Friday, March 26, 2010

Chapter Four

A red sun dawned, bathing the plains in a sanguine light. Crows cawed fitfully as they landed to feast among the bodies of the dead. They made no distinction between human and Slandra – to the birds, they were all delicacies in their feast. The crows’ calls seemed like a final bugle sounding the retreat for the escaping humans.

Johnsa glanced back at the descending avian cloud a few miles from her position. The site of the battle, the abandoned resting place for so many of her men. Those remaining were weary and bloodied, trooping along the outer edge of the forest they had fallen back to. After being ambushed by the vicious Slandra warriors earlier in the night, her men were in no condition to fight. She sighed, and then grabbed a soldier by his arm right before he collapsed from exhaustion. As she asked him if he was all right, she paused to survey the ragged line of her troop.

“How did it come to this?” she thought to herself.

Johnsa had joined the force of human warriors that had been growing since late autumn to combat the Slandra raiders that had left their mountain homes. Johnsa had proved her skill as a commander early on, with several decisive victories to her name, earning her the commanding rank of Ramadan. Her quick wits hadn’t helped her during the night, even against the smaller Slandra force.

Reflecting back on the skirmish, Johnsa felt confident there was nothing else she could have done to avert the silent death that had descended upon the army without warning. She was only glad she was able to save as many as she had from doom, though it did little to ease her mood. They were now far fewer than they had been, all because the army had not had enough intelligence on the enemy. The few scouts that had returned had quoted a roughly accurate number, but Johnsa somewhat petulantly thought those who survived had been cowards who did not survey the Slandra closely.

The Slandra had caught the humans in a pincer attack shortly before dawn. The snakes had dispatched the outriders and perimeter sentries more quietly than Johnsa could possibly have imagined, and then they were in among her men, slaughtering them in their sleep. If it hadn’t been for one injured man who set a Slandra on fire, the silent foe could have possibly destroyed the entire company. As it was, the commander of the army had been killed, slain in his tent. It was only after desperate combat that the humans managed to escape the trap and force an opening in the Slandra lines. Johnsa had sounded the retreat, and she and her men had fled toward the forest bordering the plain. They were walking along that border now, heading north and hopefully towards sanctuary.

The column ahead of her stopped, and even she was grateful for a rest. She had her surviving scouts leading the group, and she trusted them to find a safe place for a few hours so her men could rest. It suddenly occurred to her that they were all her men now.

A messenger jogged quickly down the lines towards Johnsa, carrying a message from the scouts. They had found what they thought was a respectable campsite, and by her leave, they should begin to ready a camp.

Johnsa walked up the line, giving encouragement and praise to soldiers as she passed, helping those who stumbled, and showing a confident attitude. She knew, as a leader, that her attitude could make or break the army. When she reached the column’s head, she surveyed their resting place. It was a small hill, bordered on the plains side by several fallen trees that had fallen away from the woods and into a natural cleft in the earth. Johnsa scrambled over them, wincing as the bark bit into her skin, and finally determined they would provide an adequate defense. The hill wasn’t particularly tall and so would not give a big advantage of high ground, but it would do. She called to the bugler and told him to give the signal to stop and make camp. He blew three short notes, and Johnsa heard her entire army give a sigh of relief.

It was another hour before everyone managed to get situated on top of the hill, and it took Johnsa a quarter hour to find soldiers who were in a good enough condition to stand watch. When everything was finally ready, she pitched her own tent. Using a wet cloth, she wiped the bloodstains from her armor, oiled her sword and finally laid down to a few hours of much needed rest.

Noon came and passed, and Johnsa slept on. Only the clamor of pots and pans finally roused her, and even then it was not easily. Sitting up groggily, Johnsa spent the next few moments rubbing the sleep out of her eyes before finally standing from her bedroll. She strapped on her armor briskly, splashed some water on her face and pulled her hair back with a leather thong. Walking from her tent, she surveyed her remaining men preparing their meal after their short respite.

Upon her exit, the man standing guard over the flap addressed his commander.

“Ramadan, the men were lax. On my patrols, I found two asleep and the others did not even detect me. They should be reprimanded.”

Johnsa shook her head sadly. Though her second-in-command was smart and eager, sometimes he was too keen to deal out punishments for minor infractions. “That will not be necessary Lens. I will speak with the men, of course, but reprimands are not needed. After our ordeal last night, everyone is tired. Besides, everyone knows you walk lighter than a winter-starved mouse,” she joked.

Lens made as if to object, but then thought better of it. Though the Ramadan seemed to be in an understanding mood, he knew how quickly that could change and did not want to anger her. “By your will, Ramadan,” he replied with a crisp salute. The doubt in his eyes did not escape Johnsa’s attention.

Johnsa watched him move off to the food lines to bring her breakfast, considering his future. If he could learn tolerance, he might just make a fine commander himself, he was already a splendid tactician, but she recognized a brutality in his nature that would be difficult to conquer. Realizing she had duties as commander to attend to, she put him out of her mind and began a quick assessment of the camp.

The sun was a few hand spans above the horizon when Johnsa felt that her men were rested enough to continue their march. They would march until sunset just to put more distance between them and the ambush site. She ordered her captains to begin packing, and soon every tent was taken down and the ranks formed up. Johnsa watched the proceedings with a small smile, proud of her men that they could perform well after the bloody massacre of the night before.

The thought made her grimace, and several of her men frowned with worry. She was their commander, their Ramadan. They were very protective of her and often chided her when she tried to take on too much. Lens approached silently behind her, and those same worried faces became stony replicas of each other in an instant. They were protective of their Ramadan, but they did not feel the same sentiments for her lieutenant.

“Ramadan, your men are ready to move out. Should I sound the march?”

“So ordered, Lens.”

He saluted Johnsa’s back as she continued to study the column, and moved off to the buglers. A barked order had them lifting their horns and the army began moving. With their divisions reformed, her men looked like a fit fighting unit once more.

Her small smile returned, and grew a little bit more when she saw her men visibly brighten under her proud gaze. She had not fought long with these men at her side and under her command, but their fights had been hard. She knew most of them personally and had been in major combat with all of them. She knew their strengths and weaknesses, their skills, and most importantly their limits. It was this intimate knowledge of her men that allowed her, in her opinion, to command them as well as she did. They trusted her, and she them, to get through any situation.

Mounting her tall chestnut stallion, Johnsa looked out once more across the lines of troops before trotting to her position in the middle of it all. She had discovered that positioning herself in the midst of her men not only made her feel more comfortable, but also made it much easier to coordinate actions should they be assaulted.

Gently nudging her way into the mass, she filed into next to Lens. As the military zealot he was, Lens never moved with the army unless he was at his designated place. His training had been so ingrained that his rigidity would hamper him should he wish to seek a command of his own. It would very likely get him killed.

“Maybe he knows that,” she thought to herself, glancing at her second. “Maybe he doesn’t move without the army around out of cowardice.” That sentiment slipped its way into her thoughts before she could even react, and she shook her head to clear away such doubts in her lieutenant. She knew he was not the bravest of men, but he had certainly shown courage the evening before. No, he was not coward, merely prudent. She glanced once more at Lens before allowing her horse to carry her forward.

Though everyone felt uneasy along their march, they were not attacked. Nightfall came, and the army had made good speed down the forest’s border. Johnsa called the halt when her scouts informed her of a defensible grove of ash trees a little further into the plains. The men crowded into the small glade among the trees, posted scouts before pitching the horse lines, and set up camp in a circular pattern around the Ramadan’s tent. Johnsa could feel the general agitation and doubled the patrols around the camp perimeter. She was disquieted by their unhampered march, and was not about to allow the snakes to surprise her again. When she finally felt her men were as protected as well as they could be, she crawled into her bedroll and puffed out her candle. Although she lay in her sheets for what seemed like an eternity, sleep evaded her.

Shortly before dawn, Johnsa finally gave up and rolled out her sheets. Donning her armor and weapon, she walked out into the cool darkness. Standing outside her tent, she took a deep breath and relished the crisp air prickling her throat. She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, taking in the cool air and all the sounds of the camp. Opening her eyes, Johnsa judged it was nearly dawn, for the moon had disappeared already, and only the stars blinked down at her. Though the night was pleasant, Johnsa felt an itch between her shoulder blades that she couldn’t shake. It had been nagging her all day and even her breathing exercise didn’t lessen her irritation.

“Always darkest before dawn,” she muttered. She walked out to the perimeter and looked for her men. She only spotted one or two, and although this did not surprise her as the men were generally excellent at hiding themselves, warning bells screamed in her mind. She knew the perimeter lay out and should have been able to pick out at least one sentry, but to her eyes the perimeter was empty. She took two steps back still facing the perimeter, and then turned and sprinted back to her tent. She would not risk another ambush. Rushing inside, she kicked open one of her trunks and pulled out a small but well-used roll of vellum. It had been some time since she had used this particular tool but its worth was immeasurable. Unrolling it, she drew her dagger and dragged it across the palm of her hand with a wince. She pressed the vellum to her bleeding hand, allowed the blood to seep in for a second. She cleared her mind and spoke.

“As night meets day, and sun dispels the dark, so show me the way.”

This was a small magic she had learned long ago from her grandfather, who had been a hunter in the southern mountains. It allowed her to see with stunning clarity her surroundings within a mile radius. However, this ability could only be used once a month and Johnsa rarely withdrew the vellum from its protective shell.

Gazing outward while still holding the bloody sheepskin, Her mind flew above her body, giving her an eagle’s perspective and she looked down at her camp and the territory beyond. Shock momentarily held her in a vise grip. She saw her patrols, and though they looked intact, she doubted they would remain so for long. Not very far from them, hidden in the trees and in the troughs of the plains, was the Slandra attack force that had caught them unaware…and it had grown.

Feeling her mind return to her body, Johnsa rushed out of her tent and ran to the alarm bell. Three loud strikes gonged through the camp and she charged off to Lens’ tent.

“Get everyone up NOW! We’re under attack!” she yelled to her subordinate. Lens wasted no time with questions and immediately issued orders while donning his armor. Bugles sounded the scouts to fall back, and before most of the men could even rub the sleep out of their eyes, spears were planted, swords were drawn, and arrows nocked in a tight circle around the tents.

Still holding the vellum, Johnsa allowed her mind to fly upward once more and noticed that the enemy force had not advanced yet. She called for her men to relax momentarily and quickly rearranged her formations. She pulled her small core of berserkers back to the top of the hill to be thrown into the line as she needed, and she ordered her archers to continuously shift along the lines to maintain a steady stream of fire against the enemy. Johnsa tried to view the enemy one more time, but the vellum had cleared, and Johnsa cursed loudly for the short duration of the spell. At that moment, a cold wind blew through the whole camp, and a howl broke the tense silence.

The Ramadan looked out at her men once more, thinking this may be the last time many or all would fight together. It brought a tear to her eye, but she brushed it away hurriedly. Grabbing a horn, Johnsa shouted out to her forces.

“Friends, comrades, I will give you the truth. We are surrounded. The Slandra have us in a corner.” She saw many startled looks at this news. “This may be our final battle together. How will you fight?” She paused and surveyed the men arrayed around the encampment. She saw fear in many eyes, but some too held hope when she looked out at them. “We will make them pay for what they have done to us,” she continued, her voice echoing out to her men. “They will pay for all of the friends we have lost. They will pay in blood. I mean to live through this night and make them taste my steel.” She ended in a shout that every man heard without the horn, and they cheered with her. They cheered even during the Slandra charge that broke upon their blades like waves against the cliffs.

Dawn broke over a bloody field, yet the fighting raged on. The Slandra were bloodied, but the human forces were nearly wiped out. Every man and woman who bore arms lifted them wearily, often painfully. Three quarters of the men who had stood in defense of their lives and their captain now lay dead, sprawled across the hill and under Slandra scales. But the Slandra came on, a teeming, undulating wave of death that crawled toward the final defenders.
Of the human commanders, all but one lay dead outside the protective circle. Lens had gone down after killing five of the snakes protecting his Ramadan, and his efforts allowed Johnsa to fight her way back to the safety of her men. Now, as she looked out at the overwhelming number of Slandra and her dead companions, she felt a wave of despair. Death was almost assured for her and her men. But when she looked out once more at the bloodied, mangled corpses of her men, a feral snarl erupted from her throat. Her eyes turned a deep red, and every man near her felt his hair stand on end.

Johnsa tossed away her shield, and hefted a curved Slandra scimitar. She pushed her way through her men, stalking toward the oncoming Slandra as if she were Death incarnate. Some of her men tried to stop her, but she heard nothing. All she knew was she would rain death and destruction down upon her enemies as long as she drew breath and none would stand in her way. Her men joined her, and when she shrieked in primal fury, they answered her call. Before the sun cleared the horizon, death reigned over the grove.

It was the sound of scavengers tearing into rotting meat that finally aroused the sleeping figure. The person was covered in cuts, their armor all but shorn from their body. Their fiery hair stood on end. Sitting up, the person was surrounded by the bodies of men and Slandra alike. Looking down at the weapons in her hands, at the blood of both man and snake staining the blades, a scream ripped out of Johnsa’s body that sent every scavenger haring away. The knowledge of what she had done powered that scream, and it went on for an eternity. Darkness fell again before Johnsa collapsed again in the circle of death she had created.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chapter Three

Hosus sat observing her group. The twins were muttering to each other and Nar kept glancing at the body while he and Bertran dug a shallow grave. She could only shake her head. Hosus understood the need for secrecy in their work. Only she and Pral knew their mission, and how much depended on their success. The other members of their group had no idea what they were planning, and Hosus only hoped they would still follow Pral once they were told the group’s true goal.

Sitting beneath a low hanging branch, Hosus reflected on that critical night when she had met Pral and they had embarked on this journey.

* * *

It had not been a day that foretold some fateful event. It had been a cool day, but sunny, at the beginning of the previous autumn. The leaves had begun to change colors, and the birds were beginning to migrate, soaring over her homeland in large Vs or in giant flocks.

She had been stalking game through her Highland forest home, hunting for her dinner. She had spotted her prey, a small doe that had gotten separated from her herd and had been wandering ceaselessly for two days. The deer was now refreshing itself at a small brook, but before Hosus began her final approach, a soft rustling close to her right froze her step. It was not an animal noise. Hosus knew that for sure. Her attention focused on this intruder, and, quieter than a mouse, made her way to a better vantage point to view this newcomer. It bothered her that she had only discovered his presence now, for she had been scouting about constantly whenever she lost her doe, and she had seen no other signs of human presence.

Sliding along a backward route, Hosus slowly circled around to where she had pinpointed the source of the noise. But when she came upon the spot, there was no one. Approaching carefully, she saw the slight indentations where a body had been crouched in the soft earth.

She sensed rather than saw the attack coming from behind. She dodged right, hoping the attacker was right-handed and his attack would leave him off-balance after missing. Turning quickly, she aimed a spinning kick where her opponent’s head should have been. But he had anticipated her, and had already retreated a few steps.

Hosus drew her knives, one held in a defensive grip while the other was grasped to throw. But before she could begin her next attack, the man stood up to his full height and lowered his weapons. Though this was obviously the end of the round, Hosus was in no way prepared to call this the end of the fight.

“As skillful as they claimed. And as wary.”

“Who are you?” Hosus whispered, peering into the shadows of her assailant’s face, obscured by a dark cowl.

“Someone who knows things. And knows people. For example, I know that you are one of the best scouts in the known world. I also know a certain person who requires your considerable talents to complete an endeavor.”

“If you are but a messenger, give me the message and be gone. You have already lost me my meal.” Her voice held an edge of anger.

“As perceptive and aware as I imagined. Possibly better. Few, if any, could have detected me at all, let alone evade a surprise attack.” He seemed to be talking to himself.

“The message.” Though Hosus responded calmly, this man put her on edge. She wanted to be away from him as quickly as possible.

“If you insist. Hosus, daughter of Trieth, sister to Lian, you are hereby requested to appear before the Council of Seven to discuss matters to be then disclosed. This meeting will take place in Terada, in one week’s time. If you decide to refuse this invitation, your sister will be killed...” Here the man paused. All Hosus could see was the glean of his teeth as he grinned nastily at her. “…by our appointed messenger.”

He paused again, as if to allow Hosus to process this information. He said only one more thing before disappearing. “And trust me, little Lian and I will have much fun before she dies.”

At this final threat, Hosus launched her dagger at the man, aiming for his heart. But he was too quick, side-stepping the attack and melting into the brush as if he belonged to the forest.

Hosus quickly retrieved her weapon. She sensed nothing around her and the forest was full of natural sounds again. Hosus figured the man would not bother her now that he had relayed his message but she was still very uneasy. Sheathing her weapon, she let her fingers linger on the hilt as she began the day long journey that would take her back into civilized lands. It would take her at least another day to prepare for her trip to Terada, and then several more to reach her destination. The thought of not going never crossed her mind.

Since their mother had died two years hence, Hosus and her younger sister Lian had become closer than ever. Where Hosus had learned and perfected the art of the forest, Lian had mastered those of people. Lian was the most important person in Hosus’s life. If that masked messenger could track and nearly trap her that easily, Lian would never stand a chance. The decision had been made for her, it seemed.

It took her most of the day to leave the forest, and from there it took her a few more hours into the night to reach her home at the edge of the city Goril, approximately a three days journey by horseback from Terada.

She slept until nearly noon the next day, allowing her body to recuperate after the harsh pace she had set herself the day before. When she finally did arise, she began her preparations immediately, stopping only to wolf down a quick lunch of apples and smoked venison. First, she went to her sister’s home, and told her everything of what had transpired. Although Lian was frightened for Hosus to be doing anything under such threats of violence, she had enough confidence in her sister to believe she would keep herself out of trouble. As for herself, Lian would invite some tracker friends to stay with her for a time as added security.

After saying a short goodbye with admonitions to be careful, Hosus prepared all of her clothes, as well as laying out all of her knives. She sharpened each meticulously before storing them in hidden pockets about her person. By the time darkness fell, all was in order. In the morning, all she would need to do was saddle up her chestnut mare Waterlily, and she would be off. Though her mind was plagued by worries and doubts, Hosus quickly dropped into the deep and dreamless sleep that follows adrenaline.

The night passed quickly, and Hosus woke with a start at dawn. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she made herself some sandwiches for the ride today. She quickly packed and saddled Waterlily, turning the mare out of the little stable and onto the road. Hosus let Waterlily set the pace for now, but she paused in front of her sister’s home to mutter what she hoped would not be her final goodbye. She didn’t know what fate had in store for her though, and with these final, gloomy thoughts clouding her mind, she heeled Waterlily into a slow trot down the road.

The three days and two nights ride from Goril to Terada passed smoothly. The weather remained cooperative, even warming slightly as the days passed. Hosus spotted some menacing storm clouds on the horizon the eve of the second day but they had passed south of her.

As she rode, she contemplated the arrival of the Council’s messenger. His sudden appearance during her hunt made her anxious. She knew that forest, had lived in its glades and knew its secret places. The fact that that man had taken her so completely unaware made her feel violated in a much more profound way than merely being ambushed. He had ambushed her in her own place, possibly could have killed her. The thought made her shiver despite the warm sun on her back.

On the eve of the third day, Hosus arrived at the gates of the bustling market metropolis of Terada. They were majestic, ornately carved with the history of the Terada nation, and gilded in silver. They stood wide, releasing a slowly moving line of merchant trains and farmers who squinted as the setting sun glinted off the silver, causing the gates to shine brilliantly and the city walls to glow. Hosus paused a moment at the side of the road to admire the road and bask in the last warmth of the day. Then the sun slid below the horizon with a last wink and Hosus hurried through the gates before they closed for the night.

Hosus wandered through the torch lit streets, searched until she found a respectable looking inn with decently priced beds by the name of The Crying Onion. The inn’s sign, Hosus noted, showed an onion crying while peeling an onion. She was still chuckling at the dark joke as she threw her pack on the soft down bed and looked out of her small window onto a still busy avenue just off the market street. She had three days left until the Council meeting and contemplated her next steps. After washing the dust from her face with water, Hosus decided to use that time to discover as much about the Council of Seven as she could. What under the sun would they need me for? This thought gnawed at her as she turned in and tried to sleep.

As it turned out, the next few days revealed little to her, only what was common knowledge. No one knew their actual identities, but no one had a grudge. Even the riffraff praised their leaders. They ruled fairly, and judged righteously, according to all concerned. Despite handing out rather more coins than she would have liked for information, she could not find a single negative opinion of the Council. This finding intrigued and worried her. Even though she spent most of her time in the forest, she found it difficult to believe that not a single person she had spoken with had any gripes with their rulers, especially such enigmatic ones. Her only recourse, it seemed, would be to find out for herself.

On the appointed day, Hosus approached the building that housed the Council chambers. They had not thought it necessary to give her an exact time, a small detail that would have saved Hosus a great deal of irritation. As it was, she appeared at the Council building doors shortly after breakfast. The building itself was not particularly grand but it was well-built and had a simple beauty to its curves and domed roof. There was nothing ornate besides some fancy latticework she noticed was carved out of white marble. She noted the wealth and was impressed by the subtlety of its display. She entered the open doors and was immediately greeted by a liveried butler who ushered her down several short hallways to a room of middling size. Apparently, she was the object of importance today.

The room was shadowed, the windows covered by thick curtains. Two lamps had been placed toward the back of the room, flanking a long, curved table. Placed behind the table were seven in the middle chairs, all rather plain in appearance, which did not surprise Hosus. Even here at the heart of their power, the wealth and power of the Council was subtle but strong. With the position of the lamps, the Council members would be shadows to her eyes. This seemed almost dramatic to her after the subtlety of building, and she was curious about this shadow of anonymity they maintained. She expected this would an interesting meeting indeed.

She stood waiting against the wall across from the chairs. There were two chairs positioned in the center of the room, facing the Seven, which she assumed she was to occupy at some point today. Who the other chair was meant for, she had no idea.

Hosus did not have to wait long, but enough time elapsed to make a normal man uncomfortable. The door through which she had entered reopened and a towering man emerged. At first, Hosus believed it was the Council’s messenger, but when she looked more carefully, she did not see the same cruelty in either his face or his bearing.

Dressed in a forest green cloak that fell to his ankles, he was handsome, with green, penetrating eyes that had fading crow feet, as if he had once smiled a great deal but no longer. His black hair was cut short, except for a small topknot. His face was hard, his nose had that once broken look, and his dark skin was patterned with white crisscrosses of small scars. Under his cloak, she could see hard muscle moving beneath his shirt. He had the look of a predator, and a successful one at that.

He looked only once at Hosus, but she felt that same appraising look that she had just given him. Without hesitation, he moved to the middle of the room, and stood behind the proffered chair. He did not sit. Hosus decided to follow his lead, and walked forward. She felt tiny standing beside him, but she did not let this slight discomfiture show. Wordlessly, they awaited the Seven.

They waited only a few moments before two doors on the side of the great room swung open noiselessly to admit the ruling Council of Seven. They filed in and took their places in ceremonious silence, and remained thus for several minutes, simply staring at Hosus and the other man.

Hosus did not move, but stared directly back at the man in the center. They were all watching her and the stranger next to her, but she guessed the man in the middle lead these men. If she understood anything about ruling groups, then it was he who had summoned her. Straining to see through the shadows, Hosus faced down the man who had threatened her and her sister.

“Hosus, daughter of Trieth, and Pral Stanj,” began the central figure, “You have been summoned before this ruling Council on matters of great import. But firstly, would you prefer to sit? We may be together for quite some time.” The speaker, whom Hosus took to be the Council Minister, motioned to the chairs in front of them. Hosus decided it might be wise to look pliant, at least for the time being. She needed to learn more about these men who played with her life.

Pral, however, remained standing. His eyes never stayed still, but were constantly roving all over the room, scanning everything. Hosus could not decide if this was merely paranoia or simply the way the man acted. She did not let it bother her.

The man nodded, once, his mouth twitching perceptibly at Pral despite the heavy shadowing. “Very well, down to business. You have been summoned because you both have tremendous talents. This council has recently uncovered information that could be dangerous to our land in the future if it is not immediately acted upon. We are asking you,” here he paused, as if contemplating his next words. “We are asking you to make a foray into the Dead Lands and retrieve a certain artifact we believe has been hidden there. Please, do not scoff at this duty. This artifact, if it were activated, could be an instrument of great destruction in the wrong hands.”

Once again he paused, this time gauging both Hosus and Pral’s reactions. Hosus stifled any response, but she was experiencing no small measure of incredulity. She noticed that her companion also covered any reaction to this odd request.

Appearing satisfied, the man opened his mouth again to continue, but he was cut short when Pral finally spoke.

“Reveal your true plans, Herkiel, or we will certainly not cooperate.”

Herkiel’s mouth snapped shut with a click. Even in the gloom of the Council chambers, Hosus could see color flood his cheeks. She glanced quickly at Pral, wondering why he might include her, but he was as stoic as ever.

The Council Minister immediately reined in his anger, and said normally, “Very well, Pral. If you will be insolent to this Council, we will simply dismiss you. Guards!”

A pair of heavily-muscled guards entered the room and flanked Pral, who still did not move. The minister nodded, and they each took an arm and tried to steer Pral out of the room. As quick as lightning, he broke their grips, and with two swift strikes, left the guards crumpled on the ground.

The Council collectively gasped and one of them pushed his chair back as if to leave. Hosus was impressed by this man’s speed and skill but she was not surprised. Pral returned to his former position, and stared hard at Herkiel. The minister stared back dazed, but could not hold the stare for long.

“Tell us the rest, Minister,” Pral made the title sound like a curse, “or both of us shall leave you to fetch your artifact on your own.”

Herkiel’s gaze turned to his unconscious guards, his jaw hanging. Hosus could almost smell the fear emanating from the entire Council, but it was strongest from Herkiel. She smiled slightly to herself, impressed with how Pral had so quickly reversed the side with power.

Although Pral had spoken to the minister, it was another of the Council who spoke. Hosus turned her attention to him, but kept a wary eye on the Council Minister. “This artifact was the source of the original Seven’s power. It allowed them to regulate the weather and other factors to improve the harvest. But over six generations ago, the Council decided to lock the artifact in a vault. They feared the possible consequences of theft, for their neighbors to the south had been raiding deep into Teradan lands. It is this artifact that has been stolen. We want it returned before the thieves discover how to activate it and rain destruction down upon us all.”

Hosus was intrigued by this revelation. A magical artifact capable of controlling the weather, among other things. That was a powerful ability, and a very dangerous one. She noticed Pral glance at her, and she could feel her lips pursed in thought. Hosus stilled her features to match Pral, who only looked bored by the news.

“We have now revealed to you what no one outside of this council has knowledge of. We are charging you with the task of retrieving the Staff of Archelum and returning it to us, that we might hide it once more and keep it safe.”

Silence reigned as the Council waited for an answer. “The Dead Lands lie on the far side of the continent, far outside any boundaries Terada has ever claimed. Why would you hide something that out of reach? And where and how did you get the information that it was found or at least being sought?” Hosus asked.

“Obviously, we did not choose to hide the Staff anywhere,” Herkiel said derisively. “As for our information, it came from a source accorded the highest trust by this Council. This source informed us that, as of two months ago, organized bands of men were seen traversing the Dead Lands. They appeared to be looking for something. It is our belief that these men seek the Staff.”


The men on the Council gave Hosus questioning looks. “Why what?” asked Herkiel, obviously annoyed by the questions.

“Why do you believe these men are after the Staff? Surely it can’t be the only thing to find in the Dead Lands. What particular fact, real or imagined, makes you think they are after this Staff of yours?”

The man who had delivered their mission spoke again. “Our source…our source managed to follow one of these groups. The source reported these men complaining of the cold and sun all for a bloody weathervane. Pardon my language.”

Hosus resisted rolling her eyes. The man’s high voice and chauvinism did not elevate him in her opinion. “One source seems like hardly enough justification to send out a search party to retrieve your toy. Another thought occurs to me that if someone really is looking for your Staff, then they could just follow us to its hiding place and take it from us.”

Herkiel’s mouth split into a toothy grin. “We had thought about that. Thus, we won’t be providing you with the Staff’s exact location.”

Hosus could only shake her head. “You want us, just two people, to search an entire frozen desert by ourselves? For what? To protect something that might as well be a myth to us?” She didn’t bother to mask the contempt in her voice.

She glanced up at Pral, but he did not return her look. “I cannot speak for my companion, but I will accept this task,” he said quickly. Hosus thought the Council’s news had surprised her, but she had thought Pral less obedient than this.

Herkiel must have been just as surprised because he started to say something but sputtered off into shocked silence. “You will?” he sounded positively incredulous.

Pral nodded.

Before Hosus could begin to argue, Herkiel had dismissed them with their charge and Pral was guiding her out by the elbow. She and Pral walked out together, not speaking until they had left the building. When they were finally in a trafficked area, Pral turned to her and offered his hand. “My name, as you know, is Pral Stanj. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

Hosus shook his proffered hand, but coolly returned his gaze. “What was that all about? I’m not going on some fool’s errand for a bunch of hypocritical egomaniacs. Especially not after they threatened my sister.”

“Your sister will be protected. The tracker friends she has staying with her are also friends of mine. They will see that no harm comes to her.”

Hosus was caught off guard. “How do you know my sister?” She had to forcefully keep her hand from going to her dagger. Violence would not get her any answers from this man.

Pral eyed her, and then gave a curt nod. “Not here. Let us adjourn to someplace more private.” He walked off in the direction, not of the inns, but rather towards the docks. Hosus had no choice but to follow.

They walked down the crowded streets, refraining from speaking until they reached their destination. Hosus kept glancing at her large companion, wondering about him, where he came from, what was his history, how he knew her sister, why were they embroiled in this together. The questions never ended, and she was impatient, knowing she would not discover the answers immediately but needing to know now.

The buildings around them quickly changed the further from the town proper they moved. The well-maintained, red-slated roofs began to diminish in height, and the shingles looked worn and weathered. The meticulously clean streets acquired trash along the edges, and the paving stones were worn smooth by the countless footsteps of merchants and sailors traveling towards the markets and inns with their supply of ale.

The smell of the river met her nostrils, and she breathed deeply of the damp scent. It had been many years since Hosus had seen the large river that ran through Terada and carried trade items to and from the capital city, but she would never forget that scent. It reminded her of home, of the streams that ran through the forest and the damp earthen banks. It helped to calm the storm of questions raging in her mind. She would find the answers one way or another.

She finally spotted the docks from around a building at the end of the street. This main thoroughfare from the docks to the city curved slightly, so new travelers moving towards the city center would be constantly surprised at the simple beauties around the bend.

Hosus peered out upon the many docks that extended out into the river. The early afternoon sun glinted off the surface, illuminating the boats and ships that traversed the flowing water. Dozens upon dozens of crafts flitted between the docks and ships anchored in the deep center of the river. The docks, themselves immense creations of timber and stone, extended across only a small portion of the water. They looked like fat, stubby fingers grabbing greedily at the wealth the river represented. Hosus resented this perversion of nature, but she understood the human necessity.

They were nearly among the ships when Pral finally turned into a dilapidated building where the door hung askew on rusted hinges. She entered and her ears were immediately assaulted by shouted conversations and raucous laughter. She peered up at Pral, and figured this place was as safe as any for a private conversation. Hosus also doubted that anyone would mind if she was forced to get a little rough.

Working their way to the back of the tavern, they took a small table in the corner, and both put their backs to the wall. A waitress walked by to take their orders. Pral asked for ale but Hosus shook her head. They waited in relative silence until his drink was delivered.

Though she was impatient, Hosus showed none of it and waited stoically for Pral to sip his ale. When he placed the mug back on the table, nearly empty, she expected him to begin speaking. When he remained silent, Hosus decided to begin.

“So who are you really? You’re name might be Pral Stanj, but that tells me nothing about you. And you owe me some answers.”

Pral glanced over at her before speaking. “I am like you, a loner,” he said, a sad grin appearing slowly, “some might even call me a mercenary.”

Though Hosus had known several mercenaries in her time, she had never met any like this. Though she assumed she would have heard of such a one as Pral before, she took nothing for granted. “You fight for money. Perhaps not an honest profession, but a lucrative one.”

He almost looked surprised, shrugging away her comment. “And yourself?” he asked in turn.

“A hunter by profession.”

He shrugged again, his only reaction to her taciturnity.

“How do you know my sister?”

“I do not know her personally. But I know the man the Council sent for you. He is cruel and petty and very dangerous. He and I have had dealings in the past, none of which ended pleasantly, and I try to keep informed of his actions. When I found out the Council had sent him for you, I decided to take steps of my own.”

Hosus paused, unsure of whether or not to feel appreciative of his protective response or suspicious. “Why?”

Pral sipped his ale again before answering. “Partially because I do not feel particularly comfortable with leaving anyone in that man’s hands. Partially because I feared that you would not assent to joining me under any condition if your sister were in danger.”

“So I should trust you over the Council? Why should I trust any of you?”

“Honestly, you probably shouldn’t.” The words came slowly, as if it were an effort for Pral to speak. Hosus waited for him to continue but he just stared into his mug.

Frustration was building up inside of her and Hosus felt like taking the mug and smashing it over Pral’s head. Why did any of this have to involve her sister? How could she protect Lian? Even if she could trust this strange but powerful man, what was she to do? Amid these questions, a curious part of her whispered about the Dead Lands and the Staff.

“How do I know Lian will be safe?” she asked quietly.

“There are no guarantees in this world, but she will be protected by men I trust. This is the only guarantee I can give you.”

Hosus remained silent. Something in Pral’s words, the way he spoke, made her feel inclined to trust him. Yet her natural tendency this way made her suspicious. The conflicting emotions gave her a headache the longer she considered the implications.

“So what do you propose we do first?” Hosus asked finally, decision made, not really expecting an immediate answer.

“Straight to business. I expected no less.” At this Hosus looked quickly at him, suspicion glowing brightly in her eyes. “Though my name may not be known to you, Hosus of Trieth, you are certainly known to me. A hunter…”here he paused for a moment, “of your aptitude does not go unnoticed to those who search out such talents.”

At this, Hosus’ mind changed and she made as if to leave, but as soon as she put her hand on the tabletop her wrist was seized in an iron grasp. “You don’t want to leave. That would only draw unwanted attention.”

“From whom? Friends of yours? Are you going to threaten my sister too?”

“Do not be silly. Do you truly believe that we, the Council’s chosen, won’t be followed, precisely as you suggested?”

Their relationship from that point on had been strained, and it had only been in recent weeks that her suspicion of him had diminished to a normal healthy level. After that incident in the tavern, they had decided to gather a small group of fighters to aid them. Pral found Phanza, and Hosus managed to convince Bertan and Nar, whom she had known since they were children. Glyc and Wenley were last moment additions to their party. When they had all met in the town of Drakna before setting out, the town had been holding a festival. One of the spectacles was an archery tournament, and the twins had tied for first place. Though they fired a dozen shafts apiece, neither was able to outscore the other and they finally split the grand prize. After the tournament, Pral and Hosus approached them jointly, offering them the adventure of a lifetime. The twins had deliberated only a few moments before agreeing. With that, their group was set. They started out on their journey the next day.

Now, two months later, Hosus wondered if any of them were experiencing doubts about this endeavor. She only hoped that, in the end, they would all live to tell about it.