Part V. “The Chase”
Fel had loved to ride horses when he was younger. His father had taught him and his brother when they were very young to make sure they were skilled horsemen long before they came of age. It was a skill that had suited him well for years to come, from the time he served in the Anarothian Cavalry, through to when he fled a mutineer, and then as he helped smuggle his family out of Anaroth in the wake of Mazaroth’s army, but how he hated running. He hated being constantly tossed in the saddle during a long gallop. He hated holding the reins so tight that his muscles cramped. He hated being saddlesore for days afterward. He hated running a horse to death only to have to keep running on foot, and right now, he hated how tight the boy was holding onto him. It was obvious he’d never ridden a horse at full gallop before, if at all, but he knew he couldn’t stop.
Fel knew that if he stopped they’d both be dead. Gone were any doubts in his mind that this kid was an Avatar. He was something, but he most certainly was not working for the Dark Lord. If he had been, he would’ve killed him by now just to stop the damn galloping, but being hunted was something Fel was used to by now.
Unfortunately, the tall grasses of Marui’r were rather unfavorable to horses, which meant unless he was a better rider, or had a better horse than the men who were surely pursuing them, they might not make it to Drogoth. He pointed the horse to the tall gap between the mountain ranges on either side and trudged onward. If he could only make it to Drogoth, no one would be able to follow them. Only the Marauders knew the ways through it, for no one else was desperate enough to figure them out. Personally, Fel couldn’t blame them. When his father came up with the idea of building a camp on the other side of that rotten valley, everyone thought he was mad. It was a scarred land with terrible things abounding in every crevice, but surely enough it had proven to be an adequate buffer. Without it, Mazaroth would have sent in troops to scatter them a long time ago.
As Fel rode, a fact kept gnawing at his gut. Name dropping General Alberton should have worked back at the gate. He was the Lord Marshall of Anaroth’s armies. Lesser men should have quaked at the fear of his ire, after all, it helped that Brisbane had been his real attache, with real orders to oversee the transfer of troops from Sweetwater to the Unidor front. He’d found the orders in the real Brisbane’s coat after he garroted him. It should have worked. The only reason it would not have was if they were under orders from someone far more terrifying, which left only one of two possibilities, both of which were terrible. It was either an agent of Mazaroth of the Dark Lord himself.
After about five miles he felt the horse starting to give. He’d used most of it’s strength in the mad scramble out of town. He quickly let up on the reins and slowed to a trot.
“What’s going on?” Jaun asked, his voice shaky from the ride.
“We’re going to have to slow down, let her slow for a minute.” It was almost as if he could hear Jaun’s confusion in response. “If we’re being chased, which I’m sure we are, they’re going to have to do the same thing. Horses can’t run forever.”
“How far are we?” Jaun asked.
“Eh, I reckon two to three days.” It would be about three days of meals on the go, if there was still enough food to last the whole trip, punctuated with shivering nights and sweltering days, ending with no doubt, a family reunion. He hated the idea of it, coming back to see his family after two years gone by, the uncomfortable rift between him and them no doubt grown wider with time and space. It would be even more awkward as he brought this boy back with him, without any of the men he left with. There would be questions and rumors about his return, and a terse conversation with his brother that would make the taste of sweets sour. Then after a few days of whoring and drinking in the wake of the inevitable fight, he’d pull himself together, grab a few sturdy men, and go raiding again. So the cycle would repeat. Screw the boy’s quest. Screw Unidor. It was a damned awful place anyways, full of strange people and an occupying army. He wanted to fight, not starve to death in a siege.
“I don’t know if we’ll have enough food,” Jaun spoke. “My food was packed on my horse.”
“Then we’ll eat half rations until we reach Haven, and pray we’re not eaten by something on the way there.”
“Is there a chance of that?”
“Oh, yes,” Fel replied, shifting in the saddle trying to alleviate one growing sore only to create another. “Between the goblins and the trolls there’s enough danger, but then there are the black drakes. Don’t worry yourself about it now. With my luck we’ll get eaten by a bear, or the riders will catch up to us.” No point lying to the boy. It was better he got his mind ready for the challenge.
They had ridden for what seemed like hours, across the plain toward Drogoth, with no sign of following riders. Fel assured him they were there, just past the horizon. Jaun had never ridden a horse before. He’d read about them in Vulden’s journals, and Vulden had told him about the general technique used in riding them, but verbal instruction is a poor teacher when it’s time to actually do something. He never imagined it would be like this, a constant battle with gravity, every muscle being somewhere between tensed and like jelly. He was already sore through most of his muscles, especially his back and arms and thighs. He couldn’t believe people did this for fun. How was there any joy derived out of riding another animal that seemed likely to jostle you off at any moment. Sure walking was slower, but the ground wouldn’t throw you.
“What were those weapons the men on the parapet had?” Jaun asked. He was sure Fel was tired of having to answer all these inane questions which answers would have been obvious to anyone not living under a rock.
“That boy, was not a parapet. It was barely a wall-“
“You know what I mean,” Jaun snapped back. A flash of anger had overcome him quite suddenly.
“Whoa, there,” Fel started. “You mean the boy has some red blood in his veins, not just niceties and funny thoughts.”
“You are right, I have some,” Jaun growled back, abruptly wishing that he was not gripping Fel about the waist.
“Well, then, why don’t you curse?”
“Because, I don’t. My father taught me not to.”
“I’ve heard elves curse plenty, granted they do it in their own language. Why did he teach you not to?”
Jaun shrugged on reflex, even though he knew Fel couldn’t possibly see him do it. “I don’t really know. He said it wasn’t gentlemanly.”
“Gentlemanly to who? The birds? It’s not like you had anyone else to impress in those woods of yours.”
“I don’t know why?” Jaun snapped back. “I didn’t ask him for every reason every time he taught me something. It wasn’t my place.”
“Did he teach you to curtsey, too,” Fel snickered as he nudged the horse into a position to where he could see if anyone was following them. The tall, wavy grass betrayed no interlopers on the horizon.
“To bow,” Jaun replied, a slight murmur of anger tucked away in his tone. He didn’t like Fel’s attitude in the slightest. He was a robber, a murderer, and an asshole. He didn’t feel like he deserved the ribbing nor was it even coming from someone he respected. Fel was probably twice his age and half the man that Jaun was, or what Jaun felt he was.
“Ah,” Fel replied, with a half cocked smile. “Like a good little gentleman.” He turned the horse back to the broken space between the two ridges looming ever closer in the distance. They were dark peaks, brown and nearly devoid of anything but rock, earth, and the thinnest wiry trees Jaun could have imagined. A bleak destination no doubt, but Jaun couldn’t think of one that wasn’t bleak. There was always Cragor, in the far south, but that ancient realm was rotten by greed and struggles for power. Unidor was besieged. The dwarf lands were a dark and dangerous oversea voyage away, to only be greeted by a people and culture entirely alien to him. In truth, there was no place left in the world not touched by the influence of the Oncalla. The world was tainted.
“So,” Fel began, sensing an opening in the conversation. “Where did you get that sword of yours?”
He wished Aldred had been there to tell him about the sword’s distinctiveness sooner, or Vulden had been a little bit more informative. Though he didn’t trust Fel, there was nothing left to hide. He’d probably already noticed it, or had pointed it out to Aldred himself.
“My father,” he spoke the words so glumly that he surprised himself.
“Which one? Your real father or your elf-father?”
“Both actually,” Jaun began. “Vulden handed it to me just before he got ran through. He told me it was my blood father’s. I didn’t get to know much more than that.”
Fel was silent for a moment, seeming to either be thinking about something or adjusting in the saddle.
“You know what it is though, right?”
“I can read Anarothian, I know what the inscriptions say,” Jaun replied defensively. “I know it belonged to a Paladin.”
“And you know what a Paladin is, right?”
“Of course I do. Vulden did teach me things, you know, not just how to hunt or survive. He taught me how the world works, or at least, how it used to.” Things seemed very different compared to the information he gleamed from Vulden.
“Things aren’t that different now, you know,” Fel said with a huff. “I used to be like you. Used to think that the world before Mazaroth was some grand thing that ought to come back, but the more I think about it, the more I don’t know what world I do want to live in.”
Jaun felt like he was going to fall off the horse he was so shocked. Mazaroth was a butcher and had torn down the Pillars of the Augurs in defiance of the Gods. He’d brought back with him the dark ways of the Oncalla and their horde of monsters, and all for what? So that he could rule. He’d toppled the old ways just so he could grasp at power.
“How could you say that?” Jaun gaped back.
“Don’t get me wrong, Mazaroth is a bastard and monster, but the world was no less bloody before; it just made a little more sense. People had less say as to how they lived their lives before, and just prayed that the people in the Lords’ Council knew what they were doing.”
“What do you mean? People didn’t have a say?”
“Everyone serves someone or something, and before Mazaroth everyone served a Lord of some caliber. Now imagine you lived in an area about the size of your woods, but you could never leave it. It didn’t matter if you hated the way the water tasted or if it was always muddy, or if you loathed the mad bastard who ruled your little piece of dirt, you could never leave without that same mad bastard’s permission. Now a man doesn’t have to do that. He can go where he pleases, as long as he has the goods or money to get him there. The high born still shit on everyone else, but that’s the nature of being high born. You’re higher up so you can always blame gravity.”
“So if you’re not fighting to bring back the Anaroth that was, why do you fight?”
Fel let out a long sigh as he puffed out his cheeks, “Sometimes, I don’t even know.” Jaun was surprised at the honesty of Fel’s answer. Pleasantly surprised. But still surprised none the less.
The boy had a good question and Fel had no idea how to respond. He’d joined the fight because that was what he did best, kick against the current. In the horror of the early days, when he was still reeling in shock at the fall, it seemed right. The night before Mazaroth’s army came the city had become hell. The straggling survivors of the battle at the High Pass had returned the night before, bearing news that the Berin had forced a rout. To make matters worse, scouts had begun reporting that a Voulkahnian army was marching from the north. Doom seemed imminent, and to the people, it appeared that their leaders had betrayed them. They felt the nobles should have been able to protect them, but they had mismanaged the war, and underestimated Mazaroth’s strength. Fel had been living as a bandit for a few years before and he had an ear to the ground. He knew people would be angry, and anger mixed with fear is an explosive combination.
By the time he’d arrived at Anaroth the gates were burst open. Men in steel caps and spears were manning it, but they weren’t even questioning people coming in and out of the city. At a time like that he would’ve expected a closed gate with a deployed portcullis. By the time he got to the walls of the Carsca, on Neun’s road in the Dragon Quarter, that’s when he ran into the mob. Apparently, in the hopes that Mazaroth would spare the city his wrath, the leaders of the army had captured the royal family and given them to the mob. To his horror, Fel saw King Faladan hanging by a pair of meathooks off a makeshift gallows, beaten so thoroughly that his head resembled an exploded melon rather than a person. The flies circled and the stench hit his nose all at once. Royal or not, we all rot just the same. Strung up beside him were his remaining sons. His queen and daughters, on the other hand, suffered a much worse fate of getting passed around Mazaroth’s guards before they were essentially executed as well. The Kings youngest daughter couldn’t have been more than nine years of age. Even still the memory of it made his blood boil and stomach turn. At the time all he could think of was his family.
The High quarter was engulfed in a swarming melee when he scaled the wall separating the High Quarter from the rest of the city. The city’s garrison was going manor to manor, defeating the surprised and disorganized house guards. He killed three men getting to his family’s manor and then several more on the way out. It was easy to get swept up in the rage in those days, to go raiding on anyone and anything that paid homage to Mazaroth. Now, as his grip tightened, and as time created a distance between the present and the past, it was harder to understand why he kept fighting. Vengeance was a poor substitute for a cause. And we all rot just the same in the end.
“Have you ever killed a man?” Fel asked over his shoulder.
“No. I’ve hunted, but I’ve never harmed a person before.”
“Have you ever been in a fight before?”
“I sparred with Vulden many times and he taught me various forms of elvish swordplay.”
“Elvish swords are thinner and lighter than that heft of steel on your belt. Will you know how to use it when the time comes?”
“Will you know how to use your elf blade when the time comes?” Jaun replied angrily from behind Fel’s back. Fel had a mind to backhand the boy and show him his place. Ever since they left Sweetwater he was a grumbling, sniveling mess. He’d almost knocked Fel off his own horse on a few occasions during the dash from the town, and he couldn’t take a good ribbing. It was going to be a long ride if he continued to be this irritating.
“Of course I know how to use it!” Fel snapped back, quite surprised by the sudden flash of anger. “Did you not see me kill the man at the gate? I haven’t even seen you draw that sword once.” He felt the boy’s arms tighten around his waist, and then they were tumbling off the saddle. He felt his shoulder slam into the ground as corns on the reedy grass slapped at his face. The force rippled through his body and made him groan with pain. Fel hadn’t fallen off at horse since his first skirmish at Montreu. He had forgotten how much it hurt.
“Dammit, boy!” He roared through gritted teeth as he tried to stand. That was when he heard the ever familiar ring of steel as a sword rattled out of it’s scabbard. He looked over to see Jaun standing in the grass with his hands around the grip of his sword. The steel of the blade was almost black, and at least four inches wide at the base of the blade. On the groove of the sword Fel could see faint etchings that looked like runes of some sort. It was a big bastard of a sword, he’d seen bigger, but those were used more like axes and spears than swords. This was a proper blade with good balance, meant for slashing and stabbing, and if all the myths about them were true, could cut through nearly anything.
Fel slowly got to his feet and stuck his thumbs under his belt. The boy’s form was good. The tip of the blade hardly wavered in his hand. The tip of the sword was pointing toward the sky, but leaned toward him somewhat, prepared to guard or to strike.
Jaun narrowed his eyes. “You were saying?”
“Come on boy,” Fel started. “Put the sword down. Our horse is getting away.” In reality it had just trotted a short distance away and quietly began grazing on some nearby grass, paying no attention to the human commotion.
“You wanted to see what I could do. Now’s your chance.”
In truth, Fel had fought a few duels in his day, mostly because he opened his big mouth after he’d had too much to drink. He’d ended up fighting one surprisingly good fighter because he’d cavorted with the man’s wife, once again, after having one too many, but he didn’t try to make a standup fight a habit. He was much better, and preferred a fight, where he could surprise his opponent. Stealth and misdirection where his allies. Even in his duels he’d only won because he cheated. Anarothian custom required duels to only be fought according to strict guidelines, and his blatant disregard for those customs was one more reason as to why he became such a pariah. Needless to say, most of what Fel knew about swordplay derived from two things: people are reluctant to fight a man on a horse, and you stick your enemy with the pointy end. His brother was much better at this stuff than he was.
“Listen, I get it. You’re a standup lad who’s been trained his whole life to be a little proper tongued warrior. You’ve been taught to kill, but have only practiced with deer and rabbits I assume. Sparring in the woods with your Elf father is all well and good but you’re in the real world now. You need to learn when to talk and when to shut up.” Jaun stood there for a moment looking grim, sword still firmly in his grip. Fel saw the anger in the boy’s eyes and dropped his voice to a low calming level, not unlike how he spoke to a startled horse. “Dammit boy. You need to learn to take a joke, and most of all, you need to learn who your enemy is. The people who killed your father.. fathers, wouldn’t care to sit down to tea with me either. You will need to trust me if you want to make it through Drogoth alive.”
It wouldn’t take too much effort to kill the boy, if he needed to. His hands were close enough to his throwing knives. Just as he was thinking about where to strike, he saw Jaun relax his grip and slowly sheath the sword.
“Fine, but stop calling me boy.”
Fel shook his head and smiled. “I’ll do that after you get your first kill. Not a moment before, boy.”
The next issue will debut on February, 5th.