[Yes, yes, it’s not Sunday. But I need to catch up. Also, Tarma needs something to keep her busy. This is part two of “Equiroth“, a story set in a fantasy world. Part one can be found at SSS: Betrayal, while part three can be found at SSS: Tranquility. Keep in mind that while the stories are related, they’re not necessarily continuous.]
The horn blow echoed all around them, traveling in all directions and ignoring all obstacles.
Marioth wished he could do that, ignore any limitations set by terrain and constructions made by the land’s inhabitants. Both of those were preventing their path now. Huge mountain ranges lied on either side, while a massive stone door almost thirty feet high blocked the way between. It was one of seven gates constructed a long time ago by their elven brethren with the use of lots of might and magic. Each one was built at a specific location to protect all possible entrances inside the area encircled by the mountain ranges, where their nation’s capitol shined with all its glory. The gates certainly lacked in beauty, but they clearly served their purpose.
The horn-blower was next to Marioth, on top of his horse just like himself and the fifty warriors behind them. They were almost copies of each other, all wearing the same things. Simple wool and brown leather for armor, a wooden bow with arrows on their back and a silver sword on their side for weapons. The elves did not like differences among their outfits. They valued recognition and respect and it was expected for everyone to know the face of those at higher positions. Marioth’s position as their leader, however, was given out by his purple cloak. At least it used to be purple, now it had a whole range of colors — brown and black from mud and dirt because of the journey, red from blood because of unexpected encounters on the road, and it even had some green but one wasn’t quite sure where that came from. The horn kept blowing.
“I think we’ve had enough of that,” said Marioth, “you can stop now.”
Another horn blow came, and he stretched his arm to hit the horn-blower on the head. “I said no more.”
“I apologize, I got carried away.”
“One of these days you’ll drive me mad.” His eyes were still focused on the heavy gate, as if trying to figure out how exactly it was created. “There’s a large fort with a village behind this gate hosting at least a few thousand elves. If no one answered that horn blowing by now, it means there’s no one close enough to hear it.”
The horn-blower shifted in his saddle. “And what does that tell us?”
“It tells us you ask stupid questions. We can’t go through here. These gates are closed only during feasts in the capitol and during times of war. I’m most displeased I didn’t get my invitation regardless of which of the two forced them to lock the place. But it means everyone has departed for the capitol.”
One of the elves in the group rode ahead to them. “If you don’t mind me asking,” said the captain of the army, “if our mission is that important, why don’t we consider bringing this gate down?” He had a thing for smashing things into pieces. The bigger they are, the harder they hit the ground seemed to be his motto.
“I do mind you asking.” Marioth turned to face him. “But not as much as I mind your ignorance. Have you seen this thing? It’s survived wars, rebellions, even burning stars fallen from the sky. This lot can’t even make a scratch on it, and we don’t have any particular firepower with us either.” He turned toward the horn-blower, who was also the horse carer and note-taker. “How quickly can these mounts take us to the next gate?”
“If we head west, in about two days we’ll make it to one of the caravan roads and from there we should be able to reach the next gate in about four days.”
“So six days at earliest. Too long. Other options?”
“Well…” The horn-blower pondered. “There is no official road on the east side, at least nowhere near. But if we head northeast through the forest we might be able to reach the next gate in three days. If we’re lucky.”
“Sounds better. We’ll take our chances there.”
“If I may say, roads as that one are dangerous and there’s no guarantee they aren’t blocked or closed off by rockfalls or fallen trees. There’s no saying how many of us will make it through, if anyone at all survives.”
Marioth gave him a good long look. “That may be so, but not all of us have to make it through.”
“Sir?” the horn-blower’s said with a worried voice.
“Grab the parchment and make sure everyone has a piece of paper with the following message, ‘Rayhnar worked against us, and so did Rhissa. Beware of the Sorcerers Guild.‘ Our task is to the deliver that message to the royal family, and someone has to do that at all costs. Even if that is the lives of everyone else here.”
The horn-blower nodded, as did the captain of the army.
“You two take three man and head toward the gate on the west side. The rest will go with me to the gate on the east. We ride out in a bit, tell everyone to be ready.”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
After two long days Marioth and his group of men were making their way out of the forest, which would put them about a day away from their target. Or so they hoped, there was no road there nor any signs, a man could not say where precisely he was or how much longer he had to walk to reach some signs of life. They had to do a bit of walking in between the riding, the forest was too thick and dense at places and elsewhere the terrain was too rocky and covered with rubble. But that was no longer the case and they could even see a valley ahead of them now.
“We press hard from here, we may even reach the gate before the next day.” Marioth tried to boost their morale. They had lost a couple of good men and their count was closer to thirty. They ran into a group of trolls on their first day, though they managed to get away with injuries and no casualties. But then that same night a den of wildcats took them by surprise. They were large felines, almost as large as their horses, with claws sharper than any steel and teeth strong enough to break some weaker steel. He thought they were fortunate enough with the number of lost men.
Yet the worst things usually happen when you least expect them, and this was no different case. Just as Marioth made it beyond the last trees, a huge ball of fire landed ahead of him, giving his horse a big enough scare that almost threw him off his saddle. An arrow made its way to his left arm as well, and by that time it seemed all hell broke loose — there was fire everywhere, more fiery balls landing left and right, and a rain of arrows was falling everywhere around him. He managed to yell out a simple “Run!” before charging ahead himself.
Once he felt he was in more steady control of his mount, Marioth managed a look back to see what’s happening. Along the trees at the edge of the forest there were people, both elven sorcerers and humans armed with bows and arrows. This plotting and scheming runs deeper than I assumed, he thought to himself. Below, chaos had taken over. There was fire everywhere and the land was covered with arrows. If he didn’t have other things on his mind he’d be pondering how the enemy planned on surviving the fire that was quickly climbing along the trees. His worry was about his men who he could not account for. A few were following him, several lied dead or were burning in flames, but there was no sign of the rest. He decided the fire likely sent them in different directions. Might be for the best, maybe that will give some of us the chance to get away.
He did not have that chance, as he was soon blasted with a fireball himself. His horse fell head-first, throwing Marioth forward and sending him to roll over several feet ahead. His body was broken, he knew that. He was putting all his strength to get up and keep moving, but the pain was too big and he felt too weak, he only managed to slightly raise himself to get a better look of the battlefield. There was no battlefield though, only the remains of one. If any of his men were still alive, he could not say as he could only see bodies and fire. And her. He could see Rhissa standing a few feet to his right.
“You… But how?”
“Your nephews were kind enough to come to my rescue.” She smiled and twirled her dark teal robe as if to imitate a damsel in distress.
Marioth’s eyes were filled with fire, half from rage and half from reflecting the surroundings. “What have you done with them?”
“Oh, nothing. Don’t worry, they’re alive. I only did to them what you did to me, locked them up in that ugly troll residence. They saved me so I figured I owed them something.”
“And you’re working with the humans now, you filthy little witch.”
Rhissa was cackling with laughter. “Me? Work with humankind? No, no. You’ve got this all wrong. They’re working for me and the merry band of witches and wizards you so despise.”
“I do not despise anyone for their abilities, only for how they put them to use.”
She rolled her eyes. “That pile of rubbish wisdom never did you any good.” With a wave of her hand she set him on fire.
As the fire burned and he screamed, only one thing soothed Marioth’s pain — the hope that his horn-blower and captain had a more successful journey that his.