Copyright © 2016 by Scott R. Larson
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
THE MOUNTAINTOP was surrounded by clouds, like a tall island amidst a sea of swirling mist. The three men on horseback emerged from the fog and looked up at the sunlight.
The tallest and eldest of the trio had curly black hair. His name was Adryan. He closed his eyes and, in spite of the icy breeze, enjoyed what little warmth the light brought to his face.
“It is good to see the sun again,” he said.
The other two nodded in sincere but unenthusiastic agreement. One had brown hair, a shaggy beard and an ugly scar on his left cheek. He looked at the road ahead of them that wound down back into the mist.
“The fog is even thicker in front of us than it is behind,” he said. “I still insist that returning home by land was a bad idea. And I fear that I will soon be proved right.”
Adryan replied, “Your complaining will bring us no luck, Benet. I do not like this journey any more than you do, but there was no other choice.”
“Well,” said Benet, weighing his words carefully, “if you had not quarreled with your woman, we would be returning to our home the same way we left it—by sea. No one from our country has crossed through Afranor in generations. Have you ever heard of anyone going there and returning? Has our father ever spoken of anybody ever doing so? We should have avoided Afranor at all costs.”
Adryan had little patience for this talk.
“I did not quarrel with Valloniah. She quarreled with me. And, in any event, our quarrel was no reason to put me—us—off her ship. Did we not fight faithfully at her side against the southern corsairs? And this is how she repays me!”
“Well, clearly,” said Benet, “she did not become known as the Pirate Queen because of her sweet temper.”
The slender youth with the dirty blond hair, following behind, finally spoke. His face was scruffy with a miserably failed attempt at a beard, but his most notable feature was that one of his eyes was brown and the other was blue.
“Is it too late to avoid going through Afranor?”
“Going around this country would have added weeks to our journey,” said Adryan, losing his patience. “To turn back now and go around would add more than a month.”
“Better to lose a month,” said the youth quietly, his voice trailing off, “than to lose our lives.”
As soon as he said it, the callow lad hoped that his brothers had not heard him, but they had.
“Do not forget who you are, Chrysteffor,” said Adryan sternly. “You are the son of a king, the same as Benet and myself. I know that you are young still and that this life of traveling dangerous roads does not exactly suit you. At least not yet. But your words could be taken as cowardice, and they do not reflect on you alone. Everything you say and do reflects on our entire family. Even things you say among only the three of us.”
Chrysteffor bit his lip and said nothing. His face was burning.
Benet added, “Never forget. We are known far beyond the borders of our own country. Even in places where we have never journeyed, people speak in awe of the fighting princes of Alinvayl.”
“We have no choice,” said Adryan. “We must keep going. The faster we travel down this road, the sooner we will be home. Let us go.”
Adryan continued along the road, down the other side of the mountain. As Benet and Chrysteffor watched him and his horse disappear into the dark mists, they shuddered involuntarily. Neither looked forward to leaving the sunlight and returning to the cold clamminess of the vapors swirling below. Reluctantly, they commanded their horses to follow.
The fog had been thick enough coming up the mountain, but it was much denser and darker as they descended on the northern side. They knew the sun was shining not far above them, but the air around them had so quickly become thick and black, they could easily have believed that it was now the middle of a moonless night. The suffocating quiet, broken only by the clopping of the horses’ hoofs, was eerie and more than a little unnerving.
As they rode, Adryan felt as though he should be talking to the others, keeping up their spirits, but he could not think of anything worth saying. Besides, the quiet felt as though it did not want to be disturbed. And the younger two certainly were not contributing any chat either.
The three of them rode the stony path down the mountain in silence. As they came to the bottom of the mountain, the trees grew thick around them, making the air seem darker than it had been before.
Benet broke the silence.
“I do not mind saying that I do not like this one single bit. It is not natural. We know that it is daytime, and yet it is as dark as the middle of the night. I have never seen anything like this in my entire life. I can barely see the hand in front of my face.”
“It is, I admit, strange,” said Adryan. “I too have never seen anything like this, but it can only be a matter of time until the fog lifts and things around us become clearer.”
“How do we know we are following the right road,” asked Chrysteffor, “if we cannot see anything? How do we know we are really heading in the direction of home and not becoming lost?”
“There is no chance of getting lost,” replied Adryan testily. “We have only to make for the sea and then follow the coast. As long as we ride with the sea to our left, we cannot end up anywhere but home. And your nervous questions will not get us there any faster.”
The lad bit his lip again and fell silent. Benet pulled up alongside his older brother. As they continued to ride, he spoke to him quietly, hoping that the lad would not hear.
“You are very hard on him, Adryan. I think you forget how young he is still.”
“I know well his age, but we will do him no favors by protecting him. You know as well as I how harsh and unforgiving the world is.”
“I agree, but I also see that he is not the same as you and I. He does not have a warrior’s temperament. He was not born to fight. Our father has two warrior sons. Does he really need to have a third?”
“To be honest, I have begun to think the same thing myself lately. Though I hate to say it, it is only a matter of time until the boy is injured or killed in one of our exploits. I do not want that on my conscience. When we arrive home, I will propose to our father that Chrys be given new duties in the castle and that he need no longer accompany us on our forays.”
“Yes, I think that is for the best,” said Benet.
“In the end,” said Adryan, “I suppose we do not all have to be the same. We do not all have to be cut from the same cloth. There is room in this world for the likes of him. After all, he will never have to worry about one day bearing the burden of the crown, as I will. Why not let him live his life as he pleases?”
The pair fell silent. Benet was pleased to hear that Adryan had at last softened his views regarding their youngest brother, and he knew that Chrysteffor would be pleased as well. As for Chrysteffor, while he had not been able to make out their words, he had his own idea of what they were discussing. He expected he would be getting another unwelcome speech from Adryan. He hated the fact that he never measured up to his brothers’ expectations.
The three continued their progress, as they trusted the horses to follow the road. Each of the brothers found himself repeatedly sniffing the air, hoping to detect the salty smell of the sea that would assure them they were indeed headed in the right direction. In the end, all they could smell was a faint odor reminiscent of sulfur hanging heavy in the dampness of the fog.
Adryan suddenly stopped his horse. The other two did the same, and they all listened quietly.
“What was that?” asked Adryan softly.
The three brothers remained motionless as they continued to listen. Benet and Chrysteffor wondered what Adryan had heard, but then they all heard it. At first it was distant and hard to make out, but gradually it became louder. It was the noise of heavy footsteps in the forest. It seemed to be a large group of men—big and heavy men from the sound of them. And they were getting closer all the time. The three princes stayed still as statues, waiting to see what would happen next.
Then they saw them.
They could just make out the shapes emerging from the shadowy mists. Maybe it was a trick their eyes were playing on them, but these did not look like any men they had ever seen before. Their clothes were in tatters. They wore armor, but none of them appeared to have a full suit—only odd, rusty pieces that did not completely cover their bodies.
What mainly drew the three men’s attention—and struck fear in their hearts—were the faces. The creatures’ skin barely clung to their skulls, and there were black holes where their eyes should have been. Were there truly no eyes in their sockets or was it an illusion conjured by the darkness? The princes had little time to wonder. The creatures were making straight for them with wooden clubs raised. There was no question but that this was an attack.
Adryan raised his sword and shouted, “Defend yourselves, princes of Alinvayl!”
Chrysteffor too raised his sword, although not as enthusiastically as Adryan. Benet’s preferred weapon was a heavy spiky metal mace. He began swinging it around by its chain and knocking it against the heads of several of the creatures. When it hit them, it threw them off balance, but they invariably got back to their feet and continued the attack.
The other two brothers were having no better luck. Adryan thrust his blade into the chests of several of them, but that only slowed them down. It did not stop them. And each time Adryan withdrew his blade, he was unnerved to see that, for all the soggy bits of flesh that clung to it, there was no blood. The worst thing was the smell of the creatures. They stank of rotting meat. It was all the princes could do not to be made sick by the stench.
“By all that is holy,” muttered Adryan under his breath, “what manner of creatures are these?”
The horses carrying the three princes reared up in absolute panic. In the animals’ sheer terror, they tried frantically to throw off their riders. It did not help that the creatures were battering the steeds with their clubs. The brothers clung to the backs of their mounts as long as they could, but it was only a matter of time before each, in turn, was thrown to the ground. The horses fled into the darkness, leaving in their wake only the echoes of their terrified screaming.
The trio rose quickly to their feet and continued the fight as best they could, but they were completely surrounded and their opponents’ numbers seemed endless. Adryan threw himself into the fight with new vigor, swinging his sword ever more fiercely. Benet gamely followed suit with his mace.
To no one’s surprise, Chrysteffor was faring less well than his brothers. He frantically struck at one creature and then another, but his efforts were not even slowing them down, let alone stopping them. He desperately wished he had put more effort into convincing his brothers to take the longer way home.
Adryan was determined not to give in to despair. Even if he could not kill these enemies, he could keep them off balance and at bay. The problem was that there were so many of them. They were everywhere. In a fit of anger, he swung his blade as forcefully as he could against the neck of one of them. He watched with satisfaction as he managed to sever its head from its body and the head rolled along the ground. He half-feared that the headless body would continue fighting anyway, but to his relief it crumpled to the ground and lay still.
“The only way to stop them,” he yelled to the others, “is to cut off their heads! Nothing else seems to kill them!”
The problem, as Adryan was all too aware, was that a well-aimed and forceful motion was required to sever a head. With so many creatures swarming around him all at once, it was difficult to get a clear shot at any of them. Benet was having better luck with his mace. Yelling at the top of his lungs as he swung it around in a circle, he managed to strike several of the warriors directly in the skull and send their heads flying.
Chrysteffor, meanwhile, was having no luck and getting no good swipes at the necks of his adversaries. When all else failed, he resorted to stabbing them in the chest but, as Adryan had found, that barely slowed them down.
Benet tried to watch his younger brother out of the corner of his eye, but unfortunately all of his attention was required for his own defense and for his own attempts to behead as many of the creatures as possible. He worried for Chrysteffor. While the lad had been in a fair number of battles for someone of his young age, he had never encountered anything like this. None of them had.
It was only a matter of time until Benet’s worst fear was realized. As Chrysteffor was swinging his blade as furiously as he could, one of the creatures rose up from behind him and delivered a solid blow to the back of his head with a rough wooden club. The young prince collapsed immediately in a heap on the ground. A small pool of blood formed on the ground beneath his head. Benet had little doubt that the blow was fatal, and he was ruefully grateful that the boy’s death had been so swift.
There was no time to dwell on Chrysteffor. There would be time for mourning and regrets later. That is, if he and Adryan survived the battle. And that was by no means certain. The two remaining princes continued the battle with all the strength they could muster. The pair were persistent fighters and, by this point in their lives, were well tested in the heat of combat, but the sheer numbers were against them. They both knew it was only a matter of time until the hordes wore them down. Still the brothers refused to give up.
In the midst of the grunts and the roars and the sounds of clubs and swords and the mace striking flesh, the princes heard another sound. It was the unmistakable sound of a horse’s hoofs, and it was steadily growing louder. The brothers’ hearts sank at the thought of yet another enemy coming to join the fight against them, especially one on horseback.
It seemed no time at all until the rider appeared through the darkness. He did not look like the creatures they were fighting. He was wearing proper armor and, though it was difficult to tell, he seemed to be a normal man and not one of the unearthly creatures. He was not particularly large, but he brandished a gleaming sword over his head with clear skill and determination. And, to Adryan’s and Benet’s relief, this newcomer was using his weapon not against them but to lop off heads of the creatures.
They now had a much needed ally, and a formidable one at that. They marveled at his horse and how it had not been made mad with terror by the creatures, as their mounts had been. The horse gave the rider a major advantage in that he could attack the creatures from above while it was difficult for them to land a serious blow on him. Adryan and Benet continued fighting while watching in awe as the rider decapitated his opponents with frightening efficiency. That inspired them to fight all the harder.
After what seemed like an hour or perhaps two, corpses of the creatures were piled on the ground. The ones that were still alive grudgingly melted back into the darkness. They seemed to know instinctively that their numbers were not sufficient to prevail against their three opponents.
Adryan and Benet sighed with relief and exhaustion. They were anxious to speak with the mysterious warrior who had saved their lives and to learn what they could about the creatures they had been fighting so frantically. Adryan turned to address him and to thank him but, as he did, Benet sensed something moving behind them. At the same time, the rider indicated alarm. Benet swung around to see one of the creatures, who had been lying on the ground, raise himself up and lift his large wooden club.
To be continued…
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