." Said Ceriandel. "He is the Warleader's betrothed, and from what I know, the Warleader out ranks the Lord and Lady of a town during time of conflict."

The scout nodded. "A technicality that may save your title." He said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "But they have other ways of making one regret crossing them."

"They can do their worst." The blade dancer said. "I welcome it, so long as my sister is happy and we have victory through her leadership."

Harlen held out a large loaf of bread to the two elves, and a jar of plum preserves. The scout ate heartily, being quite famished after several days in the wood. Ceriandel more picked at his portion, thinking hard between bites.

"That worries me most of all." Harlen said, watching Ceriandel eat. "Hyandai always had a, well, a healthy appetite. Yet you say she cannot even keep food down now."

Ceriandel laughed at that. "Diplomatically put, Harlen." He said. "Hyandai eats like a wolf who has starved two weeks." He continued smiling long after his laughter died off. "And, yes, for one such as her, being unable to eat is a sore trial, I deem."

The scout was leaning with his back to the trunk. "Hyandai is a good Warleader." He said. "I met her twice. She knows her mind and heeds not foolish counsel."

Harlen nodded, as did Ceriandel.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Hyandai emerged from the privy, her face flush. Her anger at herself over her lack of fortitude was the main cause, but some of it was her discomfort. She could not keep food down and it annoyed her. Rinsing her mouth with water, she spit over the railing, belatedly checking downward for possible victims of an aquatic bombardment.

Two of the captains patiently awaited her. They had seen her for days now, growing more frail and losing weight. "Lady Hyandai, a heal . . .." He started to say.

"No!" She hissed at him, interrupting the captain and forcing him to take a half-step backward. "No healers. I told you, they have more important matters to tend to. There is a war going on, and they don not have time for some girl who cannot keep her sliced apples down."

She turned toward the model of the village and looked down at it. "You say there are more, even, than we thought?" She asked.

He nodded. "At least two hundreds." He said. "It was sheer luck that one of our scouts happened upon the camp, it was well hidden in a remote vale." He pointed at a map, lacquered to a wooden panel on the wall. "They were encamped here, and would be marching even now, if they wish to be here by tomorrow night."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ceriandel tended to the wounds of the scout dutifully, if not enthusiastically. The elven healing breath was rather personal contact, and most often administered across sexual lines, however, there were no females present, and the chore was a necessary one.

The three got up and mounted the much refreshed horses. The scout had fetched several bags of water for the beasts and they seemed almost eager to be off now.

Mounted with Harlen alone, and the scout behind Ceriandel, they set off again, angling due south now, so as to come to Embalis from its south side. If they had the north side covered, one would hope that there were not enough of them to place picket all about the town.

It was growing dark, and the scout changed to Harlen's horse. In part this was to save the strength of Ceriandel's beast, and in part to let the scout guide the human's mount in the darkness, where Harlen was nearly blind. The horses were likewise nearly blind, but were trained to trust their rider's guidance in darkness. They slowed to a canter, though, and would not allow themselves to be goaded into greater speed.

They rode into the night, and only stopped for a short break at the banks of a brook as the sky was lightening in the east. Neither friend nor foe did they meet, nor even many animals. The coming war had left a tension in the wood, that even animals could sense. Even Harlen could feel that something of consequence was passing.

"We are well south of Embalis now." Ceriandel said, looking about into the growing light. "It will take most of the day to move back toward the village and come from its due south."

The scout nodded agreement. "From what I saw of their movements, they cannot have formed their regiments near the village until, at earliest, yesterday night. Two of their encampments were still breaking down camp as I sighted them."

Harlen was relieved to hear that. "So they cannot attack before tonight?" He asked.

"Exactly." The scout said. "Armies are not fleet of foot, even elven armies." Mathalas said.

"I do not expect them to tarry long." Said Ceriandel. "They are impatient to get this conflict underway. Once they are assembled, they will attack."

They let the horses rest a couple of hours while they, themselves took a little sleep.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"A thousand?" Hyandai asked, looking at the captain dubiously. "You are certain?"

He nodded. "At least, including the one company that still marches on us."

"Two and a half to one." She murmured. "And their ranks far fuller of trained warriors than ours." She looked at the captain. "Perhaps we should consider retreat."

He shook his head. "Then they would likely catch us without even our hasty defenses." He said. "No, we should either surrender or fight here."

"Surrender." Hyandai said, her face rather morose. "No, I do not think we will be surrendering to those treacherous persons. They tried to kill me in my bed, they will not keep their word if it suits them. I believe they have grown blinded by their zeal to further their goals, forsaking all other things."

"Fanatics are often the worst enemy one can have, they are absolutely convinced of their correctness, and other opinions are moot." The captain said, shaking his head. "I understand there are some entire human cultures of that sort."

Hyandai nodded. "There are." She said. "The Black Theocracy and Costa Roja." She looked at a map of Feldare. "They are quite different and both quite convinced their way is the only right way."

"And now, even our own people fall to the appeal of zealotry." The captain said quietly. "It proves we are not so superior, does it not?"

Hyandai smiled. The captain was a Warwolf, like herself, and his viewpoint only reinforced that. The road to their downfall has and is their rather high opinion of themselves. To believe themselves superior to humanity, because of long span of years, or agility, or even innate magical ability. Foolishness. Humanity was just as valid an expression of the will of the Spirits as elfkind.

Did not man build great empires? Did man not wield mighty magics? Did they not show great generosity of spirit? Hyandai smiled. Elves and man should be brothers, not competitors. To compete with man, or man to compete with elvenkind was foolishness, they had much to offer one another.

"I have to admit, Lady Hyandai." The captain said. "You are an inspiration to those of us who believe as we do." He meant her betrothal to Harlen, a human.

"I did not seek out a human mate, Captain Lemlithis." She said. "I simply did not discount a great man because his ears were round." She giggled at the reference. Most warwolves believed that this was possibly the greatest physical difference between humans and elves. It was sort of a running joke with them.

Lemlithis nodded. "Of course, your heart led you to your choice." He agreed.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Harlen awoke to Ceriandel shaking his foot with his own foot. "Let us be going." The blade dancer said. "Else we may be too late."

The three rode hard again that day, driving the horses to a froth. The beasts were beginning to weaken overall, though, as horses cannot be driven for several days straight without long-term hurt.

They had slowed to little better than a walk by middle afternoon, and even that taxed the horses now. The forest slowly crept by them, and they started to fear that they would not arrive even in the night.

At the fall of darkness. They dismounted and started walking the horses, leading them by their bits. It would do them little good to kill the beasts when they may well be needed in the village. They were near now, and Harlen could vaguely make out the smell of smoke.

"Already they fight?" He asked.

The scout shook his head. "Lady Hyandai had ordered many buildings razed to clear what she termed 'free fire zones' for the archers." He said. "The scent you smell is old smoke, from those burnings."

Finally, they saw the first lights of the village, high in the trees overhead and at a distance. They all began to move forward cautiously, watching about themselves for enemy or even village elves who might mistake them for enemy soldiers. They did not wish to be attacked by either side at this point.

They came to a palisade, with a rude gate set into it, and a dozen militia manning it. The elves grew alert as they came near, rising from their positions and regarding them suspiciously.

"Who is there?" Asked one of the militiamen, seemingly their senior officer.

"Ceriandel of clan Yavanhaur, Mathalas the scout, and Harlen of Morrovale." Ceriandel said.

The sight of the human among the three approaching figures caused a bit of a stir, but also confirmed that it was hardly Isolationists before them.

The gate groaned open and they allowed the three to enter. The horses were taken and guided to the stables. Three of the militiamen walked with the three toward the center of the village.

Up a long stair they climbed, high into the branches of the mightiest of the ornthalion trees in the village. This was the Turaorn, the master tree, the eldest and most revered ornthalion of the area.

The three guards led them into a small chamber. "Wait here, someone will come and decide what is to be done with you." Two of the guards stood outside, on the catwalk, and watched the three in the chamber. They knew they could easily overpower the guards, but to what end? So the three simply sat at chairs about a small table in the center of the room.

A few minutes later a young female came into the room. "I am Ealina, aide to Hyandai." She said, as she entered, but stopped speaking as she regarded the seated figures.

"Ehladrim Ceriandel?" She asked, then turned her eyes to Harlen. "And a man of the Westrons?"

She looked at the scout, whom she knew personally. "Mathalas, you will go report to your company, they should be near the northeast palisade." She said.

Mathalas gave the pair a last look and said. "May fate be with you." He said, and went out the door, giving Ealina a quick nodding bow as he passed her.

Ealina looked back at the two militiamen. "You may go." She said. "These men are in my keeping now."

They looked at each other a moment, then nodded and left.

"Unless I am sorely mistaken." Ealina said. "You are Harlen of Morrovale. Lady Hyandai's bethrothed." She looked at Ceriandel. "And you are Ceriandel, who was recently reported missing, or miscreant. The lady's brother."

A small smile crossed her beautiful, angular face. "I see the makings of a conspiracy here." She said. "One to perhaps comfort our Warleader when her health is failing."

Ceriandel smiled. "It might just be so." He said. "But we should see the lady before the village's rulers hear of our arrival."

She turned to him. "I could not shirk my duties so easily." She said. "But I am a busy woman, I might find myself unavoidably detained for a while after I bring you to the Warleader for disposition." She turned toward the door. "Come with me, you are made arrest, keep that in mind."

"Of course." Ceriandel said, grinning as he slid his chair back.

Harlen stood as well and followed them as they all moved about the catwalk then up several ramps to another catwalk. A faint blue glow emanated from the room, she led them in.

The two saw a slender figure silhouetted against the glowing blue model of the village. Harlen hardly recognized Hyandai in chain armor and girt with a long warsword as well as her hyandai.

"Lady Hyandai." Ealina said. "The south gate brought me two refugees that claim to have valuable tactical information."

"I will see them." Hyandai said, her voice sounded tired and distant. "Have them brought to me."

Ealina smiled at the pair. "Warleader, they are here now."

Hyandai turned slowly, her face showing more weariness than even her voice. "Very well, you ca . . .." She stopped speaking as Harlen and Ceriandel spun into her view.

"Harlen?" She asked, as if doubting that it was really him. A half a heartbeat later she was pressed against him tightly, her chainmail pinching him here and there, but he did not complain. Tears flowed from her eyes like raindrops as she moved her hands again and again for better purchase to cling to him more tightly.

Ceriandel and Ealina stepped across the room to regard the map at a discreet distance from the couple. He began asking her questions of the situation while she showed him the relevant map areas with her fingertip.

"You are not supposed to be here." She said into his chest. "They told you to wait for us to contact you."

"One of you did." He smiled. "Ceriandel came and fetched me." He was nuzzling her fine, silken hair and inhaling deeply her cinnamon scent.

She giggled. "I suppose he told you I was dying?" She said, pulling back at last to look up at him.

Harlen nodded. "Something like that." He confirmed.

She cast an attempt at an annoyed look at her brother. "He exaggerates." She said. "I have been working my mind a bit overmuch these last days, and it is affecting my appetite."

Harlen nodded, touching her neck and shoulder. "And the emotional outbursts?" He inquired.

She shrugged. "The same thing." She said. "I have been reconstructing another person's mind within my own. It is bound to have detrimental effects on me."

Hyandai smiled up at him. "I foresee some of those emotional difficulties being rather absent now you are with me." She said.

"They may try to send me away again." Harlen offered.

"They would not." Hyandai said. "They cannot spare an escort, and to send you alone would be tantamount to a death sentence." She took hold of the sides of his head. "For good or ill, you are here, now, and will be here for the battle, I fear."

She pulled him down to her and kissed him soundly. He did not recall her ever kissing with such strength and urgency. Come to think of it, he didn't remember her ever able to pull him down quite so forcefully either.

"Tales of your weakened state are apparently exaggerated, as well." Harlen said as he came up for air.

Hyandai giggled again. "No." She said. "That is this armor, it grants me some strength. I have grown frail in the last few days, but then again, I've not been sleeping much."

She took his hand and led him to the model of the village. Ceriandel and Ealina regarded them as they approached.

Ealina could see more color in Hyandai's face already, so deemed her decision the right one.

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