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  • Andrew M. Trauger

BK 3: Chapter Seven: Changing Direction


Fighting a military conflict as a member of the Sentinel League had frequently filled Elric’s imagination.  It never occurred to him that his reward after death might be endless battle.  Maybe it would be glorious, or maybe he would merely feel a lot of pain as he was cut down day after day.  He had also assumed there would be a purpose to it.  No one could give him a straight answer to that: they were simply “this side” and “that side.”  The two armies had neither names nor insignia; their uniforms were of contrasting colors simply to avoid killing the wrong side.  Or, rather, the “other” side.  Elric had no clue which was “right.”

Paradise—the Seven Realms of the Maker—was supposed to be grand and wonderful in every way, yet he felt empty.  Confused.  Questioning everything.  Where was the peace the cassocks said he’d find here?  Everyone else was peaceful, content, and even happy with the whole arrangement.  No one but Elric asked “why?”  Two distinct possibilities crowded his mind, and neither one gave him much hope.  What if I ain’t actually dead?  That couldn’t be true; there couldn’t be two versions of him walking around—one on Kreth and one here.  But he clung to it, for casting that idea aside left him only one option.  What if this ain’t Paradise? 

His mind filled with more conflict than any battle, Elric marched in formation toward the river.  Freysin Hrird marched with him on the left.  A cold sweat beaded the man’s forehead, and he swiped an arm across his brow, glancing about with chary eye.

“So…ya ain’t never fought, have ya?”  Elric asked him.

Freysin attempted a grin.  “Is it that obvious?”

“Yep.  So, whaddya do in real life?  ‘Fore ya got here.”

“I was a cassock in the Hall of Champions.  In Kolbeinsdalr.”

“Where?”

“Kolbeinsdalr, capital of the Mistlands.”

Elric squinted at him.

“In the Skymounts?  It’s close to the Pinnacle Melt, north of—”

The sudden screams of frightened men pierced the air as soldiers broke rank and scattered in all directions.  Freysin dove to his left, bringing the danger into Elric’s view—an airborne raging inferno headed straight for him.

As he leapt to his right and pressed close to the ground, an orange-hot ball of pitch sailed over him.  It sizzled as it passed and slammed into the hillside and coated everything in its path with flaming tar.  Hapless soldiers lay motionless in the burning wake, their bodies cooking beneath a layer of burning pitch.  Many others flailed about in futile attempts to extinguish the fires, their skin melting off as the sticky pitch clung and burned.

Horror washed over Elric, leaving him emptied of emotion, as if he’d been hollowed out by the shock.  He shook his head and stumbled to his feet.  There was but one thing to do.  Finding his shield lying nearby, he grabbed it up and drew his short sword.  I don’ rinkin care where I am or why we’re fightin’, y’all are gonna pay fer that!

 

***************************

 

“Well?”  Moffe’s question hung in the air unanswered.  “Where’s Ordin?”

Awkward silence lengthened as Cora considered the ramifications of revealing Ordin’s death.  A variety of lies passed through her mind: he left, he stayed in Westmeade, he went to Cer Vedrys, he’s in prison, he escaped prison, he disappeared—anything except “he died.”  I could just say he’s not with us anymore.

“Ordeen Clay is dead,” Cuauhtérroc announced.

Cora winced.

Moffe rubbed his chin.  “Hmm…that’s interesting.”  He pointed to the blanket roll.  “Is that him?”

“No, dees is Erik Rikeoven.  He is also dead, but—”

But…” Cora interrupted, “we’re just passing through on the shortest route to the duke, who commissioned us to investigate the Brack.  We’re taking Elric back to him, and we need safe passage through this forest.”  Please let us through.

Moffe frowned at the pair.  “What’s the duke going to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your friend will be a pile of rot and bones before you reach the city, and before you ask, no…you may not bury him here.”

“We want to make heem alive again,” Cuauhtérroc said.

The warden recoiled as if a large spider suddenly dropped into his field of vision.  “You want him…raised?  What a horrible thought!  Do you know how unnatural that is?  Death is a part of li—”

“We know what Grovites think.”  A crushing weight settled on Cora’s shoulders, pressing her into the ground.  Cuauhtie, I really wish you’d let me do the talking.

“They’re called Mystics,” Moffe chirped.

Cora nodded; she knew better.  “My apologies.  We know what Mystics believe.  Death is a part of life, and it shouldn’t be countermanded.”

“Exactly.”

“But other sects are open to the idea,” Cora continued, “and the Maker does occasionally grant the return to life.”  She fingered the scar beneath her ear, uncertain whether she should emphasize the point.  She hated being scarred, but if it proved useful…  “All we need is safe passage.”

The reeve shook his head.  “I don’t think that’s going to happen.  If Ordin is dead, the Sacred Assembly will need to hear of it.  I can’t let you go.”

“But…” Cora stared at the unfeeling reeve, her hope dissolving.  “What about Elric?”  I cannot lose him! 

“When did he die?” Moffe asked.

“Last night.”

“Then he’s got a couple more days.  Come.  The Assembly is only a few hours’ walk from here.  After they’ve heard you, I will show you back to the forest’s edge, and you can bury him out there.”

“But we don’t want to bury him!”

The reeve whistled shrilly, and a large hawk floated silently out of the surrounding darkness into the flickering torchlight and landed on Moffe’s left shoulder.  Moments later, nearly a dozen well-armed men and women, most of them Vashanti and all dressed in browns and greens, emerged from their places of hiding to surround their leader.

“We protect this forest,” Moffe said holding his arms open, “and we do so under the Assembly’s charge.  So, I’m going to take you to them.  If you run, the forest will swallow you.  If you fight, you will die.  If you come willingly, none of that will happen.  I don’t know what the Mystic Assembly will say.  But you need rest and healing, and that much my people can give you.  So come; I will take you to a safe place where you can sleep in peace.  Tomorrow we will travel to the Sacred Circle.”

Cora sighed in rote acceptance.  She was too tired to argue and too wrung out to care.

 

***********************

 

“We’re here,” Moffe announced in hushed tones as he pointed to the canopy overhead.  A series of small huts fashioned of limbs, bark, thatch, vines, and other forest elements nestled among the branches of trees, swaying and moving in harmony with the wind.   Vine bridges draped between the huts, connecting them with precarious footholds.

Cora and Kiyla were shown a sparsely furnished hut in a birch tree, but straw beds covered with furs were clean and comfortable, and Cora fell quickly into a dreamless sleep.

 

Darkness still prevailed over the Cerion, and a light but steady rain pattered the hut when Moffe woke Cora from a deep sleep.  “It’s time to go.”  He stepped into the rain, leaving her rubbing her eyes.

She yawned and stretched, then sat up and shivered.  It seemed no time had passed at all.  The air was noticeably colder; winter was making an early push this year, and the leading winds had reached the southern forests.  Wrapping her blanket around her, she woke Kiyla, and the two trudged outside into the chilly rain.

Moffe beckoned to them from a larger, distant hut, reachable only by walking across vines stretched between tree branches.  Higher vines provided handholds, but that meant letting go of the blanket and trusting her groggy mind and leaden feet to a narrow, wet, and unstable plant-cable.  In the dark.

Kiyla nudged her from behind.  “I ain’t gonna carry you.”

A spread of berries, cheese, and mulled cider greeted them in the distant hut, and Cuauhtérroc sat in the corner near an earthen kiln.  Bandages wrapped his torso and arm, but the sparkle of life had returned to his eyes.  Moffe knelt before the breakfast mat and cut small blocks of cheese from the wheel and handed them to three people Cora did not know.

“Join us,” Moffe said, indicating empty spaces on the floor.

Cora poured a cup of cider and sat beside her savage.  “How are you feeling?”

“Dees reebs hurt, but dees Vashanti people heal me.”

“What…last night?”  Cora glanced about the room.

Moffe smiled and gestured to a pair of Vashanti sitting across from him.  “Elenstra,” he said, indicating the female, “and her affiance, Shaodwen.  They are gifted healers and the reason Cuauhtérroc’s wounds haven’t become septic by now.”  He nodded toward a third Vashanti sitting beside him.  “And this is Dehrian, my right arm, my back, my eyes, and my ears.  He has saved our lives more times than I can count.”

“More times than you know,” Dehrian replied.

Cora sipped her cider.  “Oh, that hits the spot.”  She breathed deeply of the refreshing aroma as warmth spread through her body.  “So, how long to the Assembly?”

Moffe pulled the door open a crack to glance outside.  “In this rain, longer than usual, but we’ll get there today.”

“What are the chances we’ll gain an audience with them?”

The reeve paused for a moment.  “It’s hard to know.  They can be a finicky lot, the Assembly.”

Dehrian frowned at him.  “Mind yourself, Moffe.  The argument is not over before it has begun.”

Moffe nodded to his friend, then he offered to refill Cora’s cup.  “With your connection to Ordin, I assume they’ll at least want to hear you out.  Whether or not they help with Elric is another matter.”

Cora held the cider to her face and gazed at the steaming liquid.  It’s the only chance we have.

 

*************************

 

Elric ran through the taller grasses and dropped behind an embankment of reeds not far from the river’s edge.  A dozen soldiers huddled together amidst the concealment of the reeds, their faces a conflicted mixture of fear and courage.  Elric recognized none of them.  Streaks of gray smoke lined the sky where the pitch-ball had soared, and the hillside behind burned where the flaming boulders had landed.  All across the valley, men shouted and swords clashed as this side attempted to retake ground lost to that side only yesterday.

“We cain’t go back that way,” Elric yelled above the din of war.

The soldiers stared confusedly at him.  “We have to,” said a broad man with rosacea cheeks.  “Our orders are to reunite with the troops if we’re separated.”

Defeat had long ago settled into their minds.  As Elric studied their downcast eyes, he realized a worrisome truth: they were clueless about warfare.  “I’m serious!  You’ll all die if ya take off back up the hill.  Sit here fer a spell.  Everwhen them fireballs stop sailin’ overhead, then we’ll go find our troops.”

“They won’t stop,” the man said, his voice lowered and wilting.  “They just keep pounding the hillside all day long, day after day.”

“Well, they gotta stop some time.”

“Yeah, at night.  We can’t sit here and wait for the dawning, so, when it’s clear everyone has assembled, we go back up the hill.”

Elric frowned at their lack of anything resembling a plan.  The dawnin’ must be what happens in the mornin’ when ever’one wakes up.  A sudden revelation washed over him.  “They’re focused on long-range stuff, so they ain’t lookin’ fer a ground attack right now.  We could run up under these fireballs an’ catch ‘em with their pants down.  Let’s go!”

To a man, they shook their heads vigorously, unwilling to vacate their current safe zone.

“We can’t cross the river,” said one.

“There’s too many of them,” another moaned.

“They’ll see us!”

“It’s nearly time for afternoon tea.”

Had Elric said anything of the sort to Captain Hunt, he would have been cleaning the latrines for weeks.  How these men ended up in the throes of battle, responsible for turning the tides of a never-ending war, was beyond his comprehension.

“Aw’ight, if ya ain’t gonna get off yer butts, then let’s go at night after they stop.”

Gasps rippled through the cowering men.  “We can’t do that!” one of them exclaimed.  “That’s when everyone is sleeping.”

Elric had said and done things of questionable wisdom in his life.  He knew that.  But he also knew he had never said anything as utterly stupid as that.  “Seriously?  Y’all don’t attack at night ‘cause they’re sleepin’?  That’s exactly when you attack!  Don’t y’all know nuttin’ ‘bout war?  You there, how long ya been wearin’ ‘at uniform?”

The broad soldier with rosacea straightened himself with military pride.  “Three years.”

“An’ you?” Elric asked of one in spectacles.

“Over a year.”

“An’ what ‘bout you?” he asked a stout blonde with sideburns.

“A year and a half, give or take.”

Elric scrunched his nose and worked the average in his head.  When he got four different answers, he mentally tossed the equation aside as unimportant.  “How have y’all been a year or more an’ ain’t learnt nuttin’ ‘bout warfare?  What in the Nine Hells are they teachin’ y’all?”

Their silence gave him all the answer he needed, and Elric sat down miserably and scrubbed his face.

“It’s like this every day, I’m afraid.”  The red-cheeked soldier acted as their spokesman, though he had no higher rank than they.  “Each day when the burning tar sails over the river, we break from our groups and take shelter in this general area.  Those who make it find solace in each other’s company, and it helps us to survive the day…until the enemy crosses the river and wipes us out.”

Elric slowly wiped his face in unsullied disbelief as he lifted his head.  This is madness.  He stared the soldier squarely in his eyes.  “So, ya know the fireballs is comin’ an’ yer strategy is to meet down here where ya know the enemy is gonna wash over ya?”

The soldier nodded with a guilty grimace.

“An’ ya been doin’ this ever day fer a year?”

“More or less.”

“An’ it ain’t never occurred to ya to do sumpin differ’nt?”

The man blinked twice and held out his hands.  “Like what?”

“Like attackin’ at night.”

“Be we can’t do that!”

“Why?”

“Because they’re asleep!”

“‘Cause they’re asleep…” Elric muttered the phrase to himself and resumed burying his face in his hands.  It was insane.

A roiling ball of fire arched over their heads, low enough they felt the radiant heat as it roared by and slammed into the hillside a hundred feet away.  Elric jumped to his feet.  “Aw’ight, that was too close!  C’mon, let’s get outta here.”

The soldier in glasses caught Elric’s arm.  “Where are you going, and why should we follow you?  Berinar is only two ranks from lieutenant, and you haven’t received even the first stripe.”

“An’ where’s Berinar now?” Elric asked, scanning the small group for someone of significant rank.

“Well, he didn’t make it today, but he’s usually here, and he gives the orders.”

Elric bit off a derisive laugh.  An’ Kiyla calls ME a moron…  “I don’ bloody care if none o’ y’all pansy-arsed, flea-brained cow patties foller me or not—I’m takin’ this fight to the enemy!  If yer wid me, good; if yer not, I don’ rinkin care!  Yer a bunch o’ pimples on a Ogrian’s butt, an’ I’m leavin’!”

He rose to his feet, filled his lungs with the air of courage, and marched away.

 

**********************

 

The cold, persistent rain finally subsided near midday, and Moffe mercifully brought their travels to a pause at a small clearing.  The heady smell of wet moss hung in the air, mixing with the aromas of fresh rain and clean earth.  As Cora breathed deeply of the scent, weariness fled her bones, as if the bouquet was a cleansing essence.

Moffe dipped a waterskin into a trickle of water carried by a hollowed-out bamboo stem from beyond the clearing.  He lifted the leather pouch to his lips, and after a long sigh, he handed it to Cora.  “Try this.”

Cora hesitated but sipped, and her eyes widened as refreshment flooded her body, expunging all aches and stresses as it flowed.  “What is this?”

The reeve smiled and passed the waterskin to Dehrian.  “We call it ‘riffle water.’  Blessed water, you might say, free of impurities even though it’s runoff.  We are just outside the Sacred Circle, where this water comes from.  Not only is the water blessed here, but we are safe from danger.”

Cora scanned the trees.  “Danger?”

“Every forest has its share of predators, but the Cerion contains a few dragonkin left over from Valkyrion’s reign.”

A sharp jolt of panic swept through Cora’s spine, chasing away the calm of the riffle water.  “Um…what?  He’s been dead for a thousand years.”

Moffe shrugged with alarming nonchalance.  “Let’s see…the shimmerkin, the ripclaw, the lupinfell, the fathach…”  He turned to his Vashanti friends.  “Am I forgetting one?”

Dehrian cocked an eyebrow.  “The mangroe?”

“Ah, yes.”  Moffe shook his head.  “The mangroe.  The one I do try to forget.  We think it’s a dragon-blooded lemur, but anyone slow enough to get a good look dies before he can tell the rest of us.”

Cora held out her hand for the waterskin, and after a calming swig of riffle water, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve.  “But you said we’re safe here.”

“Perfectly safe.  We haven’t seen a mangroe for a couple of years, and I’ve got scouts all over this forest.  We’ll know well in advance if one is spotted.  Now…make yourselves comfortable, rain and all.  There’s not much we can do until the Assembly arrives.”

Time slipped by with little said between them.  Moffe and his three Vashanti friends huddled under a tarpaulin on one side of the clearing, talking in hushed tones.  Cora clutched Lysanthir’s Lute to her breast, trying her best to keep the rain off.  Cuauhtérroc and Kiyla sat nearby, fully exposed to the elements, hunched over with eyes closed.  Surely they’re not sleeping!  How could they sleep with this cold rain pelting them?  At Cuauhtérroc’s feet lay the soaked blanket wrapping Elric’s torched body.  The savage had carried it all morning, dutifully bearing the burden of his fallen friend.  A true friend…

 

**********************

 

Elric approached the bank of the River Eldstadt, searching for a safe place to cross.  Preferably without being spotted.  A voice called out from behind him.

“Wait up!”

Elric turned to see the short, bespectacled soldier running to him with flushed face.  He pulled up and leaned over, clasping his knees and panting.

“I’m…coming…with you,” he wheezed, “and…two others.”

“Fine,” Elric grunted, “but I’m leadin’ this ‘ere mission, an’ y’all can jis lump it.”

The man nodded.

“So, what’s yer name?”

“Oswalind,” he answered.  He pointed to a man with short blonde hair.  “That’s Vidimir, and the tall, thin one is Perian.”

None of the three men were ready for battle, despite their long tenure cycling through the same war every day.  Elric wondered how many times they each had died and how many times they had labored through the same basic training each morning only to scatter down the hillside and gather for their eventual demise.

He shrugged.  They would as likely die following him as they would staying behind.  Maybe by following, they would open their minds and gain the ability to think outside their strict orders.  That was his intent, at any rate.  If he survived the day.

“Aw’ight, Oswald, here’s the—”

“It’s Oswalind.”

Elric bit his lip and glared.  “First off, I’m in charge, an’ ‘at means ya don’ get to correct everwhat I say, got it?  Second, I don’ cotton to names longer’n ‘bout five letters…Ozzie.”

Ozzie nodded.

“So here’s the plan: I’m fixin’ to cross the river, an’ there looks t’be a place fer that ‘bout fi’ty yards up yonder.  I’m hopin’ to scoot ‘cross it ‘fore they do.  It ain’t no use in getting’ bushwhacked, so we need to skee-daddle.”

Perian raised his hand slightly, as if he needed permission to speak.  “Might I inquire as to where you are from?”

“I’s born and raised in Westmeade in Alikon.  Why?”

“Your manner of speech is quite markedly—how shall I put this—backward.”

Elric rolled his eyes.  “Then ya ain’t heard the Ogrians.  So, how ‘bout you, Perry?  Where ya from?  An’ whatcha good at, ‘sides makin’ note of my talkin’?”

“I hail from Lothania, where the Temple of Might is highly regarded, and though I have no battle scars to prove my mettle, I daresay I am well equipped in the arts of prestidigitation.”

“Presti-what?  Cripe, are ya kin to Selorian?”

“Spellcraft, Elric.  I am an arcanist by trade, and among us three, likely the most useful to you.  Oswalind is a scribe in the Temple, and Vidimir is a common merchant.  I am admittedly useless with sword and shield, and I doff my armor almost immediately when the battle commences each day.  However, I have thus far not found a way to survive longer than two days.  It is my hope that together, perhaps with your leadership, I can extend that to a week.  I must confess that yours was a rousing speech, and it excites me to see what possibilities you might afford.”

Elric sighed and looked at Perian with tired eyes.  “Do ya always talk so much?”

“I apologize, Elric.  My craft is with words, and so I have come to master them, first in my native tongue, then in several others.  I am fluent in Ancient Kedethian, Dragon-speak, Vashanti, Dar—”

Elric held up his hand to Perian and shook his head.  The arcanist clamped his mouth shut, and Elric grinned.  “An’ I didn’t use any words…”

Perian nodded.  “I take your point.”

“Stay low an’ foller me.”

Mimicking Elric’s lead, they crouched low to the ground behind the reeds that lined the riverbank.  After a few minutes of creeping, Elric spun around and pulled them in close.

“Here’s where it gets dicey.  Best I can see, this is where we cross the river.  There’s some rapids here, which means the water’s kinda shallow, but the rocks’ll be a might bit slick, so watch yer footin’.  Also, we’ll be out in the open, so the enemy might see us, like as not.  Keep yer head low an’ move quickly, aw’ight?”

Without waiting for a reply, Elric sprinted through the reeds to the rocky shore.  He jumped into the water and waded as quickly as the current would safely allow.  To his mild surprise, all three men followed him, and they had nearly reached the opposite shore before anyone noticed them.

A lone sentry pointed and turned to shout something behind him.

“Blast ‘im, Perry!” Elric commanded.

“I am already on it,” the arcanist replied.  With a short syllable and a thrusting motion, he sent a pair of silvery balls of energy from his outstretched palm into the sentry’s chest, knocking him over.

“Charge!” Elric brandished his sword and splashed up to the opposite bank.

In response to the sentry’s call, twenty archers cleared the reeds along the riverside, bows trained on the foursome sloshing through the river.  A rain of arrows showered down upon them.  Elric lifted his shield, which protected him from the immediate death that befell both Oswalind and Perian.  Vidimir cried out in pain and fell over in the water, clutching at a pair of arrows lodged in his torso as a swirl of red mingled with the river water.

Elric cursed the archers and himself.  He knew better than to traipse out into the open in such a defenseless place.  He knew there was no chance of making it unscathed into the enemy’s camp.  What was he thinking?  And now there were two deaths on his hands, soon to be three.  Pushing the thought aside with the knowledge that they’d simply start over again tomorrow morning, he drove onward, running as best he could up the bank and striking down the nearest bowman.  With his reverse stroke, a second fell, then he spun and took down a third.

The remaining archers reloaded and trained their weapons on him—eight in all.  Elric held a ninth at sword point, the tip grazing the bowman’s neck.

“Lower yer bows or he gets it!” Elric demanded, a fierce fire in his eyes.

“Lower your sword,” replied an archer behind Elric.

“I ain’t kiddin’!”

“You’re hopelessly outnumbered.”

Elric plunged his sword through the man’s neck, but before he could make another move, nine arrows riddled his body.  Intense pain washed over him as his knees buckled.  With all remaining effort, Elric lashed out at his attackers, slicing down two more before he fell.

 

A cool breeze washed over Elric’s face as he awoke.  He was lying face down along a muddy embankment.  Bits of grass and moistened dirt lodged in his teeth.  He recalled being made a pincushion from multiple arrows, but as he slid his right hand along his body, he could feel none.  In fact, he seemed to be without any serious injury save the sharp pain in his side caused by lying atop the pointed edge of his shield.

He rolled over.  Bodies lay everywhere.  A thin wisp of fog hovered over the river valley, made thinner by the brilliant orange sun rising over cragged mountains to his left.

He sat up abruptly and scanned his immediate surroundings.  The men he had killed lay sprawled where they had fallen, but none had any noticeable wounds.  Some of them were beginning to awaken as well.  Well, I reckon I did die, an’ this is the fresh re-start.  An’ I’m on the wrong side of the river…

 

*************************

 

As darkness descended on the forest, a pair of figures emerged through a thicket and stepped into the clearing.  Two elderly Vashanti with stern brows and jaws set slowly inched forward.  Wispy grey-white hair hung long and straight down their backs, and thin white eyebrows arched over iridescent blue eyes.  Their movements were graceful and flowing, remarkable considering their apparent age.

Moffe bowed low.  When he righted, he addressed Cora.  “This is Eidelain, Grand Mystic of the Cerion, and Kothalliel, Hierophant Master.  We are your servants.”

Kothalliel held up a hand.  “Come, reeve.  Let us speak together.  And bring your three friends.”

Cora leaned against a tree to brace herself.  Grand Mystic?  Hierophant?  Who are we talking to?

Moffe turned back to Cora, a look of vulnerability overshadowing his eyes.  “Stay here.  I can’t say what’s about to happen, but I have no choice but to bend to their will.  If I have opportunity, I will make your case.  Dehrian, Elenstra, Shaodwen—they want you to accompany me.”

Cora watched them leave back through the thicket with the mystics.  With their forest guardians gone and her allies sleeping, she felt lost and utterly alone, completely without knowledge of her whereabouts, cardinal directions, or any hint of a path.  What if they leave us here?  What will we do if we meet a shimmerkin or…what was that thing…a mangrove?  That’s a tree.

Forest sounds echoed in her head as dire warnings, each birdcall an ominous portent of danger, the stirring of wind an evil omen.  Cora cupped her hands under the bamboo pipe and drank of the riffle water, but there was no rush of relief, no calm, no soothing of wrung out nerves at all.

As she slowly turned, the forest loomed, creeping closer, hovering with gnarled branches, stretching for her, seeking her demise.  She cowered and dropped to her knees.  Their guides were gone, and her friends would soon be swallowed by the forest.  What have I done?

 

*************************

 

Elric stood carefully, trying not to draw much attention to himself.  All around him were the scattered bodies of the enemy, and he was on the wrong side.  At any moment, he would be captured, dragged before their tribunal and summarily executed.  I wonder if I’d wake up again the next mornin’ if they took my head?  Would they jis do it again?  Is there even a way to die up here?

As the sun rose, the fallen sat up, stretched, and gathered their belongings.  Some smiled and wished a “good morning” to others as if they had just awoken from a pleasant night of camping under the stars.  Many raised a satisfied fist into the air and shouted a triumphant “Skrattafell!”

Elric shook his head and gathered his gear.  As he clambered down the riverbank, a voice called to him.  He stopped and looked back up the embankment.

“That was a bold move on your part, good fellow.”  It was the man whose neck had been home to Elric’s sword just yesterday.

Elric stared blankly at him.  I ain’t never gonna get used to this.

“I’m not sure anyone from your side has made it this far,” the soldier said.  “Well done.  You might gain a rank for that.”

It was all much too surreal, and it made Elric’s brain hurt.

“Well, I’ll be ready for you today,” the archer said, then he turned and disappeared over the crest of the embankment.

As he re-crossed the river, he thought briefly of Vidimir, who had certainly died from his wounds somewhere downstream.  He wondered if the man would awaken miles away, perhaps washed onto a sandbar or lodged in a tangle of dead trees.  What if there’s a waterfall down there?  Would he even make it back?

He stopped short of the opposite bank, a sudden thought jarring his mind, a thought so strong that it found his voice.  “Well, I’ll be…what if the man never came back?  Might he jis go on forever, explorin’ the countryside…mebbe join a differ’nt battle or mebbe jis quit fightin’ all ‘round?  Then what’s keepin’ me here?  What if I’s to quit this stupid fight an’ jis go pay a visit to Skrattafell myself?  Who says ya gotta fight yer way to Skrattafell when ya can jis walk there?”

With this idea rattling around in his head, Elric gradually wandered back into his original camp.  There he saw the familiar faces of Colonel Latham, Freysin Hrird, Oswalind, Perian, and several others in his company, but today they were not allies.  No one was an “ally” because no one was actually an “enemy.”  There were sides, but this was Paradise—no one was a “bad guy.”

As Elric folded into the breakfast line, he surveyed his camp.  A line of new recruits was lined up as usual to the tent where the brawny orange-haired officer processed their arrival and assigned them to training.  The general tenor of the soldiers and officers was pleasant, cordial even, as if they were all meeting together at a huge festival.  Elric stopped stock still.  The whole thing was a game, a challenge, a test to see who could beat the odds.  All he had to do was win—not the battle but the game.

The man behind Elric bumped into him with his plate.  “Hey, no holding up the line.”

His mind a whirl, Elric drifted through the breakfast line and received his rations of sausage, fish, eggs, and grated potatoes, with a steaming cup of hot tea on the side.  Rather than sit at one of the tables under the galley tent, he slipped away from the others and found a fallen log outside the camp to use as a bench.  There, over his cooling breakfast, he mulled and sulked alone.

 

As he had done the day before, Colonel Latham rode to and fro on his impressive destrier, gleaming orange-white from the morning sun and snorting impatiently for the battle to begin anew.  The colonel paced along the front lines of his army.  He barked orders and shouted threats that were meant to encourage proper decorum and behavior.  He greeted each day as if it were new to him, as if it were the first day of the war and he were marshalling the troops for their inaugural battle.  As if he had never stared down his confident nose at these very same faces a thousand times before.

The whole scene nearly drove Elric mad.  He wanted to run screaming into the midst of those lemmings, to wake them up, to give them something truly energizing—an actual plan for victory.  He wanted to give that beautiful warhorse a change of scenery…

For the second time that morning, Elric’s brain burned with the flash of inspiration.  A vision of clarity opened up a new strategy, one certain to gain him a distinct advantage.  Maybe even the win.  I’m gonna ride the colonel’s horse.

With breakfast done, he fell in line with the rest of his company, dutifully running the drills and keeping pace with the colonel’s commands.  But Elric focused on the long flowing mane of the officer’s mount.  How to dismount the colonel was the challenge, but he would have most of the day to work that out.  If he survived.

Much to Elric’s painful chagrin, the second day began very much like the first.  His company marched along the same route, then, as if on cue, they began to scatter beneath a volley of flaming balls of pitch.  Except for the actual lethal danger of being in the wrong place, Elric found no excitement in the whole affair.

As he had done by accident yesterday, Elric purposely wandered toward the small alcove where the “scattered faithful” convened.  Within the hour, they knew who had survived the day’s onslaught: Oswalind and Perian were back today, but some of the others were not.  Notably absent was Vidimir, who Elric suspected had never entered camp that morning.  The thought that Vidi might be completely free of this madness fueled Elric’s desire to escape.

“Aw’ight, listen up,” he said, rubbing his hands together as the small group gathered.  “Let’s try sumpin a bit wild, sumpin they ain’t expectin’.”

“Who’s this?” said a tall, brawny man with a full, dark brown mustache and long sideburns.  Elric didn’t recognize him, but a pair of wavy red lines on his right sleeve suggested someone of rank.  The manner in which everyone else in the group slinked away, their heads pivoting between him and Elric, strongly implied that he, too, needed to back down.

Instead, Elric stuck out his hand.  “Name’s Elric…what’s yers?”

The towering man leered down before speaking.  He did not accept the handshake.  “Lieutenant Berinar, and this is my company.  Private.”

Elric tucked the despised hand in his pocket.  So this is the “leader” who gives all the orders.  “Let’s hear yer plan, then.”

“We’re going to do what we always do: survive.”

Elric sputtered with a poor attempt to hide his derision.  “That ain’t no plan!  Why, jis yesterday four of us crossed the river an’ took the fight to the enemy.  ‘Bout nearly got into their camp, too!”

“But you were killed, weren’t you.”

“Well, yeah, but I—”

“Totally ineffective.”

Elric gave Berinar a sideways glance.  “An’ where was you yesterday?  Burnt to a crisp on this side of the river, is what I heard.”

The lieutenant scowled deeply.  “I don’t like your tone, private.  Any more impertinent talk like that, and I’ll run you through for insubordination.”

“Yessir,” Elric said, bowing low in mock reverence.

“Gather ‘round, men,” Berinar said.  “Today we’re going to try something different.  Something the enemy is not expecting.”

Elric raised an eyebrow and waited.

“I received news from Colonel Latham himself that the other side is planning to secure the rocky shores downstream from here.  They will fortify with cavalry and archers, and there’s a possibility that they will attempt to ford the stream with their siege engines.  So, in response, we will move upstream to a thick copse of trees and remain there for further orders.  We have to survive this new development.  Any questions?”

Each of the fifteen men looked about to see if anyone had a question.  Elric bit his tongue until he could stand it no longer.  “That’s it?  That’s yer plan?  That sucks hind teat on a warthog.  In case ya ain’t noticed, they’re rainin’ down great balls o’ fire ever’which way, an’ you wanna go find a hidin’ place?  We gotta chance to catch ‘em wid their pants down.  This is our attack of opportunitoi!”

A wave of shock swept through the small group of regulars.  Their faces registered the sort of appalled expressions normally reserved for people who discovered their best friend was a cannibal.  As Berinar reached for the hilt of his sword, the men cleared space between him and Elric.

Elric tossed his arms in the air.  “Oh cripe, man!  I’m jis gonna wake up again in the mornin’.  Tell ya what, I’ll save ya the trouble o’ gettin’ blood on yer sword.  I’m leavin’.”

Without waiting for a reply, Elric walked away, glad to be rid of the company of imbeciles.  The lieutenant’s angry tirade faded into the distance, and Elric’s thoughts turned again to Vidimir.  He’s likely the only one who’s truly free.

 

********

 

Cora awoke from a slumber she hardly remembered lying down for, and she was unsure what stirred her.  She had been leaning against the backpacks opposite Cuauhtérroc.  He was still fast asleep and softly snoring.  She looked up, but all was dark, and the forest was illumined only by the bright glow of the nearly full moon.

Footsteps approached and Cora’s heartbeat drummed against her chest.  Was this friend or foe, Vashanti or rabid beast?  She began to sing softly the refrain of an illuminating song.

“Shhh…” came a harshly whispered voice from the dark nearby.

Cora bit off her song.  “Who’s there?”

“It’s Moffe.  You might as well go back to sleep.  We’re going to be here all night.”  Even in whisper, she could hear his frustrated resignation.

“What’s going on?  Is everything all right?”

The air fell silent.

“Moffe?”

Moffe sighed, but it sounded more like a growl.  “No, it’s not.”

“Why…what happened?”

The reeve stared straight at her, and his words drove a spike into her heart.  “We have to go dig up Ordin’s body.”

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