Mythrin pulled a silver pocket watch from beneath his cloak and whistled softly. He was going to be late; this wasn’t good at all. To keep an advisor of the royal court waiting might be considered a hanging offense in the Kingdom of Urela.
He quickened his pace, allowing his strides to lengthen against the stone and wood tile floor beneath him. He turned left down another hallway, went down a short flight of stairs, and then right, and went up a few more steps to a pair of double wooden doors, the heavy metal door handles beckoning him. He complied to their invite with a push.
“Is he here?” Mythrin asked as he walked into the room. He looked around, noted the ornate wooden table, the velvet lined chairs, the tapestries on the wall, the seemingly hundreds of scrolls lining the walls, and the single person looking over at him and smiling.
“Not yet,” said the young man, tossing a few blond hairs from in front of his eyes. “Looks like you just made it, though. Why don’t you come in and have a seat, Mythrin?”
“Thanks, Kalees,” said Mythrin as he came further into the room. “I didn’t expect to see you here. Since when do you help out with negotiations?”
Kalees gave a shrug, winced, and pulled his long braid out from between his back and the high-backed chair.
“Honestly, it’s not my cup of tea,” said Kalees easily. “I’d rather be out exploring, but the royal court thought that you might need protection on your travels.”
“Seriously?” asked Mythrin. “I’m to be protected by a scout?”
“That is not his only job, in this case, Mythrin,” said a voice from the doorway. The two men turned in their chairs to see the advisor standing there in all his purple and gold-trimmed robed glory. He was even wearing a matching hat. Both Kalees and Mythrin rose out of respect, Mythrin noting that Kalees’ hand went to cover his mouth, a small sparkle flashing across his eyes.
“And what job would that be?” asked Mythrin, raising his eyebrows, slightly.
The advisor shook his head slightly and glided to the desk, ignoring Mythrin’s question. Mythrin sighed inwardly.
“The kingdom of Urela has determined that the best course of action is to pursue a cessation of hostilities with the Kingdom of Turel to the north,” he said, his voice coming fast and rhythmic as if reciting a lesson for his master. “You, Mythrin, as one of the scholar class have been designated to travel into the kingdom of Turel, meet with two members of the Turel Brothers Class, and open negotiations with the royal court of Turel, such that it is.”
“I understand this,” said Mythrin quietly. “What I do not understand, is why–”
“Kalees, you’re mission is three-fold. First, you are to use your abilities and military training to protect and guide Mythrin as he travels to meet the designated brothers. Second, you will observe and note any characteristics of the Turel Kingdom that might be of interest to the King of Urela. Third, if negotiations shall fail, you are to get word to the royal court as soon as possible.”
Kalees nodded, and spoke quickly, glancing over at Mythrin’s eyes, flashing cold and gray.
“I understand, although I doubt Mythrin will need much protection from me,” he said with a laugh. “He is well known among the men as being one of the ablest fighters known.”
“Hmph,” answered the advisor with a scowl. “I suppose even a scholar can have some skill with a dagger.” He glanced down at Mythrin, who answered his gaze with one of his own. Mythrin smiled softly, and the court advisor swallowed quickly.
“You have three days to travel to the southern gate of the Turel Kingdom, where we have gained permission for you to enter. While in route, you will be met by two Brothers of the Turel Kingdom, who will provide you with the location of the southern gate.”
“How will we know who they are?” asked Mythrin, pulling a black hair from the edge of his cloak. The advisor sighed, a frown of disdain crossing over his face.
“They will have the mark of the kingdom of Turel, of course,” he said. “And they will know of your route. That should be sufficient, correct?”
“Hardly,” said Mythrin looking up sharply. “First, a mark can easily–”
Kalees placed his hand gently on the forearm of Mythrin, trying to calm the tension that was rumbling just below the surface.
“Mythrin does raise a valid point,” his gaze darting between the two men. “A mark is easy to copy. Should we not also know their names, or even what they look like? It would be easier to determine if something is amiss if we have at least that little bit of information.”
“Hmm. You do have a valid point, Kalees,” he said with a nod. Mythrin gripped the edge of his chair, and breathed, maintaining control as best he could.
“Their names are Brother Ptolec and Brother Ystril,” he said. They are considered to be scholars, or some sort of religious monks, so chances are they will be mighty in mind, but frail in spirit and body. I also understand that it is common for the Brothers of Turel to shave their heads. Strange custom, considering how desolate and cold it is in that region of the world.”
“And what words of negotiation do we bring from our king?” asked Mythrin.
“The wise and fierce king of Urela wishes to provide the kingdom of Turel with the opportunity to cease hostilities against the kingdom of Urela,” said the royal advisor easily. “Once the king of Turel provides proof to the satisfaction of the King of Urela, he personally promises to allow trade and supplies to flow into the kingdom through the western and southern trade routes, as escorted into the kingdom of Turel by our military. The king also graciously offers to allow those of Turel descent who have stayed within the kingdom of Urela to return to their homes, provided that they have not been convicted of a serious crime.”
Mythrin frowned. This sounded more like conditions of surrender than negotiations. But, he saw no point in saying such things.
“Sounds like you are negotiating their surrender,” said Kalees with a smile. “Is that our aim? Their surrender?”
The court advisor shrugged, his cloak billowing slightly as he exhaled.
“The end result will be the same,” he said plainly. “The people of Turel are obviously tired of fighting us. Their kingdom is in ruins. They will be glad of what we are offering them.”
Kalees raised his eyebrows and whistled softly.
“Your certainty takes my breath away, master advisor,” he said.
“Thank you, Kalees.”
“Now, horses will be provided, as well as enough supplies for the travel to the kingdom of Turel, and for the trip back. I trust you will make sure the scholar does not squander the supplies unnecessarily, Kalees.”
Mythrin tilted his head slightly to the side. He was no longer angry, not really. Now he was just amazed.
“I do not see that as a problem,” said Kalees with a smile. “Will there be anything else, master advisor?”
“No. Your horses and supplies will be waiting for you in the second western stable by dawn’s light.”
Kalees stood and bowed, and Mythrin followed his lead.
“For the glory of Urela,” announced the court advisor, stretching his arms out in triumph.
“For the glory!” echoed Mythrin and Kalees, their voices caressing the advisor as he glided out of the room, never looking back.
* * *
“I really thought you were going to throw him out the window,” said Kalees, smiling as he brushed down the horse.
“I came close,” he admitted as Kalees passed him the brush over the back of the horse. “I’m still not used to it. It’s something I have to work on.”
Kalees nodded, picking up the left back hoof, scraping the mud and hay out from the bottom of the shoe.
“Ever since King Rakin came to power, more and more focus has been put on the military side of things,” he said softly. “The military has been put up on a pedestal, in a way. Those who have visions of the glory of battle have stronger voices now. It’s a pity.”
“You don’t approve?”
Kalees shook his head.
“Don’t misunderstand,” he said with a smile. “I like the added benefits. I like being able to go to a restaurant and have friendly smiles greet me. I like not having to pay an homage to the king every year. But I’ve also been in the fields when we’ve been ordered to burn them and kill any of the farmers trying to stop us. I’ve had men die in my arms, both ally and enemy alike. I’ve seen the horrors of war, not so much the glory of it.”
“Well, hopefully with this trip, we can help end the horrors,” said Mythrin with a shrug. “The kingdom certainly needs a break.”
Kalees looked out of the barn at the people walking by. Their eyes followed the path of the feet, shoulders hunched in exhaustion, even in these early hours of the morning. Their clothes were dingy, signs of stitching and patchwork apparent on adult and child alike. He smiled weakly as a young boy let go of his mother’s arm and scampered back to retrieve his cloth bunny that had fallen in a puddle, the stuffing slowly falling out of a tear in its leg.
“We might be able to slow it down, or win a temporary reprieve,” said Kalees, moving onto the next shoe. “But I don’t think it will end.”
“Not ever?” asked Mythrin, somewhat surprised. “Surely King Rakin and the royal court–”
“Will grow tired of it?” said Kalees. “I doubt that. War is a very profitable thing, you know. True, it does have a high cost, but overall the addition of new land, new people, and new resources does much to line the kingdom’s coffers.”
Kalees shook his head.
“No. The only way this war will ever end is when what is lost by the people becomes worth more than what is gained by the royal court.”
Mythrin smirked slightly.
“Well, I’m all about making that happen,” he said. “You ready?”
Kalees nodded, throwing his pack of supplies onto the back of his horse, and putting the bit into the beast’s mouth.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s get started.”
Both men mounted their horses and moved out of the barn and into the sunlight. The walked the horses through the main part of town, greeting the various people as they trudged through the muck and grime. Mythrin noted that children and a few adults smiled and waved as they past, wishing them a good journey and a safe return. A few old bearded men looked at Kalees and nodded, a sad resignation in their eyes.
“Who are they?” asked Mythrin, nodding to one of them. Kalees glanced over, answering their nods with one of his own.
“Those who have fought,” he said simply, shrugging his shoulders. “They left their hope and joy with their brethren in the fields. They’re sad that we might be doing the same.”
“Surely the people of the capital city has heard of our quest,” said Mythrin. “Surely that provides some hope to them.”
“Hope is a luxury without results, I’m afraid,” said Kalees as the last of the market stalls faded into the distance. Race you to the kingdom boundary!”
Mythrin tapped the flanks of his horse, and took off at a canter, trying to catch up to the blond braid of Kalees as it sprinted out in front of him. Mythrin smiled, watching as Kalees expertly circled his horse by the gate in the distance, allowing the horse to prance around a bit, it’s nervous excitement bleeding off the muscles of the beast.
“That was unfair,” said Mythrin as he reached Kalees and the northern gates of the city, his face red and smiling. “I do believe.”
“Believe all you wish,” said Kalees as he waved to the guards and the gates slowly began to open. “Fairness and victory rarely share the same bed.”
Mythrin laughed again and followed Kalees out of the gate and onto the path that would lead to their destination- the Kingdom of Turel. Their enemy, their rival, and hopefully the savior of the people of Urela.
^ ^ ^
Kalees and Mythrin traveled in relative and companionable silence for quite some time. The sunlight of the day faded, and Mythrin watched the light of the retreating sun dance off the mountains to the west, their high snowy peaks glinting in the warm orange rays. Kalees followed his gaze and smiled.
“Seven days, if you can believe it,” he said, finally breaking the silence.
“Huh?” asked Mythrin, shaking his head slightly, Kalees words bringing him back to the moment. Kalees nodded to the mountains.
“It takes about seven days of hard riding to reach the foothills of Mount Kilgari,” he clarified. “There is a small village just below that one ridge off in the distance. A welcoming place, but very cold when the snow comes.”
“I bet,” said Mythrin. “Have you ever been up there?”
“To the village?” asked Kalees. “Of course. Many times. I have quite a few friends there, why?”
“No,” said Mythrin with a smile. “Not to the village. To the top of Mount Kilgari.”
“Oh, well, no, I haven’t,” said Kalees with a frown. “But why should I? The gods reside there. People like us have no business traveling up to such a place.”
“I wonder if the gods do reside there,” said Mythrin, his voice low. “If they do, I imagine they must be quite lonely.”
“Eh? You’re considering a visit then?”
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself,” he said easily. “I have no desire to stray from my present course right now. I am merely curious, that is all.”
“Curiosity can lead to danger,” warned Kalees.
“And it can also lead to wonderful new discoveries,” countered Mythrin.
“Right. Well, how about we discover a place to camp for the night? My body is tired of riding this beast, and I suspect he is quite tired of me.”
“Looks like there is a clearing in the trees not too far ahead, near the stream we crossed over not too long ago. That should be good enough.”
Kalees nodded and the two men rode ahead and into the clearing. The dismounted the horses, and Kalees led the horses down to the stream and let them drink their fill and relieve themselves in the nearby grass. He walked upstream a few feet and splashed his face and refilled his water skin. A few fish swam nearby, darting through the nearby reeds, searching for food.
“Looks like we’re having fish for dinner tonight,” he called out as he led the horses back.
“Oh? Think you’ll be able to catch them?” asked Mythrin, taking the reins from his hand.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” answered Kalees with a smile. “They paid no attention to me at all. Easy prey.”
Mythrin laughed, his eyes traveling up and down Kalees body, assessing his physique.
“Forgive me, Kalees,” he said. “But you are not my idea of a predator.”
Kalees’ eyes measured Mythrin, and smiled slightly. “Well, you’re not exactly a panther yourself,” he said with a smile. “Those silver eyes, pale skin and black hair offer absolutely no camouflage out here.”
“True,” said Mythrin with a shrug. “But this isn’t my natural environment. You must admit- pale skin and black hair fair much better in a library the a forest clearing.”
“You do have a point,” said Kalees with a laugh. “All right, wizard. Think you can get a fire started while I go play predator?”
Kalees walked back to the stream, confident that a small fire would greet him when he returned. He took off his boots and waded into the stream. Sure enough, the fish paid him no heed, not until his hands darted into the water, just below their image. It took him quite a few tries, but finally, he caught enough to feed himself and Mythrin.
“Heard quite a bit of splashing over there,” said Mythrin as he fed the last of the kindling to the fire. “Any results for you efforts?”
“And hope returns to the camp,” said Kalees triumphantly, tossing three fish onto the ground beside the fire. Mythrin handed him a handful of sticks, strong and relatively straight.
“Go ahead and get them dressed and on the sticks,” said Mythrin. “I’m actually getting pretty hungry.”
Kalees smiled and did as requested. As the sun finally set over the horizon, the two men ate their fill and watched as the horses grazed on the nearby grass.
“Did you get a chance to say goodbye to your woman?” asked Mythrin as he looked up, watching the canopy dancing amid the growing collection of stars.
“Didn’t have one to say goodbye to,” answered Kalees quietly. Mythrin felt Kalees’ eyes upon him and glanced over.
“What about Melinda?” he asked. “You two looked so well together.”
Kalees shook his head.
“We weren’t right for each other,” he said simply, shrugging his shoulders. “I figured the matchmaker would have given up by now.”
“Hardly,” said Mythrin with a smile. “That woman has the authority of the king to make every available and eligible man in the kingdom a husband and a father. She’s very serious about her job.”
“Don’t I know it,” groaned Kalees with a laugh. “I overheard her talking about you the other day in fact.”
“Yeah. She said that your time of mourning was almost up,” he said with a teasing grin. “All the ladies were certainly interested in hearing about that.”
“I’m not in mourning,” Mythrin countered quietly. “I’m still searching.”
“You actually believe she’s still out there? That she’s alive?”
“I can’t tell you why, or explain it,” he said. “But I do. Until I find evidence telling me otherwise, I will always know that Tiriana is somewhere out there. We made a promise to each other.”
“She would have come back by now,” countered Kalees softly. “How old were you when the pact was made?”
“We both were twelve. I had been so for a few months, she had just turned.”
“That was over sixteen years ago,” said Kalees. “Isn’t it time you thought about your needs?”
Mythrin looked over at him.
“Oh, I manage to take care of my needs, as you call them quite easily,” he said with a smile. “I have mutually beneficial arrangements, so to speak with a number of my friends.”
“But none of these arrangements include your heart.”
“No. That belongs to Tiriana alone.”
“I see. Well, perhaps the Brothers of Turel will have an idea of what happened to her.”
“Perhaps,” answered Mythrin, settling into his bedroll and closing his eyes. “Be sure to get some sleep, Kalees.”
^ ^ ^
Kalees awoke the next morning to find Mythrin staring off into the dense woods to the east, watching the rays of the sunlight pierce through the trees.
“I wouldn’t go that direction,” he warned with a smile. “Beyond those trees is the Crimson Mist Forest.”
“Ah yes. The famed forest where mortals fear to tread,” said Mythrin softly. “I have heard the stories.”
“Not all of them are just stories, Mythrin,” said Kalees as he doused the last of the embers. “Quite a few battles were fought between Urela and Turel among those trees. Thousands of people lost their lives. It wouldn’t surprise me if their spirits still haunt that place.”
“Have you been there?”
“No, only to the edges,” said Kalees. “And I have no desire to go further than that. Do you?”
“Of course,” said Mythrin softly.
“What is with you,” asked Kalees, shaking his head. “First, you wish to travel to the mountain of the gods, now you wish to visit with the spirits of the dead. Do you dislike the world of the living that much?”
“I might be speaking as a fool,” said Mythrin. “But I don’t see much difference between the three.”
“Yes, you do speak as a fool. But I still like you.”
“Thanks for that,” said Mythrin with a laugh. “Shall we continue on?”
The two men loaded their horses and continued on their way. The path and travel were relatively uneventful for the next day; only a few bandits crossed their path. Kalees skill with the sword, made short work of them, although Mythrin’s desire to treat their resulting wounds came at a bit of a surprise to all.
“What are you doing?” hissed Kalees as Mythrin wrapped a bandage around the stab wound that Kalees had just inflicted. “They’re bandits!”
“True. But they are still human, are they not?” asked Mythrin as he handed a small vial of ointment to the man. “You can’t expect me just to allow them to suffer needlessly.”
“But they tried to rob us!”
“And I’d do it again,” said the bandit ferociously.
“Of course,” said Mythrin, looking at the bandit squarely in the eyes. “And perhaps next time you would be killed. Is this worth all that?”
The bandit returned his gaze unflinchingly.
“If it means that my son will not, the yes, a thousand times over.”
“And that is why I treat his wound, Kalees,” said Mythrin softly.
Kalees shook his head, frustration crackling through his voice.
“You are a fool, Mythrin,” he said.
“Perhaps,” said Mythrin with a shrug as the bandits moved off into the trees. “But I doubt those bandits will attack us again, nor do I think his son would agree with you.”
“He was lying. You know that.”
“A possibility of course,” said Mythrin, nodding. “But not the only one. Come on, let’s get moving. We need to make it to the rendezvous point before tomorrow afternoon.”
Kalees watch Mythrin as he gathered his healing supplies and placed them back into his satchel and mounted the horse. Kalees flicked his heel against the side of his own, and the two continued on. Kalees glanced back, certain that Mythrin’s act of mercy would lead to their downfall.
The two men traveled again, made camp, and continued on, refreshed. They talked sparingly, each relishing the quiet that the other provided. Kalees listened to the forest around them; birds announcing their arrival, and the rustling of leaves greeted him. He glanced up ahead and pulled his horse short. Mythrin glanced over and slowed his horse as well.
“What is it?” asked Mythrin. “Bandits?”
Kalees shook his head.
“No. I believe our escorts have arrived,” he said, nodding to two figures leaning against the trees marking their path.
Mythrin looked in the direction of the men. They were dressed in monks robes, and they gave no sign of malice.
“Yes,” answered Mythrin. “You do seem to be correct. Perhaps we should speak with them.”
Mythrin trotted forward and pulled up just shy of the two men.
“Greetings,” he said with a warm smile. “We travel to speak with the King of Turel. But the way is unclear. Are you here to help?”
“Indeed, we are, Brother Mythrin,” said the man to his right, looking up and lowering his monk hood. A mark of Turel burned into his cheek. Mythrin winced and decided that without fail, there would be no branding on any animal he ever owned.
“Good!” said Mythrin. “But you have me at an advantage. What am I to call you?”
“Forgive me,” said the monk with a smile. “My name is Brother Ystril. This–” he said nodding to his companion, “– is brother Ptolec. Brother Ptolec, please show yourself.”
Mythrin heard a sharp intake of breath behind him. He turned to see Kalees staring at the monk, his eyes wide.
“And this is Kalees,” said Mythrin easily. “He is my friend and a fierce scout and warrior that also comes on behalf of the people of Urela.”
“You do not come in the name of the king?” asked Brother Ptolec, a shock of chestnut hair falling in front of his eyes. Kalees leaned forward, ever so slightly.
“Of course,” answered Mythrin with a smile. “But the people of Urela desperately want the fighting to end. Is that not true for the people of Turel as well?”
“Yes, we do,” said Brother Ystril with a nod. “But still, the situation is delicate, as you clearly understand.”
“I thought you monks shaved,” blurted Kalees, his face instantly reddening as the resulting silence echoed around him.
“Ah, you noticed Brother Ptolec’s hair?” asked Brother Ystril. “Well, the truth is, Brother Ptolec is not yet a monk. He has yet to go through the ceremony of dedication.”
“I see,” said Kalees. “Please forgive my rudeness and ignorance.”
“Nothing to forgive, Brother Kalees,” said Brother Ptolec with a small smile.
“Ugh. Must you call me that?” asked Kalees with a frown, his hazel eyes glinted. Brother Ptolec looked at him, his brows wrinkling.
“Why not? What should I call you then?”
“Just call me Kalees,” he answered. “Calling me brother… it just sounds strange.”
“Very well, Br– Kalees. I will try to remember that during our travels.”
“Shall I call you Mythrin, then?” asked Brother Ystril turning to Mythrin. “Would that make you more comfortable as well?”
“I have no problem answering to either,” he said. “So call me as you wish, Brother Ystril.”
“I see. Very good, Brother Mythrin. Please, follow us.”
The two monks turned down a smaller path to the right, forcing the horses to travel single file behind them to avoid hitting the trees. They led them out of the woods and towards some smaller hills to the northeast.
“How long until we reach the southern gates?” asked Mythrin.
“Two more days,” answered Brother Ystril over his shoulder. “We’ll travel up to the northeastern passage, and then through the valley. The southern pilgrim’s gate is just beyond that.”
“I see. Do you anticipate any bandits or problems?”
Brother Ystril shook his head.
“Most people traveling this trail are pilgrims,” he explained. It’s rare that they have any goods worth stealing, so most bandits stay away from the area. We’ll be in more danger from the herds, I imagine.”
“How do you mean?”
“Herds of various animals travel through the valley,” he said. “Most of the time they’re pretty peaceful. Occasionally they do get skittish.”
“So they stampede,” finished Kalees.
“Exactly,” answered Brother Ptolec. “But not to worry. We’ll only be in the valley for one day and one night.”
“Still, it’s something to be awa-OUCH!” Mythrin turned to see Kalees slap himself on the back of his neck.
“Kalees, are you all right?” he asked, his head tilting slightly to the side.
Kalees rubbed the back of his neck and frowned.
“Yes, of course,” he said with a smile. “Sorry for the interruption. Just an insect making a meal of my neck.”
“Are you sure?” ask Mythrin pulling his satchel into easy reach. “I might have something–”
“Save your healing herbs for when they are truly needed, wizard,” said Kalees with a laugh. “I doubt a simple thing such as this requires treatment. I’ve had worse, to be sure.”
“You are a wizard?” asked Brother Ystril, glancing over his shoulder. Mythrin blushed.
“Of sorts, I imagine,” he answered. “Although I don’t have many spells for combat. Most of what I know involves healing and the growing of crops.”
“Mythrin is the second highest wizard in the kingdom of Urela,” boasted Kalees proudly. “Second only to the high advisor of King Rakin himself.”
“Kalees, stop,” muttered Mythrin.
“But he wishes not to further in his ranking, of course,” said Kalees easily.
Brother Ystril slowed his steps a bit, and fell in beside Mythrin, the trail widening slightly as the trees gave way to a field of grass.
“And why is that, Brother Mythrin?” he asked. Mythrin frowned and shook his head.
“I see no point to raise standing up if that only means that my talents will be used for destruction instead of creation.”
“Ah, I see. Then your kingdom is ruled by a war council, correct?”
“We are in a time of war, after all.”
Brother Ystril glanced up to the cliffs that stood before the group.
“It will be best to dismount here, and allow the horses to continue on under their own direction,” he said, looking at both Kalees and Mythrin. “Brother Ptolec and I will guide them through the rocky pass , but we don’t want you to fall into the ravine.”
Kalees looked up to the steep rock-strewn path that winded up the hill in front of them.
“Is it truly safe?” he asked, frowning slightly as he dismounted. Looks like there have been quite a few rock slides here.”
“Yes, there was,” answered Brother Ptolec, with a smile. “Just a few days ago. I’m afraid I haven’t been able to completely clear the path yet.”
“You– you cleared this path, this much?” asked Mythrin glancing at Brother Ptolec. “I am impressed. You must be very strong indeed.”
Brother Ptolec looked away, frowning slightly.
“I was hoping to have it cleared by the time you came,” he said. “But if we tread carefully, we should be fine. Brother Ystril, will you take the lead? I can bring up the rear with the horses.”
Brother Ystril nodded and continued on.
“I’ll help with the horses then,” said Kalees as he dismounted. “This mare can be quite troublesome.”
The four men continued up the path slowly, feet and hooves picking through the rubble methodically. Once or twice, he heard a horse whinny behind him, but Kalees soft words brought the beast under his spell.
“When it comes to those beasts, that one would make a better wizard than me,” Mythrin confided to Brother Ystril in a low voice. “I’ve never seen a horse that Kalees does not get along with.”
Brother Ystril smiled.
“Brother Ptolec is the same way,” he answered. “Although he has much to learn about people.” Mythrin glanced back. Brother Ptolec followed close behind Kalees, his face red and mottled, his eyes glancing at Kalees as the scout moved with easy confidence up the trail.
“He looks positively miserable,” said Mythrin sympathetically. “Perhaps I should go and–”
“Don’t bother,” said Brother Ystril, placing a hand on Mythrin’s arm. “It seems Brother Ptolec admires your companion. He’s trying to work up the courage to speak to him.”
“Courage? What in the world would that man have to fear? He is strong enough to break any man in two!”
“Physically, yes. But even a lion’s heart can be pierced with a simple arrow, can it not?”
“Hmm. Well, yes, you do have a point there,” allowed Mythrin.
“Let’s continue along the way,” reasoned Brother Ystril, his eyes twinkling slightly. “And give them a bit of room to breathe.”
Mythrin smiled slightly and quickened his pace to match that of the Brother Ystril’s. He glanced back. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Kalees and Brother Ptolec slowly began to talk with each other. It was painfully awkward to watch at first, but became more endearing over time. Mythrin glanced back to his guide.
“I may be too forward, and please tell me if I am so, but can you tell me anything about the Turel brotherhood?”
“What would you like to know?”
“Well, anything you’d like to tell me, I suppose,” said Mythrin with a shrug. “Is it a religious order? Do you remain celibate? Can anyone join? What is your purpose?”
Brother Ystril laughed.
“You certainly do have a lot of questions, Brother Mythrin,” he said with an easy smile. “I will answer what I can.”
“The Brethren of Turel, as we are formally called was started as a group designed to protect the various pilgrims traveling from Turel and the surrounding kingdoms to Mount Kilgari,” he said. “Although we are not a religious order, we are familiar with many of the religions in the area, and respect any faith that we find.”
“So you are a military order, then?”
Brother Ystril smiled, shaking his head slightly.
“In the sense of our training, yes. We are all trained to defend pilgrims and those weaker than us from attack. However, we are not a part of the king’s army. We can only be called into battle to escort or protect innocents.”
“And you live in a monastery?”
“We do have a central living area, what you would call a monastery, yes,” answered Brother Ystril. “But many brothers chose to live outside of it with their families and loved ones.”
“So members of the Brethren can marry, then? They are not sworn to their duties?”
“Of course, they can,” reasoned Brother Ystril as he moved a rock to the side with his foot. “One of the brothers I joined with just got married this past month. Is it not the same in your kingdom?”
“I don’t believe that we truly have anything to compare with the Brethren of Turel,” answered Mythrin with a shrug. “The closest thing we have is the royal court guard, but they are sworn to protect King Rakin and his family, and cannot have their own.”
“So who protects the people, then?” asked Brother Ystril. “Surely you have a military to do that?”
“Yes, we have a sizable military,” said Mythrin with a nod. “The certainly are trained to protect the land of Urela.”
“And the people?”
Mythrin frowned slightly.
“Yes, of course. Protect the people as well. Is that not what a military is designed to do?”
“Yes, of course. Ah, here we are.”
Brother Ystril turned down an even smaller path and ducked under a few low-hanging branches. Mythrin followed and gasped at the sight.
Below was one of the most fertile valleys that he had ever seen. Trees, lush with foliage scattered along the edges of the valley, and wildflower fields and grass blanketed the space between. A little bit off from center, a sizable stream traveled from the northeastern mountains through the valley and tumbled into a small waterfall just a few hundred feet past them to the south.
“It’s beautiful,” breathed Mythrin, as he stopped short. “Is this what the kingdom of Turel is like?”
“Some places, yes,” said Brother Ystril with a smile. “But please, watch your step as you go down the slope. Brother Ptolec and Brother Kalees have caught up to us.”
“Oh! My apologies,” said Mythrin as he looked over his shoulder. Sure enough, Kalees was standing behind him, waving at him to move forward.
“Just get moving,” laughed Kalees, gently kicking at Mythrin’s heels. “The mare is getting restless.”
The four men scampered down into the valley, and began to set up camp. Mythrin and Kalees tended to the horses, while the brothers gathered food, and built the fire for the night.
“Is that stream deep enough to bathe in?” asked Mythrin, as he flicked some mud off his arm.
“Yes,” answered Brother Ptolec with an easy smile. “I was planning on bathing myself later tonight, in fact.”
“Good!” answered Mythrin. “Perhaps I will wash up before supper then. Kalees, what about you?”
Kalees burrowed his gaze into the mane of the horse, concentrating on each hair, his own ears slowly growing red.
“I’ll wash in the morning,” he muttered. “Get a fresh start to the day.”
“As you wish, Kalees,” he answered. “Are you feeling all right? You look, a little… unlike yourself. Did Brother Ptolec do or say something to upset you?”
“No!” answered Kalees, his voice cracking slightly. “No, no of course not. Brother Ptolec has been wonderful. It’s been fun talking with him.”
“Then what is it?”
“I guess I’m just more tired than I thought,” said Kalees with a small yawn. “Not to worry, though. Nothing that a good night’s rest won’t cure.”
“Are you sure?” asked Mythrin looking at him closely. Kalees didn’t just look tired. His eyes looked sunken, and his normally ruddy complexion was starting to pale. He looked positively exhausted. “Are you becoming unwell, perhaps?”
“You worry too much, Mythrin. I’m just tired. Go, see to the fire and wash up. I’ll finish tending to the horses and help the brother’s find something to eat. I feel like rabbit tonight.”
Mythrin nodded slowly and walked away. He would have to keep his eye on Kalees. Mythrin moved over to the fire, standing beside Brother Ptolec.
“Brother Ptolec, may I have a word with you, perhaps?” he asked.
Brother Ptolec stood up and faced Mythrin.
“Have I done something wrong, Brother Mythrin?” asked Brother Ptolec, his eyes concerned.
“No, no,” said Mythrin with a reassuring smile. “Nothing of the kind. I was hoping to ask a favor of you, though.”
Brother Ptolec waited expectantly.
“Kalees is quite tired, but he is insisting on going hunting for tonight’s dinner. Would you mind going with him, and keeping an eye on him for me? You and Brother Ystril know this valley better than me. There is a chance that I would get us lost.”
“Of course,” said Brother Ptolec with a smile. “I would be happy to do so. But would it not be better to persuade him to rest?”
“I have never once been able to persuade Kalees to do anything that went against his wishes,” said Mythrin. “But if you feel that you can, by all means, give it a shot.”
^ ^ ^
Night came, and a dinner of rabbits, a few moles, and a collection of berries and pine nuts were had by all. As the fire crackled in between them, both Brother Ystril and Mythrin shared various legends and tales from each of the kingdoms, and Kalees and Brother Ptolec shared stories of their own travels and triumphs. Laughter and silences danced together amid the firelight, and Mythrin marveled at how similar their stories were.
“So even the Brethren of Turel stay away from the Crimson Mist Forest,” said Mythrin with a shake of his head. “Does no one go into that place?”
“There is Kirian, I suppose,” answered Brother Ystril. “But that one has actually chosen to live there.”
“I thought the masked one was only a legend,” said Kalees with a smirk. “The masked Kirian, scaring away travelers and bandits alike, warning them to stay out of his dark crimson stained forest.”
“Oh, Kirian is real enough,” said Brother Ystril. “He saved my life a few years ago when I got bitten by a flying chulol. Not a very pleasant experience.”
“I should think not,” said Mythrin with a shudder. “Nasty little things. I didn’t realize they came this far north, though?”
“They’ve started to migrate up this way since the start of the war,” answered Brother Ystril. “No doubt following the destruction that has come with it.”
“What does it do?” asked Kalees, his eyes fluttering slightly.
“I’m afraid the bite of the chulol is quite deadly if it’s not caught fast enough,” answered Mythrin with a frown. “If the venom is not counteracted within the first two days, the victim slips into a coma, and their heart and blood flow slows until the body freezes.”
“But surely there is an anti-venom?” asked Brother Ptolec. “After all, Kirian saved Brother Ystril, did he not?”
Mythrin shook his head.
“I don’t know of any anti-venom,” he said slowly. “I have heard of healers using aether current manipulation to remove the venom, but the most accepted form of treatment is to bleed the venom out.”
Brother Ptolec frowned.
“But wouldn’t that kill the person?”
“Yes, that is a distinct possibility. Unfortunately, sometimes it is a risk that must be taken.”
“But what about the aether current manipulation?” asked Brother Ptolec. “Was that what happened to you, Brother Ystril?”
Brother Ystril shrugged.
“Perhaps. I’m not sure. I don’t remember much about that day. I do know that I was bled,” he said pointing to a scar on his arm. “Whether or not that came from the cure, I can’t say.”
“I would like to meet this Kirian,” said Mythrin softly. He sounds like a very interesting man.”
“Well, rumor has it that if you travel into the Crimson Mist Forest and call out his name, the forest will hear you, and the wind will carry your message to his ears,” said Brother Ystril with a smile. “Lucky for me, my fellow Brethren believed the rumors and tried.”
“I see. Kalees, what do you think? Should we pay a visit to Kirian on our way home? Might be an interesting diversion. Kalees?”
Mythrin looked over to see Kalees snoring softly next to the fire, his hard slowly coming un-braided as his twisted his body against the chill of the night air. Brother Ptolec glanced down at his sleeping body, and walked over to the horse. He came back with a blanket and draped it over Kalees.
“Looks like he’s dead to the world,” he said brushing a strand of hair out of Kalees’ eyes. “Why don’t the rest of you get some sleep as well.”
“What about you, Brother Ptolec,” asked Mythrin. “Aren’t you tired?”
“Yeah, but I wanted to bathe first,” answered Brother Ptolec. “I’ll get to bed soon enough don’t worry.”
^ ^ ^
Kalees wasn’t sure how long he had slept; his dreams were unusually vivid, and his ability to be outside of his dreams looking in was not easy tonight. Too many times he found himself in the midst of the blood soaked battles of his past. The people around him choked on blood and vomit as the spears and swords slashed hungrily through their midsections. The ground trembled beneath his feet.
Wait. That wasn’t right. There were no earthquakes.
Kalees forced his eyes opened, searching the darkness of his disorientation. He placed his hand on the ground, and felt the tremor faint and low, against his back and palm. Kalees sat up, his eyes and ears now alert.
Something was wrong. This was wrong.
Kalees sat up, and slowly looked over the valley. To the north, a black mass, tumbling, undulating and shaking over the grass was rolling toward them, the sound of a thousand hooves echoing softly in the night. He glanced at the horses, their nostrils flaring, panic and fear growing in their eyes as they pulled at the reins tied to the tree.
“Oh shit,” breathed Kalees, stumbling to his feet and rushing to the horses. He quickly untied the reins and slapped them on their rear flank, sending them away from the churning mass of chaos closing in fast behind him.
“Stampede!” he yelled as he shook Brother Ystril and Mythrin. “Get up you, you idiots!” Brother Ystril sat up and glanced around.
“Wha?” he said, rubbing his eyes.
Kalees grabbed him by the arm and yanked him to attention.
“Get to the trees,” he ordered. “Quickly! Now!” He shoved Brother Ystril toward the trees, stumbling as he did so. He turned back to Mythrin, his breath coming hot and fast against the walls of his lungs. Mythrin shifted slightly in his sleep, and murmured something about books.
“Goddammit, Mythrin!” he shouted, running over to him. “Wake Up!”
In desperation, Kalees kicked him full in the stomach. Mythrin doubled over, clutching his midsection, his eyes wide and suddenly alert.
“Good,” panted Kalees. “Stampede. Get to the trees. Now!”
“But Brother Ptolec,” said Mythrin getting up, “He’s down by the stream–”
Kalees glanced to the north. There wasn’t any time.
“I’m on it,” shouted Kalees, pushing Mythrin to the clump of trees to the east. “GO!” Kalees turned away, took a deep breath and sprinted across the valley to the stream, the thunder of hooves cascading towards him from the side. He glanced to the north and forced his feet to double their speed, his lungs clawing at his ribcage.
“Ptolec!” he shouted as he neared the stream’s edge, his voice hoarse and desperate. “Ptolec! Where are you!”
Kalees staggered as the first beast thundered behind him, it’s breath hot and rancid on his shoulders with fear. Another passed inches in front of him, twisting Kalees into whirling dervish.
“Ptolec!” he shouted over the roar of the animals. “Where are you!” Tears stained his eyes, and desperation cracked his voice. He felt something crash into his side, the feel of fur rough against his skin.
Then he saw him, racing towards him out of the water, his body cut and glistening in the moonlight, eyes blazing.
“You idiot!” shouted Brother Ptolec, yanking Kalees into the water, and against his body. “What the hell are you doing?!?!”
“Brother Ystril– Mythrin– Stampede–” blurted Kalees, his breath coming in short rapid gasps. “We didn’t–”
“The water will slow down the stampede,” said Brother Ptolec calmly, pulling Kalees deeper into the water. “There’s a point where they can’t touch bottom. We just got to wait it out.”
Kalees leaned his face against Brother Ptolec’s chest, willing his pulse to mimic the calm sound he found there.
The rest of the herd galloped into the water and around them, and past them on the shoreline. Few animals came out to where they were, though. Brother Ptolec was right. The water was too deep. Brother wrapped his arms around Kalees as they stood shoulder deep in the water, his head resting on the top of Kalees’ own.
“Just wait,” he breathed into Kalees’ hair. “It will be over soon.” He squeezed harder as he felt Kalees start to shake. Brother Ptolec frowned. Surely, he had seen a stampede before…?
Sure enough, after a few minutes, the stampede lost it’s drive, and the animals slowed to a lumbering walk. Slowly, Brother Ptolec and Kalees waded out of the water to the shore. Brother Ptolec walked over to his robe, shook the excess water from his body, and began to dress.
“That was really stupid, you know,” he muttered over his shoulder. “I would think a scout of your caliber would know that I was perfectly safe near the water. What the hell were you thinking running like that to find me with that stampede coming? You could have been trampled!”
“I know,” said Kalees quietly, watching Brother Ptolec as he dressed, the lines of the monk’s back, legs and shoulders being searing into his mind. “I couldn’t find you, and I started to…”
“… panic?” asked Brother Ptolec with a frown. “We just met today. What on earth would you have to panic about?”
“I don’t know,” stammered Kalees, standing on the shoreline, his feet rooted in place. “I felt it coming, and I couldn’t find—”
“So you acted like a fool and sprinted off to find me,” said Brother Ptolec with a soft smile. “Flattering, Kalees. Very stupid, but flattering. Come on. Let’s get you into some dry clothes.”
Brother Ptolec turned to walk back to camp but stopped short. He didn’t hear Kalees’ footsteps following. He sighed in frustration.
“Look, I’m sorry I yelled,” he said roughly. “When I saw you running towards me, and being overtaken by the stampede, I guess I panicked a little too. Sorry if I upset you. I don’t really think you’re—”
Brother Ptolec turned around, his eyes widening with surprise.
“Hey! What the!” Brother Ptolec lunged forward, catching Kalees as he fell forward, the darkness finally overtaking him.
© 2016 – 2017, Laura Seeber. All rights reserved.