[Background: The Halurdow are invading the Kingdom of Galdona and are currently assaulting the capital city of Azraelis. Jezrei is elderly and too old to fight with the other defenders.]
Leaning on his walking stick, Jezrei shuffled to the arched window nearest the altar. Looking out over the garden, he smiled in fond remembrance of the times he sat in its fragrant, colorful embrace while dozing in the sun. Wooden shutters gaped open to allow scents from the garden to flow inside the chapel, but on this day the acrid stench of smoke carried on the wind from the besieged city overwhelmed the perfume of the flowers. Earlier, this same window revealed flames rising from the king’s castle. The wounded who came to the Temple for healing claimed that most of Azraelis, Galdona’s capital, had already fallen. As he gazed upon the tranquility of the garden below, he struggled to ignore the clash of steel that trickled to his ears from beyond the walls.
The Temple where he now stood, and its surrounding grounds, had become the last bastion of opposition to the invaders.
So many dead, so few remain.
He did not fear death. It was merely the next step along the path of his spiritual progression. However, the loss of those younger than he, who left behind families, saddened his heart. The oldest Muhadun gathered his energies and through the open window sent his prayers to Azrael for his brethren below: those destined to fight and die to protect the outer wall, and the Temple itself, from the depredations of the attacking barbarians. Jezrei hoped his prayers comforted their spirits.
The snick of the door-latch wrenched his attention from the window.
“Forgive my interruption, Jezrei.” Benrau, one of the younger Muhadun, bowed before entering. “The outer wall is breeched and I’m needed to help protect the Temple.”
Benrau cradled a young child against his chest. “Before the fighting reached our doors we, their fathers and mothers, agreed to place our children in your care. I’ve brought them with me. Other than within the shelter of Azrael’s palm, we could think of no place safer than with you, here within Azrael’s chapel.”
He handed the youngster to Jezrei. “This is Tallyn, son of Rheann and Allyn.”
The boy whispered, “I’m five,” as he raised the equivalent number of fingers and Jezrei clutched the little one close before setting him on the floor and taking his hand.
Benrau leaned forward and whispered in the older man’s ear, “His father fell at the city’s gate. His mother died getting him to safety. He is the last living descendant of King Faelyn, other than his sister who was captured.”
Jezrei tousled the lad’s hair before he bowed his head, accepting the duty given by his brethren and by the life of the five-year-old he cradled in his arms: the rightful heir to the throne of Galdona. His physical husk had grown too old and weak to fight with sword and bow, but he could ensure the children remained calm and safe. Should Galdona’s army return in time from battling the trolls along the northeastern border, his burden would be lifted. If the Temple fell, it would mean all of his brethren were gone.
Benrau moved aside and twenty frightened children straggled into the chapel. Many with heads bowed and eyes focused on the floor. The faces of the few who looked at him bore pinched lips, damp streaks down their faces and stared with wide eyes. Most were already orphaned by the fighting and, smothered by grief, all traces of joy had faded from their eyes.
Jezrei sighed deeply as the weight of responsibility settled upon his old shoulders. Among the last gifts he bestowed upon his people, Azrael had included hope. As a teacher, Jezrei’s sense of duty and his love for the Kalieri people required him to rekindle the spark of hope within these children.
All of the Tales of Aldura are stand-alone stories, but in the time-line of published Tales set on the Twin God’s land of Alarel, this follows Phaedra (3 yrs later) and precedes Kaserie’s Choice by several years.
The chill winds, heralding an incoming storm, carried the stench of burnt flesh. Thaenad quickened his pace as he crept through the dimness of the autumn night, a darker shadow against shadows. He darted from tree to boulder to bush. His brown tunic, trews, and hair blended with his surroundings.
Lower on the hillside, a small cabin snuggled amidst a dense growth of brush. It became visible to his searching eye when the moon peeked between the thick clouds. The same fleeting moonlight revealed holes in its roof where the thatch had collapsed. It appeared abandoned, but the mind-call from his cousin, Gwenneth, originated from within.
The smoke, billowing further down the hill, told of the tragic end for many other Kalieri. Twinges of guilt assaulted him for rejoicing in Gwenneth’s survival. Again he wondered how the Halurdow sustained their hate. Why they thought burning living Kalieri would diminish the Twin Gods’ power?
Frequent enemy patrols had slowed his progress for the past two candlemarks. The journey would be for naught if he led the Dark God’s followers to those he sought to help. A horseshoe struck stone nearby, followed by the sound of muffled voices. Thaenad shifted further beneath the dense thicket of koblisk bushes, ignoring the pricks of sharp thorns. He quieted his breathing when the sounds of mounted men moved nearer.
The patrol passed between his patch of brush and the hut without showing an inclination to investigate either. He allowed himself a shallow sigh of relief, although their behavior puzzled him. The enemy faded into the night, and he left the thicket’s shelter.
Another dark cloud obscured the moon. Thaenad dashed to the rickety building. His soundless passage across the ground and over the planks of the porch brought him to the cabin door, which jerked open. An arm reached out, snatched the collar of his tunic, and pulled him inside. He sprawled belly-down on the floor and a body plopped on his back, pinning him.
“Gwen, its Thaenad,” he whispered.
The rustle of skirts approached, and a blue, fist-sized ball of light appeared above him, casting eerie shadows in the darkness.
“Thank the Twin Gods you’ve come!” Gwenneth gripped the shoulder of the man who sat on him. “‘Tis safe, Pieter. Release him.” The glow winked out. She tousled Thaenad’s hair. “Still wearing it long like a Njae are ya?”
The weight slid off, and Thaenad scrambled to his knees—careful to keep his hands open and away from his weapons. “Aye, and you always get in trouble and expect me to save you–same as when we were kids.”
Thaenad stood, bumping his head against a sagging roof-beam.
Gwenneth chuckled. “Always said you were too tall for your own good.” Her smile faded. “Glad you came, Cousin. I wondered if anyone would receive my call and come to our aid.” Gwenneth’s sigh echoed in the quiet.
Sniffles and rustles of feet indicated more people occupied the cabin than just Gwenneth and Pieter of the heavy rump. “How many?”
“Nine. Three adults. The rest children.” Gwenneth answered from his left.
“What ages are the younglings?”
“Four near six, two just able to walk,” Gwen replied.
All of the Tales of Aldura are stand-alone stories, but in the time-line of the currently published Tales set on World of Aldura in Alarel, this story occurs between Jezrei’s Justice and Choices.
Phaedra stood beside her mount, slapping the reins against her thigh, trying to drive away the sense of foreboding which had niggled at the edges of her mind ever since Sergeant Willet mentioned their patrol would ride the Barrier Wall. The effort to banish her worry had spurred her into efficiency with stowing her gear, so that now, while other novice Rangers still struggled to strap bags in place, she was ready for the upcoming patrol. Her first as a Ranger.
When the members of her patrol finished their preparations, they clustered together, several paces away. She’d hoped graduating would change things, and she wouldn’t always be the outsider because she was Njae. Phaedra sighed. The last four years had been lonely. Now it appeared things would remain the same unless she convinced the others to revise their behavior.
A recently hired stable lad approached Ranger Josef who sat on the paddock fence. “What’s going on? Why are so many people here?”
“Willet’s leaving on patrol again,” another Ranger said, leaping over a puddle to join his friends on the rail. “We always watch the novices leave.”
“Playing wet-nurse again, Willet?” Josef shouted.
Soon the stable area of Mickels Keep Ranger Station echoed with jeers, catcalls and snide chuckles from the experienced Rangers.
Phaedra glanced at Willet to judge her Sergeant’s reaction. His face flashed red, but he didn’t respond.
One of her fellow novices, proud of his newly acquired status as a Ranger, took offense. With fists clenched, he stepped forward. Willet stayed him with a hand on his shoulder and a whispered, “Ignore them. We’ll be leaving soon.”
“But…” another objected.
Sergeant Willet spoke low. Phaedra leaned closer to hear.
“Anything you do will just make it worse. They do this every time a patrol of new Rangers leaves the station to ride the Barrier Wall. Soon as Captain Thaenad arrives, we’ll leave and be away from them.”
Mention of the Barrier Wall increased Phaedra’s sense of unease and spurred the recollection of the Seeress’ vision. When the insults continued, Phaedra straightened to her full height, a half-head taller than most of the others in the group.
Perhaps Willet was wrong. She might not be able to change her fate, but maybe she could change something. She glared at the men sitting on the fence. How dare they call Willet a nurse maid! A Njae would never openly insult an officer. She couldn’t abide rudeness. She flicked her waist-length blonde braid over her shoulder and turned to Willet who stood next to her. “Sergeant, isn’t there a good sized mud-hole inside the paddock next to the fence?”
Willet nodded and cocked an eyebrow.
Phaedra tilted her head toward the mouthy group of fence-sitters. “Ever get tired of their hassling?”
“Time a novice taught them a lesson,” Phaedra whispered.
“Now, Phaedra …” Willet started, but fell silent when she turned and stepped toward Captain Thaenad’s big smoke-grey horse, Whirligig, standing ground-tethered ten paces away.
“Phaedra, don’t. That one’ll hurt you.” Willet reached for her shoulder. She dodged his grasp, but tossed him a smile over her shoulder. Every Ranger and stable lad gave the horse a wide berth, his bad temperament a legend in the Rangers. Phaedra hummed as she approached him. The horse snorted, but stood still, watching. Phaedra drew forth her talent of speaking to animals. She held Whirligig’s muzzle, and stared into his eyes picturing what she wanted to happen. Over and over she projected the thoughts and vision until Gig nickered and bobbed his head. Phaedra scratched the horse’s forelock, slipped him a carrot then returned to her own mount and led it over to Willet. She spoke low, “Sergeant, we should mount up. There might be some excitement soon.”
Willet’s brow furrowed and he squinted at her, but he gave the order and organized them into patrol formation. He assigned Phaedra rear guard.
Once mounted, Phaedra whistled long and low. Gig neighed and danced in place. The patrol’s horses side-stepped and backed away from the big horse.
Another whistle and Gig bucked. The horse tossed his head and slung the reins over his neck. He ran along the fence brushing his flank against the legs of the six Rangers sitting on the top rail. Eyes wide and mouths open, they jerked away, falling backwards. Loud curses echoed as they landed on their backs in the chill water and mud.
Laughter erupted from the novice patrol, while Gig trotted back to where he had been standing before the incident. He glanced at Phaedra.
She would have sworn the horse smiled.
Willet raised an eyebrow, demanding an explanation.
Phaedra smiled. “I’ve a bit of talent with coaxing animals to do things, plants and the land also. All Njae do.”
First a Happy, Happy Mother’s Day to everyone.
(I’ll celebrate Mother’s Day this year on Wednesday. You’ll understand why when Wednesday’s post goes live.)
Phaedra, a young Njae Loremaster, must confront a terrible fate predicted by a Seeress. She risks her husband, her child, and her life in order to save the peoples of the Twin Goddess. [Cover image of woman © Udanny and used with permission.]