I am planning a series of seven books which take place in Cember Earth. I've written about 500 years of history for Cember Earth and have even written up some legends. Below is one of my favorites.
The Runner Naytha
This legend, firmly believed to be true by those in Atharim and in many other place too, takes place right before the beginning of the war between Serv of Laurenthalas and Teth of Atharim.
She had to stay alive. There were many who would prefer death to capture but the secret Naytha bore would be lost if they killed her. She threw a glance over her shoulder as she sped through the late afternoon shadows of the small forest. If Serv’s warriors gain any more ground on her, she would destroy the message. If they did capture her, it couldn’t be found.
Had it only been two hours ago that she was opening the door of her mother’s cottage to a panting sailor? Her brother, Nordan, was an essential courier in the Teth Ring, King Teth’s spy network keeping watch over Laurenthalas’s treacherous king. But the sailor’s message had come too quickly on the trail of the last. Nordan hadn’t returned. And the message couldn’t wait. ‘The Eagle has flown’ was the code word, the signal that at long last it contained plans for Serv’s invasion. But King Teth would have to receive them before the next evening if he was to have time to act on them.
“But you are only sixteen,” Naytha’s mother had protested when her daughter expressed her determination to carry the message herself.
“I’m still the quickest running in the village,” Naytha had retorted respectfully. “Send Nordan after me if he returns but if the king doesn’t get this than Atharim will fall. As it is, there aren’t too many dangers on the road.”
Naytha’s mother had relented reluctantly, recognizing the truth in her words. After all, Atharim wasn’t invaded yet. Only neither of them had known of Serv’s small scouting force lurking in a nearby forest.
Naytha knew of them now. She darted around a tree, and paused, leaning against it as she caught her breath. In the distance, but much to close for comfort, branches snapped as her pursuers closed in.
Naytha took a small scroll from its concealed place in her bosom. They might catch her and they might not, but she couldn’t risk them finding the paper which would reveal the spies in their midst. Glancing franticly about she spotted a hollow log and quickly tore the scroll in half, stuffing it in the log then covering it with a rock and handful of dirt. It might not be the best place but the scouting force didn’t even know of the scroll so it would do. They didn’t know anything about her either, Naytha mused…only that she had seen them and couldn’t be allowed to spread the word.
The loss of the scroll didn’t matter too much, she reflected as she sprinted off toward the north once more. She’d memorized the message in case of just such a scenario before she’d left the cottage. For all its importance, the message was very short, simply stating that Serv would land at the mouth of the Shimilver with 10,000 men in four days’ time.
The shouts behind her grew louder and Naytha risked a glanced over her shoulder. She could see them now and, she realized, they could see her.
A branch cracked to her left and Naytha let out a small cry as she saw one of the men sprinting forward to cut her off. She’d destroyed the scroll just in time. Panic welled within her. What if they just killed her? The message would be lost and so would Atharim.
“Stop or die!”
Naytha turned toward the low but clear voice. The warrior to her left was holding a bow. Her own brother, Nordan, was an archer and she could tell from this man’s stance that he knew what he was doing. She stumbled to a stop, panting but struggling to stand upright as Serv’s warriors surrounded her. At least they hadn’t tried to kill her while she fled; it was unlikely they’d murder her now. Many of them, Naytha noted with grim pleasure, were gasping for breath. She’d led them on a good chase at least.
“What are you doing in these woods?” A tall man with dark sideburns, who appeared to be the leader, demanded as he stepped forward.
It took a moment for Naytha to speak. “I was just taking a walk. I wanted to pick some flowers for my mother and see if I could find any early berries for dinner.”
The man considered Naytha grimly, but with a hint of compassion. “It is a pity you saw us,” he said finally.
And that, of course, was the heart of the matter. Serv’s warriors were obviously not supposed to be in Atharim and even the normal Atharishian, who was ignorant of the upcoming invasion, wouldn’t be hard pressed to guess about why the soldiers were sulking in the woods.
Naytha’s eyes flicked over the group. There were nearly a dozen of them, she counted. They all looked uncertainly at their leader.
He frowned then sighed. “You’ll have to come with us…what is your name?”
“Naytha,” Naytha replied boldly. There was no reason to lie about that.
The man nodded. “Well, Naytha, you’ll have to lodge with us for the next few days. But,” he added warningly, “while we won’t kill you now in cold blood, if you make a move to escape you will die. Do you understand?”
Naytha looked into his eyes, now stern and hard, and understood perfectly.
The leader nodded and one of the men silently tied her hands behind her back. He wasn’t rough but as the rope scraped against her wrist Naytha knew it would be no simple matter to try and free them.
She wasn’t sure where the party had been heading when they saw her, but now she was relieved to see they continued north for nearly half an hour, keeping to forest belts, before settling down in a grove. One of the men untied Naytha’s hands and retied them in front of her then tied a rope around her waist and the other end to a tree, leaving her room to walk a few steps.
Naytha watched as the group of men settled down a short distance away and pulled bread and meat from their pouches. After a few minutes the leader came over and handed Naytha a piece of bread. She ate hungrily and drank from his water-skin then leaned back against the tree, observing her captors. They were watchful enough; she wouldn’t escape until nightfall. But perhaps then…
Meanwhile, Naytha knew she should rest. But knowing it and doing it were two very different things. The sun sunk low in the sky and Naytha was leaning against the tree trunk, finally dozing lightly, when a soft chirp of a bird startled her. She caught herself just in time and kept her eyes closed, though her heart beat wildly.
The chirp came again, twice this time and Naytha felt hope well within her. Slowly, as though waking, she sat up slowly and rubbed her eyes, glancing around the clearing. The men were resting beneath other trees or sharpening their weapons. None of them seemed to be watching her.
Turning casually, Naytha drew her knees up to her chest, resting her chin on her crossed as she gazed into the forest.
The call came again and this time she answered it softly.
A bush rustled slightly and Naytha thought she caught sight of a glimpse of her brother’s brown jerkin.
“Are you alright?” The words, quietly breathed though they were, seemed to ring in Naytha’s ears. She scooted close to the tree she was tied to before answering.
“The message?” The whisper was from the other side of the tree trunk this time.
“Destroyed…memorized,” Naytha wondered if she would have time to relay it to Nordan but he made up his mind for her.
“Nighthawk is behind me…in forest,” Nordan mentioned the rugged family pony. “I’ll cut you free…then fight. Ride north…don’t stop. Careful at ford…they might get there first.”
Naytha strained to hear the words and they struck deeply into her heart as she finally understood them. To ride away while Nordan fought and was possibly killed…and yet she had no choice and she knew better than to protest. Already the rope tying her to the tree had fallen slack. Naytha tensed to run then froze at a footstep behind her.
“And how is our Naytha doing?” A slight sneer tinged the voice of the captor behind her. He was the only one who’d seemed to object to her being captured and Naytha had no doubt he would kill her if she gave him an excuse.
“Go, Naytha,” Nordan whispered urgently and the next moment a knife quivered in the earth by her feet where Nordan had thrown it. Naytha snatched it up, springing to her feet and darting around the tree even as she cut her bonds. Nordan rounded the trunk the same moment, pulling his bowstring and sending an arrow through the man who’d been advancing on Naytha.
Behind her, Naytha heard the startled cries of her captors and the twang of her brother’s bow. The rope fell from her wrists and she slipped the knife in her belt as she dashed into the forest toward where Nighthawk was supposed to be waiting. He whinnied as she approached and she leapt on his back.
Biting her lip in anguish, Naytha turned the pony away from where she could now hear the clash of metal and plunged deeper into the forest. Nordan would have no chance against Serv’s warriors…and she knew him too well to hope that he would run for safety. And Atharim’s only hope was that she would leave him. Leave him and ride north to where King Teth and his men awaited information.
With a half sob, Naytha urged the Nighthawk into a brisk trot. Behind her the sounds faded, whether lost to the distance or ended in victory for Serv’s men she could not tell. The pony broke into a meadow and Naytha resisted the urge to kick him to a gallop. They had many leagues to cover and she knew better then to wear her mount out at the first stage of travel.
After half an hour of trotting, Naytha slowed Nighthawk and dismounted, walking quickly beside him for twenty minutes then remounting and repeating the process again and yet again as dusk closed in. Nighthawk could keep this pace all night, Naytha knew. And she could chart their way by the stars. Naytha ignored the weariness closing in about her with the night. She couldn’t stop. She wouldn’t.
The moon rose and slowly began to sink. Naytha stumbled next to Nighthawk, holding to his mane to keep her upright. Finally she hauled herself back into the saddle with the last of her strength and rested her cheek wearily on his neck. “I’m sorry, Nighthawk,” she whispered. “You’ll have to do the rest to night.”
The pony whinnied slightly as if in reply, but Naytha didn’t have the strength or will to smile. Once she jerked, realizing with a start she’d been dozing off. Quickly looking to the sky she corrected their course by a few points to the west. And still the black fields and forests jolted by.
As the blackness turned to grey Naytha pulled Nighthawk to a stop by a small pool, letting him drink and washing her own face in the cool water.
“A few hours more and we should be at the Shimilver River,” Naytha spoke, half to the pony and half to herself as she remounted despite the protest of her aching legs. “After that we only have half an hour to Teth.” Nordan had told her of the meeting place weeks ago in case she ever bore a message and now she reviewed the directions again and again in her head.
The sun rose in a glory of gold and for a time Naytha felt strength surge through her again. She was in the wilds now and wasn’t surprised at the total absence or even sign of people. And as Nighthawk trotted over a wide plain she spotted the thick line of trees marking the Shimilver River and couldn’t help a small smile from breaking over her lips. She was almost there. It wasn’t until she was on the faint track leading through the trees toward the ford that she remembered Nordan’s warning. Quickly she pulled Nighthawk to a halt.
“Stay,” Naytha whispered. She held onto the pony’s mane for a moment to steady herself. Everyone knew this was the only ford within leagues. She didn’t know how much information Serv’s warriors had, but they would surely know that she would go to the king and that anyone trying to reach Teth would have to cross the river. And if they had a boat and had traveled fast enough…she crept forward, hardly daring to breath. The Shimilver River was too treacherous to swim for miles on either side of the ford, and if the enemy was there…
Naytha peered cautiously through the foliage and started to breathe a sigh of relief. The ford was deserted…wait. There on the other side, near a tumbled heap of large boulders, something moved. Naytha’s heart sank as she picked out the long green cloak of one of the warriors leaning against a tree. Maybe it was one of Teth’s rangers, coming to guard the ford. But the next moment this hope too was dashed as she recognized the man.
Now that she knew the soldiers were there, Naytha quickly picked out six more men. They were half hidden in the bushes but didn’t seem to be taking any effort to conceal themselves. It was only because they were so still that she hadn’t seen them earlier and Naytha guessed they were as tired as she was; perhaps even more tired because of rowing up the river. They couldn’t have arrived much earlier than she had.
Naytha crept as close to the bank as she dared, keeping a close watch for any of the warriors who might be concealed on her side of the river. A sudden movement from the forest on the opposite bank drew her attention and Naytha gasped then covered her mouth with her hand to keep from crying out. Two more men emerged from the shadows, half dragging, half supporting Nordan between them.
He’d been wounded, Naytha instantly saw as the soldiers released him near the river’s edge, but at least he was alive. She wondered what had possessed Serv’s warriors not to kill him, then realized they probably planned to use him as a hostage. She gritted her teeth. Every minute wasted was another minute Atharim slipped unknowingly toward her doom. And now she had a brother to rescue too. The message first, Naytha reluctantly told herself. But she couldn’t do either task without crossing the river.
She gazed back toward Noldan and started. He was staring back at her, his gaze calm and determined. For a moment Naytha remained motionless, her eyes meeting his. She had no fear the warriors would see her. They were looking toward the ford, not the bushes next to the river while Noldan was the one who’d taught her how and where to hide and had known where to look.
Noldan’s eyes flicked toward the ford and Naytha followed his gaze, tracing the faint track into the forest. Only a little ways beyond that, in a hollow, waited Teth and his men. If only they knew…
She looked back to Noldan. He was gazing at her again and the motioned slightly to himself and then down the riverbank.
Naytha caught a choking breath as she understood what he was planning. She shook her head slightly but his eyes remained firm and she knew there was no dissuading him. He lifted one hand slightly and held it outstretched then looked away. Five minutes. She just had to be ready.
Blinking back unbidden tears, Naytha slipped back into the forest and remounted Nighthawk.
“Midnight,” she whispered, giving the signal to remain silent. “Wind.” They’d have to run soon. “This is it.” But Noldan hadn’t been bound. Naytha could only suppose his captors had thought is wounds would make escape impossible…or maybe she’d run away with the only rope they’d had. In any case, they’d made a mistake. He might even succeed.
Holding to the hope, Naytha nudged Nighthawk forward until she could see through the foliage to the river while securely hidden in the shadows herself. Noldan was still sitting against the boulders but as she watched she could almost see him tense.
Fear thrilled through her but Naytha leaned forward along Nighthawk’s, barely breathing. Whatever the cost, she couldn’t hesitate.
And then, in a flash of movement, Noldan was on his feet, sprinting awkwardly down the beach. With a shout several of his captors started after him while the others sprang to their feet to help or watch.
“Now,” Naytha whispered and Nighthawk bolted forward, barely slowing as he covered the narrow gravel beach and plunged into the ford. Even as the water swirled up toward her boots, Naytha followed Noldan with her eyes as he stumbled near the tree line. His leg was wounded, she could see that now. Several of the soldiers had spotted Naytha and were shouting, but she knew they’d never be able to reach the ford in time.
And then one of the soldiers raised a bow. Naytha let out a strangled cry as the arrow sped true, striking Noldan in the back. He crumpled to the ground as the archer spun around toward her. They were over halfway across the ford and Naytha dropped low in the saddle, sliding over until she was hanging to the side with Nighthawk’s body between her and the soldiers as an arrow flew overhead. A moment later Nighthawk stumbled and shuddered, then continued on, clambering out of the river.
“A moment longer, please,” Naytha whispered, righting herself even as another arrow smashed into the pony’s flank.
Nighthawk’s strides lengthened as he raced for the cover of the forest. The trees surrounded them, but Naytha could hear the shouts of Serv’s warriors behind her. Nighthawk faltered, stumbling. Naytha leapt from the saddle.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, a sob catching in her throat. “Thank you.” She touched Nighthawk’s muzzle then dashed into the thick of the forest.
Behind her the soldiers crashed through the brush. Just twenty minutes. If she could just keep alive that long…if she could find Teth…and his rangers…at least the men behind her didn’t know what she carried…and how important it was she stayed alive.
An arrow slammed against a tree next to her and Naytha ducked, new strength surging through her. Apparently they didn’t care now if she lived or not. Naytha was suddenly aware of tears streaming down her face. She had to find him…to find Teth. Nordan had given his life; it was the least she could do…
Something struck Naytha, sending her to her knees and she screamed as pain seared through her shoulder. It was an arrow…an arrow…Naytha stumbled to her feet, her head spinning. She couldn’t stop now. Where was Teth? She was vaguely aware that she was calling for help as she continued stumbling through the forest.
The pain coursed through her…she couldn’t keep going. She had to. She must. There was something…there was someone she had to find…
Her knees buckled and she fell forward but strong arms caught her.
It was over.
And then she saw the crossed arrows over a strung bow engraved on the gauntlets of the arm that held her. Atharishian rangers.
“Serv’s…soldiers,” she gasped out, lifting her head. Already she heard the twang of bows and shouts as her pursuers became the hunted.
From the other direction a white horse burst into the clearing, bronze discs rattling from its leather tack. And on its back a man, clean-shaven but with an air of age coursing in his deeply set eyes, quickly glanced over them.
“Are you sure this is wise, Teth?” Another ranger stepped forward and grabbed the horse’s bridle. “Serv’s men are about.”
Teth didn’t respond as he sheathed his sword and leapt from the saddle, striding toward Naytha. “Who is this?”
Teth…Teth…there was something she needed to tell him…
“The eagle has flown,” Naytha whispered as the king took her gently from the ranger. She felt his arms stiffen and silence fell over the rangers assembled. She could hear the pursuit still going in the distance. Her shoulder didn’t hurt anymore either and everything was so dark…but first there was something…something was important…
“At the mouth of the Shimilver River,” Naytha whispered slowly as she remembered. “Ten thousand men…in three days.”
There, it was done…though in the gathering darkness she couldn’t remember what it meant.
Around her voices murmured again and strong arms lifted her. And then everything was darkness.
When Naytha awoke, she saw white curtains blowing in a breeze. The sun was shining and trees glimmered green outside. She tried to sit up but pain shot through her left arm and she cried out. Right, she’d been shot. The memories flooded back as an older woman hurried over.
“It’s alright, dearie. You’re safe now. And Atharim stands a chance of being safe again too, thanks to you.”
Naytha looked up at the gentle face vacantly, processing the words. “Not just me though,” she finally whispered, tears filling her eyes. “He died so I could get though.”
“Who did?” The woman asked, concern wrinkling her brows.
“My brother,” Naytha felt a tear slip from one eye. “Let me sit up.”
“Carefully then.” The woman helped her up and Naytha wiped her eyes. “Your brother…was his name Nordan?”
Naytha nodded, unable to speak and a strange expression swept over the woman’s face.
“The rangers found his body near the river,” she said after a few minutes.
“Is he here?” Naytha demanded and when the woman didn’t answer, “I want to see him.”
“I suppose you can,” the woman said after a moment’s hesitation. “Softly though.”
Slowly she led the way down a corridor and into a nearby room. Naytha choked back a sob at the sight of her brother, lying still and pale in the bed. She hurried to his side and sank to her knees, the tears streaming down her face now as she grasped his hand. The hand that had used to be so strong but which now lay limp and warm.
“It was too cruel,” Naytha cried. “To lose you and then find you again only for you to die for me.”
The hand she held closed about hers and Naytha gasped as she looked up.
“Who else better to die for?” Nordan inquired. “But you see, I did come back.”
“But they shot you,” Naytha exclaimed weakly, glancing toward her smiling nurse then back at Nordan, scarcely able to believe her eyes.
“Yes, and then left me to chase you before making sure I was dead.” Nordan smiled slightly. “The rangers found me and Nighthawk, though Nighthawk didn’t…” a shadow passed over Nordan’s face and he paused, then he smiled again, brighter this time. “But you are still alive.”
Naytha didn’t reply but wrapped her good arm around Nordan, not caring for the pain that jarred her wound. It was enough. They were together. And, as though from a distance, she was sobbing again. But this time it was for joy.
This is a story I wrote earlier this year. I may rewrite it sometime, possibly for my fruit of the Spirit story on gentleness. If I do, the end will be more dramatic...but here is my original story.
By Hope Schmidt
As I ride from the stables of Almathea, I hope I won’t regret what I am about to do. There is no reason to be nervous. All I’m going to do is face the Wildridge Dragons – dragons who have already wounded both my brothers – and get their help to save the country. I am Lady Lithea, daughter of Lord of the Southlands, after all, trained by experts in both the sword and bow; though if truth be told, they are experts which must still weep secret tears at my incompetence at both weapons. And since I am not armed right now, it really doesn’t matter how good…or bad, I am.
That is it. I am regretting my decision already. But the drought is getting worse, and I am the only one left. Well, besides my Father’s one hundred and one guards and the young men flocking into the castle from around the kingdom in the hopes of winning honor and, I suspect, my hand. I’ll have none of that. And none of them know a wit about dragons or how to gain their help. Not as though I’m an expert either, but I think I figured it out last night as I lay in bed, and that is why I am now galloping down the deserted road in the predawn gloom.
I avoid Almathea’s main gates, which I know will be shut in any case, and rein in Torrent, my mare, at a small postern gate no larger than an ordinary door. A key hangs from my belt and I slip it into the keyhole and swing the door open noiselessly. It really ought to be guarded, I note to myself. After Rizal slipped through our guards two weeks ago I wonder that Father has not thought of it. But this morning I am glad. I lock the door carefully behind me, remount, and ride toward the main road. Once there I urge Torrent forward.
I don’t bother to examine the sky for clouds as the dawn springs upon the land all too rapidly. There won’t be any clouds there. At least not as long as Rizal has the Storm Stone.
On either side I see fields of wheat, corn, and beans wilting as the first rays of the sun gleam across the horizon, promising a hot day. Dust rises from the road, choking me and making my eyes burn. I throw a light linen scarf over my mouth and lower face, breathing through it as best as I am able. But I refuse to slacken my pace as I turn Torrent into the dried bed of the Azure River…or what should have been the Azure River. A suspicion, which has been growing in my mind, returns with force as I am forced to pull Torrent to a walk as the ground grows uneven. A drought is devastating enough. But soon rain will be devastating as well, and with the Storm Stone…if someone was smart enough to think of it….
I push such thoughts from my mind. The sun rises slowly and shadows begin to fall around me as the riverbed enters a forest. I dismount and slap Torrent’s flank.
“Go on home now,” I order. “You won’t be able to help me here. And if I fail I won’t need you anymore either,” I add under my breath as I begin clambering up the side of the riverbed to the forest.
Torrent snorts and watches me, then turns and trots away down the river bed. Once she is out of sight I suddenly wonder if I should have fastened a note to the saddle so my parents know Torrent is supposed to be coming home alone and I’m not lying hurt along some roadside. I grit my teeth as a stone slips under one boot and my knee bangs against rough clay. I tighten my grip on a tree root and, with a final heave and scramble, roll over the top of the river bank. Hopefully my parents wouldn’t think much of Torrent’s return. It won’t be the first time I’ve sent her home alone.
I spring to my feet with a grunt and trudge into the forest. Leaves crackle under my feet, but I make no effort to be silent. I am still miles away from the dragons’ nest and if they are around they will see or smell me before they hear me. I just hope they won’t chase me away before hearing me out. I think once again of the Storm Stone and of Rizal and quicken my pace. If I’ve thought of it, then I’m sure he has too…and if he hasn’t decided to set it to motion, that is only because he has a worse plan.
I walk steadily, not rushing, but in no way lingering. Even in the cool shade, sweat begins to drip down my back and dampen my forehead. I think about how much more pleasant it would be to be astride a dragon, soaring above the tree tops. We used to ride them, or so the stories say. They also say the dragons can breathe fire and mind talk, but I have my doubts about the latter. In any case the Division happened. More like the Grand Misunderstanding of the Age. Even though open war averted, the dragons retreated to their mountain fastness and we’d gathered on the plains. Neither side had, to my knowledge, ever tried to contact the other since. At least not until the last fortnight when the Strom Stone was taken and my oldest brother, Tivin, decided to go try to enlist the dragons’ help in getting it back.
I almost laugh to myself as I remember Tivin’s return. He was barely able to hold onto his horse and his arm was wrapped in a blood soaked bandage. It wasn’t funny he was wounded, of course, but honestly…he’d tried to trap one of the dragons so he could talk to it. Men…there is more to getting help then strength. Jaken didn’t do much better, and that is why I am going. Because I fear nothing will change and larger and larger parties will be send out until they do indeed catch or wound a dragon. And if war followed…the drought would be the least of our worries.
I take a drink of water from the flask hanging by my side. The sun is now nearing the peak of the sky, and ahead of me I see the purple and green cliff faces and slopes of the Southland Range. I move cautiously now.
Once I hear a dragon’s airy whistle stream overhead and I freeze. But he passes on and after a short time I follow.
I am near now. Very near to the foothills of the Mountains…and the valley containing the dragons’ nest. At least I assume the last part. The truth of the matter is no one has seen the nest for over a hundred years.
The forest ends.
I pause, reluctant to venture out into the open where I know I will be seen within minutes...if I hadn't been already, that is. But there is no turning back now. I take a deep breath and step onto the open hills.
I hear nothing as I continue forward. I wish I would. Anything would be better than this watchful silence. The dragons can see me; I am sure of that. I can almost feel their eyes examining my every move. What are they doing? What are they waiting for? Will they hurt me? I picture myself crawling back to the road then being carried back to the palace, blood soaked and humbled. I push such thoughts from my mind. They are enough to make me turn and dash for the cover of the forest...which at this point is probably the worst thing I can do. Dragons respect braveness if nothing else. And so I keep on, up one hill and down another until I reach a hill higher than the rest. Only it isn't a proper hill. It is more like a long ridge, curving away from me toward the mountains.
I pause, turning in a full circle, my hands outspread. "I am Lithea, daughter of Lord Helvin." I announce in a clear voice. "I have come to speak to the Queen of Dragons."
I sigh and consider heading up the ridge. But if it is indeed the dragons' nest then stepping one foot on that ridge is probably the worst thing I can do.
"I must speak to the Dragon Queen," I call again. "It is a matter of the gravest urgency."
"Really." A smooth, low, but completely feminine voice growls from behind me.
I gasp and spin around as a great green dragon folds her wings and cocks her head to look at me. My gaze is immediately drawn to her eyes; great golden orbs with narrow slits as black as clouds before a mountain storm. She doesn't look particularly friendly, but at least she doesn't look like she is going to hurt me...yet.
"Well?" She demands. "I believe you called me."
I feel like the dragon is coolly considering what she should do with me. To hurt me or not to hurt me? I find my voice at last. "You are the Queen?"
"The one and only." She draws herself up. "Now what is so important that Helvin sends his daughter to me after both his sons have been wounded...you’d better not be part of some trap."
"Oh no, I came alone." I hurry to assure her.
"Good," she says grimly. “Or death would have followed where we wounded before.” She looks closely at me. “Are you armed?”
“Do you see any weapons?” I demand, my courage rising the longer I speak.
The queen cocks her head and glares at me.
So suspicious, I think to myself. Though after two incidences which she must picture as attacks, I don’t really blame her. “No, I don’t have any weapons.” I say with a sigh.
“Why are you here?” the queen asks abruptly. “Is it about the Storm Stone?”
“How did you know?” I stare in surprise.
The dragon chuckles. “Look around you, Lady Lithea. Helvin does not have the power to make it rain on his own lands and not on the mountain, and he would never let such a drought proceed if he did have the Storm Stone. So who has it?”
“Rizal,” I reply.
The queen frowns. Her suspicion of me seems to have passed. “Rizal. The man’s heart is black with evil. So what does he mean to do? Set fire to the dry grasses and trees then work up a wind and destroy the Southland?”
I raised my eyebrows. I hadn’t considered that option. “I was thinking of perhaps a sudden storm…flash flooding.” I reply. “With Almathea in the valley and the dragon nest at the foot of the mountains…” I look toward the ridge and let my voice trail off.
Concern rises in the queen’s eyes. “Follow me,” she orders curtly.
She turns and I have trot to keep up with her. We round the ridge and the gaping mouth of a cave opens to view. I smile in excitement. I’ve always been interested in dragons, and even with the situation as serious as it is, I can’t believe I am finally entering the den of the famed Wildridge Dragons.
The cave isn’t as big as I expected it to be, but numerous tunnels lead away into shadows. Right before us, a great arch lead back outdoors…out into the nest, I presume.
“Mother!” a voice exclaims as a deep blue dragon, slightly smaller than the queen but still towering over me drops from the ceiling.
“Later, Adriana.” The queen smiles. “Call the council together. I will wish to speak to them in a few minutes.”
Adriana obeys, glancing at me reluctantly.
“And now.” The queen turns on me again. “I assume you know how to get the Storm Stone back before it is too late and that you need help from the dragons or else you wouldn’t be here.”
I nod, impressed by the queen’s perception.
“And what is it exactly that you need?”
“A ride,” I say, then cringe, hoping I hadn’t been too blunt.
The queen’s eyes darken and she frowns.
“Father and our best generals have poured over maps of the Southlands and of Shadowfen.” I hurry to explain. “Our trackers followed Rizal as far as the Marshwelt River and we suspect he has the Storm Stone in his wind tower on the south bank but the only way to cross the Marshwelt at this time of year is by dragon…and as far as I can tell, infiltration from the air is our only hope of regaining the Storm Stone in any case.”
The queen nods slowly. “So why do you think the stone is there?”
“It is the only wind tower where the Storm Stone can be held securely in Rizal’s hands and yet still be in range of the Southlands. And,” I add, anticipating the queen’s next question, “The tower is one of Rizal’s most secure fortresses besides his keep in the heart of Shadowfen. Its only vulnerability is from the air.”
“The council will never approve,” the queen mutters, more to herself than to me. “I myself hold no anger against you humans, and I know you speak the truth. But the council would not be so easily swayed…especially after the traps set by your brothers, no matter how good their intentions were.”
She paces the chamber then swings toward me. “But you…are you here to recruit us, or are you planning on traveling onto Shadowfen yourself?”
I swallow hard. I’d rather hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but I am ready in will, if not in mind. “I will fly to Shadowfen myself if I must. It by surprise we will take the Storm Stone, not by force.” Though force would be handy and reassuring as well, I think to myself.
The queen nods. “Then it is settled.”
My heart skips a beat, partly from fear, partly from excitement. What is settled?
“The council is gathered.” Adriana announces as she reenters the chamber.
“Good.” The slightest hint of a smile curls the queen’s lips. “Lady Lithea, let me present you my daughter, Princess Adriana. Adriana, Lithea. How do you feel about flying Lithea to Rizal’s wind towers?” she demands abruptly.
“To get the Storm Stone?” Adriana asks eagerly, then cut herself off.
The queen glares at her daughter. “How long have you been listening?” She doesn’t wait for a response. “I will deal with you later. You both must leave now while I keep the council occupied.” She pauses and sighs, then nuzzles her daughter. “Be careful. Even dragons aren’t invulnerable you know.”
“We should be back by evening.” Adriana grins then turned to me as the queen sweeps off. “On my back then. Hurry up.”
“But…” I retreat a step. The speed which with this conversation escalated has set my mind in a confused whirl. I can’t face Rizal alone. That was never my plan. Actually, I didn’t have much of a plan after enlisting the dragons’ aid.
Adriana lifts her head sharply and turns, sniffing a cool breeze which suddenly rattles through the cavern. The next moment she leaps for the entrance into the nest valley. I follow, but hardly see the carefully tended mounds with their pale greenish eggs. Instead my eyes are drawn to a dark shadow to the south.
Clouds. Black clouds. Another cold gust of wind races toward us and even as I watch lightning flickers in the distance.
“On my back!” Adriana yells.
I don’t hesitate this time but grab one of the horned projections along Adriana’s neck and swing myself onto her back, glad I am wearing my riding pantaloons instead of a dress. There isn’t much to hold onto, so I squeeze my legs tight and grasp the short horns as best I can.
“Go!” I yell. “Don’t spare yourself for me.”
I instantly regret that last comment as Adriana leaps into the air with such speed I nearly lose my seat. I grit my teeth and hang on as though my life depended on it. And within seconds it does, for the mountain and Dragon Ridge seem to drop out beneath me. A few seconds more and Adriana evens out.
I take a deep breath as I straighten and gain a firmer seat. I glance at the clouds again, wondering what Rizal’s plans were. Fire, from the lightning and sped on by the wind, or flash floods? I can’t tell which would cause the most damage. I’m sure Rizal would do both if he could. The thought sticks in my throat.
“Adriana?” I call out in horror. “What if Rizal sets everything on fire and then, when it has run its course, sends the floods?” I can barely hear my own voice over the rush of wind and beat of Adriana’s wings, but I know she hears me for I can feel our speed increase.
I look down and instantly wish I hadn’t. The countryside is slipping away. At this pace we will be at the wind tower within the hour.
Within the hour. And then what? I wasn’t even armed. A dragon princess and an unarmed girl. What were we to do against Rizal? For Rizal would be with the Storm Stone, of that I had no doubt. Such destruction as I saw looming over my land was not something he would allow and underling to do.
The minutes stream past as time blurs together.
“Almost there!” Adriana yells back to me.
“Already?” I gasp as I look about me. Thick blackness races toward me. I choke as it surrounds me and then it is gone. I glance back and realize it is one of the outlying wisps of clouds.
Adriana jerks and I scream involuntarily as I almost fall. I abandon the horns and throw my arms as far around her scaly neck as I can, hanging on desperately as Adriana’s flying grows more erratic, first in one direction and then in another.
“Harder to hit a moving target with lightning,” she shouts back at me.
I don’t reply, but stare ahead through the racing shreds of blackness towards a shadow looming through the clouds.
“Wind tower!” I suddenly shout as the great stone tower bursts into clarity. Adriana sees it at the same time and twists to the side. I bang my chin against her neck but ignore the quick flash of pain and turn toward the tower as Adriana circles back.
“The roof!” I yell.
“I know!” I hear her retort above the wind as Adriana turns once more in a tight circle, rising even higher. The wind screams about us and a bolt of lightning snaps through the air with such a brilliant flash that I am momentarily blinded.
I blink in time to see the roof spreading out below me.
Adriana lands lightly on a round platform at the highest point of the roof. I slip off and my knees buckle.
“Are you alright?” Adriana asks.
I nod as I push myself to my feet and stumble to the railing. The wind tower is round and narrower than would be normally expected due to its height. But wind towers are built of black iron-stone and can stand tall and strong against the most furious gales. Lightning flashes again and I gasp as I gaze down into the courtyard below.
“Why, it’s an army!” Adriana exclaims.
I nod mutely as I gaze at the long columns waiting below.
“But they can’t cross the Marshwelt, can they?” Adriana demands.
I shake my head. “Not now. But after fire and flood…there would be no one left to stop them.”
“But what do we do now?” Adriana asks in a tight voice.
“Stop the fire and flood,” I reply grimly, turning from the railing. “There should be a trapdoor around here somewhere.”
“I think I am standing on it.” Adriana shifts her great bulk and I see a large iron ring fastened to the ground. I drop to my knees, tracing the outline of the trap door, then pull on the ring. It doesn’t budge.
“Let me try.” Adriana shoulders me to the side. She probably does it lightly for a dragon, but it still sends me tumbling to the ground.
“Sorry,” she exclaims as she inserts a claw in the ring and heaves.
“It’s not moving,” I inform her dryly.
She pulls harder, but still nothing, though I am sure she could have broken any regular lock.
“Let me see it again,” I say.
Adriana moves aside reluctantly and I kneel again at by the door, examining the hollow closer. It almost seems…I squint as lightning flashes once more then pull up the ring.
“You aren’t going to be able to lift it if I can’t.” Adriana sighs as she steps to the railing. “I wonder if we could enter by a window.”
“It’s not all about strength,” I respond as I twist the ring. It revolves a small piece of stone and then I hear a satisfying click. I pull at the ring again and this time swings back easily.
“The storm is almost to the Marsh-” Adriana cuts herself off as turns back toward me. “How did you do that?”
I just wink, but sober quickly as I see the storm stretching its long fingers toward my home. “Come on. We have to hurry!”
Adriana just looks at me.
I open my mouth to speak, then glance at the trapdoor then back to Adriana. There is no way she could fit through. “I see. Wait here then.”
I turn and hurry down the ladder, shutting out Adriana’s protests above me. They hold too much reason and I am terrified as it is. The only reason I am going forward is because I know the consequences of failure. I have to get the Storm Stone and I have to get it now.
I reach the floor and release the last ladder rung. I am in a small, cold, dark room. Thankfully the door is unlocked and swings open soundlessly when I press it.
I glance out into a dim corridor where several shielded torches cast pools of reddish light. A cool breeze sweeps past me as I cautiously step outside. A bolt of white lightning once again snaps through the clouds and I realize with a start that I am standing on a sort of covered porch, with only a row of pillars between me and the balcony.
Slowly I move forward, keeping to the shadows. The pillars and balcony continue. This would be the Watching Porch, I note to myself as I run over what I know of wind towers. Right below the Watching Porch should be the Wind Room, a vaulted chamber with windows of all sizes and shapes. This was where wind was tested, where messages were sent and retrieved…in normal towers that is. In this tower I am sure the Wind Room is being used for quite another purpose.
I find the stairs and creep down them. I still don’t know what I am going to do when I find Rizal…I am hoping the situation will give me a clear answer.
It doesn’t, and the word which springs to mind is ‘impossible’.
Lithea? The word echoes in my head and strangely sounds like Adriana. Lithea, can you hear me?
Adriana? I think back.
So you can hear me. Good. What is the situation?
I didn’t know you could mind talk! I exclaim.
I thought everyone knew about it. Adriana retorts. Situation?
Good and bad. I look though the cracked door. Good news is that the Storm Stone is here. Bad news is that Rizal is also here, along with nearly a dozen guards.
Are you fast? Adriana asks after a pause.
Could you grab the Storm Stone and make it back to the roof if I attracted everyone to one side of the tower?
I considered the proposition. That could work, but there is a Watch Porch beneath the roof…basically a balcony which wraps around the entire tower. You can pick me up there, on the north side.
I see it…brace yourself. I am coming.
Almost before the words came into focus in my mind I heard a dreadful roar followed by a bright stream of flames raking across the west windows of the chamber opposite me.
Not enough. I say. The guards are rushing towards the windows but Rizal is still by the Storm Stone.
Another stream of flames follow, some of them finding their way into the chamber. Even from my distance I feel the heat, and several of the guards collapse. Rizal spins toward the windows with an angry glare.
You have his attention now! One more time…and be careful.
I tense my body, waiting. Once more flames blast through the windows.
With a curse Rizal strides toward the windows.
Careful, he’s coming! I shout as I push the door noiselessly open and dash lightly into the room. Fear gives wings to my feet and I snatch the Storm Stone from the table in the center of the room. It is a dark swirl of purple and blue, but there is no time to stop the storm now.
I turn to dash from the room just as several shouts ring out at one time behind me. I don’t look back as I leap up the stairs.
North side now! I shout in my mind.
I burst from the door and onto the Watching Porch and see Adriana’s shadowy figure waiting at the balcony. I dash for her, leaping on her back as Rizal leads several guards from the tower at a run. But they are too late. Already Adriana is springing into the air.
The wind buffets us as we fly away and Adriana jerks to the side as a lightning bolt nearly strikes us.
Right, I berate myself. This storm is Rizal’s doing so he can still control it. I cradle the storm stone and whisper softly to it. The blue and purple swirl away and slowly a golden light begins to shine from the heart of the crystal like stone.
Around us the wind still whips though my hair, but now it is because of the speed at which we were traveling, not because of the gale. I look down to see the Marshwelt River below. The Southlands are unharmed.
“We did it!” I yell.
“But it could do with a little rain.” Adriana cocks her head. “Where do you want me to put you down at?”
“Bring me to the palace,” I say. “And you may be sure, that once everyone knows what you have done you will be quite welcome.”
“I would hope so.” Adriana chuckles as she banks softly to the right toward Almathea. I whisper to the stone again.
Before long we will be home and I will be greeting my parents. Then we’ll go to Dragon Ridge with Adriana. By the time the day is out, I know our two races will once more be friends.
I lay my head on Adriana’s neck and close my eyes as she flies gently on. The first drop of a gentle shower falls on my cheek and I smile.
By Hope Schmidt
Two gifts there were
Given to man.
The first can be taken
But not given.
The second can be given
But not restored.
Many think of the first as white
And the second as black.
They are wrong for both are red,
Red with blood
These twins of Justice and Mercy.
The light shows more than joy;
The darkness hides more than sorrow.
The deeds committed in the light…
The fate sealed by the darkness…
Rage and peace
Mirth and weeping
Terror and comfort
A curse and a blessing
Ceaseless striving and endless rest
These are the gifts.
Hand in hand they walk
The gift of life.
And the gift of death.
Worth My Life
By Hope Schmidt
Everyone wears necklaces, heavy gaudy things that can’t be missed. Soldiers and babies are the only exception. They wear tight wristlets that lock onto the wrist like a manacle…the soldiers so they can operate better and the babies so they don’t lose their identification.
Because that what the wristlets and necklaces are…identification: Name, date of birth, government number, occupation, class in life. The babies don’t have the last two. From age five to eighteen we go through rigorous studies, tests, and mental and physical exercises. When we graduate we are given our official necklace and informed of our occupation and position in the social pyramid we like to call home.
I am a soldier. The manacle on my right wrist is engraved with bold letters: Private Nathan Allen Truth, first class; number 391077; DOB, February 15, 2573.
I shiver slightly. My dark fatigues only keep out a portion of the cool fall breeze. Around me other soldiers shift slightly as we stand at attention, awaiting the pleasure of Major Bryst. We’ve been standing for at least half an hour, since dusk. Already the waning moon is peeping over the horizon.
I glance up at the clear sky and sharp points of stars, idly noting that it will be a cold night. My thoughts drift elsewhere, to a night eight months ago. It was right after graduation. Earlier in the day I’d been given my official identity necklace…the one that marked me as a soldier.
My mother and I were walking through one of our city’s sprawling parks. We didn’t speak until we were in the middle of a wide swath of clipped turf and could see a good distance in all directions.
We were speaking there because our house, probably even our car, was bugged with hidden microphones. Everyone’s house was these days. Any stray word criticizing King Darren Wizer, absolute monarch of the Americas, would be met with stern reprisals.
“Are you still going to do it?” Mother kept her voice at a whisper.
I nodded silently, watching emotion quiver behind her calm expression. We were outlaws, criminals, Mother and I. Or at least we would be if the government ever found out we were Christians. We would be imprisoned and no word would ever reach the outside world about what happened to us. It had happened to many others. It had happened to Father.
“You know what the others will say, don’t you?” Despite herself, worry showed through my mother’s eyes. “And if things go wrong, no one will ever know.”
I had to smile. “The other Christians can think I am fighting for Darren if they want to. I’ll have bigger things to worry about. But don’t worry,” I took Mother’s hands. “I’ll find him.”
Being chosen as a soldier was something I had always feared until Father was captured. And then it was my only hope. As a soldier it would be easier to gain access to the prisons and the regime’s main center of information in the Capital.
“I’ll be praying for you.” Mother smiled bravely up at me.
The next day I was on a train, traveling to the Capital. Seared into my mind was the location of the ruins of a tavern where every night three friends who had gone underground (meaning they simply vanished from the government’s eyes and went to live in one of the vast network of homey caves and tunnels crisscrossing the country) would be waiting.
Eight months later I am standing in the cold, wondering if the Major has actually forgotten that he ordered us out for roll call.
So far I haven’t discovered anything directly related to my father. But I have found out that all the regime’s information is connected into one big network. All I need is a chance at one of the computers…something we common soldiers are never allowed near.
I’ve already swiped Major Bryst’s password and I am confident I can hack into higher levels of security if I have to. Internet is not allowed for ‘common people’ like my family, but a friend taught me many tricks on a hidden computer he owned. How he got the computer and what he used it for himself, I never asked.
The door of the concrete building to my left opened and a block of warm light spilled onto the steps. I pulled myself upright and shouldered my rifle but couldn’t resist stealing a glance at the Major walking toward us.
He looked pleased. I felt a surge of excitement flow through me. There was only one thing that pleased Bryst.
An impending fight.
I had been in intensive training for six months and then spent two months on duty at this mid-sized outpost about ten miles outside of the Capital. I have yet to enter a fight and risk my life for King Darren and his goals.
Truth be told, I don’t intend to ever fight for him. His aspirations are not worth dying for. My father, however, is worth the risk.
Major Bryst is speaking and I snap back to reality.
“A band of rebels has been discovered about thirty miles due west from here.” The Major doesn’t mince words. “Their strength is only about two dozen men but they are in a wild stretch of mountains so I’m taking the whole Battalion, with the exception of five soldiers to man the outpost.” The Major pauses. “We attack at dawn.”
I force myself to keep a straight face. I happen to know the ‘rebels’ are Christians simply trying to hide from the regime. I also happen to know that there are more than two dozen men… all well-armed.
Then Major calls for volunteers to stay behind on guard duty. I step forward quickly. The Major scowls at me.
Volunteering to stay out of a fight is considered cowardly. For me, having never been in a fight, this action could stain my record for the rest of my life. Not as though I’ll care about my reputation or cover after tonight. The time has finally come for me to do what I joined the army to do. I’ll have one chance, and one chance only.
“Truth, Nathen!” The Major steps forward and grasps my wrist to read my name. “Fall out!”
I obey and Bryst chooses four more men make up the rest of the guard. He glares at me one more time before dismissing us and ordering the rest of the men to line up and receive their quota of ammunition before heading to their places in the troop trucks.
I head inside the main building of the outpost and turn the coffee pot on.
The night is going to be all too short for what I need to do.
Before long I hear the troop transports roar off down the road. The rest of the guard is in the next room, relaxing for a few minutes and rolling a die to see who will get the first watch.
I pour four cups of coffee, and slip a flavorless addition of my own into the mixture before carrying the mugs to the next room.
“A hot drink before a cold evening?” I inquire.
The men accept the cups gratefully and I head back into the other room and fill a mug for myself. Slowly I sip the bitter darkness then check my watch.
Five minutes have passed.
I glance into the next room. The four soldiers are lying across the table or slumped to the floor, fast asleep. They’ll stay that way for twelve hours if my calculations are correct. This outpost will just have to manage without guards for one night.
I feel excitement surge through me as I hurry though one corridor and turn into another. The third door to the left is Major Bryst’s workstation…and it also holds his computer imbedded in his desk.
I settle down in the Major’s chair and hesitate for the fraction of a second, my fingers poised over the electronic keyboard. After all my working and praying and waiting I can finally find out if my father is alive or not.
I type in the Major’s password and breathe a sigh of relief as mid-level access is granted me. If he had changed his password I could have hacked through but that would have taken precious time.
As much as I long to search for my father, I first dash off a quick message to the ‘rebels’, telling them of the approaching battalion. Another message goes to my friends, waiting nearby. It only contains one word.
At least that is what I hope.
Then I look up the prisoner list. My body is rigid as I scroll down the list of names. I find I am gnawing on the knuckles of my left hand.
Travis….Trenton….Truth, David L.
Relief surges through me. So he is alive then. My hand trembles as I tap my father’s name. His picture comes up in one corner, pale and haggard, but with the defiance I know so well still in his eyes. I quickly scan his file:
Arrest date: November 8, 2591
Criminal status: Felon, dangerous. Arrested for rebellion and subverting the government.
I have to laugh. Father is dangerous, for doing what…preaching? Helping organize the Christian Underground?
There is more information but I skim through, searching for the prison he is being kept at.
Location of Detention: Classified.
Of course, it would be classified. I put the skills my friend taught me to good use. I haven’t practiced for months but soon I relax, a smile spreading across my face as I work. Within five minutes I’ve hacked my way up to the next level of clearance. A little more searching and I find the information I want.
Father is incarcerated in Blackstone Prison, cell 28. I lean back in the Major’s chair, considering. Blackstone is on the outskirts of the Capital, fifteen miles from here and the same distance from the tavern where I know my friends are preparing.
As a high security prison, Blackstone might be hard to break into. I begin searching through files on the prison’s structure and defenses. Two connected fences of barbed wire, another one of concrete, ten feet tall. Lights blazing down all night onto the ten acre field surrounding the electric fence which in turn surrounds the prison itself.
I hunch forward, my hand resting on my chin as I think. There are only three possible ways of entrance. Above, below, or from the side. Above is out. We don’t have a helicopter and even if we did, a helicopter isn’t exactly secret. Below is out too. We don’t have any tunnels to that prison and it would talk to long to dig one. We have to act tonight.
That just leaves the sides.
There is only one gate into Blackstone. Either we enter that gate or we go over the walls…or under the walls. Simply driving through the gate would be the easiest. An escape in plain sight. I grin as a plan starts to form.
I tap a quick message into the computer and then glance around the room. The Major has a dress uniform in a narrow closet and I pull it on. It hangs a little loosely about the shoulders and the trouser legs are a little short but nothing that should attract too much attention. I grin at myself in the mirror.
Major Nathen Allen Truth. I like the sound of it, but I doubt the army will let me keep the rank if I stay here much longer.
I scrounge through the Major’s desk, finding an army pass as well as an identification card…without Bryst’s picture. I pocket these along with the Major’s car keys and head back into the room where my fellow soldiers are still fast asleep.
Muttering quiet apologies I roll them on the floor and strip off the outer layer of their uniforms. It takes me a good twenty minutes before I get all four of them off and folded up in a nice stack. I only have three friends but the Underground will have some use for the extra one.
I hold the uniforms under one arm and hurry outside. The cool air feels good now. I head to the side of the outpost, where the Major’s car is parked. A sleek black car, one I’ve been itching to drive ever since I’d arrived.
Without hesitation I unlock the door, toss the uniforms on the seat next to me, and start the engine. The car drives even better than it looks and I turn out of the outpost and soon I am speeding along the road. A few miles and I turn down an abandoned gravel road that strikes deep into the forest.
The going is rougher here, but within fifteen minutes I ease the car to a stop, retrieve the uniforms, and step out of the car.
I know I am in the right spot, but the darkness is so dense I can see nothing. I glance in all directions, trying to get my bearings. Finally I give a soft call.
“Nathen? That you?” A whisper comes from the trees to my left.
“Kenton?” I whisper back in relief. “Where are you?”
The light of a dim flashlight appears, wavering between the trees. I squint, trying to look beyond the light, but my friend is just a dim shadow.
“Nice ride.” He runs his light over the car.
I grin. “Very nice. Where are the others?”
“Waiting.” Kenton turns and together we shove through the underbrush until we break into a small clearing. The weak light of the flashlight barely reveals a sagging tavern…a building from older and better times.
The door creaks as Kenton pushes it open. I step through the door and brush aside a thick black blanket, then burst out laughing. Kenton latches the door behind me.
“Do you like it?” He asks.
Sturdy beams prop up the entire structure…It is almost as though a second tavern has been built under the rotting shell of the building I saw from the outside. Warm light fills the room and thick blankets hang in front of the windows and door to keep any light from betraying our presence.
“Titus! Carl!” I greet them and shake their hands as my grin grows wider. I haven’t seen either of them since I left home.
“I got your message.” Titus sits back down at the table and opens a laptop. “So what’s the plan and what is the story with your outfit? You can’t fool me into thinking you are a Major.”
I chuckle and lay out the uniforms on the table. “Figure out which one fits who and leave the extra here, but do it quickly.” I say.
As my friends change, I tell them my plan. They love it.
Soon we are back in the car. Titus is driving and I am sitting next to him. In the back, Carl and Kenton settle back comfortably, chatting and laughing.
But as soon as we are on the road, a tense silence reigns. I think we are all realizing the full weight of what we are about to do…and the consequences if we fail. But I am not deterred in the least. If anything, I am more determined than ever to do what it takes to rescue my father…even if it means giving my own life or freedom.
Soon we turn onto the main highway and, before long, the lights from scattered buildings start to break apart the darkness.
My heart begins to beat faster as a brilliant glow outlines several hills in the distance. I realize I am twisting my fingers of my right hand with my left hand. I stop immediately. I am supposed to be a cool, confident Major, not a fidgety impostor.
The night’s darkness is shattered completely now. Titus turns onto a side road and the headlights of the car pass over the sign.
I glance over my shoulder. “Everyone alright back there?”
“Can we be anything else?” Carl grins back at me.
“Not now.” I turn back as the first pair of iron gates loom before us, stark in the harsh light.
A guard holds out his hand…while two more behind him ready their rifles. Obediently, Titus pulls to a stop.
Another guard, who I hadn’t noticed earlier, steps out of the shadows of the guard house. I roll my window down as he approaches and hand out my credentials…the Major’s credentials I should say. I can only hope the guard doesn’t look at my identification wristlet too closely. There hasn’t been time to forge a new one.
The guard hands the papers back but is still watching me suspiciously. “Why are you here? You aren’t on the list of visitors.”
“Order 736,” I make an effort to sound bored and slightly irritated. “It just came through. Go look it up if you want to, but be quick. I don’t have all night.”
“No, no!” The guard stands to attention and salutes quickly. “There is no need for that.”
It is dangerous to aggravate an officer, and the guard knows it. He steps to the side.
“Open the gate!” He hollers.
I lean back and roll up the window and Titus slowly eases the car forward and we drive past the barbed wire divides and concrete wall.
Outer defenses; passed.
As we drive down the road toward the inner fence Carl and Kenton begin to laugh.
“I thought this was supposed to be hard.” Carl finally catches his breath.
“Don’t worry.” I grin. “That was the easy part. Getting out might be harder.”
We stop at the inner gate and go through the same routine as at the first one. The guard has no reason to suspect us…after all, we have passed the first line of security. A minute later we are at the very jaws of Blackstone Prison. Considering the guards and security surrounding us, a better analogy might be that we are behind clenched teeth and in the throat of Blackstone.
I push the thought out of my mind as Titus pulls to a stop just outside the main entrance. He stays in the car as Carl and Kenton get out. In the brief moment before Kenton opens my door, I lean over.
“If anything happens, and Father is in this car, then get out.”
Our gaze meets. Titus’s eyes are deadly serious.
“Go without me if you must.” I press.
As Kenton opens my door, Titus nods slowly. I feel a sense of relief. I know I can trust Titus.
Taking a deep breath, I step out of the car. Kenton shuts the door and he and Carl fall into step behind me.
I can hardly believe that I am marching into Blackstone. It is insanely crazy. I whisper a quick prayer inwardly as the iron doors of the prison open automatically. Once I and my friends are through, they shut with a resounding clash.
The wide hallway is drab and gray. I’ve memorized them from the feed I hacked earlier and know right where I will have to go. Swiftly, my boots clicking at every step, I turn left at the first corridor opening onto the hall and then right at the next one. We pass several guards and soldiers, but I have long ago learned the value of moving quickly and decisively.
If you look like you know where you are going, then not many people will stop you…especially if you are a Major.
But there is no time to think, no time to be afraid. I am at my destination. I enter a wide room and knock precipitously on the bulletproof glass window set in the wall at the far end. A guard appears, looking sullen. He snaps to attention when he sees my uniform.
“May I help you?”
“I am here for a prisoner.” I tap my foot impatiently. “Order 736. Name of the prisoner is Truth, David L.”
“One moment, Sir.” The guard taps something into the desk computer. “Just need to confirm, Sir.”
“Quickly then.” I cross my arms and smile inwardly. Order 736 didn’t exist until I sent it a few hours ago. Hacking is very useful…I’ll have to learn more when we get out of this.
“Confirmed?” I demand after about thirty seconds. The guard has barely had time to pull up the order but I feel the need to keep him off his balance. Besides, impatience and condescension go well with my assumed rank.
“Confirmed, Sir.” The guard fumbles at his two way radio. “I need prisoner 87342 at the transfer desk ASAP.”
“He’ll be here within two minutes.” The guard turns to me.
“I suppose that will do.” I keep my stiff posture. I can’t believe this is going so well.
A minute later I hear footsteps. I can’t stop myself from turning slightly as two soldiers escort my father into the room. He is handcuffed and shackles are fastened to his legs as well. But he still holds his head high. For the briefest of moments our eyes meet. He shows no sign of recognition but under his thin uniform I can see his body stiffen slightly.
I nod to my friends and they take the place of the soldiers, grasping my father by each arm.
And then we are walking out of the prison. Walking out of Blackstone. I feel like I am in a dream, and now I am afraid. I am almost trembling.
There are so many things that could go wrong. Too many things. It can’t be this easy.
I am right.
As I watch Carl and Kenton push Father into the car, trying look rough and be gentle at the same time, a movement catches the corner of my eye.
A soldier is standing at the door of Blackstone. I don’t know where he came from or who he is, but he is speaking quietly into his radio and he won’t take his eyes off us.
Carl has got in the car and Kenton is opening my door for me. The man steps towards us. For one awful second time seems to freeze.
Then the man draws his gun and points it at me. Our time is up.
“Get in!” I yell to Kenton as I spring towards the man.
A shot rings out, then another. The next moment I am on the soldier and we are rolling on the ground in a tussle for the gun. For a brief second I am reminded of the brawls in movies.
I am dimly aware of the car’s doors slamming and the revving of its engine as Titus speeds towards the gates.
My one to one fight with the soldier doesn’t last very long. Pretty soon it is a ten to one fight and moments later I have been restrained and several guns are pointed at me. For a second I think they will shoot me then and there, but they don’t. Instead, they haul me into Blackstone.
My only comfort is the sight of the car with my friends and father exiting the outermost gate. And that is comfort enough. I wonder how Titus managed it.
My own condition is fairly serious. My wristlet soon sets matters right and with a few phone calls and e-mails, my whole record has been laid bare. They know I am a deserter. They know I am David Truth’s son. They know I am a Christian. And right now I couldn’t care less.
Of course the authorities want to know who I was working with and who I was working for, but I tell them nothing. Apparently they don’t want, or need, the information too badly because after only a few hours of intense interrogation they send me to a cell deep in the heart of Blackstone.
They tell me I will be executed at dawn.
I lay in my cell, staring into blankness. Now that the excitement is over I feel nothing but peace. This had been the plan all along, hadn’t it? To free my father, even if it meant my own death. And through God’s grace I and my friends had succeeded.
I pull my thin blanket around me and close my eyes. A minute later I am asleep.
The next thing I know my door is opening. I sit up and blink in the bright light of a flashlight. But instead of a harsh shout I hear a voice so soft it is almost a whisper. A voice I know well, though it has been months since I heard it last.
“Come along, Nathen. You have more work to do before these men kill you.”
My father’s voice.
I can’t help but smile.
He Called It Love
by Hope Schmidt
Some called it freedom; He called it rebellion. Some called it harshness; He called it justice. Some called it foolishness; the King called it love.
Back in the beginning, at the dawn of the kingdom, the King, His Brother, the Counselor, and His Son, the Prince, ruled a peaceful and prosperous kingdom. The people were happy and joyful. The King had given them cottages and fields in His lush valley and the ground brought forth bountiful crops.
There was but one charge which the King laid on his subjects. There was a spring, clear as crystal, which bubbled from the ground in the center of the valley. The King gave the order that no one was to drink from this spring on pain of death. There were many other springs and fountains and the people obeyed…for a time.
But the King had an Enemy. This Enemy was not powerful enough to hurt the King Himself, but before long he discovered the King’s one weakness; the people of His kingdom. For many days the Enemy laid his plans, then one day he entered the valley, disguised as a merchant.
The King watched from His tower, then turned away and called for the Counselor and Prince.
“What clear and sweet fountains you have,” the merchant commented, after selling his wares.
“It is the King Who has given them to us.” The villagers replied.
“And what of this one?” The merchant motioned toward the forbidden spring.
“The King has commanded us not to drink of it.”
The merchant smiled and motioned the people closer, then whispered one word. “Why?”
The people looked at each other questioningly. No one had dared question the King before. But the stranger was right, some of the villagers said. Why shouldn’t they drink? Because it was forbidden by the King, others reasoned. To disobey would be to rebel against the King.
The merchant waited while the people talked, then he held up his hand for silence. “I know why you are not allowed to drink from this spring.” Everyone hushed to hear him. “This fountain will give you a knowledge you never dreamed of. It will make you wise, like the King Himself.”
The people murmured among themselves.
“Go on,” the merchant urged. “Drink, if you will. Or you can stay as you are and be the King’s subjects for the rest of your lives.”
After a short discussion, one of the men stepped forward. The rest of the people watched uncertainly as the man knelt down by the spring and brought some water to his lips. Several of the villagers trembled, wondering if the King would strike down the man as he stood. But nothing happened.
“The water is delicious!” the man exclaimed. A cold light seemed to shine from his eyes. “Come on. Taste it!”
Most of the villagers crowded forward eagerly. Some hesitated at first, but in the end they all drank from the spring. Laughter and shouts filled the air. Then suddenly the mirth ceased. A chill wind seemed to past through the crowd and the people stood, looking at each other, wondering what they had done. And then the cold seemed to wrap itself around their hearts. New thoughts entered the minds of the villagers, hard and cruel. Their minds had been opened and they saw the evil and fear from which the king had protected them. But when they looked for the merchant, he was gone.
Back in his dark fortress the Enemy rubbed his hands and chuckled gleefully.
Up in His castle the King, Counselor, and Prince stood around a table. Their expressions were grim, and sorrow lined the King’s face. They knew there was only one thing which could save their people. They had made their decision even as the merchant first caused the people to doubt the King’s command.
But in the village, hatred began to grow in the hearts of the people. Hatred for the King; hatred for each other; hatred even for themselves. And they left the valley, for nothing perfect could die in the King’s valley, but to those who were rebellious the very air was like poison.
A great hedge grew about the borders of the valley, a hedge between the people and their King, for their King He still remained by right, even though they didn’t own him. None of the people had the power to break the hedge, and the King would not break it, for the price of rebellion was death, and the King demanded justice…justice which His holiness demanded He meet on those coming before Him.
And yet the King, the Prince, and the Councilor still loved their people dearly. Slowly but surely the Enemy gained control of the people, urging them to break every rule the King had established for their happiness. And before long, the people forgot the goodness of the King, and blasphemed Him instead. They never realized they had slipped into the bondage of the Enemy. They thought that all they did was of themselves and for themselves.
But the King saw, and he knew there was only one way to save His people from utter destruction. But the price for their rebellion must first be paid. And the price was high indeed. Still, none of the three Rulers faltered, for their love for the people was greater than the pain it would cost them.
A few days later a cloaked figure passed through the hedge. He came to the wilderness settlement the people had built and began to teach. The people simply called Him, the Stranger. No one knew who He really was or where He was from.
The Stranger taught about the love of the King. He reminded the people of the King’s laws. He told them how they should act. And He said He was the King’s Son. Some of the people believed and followed Him, but many of the King’s former subjects grew to hate this Stranger. He reminded them of things they had tried hard to forget. He tore away their mask of hypocrisy and revealed them for what they were.
And in the end, they decided they had to kill the Stranger. But every time they tried to take Him, He would slip out of their trap. Sometimes He would just walk away, leaving His intended captors bewildered. For weeks and months this continued, with the Stranger teaching boldly and His enemies hating Him all the more for it. And then one dark night, that all changed.
That evening, the Stranger sat down with His followers. “Tonight they will come for Me, and I will go with them,” he told them. “Tonight I must do what I came to do.”
His followers didn’t understand him. They didn’t know that one of the Stranger’s, followers had slipped away and told the His enemies where He was. His enemies came for Him; and the Stranger’s followers scattered.
In a mockery of justice the people brought the Stranger to the Enemy, who now ruled openly over the King’s subjects and with the people’s full consent. They accused the Stranger of sedition and rebellion against the established order and demanded the death sentence. They needn’t have urged the Enemy. He was only too eager to condemn to death the Son of his hated enemy.
And so it was, at midnight the Stranger stood in the outer courtyard of the Enemy’s castle, surrounded by those who hated Him. They took up stones to cast at Him, but when they looked at the Stranger, He was gazing steadfastly toward the closed off valley and the King’s tower cloaked in gloom beyond.
Up in His tower, the King watched the scene unfolding below, His face taunt.
“We have our men all around the Enemy’s castle, your Highness.” A servant ventured, standing behind him. “Shall I order them forward?”
The King gripped the window sill. “No. No, we cannot. This is what He came to do.”
The King turned away from the window and far away, in the firelight courtyard, the Prince bowed His head in anguish. The moment was broken. The people, servants of the Enemy, cast their stones at the One Who was saving them through their ultimate act of rebellion.
And then it was finished. The Stranger lay lifeless on the pavement. A great crack shattered the air and the people shivered as fear swept around them. They looked at the body of the man they had killed, then pulled their cloaks tightly about them and hurried home. Even the Enemy retreated into his castle in sudden dread.
The Stranger’s followers gathered then, and bore away the body of their Master. They lay Him in an inner chamber and sat in silence despair without. The Stranger was the Son of the King, but if so, then how could He have died?
Dawn broke in golden splendor, and as the light streamed through the eastern window a different light, warmer and brighter, streamed from under the door of the chamber in which the Stranger lay. The Followers watched in amazement, frozen in a strange elation mixed with terror. Then the light faded and the door opened. And there stood the Stranger; the Prince; Son of the King.
The Followers fell at His feet, weeping for joy. And then He told them what He had done. The death penalty for the rebellion of the people was now paid. Because the perfect Prince had died, the people could now come before the King and claim the Prince’s righteousness as their own. And if they did so, not only would the King forgive them, but He would bring them to His palace to live.
And then the Prince told the Followers that He had to leave and go back to the King.
“But I will come again.” The Prince promised. “And when I do, I will defeat the Enemy and his servants once and for all and take those who trust in Me to My home, to live with Me forever. But until then, I commission you to tell others about Me, so that they might be saved as well.”
And so the Prince left, but the Followers spread throughout the land, proclaiming the truth and promise of the Prince. Some believed. Others mocked. And still others spurned the message of hope and mercy. And up in the tower, the King, Prince, and Counselor waited until the fulfilment of time when the Prince would return and bring those loyal to the King back home.
TEST OF COURAGE
By Hope Schmidt
Screams shatter the darkness like bolts of terror as I dash from the cottage, franticly buckling my sword to my side. Father is already outside, bow in one hand, sword in the other. He unwinds my younger sister’s arms from around his waist and gently pushes her toward me. “Take her, Edvard.” He yells so I can hear him above the nearing conflict. “Keep Janexia safe!” He turns and sprints toward the blazing cottages and clashing arms.
Waves of smoke weave though the fresh night air as Janexia and I dart through wavering shadows then dash for the woods. I glance back and catch a glimpse of horsemen pouring into the flaming village, cutting down all in their path.
Then I freeze as one of the raiders turns. His dark eyes glitter and his raised sword reflects the lured glow of the fires. With a wild yell he whirls it around his head then points it in my direction. I can clearly see the cruel mocking twist of his lip and a ragged cut down his left cheek.
Fear whispers in my ears and terror sinks his talons into my heart. I drop Janexia’s hand and run. Behind me her scream is drown out by a roar or mocking laughter. The sounds sheer themselves into my memory but for the moment panic overcomes me; I don’t stop; I don’t go back. Instead…I run.
“Janexia!” I sat up, panting. Across the dim room my fifteen-year-old sister stirred sleepily, muttering something intelligible. A moment later her breathing resumed its soft rhythm. I pressed my head into my cupped hands and groan. The events of last summer continued to haunt me. Janexia escaped, but that was purely due to the darkness and her own fleetness of foot. I’d failed her as a defender; I’d failed Father, who died to buy us time. I had fled and fear kept pace with me; a fear that never dissipated.
Even in the darkness the heat rose to my face and I rubbed my cheeks vigorously. Deep inside of me, deeper even then my shame, was a terror that never slept. A terror that I would fail again…fail, and lose the only thing left that I loved. Fail, and be a servant to fear my whole life.
I lay back on the bed and stared into nothingness. Slowly, ever so slowly, my heart returned to its normal tempo. Would fear never leave me? From the darkness of the thatched roof hovering over me wafted a crackle of mocking laughter and a single word. Never.
I shivered and pulled the woolen blanket up to my neck as I closed my eyes tight. Never…never…never…never…
Dawn’s first gleams rested on my eyelids when they fluttered open again. Memory of the nightmare had almost faded into nothingness…almost. I breathed in the morning’s freshness, tinged with smoke and a faint whiff of roses. Janexia’s lilting voice trilled along with thrushes and doves, mingling with the golden light and silvery smells drifting though the widow.
I stretched out my arms to the coolness, grinning as my muscles tightened, before leaping to my feet. My hand closed over the wide leather belt hanging on a peg and I swiftly clinched it around my waist, fastening my tunic. Keeping time with Janexia’s singing, my fingers wove through my sandals, strapping them securely to my feet. I grabbed my left leg with my right hand and pulled it upward towards my back.
Janexia’s singing shattered in a piercing scream, a scream I’d only heard once before.
I dropped my foot, and pivoted toward the door.
“Edva…” Janexia’s next cry was muffled.
My sword was already in my hand, and I yanked the scabbard off as I kicked the door open. “Janexia!”
I ducked as a sword sang over my head, wind from its blade ruffling my hair. I parried the next blow, then glared at my attacker. His black cloak half hid Janexia, who writhed beyond him in the grip of another raider. She half twisted and struck at him with the small dagger she always carried, but the man knocked it from her hand.
My own opponent’s blade was crashing down toward me again and I barely had time to leap out of its path. As I returned the blow I caught a glimpse of the other raider’s hand slap with full force over my sister’s face.
“Leave her alone,” I yelled as the man threw Janexia over the pommel of his horse’s saddle. I leapt forward but the dark raider threw me back and raised his sword yet again with a mocking grin. In his eyes I was only a dark haired youth, a slight one at that, a novice to the blade. He underestimated me horribly. My father had trained me well…and no one would stand between me and my sister. I assailed him with a yell of fury; driven by desperation. Within a minute his expression changed to one of realization, then to fear, a fear which froze on his face as he fell lifeless to the ground.
I was too late. The raider, with Janexia lying limply across his knees, turned his horse and laughed mockingly.
“No!” I leapt forward, but the raider’s horse danced to the side. My hands met nothing but air and I slipped, tumbling to the dewy grass. In spite of the jar echoing through my body I rolled to my knees and staggered to my feet.
Janexia? Where was…my hand clamped upon the sword’s hilt as I watched the shadows of the nearby forest swallowed up the raider and my sister. I couldn’t breathe; my throat burned and my arms hung numbly at my side. I turned and lead against the cottage’s rough door frame, gasping.
Why Janexia? Why? And I had tried this time…to no avail. Tried. Anger surged within me. I wasn’t finished yet. I dashed toward the stable without even bothering to glance down the dirt road to the village. No help would come from that quarter. Only a fool would chase a raider into the mountains.
Valiant, the undersized brown gelding, named by Janexia, not myself I might add, nickered softly and nibbled at hair.
“No; no time today,” my fingers fumbled under his bridle, the rope scraping my skin raw as I fought to untie the knot. “Maybe the raiders will feed you if we get captured…or I get killed. Sorry about the rush. I’m not eating myself you know.” I mumbled on breathlessly, hardly knowing what I spoke.
I pulled the rope from Valliant’s bridle ring and snatched the saddle blanket from the wall. My hands flew and a moment later I half led, half pulled, my mount into the sunny morning. I grabbed the pommel of the saddle, ready to vault onto Valliant’s back when something caught my eye. I hesitated, then leapt to the dead raider’s side and feverishly unbuckled his black cloak. At the last moment I grabbed the small pouch from the raider’s belt, a pouch that chinked when it moved. Perhaps the money inside would be good for something. The armor was too big, it would take too long to put on, and Janexia was carried farther away every moment I lingered. I pulled the detestable cloak about my shoulders, fastening it as I bounded back to my horse and sprang on his back.
Moments later, as the forest closed about me, I realized what I should have realized from the beginning. Short as it was, the raider’s lead was large enough I wouldn’t be able to follow him by sight. My visions of overtaking him before reaching the mountains evaporated. I would have to track him and good as I was, he’d make three leagues to Valliant’s one.
I almost turned back there, I must admit. No one could enter the mountains and survive. Then again, in my present state, I wasn’t sure I wanted to survive. I went on. The morning passed in a blur of trees and narrow plains, hoof prints and agonizing moments of finding the lost trail time after time.
Then came the time where the trail vanished and didn’t reappear. I sat back on my horse and raised my head, then slowly twisted in the saddle to stare behind me, stunned. Gray cliffs rose to my right while great boulders littered a rough ledge to my left that dropped into a gorge. Sparse knives of green grass sliced through the stone at irregular intervals, growing noticeable fewer ahead.
When I though back, I faintly remembered the grassy lowlands, then rough lower hills before the rugged gloominess of the mountains themselves, but all recollection of passing any kind of boundary was gone with the morning’s coolness.
“Look Valiant,” I slipped off the horse and traced my fingers along the rocks. “A path if I ever saw one.” The faint track was my only line to hope, and I remounted and urged my horse forward. I had to find Janexia, I would find her. The track wound on and the noon sun beat down on my head, burning away even the cliff’s slight shadow. I wiped my forehead, and for a moment my hand froze there as Valliant rounded a sharp bend.
I breathed in sharply through clenched teeth and my fingers tightened on the leather reins. Sheer cliffs rose on either side and directly ahead, a bowshot away the path ended abruptly in rugged gray rock. A dark jagged entrance marred, or perhaps added to, the severity of the scene before me. But it wasn’t the mountain, looming in and trapping me on every side, it wasn’t even the ominous cave drawing ever closer that burned my throat and constricted my chest. There were raiders behind me; I could see them standing watch on the cliffs at the entry of the gorge. There were others relaxing in the sun or caring for the horses tied outside their mountain refuge. Liquid fear surged through my veins and my mind screamed at me to pull on the reins and gallop back to safety. But for better or worse, my hands hung limply in my lap…and Valiant trotted confidently forward.
I struggled to keep my seat as sights spun around dizzily and strange lights danced before my eyes. How long would it take for the raiders to discover my disguise? It was too late to turn back; they would be upon me before I made it out of the gorge. Would I be beaten or enslaved? Or maybe they would just slip their swords through my ribs as I rode past. The thought made me shudder and I blinked, once more becoming aware of my surroundings.
It wasn’t until I dismounted that I dared look around, but none of the raiders favored me with so much as a glance. In spite of my racing heart, my lips curled as I realized that here in their stronghold, the last thing they expected was an enemy riding alone into their midst. But I wasn’t about to test my fortune and slipped into the cave, moving as quickly as I could without attracting attention.
Even in the dim light I could feel the huge size of the cavern. I wedged myself one of the many small niches in the rock, letting my stolen cape blend in with the shadows. For some reason I felt safer here, in the jaws of the raider’s fortress, then I had the whole journey into the mountains. I stifled a cough and covered the lower portion of my face with my cloak in a vain attempt to block out the smoke clogged air. I traced the torches lining the walls with my eyes, wondering if there was any ventilation in the cave at all.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness the cavern’s size became apparent. An army could have fit between the rock walls but at that point its only occupants were a few men sprawled on the ground, asleep or drunk, while several others jested loudly in a corner. Five passages, one of them barred with an iron grate, opened into the cavern. I gazed at the bars for several minutes, letting my breathing settle down.
Muted shouts filter through the cave entrance and I froze as a man stomped in, passing so close I could smell the wine on his breath. He paused at the barred tunnel and pulled a key from his belt. I knew what I had to do and my breathing instantly sped back up, but I ignored, or tried to, as I strode out into the open; trying to act like I belong.
“Guard duty,” the man muttered to himself as he passed through the gate and began to swing it shut. “Of all the…”
I grabbed the bars, keeping the gate from latching.
“By the….What do you think you’re doing?” the raider demanded angrily.
“Perhaps I have something to share.” I lifted my cloak just enough so the man could catch a glimpse of the money pouch I’d taken earlier.
The raider raised his eyebrows then glanced pass me into the cavern. “Quickly then.” He relented his grip on the gate and I slipped through.
With a quick pace he hurried down the gloomy passage. “What do you want in return, a glimpse of the fair one, eh?”
“What else?” I could hardly believe I was doing this.
The man chuckled as the tunnel ended in a small room with several doors embedded into the wall. “In that cell there,” he motioned to the nearest door, “but you can’t go in. Now how much-”
My sword flew to his throat has he turned back to me and he stopped, confusion, fear, and anger sweeping across his face.
“Who are you?” His hand moved slowly toward his side.
“Keep your hand away from your sword,” I pressed my own blade closer. My heart pounded, but in anger this time, not fear. “I am Edvard, the maiden’s brother.”
With an inarticulate cry the raider leapt back beyond my reach and drew his sword.
Clash after clash echoed from the roof as we leapt back and forth, sparring and parrying. I gritted my teeth, my lips parted as I panted through them. This was one fight I would win. The raider aimed a blow at my head. I ducked easily and swept to the left before he had time to recover, striking his side. Once he was wounded he had no chance. Within moments he fell.
I turned, lowering my sword. Janexia’s eyes shone from behind the barred window of a door. I drew back the bolt and yanked it open.
“Did they hurt you?” I hugged her tightly then held her back at arm’s length, looking her over.
“It wasn’t that bad,” she smiled I could feel her trembling; “I knew you would come.”
“It will be harder getting out,” I admitted. “I’m not sure how to work that out. Maybe if you put this black cloak on-”
“How would a secret exit work?”
“What?” I stared at Janexia.
“A secret passage?” Janexia felt the wall by the tunnel. “I was brought in that way.”
“Don’t know, but I was.” Janexia pushed a bit of protruding rock. With a horrible grating, the rock slid back.
“Fascinating,” I heard footsteps along the passageway. “Get in! Hurry!”
I clambered up after Janexia and groped for a handle. A piece of rope met my hand and I pulled the door shut.
“Lead the way, Janexia,” I gasped, unhooking the black cloak and tossing off the helmet.
We ran almost bent double. The air was hot and stifling and the pitch blackness bore down as if to crush out life itself. Once or twice I thought I heard the sound of pursuit, but I wasn’t sure. There was nothing I could do but hurry forward.
After what seemed ages, but couldn’t have been more than several minutes, a dim light started to soak up the darkness. It grew stronger, then suddenly Janexia disappeared and I was pushing aside a mass of vines. The sun shone on the green hillside we were standing on and a fresh breeze blew across my face. Behind us not a trace of the tunnel was visible.
A wide meadow spread out at the foot of the hill leading up to the forest. I took a deep breath of cool air, then Janexia and I started for the cover of the trees. It was a sense more than a sound that caused me to spin around halfway across the meadow. A tall raider with long black hair was sprinting down the hill in pursuit.
“Run,” I shoved Janexia as we sprinted toward the looming shadows. A few more feet and I looked back. The raider’s long strides rapidly closed the distance between us. I glanced at the forest. It was close, but not close enough.
“Get to the woods,” I gasped, drawing my sword.
“Now!” I yelled.
She turned and fled as I swung around to face our pursuer.
The man slowed and came to a stop a few feet from where I stood.
“So you’re the one who took my prisoner.” He glanced at me contemptuously.
“She’s my sister,” I countered.
“I should run you through right now; you helped the other one escape earlier, didn’t you? But you have done well,” the man smiled scornfully, “so I will spare your life. Leave your sister and run home, little stripling.”
“A practical idea,” I backed up a step, “but I think I’ll stay all the same.”
The raider laughed mockingly. “Perhaps you don’t know who I am. No? I thought as much. I am Felzon, leader of the Mountain Raiders. You would have no chance.”
Felzon; the man who raided our village last summer; the man who killed Father; the man responsible kidnapping Janexia. I swallowed hard and tried to keep hand from trembling. He laughed again.
“Run home,” he mocked. “Tell your father to send a man to rescue his daughter, not a mere boy.”
In a flash I was back in a dark meadow, the village burning in the background. Father’s words echoed in my ears, “Keep Janexia safe!” I gritted my teeth as the same anger I’d felt earlier swept over me. With a yell I raised my sword and charged Felzon.
He raised his blade smoothly and deflected the blow.
After that I didn’t have time to be afraid. The sun beat down on my head and glittered on our clashing swords. Step by step Felzon beat me back, until we were fighting at the very edge of the forest. I used every grain of strength, every bit of skill. I went through every trick I’d learned, but Felzon took it all with fiendish delight. He could have killed me several times, but always he stopped, let me recover. It wasn’t from any sense of honor either.
I was exhausted but there was no rest. Then Felzon struck in earnest and I fell to my knees. The next blow knocked my sword clean out of my hand.
“You should have run, foolish boy,” Felzon chuckled, as he slowly raised his sword.
I waited, panting; hoping I could dodge the blow.
Something whizzed by my ear.
Felzon gasped and dropped his sword. A long arrow protruded from his chest. I threw myself to the side as Felzon fell forward, then leapt over and retrieved my sword before looking in the direction the arrow came from.
“Well done, Edvard.”
I looked at the pale disheveled man in front of Janexia, stunned, then bounded forward. His strong arms wrapped around me.
“Father,” I gasped, gazing at him in bewilderment, “but you were dead.”
Father laughed. “Several of the villagers were captured. I don’t know what happened to the others, but this morning I finally succeeded in making my escape.”
“It’s a good thing you showed up when you did.” I clasped Janexia’s hand in mine. “Tell us everything.”
Father raised his eyebrows. “I’m not the only one with a story.”
As we hurried though the woods, joy radiated through my body. Father was back, Janexia was safe, and I’d finally found an answer to that nagging question about fear.
I might not be able to get rid of fear, but I could act in spite of it. The future would hold challenges, but no longer would I let fear be a chain to hinder me. Its presence might be felt, but only felt, nothing more.
This story happens during the history of Cember Earth, a world I've created (for a seven book series I hope to right sometime.
Rise of Shadow
Shadow stood, shrouded in the dusky gloom at the forest’s edge as he scanned the plain spread out beneath him. It was still several hours until sundown, but the heavy gray sky kept back all but the faintest apparition of the sun.
A cold wind rustled the through the dying leaves above him and Shadow shivered. He felt naked without his armor, and touched his sword’s hilt on his side to reassure himself. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. This mission was dependent on stealth, not strength; if he was discovered, there was very little chance of making it back to Pernilla and the Atharishian army waiting there.
Shadow pulled his mottled green and brown cloak closer about him and leaned back against the rough bark of a tree. He could wait.
Absently he watched the leaden clouds above as they began to fissure and crack, letting spears of late afternoon sunlight stab toward the grassy plain. And still he waited.
He heard them before he saw them; a low rumble that seemed to fill the air and shake the ground beneath his feet. Shadow tensed, sinking deeper into the gloom, his gaze darting back and forth along the ridge of hills bordering the plain.
Then came flashes of light, glints betraying spear tips and bronze shields. A disorderly mass of soldiers spilled over the crest of the hills, followed by another, then another. Shadow snorted to himself. Soldiers! They didn’t deserve the name. They were pirates from the Fairith Isles, descendants of the rebels from Laurenthalas in the north. Murderers and thieves. And they thought, just because they wanted more gold and land, they could cross over to the mainland and invade Atharim? Shadow clenched his fists. They’d better think again.
The army came to a halt in the plain. Shadow watched as dense circles of tents sprang up quickly. Other makeshift shelters were scattered haphazardly about. He waited for a little longer to see if more troops would join them, but none did.
Shadow wondered if Father would approve a night attack. They could rout the Pirates and drive them back to the see. Then again, the general might think it too large of a risk. The king of Atharim had let the army fall into confused disarray. That was why the pirates hadn’t been brought to a halt on the beaches. That was why they had managed to strike deep into Atharim’s heart, burning and pillaging as they went. That was why they were now only half a day’s march from Pernilla, Atharim’s capital.
Shadow finished surveying the pirate’s encampment. 50,000 men, more or less, he estimated. No cavalry though, that was good.
Campfires blazing and the setting sun shown red beneath the retreating clouds before Shadow turned away and headed quietly back into the forest. He paused for a minute in a clearing, retrieving a bow and quiver of arrows from a hollow tree before heading into the thickening gloom of the trees. He walked warily, alert for a signs of an enemy patrol. But he saw none.
He was nearly through the wood, which separated him from the lush meadows surrounding Pernilla, when a voice, hushed but strong, came from Shadow’s right.
“Stand and declare yourself.”
Shadow paused with a quick smile. He knew the voice.
“It’s Shadow.” He waited. Silence. “Alright, Strevin, then. Strevin, son of General Hadin. You know my voice, Arrow. Don’t pretend you don’t.”
“As if I would ever think of such a thing.” Arrow stepped from the shadows and lowered his bow. “Just like you would never leave on a scouting mission all alone.”
“It was safer with just one.”
“Safer, do you really think-“
Shadow cut his friend off. “The pirates finished setting up camp about an hour ago. But we should send out scouts to make sure they don’t advance during the night.” Shadow started walking again.
“I’ll bring orders to Nysander if you want me to,” Arrow offered.
“Thank you.” Shadow paused as they broke from the forest. The campfires lighting this plain were in orderly rows. Beyond them, the city of Pernilla seethed with lights as hundreds of new refugees tried to find a place to settle down. Arrow headed off to talk with Captain Nysander and Shadow made straight for the great tent in the center of the camp. The night wind set half hidden flags fluttering and snapping.
Shadow nodded to several soldiers as he passed. The situation wasn’t completely hopeless. His father had managed to regather about half of Atharim’s army after the first battle, when the king was killed and the soldiers routed. The pirates still outnumbered them two to one, but the pirates were only fighting for money. The soldiers here were fighting for their families, their freedoms, and Shadow was sure they would win. They had to. There wasn’t any choice.
“Any news?” A hand pulled on Shadow’s sleeve as he was about to enter Father’s tent.
Shadow turned and smiled as he saw Aryanna. The flickering light of the lamp over the entrance to the tent lit up her calm face. She was the king’s only daughter, but, more importantly to Shadow, she would one day be his bride. They’d pledged themselves only days before her father’s death.
“They are in the valley.” Shadow said, reaching out and brushing a wisp of dark hair from her eyes and tucking it behind her ear. No need to say who they were.
“So will it be tomorrow.”
Shadow nodded. “At dawn, most likely. Anything happening here?”
“A Ryshanian captain is inside with the general right now.”
“That is good news.” Ryshan was the country to their east. They had only recently become independent from Atharim and had promised General Hadin their aid.
“Perhaps,” Aryanna hesitated then took my bow and quiver. “Well, go on and report to the general. I’ll have a hot meal at your tent whenever you decide to get there.”
“I won’t be long.” Shadow promised, and lifted the thick curtain, passing into Father’s tent.
Another curtain divided the tent into two rooms. The outer chamber was empty except for two guards who stood on either side of the entrance. Soft light and softer voices filtered out of the inner chamber. Shadow entered quietly.
Father was pacing between sparkling lamps which hung in the back corners of the tent. A long table with writing materials and several maps stood in the center of the room. A Ryshanian captain sat in a chair before the table. By the looks of his begrimed armor, he had been in a skirmish. His shield was leaning against his chair and his shoulders were slumped as he rested his forehead on his hand.
Father glanced at his son. Shadow’s heart sank. He knew that look, though he’d only seen it once, the night before Mother died. It was a look of deep foreboding, almost of hopelessness. The General turned away quickly and bent over a map.
Shadow leaned closer and saw it was a map of the mountains and hills to the north of Atharim and Ryshan.
With a barely audible sigh, Father straightened. “Thank you Thry. You and your men have done well.”
The Ryshanian nodded and slowly rose to his feet. “We merely did our duty.”
“But you did it well,” Father repeated. He came around the table and gripped the captain’s arm. The captain saluted and left.
Father waited until the man’s steps had left the tent, then he turned on Shadow, energy springing back into his eyes. The look Shadow had seen earlier was gone. “And you! Why did you leave to go scout alone?”
“You hadn’t given me orders.” Shadow looked at his feet.
“Orders.” Father snorted. “You left early to avoid them. I told Arrow to go with you and he came back saying you had already left.”
It was true. He’d wanted to be alone for just a few hours. “I’m sorry.” Shadow looked back up at Father, “I won’t do it again.” After the battle that was sure to come the next morning, there wouldn’t be a chance for it to happen again. Either they would be victorious…or they would die. Shadow shook his head; they would be victorious
“No harm’s been done…this time,” Father’s face softened. “So what do you have to report?”
“About 50,000 pirates, but disorganized. They camped in the plain beyond the wood. I sent Arrow to get Nysander to post scouts to make sure they wouldn’t launch a surprise attack. They have no cavalry.” Shadow smiled. “We can defeat them…they have no organization and are overconfident.”
“If it was just them, that might be the case.” Father shook his head, the weariness returning to his face. He hesitated, then his eyes met Shadow’s. “That Ryshanian captain, Thry, was attacked by a patrol of Shangarens. The Shangarens are gathering to help the pirates; they have probably joined them already under cover of darkness.”
“The wolf riders,” Shadow exhaled softly. That dashed any plan of a night attack to pieces. Now he understood Father’s look. “But the Shangarens were supposed to be at peace with us.”
Father just looked at him
“Well, what about the lion riders which live on the border?” Shadow asked. “They are the only ones who can face the wolf riders on equal terms and I know they are stanchly on our side. Will they help?”
“They might, but there is no time to call them even if we knew where to find them.” Father shrugged. “They might know already and be on their way here, but we can’t be sure.”
For a long minute there was silence between the father and son. Shadow had never seen the fierce wolf riders up close, but the tales of brutal strength and harshness were enough to chill the heart of any man.
“So what is to be done?” Shadow finally asked.
“Rest, for now.” Father smiled slightly. “The camp will be aroused an hour before dawn, like normal. When the sun rises, we will see what the day brings.”
Shadow nodded, but was unwilling to leave. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Like what?” Father demanded with a chuckle. “You’ve been out scouting all afternoon. Get you your tent and the meal your betrothed has waiting for you. But don’t talk to Aryanna for too long. She will be with the archers tomorrow and needs her rest as much as you.”
“I will be in bed before the hourly call,” Shadow promised.
He ducked out of the chamber, passed the guards, and stepped into the night air. The moon was rising in the east and fires crackled on every side. Shadow hurried toward his own tent. The night had seemed so full of promise when he’d arrived. Now his heart felt heavy. The chances of his living another night were growing slimmer by the minute, but he didn’t mind death so much if he could only knew it would do some good. But to die and leave Atharim for the pirates…for the woman and children to be taken into slavery by the Shangarens…Shadow clenched his fists. It could not happen. He would not let it happen.
“I thought you said you would be quick.” Aryanna greeted Shadow cheerily as he entered his own tent, lit with two hanging lamps. Her face grew grave as she looked at him. “What has happened?”
Briefly Shadow told her of what he’d learned from Father as he devoured the stew and bread Aryanna had set out for him. He tried to keep the outcome of the coming battle as hopeful as possible, but he could tell Aryanna was not fooled.
She took his dishes when he was finished eating and went to the tent entrance. “Don’t lose hope yet, Shadow. The lion riders might come, and we are not helpless either, you know.”
Shadow smiled. “I worry more for you than for myself…or the outcome of the battle.”
“Oh, do be quiet.” Aryanna came back and gave him a quick kiss on his forehead. “You know better. Now get some rest.”
“You go straight to bed too,” Shadow ordered. “I want you to be able to shoot straight so you can cover me tomorrow whenever I get in a tight spot.”
“Selfish.” Aryanna threw her hair over her shoulder and left the tent with a small laugh.
Shadow took off his light leather breastplate and set his sword by his cot, then turned down the lamps. Then he rolled up in a blanket, fully dressed. He lay staring into the darkness, listening to the steady tramp of the sentries feet and the occasional clatter of a horse bearing a scout into the camp. What would tomorrow bring? Victory, or death? There didn’t seem to be any other option. He tried to think, to weight one option against another, so see if there was something which could counterbalance the Shangaren’s wolves, but gradually his surroundings faded into forgetfulness and Shadow fell asleep.
“Hour of standing to, sleepyhead.”
Shadow sat up with a jerk and looked around. Aryanna stood before him, her bow in one hand and a lamp in the other.
Shadow jumped to his feet and grabbed his breastplate…a sturdy metal one, not the light armor of the day before. Aryanna set down her lamp and bow and helped Shadow into his armor. Their fingers flew and within a few minutes Shadow was buckling on his sword. He snatched up his rectangular shield in one hand and took the piece of bread Aryanna offered and together they stepped out of the tent.
The sky was dark, and the stars shone cold as the soldiers assembled silently, with only muted orders, the tramp of feet, and clink of armor breaking the silence. Shadow paused as they approached the battlefield. The line stretched across the neck of land which Pernilla rested on. The left flank dipped down to the Sterling River while the right flank hugged a rugged bluff which also tumbled down to the river as it curved around.
“See you later.” Aryanna smiled then hurried toward the hill which rose in the center, behind the line, dominating the whole field. That was where the archers were posted. Shadow’s own command was at the left flank. He strode along the line of gathering soldiers and on to the center where his father stood in command.
The general glanced toward shadow as he came up.
“Any reports?” Shadow asked in a low voice.
“About 500 wolf riders rode into the pirate camp late last night.” The general replied in a soft voice.
Shadow nodded, his heart sinking. He’d been clinging to the faint hope that the Ryshan Captain was wrong.
The general gripped Shadow’s shoulder. “Stand strong, my son. Don’t give up before we’ve even started.”
Shadow straightened. “Never!” He saluted and made his way back to his post, in the center of the left flank, grim determination coursing through him.
At least they were in a good position. ‘The pirates will attack us wherever we are,’ his father had said. ‘We might as well choose the ground.’
Shadow shivered slightly. The hour of standing to, the hour before dawn when attacks were most likely, slowly dragged on. Ahead of him, about a thousand paces distance, rose the forest…the only thing laying between us and the pirates…and the wolf riders of Shangar.
Shadow glanced over his shoulder as the sky in the east began to lighten. The walls of Pernilla were deserted. There were no men to spare to guard them. If the battle when ill, then Pernilla would fall. The refugees and townspeople, those that were left and not out here on the field with a bow or sword, had taken cover by order of the king.
Shadow found himself longing for the security of the walls, but he knew why Father had drawn the line here on the plain before the city. The brunt of the battle would fall here…if it made its way to the capital, many people would die. In the end, they might have to retreat to the city. But not yet, not until all else had failed.
Shadow hated waiting, but he well knew the wait would be over too soon. The sun began to appear over the horizon. Suddenly deep horn filled the air. Shadow straightened, his hand moving to his sword’s hilt. That was no Atharim horn.
The call rumbled forth again, echoing though the plain. Around Shadow, the men shifted.
Something flashed in the forest and Shadow drew his sword, the metallic swish of his blade sliding from its sheath joining thousands more as soldiers all down the line drew theirs as well. The next moment shadows disattached themselves from the gloom of the trees. Tall figures, with great spears.
Shadow sighed with relief. Pirates. He’d dealt with them before. He briefly wondered where the wolf riders were, but there was no time to think about it.
With wild yells, the pirates raced toward the Atharishian line.
“Shields up!” Shadow yelled, clenching his sword with his right hand while lifting his shield with his left. The men around him did the same, forming a living cave with walls and roof of shields. Dull thuds and splintered wood, mingled with several strangled cries told Shadow that at least some of the pirate javelins had found a mark. More yells from the pirates told that Atharishian arrows were also taking their toll.
The battle cries grew nearer. Shadow watched the approaching enemy through a crack between two shields. Fifty paces. Twenty. Ten. Five.
“Now!” Shadow dropped his shield arm and lashed out with his sword. The battle was joined.
The sun rose on a battlefield, already soaked with blood.
Shadow fought fiercely. The pirates were strong but disorganized. The wolf riders had yet to appear and Shadow felt hope growing in him once more. On and on the battle raged. Now the Atharishian line wavered, now it stood strong and the pirates pulled back, now they charging again. The sun rose high in the sky and Shadow clenched his teeth, ignoring his thirst and the ache of his arm.
The pirates wavered again, then began to retreat. Cheers rose up around Shadow.
“Stand!” Shadow yelled. “Do not pursue. Not yet!”
Suddenly, with no signal or warning of any sort, Shadow saw dark figures streaking out of the forest. The pirates wavered, then fell in place behind the wolf riders as they hurtled toward the Atharishian lines. A moment later, swarthy riders atop great black wolves slammed into the Atharishian ranks. They were worse even than Shadow had imagined.
He ducked to avoid the jaws of a wolf and barely parried a sword thrust from the rider. Men fell on either side of them, but more soldiers stepped up to take their place. The wolf riders pulled back and charged again…and again. And still the Atharishians fought on.
Shadow glanced along his line as the Shangarens pulled back one more. His line was thin…only one man deep in some places. They wouldn’t be able to withstand another charge.
A melodious horn sounded to his right and Shadow turned toward the sound. In a glance, he saw the right wing had been hopelessly shattered. The general’s standard was now flying from the crest of the hill. His horn winded out above the field once more, calling all survivors to join him.
“To me!” Shadow heard himself calling above the noise of battle. “To me!” But already the wolf riders were charging once more. This time, the riders broke through the line.
Shadow managed to gather a small body of men. Slowly but surely they fought their way to the hill, some men falling, others joining him.
Atharishian solders had formed a new line around the foot of the hill. Shadow passed through them, leaving his men there, hurrying up to where the general and several officers stood at the crest of the hill. Aryanna was there too, as well as a handful of other archers. As he walked, Shadow glanced to either side. The whole Atharishian line had been decimated. Those who had not yet made it to the hill were surrounded by wolf riders and pirates. Some of the pirates were already at Pernilla’s walls, throwing up ladders and streaming over them. Shadow forced himself to look away and focus on the current situation.
Shadow turn father. “So now what?”
“We fight.” The general’s lips tightened into a grim line but a fire seemed to light his eyes.
Shadow looked down to where the remnants of the Atharishian army defended the hill. The pirate had gone on after easier prey and the Shangaren wolves and their riders were tearing ragged gaps into the diminishing circle.
“Stay up here and do what you can with your bow,” Shadow commanded Aryanna, then he plunged down into the fight.
The fight of earlier seemed child’s play compared to the battle taking place now. Wounds were nothing…Shadow saw men half dead, using the last of their strength to take a wolf or its rider with them to the grave. Shadow himself was wounded slightly in his side. He pulled out of the battle for several minutes while Aryanna dressed the wound, then took up his sword and joined his men again. Time seemed to drag on as the sun slowly sunk down towards the west.
In the back of his mind, Shadow wondered how long this fight could continue…how long until they all were dead upon the hilltop? The circle compressed and step by step the line was forced up the hill. Behind him, Shadow could hear his father calling out encouragement, stepping in occasionally to strike a blow, then moving on to the next weak point.
“How are you doing?” Father’s voice sound suddenly near and Shadow realized that the General had stepped in to fill a gap next to him.
“As best as can be expected.” Shadow drove his sword into the mouth of a wolf.
“Then-” the General gasped and Shadow turned to see him pull a spear from his chest and collapse on one knee.
“Close ranks!” Shadow shouted above the tumult. He leapt back out of the fight, dragging Father with him to the small space still open.
Aryanna bent down opposite Shadow, but as Shadow looked at his father, he knew the wound was mortal. He shook his head and Aryanna stood with a small sob, reaching for another arrow and turning back to the fight.
“Shadow…” The general clutched Shadow’s arm, gasping for air.
“I’m here.” Shadow clenched his jaw.
“Save them…if you can.” The General’s hand fell limp.
Shadow took a deep breath, then rose to his feet, anger surging though him. Save them…if you can. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t! What more could he do? It didn’t matter, he would do it anyway. But even as Shadow stepped toward the fight now raging only several paces away, a sound arrested his movement. A clear high horn, ringing over the field.
The battle seemed to freeze for several long seconds and Shadow’s head jerked toward the forest.
The horn came again, followed by ringing shouts which surged high over the commotion on the field.
“Lion riders!” Shadow yelled as he caught sight of the first golden beast spring from the forest. He sprang to the front of the battle line. “Lion riders!”
“Lion riders!” the call spread through the Shangaren attackers and they broke off the attack on the Atharishians, turning toward the lion riders issuing from the woods.
In the brief respite Shadow glanced toward the city. The gates were open now, and the pirates were streaming through. Shadow could hear the screams of the townspeople. Their cries were heartrending, but for a moment, Shadow was at a loss of what to do. There were too many pirates and Shangarens between him and the city…and there wasn’t enough soldiers alive to retake the city even if that could get there.
He turned back to the lion riders, who were now approaching at a rapid pace. They didn’t seem to be attacking the wolf riders…rather they were fighting defensively, pushing through the enemies.
Aryanna gripped Shadow’s arm. “There’s not enough of them,” she gasped.
Shadow tightened his hold on his sword. He’d noticed the same thing. After the first rush of lion riders, no more had come. Near a hundred of the great beasts were loping towards them, but they that was not enough. What were they doing? They hadn’t come to simply die with the Atharishians…that wasn’t their way.
The first of the lion riders galloped up to the line.
“Circle round!” The ride shouted. Even without his order, the men were forming a ring around the battered Atharishian troops.
The rider slipped off his lion, he was a head taller than Shadow, and his blond hair fell over his greenish chain mail. “I am Silian. Where is General Hadin?”
Shadow motioned with his head to his father’s body lying on the hill behind him.
The rider’s face grew grim. “And these are all the soldiers left?”
For a moment Silian looked at the surrounding battle. Shadow followed his gaze. The lion riders were holding their own, but Shadow didn’t know how long it could last in the sea of wolves.
“And who are you?”
Shadow turned his attention back to the man. “Strevin, son of General Hadin. I am called Shadow.”
“You are the leader here?”
“Yes.” Shadow didn’t hesitate.
The man nodded. “The main group of lion riders is still in the mountains, preventing any more Shangaren reinforcements from entering Atharim. We can’t defeat these wolf riders, there are too many of them.” He hesitated. “But we can rescue you and your men.”
“But what about Pernilla?” Shadow looked toward the city. “We can’t just leave them!”
The rider gripped Shadow’s shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. “They will ravage the city, and if you attack, they will kill everyone. But once the battle is over, they will enslave the people, not kill them. Leave with us and regroup in the mountains. We will help you and eventually you will be able to retake Atharim and free the people. Will you come?”
Shadow glanced toward the city in despair, but he knew the rider was right. His shoulders sagged. “We will come.”
“Up and mount!” The Silian shouted, and his riders slowly retreated up the hill.
“Mount behind them.” Shadow hurried round the circle of his own men. “We are getting out of here.”
The operation was performed in short order. Shadow helped Aryanna behind one of the riders. After everyone was mounted, he sprang up behind the Silian.
The rider raised his horn to his lips and gave a sharp blast and the cavalcade started off at a swift pace. Cries of rage rose from the wolf riders as they saw their prey escaping, and they closed in, but to no avail. Though some of the riders fell, the majority broke through the lines and into the wood.
Clusters of wolf riders followed hard on their heels for well-nigh a league but the lions sped forward, and after a time they were racing on alone.
Shadow felt grim fury rise up within him as the noise of battle was replaced by the rush of wind in his ears. He glanced over to where Aryanna rode a few lions over. Her face was taunt and tears streamed down her cheeks.
The sun was setting as the lions entered the foothills of the Bald Mountains, crossing into the border lands of Atharim. Shadow half turned, watching Atharim fall away below. His heart ached for the terror he knew would fall on the people of his country.
“I will return.” Shadow whispered to the wind. The vow hardened in his heart and he clenched his fist. “I will return!” He shouted. A darkness had fallen over Atharim, but Shadow knew it would not last forever. He would fight, from the mountains and the hill, from the forests and the caves. And in the end, he would win. He would honor his father’s wish. He would save them. He was Shadow, General of Atharim!
This is a poem I wrote years ago.
Time is like a snowflake,
It's there and then it's gone;
More snowflakes come,
But never the same one.
One hour wasted
Is one hour gone,
So use your time wisely
All your life long
This story was written for a Vision Form contest. I didn't win anything, but it was published in a magazine a year or two ago.
Fight Hard & Hold Fast
By Hope Schmidt
“What’s the password?”
“Fight hard & hold fast,” Stephen laughed as his father blocked the entrance of the recently pitched tent.
“And what does that mean?” Father questioned playfully as he made way for his son.
“We are to fight hard against the devil while holding fast to God and trusting Him for the victory.”
Stephen laid the sleeping-bag he was carrying in a corner of the tent. “Camping trips are so fun,” he sighed happily.
“You didn’t think it was fun ten years ago when I first took you and Anna out.”
“I was only six,” Stephen protested. “Besides, it was raining, Anna was crying, and we had to eat a cold supper because you couldn’t get a fire started.”
“Can Anna and I go and take some pictures before supper?” Stephen asked after a pause.
“Sure,” Father headed for the entrance. “Just tell me before you leave.”
“Yes, sir.” Stephen followed his father out of the tent. A light breeze blew down from the mountains carrying the tangy scent of pines. Behind him a wide valley spread out to a clear blue lake that reflected the hills and trees beyond. Ahead of him a trail wound into the mountains.
A fourteen-year-old girl stuck her head out of the other tent in the small hollow.
“Dad said we could go take some pictures in the mountains before supper.” Stephen relayed the good news.
“Just a minute, I’m almost done unpacking.”
Stephen leaned against a tree and scuffed the ground with his boot while he waited. Fight hard & hold fast. He liked Father’s newest password, but he wasn’t sure he really understood it. There was the fight against temptation of course, but what about physical fights?
Just then Anna came back out of her tent carrying her camera.
“You both ready?” Father asked.
“Alright, just stay near the path. I will come get you when it’s time to eat. And,” Father winked, “don’t let Old Scar get Anna.”
Stephen laughed. “That old mountain lion wouldn’t stand a chance.” He patted his revolver and knife.
“Is Old Scar still around?” Anna asked they started up the path.
“Nobody has seen him for years,” Stephen turned his camera on, “and if Dad thought Old Terror was still around he wouldn’t have let us go out alone.”
Fifteen minutes later the campsite had dropped out of sight. The path led steadily upward. A little way to the right the grass stopped and the mountain dropped down into steep cliffs. Stephen moved along. He was absorbed in photographing a small butterfly resting on a wisp of grass when Anna called him.
“Stephen, look at this.”
Glancing up Stephen saw Anna at the edge of the cliff. She was holding onto a tree branch and leaning over the precipice.
“Anna, what are you doing?” Stephen gasped.
“Don’t worry. I’m holding on tight.” Anna looked back over her shoulder. “Come look at this.”
Pushing aside some coarse grass, Stephen flopped onto his belly and looked down.
He caught his breath. Down between looming cliffs lay a narrow, but beautiful valley. A clear steam rushed over and around mossy stones. Small trees grew near the water and lush green grass, intermingled with flowers, covered the ground.
“Look at that ledge right below us,” Anna said after a minute. “If we climbed down there we could get some really good pictures.”
Stephen considered the proposition. The ledge was wide and quite long. Father wouldn’t mind, and they were fair rock climbers; besides, Anna was right.
Stephen knotted his handkerchief to a branch so Father could see where they were then unrolled his rope. “Let’s go.”
A minute later they were safe on the ledge. Stephen watched Anna eagerly snap some pictures then reached for his own camera. Just then he heard a low growl. Turning hurriedly, Stephen saw a huge mountain lion spring to the top of a rock. The blood seemed to rush out of his head and sink into his feet and hands, holding them motionless. The long scar on the tawny shoulder of the beast was something he’d hoped he’d never see.
A small scream from Anna, as she too recognized Old Scar, cleared Stephen’s head. He had to protect her.
Another low growl came from the lion.
Fight hard and trust God for the victory. The unbidden words were comforting somehow. Fight hard & hold fast.
Stephen pulled his revolver out of his belt.
The lion crouched ready to spring.
Old Scar stumbled as the bullet struck him.
“Trust in the Lord,” Stephen whispered under his breath.
Old Scar leapt forward.
It was too late to shoot the lion again. Stephen dropped his gun and yanked out his knife. There was no time to be afraid.
Holding the blade upward Stephen stepped forward and drove the knife deep into the chest of the oncoming beast.
The lion’s body struck and something tore at the side of his face. Stephen staggered back.
He braced himself for another attack.
The lion struggled to its feet, blood staining the ground below. It lurched forward with a growl, then collapsed to the ground at Stephen’s feet, dead.
“Oh, Stephen,” Anna threw her arms around her brother, then dabbed at the blood trickling down his cheek where one of Old Scar’s claws had struck. Stephen leaned against the cliff face. Trust in the Lord for the victory.
Stephen looked up as Father slid down the rope next to them.
“Old Scar,” Father looked at the lion then turned to Stephen and looked at his hands. Stephen glanced down and saw he was still grasping his knife.
“Well done, Stephen.” Father’s voice was husky as he wrapped his strong arms around Stephen and Anna.
Fight hard & hold fast. Stephen smiled at Anna. He’d never forget this day. Today he had fought with all his strength and God had given him the victory.
This is my first 'real' story that I wrote a number of years ago. I hope you enjoy it.
The Mystery of the Missing Pies
By Hope Schmidt
“Done at last,” smiled Mother Rabbit as she looked at the three, steaming hot, carrot pies that had just finished baking. “They’ll cool fast, too, with all this wind blowing through the kitchen,” She murmured as she set them on the windowsill and started cleaning the kitchen counters.
She had just finished when her two sons, Tom and Willy, burst into the kitchen,
“Something sure smells good in here,” Tom panted.
“Pies,” Willy exclaimed then added with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, “May we try some, Mother, just to make sure it tastes right.”
“Yes, we need to make sure it isn’t poisonous,” Tom chimed in.
“No,” Mother Rabbit laughed, “These pies taste just fine, I’m sure. They’re for your cousin, Luke’s, birthday party later, remember?”
“Remember?” Tom cried, “Why I have been waiting all morning. Is it about time to go now?”
Mother Rabbit smiled. “We’ll leave in about half an hour. We’re going to meet Father at the market in half an hour then go to Luke’s house from there.
“Great. Willy and I will go and change into nicer clothes in just a minute, but first could we show you something?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“A surprise outside. Close your eyes and we’ll lead you to it.”
Mother Rabbit unquestioningly closed her eyes and let herself be led outside.
“O.K., You can open your eyes now.”
Mother Rabbit’s face broke into a wide smile as she looked up. Not only had her sons had weeded the small vegetable garden, they and had also raked the yard. “Oh, thank you boys. I was wondering when I would ever get time to do this.”
Willy and Tom grinned. “We thought you would like it. Now should we change for the party?”
“Yes, hurry. We will leave when every one is ready.”
Once changed, Mother Rabbit bustled to the kitchen to get the pies wrapped up. She got down the large pie then turned to the windowsill. The pies were gone! Mother Rabbit glanced franticly out the window to see if they had fallen. No pies in sight. She searched the kitchen form top to bottom. Again no pies.
Finally Mother Rabbit called to her sons. “Did either of you hide my pies?”
“No!” they both exclaimed in one voice, “are they lost?”
“Yes, I can’t find them anywhere.”
“What are you going to do?” Willy asked.
“Well, I guess that we’ll have to buy some pies at the market after we meet Father. I don’t have time to make more; it is time to leave right now.”
The rabbits hurried outside and down the windy street toward the market. They soon met Father and together they purchased three more pies and before long were at Luke’s home.
Mother Rabbit took the pies and hurried to the kitchen where she found Luke’s mother, Nancy.
“What have you got there?” Nancy asked; nodding with her head toward the pies.
“The pies I promised to bring,” came the quick response.
“But I already have your pies.” Nancy was puzzled. “They are right over there in the dinning room.”
Mother Rabbit looked at the three lovely pies set on the table. They were undeniably the ones that had gotten lost only an hour before. Now it was her turn to be confused. “How did these get here? I have couldn’t find them when I came back in the kitchen to get them ready to go so I ended up having to go to the market and buy three more pies. How did you get these?”
“It is simple enough,” Nancy replied, “I sent my daughter, Jane to get the pies early, so they would be here before the other guest arrived and you wouldn’t have to be here so early. When she got to your house she knocked but no one seemed to be home. She saw the pies on the windowsill and guessed that they were for the party so she took them and left a note to tell you were they were. She was sure you wouldn’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind. The wind must have blown the note onto the floor and I didn’t see it. But what should I do with these extra pies?”
“Well,” said Nancy thoughtfully, “You could save them or you could give them to me and everyone can have twice as much pie today.”
“Take them then,” Mother Rabbit laughed, “They didn’t cost that much and everybody will enjoy them.”
Later that day when Mother Rabbit got home she found a small piece of paper in the kitchen that read:
Mom had me come get the pies early so you wouldn’t need to come so early. I have taken them home. I hope you don’t mind.
Mother Rabbit just smiled to herself as she put the note in her pocket and went to work making three more carrot pies for another nephew, Kirk’s, birthday party which would be the next afternoon.