Saturday, June 21, 2008

Faith: On High

(Part of a continuing series. Previous post here, first post here.)

The expedition set forth four days later. There had been a delay; the Baronet von Erik had been sent forth with half the Prince's army to crush a small peasant uprising in the north. He returned a day later, triumphant, albeit bloodied by a peasant unusually skilled with a spear. A leech tended his wound, but it was minor, "barely a scratch"; so with Jared, Evelyn, the Prince, and two companies of Ostek soldiers, the Baronet traveled towards the mountains at the Heart of the World.

The journey was easy and short; the land between Ostek and the mountains was flat, though trails and settlements grew sparser as the expedition came closer to the Heart of the World. The Baronet estimated that they'd reach the nearest pass within ten days of their departure; after eight days of travel, they could see the pass, rising above them into the distant peaks.

That night, as the expedition's leadership sat around a fire, eating, Jared broached a question that he'd been wondering about ever since they set out. "Your Highness," he began (speaking to the Prince), "Why are you with us? You are the Prince of Ostek!"

The Prince responded quickly, but without anger. "This is essential to the future of my city," he told Jared. "The unrest and outright insurrections that have troubled Ostek increasingly already have begun to impoverish the people and drain valuable resources from the kingdom. If they continue - or, worse, intensify - Ostek will be in deadly danger of collapse. And here you present me with a means of identifying the source of the troubles and, at a stroke, destroying them? This attack will destroy the Beckoners and save Ostek, if all goes well - and I could not miss it if I wished to. It is my duty to be here, now."

In the morning, the Baronet von Erik approached Jared in private, speaking to him quietly and fiercely. "The Prince is a man of action," he explained to Jared. "When he sees that he should do something, he does it - bam! - like that. He saw that I was a good soldier, that I led my men well. Bam! He promoted me to Subcommander of the Royal Army - then, later, Commander and Baronet. The same with this, now - he saw a problem, and he acted to fix it. He is a great leader, I think - probably better than the Emperor of the West, who is old and degenerate maybe. He leads Ostek well, and even I, who have no loyalty to the city, follow him because of it. He does things right, and when he sees he has made a mistake, he corrects it, nearly always."

"You really believe in him," Jared said.

"I do," the Baronet agreed. "You should."

On the day before they entered the pass, a scout went missing. von Erik decided to delay their departure from camp, and sent other scouts out to search. But they returned by an hour past noon, with no sign of the missing rider; reluctantly, they marched onward, leaving the missing scout for dead. No signs were left in their camp to show where they had gone, lest others find them; the expedition was, despite its size, nominally secret, and no announcement had been made in Ostek proper of its destination, for fear of spies.

The pass was narrow and long; they arrived at it at midday, due to the previous day's delay, and still were more often in darkness than in light, as long shadows from the surrounding mountains covered them. Jared was nervous, as was most of the expedition; the land was barren, and every turn seemed a likely ambush location. Most of the soldiers, Jared noticed, kept a bow close to hand as they rode; Jared followed suit.

They made it out of the pass without any loss beyond a pack mule, which broke a leg and had to be killed. Just beyond, to their surprise and joy, was the missing scout, bruised and haggard but still alive. He had been pursued by heavily-armed bandits, he explained, and had lost his horse in the escape. Food and water were provided him, and the Prince and his niece interrogated him on his experience; they emerged certain that the "bandits" were mercenaries in Beckoner employ. Still, the mood in camp was optimistic that night.

From this point on, Jared knew (for it had been agreed earlier, in the planning stages) that it would be his responsibility to navigate to the Beckoner valley. In the short time before the expedition set out, the Prince's agents had been unable to find any reliable maps of the Heart of the World; Jared himself had traveled through them only in Thera's service and, later, in his exile, and was by neither particularly well-prepared to lead the expedition. Still, he knew the tongue of the land, assuming that non-Beckoner villages yet remained; he would ride at the head of the column, doing what he could.

On the morning after the expedition left the pass, Jared crested a low ridge, coming into view of the valley they'd entered. He cursed and ordered the column, "Back! Back!"

Horses came to a halt, men piled up, many cursing themselves. The Prince rode up, asking Jared, "What is it? What did you see?"

They approached the ridge on foot, the Baronet and Evelyn with them. Jared leading the way, they looked over the top carefully; and they saw what Jared had spotted with such trepidation. A vast camp filled the valley, smoking from a thousand camp-fires. Within walked men of all cut of armour, made tiny by distance; eating, sparring, talking. "Are these the Beckoners?" the Baronet asked, astonished. "There must be ten thousand of them - twice that, maybe, four times!"

Jared shook his head, his face grim. "Those are mercenaries."

They retreated to their horses, talking as they went. "Your leader let mercenaries into her land?" Evelyn asked. "I thought she was manipulating events indirectly, anonymously."

"I thought she was," Jared admitted. "I suppose it's more convenient for her to deal with them en masse, though she's probably still not speaking to them in person. Also - now that I think of it - few nations would welcome such any large gathering of mercenaries, but there's a lot of unused space in the Heart of the World, waiting to be put to Beckoner use."

"Do you think we can get past them, strike at the Beckoners as planned?" the Prince asked.

"I doubt it," Jared and von Erik said in unison. They exchanged smiles, and von Erik continued, "They certainly have scouts out - the Beckoners watching the mercenaries, and the mercenaries watching each-other. We'll have to go back, find another pass."

"Could we pass as a mercenary company?" Evelyn asked.

von Erik thought about it. "Maybe," he said. "We'd probably have to destroy the emblems, somehow get new uniform of some sort... my men are too disciplined and well equipped to easily pass for mercenaries" - this said with no little pride - "but if we had time to prepare, we might be able to infiltrate their camp."

"Do you think this is the only such camp?" Jared asked, suddenly; and this none of the others could answer.

The company circled, turned to depart. A lieutenant rode up to von Erik; the latter's face grew tense with fear. "Two scouts have vanished," he told the Prince, with Jared horseback nearby. "I fear the worse. I think it's time for us to make our exit."

The Prince agreed, nodding. The column began, unevenly, to move, back towards the pass it had traveled just a day before. von Erik rode up beside Jared, confiding in him for a moment. "I would have liked to go back for the missing men," he said. "Had I more men - or were the Prince not here - I would have risked it. But I haven't the manpower, and the risk is far too great. I only wish it were otherwise."

Jared nodded, feeling sick to his stomach. It was not a choice he would have ever liked to make.

Signs of pursuit became ever-clearer, as the long day went on. A rear scout reported back, quiver of arrows half-empty; he'd skirmished with a pair of mercenaries, wounding one and escaping injury himself. Another scout reported a large dust cloud, just over the horizon from where he rode.

The pass crossing was even more nerve-wracking, under such conditions. Night fell; still the expedition rode on, hoping to make it to the other side before dawn. von Erik had suggested sending the Prince and his niece ahead; both refused. The soldiers' morale, hearing this, rose noticably. Still, everyone seemed worried, on edge. Some reported seeing strange lights on the mountains, flickering dimly in the distance.

A sudden, rising rumbling noise was all the warning Jared had. He looked down first, slowing and trying to calm his horse and looking for signs of earth-quake; he thought to look up only too late. A shower of rocks and pebbles hit him, sending him reeling, clutching eyes and chest; then something larger hit him, and he fell screaming into oblivion, joined by a chorus of others.

Jared woke slowly, in agony. It took him several minutes to shake off a covering of scree and rise; every part of his body seemed to be bruised and lacerated. The land where the pass had been was covered in loose rocks; bodies lay beneath them, some concealed, others not.

It took Jared hours to walk through the entire disaster, from the rear (where he'd found himself, allowing his survival) to the head of the column. There, he found two bodies, close together; the Baronet von Erik and the Prince of Ostek. Both were headless; cleanly decapitated, by a blade, not a rock.

Filled with guilt and grief, knowing that he had led the Prince into this trap (unknowingly), Jared's eyes filled with tears.

Then he heard something odd. Still pained by his injuries, Jared began to dig nearby. He found dead horses, ignored them; found soldiers, bodies broken and necks slit; then found another. Hidden beneath another corpse, Evelyn lay covered in blood, her right leg pressed beneath a boulder. And, unlike anyone Jared had found since the disaster, Evelyn was still breathing.

Jared resolved to save her.

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