The wind stirred the trees overhead as Corbin followed the makeshift path through the forest. Only his family and a few visitors used the trail, but not often enough to keep it from disappearing into the undergrowth. It was maybe his fifth time since the start of the season. His father's workshop had been too busy to permit the long walk to the nearest village of Bellfield. After countless days and nights working the forge, the fresh air and sunlight were welcomed. He breathed in the sweet scent of the dew kissed grass as countless birds sung out their songs.
It was still early in the summer. There was a bit of a chill in the air before the sun broke through the clouds. It was a perfect morning to have breakfast in the field with Arabella.
She stopped by about midday the day prior. Corbin didn't know how long she had been there. She always tiptoed into the shop when he was working and would watch silently until he stepped back from the furnace for a break. He wasn't at the furnace this time, but neither did her hear her come in. His mind was elsewhere as he studied the dagger he finally finished. The dark blade took longer to forge than he expected. Now that it was done, and the black stones set in the hilt, he wondered if he wasted all that time. A soft kiss on the back of his neck startled him. He didn't flinch. He immediately knew it was her.
She hadn't visited lately, and he missed her. Even his father mentioned the shortage of fresh pie. Arabella brought one each time she came by. She joked that it was payment to the smithy for letting her snatch Corbin away. She brought two pies that day. One to make up for her absence. The second was an advance for the next morning, her planned picnic for breakfast.
Corbin played it off as if he couldn't spare a moment away, but she never slowed. She was ordering his company. No excuses. She reasoned that he had not left the shop for weeks and that they needed to discuss wedding details. He knew she had the entire event planned along with a village full of women to help, so his input would be minimal. He waited until she gave him that look with those big brown eyes, then readily caved. Why couldn't the summer pass more quickly and usher in the autumn so he could stare into those eyes everyday?
The field was still a ways away, but he could already feel her presence. He smiled at the thought of hearing her laugh as she would tell about the recent happenings in Bellfield. She would make a point to try to straighten his hair. He would act as if it pestered him while secretly savoring the touch of her fingers as she combed it into place. It would not stay, and he wondered if she had caught on by now and it was just as much of a game to her as was is to him. The picnic would not last long enough. He would want to spend the entire day hiding with her in the field. And he knew he could not.
Arabella brought a peace to him that he had not known for some time. Since his mother died three winters ago, then his brother disappeared last spring, it was just Corbin and his father, Jamison. The forge became his refuge. He and Jamison didn't talk much, but they understood each other's busyness, and respected it. Days would pass between conversations, and those mainly consisted of pending orders and discussing supplies. But Arabella's coming was a distraction, one he had grown fond of. He still didn't talk much. He didn't have to. She didn't seem to mind his quiet nature, and he could listen to her all day. He didn't know why she took an interest in him two winters ago, but he was grateful for it. She saved him.
As he came to the edge of the forest, he could see the tall bell tower standing atop the hill across the field. His great-grandfather made it long ago when the village was settled, before the Elves set off to find a new land to call home. His father replaced the weathered bell with a new one when the neighboring king declared war on Baldorah two decades ago. It only sounded twice that he could remember. Arabella mentioned her want to have it rung for their wedding like the old one did for happy occasions. He doubted it would happen. It was now reserved for warning of threats against the village. The Officials were not likely to make an exception.
His eyes scanned the field. All his thoughts quietened when he spied her in the middle. He chuckled to himself. She wasn't going to give him a chance to sneak up on her. Arabella had a blanket laid out and was sitting on one side of it with her basket nestled in the middle. He stepped out of the forest. She waved, jumped to her feet, and ran to meet him.
Arabella stopped a short distance from him and held open her arms. Corbin let out a laugh at her usual antics and went along with it. He wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off the ground, spinning her around for one full turn. When he set her back down, she looked up at him with the smile that could melt his most sour moods and ran her fingers through his hair.
"Did you even try fixing it today?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"What am I going to do with you?" she said.
He closed his eyes and faked a sigh, bowing his head as she fussed at his blond hair. When she finished, she planted a kiss on his cheek. "Good morning," he said as he looked to her.
She let him pull her close again. "Good morning. Are you hungry?"
Corbin returned her kiss and twirled a lock of her brown hair around his finger. "Starved."
With a laugh, she took him by the hand and led the way. "It's a beautiful morning," she said after a few steps. "I couldn't be any more perfect."
He meant to agree with her when she looked up at him, but something caught his eye. A young boy appeared on top the hill and dashed to the bell tower. Corbin paused and peered at him. He felt Arabella go still at his side.
The bell sounded out clear and shattered the peacefulness of the new day. There was nothing else to be heard over its ring.
Corbin held tight to Arabella's hand as they hurried up the hill. It seemed bigger than he knew it to be from all the times he played on it as a child. Finally reaching the top, he gazed down at the village stretched out below. Villagers ran frantically through the streets as they searched for cover. Arabella gasped and hugged herself to his side under the protection of his arm.
Corbin looked to the far side of the settlement and immediately saw what caused the alarm. An army of horsemen poured out of the eastern forest. Their armor glinted in the early morning sunlight. They formed a intimidating row as they stood side by side in a line that could easily swallow the width of Bellfield.
"What do they want?" Arabella asked in a trembling voice.
He didn't answer. His eyes were locked on the red banners the horsemen carried. They were from the neighboring kingdom, the realm of King Darien, the enemy.
Chapter One: Growing Storm - Scene One
The coolness of the grass beside the training ring was a
even better than Dea expected as she slowly sat down. The welt across
her shoulder stung, but she was relieved to reach an end to the match.
She probably could have lasted long enough to wear the young Officer
down, but her head wasn't in it. She granted an opening, and he took it
to gain his third point in the match and break the tie. Now Zacairus
was bounding into the ring with a vigor she envied.
"You are keeping track of the points, Dea?" he asked as he gave his sword a testing swing.
"Of course," she said.
Cathal bowed his head in greeting to his new opponent. "Zacairus, son of Tabor, we meet again."
Zacairus paced along the edge of the ring with a proud smirk. His long,
black hair was pulled back with a leather tie at the nape of his neck.
It stood out in stark contrast against his white tunic. "Formalities.
Don't waste my time. Ready for another bruising?"
The Officer answered with a brandish of his sword as he took a readied
stance. Zacairus halted his pacing. He took a more relaxed stance,
inviting Cathal to make the first move.
Dea only watched for the first few exchanges, then laid back in the
grass. She stared up at the starry heavens and listened to the clashing
blades as she waited out the pounding of her heart. Cathal always
proved to be a good challenge in the ring. He and Zacairus rarely went
easy on her, and she appreciated that. Foes on the field would not, so
why should her comrades?
She wiped away the cerise hair that clung to her face and tried to work
it back into a the tattered braid. A gentle breeze stirred the night
air. She breathed it in.
"Point!" Zacairus sang out.
"Don't get cocky," Cathal said in return.
Sitting up, Dea placed a smooth pebble beside Zacairus' coat. "Point."
She gazed around for the water skin and found it where Zacairus had been
sitting. Reluctant to move anymore than absolutely necessary, she
reached for it with her staff, hooked the strap, and brought it closer.
The water was lukewarm, but refreshing. After a few swallows, she corked it and set it aside.
Laying the staff across her lap, she studied the few markings on its
iron body. Its history was worn along its length. She had each
engraving and scuff memorized. The weapon had been passed down through
her family, but she was of the few to use it as a primary choice. The
last to wield it habitually was her mother's great-grandfather, King
Arcaius of Baldorah.
Her full name was Lady Deatrah, the Veiled Heiress of Baldorah. Her
parents were Queen Belwyn and King Aien of the Land of Baldorah. For
the past five seasons, though, she had gone by Dea of Alistad, the title
of a Decoy. She served as a Calvary Validius in the King's Fortis. Her
plan was to defend her people first hand from the armies of Darien. She
worked hard to earn a place among the specialized ranks. The training
was unceasing. But thus far, she felt the reward was minimal. Her
company had only seen about a dozen battles.
While other companies saw action on nearly a daily basis, the one she
was assigned to seemed to be held as reserves. Alton, the captain she
served under, was known for his fearless approach to perilous missions.
She knew the Fortis as a whole had been stretched thin as of late.
Thus, she could not help but wonder why her company was rarely deployed,
and when they were, they came onto the scene in time to pick up the
pieces of yet another ravaged village.
"Point!" Zacairus called again.
Dea shifted forward and set a second pebble by his coat.
"Are you watching, Dea? You could be picking up some pointers."
"Only because I wore him out for you," she said with a smile.
Cathal laughed out. "Whose side are you on? Point!"
"I think not," Zacairus said, his voice telling of his irritation.
Dea tossed a pebble beside Cathal's coat. "It was a point."
She watched as Zacairus finally grew serious about the match. His dark
blue eyes turned dangerous as he pressed in on Cathal and set him up for
a flawless exchange. She'd seen him do it many times before. She
counted the movements from the placement of each foot, to the shifts of
the hilt, right on up to the concluding pass where he brought the broad
side of his blade to Cathal's upper chest. "Point," he said quietly.
The young Officer didn't argue. He gave a consenting nod, and took a
step back. "Good match." Cathal sheathed his sword. "Both of you."
Zacairus bowed his head. "Good match."
"Unless you want another round, Dea."
She shook her head and got to her feet. "Next time."
The two men left the ring to collect their coats. Zacairus handed the
water skin to Cathal, who took one long drink from it before passing it
back. "Again tomorrow evening?" Zacairus asked.
Cathal shook his head. "I have a watch shift. How about the next?"
"I will reserve the ring," Zacairus said.
The Officer gave a nod and turned for the trail. "I will see you then."
Dea picked up her coat and brushed off collected blades of grass from
the blue fabric. After pulling it to her shoulders, she fastened the
buttons and turned to get her staff. She paused when she found Zacairus
with it at his side. He had an odd look about him.
"Where have you been?" he asked as he held the staff out for her to take.
She took it slowly and tried to follow his meaning. "I was right here."
"In body, but your heart was elsewhere. You let him win. Where did you go?"
Dea eyed the staff. He knew her too well. "I do not know. Nowhere useful."
He chuckled and gestured for the trail. "Are you getting homesick?"
"No," she answered quickly, then moved to change the subject. "Has anything more been said about your promotion?"
"I have not mentioned it again to Alton. He will promote me when he
thinks I am ready." He slowed as he fastened his sword belt to his
leather placard. "I will have to keep waiting."
Dea watched up the trail and waited for him before going on. "The next assignment will earn you a new coat."
he didn't make a reply, she looked back at him. He didn't appear
convinced. She turned and hoped to encourage him. "You may not have as
much experience as Cathal or the others, but you are just as qualified
as they are, if not more so. The only reason you have not yet been
promoted is because you have not been given the chance to prove your
worth as often as they have. If we are ever called from this camp for
something other than cleaning duty, you will be promoted to Officer."
He gave a smirk and glance around their surroundings. "Be careful who
you say that around, you will end up with another round of kitchen
She cringed to keep from laughing at his teasing. He was right, her
habit of voicing her opinion as of late had landed her in several
evenings of cleaning dishes. She did not mean to be disrespectful. Her
frustrations had simply gotten the best of her. And Alton's hearing
was just as sharp as his sword.
Chapter One - Scene Two
The chirping of crickets and locust accompanied Dea and Zacairus as they walked the trail back to their camp. A warm breeze stirred the full trees and added to the summer song around them. The two friends walked quietly, welcoming the calm night.
Dea kept up with Zacairus' longer strides. She smiled at the thought of how he used to slow with a sigh when she would fall behind. Her small frame and lacking in height made her the minority. In her time with the Fortis, she learned to keep up with her much taller comrades.
As they neared the encampment, the sound of a passing messenger rushed toward them. They stepped aside to make way for the horse and rider. The messenger never slowed. The rhythm of his mount's hooves and clinking hardware of his tack sang in unison as he sped by. His blue uniform matched their own.
"I will bet the first round with Cathal that is another notice to piece together a village," Zacairus said.
Dea smiled. He was reading her mind. "Would you rather work your parents' field or patch a villager's roof?"
"I will patch roofs all day long if it meant never setting foot in a field again."
She chuckled with him. Zacairus came from a political family. His father was Tabor, an Official of the Northern Districts. Even though the man was wholly dedicated to his office, he also owned and managed one of the District's largest farms. His wheat was of the best in all of Baldorah.
The trail forked as it came to the encampment. They remained on the central path that would lead them to the heart of their station. A round at the mess hall would conclude their night.
As they neared the Captain's tent, the front panel was swept aside as Alton showed a guest out. "I will let you know if I learn anything more of it in the morning."
Dea slowed her pace when she saw Zeke, her mentor, step out with Alton. The two could pass as brothers. Both had equally mature yet powerful builds and dark brown hair. Only Alton kept his trimmed short while Zeke's was longer and curly.
"Thank you," Zeke said with a nod. "I will not keep you. I know you are busy."
Alton bid him a farewell. Dea and Zacairus stood in attention as their Captain looked to them. "At ease," he said before turning back to Zeke.
"Stay safe," Zeke said.
"Stay safe," Alton answered.
The Captain returned to his tent when Zeke went to greet Dea. Her mentor's familiar smile lit up his already bright eyes. As an accomplished Healer, he was marked by his power. The unmistakeable gleam added to his brilliant green eyes.
"Good evening, Dea," he said. The long riding coat over his tan tunic and trousers told her he just arrived from Alistad, the capitol of Baldorah. "You have simplified my task greatly by finding me. When I did not find you in your quarters, I should have known you would be out with Zacairus." He gave an acknowledging nod to the young Validius beside her.
Zacairus returned the gesture. "Good evening, sir."
"I trust you two have finished training for the evening."
"Yes, sir," they answered simultaneously.
"Good," he said. "Dea, I need to have a word with you."
Zacairus gave a shrug when she looked to him. "I will let you make it up to me tomorrow evening," he said with a smirk.
"You are too kind," she answered with a sarcastic glare. He gave her a playful pat on the back and turned away. "Until next time," she called after him.
"Until next time." He bowed his head to Zeke, "Stay safe, sir."
"Stay safe, Zacairus."
Zeke offered his arm to Dea. She took it and let him lead her in the direction of her tent. She had not seen him for several days. His unannounced visit either meant he brought news from home or Alton informed him of her latest misconduct.
"Good news from home?" Dea asked in an innocent tone.
Her mentor chuckled. "News," he said. "Your mother sends a letter, but that is all. I am afraid my visit was cut short before I could speak with your father."
"Do you have news for me?" Zeke posed.
"No, sir," she answered. "Nothing new to report."
"We will discuss that later. First, I need to make certain you are ready for your next assignment."
She looked to him. "Assignment?" Her surprise bled into her voice.
"Is that not what you have been waiting for?"
"Yes, sir," Dea answered. "I was not expecting it. I assumed…" She caught herself before she finished her thought.
Zeke was not one to let thoughts go unfinished. "You assumed what?"
She took her time to find the right words. She believed the company was overlooked because of her presence. Her father would do all he could to keep her within reach. The thought was one she voiced once before. It earned her a lecture from her mentor. She hoped to avoid a repeat of the lesson.
"I know there have been changes in the way the Fortis is responding to Darien's threats. Our company seems to have served as reserves as of late, and I assumed that was to be our purpose for the remainder of the season."
"Did you?" he said with a knowing smile. "Then you will not be disappointed. You will remain as such."
Dea kept her relief to herself. The assignment was not what she dreaded. Zeke's continued cheer made up for the letdown of knowing her company would remain idle.
"I am not at liberty to tell you where your company will be going. Captain Alton will inform you and the others in the morning. I suggest you take your rest tonight so you will be ready for what you might face."
"But I will not need to rest for another three nights," Dea said. Part of training with the Fortis meant adapting to their sleep cycle. One could operate day and night for upwards of four or five days before needing rest. It would take two full days and nights to recharge for another cycle, but it was worth it. Baldorians were known for their stamina.
"Take your rest while you can," Zeke said. "It might be awhile before you get another chance."
She studied him. Judging by what he was telling her, the company was not going on their usual assignment. If they would not be granted rest for an extended period of time, they would either be traveling a great distance or heading to the front lines.
"I will not be able to travel with you," Zeke went on. "But I have persuaded Alton to allow you to carry a Star Tear with you. You will have to keep it to yourself. They are not readily permitted without the presence of a Healer, but he is willing to consent to this one as long as no one else knows of it."
Star Tears were a concoction made by the Healers to hurry the healing process. "We are going to battle, are we not?"
"Dea," he paused and turned to her. He suddenly appeared tired. Something was bothering him. "You wanted to be a part of this. Your father agreed to allow it as long as you were safe. You know that is why I am here. But as a Healer, I cannot go where you will be traveling tomorrow."
She knew the point he was making. Healers were hunted by Darien's forces. Because they were the reason Baldorians were able to stand against the colossal army, their limited numbers could not be risked.
Dea was not yet marked by her power, but she was also a Healer. Her Source was still unstable since she did not practice her powers enough to control them. Most Healers are marked by her age. It was only a matter of time before the gleam would appear in her eyes and she would be banned from the Fortis.
"I understand," she answered. "I will be careful."
"This could be dangerous."
"Is Father asking me to return to Alistad?"
Zeke gave a sympathetic frown. "He is always asking you to return. He is not yet demanding it. He knows this is what you want. He will respect that to a point. Dea, if you are captured…"
"I understand, Zeke," she broke in quietly. "I know."
It seemed her secrets would always haunt her. The two titles she carried would likely mean her death if she were to be discovered by the enemy. If she were found out as a Healer, they would take her prisoner as they did with Healers in the past. The following torture would not end until she either used her power to aide Darien or died resisting him.
If her lineage became known, Darien himself would cut out her heart. As the only daughter of King Aien and Queen Belwyn, she was the future of Baldorah. Few knew of her true identity. It was for her own safety. She was to remain veiled until the time came for her to rule the land, as was her mother before her. Such was the way of Baldorah.
Chapter One - Scene Two Continued (11/5/11)
"I know how hard you worked to get here," Zeke started with a stronger tone. "The constant training paid off. You earned your station. But," he held up a finger, "Alton tells me you had yet another disagreement. If you went through all the trials and left the palace only to do dishes for an army, I misunderstood your reason for joining."
Dea smiled at his teasing. She admired her mentor's approach to discussing trouble spots. "No, sir," she answered. "I am not fond of the dishes. My difficulty is with waiting for Captain Alton to act. He received word the other day that Darien has taken another village north of here. If we started out the next day, we would have arrived in time to do some good. Instead, he awaits an order to move. If that is what has arrived, it is too late."
"So you questioned him."
He made it sound as if her reasoning was weak. "I simply suggested he send a group of us ahead of the company to scout. That way we would have been prepared by the time reinforcements arrived."
"I thought we talked about this."
She closed her eyes and hung her head. "We did, sir. I did not say anything in front of the others. I waited until no one was around. I was not aiming to undermine him in any way."
Her mentor's large hand came to her shoulder. Its warmth, as usual, calmed her anxious thoughts. His powers were rarely dormant. "I know it is difficult to wait for someone to act. But this is how the Fortis operates. They are not leaving those people unprotected. They know where they are needed most. Alton is more aware than you give him credit for. He not only worries for those villagers, but he has an entire company of Validius to look after. He will do what is in the best interest of everyone."
"He must see you as an exceptional Validius."
She looked up and met his gleaming eyes. "Sir?"
Zeke smiled. "I have never known him to keep a soldier around after they question him once, much less four times. Perhaps he is getting old."
Dea let herself laugh. "Perhaps."
"I would not tempt his wrath again if I were you. Trust his actions. Follow his lead."
"Yes, sir," she answered with a nod. She knew her captain was well respected by her father. He did not earn such by making bad decisions.
The two drew near the row that held Dea's tent. Dozens and dozens of crisp white canvas dwellings stood side by side. Dea peered at them and wondered how long she would lie on the bedroll before giving up on finding sleep. She was not even vaguely tired.
"I will be here when you return," Zeke said in a kind tone. "Take the Star Tear. Keep it in your pack. Try to use your power as little as possible. I do not want you becoming marked with no one there to stand for you. Be careful. Be smart. Stay safe, Dea."
"Yes, sir. I will."
"And pay attention to Alton. You can learn much from him."
Dea gave a nod of understanding. "Will you be staying at the camp while we are away?"
"I have business east of here, but I will stay close. I will be back before you miss me."
"When will you be returning to Alistad?"
"After I know you are back from your assignment and doing well."
"Would you take a letter to my parents for me?"
Zeke took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes in thought. "Have I turned one down yet?"
She shook her head with a smile. "Thank you, Zeke."
They moved down the row of tents at an easy pace. Several soldiers in their midnight blue Validius uniforms occupied the dirt path. Most appeared to be heading out for duties. The others were getting situated for their rest cycle.
Dea pretended not to notice Zeke's watchful gaze scan the alley between tents. His eyes quickly surveyed each Baldorian with whom they shared the path. She wondered if he even realized he was doing it. He would always be her guardian.
"Now," Zeke said as they slowed beside her assigned quarters. "Get some rest. I will stop by in the morning before you depart." He reached into his riding coat. "Put this somewhere safe." He pulled a small ceramic bottle with a wooden cork from an inner pocket.
Dea took it carefully. She knew stout bottle was difficult to break, but she still cradled it in her hands. Its weight surprised her. It looked to be heavier. Star Tears were something she would never get used to even though they were a common part of her training as a Healer.
"And before I forget." He searched another pocket and retrieved a folded paper. "I told your mother I would have this in your hands the next time I visited."
Her mother's customary parchment reminded her of home. It still carried her fragrance. Belwyn loved tending to her roses. Her study was filled with them. Red roses were her favorite.
"I have not written one since your last visit," Dea said. Her sadness hung on her words. Her mother sent a letter with Zeke every time he came. Dea's writing was far less often.
He slipped the letter into her hands. "I am sure you will have one by the time I leave for Alistad. You will have plenty to tell her about when you return."
Holding the letter and Star Tear close, Dea smiled up at Zeke. She rarely informed her mother of her duties. Belwyn was not pleased with her joining the Fortis. She felt it was no place for women, let alone the Veiled Heiress of Baldorah.
No, her letters consisted of everything except the Fortis and the war. She discussed the weather, new people she met, and any notice about an upcoming leave. Those were the kind of things Belwyn would like to hear about.
"I will have one ready before you go," she said. "How are her roses?"
Zeke raised a brow. "She never lets me close enough to tell."
Dea couldn't help but chuckle. Very few were allowed to tend to Belwyn's roses. Not even Aien tried to interfere with her garden. Dea admittedly missed their quiet times spent caring for the well loved flowers.
"How did your practice go?" Zeke questioned. He looked to the staff sheathed across her back.
"Do we need to practice your techniques?"
She shook her head. "No, sir. It was me. My head was not in the ring."
"Where was it?"
"Nowhere," Dea answered. "Everywhere."
"Are you having doubts?"
It was a vague question. "Not about coming here," she quickly clarified. "But I guess I have doubts about where this war is headed. I know Father is concentrating on defense more so than offense. I understand his tactics. I only wonder if it is enough.
"This war has stretched on for two decades. Most of those we are fighting do not even know what they are fighting for. They follow blindly. They are just as much the victim as all of our people."
Her mentor nodded slowly. He was pondering her concern. His answers were always thought out. "Your father wishes to end this. He has tried every way possible to reach an agreement with Darien. The man will not have it. We can only wait it out. They will grow weary of it. That is how they are."
His reply was the same her father used not long after the war started. The enemy forces would grow weary. That was yet to happen. And by comparing earlier battles with more recent ones, it was intensifying.
It was the popular opinion that Darien's people prolonged the war because of jealousy of the Baldorians. The Baldorian race was know as an ageless race. Elvlings was what the humans called them. The three races, humans, Baldorians and Elves, once coexisted. It was long before Dea's time, but there were still those who remembered such days.
The Elves began leaving the lands just prior to Belwyn taking the throne. That was more than six decades ago. They have not been heard from since Dea was a child. She was now well into her forth decade.
Zeke went on his way and left Dea to settle in for the night. After stepping into her tent, she worked to shed her armor. She started with the strappings that held the staff across her back. It was the easiest to remove.
She moved on to her leather bracers. The method was then repeated with her greaves. The lacing on each came loose at her urging. Once those were placed by her pack, she gave her attention to the broad placard that hugged her from high on her waist to low on her hips.
The lacing in the midsection was undone without too much effort. The upper buckle came next. The larger buckle on the lower half of the placard always took a little more patience. The thick straps and sturdy pin were reluctant to release her.
Dea found a place for the Star Tears in her pack. She made sure it was concealed, yet readily retrievable. If she was to need the concoction, it would be best if she did not have to search for it.
Setting the pack beside the bedroll, Dea laid her placard and coat atop the bundle. Taking her mother's letter in hand, she stretched out on her bedding. Perhaps sleep would be less difficult with a pleasant word from home.
Chapter Two: Reinforcement - Scene One (12/10/11)
The early morning sky was darkened by a thick blanket of rainclouds. Dea peered up at them as she stepped out of her tent. They were a welcomed sight. Perhaps they would stick around and provide some shade for the day's ride.
With her packs in hand, she slipped her staff into its sheath on her back. It was with perfect timing. A horn sounded from the center of the camp. Alton was calling for his troops to gather for the company's assignment.
The lanes that were often moderately active quickly filled with a sea of Validius blue uniforms. Dea fell in step with the flowing mass of her comrades. Most appeared well readied for the announcement. There was only a handful of those still working to button up their coats.
The common area was filling in a hurry as Dea made her way to her place. She exchanged acknowledging glances with Zacairus after he settled in two rows ahead of her. He gestured at her carried packs, earning a nod. He gave a hearty smile and a wink in return.
Alton stood before the assembly in his deep blue captain's uniform. The black and gold cords looped over his shoulders demanded notice. His light brown eyes passed over the gathered troops before him. The company went silent.
Dea stood in attention as the captain performed his routine assessment. She admired his eternal calm. The man never gave a hint as to what he was about to say. No matter the pressure of the situation, he remained completely untroubled. He was the embodiment of tranquility.
"We will be moving out within the hour," he began. His soft spoken tone forced a stillness over the company. Even the wind seemed to dissipate in accommodation of his low volume. "We are to assist the western forces. There has been a breach in Baldorah's defenses. Bellfield and Herondale have fallen. Moatterra is next.
"Pack only essentials. We will not make camp. We should reach Moatterra by midday. We will return as soon as the area is recovered.
"Officers, report to me for your division's assignments."
With that, the company was dismissed. No one delayed. The common area came to life with Validius spurring into action.
Dea started for the stables. All she needed was to ready her bay mare, Marus. Depending on the horse's mood, it would not take long. The biscuits in her pack would assure the mare's cooperation.
"How much of this did you already know?" Zacairus asked as he came beside Dea.
She shook her head. "Only that we were getting an assignment. Zeke would not tell me anything more."
He gave a doubtful chuckle. "I thought you were going to start sharing your information."
She picked up their pace and fought back a grin. "Zeke stopped by last night. He said Alton will address the company in the morning about a mysterious assignment."
"I would not mind a little notice, Dea." Zacairus shook his finger at her. "Mysterious assignment, huh?"
"To be honest, he only said assignment. I added the mysterious. I thought you would like that."
"So it was a good thing for me to be packed in advance," he grumbled.
Dea let out a laugh. She squeezed through a narrow alley between a row of white tents with Zacairus following her lead. "When are you not packed?"
"I have caught on," he returned. They stepped out into a less crowded lane and pressed on. "Since you asked, I have learned to get a pack ready every time Zeke pays you a visit. His coming is a precursor to new assignments."
The two slowed as they came to the side entrance of the stables. Tall wooden gates and barricades spread out in a maze before them. Validius of all ranks moved about with tack and gear in tow.
The small enclosure housed only a fraction of the company's mounts. Most were kept in the adjoined field. Since Dea and Zacairus had assignments that day, their horses were kept in the stables over the night.
The smell of wood, dust and straw tempered that of manure. The dirt floor of the stables muted the steps of the Baldorians within the building. Stamping hooves and clanking of hardware filled the air.
"They are over here," Zacairus spoke up. He ushered Dea to the far side of the stables. She was grateful he was tall enough to spy their horses' heads over the wooden walls.
They made their last turn and eased their pace. Zeke stood waiting in front of Marus' stall. He had both Dea's and Zacairus' tack out and ready for them.
"You are such a good man," Zacairus called out in praise. "You knew we were coming."
Zeke bowed his head in greeting to Zacairus. "I was right to assume you two travel as a team."
"Yes, sir," Zacairus said as he returned the greeting. "I will always recruit one of your studies to watch my back."
Zeke's green eyes lightened with a smile. He patted Zacairus' shoulder, then turned to Dea. "Did you rest well?"
"Are you ready for your journey?"
"Should you have chosen a good-natured horse, I would have had it saddled and ready for you. I did not care to fight with this nag today."
Dea smiled and nodded in understanding. She reached into her pack and retrieved a biscuit. Holding it up for her mentor to see, she offered it in her flattened hand to the waiting mare. Marus' lips quickly claimed the treat.
"Ah." Zeke followed her example and found a biscuit. "Bribery is often successful."
Zacairus opened the stall that held his dark brown stallion. "This guy is not difficult. He would let you saddle him." The sleek horse held still as he slipped the bit into place.
"I did not even attempt to try," Zeke said. "I am wary of another man's horse. It might be bonded or ornery." He nodded to Marus as she nipped at him. "Or both."
Dea stepped into the mare's stall. Marus flattened her ears and tossed her head with a snort. The mare calmed when Dea took the bridle in her hands. She would not put up too much of a fight, but Dea knew it was not one of Marus' better days. The bay's brown eyes flashed with annoyance.
Move Out (4/21/14) - I've since changed to 1st person POV as Dea. Still adjusting. Nowhere close to complete.
Our company was soon readied and on the way to Moatterra. We rode out according to our divisions. Cathal's was once again in the lead. Zacairus and I were in the second division led by an Officer named Jarl.
He was an admirable officer. His patience nearly matched that of our captain. He was not as soft spoken, but was easily mistaken as a mere Cavalry Validius. Though he had earned the position of Officer years ago, he often wore the traditional blue coat without the black cord looped over his shoulder.
It was a quick ride past fields of young crops followed by a route through dense forests. The clouds thinned and faded away as our company rode on. Warmth from the early summer sun made up for the chilled breeze.
Most everyone in the company kept to themselves. It was as if each Validius was preparing themselves in their own way for what they would face. If Bellfield and Herondale had already fallen, then Moatterra would not last long on their own. Bellfield was a smaller village, but Herondale was not. A company about the same size as Alton's was stationed there. It was not at all an easy target.
I tried not to concentrate on how large the Varondite army must have been. I recalled the few battles our company had seen since my joining. The majority of the men that made up the opposing force were merely farmers who had been recruited by Darien for nothing other then increasing their numbers. My comrades referred to them as Field Mice. Such farmers rarely held their ground against Baldorian soldiers.
Fleeing Field Mice were never hunted down. Validius knew they were not a threat. It was as if all they were forced to do was march into battle. After the initial clash, the farmers would turn and run, leaving Darien's actual soldiers easier to distinguish.
Even still, an army of Field Mice would not have overthrown Herondale. The invading troops were likely seasoned soldiers and the coming battle would undoubtedly make up for all the squabbles the company dealt with thus far.
Scouts were sent ahead as the company drew closer to Moatterra and the air grew heavy with the stench of smoke and ash. The village was already burning.
Captain Alton slowed the company as we came to the edge of the surrounding forest. The captain collected the commanding officers then waited with them for the scouts to return.
I reined my horse in beside Zacairus. His face reflected the same concentration as the rest of my comrades. His hardened gaze took in each movement in the forest shadows. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword. All the while, nothing about him seemed anxious.
Everyone was as still as stone statues until the scouts returned. The eight riders joined Captain and his officers at the front of our gathered company where they delivered their findings without hesitation. Captain Alton was soon giving the officers their orders.
When Jarl returned to our division, he channeled the captain's calm as he told us of our assignment. He spoke clearly to his gathered troops.
"Moatterra's defenses have already fallen. We will not be recovering the city. We will, however, defend the citizens trapped inside.
"Darien's forces are scattered throughout the streets. They seem to be intent on razing Moatterra to the ground. Many from the city fled before Moatterra was surrounded.
"Our priority is to rescue those who have not yet escaped. A small group of villagers have engaged the enemy in the town square.
"We are to ride in and meet the Varondites head on. We will then split into two groups." He gestured with an outstretched arm across the center of the circle formed by the division. Zacairus stood opposite of the officer.
"Those in this group," he said as he turned his attention to the first half, myself included, "will be concentrating on extracting Baldorians. A recovery station will be set up where we are standing to receive each civilian. Cathal's division will be following after us to clear a route for them.
"This group," he addressed the second half. "You are to drive the soldiers north to where Captain Alton will be ready with two divisions."
Jarl turned to the first group. "You are to focus on placing yourselves between the Baldorians in the square and the Varondites.
"Zacairus, you will lead this group when we divide."
"Yes, sir," Zacairus confirmed with a nod.
"The rest of you will stay with me. We will drive the enemy north."
The Officer then addressed the division as a whole. "Darien may not be taking prisoners, but we are. Captain Alton has relayed an order to spare those we can.
Clusters of divisions spurred into action and brought the quiet forest to life. Our group rode through the tree line and straight for Moatterra. We were shadowed by the others as we raced toward the burning city.
My gaze scanned the settlement as we neared. Heavy smoke made it difficult to see much ahead of the charging officer. Thunder followed as the entire company began to shift and engulf Moatterra.
Up ahead, Zacairus slowed his horse. He dropped back from his place behind Jarl until he came beside me. His eyes were worried. "Are you considering turning around and home?"
His asking surprised me. "No," and answered, then reached and readied my staff. "Of course not."
"Then why are you hiding back here?" Zacairus drew his sword with a confident smile. "I have your back, and you have mine. Same as always. Just keeping you on your toes."
I waved him away and returned his smile. "Be safe," I called over the rumble of the horses' hooves.
With a shout, Zacairus urged his horse onward. I followed suit. We slipped through the pack of riders and made our way to the front of the division. Jarl acknowledged us both as we came beside him.
There was not much left of Moatterra as we rushed down streets littered with rubble and bodies. If there were still villagers trapped in the burning remains of the village, they were in dire need of rescue.
At first, there were not many Varondite soldiers to be found. A handful of Validius broke off from our speeding group to contend with a cluster of soldiers. The vast majority of our division pressed on toward the struggle in the heart of Moatterra.
The incoming storm of Cavalry Validius caught the enemy forces off guard. The soldiers scrambled to regroup in attempt to face our attack.
Their numbers increased significantly as we came to the center of the fallen city. Validius were easily outnumbered by three to one. Even still, we pressed on.
Jarl spearheaded the campaign. His eyes were locked on the swarm of villagers in the streets ahead as we broke through the enemy's line.
I deflected blow after blow from armored opponents, then looked to Zacairus. He was blocking strikes from slashing swords as he rode beside Jarl. I gave my attention back to our heading. The following division would subdue those we pushed past.
We were not far from the surrounded villagers when we could no longer force our way through the army. Jarl signaled for us to slow. The Varondites held their ground.
As I reigned Marus in, I caught a blow with my staff from a maul that was aimed at the mare's shoulder. The impact was jarring, but I recovered quickly. I spun my staff around before bringing it with a crash against the soldier's helm. He staggered, then tumbled to the ground.
There was no shortage of opponents and another man took his place in an instant.
The onslaught only intensified as I tried to gain any sort of ground. Marus' stamping hooves added to the deafening clamor. The only good the stubborn mare did was to discourage the attacking soldiers from getting too close.
Jarl gave a shout beside me. He spurred his horse into the teaming mass of men. I followed his lead and made my way farther into the struggle. I tried to keep watch over Jarl and still maintain my own defenses. It proved difficult. There was no room for error.
The crowded line made tight quarters for the conflict. It was troublesome to negotiate on horseback though my staff made quick work of those who stood against me. With it I deflected swords and arrows alike.
A riderless horse plowed into Marus' side and I had to ignored the pain as my leg was pinned between the horses. Realizing the brown stallion was Zacairus' mount, I searched the mass of fighting bodies until I spied my comrade facing off against two soldiers. His quick movements and powerful strikes helped him to get the upper hand and he was soon moving through the onslaught.
I dismounted. It was easier to maneuver on foot. I stuck with Zacairus, and we were joined by Jarl. We took turns driving our way closer to the villagers. Jarl seemed to be watching carefully for an opening.
His men followed his example and pushed against the enemies' defenses. While the soldiers were not Field Mice, their lack of skill and structure would be their undoing.
As the officer moved through the horde of enemies that separated us from the villagers, he seemed to be leaving himself vulnerable to attacks. I stepped up my offense to push back away from Jarl. The closer he got to the villagers, he grew even more reckless. I had to shield him repeatedly from incoming blows and I could feel my frustration building. I tried to guided him to a less crowded area, but he was resolute on holding his course.
Jarl finally reached the first of the villagers. Two soldiers engaged him and the exhausted man. I quickly ended my a duel with a foe with a blow to his head from my staff, then whirled around to rejoin Jarl.
Twirling my staff in front of me, I parred several strikes from one of the soldiers. He stepped back to adjust his approach and I moved in to counter him. I brought the staff across his knee, and he stumbled. Then I noticed Jarl stagger beside me.
I turned to assist him in time to see the soldier he dueled moving to take advantage of his downed defenses. I thrust my staff up to catch his blow. The impact was more than I expected and jarred me enough to slow my advance. The soldier quickly rebounded, struck out again, and again Jarl failed to cover himself.
I jumped between the two of them spinning my staff to deflect the blow once more. Our weapons met with a mighty clash. The soldier pressed in on my block and glanced his blade off my staff. I cried out as the cold steel dug into my shoulder. My yelp was more out of anger than the resulted wound.
Gripping the sword still buried in my shoulder, I planted my boot against the man's chest and kicked him to the ground, pulling the blade free. The soldier was back on his feet and charging in no time at all. I spun my staff overhead, then brought it down on his sword arm. The impact resonated despite his bracers. He dropped his sword and staggered as he clutched his arm. My next blow rendered him unconscious.
I stood stunned for a moment, trying to push the pain in my shoulder from my mind, and looked around for Jarl. He stood beside me with his hold on the weary villager. The officer looked amused.
He smirked. "See if he tries that again."
I was tempted to return his demeanor, but settled with pushing him toward the safety of our own forces. I stayed close behind him until he was far enough away from the enemies for me to ease off.
I cursed myself for letting my frustration slow me down. I watched Jarl move through the Validius troops and hoped he would stay safe.
I longed to heal my shoulder, but settled for a slight mend which was enough to ease the pain. Zacairus' comment came to mind. "Just keeping you on your toes," I grumbled.
As I let go of the energy transfer, the sound of the battle grew louder. I looked to see where the commotion was coming from.
Another band of Darien's soldiers came pouring into the devastated square and headed straight for a small group of villagers. The Baldorians were trapped in a green just beside the square.
I looked to Zacairus for direction. He motioned for his men to mount up and I hurried to where Marus was waiting where I had left her.
As soon as I was in the saddle, Zacairus held his sword overhead and let out a boisterous war cry. Our group followed his example. We spurred our horses forward at his order to charge as a single unit.
I hoped to make the opposing soldiers quickly disengage the villagers. Fear of the farmers' poor chances against the seasoned soldiers drove me on and I managed to keep close to the front of the group.
Part of the enemy troops broke off from the villagers as Zacairus led our group closer. A few of the defending farmers had already fallen while dozens remaining continued their campaign.
"They did not ask for this," I murmured.
Our group broke across the crowded scene. I engaged one of the opposing soldiers. Not holding back, I dropped him on the third strike.
I looked over the hectic battle to search out villagers. The one closest to me was holding off a soldier with a shovel. The Baldorian looked as though he had already been beaten.
Dismounting before moving in, I caught the soldier off guard. The villager seemed confused as to what to think of the new arrivals. I drove the soldier back, blocking his blows with ease. I was about to strike when the villager came at me, shovel held high.
I rolled away from his charge and opened myself to the soldier. He stepped up his barrage, forcing me back. I placed myself between the crazed farmer and the Varondite, careful to maintain a comfortable space from each. I parred with the soldier all the while keeping the villager in my sights.
I waited for the soldier to reform his offense, then turned to the villager. "Stand down," I warned. "We are here to help you."
He would not back off. Though I did not want to harm him, he was risking the safety of Validius along with his own.
I turned back in time to catch the soldier in full swing and my staff rang out as the blade crashed into it. I pushed against his stance. Not able to budge him, I broke from his hold and spun, bringing my staff across his front. He met the blow with one of his own. The force of his strikes rattled my entire frame and my wounded shoulder began to ache. I needed to end the confrontation soon.
Again, I rolled away from the soldier to check the villager. He was closer than I expected. I brought my staff up as he swung his shovel at my head and deflected his attack. His blows were not nearly as threatening as the soldier's, but he was persistent.
The farmer charged me again. I side stepped him and brought the staff across his shins. He stumbled and fell in the direction of the soldier.
I struck out to defend the farmer as the soldier revamped his attack. I matched his strikes. Neither of us gained any ground and the clash continued. I tried with all my might to push my foe back, but the soldier proved to be a weighty challenge.
He doubled over from a blow to the belly as I took advantage of his slightest hesitation. I dropped to the ground and tried to roll away at the sound of the villager coming up behind me. The man brought the flat side of his shovel down on my shoulder and I yelped as the jolt reopened the wound.
Reaching out with my staff, I struck one of his knees, causing him to stumble. I leapt to my feet, stood over the villager, and pressed the end of my staff under his chin.
"We are here to help you. Now stand down or I will finish this," I commanded.
He did not respond. Lowering the staff, I quickly knelt down beside him to gain his trust. His fearful gaze over my shoulder was enough of a warning and I spun in time to see the soldier coming at us full charge.
I stepped into his path and braced myself. The soldier crashed into me with all his weight, knocking me to the ground. I blocked the incoming swing of his sword with my staff, but was unable to counter his attack.
The soldier stood over me and pressed his blade against the staff with his full weight behind it. I managed to bring my boot up against his gut and kicked him back. He did not go far, but it was enough for me to swing my staff full circle and strike his knee. He dropped to the other.
I stood and brought my staff to his throat. "You have one chance to save yourself," I firmly offered. "Drop your sword and surrender."
He drew his blade back as if to strike and I swung the staff, sweeping it across the crown of his head. He fell heavily to the ground.
I held my stance waiting for him to continue his attack. The soldier remained motionless. I carefully approached him, poking his side with my staff. He did not move.
As I knelt to retrieve his sword, he grabbed my arm and jerked me to the ground. We struggled over the blade in the flattened grass.
The soldier had the advantage with his weight and I knew I was quickly losing the battle. I fought back with all the strength I could muster, my shoulder searing with pain with every movement.
He grabbed for the blade. I could not match his reach. I tried to call out to the villager to stay back as he darted in closer to join the conflict, but the words could not come fast enough. Swinging his shovel, the villager struck the soldier's back. The blow did not seem to slow our opponent who was now armed.
He stood, picking me up by the collaring of my coat. I winced as the fabric pulled tight across my bleeding shoulder.
Drawing the dagger from my belt, I drove it into his brawny arm. He cried out and dropped me. I rolled away and jumped to my feet. The soldier pulled the dagger from his arm and hurled it at me. I blocked it with my staff, then charged him.
He swung his blade, and I ducked under his strike, jabbing my staff into his gut and knocking the wind out of him. He fell back gasping and thrashing out at me.
"Wait!" I yelled, too late to stop the villager from bringing the shovel down on the soldier's head with a sickening crash.
I cringed at the thought of the soldier's fate, though the villager seemed quite satisfied with himself. I could not blame him knowing he must have suffered much at the hands of Darien's men.
After retrieving my dagger, I sheathed it and slowly approached the villager, careful not to provoke another assault. The man stared down at the conquered soldier, passive of my nearness and I stood quietly by his side. His brown eyes raised to mine, his face betraying his hopelessness.
"Let us get you somewhere safe," I said as I put my hand on his thick shoulder. He nodded once, then dropped his gaze back to the soldier's still body. I knew we should not linger, so I gave his arm a tug. Though he was sheepish about it, he followed my lead.
I paid careful attention to the fray around us as I led him out of the area and ushered him in the direction of safe refuge. "This way has already been cleared. You will be guarded. Follow this road to the edge of the village. You will see an encampment and there you will find the Healer's tent. Let them check you over. They will take care of you from there. Please hurry."
Two more Baldorian men came our way. I waited for the battered farmers to join up with us.
"He is going to show you the way to safety," I said as I directed them to my farmer. When I met his eyes, he smiled ever so slightly and gave a nod.
With a gentle nudge forward, they were soon onto the route that would take them to the shelter. I watched the three haggard refugees as they left before turning back to rejoin my comrades.
I scanned the churning battle grounds as I neared. There were not any villagers remaining in the area. I decided to assist with pushing the Varondite troops back.
I made my way to the heart of the fight. As I took in what was happening around me, I caught sight of Zacairus dueling not far off. A soldier was approaching him from behind. I moved to engage the foe.
The soldier noted my coming. We locked eyes and he changed course as if to accept my challenge.
Neither of us hesitated once within striking distance, instantly exchanging blows. The soldier was considerably taller than me, but his build was not intimidating. He wore bulky armor and wielded a short sword. The man only moved as quickly as his height and load allowed. He was not at all nimble.
I parred and dodged his assaults looking for a weak point in his body armor. There was very little to be found. Options were limited. I tried for his bracers, but he noted my attempts and did well to block them.
We continued to spar and I altered my offense. To use his size and limited movement against him, I resolved to close in on him. He tried to retain his wide comfort zone, but I pressed in on him. He became more clumsy as he miscalculated his strikes. Agility was not one of the over burdened soldier's strengths.
He finally underestimated my proximity. As he swung out, I ducked under his strike and eluded him. The man realized his mistake, but it was too late. I struck his hip and found a hinge in his armor.
The soldier struggled to retain his balance. I moved behind him and struck the back of his knees. He toppled over and rolled away.
Just as he found his footing, I was upon him. I impacted his helm with the end of my staff. He came to rest on his knees, swaying to and fro. I spun around and brought the staff across his back. With no attempt to catch himself, the man fell forward to the ground. I stood behind him still on guard and prepared for him to get up. He remained still.
I sensed someone behind me and, quickly turned with my staff raised to confront the threat, then breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Zacairus. He appeared agitated. Something was amiss.
"Come with me," he said as he moved past.
I trotted behind him and kept up our defenses against any menacing beings that might come our way. Zacairus traversed the combat zone with unwavering determination. He promptly eradicated any foe daring to stand against him as if they did not even try to put up a fight.
We soon came upon an area of intense fighting. As Zacairus slowed to a stop, I moved closer to receive his orders and turned to shield him from behind.
He directed my attention to a secluded struggle off to the side beneath one of the few trees on the green. I peered closely. There was a villager and a Validius contending with five Varondite soldiers. Anger flared in my stomach.
Zacairus' voice resembled a growl. "They have gotten themselves into a mess."
I nodded. "I will cover you."
"Your priority is the villager. Get him and get out. Now move!"
We charged head long into the confrontation. I was on course to reach the villager when one of the enemy soldiers stepped up to oppose me. I had no choice but to battle him. I felt helpless as I could only watch the weary villager fight for his life. Zacairus was shouting for me to hurry, but my rival stood in my way.
Knowing I was out of time, I recklessly attacked my opponent. I swing my staff at him wildly, and he repeatedly blocked my assault. I took a step back, adjusted my strategy, and charged again. I whirled my staff overhead accelerating its momentum until I could hardly control it any longer. Once I was upon him, I gripped the shaft, made a full turn, and brought my weapon against him. The staff collided with his armored shoulder with a great crash. He staggered under the blow and left himself open. I quickly kicked out, contacting his breastplate and threw him to the ground. Leaping over the fallen soldier, I moved on to deliver the villager.
The young man was besieged by two soldiers as I came upon him. He looked exhausted and began to falter under the barrage he was being dealt. I rushed to intercept the soldier nearest me.
The man was prepared and sidestepped my attack. I wheeled around to face him, but the soldier was already on me. I caught his sword with my staff as he brought it down at my neck, shuddering under the power of his strike.
We pressed in on one another's hold. He brought the blade closer to my throat and I fell back to break away.
Once again, the man was against me when I turned to confront him. As he struck out at me, I rolled under his attack, flanking him as his arm passed over. I stood my ground as he turned back.
He came at me while sweeping his sword in an upward motion. I altered my stance to repel his strike. The blade glanced off my staff, and the man stumbled from misjudging his applied force. I brought my staff up and jabbed him in his thigh, dropping him to the ground. I made another full turn and whipped my staff across the back of his head finishing the duel.
I circled back to the villager, nearly losing my balance with the sudden change of direction. He still fought one of the remaining soldiers. I raced to him, but could only watch in horror as he was outmatched by the soldier, who ran his sword into the young man's belly.
"No!" My cry broke the soldier's attention from the wounded man. He turned to me. I charged him and immediately blocked his strike.
As the soldier rebound, Zacairus came and moved in front of me. "Go to him," he nodded toward the villager. "I will take care of this one."
I ran without delay to the young man. He stood unsteady as I came to him. He noticed my approach and raised his sword with one hand while he held the other bloodied and pressed against his stomach.
"Stay back!" His desperate voice sounded weak as his wild eyes stared me down.
"We are on your side," I reasoned. "Please, you are hurt. Let me help you." I continued toward him and sheathed my staff across my back. I then held up my empty hands for him to see. He stepped back and countered my advance. "I can help you," I pleaded.
The villager staggered and dropped his sword. I rushed in and caught him before he fell. He tried to push me away, but was too spent.
I helped him to the ground. When I looked up, he had a dark-bladed dagger aimed at me. Even still, I knelt beside him.
Reaching carefully, I gripped his hand that held the dagger, looked into his eyes and spoke softly. "We are with King Aien's Fortis. He sent us to help you. You are safe now."
He stared back back at me as if he struggled to give an answer.
"My name is Dea," I went on. His blue eyes softened. I claimed the jeweled hilt from his hand and set the weapon beside him. "What is your name?"
"Corbin," he breathed. I leaned in to better hear him. "My name is Corbin," he repeated with a little more strength.
"I am glad to meet you, Corbin."
Looking to his wound, I took hold of the gored hand he clutched to his belly. "I need you to trust me. Let me take a look to see what I can do. Do you understand?"
The young man nodded once. He laid his head back in the trampled grass. His eyes matched the color of the sky he stared into. He seemed to relax, then trembled as I moved his hand to inspect the wound. He held his breath while I rolled up his blood soaked tunic.
There were also several less threatening wounds on his arms and body. I did not have enough bandages to clean and dress them all. After a moment, I eased my hold on his hand. A sigh of frustration escaped me. Corbin looked up. His eyes told of his concern.
"I apologize," I started as I tried to keep the nervousness out of my smile. "That was rude of me.
"You are not going to like this, but please stay with me. I need to clean these wounds before I can bandage them. I will be as gentle as I can, but I am afraid it is going to sting a little."
Corbin nodded again, and let his head back to stare at the sky once more.
What could be running through his mind? Was he angry? Was he scared? I looked him over guessing he was about my age by his kind face. His hair appeared to be blonde beneath the dirt and grime. Pale scars littered his entire body. Was the life of a villager more perilous than I had realized?
I reached into the pack attached to my belting. There I located a small bundle of clean cloths and bandages. I then uncorked the waterskin and used it to dampen one of the cloths.
Once again I guided Corbin's hand away from his stomach wound. I focused on being careful. He was notably still as I moved to clean the lesion.
I couldn't help but cringe as he flinched under my touch. No matter how tenderly I pressed the cloth to the stab wound, I knew it was not going to be pleasant. "I am sorry," I whispered as I continued to apply pressure.
The bleeding needed to be stopped. But the piercing was quite deep. With each pulse of the young man's heart, fresh blood flowed through the cloth held to the gash. Cleaning and bandaging would not be enough.
I glanced down at Corbin's face. His eyes were closed. "Are you all right?" I was unable to hide the worry in my voice.
He gave a quick nod. "I'm fine," he answered through clinched teeth.
His breathing grew more labored and troubled me. If I was going to save him, I needed to act quickly.
Glancing around the clearing, I found Zacairus coming towards us. I completely missed the quiet left after the battle because of focusing on Corbin.
"We need to move," Zacairus said as he came near. "How is he?"
Corbin startled at his approach. I held my hand to his shoulder to settle him. "He is with us."
I looked to Zacairus and shook my head. "I cannot leave him. He needs attention now. He cannot wait for the Healers. They will be too long." I shifted my gaze from my friend to the young man. There was no reaction from him at my words.
Zacairus' usual patience returned to his voice. "What do you want to do?"
"Let me stay here," I answered as I looked up at him. "Only for a little while. I will patch him up as best I can, then I will catch up with the division."
My comrade's stormy eyes studied me. I hoped he was pondering my request. He walked closer to where Corbin lay and knelt next to him. With a shake of his head, he looked the young man over. The severity of his wound was obvious.
"This is Corbin," I said instead of pleading for his consent.
Zacairus stared back at me. His face showed his sympathy. "She is going to take good care of you, Corbin."
I nodded in appreciation. "Thank you."
Getting to his feet, Zacairus looked around. "We are going to move on to the north and meet up with the other divisions. When we get a handle on things, I will come back for you both. Stay here no matter what." He offered a weak smile, glanced at Corbin one last time, and turned to head out.
He was only a few steps away when he turned back. "Dea," he called out. Zacairus pulled the pack from his belting and tossed it to me. I caught it and looked to him. "You are going to need it more than I will."
"I know," I answered without meaning to. "Thank you."
I watched as he mounted his horse and rode off to rejoin our group. About a dozen riders waited across the ruined green on fidgety war horses.
I hoped he was right, that he would not need his pack. "Be safe," I whispered.
When I gave my attention back to Corbin, I found the bleeding had not slowed. "How are you feeling?" I pressed against the cloth to put more pressure on the wound. He did not answer. Time was running out.
I reached over and shook his shoulder. "Corbin, hold on. I need you to hang on just a little longer."
He began to shiver as he stirred to answer me. His face contorted with pain as he drew shallow breaths.
Taking one more careful look around us, I knew we were finally alone. I repositioned myself beside his head. Drawing a deep breath, I held it in for a moment, then slowly released it trying to clear my head.
I had not tried to use my powers to such an extent before. The only other times I healed someone other than myself was with animals. Once, a cat that had been poisoned. The second was a horse with a broken leg. Each time I had Zeke by my side to guide me.
This was much more serious. I did not know if I had enough strength to make a difference. I also did not see that I had any choice. Corbin was slipping away and if I did not heal him now, he would die.
Leaning forward, I spoke softly into his ear. "Listen to me. I am going to help you. I need you to try to relax and trust me. Do not resist me. You have to let me in."
He did not answer, but I felt him trying to ease his tense body. I held my palms flattened on the sides of his head, my widespread fingers trembling even though I kept a firm hold.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on summoning the energy stored deep within. I could sense the power steadily gathering and build up inside me and as the energy swelled, I began the transfer.
My palms warmed as the power flowed into Corbin. I reached out to his mind searching for the pain he was enduring. The force of his agony was overwhelming. It was stronger than anything I ever experienced before. Focusing on its source, it seemed to radiate from the depths of his chest.
The energy moved slowly as I guided it to the origin of his suffering. As the current progressed, there was no change to the level of his discomfort. Taken aback, I decreased the flow and revised my approach.
I knew the injury to Corbin's abdomen was grave. I pushed past the presumed core and continued to his midriff. As my powers drew near the approximated location, the wound was easily located. His energy was being lost to the laceration. I propelled my own energy into the area. Marred flesh and tissue began to be restored.
I wanted to heal him completely. I could erase his hurt. Yet, if I were to heal him altogether, my powers would be discovered. I had to preserve my identity. I could only mend him enough to control the bleeding and dull his pain.
When I sensed his energy beginning to return, I lessened the transfer and slowly retracted from his mind knowing I had to be careful not to shock his body with the withdraw. As I closed the connection, there was still a resounding pain emitting from his chest.
Opening my eyes, I looked Corbin over awaiting any kind of response to let me know if my power was enough to pull him through. The memory of the hurt that lingered within him haunted me.
My palms still tingled as I pulled them away from his head. His breathing was again steady. I put a hand on his chest and felt a strong and unfaltering heartbeat.
I gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. Corbin's eyes opened. I smiled as his blinking gaze found me and was overjoyed to meet those stunning blue eyes. "You are going to be all right," I whispered.
Corbin shifted to sit up, then immediately held his bloodied hand to his head. I put an arm around him and encouraged him to wait out the dizziness. "Take it slow."
He lowered his hand and peered at it. His stained hand trembled. With a flinch, he grasped at his stomach. His fingers found the piercing. When he held them up again, fresh blood glistened on his fingertips.
His face hardened as he looked up at me. "What did you do?"
I didn't answer.
He glanced down at his hand once more. He seemed to be trying to understand what he had just experienced and raised his eyes to me as if awaiting an answer.
I again did not give him one. I could only stare at his shaking hand. There was nothing to be said. I got to my feet and took a few steps away. Zacairus' pack lay on the ground. The pack I needed was my own. "What did I do with it?"
Ignoring Corbin's uneasy gaze, I claimed the pack beside him. It was still open. I reached in and sifted through its contents. Finally, my fingers found the small, round bottle.
I knelt beside Corbin as I pulled the bottle from the pack. Holding it up, I turned it in my hands and inspected the glossy finish. "This should do the trick." The cork popped free at my urging.
"What is it?" Corbin was staring at the dark and squatty bottle. I held it out for him to take. When he hesitated, I pulled it back. The glass squeaked against my fingerless gloves.
"It is a mending elixir. Star Tears. You drink it. It helps your body heal quickly and restores some of the energy you may have lost during the battle. You will feel much better, I promise." I held it to my nose and inhaled its aroma. "It does not taste too bad either."
"I think I will be all right without it. I have made it this far without help from your Healers and their Star Tears." He eyed the bottle with an irritated frown.
I needed to win his trust. I needed to get him to take some of the Star Tears. In doing so, I hoped it would help soothe the pain that remained so vivid within him. It would also explain his unnaturally quick recovery from such a mortal wound. I had to convince him to comply.
I raised the bottle to my lips and took a sip. The elixir held a hint of honey and warmed my throat as I swallowed it. After a few moments, I could feel my powers beginning to refresh within me. Even my shoulder calmed in response.
Turning to Corbin, I offered him the bottle once again. His eyes still studied me, then his expression softened just a bit.
"I can only patch you up so much," I explained. "I am afraid it is not enough. Yes, you feel better now, but that will not last unless you follow up with Star Tears. It does not take much."
He reached for it with caution, but appeared to trust my reasoning.
"Just this once. If you do not like it, I will not make you do it again."
I nodded in encouragement when he took the bottle from my hand. He looked it over once more, then raised it to his lips. It was a small swallow, but it was enough.
He was eager to pass it back to me. The elixir sloshed within the bottle as I put the cork in place, then returned it to my pack.
Glancing to Corbin, I was met by his continued gaze. "That was not so bad, was it?"
His expression was still uncertain and I found it difficult to read him since he kept any answer he might have had to himself. He watched somberly as I situated the pack beside me.
Shrugging off his silence, I answered for him. "No, it was not."
His silence continued as I dressed his wound. After dampening a cloth with an ointment that encouraged clotting, I held it in place and wrapped a fresh bandage around him. His only reaction was that unblinking, blue-eyed stare.
I hoped for Zacairus' return to come quickly, and got to my feet with a glance about the area. There was no one in sight. Maybe he was only detained with duties and not from encountered trouble.
As I peered about Moatterra's smoldering center, I spied Marus across the way where I had left her.
Looking to Corbin, I handed him the pack. "Wait here for a moment," I said as I stepped away.
"Where are you going?"
His quiet asking surprised me. I did not think he would ever volunteer to speak. I turned to him and pointed in Marus' direction. "I will come right back." He did not respond.
I went on and jogged across the clearing to collect Marus, glancing around uneasily as I made my way to my mare. There was still no one to be found. Anxiety for Zacairus and the others began to build. Even though I was relieved to know Corbin was recovering well enough, I hated being separated from my company.
I told myself they were safe. Zacairus would soon come into view. Those thoughts settled my worries somewhat and I patted Marus' broad shoulder, then climbed into the saddle.
I guided Marus back on a longer path. Her pounding hooves avoided scattered bodies of the fallen. When we came to a clear area, I nudged her into a trot.
An uncanny calm blanketed the village's remains. What was once a peaceful garden now hosted countless unmoving bodies on its disturbed ground. Another Baldorian village had lost to Darien's unceasing assault.
I pushed the disheartening thoughts to the back of my mind as I reined Marus in beside Corbin. She was not quite stopped when I slid out of the saddle and landed with a hop.
"How are you feeling?" I asked as I hurried to the young man. He still held his hand to his stomach, but looked less pained.
"All right," he answered without looking to me.
I picked up Zacairus' pack and dusted the dirt and grass from its canvas. When I reached for the one Corbin held, he didn't release it.
Maybe he was not doing as well as I had thought. I knelt and worked to keep my concern from alarming him. Taking hold of his hand, I eased it away from the wound. It looked much better. "You are still hurting, aren't you?"
He did not give a reply. I studied him for a moment trying to think of anything more I could do to help him. My choices were meager. I released his hand and shook my head in disappointment. "I need to get you to the Healers."
"No," he finally spoke. His voice was hushed, but clear. "I don't need them."
Why would anyone reject the Healer's aid? I leaned back and peered at him, then gave my attention to the pack in my hand. Sorting through it, I found another bandage. I moved closer to tend to Corbin's wound, he gripped my wrist and I froze in place before I was near the injury. My eyes flashed up to his. "I only want to help."
"I am all right," he returned. Letting go of my wrist, he shifted in place. "I thank you, though."
I nodded once in understanding and tucked the bandage back in the pack. I doubted his confidence, and wanted more of an answer from him. "Do you think you can ride?"
"North." I managed a kind tone to hide my frustration with his demeanor. He loosened his hold on my pack and I snatched it up. I glanced in time to catch his hesitant reaction.
Corbin looked up at me and tracked my every move. I stood with both packs and walked to Marus. "I need to catch up with my company," I said as I strapped the packs to the back of the saddle. "You are welcome to come if you feel you are up to the ride."
When I looked to him, he turned his blank gaze to the decimated square. He did not act as if he was going to respond to my invitation.
"You can stay here if you like. Another division will be along shortly. They will be able to do more for you. There is a Healer with them. You ought to let them see what they can do to help." I did not want to leave him behind, but he was giving me nothing to go by. At that point, I felt I could do more in my place within my division.
With a shake of his head, Corbin looked back to me. "I don't want to stay here," he answered.
A movement across the green caught my attention. Two horses, only one with a rider, moved at a steady pace as he emerged from a lane and headed our way. His blue coat set me at ease. I could not help but smile when I realized it was Zacairus and the distance between us dwindled away.
"How did it go?" I called to him as he slowed his mount and accompanying horse.
"As well as can be expected." He returned a cheerful smile in spite of the gash over his brow, then gestured at Corbin. "How is he?"
"He will be better once he can get some rest."
Zacairus looked unsure as he dismounted. His wary gaze remained on Corbin as he came beside me and lowered his voice. "It is not pretty up there," he motioned to where he had come from. "You may not want to bring him any farther. We should take him to the Healers, then we can rejoin the others."
"I don't need to go to the Healers…" Corbin moved to get up, wincing and staggering, but going nowhere.
"You are all right, I get it!" I hurried to his side and cut him off. "No one is going to force you to go to the Healers." Zacairus was there in an instant. We helped the young man to his feet despite his weak protests and held him steady.
My comrade gave me a questioning glare. I shook my head to urge him to give us a moment. Zacairus' eyes narrowed, but he followed my lead.
We each got under an arm and guided Corbin to the waiting horse. He fought our assistance at first, pulling away when he found solid footing. Neither Zacairus nor I eased our hold on him. We kept at a slow pace and he calmed by the time we got him to the horse.
I held the reins and offered a hand as Zacairus helped him into the saddle. With a few grunts and puffs, Corbin eventually settled. He held fast to his bandaged stomach and reached for the reins, which I passed to him as soon as I realized his aim. His eyes clouded and he let out a groan before finally accepting our assistance.
"Take it easy," Zacairus said with a sigh. "No need to rush."
My comrade did not await Corbin's response before turning to me. He nodded toward Marus. "Dea, I need to speak with you."
I patted the chestnut's neck, then followed after Zacairus. I was only a few steps behind him when I flinched with a realization. "Is that not Jarl's horse?"
Zacairus glanced at my asking. He looked to be fighting back a smile. "Always the observant one," he answered under his breath. "Yes, Dea, that is Jarl's horse. He did not need it while he was processing prisoners."
"Oh," I said as I remembered to breathe, then moved to change the subject. "Prisoners?"
He puffed out a chuckle. "He will be happy to hear."
I slowed beside him and searched for the reason for his amusement. "Hear what?"
Zacairus shrugged with and peered back at Corbin. "I told him I left you here to look after a villager and that I was on my way to bring you back. He offered his horse in case we needed it. I said it was a bad idea, that you would right away worry about your officer. He said you would be too busy worrying over the villager. That means he is buying the first round when we get back to camp."
My fellow Validius referred to me as the division's mother because of my constant concern for each of them. Even though they made light of it, I knew they did not mind the attention. While there were those who continually teased me about it, such as Jarl and Zacairus, there were also those who were known to fret more than I, such as Cathal. He had the habit of worrying himself sick if he did not keep busy at all times.
Taking my arm, Zacairus turned me away from the young man waiting behind us. He kept his eyes on him as he lowered his voice. "Truthfully, how is he?"
One thing a Validius learns within their first days with the Fortis is how to recognize severity of wounds. They were expected to ease the load of the limited Healers who traveled with the companies. The less serious injuries could be treated with the supplies in one's pack. Once the critical patients were seen and stabilized, then the Healers would move on to the others. Zacairus knew as well as I did that the wound Corbin suffered was hardly shy of fatal.
"He needs help," I answered in a whisper. "I could only do so much, but he is strong. I think he will recover."
"Is he giving you a hard time?"
I shook my head. "No. He is leery of the Healers. I am not sure why, but he refuses to go to them."
The stillness in my friend's eyes told me of his doubts. Zacairus was not one whose suspicions I wished to provoke.
"What happened?" I asked with a nod to the north.
Zacairus shuffled before turning to me. "We had them surrounded. There was a group of maybe a dozen men within their force who moved to surrender. The others turned on them. We tried to break them up, but they were determined to cut one another down. By the time it was finished, only four of those who wanted to surrender were left standing. We pulled them out and had to drive the rest back. Our troops did not suffer any losses in the spat, but I cannot say the same for Darien's. They would not stand down." He concluded with a shrug and did a poor job of hiding his remorse for the situation.
Lowering my gaze, I pet his arm. The blue fabric of his sleeve was tainted with the familiar texture of dirt, dust, and blood. "They are all mad," I said as I tried to hold back a frown. "There was not much we could have done."
"I suppose not," he sighed.
I looked up to him and he met my pathetic smile with one of his own. "Now what?"
"We get to clean up another village," he answered with false excitement.
I puffed out a tired chuckle and gave a nod. "We should get going."
Zacairus caught my arm when I turned away. "What about him?" he asked as he gestured at Corbin.
"Bring him along. I don't believe there is much that disturbs him."
Zacairus gave a wondering expression. I found an authentic smile and shook my head.
With that, he walked with me to our horses. "Alton will have a better idea as to what needs to happen."
As I neared Marus, I looked to Corbin and was met by his unblinking gaze. I swung up into the saddle and peeked over at him. "We have you. There is nothing to worry about now."
He again kept quiet. I was becoming accustomed to his silence and was no longer perturbed by his refusal to converse.
Corbin's eyes left mine and followed Zacairus as he led his horse to where he found us. My comrade leaned down and picked up the sword and dark dagger that the young man had dropped.
Taking them in hand, Zacairus stood and turned to him. "Are these yours?"
His lips parted as if he were about to answer, but he only hung his head.
I nudge Marus closer to Corbin's side and answered for him. "Those are his."
He cleared his throat and shook his head before looking to Zacairus. His brows creased with distrust when he finally spoke up. "Only the dagger, sir."
Zacairus gave a nod as he turned to his horse. He strapped both the simple sword and jeweled hilt dagger to his own saddle. "I will hold on to them until you are back on your feet, if you don't mind."
The only answer from the young man was a single nod. His blue eyes shifted to the resting place of the dark blade, then to the reins in his trembling hand. There would be no argument from him.
Once in his saddle, Zacairus rode up next to me opposite Corbin. "How is your shoulder?" he asked as Marus stepped up the pace.
I ignored his dubious grin. "Perfect. Why do you ask?"
"Ah," he said as he gave his attention to our heading. "Only because you just found yourself more work, Mother Dea."
I swallowed a chuckle. "Good thing you have my back then, isn't it?"
"Always," he returned with a growing smile. He then leaned forward and looked around me to Corbin. "You are in good hands. Overzealous, but good," he offered in a serious tone.
I nudged Marus into a canter to block Zacairus' musing. "Don't listen to him."
He kept pace. "Are you calling me a liar?"
"Zacairus, you are going to scare him."
"Me?" he laughed. "I am simply saying he had better be prepared."
"Oh, and what for?"
Zacairus gave a quick tug to his reins and turned behind me to Corbin. "She may not look it, but she is unbelievably persistent."
I shot a glare in my comrade's direction, then shook my head. "Ignore him."
Corbin shifted and looked to Zacairus, who was laughing at my attempt to deter him. "So I've noticed."
"And you said I would scare him, Dea," Zacairus continued his teasing. "Sounds like you have beaten me to it."
"Whose side are you on?" I asked Corbin over my shoulder, hiding the smile I could no longer hold in.
His chuckle sounded relaxed. It was refreshing and comforting to hear.
I glanced to Zacairus to thank him for helping. His smirk told that he was well aware of his accomplishment. He peered over at the young man before returning his attention to our heading. I caught the shadow of knowing in his eye. Corbin was not doing as well as he was letting on.
He gaped at me in disbelief. "When were you going to tell me? Did you think I'd rat you out?"
I chuckled at how childish our conversation sounded. It was as if we were back in training camp. "Honestly, I hoped it wouldn't be noticed."
His expression turned to one of disappointment. "He was a dead man. I expected to come back and find you waiting with a body. Even still, I never suspected Star Tears. They're not on the front line enough to be a possibility. Zeke gave them to you, didn't he?"
It still felt too early to discuss it. I had no idea what kind of retribution I would be facing or if anyone else might be punished along side me. I never meant for others to be pulled into the mess. What was so wrong about saving a life?
"You're not going to talk about it, are you?"
"Zacairus, I don't want you to take any blame for this. Maybe …"
"I have your back and you have mine. I would have helped you. We could have figured something out."
I flashed a nervous smile to keep a frown at bay. I never doubted Zacairus' heart. He would stand beside me every step of the way. But we were from two different worlds. What I did while being veiled would not have any effect on my destiny. My path was cut for me before I was born. Zacairus' life was still unfolding. I couldn't let him risk his future for something I was going to do on my own.
"All right," he said with a pat on my shoulder. "Have it your way. Just let me know if there is anything I can do to help."
I shook my head, "Thank you, but … There is something you could do for me."
"Could you check in on Corbin? See if there is anything he needs. He didn't do anything wrong."
He puffed out a laugh and dropped his hands to his sides. "You are facing the wrath of our captain and a band of officials and you are still worrying about the guy you don't know anything about? Dea! Stop and think about yourself for a moment."
What was there to think about? "He didn't mention the Star Tears. He knew very well what they were and he didn't mention them. He wasn't the one who would have been in trouble for them, I was. Why didn't he turn me in?"
"He probably knows you saved his skin. You don't turn in the person for that."
"He doesn't know me."
"Perhaps he felt he owed you. You save his life, he defends your career. It's civil."
It was a goodness that was often reserved for the dearest of friends. Chances were we would never see one another again. Why would he care what happens to my standing within the Fortis. He didn't seem to be one to consider the welfare of a Validius. It was as if he resented everything about us.
"You are thinking too much again. Let it be."
The kindness in his eyes threatened to evolve into worry. I wished he wasn't able to get in my head so easily. He had a habit of scrambling my thoughts. "Yes, sir."
He raised a brow unimpressed. "Get back to work before Alton has you scrubbing the stables. The kitchen is loosing its sting."
I gave a nod and pointed at the pile of dishes that had doubled. "It's going to be a long night."
"But the plates will be oh so lovely for breakfast."
Zacairus jumped out of reach before I could push him away. Chuckling as he left, he snatched a heel of bread from the rack beside us. It was his usual prize for visiting me during my incarceration.