Posted By Ibn on 06-Apr-2005
by Brandon "meanbeard" Salinas
He was falling. It was dark and he was falling. The wind roared past his ears. His stomach felt hollow and queasy. Other than that, there was no sensation at all. He had no concept of time or place. All he knew was that he had been falling for years, and as far as he could tell, he was going to fall for many more. He thought that after years of falling through blackness, he would have grown used to the sensation, perhaps even welcomed it. But no. It was still as terrifying now as it was when the fall began.
Because, after all, who knew when he would finally hit the ground?
The Duke's eyes flashed open. All was still dark, but it was not the pitch of his dream. No, there was light here, though that light was barely discernable in the early morning hour.
He was covered in sweat. His blanket clung to his naked flesh. He unwrapped himself from the heavy cloth and flung it to the ground. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and held his head in his shaking hands.
The nightmares had grown worse. The war with Varicci had progressed poorly, though the King had yet to locate Silyun. The Duke had lost many good men, and there was no end in sight to the bloody conflict. Many more Viamontians had found their ways through the portals, but most of them were either rounded up by Varicci or slaughtered by the various creatures that stalked this land. Few of them found their way to Silyun. Even fewer were willing to align themselves with the Duke's small band of rebels.
Silyun would not long survive. It was only a matter of time before Varicci's forces penetrated the rebel defense. And once that was done, no power on this world could protect them from Varicci's overwhelming might.
The Duke stood and walked to his table. He lit a candle and opened the small wooden box. He unrolled the parchment within and re-read the terms.
He had a duty to his people, didn't he? What good was an ideology if all of his people were dead?
The Duke wrapped his fur-lined cloak tightly against his chest. He made his way to Eleonora's cottage. Few stirred at this early hour. Only a handful of guards patrolled the town's perimeter. The ocean breeze whistled through the shops and trees.
He reached the town's edge. Eleonora's cottage was set off from the others. Though she championed the ideals of The Individual - and in fact was the one who had introduced them to the Duke - she never truly felt a part of those she led. She held herself at a distance from the rest of Silyun, choosing to live apart from them rather than with them, as the Duke had chosen.
He reached her front door and raised a hand to knock. But the door hung ajar, as though she had left in a hurry and had forgotten to close it properly. That hollow feeling entered his stomach for the second time today.
He nudged the door open and peered into the darkened cottage. "Eleonora," he called out. He stepped into the entranceway and looked around. Her home was empty of all but the most basic furnishings. It looked as though no one had lived here for years.
The Duke walked down into the basement. There were Eleonora's three possessions: a bed, a table, and a sword rack. The bed was empty. So was the sword rack.
A single piece of parchment lay on the table. The Duke picked it up and read it.
His heart grew cold. He began to tremble. He dropped the note and watched, helpless, as it fluttered to the floor.
Sir Binwas led them through the frozen forest. His hands were bound behind his back. He struggled to maintain his footing on the ice. So far, he had fallen seven times, a fact which pleased Eleonora immensely.
"Watch your step, Sir Binwas," Eleonora called to him, as he slid on a particularly wet patch of ice.
He turned to her. "Untie me, woman! This will go much faster if I'm not falling on my ass every two minutes!"
Sir Bellas strode out in front of Eleonora. He unsheathed his sword. "Mind your tongue, Loc. You speak to the Lady of Silyun."
Sir Binwas stopped and looked Sir Bellas in the eye. Even with his hands bound behind him, he stood straight and strong, filled with the pride of a loyalist who had vowed to die for his King. "No, Bellas. I speak to the murderous daughter of the Traitor of Bellenesse. That bitch is no lady."
Sir Bellas raised his sword over his head. He took one step forward, ready to cleave the bound knight in two.
"No!" Eleonora shouted. She placed a hand on Bellas' back. "He wants to die, Sir Bellas. We'll grant him that soon enough. But for now, we need him."
Carlo, the only other member of their party, broke his silence. "Sir Bellas, please. The sooner we finish here the better."
Sir Bellas stared his foe in the eyes. Neither man blinked nor looked away. Sir Bellas dearly wanted to plant his sword in the arrogant, smug face of the man before him, but he knew Eleonora was right. They were here on a mission. And there was no way they could accomplish it without Loc.
He sheathed his sword. Eleonora stepped away from him, content that her bodyguard was not about to carve up the only man capable of leading them to Varicci. Then Bellas took a step forward and slammed his fist into Loc's gut. Sir Binwas buckled and fell to his knees, coughing.
Sir Bellas stepped away from the wheezing, sputtering man and spat on him. He turned to Eleonora. "I'm ready to go when you are."
Sir Binwas vomited, then rested his head on the ice.
"They are coming, my King."
Varicci followed his scout's gaze into the barren plain below. He squinted against the white glare of the ice. He gave his eyes a moment to adjust themselves to the dazzling light. For several seconds, he saw nothing but the glare. But gradually, he made out the figures. Four small dots on that ice-covered landscape. One of them stumbled ahead of the others, slipping and falling. He looked like a drunkard. Or a bound man marching to his death. That would be Loc.
He thought it strange that this sight afforded him no sense of joy or achievement. The moment of his enemy's defeat was nigh. The woman who had slain his brother was down there, ready for death. With her gone, the Duke would either surrender or over-commit his forces in an ill-advised act of vengeance. The war was at an end. All he had to do was play this one last part.
But still, he felt no joy. Merely a grim sense of purpose, the same hollow drive he had felt these last few years. He knew that he had a job to do. He knew the glory of Sanamar rested on his shoulders. But he could muster no feeling for it.
Sir Bellas stopped. He held up a hand and the party froze. Eleonora stepped up behind Loc's back and slipped a gauntleted hand over his mouth. She held a poniard to the back of his neck.
Up ahead, just past a field of frozen trees, a thin tendril of smoke snaked upwards to the heavens. Eleonora whispered in Loc's ear. "This it?"
Loc slowly nodded his head.
Eleonora looked to Carlo and nodded. Carlo removed two bundles of cloth from his pack. Eleonora shoved Loc down on his knees. Before the man could make a sound, Carlo stuffed one of the small bundles into his mouth. He then unraveled the other bundle and tied the long strip of cloth around Loc's head, securing the gag in place.
Eleonora placed a foot on the man's back and shoved him face first into the ice. She tied his hands behind his back with a small bit of rope, and then tied his legs together at the knee.
"You'd better hope we make it out of there alive," she whispered in his ear. "Because no one's coming back for you." She smiled a grim smile. "Except maybe the Ruschk."
Sir Bellas strode forward. Eleonora and Carlo followed.
Eleonora crouched behind the ice-encrusted tree. Carlo huddled behind her. Sir Bellas had crept up the steep slope of the cliff that overlooked the loyalist camp. He was hidden behind a rock just above the loyalists, waiting for Eleonora's signal.
She looked back at the camp. These three men supposedly held a portal gem into Varicci's chambers. These were the men who would provide her with the key to assassinating the wretch who had tried to kill her father.
The three loyalists sat around the fire, engaged in conversation. The patch of land on which they sat was free of ice. The air was slightly warmer here than it was on the northern reaches of the island. Two of the men were knights and posed little threat. Sir Bellas could take them both without a thought. The third one, however, was a mage. Eleonora's own abilities with war magic were quite formidable. She could probably hold her own in that duel. But if she were unlucky - if she were to fall - Sir Bellas would stand little chance of survival. Carlo was not even a factor in the fight. His abilities with the blade were negligible, and he had not a spark of magical ability. He was merely here to help with the cleanup.
It was a risk, but it was one they had to take. They would not have such a chance as this again. Eleonora readied her wand and focused her energies on the mage. She called into mind an image of fire and spoke the words, "Zojak Quaguz." The wand glowed red. A fireball swirled into life before her and streaked forward. The mage spared not a glance before dodging out of the way. The two knights immediately leapt to their feet and ran toward the ice forest.
Eleonora had but a moment to realize what happened. They know. Before she could signal to Sir Bellas, he slid out from behind his rock and leapt from the cliff. He landed right behind the mage, but the mage was ready for him. He whipped around and delivered a powerful surge of lightning that blinded Eleonora and knocked Sir Bellas to his back. Eleonora blinked away the spots in her vision, but the world was still overbright. She dropped her wand and took up her sword. She ran towards the mage, or where she believed the mage to be. She knew this must be a trap, but she was not about to leave Sir Bellas to his doom. "Carlo! Run! Get out of here now!" she shouted over her shoulder.
She did not look back at Carlo. She merely sped toward the mage, hoping to get to him before he could level his wand at her. The distance, however, was too great. The mage took aim and fired. A massive cluster of ice sailed through the air. Eleonora dodged out of the way and the icy ball flew past. The mage summoned his will once more, but Eleonora was on him before he could cast again.
She was dimly aware of a sharp pain in her chest when she decapitated the loyalist. His head fell to the ground. His body crumpled in a bloody heap.
Eleonora looked down at Sir Bellas and smiled. He looked up at her, his eyes growing wide in alarm. Eleonora cocked her head at him in wonder when another pain hit her chest. This time it knocked her to the ground. She stared down at herself in disbelief. A massive arrow protruded from her chest. Next to that arrow was another bloody wound. She felt her back and discovered a corresponding exit wound. Apparently, the first arrow had sailed straight through.
"Sir Bellas," she gasped. The knight tried to stand, but an arrow pinned his hand to the ice. He howled in agony. He tried to remove the arrow with his other hand, but another arrow hit him in the leg, then his back, then his hip.
"No!" Eleonora screamed. Two more arrows slammed into Sir Bellas before the assault came to a conclusion. The knight lay on his side, blood pooling about his body. His breath was shallow and his eyes were dim. Life rapidly fled from his body. Eleonora looked up at the cliff. A force of loyalists looked down at her. Two of them wielded bows. Next to them stood approximately fifteen knights and ten mages. And at the center of them all, King Varicci himself.
Eleonora ripped the arrow from her chest. A great gout of blood shot forth and stained the ground before her. She stumbled to her knees and then lurched to her feet. Blood poured down her armor. She stood on unsteady legs and gripped her sword with both hands.
"Come down here, you dog," she yelled to Varicci. "Come down here now and finish this fight!"
Varicci merely stared down at her. His archers readied their bows, then looked to him for the order. Eleonora wondered if he would have the courage to face her, wounded as she was, or if he would take the coward's way out and order her death from afar. Her one hope was that she could goad him into a fight. She was certain to lose such a duel; there was no hope of surviving this day. But perhaps she could take the King with her, and end her life with the knowledge that the Varicci line had been extinguished forever.
But would he fight her? He was not as prideful as his brother. Though ordering his archers to slay her from their perch would certainly be the cowardly way to end this battle, it was also the most sensible. Eleonora was wounded, yes, but she was still a master swordswoman. She faked a small stumble, hoping he would see her as weaker than she was, hoping he would come down here and grant her one last chance to finish her mission.
Varicci stared at her a long time, weighing the choice before him. That stone face of his was completely unreadable. What was the bastard thinking? Did he relish this moment? Did he thirst for her blood as she did for his? Or was he merely going through the motions, simply staring down a foe destined to die at his hand no matter what tricks she might pull? That last thought filled her with a sense of despair that overwhelmed even her fear of death. To think that perhaps she meant no more to him than the fly meant to the horse who slapped it away with its tail chilled her heart. She had wasted so much effort on this man, and there he stood, staring at her with all the passion of a rock.
Finally, he shook his head, and his archers lowered their bows. He readied his mace and worked his way down the cliff. His soldiers followed and formed a ring around Eleonora and Varicci. Sir Bellas watched with dimmed eyes.
Varicci spared not a word. He merely attacked. Eleonora had seen him in battle many times, and had heard much of his prowess as a warrior before that. She knew that he was ferocious and skilled, but she'd had no idea just how a powerful a foe he truly was. Renlen had been tough. Loc had been tougher. But none of her foes had ever come close to Varicci's might.
She fought her best. She parried as well as she could, vainly tried to hit him in the few opportunities he gave her. But he was just too skilled. She was a child wildly swinging at an indulgent adult. She had no hope of defeating this foe.
She glanced at Sir Bellas' crumpled form. A tear fell from her eye, a tear for the life she was soon to lose, a tear for the people she had to abandon. She hoped they could win this fight without her, though she feared they too would soon meet their ends. She swung one great wild swing at Varicci. He stepped back and easily evaded the attack. Then he cracked her in the head with his mace. Her vision turned white and she felt her skull crack. A fierce blow to her chest knocked her to the ground. The world grew dark and her hearing grew dim. She was dully aware of the sound of cheers before she lost consciousness completely.
The Grand Mother of Silyun knelt by the stream and cupped hands beneath the water. The two guards the Duke had sent with her stood a polite distance away, their hands on their crossbows, waiting for attack. She hated that these soldiers had to risk their lives to indulge her religious beliefs, but she could not turn her back on the spirits that guided her every thought and movement.
She lifted the water to her face and poured it on her upturned forehead. She cupped her hands and lowered them to the water once again. She lifted the water to her face and repeated the ritual. The third time she placed her hands in the stream, however, she noticed something that chilled her heart. A thin trickle of blood flowed downstream and eddied around her cupped hands.
"Grand Mother," called one of her guards in a tense whisper. She looked to the soldiers. They readied their crossbows and moved in front of her. She rose to her feet and peered downstream. There in the water, a dark shape floated towards them.
"Halt!" cried the guards. "Halt or we will fire!"
The dark shape continued its course, floating quickly towards them. A rather lengthy trail of blood extended before it. After but a moment, the shape's identity soon became apparent. The Grand Mother's breath caught in her throat. She raised a hand to her chest and stumbled backwards.
"Hellfire," cursed one of the knights. The two men lowered their crossbows. One of them stepped into the stream and waded towards the shape. He laid his hands on it and dragged it back to shore.
The Grand Mother stepped forward and examined the body. The corpse of Eleonora du Bellenesse was battered and bruised. Her armor hung loosely about her, evidence of some great trauma. The Grand Mother knelt next to the body and pulled the wet strands of Eleonora's hair from the girl's pallid face. Then she noticed the hole in her armor. "Help me with this," she commanded the guards.
The three of them removed Eleonora's breastplate. Beneath it was a tattered linen shirt. Two small wounds - obviously caused by Varicci's archers - were buried in her chest. Next to them was a great bloody hole directly above the girl's heart.
The Grand Mother closed her eyes. A wave of fear and grief threatened to overwhelm her. This champion who had been so kind, so noble, had had her heart ripped from her chest by that dog who called himself King. And the Grand Mother was the one who would have to tell the Duke.
She looked up at the guards. "Help me," she said. "We must carry the body of this warrior back to her father."