Saturday, September 19, 2015

Shadows of the Storm

Three weeks had passed since Zalaz's call for all men of age to take up arms. Travelers on the roads through Dacia found themselves in the company of armed men, all moving towards the west. The first of the legions arrived and set up an encampment before the village that called itself a city, Asser. An hour away from Dacia, Asser was unassuming for all the village's claims of greatness. Their deep wells and rich vinyards were the only thing truly of note about Asser. Now, however, those wells were busy at all hours of the day and the grapes were untended upon the vine because the servants were learning the craft of war.

Zalaz rode through Asser with Sorenan at his side. The pair were a strange sight. Zalaz with his white light armor and clothes seemed to gleam brilliantly in the weak light of dawn. Sorenan wore black. Zalaz's black hair was bound up in a braid that bounced against his back as he rode his bay horse along the streets where as Sorenan's tawny gold hair was free and teased by the wind. The horse he rode was as black as the dead of night and restless. The stallion tossed his mane frequently and strained against Sorenan's control, wanting to move at a brisker pace than the walk he was forced into.

People from the village watched them move towards the encampment with some curiosity and some dread. The young women who had lost their sweethearts to glory's call watched with bitterness. The children followed in their wake excitedly, to the dismay of their mothers. They were nearly to the edge of the village when a boy darted out from between the brick houses and almost under Sorenan's mount. As the child's mother pulled him back with a cry of alarm, Sorenan reined in the horse hard. The black horse reared and the child screamed. Hooves crashed to the earth moments after the boy was pulled back. Sorenan looked down at the lad, who stared up at him with awe and fear.

"Stay back if you would live to be a man," Sorenan said. The boy nodded as his mother clutched him to her breast. She stared at Sorenan as though he was some sort of monster. Sorenan scowled and looked forward. As he rode forward and caught up to Zalaz, he shook his head with disgust. "They would declare me a demon," Sorenan said bitterly, "They whisper that I am a monster." Zalaz looked over at him with an inquistive expression. "I care because they would use it as justification against them," Sorenan explained.

Zalaz nodded. They rode in silence the short distance to the encampment. Though the men assembled were within their own lands, Zalaz noted with approval that a watch had been set. The guard stepped forward to challenge them. He then saw the sash about Zalaz's waist. The younger man bowed deeply as he stepped aside. Zalaz frowned at the sight of how poorly the guard's armor fit him. They rode deeper through the tents until they reached the pavillion of the commander.

Someone had noted Zalaz's approach and word had reached the commander that the Lord High General had come to them. Thus, when Zalaz and Sorenan emerged into the open space at the center of the encampment where the commander's pavilion stood, that man was waiting for them dressed in his armor. With a white breastplate and brown pauldrons, the stocky commander seemed to have rushed to put his too clean armor on. Zalaz inwardly scoffed at how the commander's clothes beneath the armor looked rumpled, as though they had been hastily put on. He suspected that within the pavilion, the commander's woman from the night before was rushing to dress herself and attempting to determine what exactly she should do.

"What news is there from the west?" Zalaz said to the commander. The man before him swallowed anxiously, never having anticipated that he would actually speak with the Lord High General himself. Zalaz waited, restraining a dry remark about how words would have been a more effective mode of communication rather than staring at him. The commander looked over at Sorenan with some discomfort. "Well," Zalaz said, "What do your riders know? I presume they have returned already."

Starting slightly with surprise at Zalaz's words, the commander turned his gaze to the general. "They returned last night. The cities of Kist and Levanth are fully evacuated. Midthar has yet to begin their evacuation. They insist there is no threat and the summons of their men an attempt to grab power," he said, dreading Zalaz's response. Zalaz looked at the commander with his loose right pauldron, waiting for any additional details to be mentioned. "The guard of Midthar have been set against your men," the discomforted man continued, sounding apologetic, "The messengers returned with warning that Midthar would repel any who come for her people. They deny that Temna has turned against us."

"So be it," Zalaz said, "We will leave them to their fate. However, if word comes that Midthar needs aid, we must be ready to march. It may be the most distant city of the empire but it will be the first that will be assaulted. Clearly Zafar has forgotten our discussion." A disturbance at the western edge of the encampment caught the general's attention even as a runner came from there.

"Riders," the man gasped as he reached the commander, "We can't tell who they are." The commander looked at Zalaz, whose sharp eyes could see the wave of activity move through the encampment. Men looked to their weapons. Some began to move towards the edge of the encampment as others looked to their leaders for orders.

"How many?" Zalaz demanded before the commander could speak.

"It is a small party. We think twelve. The others are watching them. Olthos should be coming next with more information," the messenger said. The commander started to say something when Zalaz cut him off again.

"Return to your watch. Look if there is another party behind them," Zalaz said, "Send word as soon as you sight any others in their wake or if they come bearing the standard of Temna. Black field with a gold spear peircing a red sun." The guard nodded briskly, saluted Zalaz and then his commander before turning to race back to his post. Zalaz looked at the commander. "Keep arms at the ready," Zalaz said, "No one moves until I give word. These may be friends of Dacia. Or they may be a scouting party of the enemy. When they reach the encampment's edge, bring them to me."

Zalaz dismounted. Sorenan followed in his wake. A footsoldier took the reins of both horses. Where the commander looked untried and unsteady, the footsoldier bore the mark of a seasoned fighter. His scars and cool demeanor at the prospect of the enemy bearing down on them, compared to how the commander flushed and his lieutenants paled, sat well with Sorenan. Sorenan decided if he couldn't have Zalaz at his back, the man holding their horses may be a good choice compared to the ones who would insist on the 'honor' of defending Ashur's sword-bearer.

Zalaz motioned the commander with him as he entered into the pavilion. One of the commander's subordinates moved to stop Sorenan from walking into the pavilion when Sorenan fixed him with a look. Sorenan's eyes, which had been almost olive green, lightened to the color of amber as they narrowed. The other man paled and made a warding gesture as the angered man passed by him. For once, Sorenan decided that the whisper he was a demon might actually have been useful.

Once inside the tent, Sorenan noticed Zalaz and the commander at a table with a map unfurled. Standing near the cot, attempting to will herself into invisibility was a dark eyed woman who looked barely to be an adult. "An escort will bring you to Asser," Sorenan said to her. She jumped a little at Sorenan's words, not expecting someone to actually speak to her. Zalaz looked up from the map and saw the woman standing there. He looked over at Sorenan and noticed the anger simmering in him.

As the general opened his mouth to call for a soldier to perform the duty that Sorenan declared would be done, a footsoldier burst in to the tent. "The riders are coming into bow range, Lord High General," he said, "They bear the standard of Temna. No others are behind them. They appear to be unarmed." Zalaz and Sorenan exchanged a look that spoke volumes. The commander was confused.

"Do we bring them before the Empress?" Sorenan asked. Zalaz looked down at the map and drummed his fingers on the table.

"Yes, with an armed escort and we accompany them," Zalaz said with out looking up, "Pick the men you think best suited." Sorenan nodded and walked out as the commander summoned up the courage to attempt to argue with the general as to who should accompany the coming party. Sorenan didn't need to listen in to know that Zalaz was about to educate his subpar commander as to what his duties were and just how far his rank allowed him to go. He was, however surprised when Zalaz had not raised his voice.

Sorenan looked at the men about the innermost circle of the encampment. He noted with some approval that most of them were like the man who still was holding the reins of the horses. He pointed to nine men. "You, fetch your weapons and spears," he said. The lieutenant nearest to him looked as though he was about to argue when Sorenan fixed his leonine eyes on him. "Clear a path for the messengers to come through the encampment," he said to the lieutenant, "We will not give them a chance to see our numbers but they will know we were awaiting them. Each man along that path will be armed and facing them. I want our guests to be ... welcome and secure." The lieutenant looked at him confused by Sorenan's final statement.

The nine that Sorenan ordered to arm themselves returned to him as the other man gave the orders that Sorenan demanded. Zalaz walked out of the pavillion. He looked at the armed men that Sorenan selected and gave a small nod of approval. "The envoys will not be pleased with their reception," Zalaz said dryly. Sorenan scoffed as he mounted his horse. Zalaz mounted and watched as an aisle formed between the ranks through the encampment. All along the sides of that aisle, warriors stood as though awaiting formal inspection. "It may be that you will do well at this after all," Zalaz said and Sorenan rolled his eyes. With a small, feirce smile, the general said, "Let us meet our guests."

The two men rode sedately through the encampment with their nine companions marching at their backs. As the Lord High General and the Sword-bearer of Ashur passed, a whisper went through those who stood watching behind the guard. Zalaz noted with some satisfaction that discipline held though the curious men wanted to get a better look at them. Zalas and Sorenan stopped at the edge of the encampment and watched as the riders drew closer. The banner of Temna snapped in the wind as the party, which was actually six men, reined in their horses and stopped before Zalaz and Sorenan.

"Give us passage," the lead rider demanded, "We come bearing a message from King Ashera, first of his name and blessed by Adar, god of all gods, ruler of Temna. We speak only to the Empress of Dacia, she who is the Daughter of Julara." As the man spoke, Zalaz's expression turned still and Sorenan's became inscrutible.

"We shall give you passage and an escort. I am Zalaz, Lord High General of Dacia. You shall be under my personal protection," the general said solemnly.

The leader of the party turned his gaze to Sorenan. "The demon of the north rides with you," he said, "Your offers of protection are worthless with it at your side."

Zalaz's ferocious smile returned. "Say what you will, the Sword-bearer of Assur remains with us. You are welcome to return to Temna with your words unsaid," he replied in an almost pleasant tone. The man before him dressed in black robes frowned.

"It rides before us," the lead messenger said, "If it threatens us, we shall cut it down."

Zalaz's smile vanished and a stony look replaced it. "Arrogance does not become the messengers of Temna. Speak against the Sword-bearer of Assur again and you will not like the consequences," Zalaz replied, all pretence of pleasantries falling out of his manner. The subordinates of the messenger looked between themselves uneasily. "Come, if you would see her Ladyship," Zalaz said.

The messengers said nothing as Zalaz and Sorenan turned their mounts and began to ride back through the camp. As they followed, the escort surrounded them. "You would threaten us with your men of arms," the lead messenger said.

Sorenan called back of his shoulder, "They are for your protection. We would be remiss if we allowed harm to befall you in your duty." Uncomfortable silence reigned as the party passed through Asser. The hill that Dacia stood atop looked green and inviting, almost a paradise to the desert men that rode with Sorenan and Zalaz. The leader of the party looked about himself with some interest.

The group traveled over the road to Dacia the lead messenger commented, "Your fields seem ready for harvest yet no one is at work." Sorenan said nothing, as did Zalaz. The hostile silence worked to make the envoy party uncomfortable and intensely conscious of their lack of substantial arms. Of the entire group, only the leader bore a sword. The subordinate messengers silently plotted how they would seize the weapons of their escorts if it was necessary. Though Zalaz and Sorenan seemed to ignore the group of men riding behind them, they were paying them close attention, listening for any conversation between them.

The gates of Dacia came into view as they made their way up the hill. The city guard stood watching as the little party approached. Someone noted that the riders with the general and Sorenan were surrounded by an armed escort. When they passed the outer walls, a second armed escort surrounded the party. "Yet more men to threaten us," the envoy said.

"Dacia does not threaten," Zalaz answered, "They are for your welfare within the city. Some have grown suspicious of Temna and would greet you unpleasantly."

"Are not your guard sufficient?" the envoy demanded.

"The city watch is not under my command," Zalaz responded, "If the commander of the watch deems it necessary to provide you protection, then he will do so. As he has." The messengers were ushered through the marketplace, where the people of Dacia watched them uneasily. Soon, they were at the courtyard before the temple of Julara. As they came to a halt, Mina stepped forward from the portico with Marcos at her side. Members of the city guard stood posted about the courtyard at the various entrances.

Zalaz brought the party to a halt in the center of the square. The city watchmen moved away from the party to join their breathren in arms at their postings. People peered around them as Zalaz's soldiers moved a distance away from the envoys. Zalaz dismounted. Sorenan did so as well as a servant came running to take their horses. As their mounts were lead away, Zalaz watched Sorenan walk to stand at Marcos's side.

"Blessed Lady, holy Empress, she who is the Daughter of Julara," Zalaz called loudly, his voice filling the air with its strident tones, "I bring an envoy of Temna to your presence." Mina looked down on the party still mounted behind Zalaz. She watched as Zalaz stepped aside, his hand resting upon the hilt of his sword. The lead envoy looked up at Mina, clearly displeased that she stood above him.

"We come bearing a message from King Ashera, first of his name and blessed by Adar, god of all gods, ruler of Temna," the man in black said, "He demands that the Empress surrender herself to his protection and submit Dacia to his rule as a protectorate. King Ashera promises that the Empress will be attended with all honors due to her as the Daughter of Julara. He gives his word that Dacia shall prosper under his benevolent hand."

Mina looked down at him, disappointed that her intuition about the envoy was correct. She turned her attention to Marcos. "He offers us subjugation and humiliation," she said in a voice that was loud enough to be carried to the envoy party. Marcos's expression had the unearthly calm that came from Ashur's hand being upon him. He set his hand upon the sword at his right side.

"King Ashera does not intend to humiliate you, Empress," the envoy said, "He would treat you with all honor and graciousness."

"His demands must be answered in kind," Marcos said. He stepped forward, with Sorenan at his side, he walked down the steps of the temple. As the Sword-bearers of Ashur approached, the lead envoy dismounted. Following their leader's example, the rest of the party dismounted. "General," Marcos said, "Attend me." Zalaz approached. The lead envoy stepped forward to be lead up the temple steps.

His expression of shock remained fixed upon his face as his head fell to the ground after Marcos's sword flashed in the light. The span between drawing his blade and beheading the lead envoy was shockingly small, even to Zalaz's seasoned eye. The others of the envoy attempted to mount as the three men approached. Zalaz and Sorenan hewed down two men each as Marcos wounded a third. The last two men of the envoy had some how managed to mount their horses before Zalaz and Sorenan were upon them. With the practice of years of experience, the two warriors pulled the unarmed men off their horses. Sorenan killed his captive as Zalaz forced his to his knees. The horses had run towards the other end of the courtyard, where they were captured by the guardsmen.

Marcos walked up to Zalaz's captive who stared up at him in terror. "You will bear this message back to Ashera. Tell him that Ashur's wrath has turned upon him. Tell him that Adar kneels before Ashur, father of all gods, and so shall Temna before the Daughter of Julara if they dare march against her," Marcos said in a flat tone. He brought up his sword and cut the captive man's right cheek as Sorenan came forward and cut the left. "These marks from Ashur's sword will help you remember this message," Marcos said. Marcos turned his gaze to Zalaz.

"Behead the bodies and fix the heads upon the saddle of this envoy's horse. Bind him and fix him to his mount. Drive him from our presence," he commanded. The captive, who froze with terror as Marcos and Sorenan cut his face, attempted to break free from Zalaz's hold. Marcos returned his attention to the prisoner. "It is Julara's mercy that you live," he said, "Her Daughter would have you bear this message. Be thankful for it, because Ashur would have you killed as well."

"He will kill you," the captive screamed at Marcos and Sorenan as they turned and walked up the steps to stand with Mina. "Adar will wipe you from the earth. Dacia will kneel," he shrieked as he was dragged to his horse by Zalaz's men. Marcos looked over at Mina, a silent question in his eyes.

"He will keep his tongue to bear the message," she said, "Let him be gagged." Zalaz heard Mina and passed word to his men. Soon, the envoy was bound to his horse with the heads of his companions. He glared at Mina and Marcos with hatred. The guards closed in around him and he was escorted away along the path he had come. A servant had brought cloths for Marcos, Sorenan, and Zalaz to clean their blades. The city watch turned to return to their posts when Mina raised her hands high.

All turned to look at her. "War comes upon us. The journey from Temna to here is three weeks time. All who take arms do so with the blessings of Julara and Ashur," she called out to her people, "Forces come to us from through out the empire. We shall not fall."

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