CHAPTER FIVE .
Beyond the Forest
The forest of dark oaks opened up and fell behind them as the scenery almost instantly changed into an airy forest. Tall grasses with heavy bent heads were the only visible underbrush in the new forest of slender aspens, birch, and hemlocks. All of it was white and mystically beautiful, blanketed by the undisturbed winter snow. Slanting sunlight streamed through the trees from the west, turning the snow into a shimmering carpet. It all seemed too beautiful. It felt surreal after the long darkness of the Forest of the Damned. They all released a sigh of relief.
Picking a spot, they slid off packs and set to building a camp. They set it up to stay for a bit. If Shannon and the others ever came out, they would need to be able to find the group without going too far. On top of that, Oirion needed rest as much as Theo did. Both were sore and exhausted. Ivan spent his time gathering wood, not only for the fire, but to build up defensive walls about the camp.
Oirion was able to walk, but it had been a little early to be fighting battles. He hurt from his head to his feet. He couldn’t help but think he would have life-long damage from the strain on his spine from the fight. The cold and the motionlessness of sitting in camp did not help; pain started to creep in as soon as he had stopped moving. He needed to walk. He needed to think.
He remembered the other night, staying up all night, talking to Tavia about nothing at all. He had learned nothing new about her, but had enjoyed the company nonetheless. More than he should have he told himself. Was it her company, though, or just someone’s company? He missed Jamie and desperately needed his partner’s counsel.
Walking apart from the group to an area just outside the camp, he watched the sun sink lower through the leafless trees. He wondered what Shannon was doing and how Riven was. He couldn’t help but wonder… if there had been no other priest watching, what might he have allowed himself to do, using this place as an excuse. He wrestled with the moral dilemma that he had to face. Did that simple farm girl have any idea what trouble she caused? He sighed and folded his arms over his chest. What’s to even say she felt the same way? Maybe it really was just this place. It wasn’t as if it was even truly her, he decided, but the cascade of moral questions she provoked.
As he stood watching, he saw a herd of sabets move through the snow, scratching for grass. They were big birds, at least five feet tall at their backs. The birds the Wooders had were nothing compared to these golden-feathered creatures here. They looked docile, but he imagined that their beaks could do a lot of damage. Even in their calm mood and slow walk they were grand creatures. He wondered what they would look like in full sun, with head crests up and wings flared.
Slowly, his mood settled down. The turmoil in his heart eased as he allowed himself to think of Jamie. He accepted the truth that he was building up a great deal of emotion as a result of blocking the feelings. He was not about to cry though, not here, not now… but he would later. He headed back to camp. The little company needed to stay together now more than ever. There was no way to know what was out there, and ‘alone in the dark’ was not the way to find out.
When he got back to camp, the group had mostly all gone to bed. It had been a long run and they needed to sleep. Tavia was already asleep with Travis curled up in her arms. Oirion wasn’t really sure that he wanted to sit up with her again. He had too much on his heart to want her prying into things right now. He had to admit, though, as he stood looking at her, that she had a power to her… something more than just female grace. It was in her hands, he decided. It was in the way she held her son, the way she built the fires and offered them food, her attitude… all manifested in her hands. Like the old bishop of his adolescence who had given him the strength to overcome a terrible childhood and to become the man he was today. It was the hands he watched and saw power in.
He eased himself down next to the fire. Ivan was up alone, on watch, but he looked exhausted. He wasn’t trained for this type of extended strain of fighting and worry. Oirion, on the other hand, was just so used to this that he hardly felt the strain of the last few months. The only thing that wore on him was the emotional grief of Jamie, the trouble with Shannon, and his debates about his vows. His body was sore from injury, but not the sort of sore and tired that Ivan was.
Oirion sat a moment, considering, and then began to scan around with true wizardry – not priest magics. With zombies as close as they had been, the last thing he wanted to do was cast any sort of divine magic. He rarely used the magics of his bloodline, but at this point it was foolish not to. He could see that the only things out there bigger than a cat were the sabets, and he doubted that they would bother the campsite.
“Go on to bed, Ivan. I’ll watch.” Ivan didn’t need to be told twice. The giant of a man got up at once and went to bed. Oirion sat up alone in the night. He let the fire go out and sat in the cold and dark. After awhile he got to his feet, walked apart, and found a place not too far away. Slowly, he knelt in the snow.
He did what he hadn’t done since they left the cave, and had rarely ever done out in the field. He prayed. He didn’t pray for strength or endurance. He prayed, instead, for truth and the will to accept it, whatever it might be.
The day was restless with everyone waiting, not knowing what was happening. It was starting to get late when Salma returned from an excursion. She hurried into camp out of breath, going to Oirion at once. Oirion was tense, questioning his decision to not go with Shannon. Weren’t his loyalties to his own Brotherhood first? Should he have gone to help Riven? He didn’t even notice her at first.
“There is a problem.” she said softly.
“Problem?” he asked, looking over at her perfect face. He couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to kiss a woman like that, what it would be like to have that hair covering your lover. He looked away, trying not to even think such things. What was wrong with him? First Tavia, now Salma?
“There are men coming this way. Nomads, I think, coming through the trees.”
“I don’t know, but they are coming pretty fast.”
“Let’s break camp,” Oirion said to the others as he stood.
“Any reason?” Ivan asked, rousing himself from a half sleep.
“Maybe,” Oirion said, leaving it at that.
They broke down the camp quickly and were just about cleaned up when the first of the men were seen through the trees. Salma crouched down and hid behind Ivan. Theo gripped the staff as the men swarmed up and pulled in around them with their horses blowing snot and reeking of sweat and leather. They seemed a rude, dark intrusion on the pristine white stillness of the forest.
The nomad’s horses were massive. Behind them, sabets ran along with packs tied to their backs, making this a large company with a lot of bodies and motion. They were untamed looking men with layers of fur, felt, and weapons. They wore jewelry of bone, tooth, and feather. They had tanned skin and long, dark braids down their backs. They were a wild looking group – warriors and proud of it.
The leader said something to his men as the small group gathered together in front of this formidable party. Oirion held his stance, with Travis tucked up against his legs. He tried to understand what was said to him, but he’d never even heard the language before, let alone spoke it. He shook his head.
“We don’t speak that language.”
One of the men saw Salma and pointed at her. He drew a javelin and made as if to throw it at her. Theo stepped in the way and hit his staff to the ground. The stone on top began to glow. He met the man’s eyes. It was a stand-off.
“Don’t,” Theo said in as cold a voice as he could, trying to sound as certain as Shannon would have been.
The first to speak said something and the man with the javelin drew back. The leader tried another language, but Oirion shook his head.
“Where’s Shannon when you need him?” Tavia said under her breath, a little concerned.
The elder dismounted and walked to Oirion. Talking, the leader of the wild men pointed back the way he had come. He shook his head, frustrated, again pointing back the way they had come and then pointed to Oirion’s sword. He saw the ring on Oirion’s hand, stopped, and looked up sharply. There was almost anger in his eyes. He asked something, his tone firm and his eyes hard.
“He wants to know if you’re a priest,” Travis said softly. A bit startled, Tavia looked to her son. Travis stepped forward and held up his hands. He spoke to the man. The big man listened to the child and then asked something. Travis looked to Oirion.
“He says that the demons’ masters are coming up through the lands and the nomads have gone to find help. He asks if you are a demon master, or do you wear that ring as merely jewelry.”
Oirion looked at the ring on his hand.
“I am a priest, not a demon master. I fight the things that deal with the dark powers.” He didn’t understand why the nomad would think evil of a man wearing a priest’s ring, but it bothered him.
Travis translated, and the man replied.
“He asks if you will help them then… if we will help them.”
“Do we? Or do we wait for Shannon?” Ivan asked.
“How far?” Oirion asked.
“A day,” Travis translated.
“Let’s do it,” Tavia said. “These are humans. We can get along with humans and we owe them our help – if our help is worth it. Isn’t that better than trying to get a place set up by winter?” She gestured around to show that winter was already there.
Oirion hesitated a moment, then nodded and picked up Travis.
“How do you talk, Travis?” he asked as the warriors around them relaxeed.
“With my mouth,” he said, pointing as if it was a silly question
“How can you hear, to talk?” Tavia asked.
“Shannon did it.”
“When?” Oirion asked.
“When you were hurt,” he said, unconcerned. The small boy looked back to the warriors, his arm around Oirion’s neck, and spoke to them at length. When he had finished talking, he looked to Oirion and smiled. “It’ll work out. Gods put us here to help them. They need us. We will help them win because Heaven wants them to.”
Most of the nomads were sent north to seek more aid, but several stayed to lead the company to where ever it was they were needed. They mounted up and headed out as fast as they could get the company sorted out and onto horses, with their meager packs strapped securely into place. Unexpectedly, Salma rode behind Theo, clinging to him as if her life depended on it. She didn’t even give him a choice, just jumped up and stayed there.
The nomads took them west at once and then south at a pace that was unrelenting. The horses and sabets just kept going without need for rest. Such endurance apparently was normal for them. It was not, however, for the company and they all were suffering from the ride long before it was over. After what seemed hours, they reached the edge of the forest, left the last of the trees and rode out into the open hills of the plains beyond.
The hills rolled away into great swaths of level grassland. There were long great snowdrifts blown up by the ceaseless wind. Behind them they could see the great mountains they had crossed over. The mountains were so massive that more of the mountains were above the tree lines than below them and most of that was lost in the clouds. The idea that they had all crossed them was almost unbelievable, even to them. Those mountains formed an impressive wall that was clearly a boundary that was rarely crossed. Ivan couldn’t help but think it was those mountains that held up the roof of the Barrier and that they must have come very close to it. He tried to comment on it, but the pace and the distance between them made it impossible to have any sort of conversation and he gave up.
It was well after dark when the nomads pulled up. They slowed to a walk and went up a wash that was all but hidden in the dark of night. Oirion moaned from the pain of the long, wild ride. It was all he could do to not cry. The members of the company were not horsemen and although he knew how to ride, Oirion was not ready for such a ride. All of them hurt, but they all held back complaints knowing Oirion had to hurt far worse than they did.
“I’m not so sure I will ever be able to walk again,” Ivan groaned.
“It’s not the walking I’m worried about,” Theo sympathized, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle. He looked to Oirion. “How about you?”
Oirion gave him a pained look, but said nothing.
Clouds had moved in, hiding the moons and the stars, leaving them in nearly total darkness. Still, the horses seemed to know the way and kept together, plodding up the wash without any trouble. They clattered up the stony slope and reached an area where the wind was cut off by hills that rose up on either side. Above them clouds ripped across the night sky, never really revealing the moonlight, but offering glowing orbs to show where the moons were.
Riven paused to look at them and tried to think where on the map they must be. If he was even close in his guess, the moons were saying that they didn’t need to worry about winter lodging as winter was nearly over. He tried to calculate the time at Ulam Ar and the crossing of the peaks, but now that it was over, it was hard to say honestly how long it had been. It all blurred into cold hungry nights and long painful days.
They climbed out of the shelter of the hills to emerge on a flatland where they were instantly bombarded with the full force of winter. The wind cut through their clothes and stole their breath. Even the Orcan furs were no match for the ice wind of the plains of the nomads. They moved back into a gallop and went on for several miles, cutting to the southwest. It wasn’t too far before they saw small lights sparkling over the contour of the land. As they went over the low rise of a hill they saw the lights spread out in a carpet lining the slopes of a gentle valley that seemed to be many miles across. They slowed as they entered the massive gathering of the nomads.
There were many tents, each with a little flag on the top. The flags flapped and snapped in the wind, making a sound rather like rain, Oirion thought, as he came out of a daze of cold and pain. The fires were not small as one might have thought when they had first glimpsed them on the far side of the valley. The fires were large and several tents were grouped about each fire, which served for heat as well as cooking. The size of the camp and numbers of the men had to be truly impressive, judging by the number of fires seen from a distance.
They rode through a huge flock of nested sabets and into the heart of the camp. Here the tents were larger. These tents, which were like none they had ever seen, were set up on a tripod of poles that held up the fabrics and leathers of the tent itself. The smaller tents on the outer rim had to be for scouts, flock guards and the like. But safe in the center would be the women, children and more important members of the tribes. Near the middle – as close as they could tell – they pulled up and were motioned to dismount by their escort. Oirion cried out with pain as he tried to dismount. Ivan was quick to pluck him off the horse and set him carefully on the ground. There were very few people outside, but the cold, the wind, and the dark were good reason not to be. Oirion tried to stand on his own, but Ivan kept a discrete hold of him.
An older man came out of a great tent that seemed to have been painted heavily, but was hard to see in the dark. He spoke to the leader of the group that had just arrived. The old one, maybe a chief or a holy man – they could not tell – was fantastic looking with far more feathers and oddments in his hair. They all blew and fluttered about his head, clinking against each other in the force of the wind. His hair was all white, his ears pierced many times with bone rings that ran all the way up, and his cheeks had black lines that might be tattoos running from one side to the other. His robes were layered furs and leathers, all beaded with a skill and density that elves would envy. He motioned to them to step out of the wind to the still side of the tent. The man asked a question. Whoever he was, he was important. Travis picked up his head from his mother’s shoulder and answered sleepily.
Travis pointed at Oirion, spoke his name, and then did the same to each member of the group. The feathered man nodded and then led them to a tent that was just a few down from his. He held open the flap and let them in.
Inside, it was warm. The walls and floors were lined with fur and there was a wide, almost flat, stone bowl burning in the center. The smoke was channeled up through a hole in the top of the peaked roof making the room warm, but not too smoky. There were blankets and hides piled on the floor as beds. Additional light shone down from a small brass oil lamp that hung on a long chain from the ceiling. The old man spoke to Travis, and then he left them to rest.
“He says we can stay here – that its owner died yesterday, so we can have it now.” The boy went to the pile of blankets, fell down, and was asleep at once. Tavia went to him, gathered her son in her arms, and curled up under a blanket with him.
“You can let go of me now, Salma,” Theo said. She shook her head.
“No,” she said in a scared whisper.
“Salma, let go!” he said, pulling free. His tone was harder than anyone had ever heard him use before. She shrank back. Theo went to the blankets, divided them, and chose a place to sleep. He pulled off his boots and laid down, holding his injured arm to his chest, his staff tucked in the crook of his elbow. The others didn’t wait much longer to do the same. They were just settled when Oirion blew out the light.
“Theo,” Salma whispered.
“What?” he asked wearily.
“Can I sleep beside you?” she asked timidly. Theo sighed.
“Just don’t touch my arm,” he said. She took her place beside the slight man and cuddled up against him.
Travis woke Oirion far earlier than Oirion wanted to wake, but the boy shook the man’s shoulder until Oirion finally peeled open his eyes.
“What is it?” he asked, trying to wake his mind and recall where he was and how he had gotten there. He rubbed his gritty eyes and focused on the young boy.
“They want you at the fire,” Travis said. Oirion looked at the boy who was suddenly able to talk. His voice was so small, innocent, and fragile to have been through what they had endured on this trip. He pushed himself up. Travis was ready, dressed up in his gear. He offered Oirion’s fur coat to him with a little smile.
“I think they will have food and something to drink.”
“I hope so,” Oirion said, taking the coat from the boy. He carefully got to his feet, forcing his body to move. Trying not to wake the others or to jar his sore body too much, he worked the coat on with clenched teeth. He felt a moment of panic when he didn’t see all the company here. Then, he remembered they were still in the forest. He had to reason to think that he might never see them again at all. He had to just put it aside and concentrate on the moment.
He followed Travis out of the door and picked the boy up on his arm. The snow was well packed here, but it had become a habit to just pick Travis up whenever he was down. Travis pointed out the way through the tents toward a larger one, not too far away.
In the daylight he could see that the tents about him were all painted with details along the bottoms and along the door seams. Most were animal totems in blues and blacks but a few had bolder colors and more details. He guessed the paint had more to do with rank than fashion. There was obvious care and meaning in the paintings. Even the clothes these men wore seemed to show rank by oddments of feathers, bones, and fringes of leather.
Outside of the tent they headed toward several younger nomads who waited for them. They all stood proudly with their chest puffed up at the honor of being there. They wore very little in the way of trinkets, or clothes, in Oirion’s mind. It was rather cold out here and the young men had exposed skin on their arms and chest. If they were cold, they were too proud to show it.
As they approached, the boys held the round tent flap open to let them inside. This tent was larger, far beyond any others Oirion had seen. It was more than painted. Bones, snail shells, and stones were part of the detailed artwork along the bottom of the tent. The sides were painted blue all the way to the top, with stars in a grid of circles and lines that left no doubt they held significance. Oirion set Travis down and ducked in. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the low light of the embers at the fire. Travis took hold of his hand with a smile and moved to the right, happily taking a seat beside the warrior seated at the fire. Oirion followed his tiny guide and sat next to him.
The other men were in some sort of prayer that ended with a grunt from them all. Then, more wood was added to the fire. It caught and raised enough light to see them all clearly.
There were twelve men about the fire, dressed in different nomadic styles. Even Oirion could see they were all leaders of different tribes. Each seemed to wear the mark of a different animal totem. The old man they had spoken to the night before appeared to be the Raven Lord.
The eldest of them wore very few ornaments, in contrast to the younger men at the fire, but his wrinkles were deep and strong. He nodded and began to talk. Travis listened for awhile and then spoke.
“They are talking about their battle strategy… how best to fight the church men. They are seriously outnumbered and they worry that they will simply not have enough men to hold the ford. They have already sent a small army downstream to cross the river and try to flank the enemy. They have been gone several days. They pray that the men are not discovered.
“They are hiding most of the men here so all that the enemy can see are the few that show themselves. They have a small camp set up for those men near the river. Right now, the men at the river camp are shooting at anything that gets too close, hoping to hide the true numbers and lure the church into bad tactics.
“They have built a great spear trap in the river made of many poles, some long, some short, all sharpened like spikes. They’ve been lowered into the river and, with a pull of a rope, can be raised up to cover the river bottom… except for where they want the battle – right in the ford.” He looked up at Oirion to make sure he was making sense.
“The water above and below is too fast and too deep for men, or even horses, to swim, and there’s a massive waterfall downstream. Swimmers would go over if they tried to swim it. Upstream, swimmers would just get washed down and over the spikes.
“It allows the nomads to control the direction that the church army can attack from, and will also slow their numbers as they stumble across the river. The nomads would have preferred no battle, but that is not an option. Control is better than nothing.” Travis shrugged and then listened for a little while.
“The basic plan is to let the bulk of the church army begin to move across the river, let them reach this shore, and then charge them – driving them back into the water. Once the nomad cavalry has the church men back in the water, the horsemen fall back and let the archers along the river open fire. Then, they pull back and wait for the next charge.
“Hopefully, we get to do it a good number of times so that the men downriver will have had time to get into place and hit the church in a well-timed strike. They might even have time to divide their force and hit them from both sides, but that’s wishing for a lot.
“When the second army engages the church army, the heavy cavalry will cross the river and hit them as hard as they can” Travis said. The elder spoke to the boy at that point. Travis listened carefully
“They want to know what you think about it, and what you can offer.”
“The enemy will have power, a great deal of it,” Oirion said. “If they have competent commanders, the defense will not hold for long. As for what I can offer… it’s not much against men with the same training as I have, but I can offer my sword at least.”
Travis relayed the statements to the men. It was starting to sink in to Oirion how difficult it was to try to communicate with a different race, not having the benefit of Shannon’s magic. The men nodded and then spoke back to Travis. Travis asked a few questions and then nodded at their reply.
Travis motioned Oirion outside and they exited the tent. The other men came out behind them. The meeting was over.
“You are supposed to take Ivan and go down to the river to help there. He thinks that by seeing you, the men on the river bank will be encouraged and feel that they have divine aid in this battle. I have to go talk to the others. They have places to be as well. Oh,” he smiled and looked up at Oirion, “I know where to stop to get food for everyone on the way back.”
The landscape was stunning here. To the east, the great mountains rose up in fantastic glory. Hills rolled away from them where the land had buckled in the creation of the mountains. Rivers made of melted snow and glacier ice rushed down from the high peaks. They joined together, widened and slowed as they poured into the lower hills and plains beyond.
The great river rushed deep and wild until it reached this place. Here it widened to nearly half a mile. Little more than knee deep, it twisted to bend to the south then back west again. Wide and relatively shallow, it offered the only place to cross the river.
Deep bushes, yellow and old with the past winter, formed a dense cover along the banks that rose up steeply along most of the river. Oirion saw at once what Travis was trying to explain. This one section along the miles of river was a shallow area of low banks that would offer an easy crossing. From Oirion’s vantage on the top of the hill, he could see the river twisting off to the west and getting far narrower, forming very steep banks. Mist lingered in the hills on the other side of the river, hiding the army they faced for now. Just as well he thought, he needed a moment to just breathe.
His eyes went back to the mountains they had left. Farther south than they had crossed, almost due east, he could see a strange glow that was lingering even after the sun had risen above the mountains and into the clouds above. What he had taken as sunrise now looked more like a forest fire. He wondered if Shannon had anything to do with it. Not likely, he reasoned…. the man avoided fire like most men drew close to it.
He looked back with a faint smile just as the mist broke on the far side. Across from him, on a hill ridge lower than his, but the highest on the other side, he saw the flags of the army they faced.
He felt sick at once. He stared at them in disbelief. Not only were they undeniably church forces, there were far too many. He counted sixty flags, but that was not what troubled him. The flags were not those of cohorts of a single nation (a hundred men), but were those of legions, a thousand men each. They were about to be invaded by an army of many nations, far too vast a number for this task. He counted and recounted, and wondered if they were fewer than portrayed. Why in God’s name would that many men be gathered for any reason?
His hope dropped when the mist gave way and showed the army on the far side. He could see the legions setting up. The ranks of men, the order to them, and the skill demanded to command so many men was almost incomprehensible. He wanted to throw up.
He looked back to the tents of the nomads hidden along the backside of the hill and wished he could just tell them to run. They had no hope. He clenched his teeth and headed down the mountain to where he could see Ivan waving at him. Half numb with despair, he walked to the giant.
“This is really an ingenious design,” Ivan said excitedly. “Not a bit of magic to it, no scan will pick it up, and the water itself will protect it. They have it on rails that run along the river bottom with short wicked spikes along each rail. They are all on pivots and sections. Destroy one and the others remain. You should come and see.” He grabbed Oirion’s arm and led him down to the river. At the water’s edge he went on about the building of the spikes and how they had laid them so men and horses could cross right now, but when needed, the spikes could be pulled up with surprisingly few men. He spoke of how far they had-to-of brought the lean trees used to form the rails, and how much time ahead they must have laid it all in place. Oirion tried to care.
“Oirion! Are you hearing any of this?”
“Yah, yah, I hear you, Jamie,” Oirion said.
“Oirion,” Ivan said seriously.
Oirion looked over at the man. Even when on his knees, Ivan was slightly taller than he was. Ivan truly was a massive man. He had to remind himself that his companion was the behemoth that Ezeerens were said to be. He smiled at his friend.
“Sorry, Ivan, it just seems pointless. Do you have any idea what we face?”
“Yes, I do,” Ivan said, “but it doesn’t mean we can’t admire the skill of these people. If Ezeer had built such, I can think of several battles that would’ve been very different. Ezeer might even still be free if we had used such inventions. ”
“Sixty full banners! Six-hundred diamond banners! Do you know what that means?”
“Sixty full legions,” Ivan said seriously, not flinching or looking away. He did not guess. He knew. “Sixty legions, with all their cohorts in rank.”
“The nomads have what … maybe a thousand?”
“Closer to ten,” Ivan corrected.
“Ten-thousand against sixty-thousand, Ivan! Do you see the math of sixty-thousand against ten-thousand? They have no hope!”
Ivan got to his feet and brushed the frozen dirt off his knee.
“I am worth a thousand fools, so make it eleven-thousand.”
“Ivan!” Oirion appealed for sanity.
“So, what, Oirion? You want to leave them? You want to go join the other side?” He gestured across the river. “Go then… cross.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Oirion pleaded to his friend, wanting him to suggest that they leave, unable to do it himself. “Sixty-thousand, Ivan.”
“I know,” Ivan said, “but, as Travis says, heaven is on this side.”
He moved to find a place to sit on the slope where they stood, waiting for the day and whatever it might bring.
Oirion stood there for a moment, sick, and then moved to be near the Ezeeren, for whatever it was worth. For the old man to have said “they were out-numbered” was the worst understatement that Oirion had ever heard.
Oirion and Ivan remained at the water’s edge, in position to pull ropes that would lift some spikes. Oirion couldn’t believe that he was about to actually battle against other priests… that he was about to be a traitor.
“You alright?” Ivan asked Oirion after awhile, glancing up from picking his fingernails clean with a tiny little jeweled dagger.
Oirion shrugged. “I guess.”
“A few months ago you would have killed us for being on this side of the river, no matter who else was on the other side. This can’t be easy for you… sitting with the heretics.”
“The Church I belong to does not force itself on others. Men will come to the Church as their souls are ready, not by the point of a sword.”
“Don’t know your Church so well do you, Oirion?” Ivan said sadly.
“I would not go to war with a native people, Ivan.”
“No? But you obey the words of a man who would? That is blindness and hypocrisy.”
Oirion turned his back on his friend. He did not need to have this made messier by Ivan. But he knew the man was right. He swallowed the uneasy tension and prayed that before it all went down he would know what side to be on, without any doubt. But he did not think it would be that easy.
“Well, if it’s any comfort, Oirion, I know how it feels to look across a river at men who were your brothers a day before.” Ivan folded his great arms over his chest. “The sad part is… they don’t look upon you the way you look upon them. As you meet their eyes in battle, you will see that it’s true. They are no better than vampires and ghouls right now. They are mindless servants of a master who would send them to destroy a people.”
It wasn’t a comfort to hear, but Oirion was glad he did not stand alone.
Travis escorted his company to the tents near the far end of the camp where the children, extra horses, and women were in a second camp. Travis made Theo pry Salma off of himself. She had to stay with Tavia. Once Tavia had a hold of the very unhappy sphinx, Travis took Theo back to what seemed to be the very center of the great camp. There were several old men waiting for them. Theo could not tell if any of them were men they had met the night before, but Travis seemed to know where he was going and what he was doing, so Theo trusted the boy. Travis walked up to them and spoke to them briefly, then handed Theo over, bowed, and ran off.
The tent was large, just as large as the chief’s tent. It was painted all over with white stars and black suns. White stones were set into the leather about its skirt and black ones along the top. The old men ducked inside, motioning Theo to follow. Inside Theo found that it hummed with energies and smelled sweet with incenses. Several men and two women were already gathered here. They sat around a fire. They were all old, white-haired, and commanded respect. Theo felt that at once.
“This is he?” the oldest man asked from his seat on the floor. Theo understood them in here, but tried to hide his surprise.
“The child spoke so,” the man who had brought Theo said.
The old man looked at Theo critically. “You are young.”
Theo didn’t reply to that. He wouldn’t have even if he had the words at his command. One of the old women spoke up. “Come and join us if you are a Worker of the Way.”
Theo walked over to the fire and gently set the butt of his staff down. He had discovered hitting the butt on anything was what brought the staff to life. It required no thought on his part, just the motion, but when Ivan tried it, nothing happened. It responded only to him.
“Is it real?” the other old woman asked, peering at the staff.
“That yours?” the old man asked, pointing. Theo nodded once. He had learned by watching Shannon that sometimes the smaller the movement, the more it said. Silence was also a powerful tool of communication.
“Prove it,” another man said, clearly portraying doubt and distrust. Theo looked at him coolly, trying to do his best ‘Shannon’ impression, then he hit the butt on the floor. The claws snapped open and the stone began to glow a soft blue light. It had only glowed red before. He wondered at the change, but didn’t look up. They all looked impressed and nodded.
“Be welcome,” the oldest looking man said, bowing his near-bald head. “Let us begin.”
The other men left the room and the old people began to strip off their clothes. Theo wasn’t quite sure if he was happy about what they were doing. The eldest man looked at him questioningly.
“Do you not know our ways?” he asked. Theo raised an eyebrow, looking at the man’s wrinkled little body and half smiled, shaking his head just a little – as if to say “apparently not.”
“Ah,” the man said. “We paint power on our skin. That way, when we go to war, there is no need for us to shield from the enemy. No need to think of certain spells during battle…. they are already there – on our skin. The drawing of them will take time and many chants. We must begin now. As you learn the words, join in. I will draw for you. Come, come, take it off.”
Theo did as he was instructed and set the staff and his clothes aside. At least he had the best body in this group – it wasn’t like he was undressing next to Ivan or something.
They sat on thick soft rugs that were laid out on the floor, took out boxes of paint, and then began to chant and draw on each other.
Theo felt the pricking of the little stick they used to paint on him with, and the ink seemed to burn his skin. He tried not to shiver, but it was hard not to. It was cold in the tent and yet, he could feel sweat on his body. Someone threw something on the fire… it began to smoke, filling the tent with a blue haze. It was clearly some sort of drug. Theo felt himself start to detach and wander.
On some level he knew that he was chanting with them, even though his logical mind knew that he did not know the words. He took up a little stick and, as he was drawn on, drew on an old woman before him in the circle. He let his hand move as it would and gave no thought to the designs, or where they went. How long he drew, or was drawn on, he had no idea. It might have been a few minutes, it might have been centuries.
For once his mind was able to spill away into the powers and stunning art of his magic without the sick sensations of the bloody demands of it. For the first time, he was free to work it in holy ways and his heart gave into it fully.
After they put the little sticks away, they stood and rubbed oil into each other’s skin, and into their own. They dressed in black leather pants that were so tight the oils alone, he thought, allowed them to slide the pants on over their painted bodies. They put on sleeveless surrcoats that were slit to the waist, to show their painted chests – even the women’s were open enough to show the center of their chests. The leather on them was tight, though, and almost made the old women look young again.
They had their hair pulled back and tied up. Over their heads they pulled on masks that were crafted of the skulls of different creatures. The skulls were painted black and had long, black horsehair to hide the back of their own heads. They put wide belts on over the heavily-embroidered surrcoats. It was all very fantastic and impressive, and gave Theo the feeling that he was wandering in a dream. It just did not seem real.
When they were all dressed, they stood together around the fire and held hands a moment and said farewell ‘in case they didn’t meet in this life again’.
Theo let his eyes lose focus and he stood in the tent of his Sanctuary. He was dressed not in the fantastic paint and oils, but in the green robe of his family. He ducked outside into the sun. After the long cold and the travel through the barrier lands, the heat of the sun would feel good. However, it was different… it was not what he expected.
Summer had passed. The sun was lower in the sky, the sweet fragrance of the fall grasses filled the air. The grass was taller, turning golden, and waving in a breeze that swirled around him. For some reason it all struck Theo as very odd.
He stood awhile just watching the wind in the grass until he noticed that before him was a man. Theo wasn’t sure how long the man had been there, or if he really was there at all. For a moment, he thought it was a ghost of Dave, but as soon as he thought it, he knew it wasn’t.
The figure bowed slightly to him in greetings. Theo tried to focus on it, but the more he tried, the less it seemed to be there. He tried instead to relaxe and just let it form itself as the Sanctuary allowed it to. The form seemed spun of blue cords of energy, the cores of its soul lit up with an inner, shimmering light. It held out its hands, offering something to Theo.
“Who are you?” Theo asked.
“I am the wren on the tower window sill; I am the spider in the garden on the shimmering web; I am the lone wolf on the mountain cliffs; I am the keeper of the Hall of the Dead; I am the First and the Last,” the Being whispered, yet power rippled out through the air. Theo felt it like heat, like perfume, like a touch that went through him. As each image was whispered, he felt the moments flicker – returning to the company of those little things that had given him the strength to defy his mother.
The Keeper of the hall of the Dead was not an image that he knew, though. It was ancient and deep, spun of the power of the great Throne of Purt. Darkness, mystery, and the weight of a thousand tons of stone above him filled his mind. The First and the Last images brought up so much more than he even had the words to understand at the moment, but it was power and it was not demonic, as he may have feared.
“Why are you here?” Theo asked, half afraid of what it would say, already preparing to defend Shannon.
“I bring you a gift,” the figure said, “not of myself. I alone am able to bring it. You have built your Sanctuary on the Angelic Power of Purt, allowing me to come to you. This is a gift from the mother of one I cannot name.”
Images filled his mind. A mother’s love wrapped around him, touched his heart as he had never felt. He could feel loving hands tracing the hair of a beloved child. He could smell soft perfume, feel warm gentle touch, and hear the voice echoing a lullaby from far away.
“Why?” Theo asked.
“To aid you, to give you support.”
Theo slowly put his hand out. Never was it a good idea to reach out and grab an offered gift in such realms. Such action could, and often did, bind you to the benefactor. The gift, however, was gently placed in Theo’s hand.
He looked down in his hand and saw a small egg. It was swirling with the same energy as the figure before him.
“What’s in it?” Theo asked.
“A soul,” the figure said. The image of an infant, pure, new-born, and sleeping securely, filled his mind. “She has none other whom she can trust to guard it well. Do you accept? Will you aid her? She begs you.”
Theo could feel it – the mother’s plea – the desperate need to shelter and hide the soul within. Here, built on the Power of Purt that none seemed able to obtain (but, somehow, Theo had), the soul would be safe… safe beyond the reach of demons or the searching eyes of Gerome. She wanted the soul to go where it would be able to emerge and grow.
There was so much more, but his mind just could not grasp it all. He struggled with the plea.
“Please,” the Being whispered. Theo could almost see the woman sobbing on the floor, begging him to aid her, to protect this little soul that meant so very much to the world. “I could not even protect my own sons,” Theo objected, unable to prevent his own tears from forming. “What if I fail?”
“There is no one else. Evil must not have him.”
Theo looked to the egg, almost seeing the infant within it.
“I go to war. I may die soon. But if this is the wish of Purt, then who am I to refuse?”
The Being bowed and grew solid for a moment. He was so familiar that Theo almost knew him.
“Thank you,” he said with a young man’s voice. His golden curls caught in the wind for a moment and then he scattered as a mixture of seeds, butterflies, and bees. Theo stood still, watching them all spin and float away. He looked back to the egg in his hands and then carried it back inside. Carefully, he nestled it in the blankets even as he returned to the tents of the nomads.
Getting up slowly with his mind too full to think of anything at all, he took up his staff. Following the last painted elder he went outside where black horses were waiting for them. The identical stallions were saddled and ready, wearing hard leather armor. Each was painted with designs clearly the same as the designs of the elders, and they all had long flowing saddle-blankets matching the shaman’s surrcoats. Trinket laden ribbons were tied in the tails and manes of each. The painted nomads each took their respective horse and mounted up.
As they took to the saddle, they heard the first faint yelling of the battle commencing in the distance. Riding together to the hilltop, they reached the crest in unison to be seen as one force, before they split up and charged down the hill into battle, to counter the powers of the priests of the foreign god.
Theo had never felt like he belonged somewhere more than now. Never had he felt more like he had come home and that this was what he was supposed to be doing. Power warmed his skin, flowed though his body, and shivered in his staff. He drew a deep breath and headed down the slope to go to war. All else was set aside.
The church army stood along the river’s edge – silent and deadly, like a sleeping dragon. It was a force so massive that it lined the edge of the river for over a mile in both directions and stretched back into the distance as far as the eye could see. Finally, after what seemed like an endless wait, they began to march forward. The nomads remained silent and watched them come. The first rank of men – priests on foot and paladins on horses – in their red uniforms with their black capes and gold sashes across their chest, hit the water all at once.
Up and down the river, nomads stood up from their hiding places in the bushes on the banks. They pulled on the ropes, raising the spears that made it impossible for the church army to avoid the narrow ford. Ivan alone pulled three of the ropes to lift a section by himself. His great arms flexed and rippled with power even as men about him grunted to raise the spikes. Ivan laughed. His delight in the design was very clear. Oirion couldn’t help but wonder how it would be to command an entire army of Ezeerens, or more awesome yet, to try and stand against one.
They didn’t have to wait long for the army of the church to discover the nasty surprise under the water. The horses were the first to go down. They squealed with the shock of the spikes in their soft feet. The glorious looking paladins tried to stay mounted, but most simply hit the water, falling into the men about them with no dignity at all. Oirion winced for the pain to the horses, but it had to be done.
It was only a moment before the rangers and clerics on foot all felt the spikes as well. A few managed to jump back, but many cried out in pain as the sharper spikes shot up through their boots and into their feet. The ranks behind them had to aid them out of the water.
In that moment, the army stalled. The nomads showed a measure of their force for the first time as several hundred more men rose from the reeds of the banks and fired a hail of arrows at the church men in the river. An orderly advance turned to chaos with men and horses the price for arrogance. Oirion took the bow he had been given and held it, but he could not fire it. He looked to Ivan for support and watched the man snap off arrows, not at those who were in the river, but those farther back, straining the bow until it finally broke in his hand.
From the back ranks, where the most powerful and highest ranking men would be, came a holy shield. The great power gathered across the river and far back from the danger was able to slowly raise the shield up from the river to protect the army trying to escape the arrows of the nomads. Many arrows dropped as they hit the shield, floating harmlessly down the river, but not all. In spite of the shield, the nomads were not shy about using their arrows and many struck their targets. The commanders at the front had no choice but to order the men to pull back and regroup. More time was bought.
“Come on, Oirion,” Ivan said. “We will want to be in the middle.” He put a great hand on Oirion’s shoulder. “They will need both of our powers there.”
Oirion let the giant guide him up the river, toward the only place the army of the church would be able to cross. Ivan took an easy stance near the river bank, so close to the lower banks that Oirion wondered if they were too close and might get trampled by horses when the nomads charged down the gentler slope here.
“Do you think they are dumb enough to send the men through here?”
“They aren’t dumb, Ivan,” Oirion said. “They are arrogant.”
“How will they know where to cross?” Ivan asked curious, scratching at his chin.
“They can scan the energy left from the injuries to the men’s feet and find the safer route. It will take time, as the blood and pain will be washed in the river, but a cleric of enough rank and skill will be able to find it.”
“I wish I had something to eat. You think we have time for me to go get something?”
“If you run,” Oirion said.
“You want some, too?” Ivan asked with a grin.
“I think I’ll be alright.”
“Hold my place then. I’ll be right back,” Ivan turned and raced up the mountain. Oirion had to laugh a little at that. Many might think that Ivan was running with an important communication perhaps, but no, the big man was hungry.
Oirion stood at the river, unable to talk to the nomads around him. With Ivan gone, he felt terribly alone. He watched the men across the river pull the wounded into rows. They were moved into order so that they would take up as little area as possible and not disrupt the cohorts at all. The healers would see to them there.
He sensed the scans of the clerics as they were seeking the weaknesses in the river; soon they would find it. Oirion wished Dave and Riven were here. He wondered if Shannon would have entered a battle he could not win. It would be odd to see Shannon in such a role. He suspected that if the others escaped the woods they would not come here at all, but would circle around instead. The thought was rather sad. Besides Jamie, Oirion had very few friends. The assortment of people he had found himself with had seemed to become friends and he wished they were with him. All of them except Shannon, he had to tell himself quickly.
The clerics had begun to focus on the ford when Ivan returned with meat and flat bread. He offered some to Oirion.
“I know you said you didn’t want any, but trust me, you’ll wish you had eaten later if you don’t now.”
Oirion knew he would, so he made himself eat with the big man. They both took seats on the bank and watched as the commanders reformed the legions for a crossing. They placed the fastest footmen at front, priests along the side ranks, and paladins to charge up once the ford was found safe.
Oirion suddenly felt sick as Ivan stood up from his meal to take aim. His bow was broken, so he grabbed Oirion’s. He shot at a man who was trying to figure out how to drop the spikes. Ivan swore in Ezeeren at his bad shot. He had got the man in the leg. Another archer shot the same man in the chest. The wounded man struggled for a moment to pull the arrows out, then toppled forward into the river, drifting out into the current. Oirion’s stomach threatened to come up. He noticed the man had a gold ring on his hand as he floated by, staining the water about him red.
Oirion looked back to his small meal and tried to pray, tried not to think about it, and tried not to get sick. It was a wait that seemed to take forever and yet, not nearly long enough for Oirion. The day was pushing into its tail-end when the charge came. The men raced down the bank and hit the river in a run.
The nomads made no move and allowed them to cross. The advancing army reached the bank and began to race up. Ivan looked over at Oirion with a wicked grin, knowing what was about to happen. From behind the hill the nomad cavalry appeared at a full charge. The thunder of hooves of several hundred horses rumbled and shook the ground with such force that it was heard over the roaring of the men at the river bank.
The churchmen looked up to see the force of cavalry charging at them. The expressions on their faces said very clearly they had not expected to face such a force. They came to a staggering halt just in time to become perfect targets for the nomads. The fantastic and exotic looking warriors leaned out, or stood up in their stirrups to shoot their re-curve bows at the men that they were charging at. Their aim was impressive at any rate, and to have it so skilled at such speed while mounted made Oirion appreciate them a great deal and to have immense respect for these people.
“Draw your sword, brother,” Ivan said, as the cavalry charged down the hill. “It’s time to show what sort of man you are.”
Oirion looked at the big man beside him. This was not that easy. Ivan put a big hand on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort.
“It was not a churchman who held onto you as you drifted down the river, or a churchman who healed your broken body. Maybe, to be the best priest – the priest you were meant to be, is to draw your sword and fight now. Maybe you should trust that heaven put you here for a reason.”
Oirion nodded and drew his blade. All right then. He accepted the assurance that he was on the right side of the river.
Ivan charged forward, his battle roar deeper and louder than humanly possible. He was wielding two full-sized, two-handed swords like they were barely more than toys. Those that came near him were met with his massive form rushing at them in a blur of steel, the shallow water not even slowing him down. He sliced through the enemy two or three at a time, effortlessly, gleefully. It almost seemed as if his attacks were purposefully causing maximum blood spatter. He was covered in it, bringing terror to his foes as he continued swiftly through them, laughing and shouting the entire time.
Oirion remained at his post on the edge of the bank. Many priests engaged him and the nomadic warriors as the rest funneled past them. Beliefs and faith set aside, when the moment of truth came to bear, Oirion did what he was trained to do. He drew up his energy and empowered his sword, swinging it skillfully into the oncoming attackers. He instantly dispatched any that came within his reach. Feeling sick to his stomach at the thought of the priests, dead and dying by his own hand, he did what he must. He concentrated on the greater good and the truth of it all.
The nomad’s cavalry thundered towards the church army in another charge, not slowing as the horses plowed through men who were trying to fall back, their own forces keeping them from retreating. Nomadic archers began to fire from both sides, sending perfectly aimed shots into the men crossing the river and into the backs of those who attempted to retreat. The water was stained red and many bodies began to float downstream.
The skirmish between the footmen and the nomad cavalry was short and bloody. It lasted only until the horses reached the river when they veered aside and cut free. The church seemed to just watch and gage their enemy. The few men who were still trying to make it back to the far riverbank found the arrows of the nomad archers in their backs or Ivan returning, slicing through all in his path.
Oirion was not accustomed to massive battles, only small skirmishes with very few involved. He had never seen, or felt the power of such a fight… and here he was right at the front. He was so close that he could smell the horses’ sweat, the blood, and the churned up river mud. He was blood-spattered and shaky with the effects of adrenaline. He breathed it down and struggled to keep his body and mind under control.
The initial charge of the church was crushed under the nomad warriors and their horses. The nomad cavalry had already withdrawn out of range and was regrouping back on the hill ridge. The first charge of the nomads had worked.
“That went well,” Ivan said with a pat to Oirion’s back. “From here on out though, many more men will die in each attack. You ready to get truly bloody?”
“No,” Oirion said, feeling very sad about the whole thing. “I do not want to do this at all.”
“Sometimes,” Ivan said seriously, “battles and the things we must do are not about what we want, but what heaven demands of us. It’s done in order that others may live in grace. Keep your sword drawn, Oirion. Remember, you are a Lord of Purt, descended from a Line of Kings with the grace of your God on your side. True men will see that and step down.”
The orders were reissued and the church pushed forward again. Oirion watched. He was a bit confused as to why they would try it again. They had to have something ready to aid them in this. He drew his sword, but also cast out a scan to feel for whatever it was they were planning. It seemed far beyond sanity as the men rushed the river again. The nomad cavalry hit them just as before. The nomads lost a few horses and some horsemen were killed, but the second charge of cavalry was almost as effective as the first.
The nomad horsemen withdrew as the archers showered the river ford with arrows. The bodies of priests and clerics floating down the river began to pile up in areas. With little hope of success, the church army used the same tactic and charged the ford a third time. It seemed an incredibly stupid strategy to the nomads. Didn’t the commanders see that this attack wasn’t going to work so well?
This time, however, horse-mounted paladins, flying the banner of the Church, joined the charge across the river. Some were equipped with lances that, once their horses hit the far bank, they lowered in unison. The clash between cavalries was awesome. The thunder of the nomads crushed into the heavy horses of the ancient order of paladins.
The paladin lances found a number of nomad horses, many of which reared and attacked, using their hooves to kill the ones behind the spears, even as they went down. The nomad horses were far better trained. Many of them danced between the heavier armored horses of the church, ducking past many of the lances. Nomad warriors took the heads off of many mounted churchmen with wicked skill. The armored paladins were no match for the nomad swordsmen. There was very little sword-to-sword fighting and those bouts were short. Once again, as the nomad horsemen reached the river, they veered aside to circle and regroup above.
Ivan was one of the first to move once the horsemen had passed them. He charged in with another roar. His great sword chopped a man in half as he continued through the melee. Oirion followed his friend into the rush, moving to fight the rangers and fallen paladins who were on foot. The archers along the bank held back another advance as many church men tried to rush the high end of the ford. There were none left to run back from the river this time – all were dead. What paladin horses survived, the nomads were quick to grab and take back up the hill. Again, the church was repelled.
The fourth charge came almost immediately. It was done in much the same way, but Oirion knew that this time had to be different. He tried to sense what it was, but expected it to come from the far side of the river. He was shocked to feel the magic just a moment before it manifested. This magic wasn’t priest magic; it was pure wizardry, and it was set up. In the last charge, points must have been dropped, as from many places pillars of fire shot up. Pillar to pillar, a wave of fire raced to form a sudden, blazing wall of red and orange that cut the nomad cavalry off. For a moment, Oirion felt his heart stop as the force of churchmen surged forward with a roar.
The fire, however, didn’t stop the nomads. Their well trained war steeds leapt through the flames, with only the youngest and injured veering aside. The charge of the nomads held and crushed into the church, who had thought their charge no longer an issue.
Again the skill and strength of the nomads was underestimated and churchmen were crushed under the feet of the horses of the plains. The blazing fire was an awesome backdrop to the battle as the sun set below the western horizon. The nomads along the river bank charged into this melee. This time the horsemen stayed, turning the battle into a swarming skirmish where the trained order of the church was of no use. What few red-uniformed men were able to escape to the river were free to scramble back across to their own side, as all the nomad archers had joined the fray and were no longer watching the river. Even so, few churchmen made it back.
The fire went out all at once. Either it was taken down by the nomads, or the wizards on the far side saw that it was of no use. It was hard to know either way. Oirion wiped blood off his face with the inside of his vest collar. The church had pulled back to regroup for the night. Already, the temperature was dropping and breath was steaming cold in the air. Sweat on men and horse was going to rapidly turn to ice… and that was very bad for any army.
Oirion looked for his Ezeeren friend. He had spotted the giant of a man several times in the day and had seen him knee deep in water in the last skirmish, but had lost sight of him. There was no doubt the man was an asset to any army; every time Oirion turned around the man seemed to be in another place, crushing men at every step.