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|This story explores the question of loyalty, and the price a young officer is willing to pay to maintain that loyalty.||
Charwood-A Tale of Lord Gauston
By Michael S. LaReaux
The burial detail had nothing to dig with but their swords. Shirts and cuirasses thrown aside, the men sweated and grunted and swore, plunging their swords into the ground and scooping the loose soil away with their helmets. They tossed it over their heads onto the pile each man had made behind him. Dust stuck to the sweat that stood out on their backs, creating streaks of dark brown mud that dried and cracked anew as they bent to scoop again.
Gauston looked on. Though the men complained bitterly when they thought he wasnít listening, he knew they were thankful, despite the labor. Some distance away, covered by their cloaks, lay four reminders that to dig, one must be alive.
Had you done your job properly, he thought, there would be no need for digging graves.
The men of the burial detail huddled close together, heels dug into the dirt. Their legs and backs pitted against some unseen thing embedded in the ground beneath them. Their shouts became a chant; keeping time as they heaved in unison.
Gauston stepped forward and dropped into the grave, removing his cuirass and shirt and laying them aside.
"Get something to drink and tend your horses," he said. The group parted, stumbling over one another in their haste to get out of their commander's way. Their departure revealed a section of pale gray stone, half buried in the red clay on the far side of the grave. A sword thrust into the clay marked the stoneís edge.
Gauston plunged the sword into the dense clay, giving it a twist to loosen it. It broke into large chunks and tumbled into the bottom of the grave, half burying the helmet that lay there.
You pushed them too far, he thought, scooping into the helmet. He turned and dumped the soil onto the pile. It wasnít necessary to pursue the enemy. They couldnít remain undetected for long. Lord Valn would have dispatched another patrol. A fresh one.
The sword rang out against the rock as he plunged it in again, working away a section of the soil that held the rock in place. .
The Shafra are not known for their kindness. Had I not pursued them, had I turned back to make a report to Lord Valn, they might have sacked villages. It could have been weeks before they were caught. There was no choice but to pursue.
Off to his right, Captain Tulek dropped into the grave. His lean body appeared nearly skeletal as he stripped his cuirass and shirt. His spine protruded noticeably as he bend down to scoop loose clay from the bottom of the grave.
The past three days had taken their toll on him; Red welts circled his waist where the heavy leather belt had bitten into his pale skin, now slick with sweat and covered in fine red dust. Despite his best efforts, his shoulders and upper back sagged. Though he was obviously as exhausted as the men he replaced, Tulek set about scraping and digging without murmuring a word.
They dug without speaking for some time, working away at the edge of the stone, until the entire upper surface of it lay exposed to the sun. As long as a manís arm and roughly triangular in shape, it resembled a gigantic spearhead thrust into the side of the hill.
Tulek drove a sword into the clay round the edge of the stone, while Gauston straddled it where it narrowed into a dull point. Gaustonís fingers pressed into the clay seeking the underside of the stone. He scraped away more of the clay, until his fingers found the lower edge. Bracing his legs beneath him, Gauston and Tulek heaved. The ground buckled and, finally, the stone gave way, jutting out of the ground at a steep angle. Without waiting for Tulek to assist, Gauston heaved again, until the point of the stone aimed straight at the gray, cloud-covered sky. In truth, it was more a boulder than a mere stone, as thick as Gaustonís forearm, and tall enough to reach Gaustonís waist.
His legs burned, and he felt his blood pounding in his temples. His fingers stung where the sweat and dust touched them; a good deal of the skin that covered them remained on the rock. He wrenched it sideways, exposing the lower corner.
You pushed them too far, he thought, hooking his arm beneath the lower edge of the stone. He braced himself, and lifted. The stone came free in a shower of clay and dust. The edge dug into Gaustonís arms as he carried the slab to the edge of the grave and dropped it next to the pile of dirt.
The air became unusually thick and stale, and Gauston looked up to find the entire patrol crowded around the grave, staring in wide-eyed awe at the stone slab. Even Tulek seemed entranced by the sight of it. Sitting with his back against the grave, his gaze traveled back and forth between the Gauston and the rock.
"Get back to your duties," Gauston said.
The sound of Gaustonís voice was enough to break the spell. The men dispersed, muttering under their breaths.
Gauston climbed out. Some men had already taken up their comradesí bodies. Gingerly, the fallen horsemen were laid into the grave side by side, their Imperial broadswords placed on their chests, hands folded over the hilt Gauston nodded slightly, and several men set about filling the grave in. Slowly, the four dead warriors disappeared beneath the red dirt.
He gestured to Captain Tulek, recovered his own cuirass from the graveside, and walked back toward his horse, which grazed twenty yards away, next to Tulekís white gelding. The two horses ate, their legs nearly obscured in the tall grass, entirely unconcerned with anything but filling their bellies. Gauston envied them.
The sky, covered by a thick blanket of gray clouds, hid the sunís light, but trapped its heat. From the east, a breeze brushed through the tall grass, but did nothing to alleviate the soldiersí discomfort.
Gauston mounted, and struck out at a slow trot for the valeís western slope. The remains of the Shafra raiding party his patrol had ridden down lay in an irregular, bloody heap, horse carcasses and human corpses thrown together without distinction in the center of a brownish-red expanse of churned mud and grass. Several men dragged the last horse carcass toward the pile, carving a small furrow into the mud.
"How are you feeling, Captain Tulek?" Gauston asked, after they had passed the dead.
"Excellent, my Lord Gauston. I love a good burial."
"Speak freely, Captain."
Tulek smiled. "I do, my Lord. I am a bit confused about your sudden interest in gravedigging, but otherwise, thereís nothing wrong with me that a bed and a cup of strong wine could not cure. Iím sure the men feel the same."
Gauston glanced back for a moment, then looked at Tulek.. "Except for the sixteen who fell in the ambush, and those four we just buried."
"My Lord Gauston, they died well. There isnít a place in your Patrol for those who would do otherwise.."
Ahead of them, the valeís western slope rose, carpeted in short grass on the lower slope and moving into deceptively soft-looking brush toward the summit.
"I wonder how one goes about dying well. Iíve heard it said many times that this man or that man died well, and Iíve yet to see the dead man who agrees. They died, Tulek. That is all."
" Men die in battle, my Lord Gauston."
"There didnít have to be a battle this time."
Tulek pulled up on his reins. "My Lord Gauston, we had no choice but to pursue. You were perfectly justified to do so."
"I was not." Gauston lowered his eyes.
"If I may ask, Lord Gauston, why not?"
"I didnít order the pursuit out of concern for the well-being of ĎZarian sheep-herders or because it was my duty as Patrol Commander to destroy Shafra raiding parties." Gauston paused. Tulekís smile had faded, and he listened with a drawn expression.
"I ordered the pursuit because I was angry."
"We were all angry!" Tulek retorted. "Most of the troops in this patrol are from Anizar. True, they are Imperial Guardsmen, but they are defending their homeland. They have every right to be angry when Shafra raiders come to kill their children and steal their sheep and cattle. They would have burned that entire village if you hadnít been there waiting for them."
"Exactly, Tulek. We have to be there, waiting for the Shafra to raid. Weíre waiting for them to come to us."
They rode to the base of the slope, and then turned south, toward the rest of the Patrol. They rode silently for a time, before Gauston spoke again.
"My brother Fleurienn informs me that Lord Althanthor has asked for more money and troops to secure the "Thorian Gap. The Emperor agreed to his proposal. This is the third time in a year he has made such a request. Yet the raids have gotten worse."
"Tulek smiled, knowing what was coming. "As your second in command, Lord Gauston, it is my duty to point out that accusing the Emperorís Right Hand of incompetence is grounds for imprisonment."
Gauston smiled and held out his wrists.
"What puzzles me," Tulek said, "Is why the Shafra fled south. Had they gone north and made for the Gap, they might have escaped. Iíve never known the Shafra to be partial to suicide."
"Nor have I. It makes the entire raid even more senseless. When we return to Anizar, Iíll stand before Lord Valn, with a sack of Shafra headcloths, and he will ask me why I endangered the lives of so many horses and men for the sake of a small group of cattle thieves. I will give him my report. Then he will lean over the table and stare at me with his good eye and he will say, "Lord Gauston, to what benefit?" Gauston cast his eyes toward the ground. "And I will have no answer for him."
Tulek reached into a saddlebag and retrieved a piece of hard bread and a wineskin filled with a mixture of water, vinegar and wine. He broke the bread in half, and a cascade of crumbs tumbled down his horseís shoulder and onto the bare earth. Tulek bit into one half, and tossed the other half to Gauston, who nodded his thanks.
"You can tell Lord Valn to ask his question to those cattle drovers who are probably delivering their cattle to the markets in Anizar as we speak."
Tulek winced as he sipped from the wineskin. "Mother Goddess of the Sky! Thereís nothing worse than a mouthful of warm Horsepiss." He passed the skin to Gauston, who finished the skin. After four years of drinking the sour, foul-smelling mixture, he had acquired a taste for it.
"Weíre running out, you know. Weíre going to be well parched by the time we return to Anizar." Tulek said.
A small brown shape emerged from a hole and skittered through the short grass near Tulekís horse. When it reached the fallen bread crumbs, it stopped and began to eat, never taking his eyes off the two riders. It ate until its cheeks bulged, then skittered past them, into a section of thick tall grass and disappeared.
Gauston followed the mouseís trail. He could see the hole clearly; the grass around it barely covered the soil in which it rested. The crumbs that the mouse had left behind dotted the red-brown soil, already mixing with it in the eastern breeze. A few yards past the horses, the grass abruptly sprung up, tall and dense, obscuring the ground and swaying in waves as the breeze rushed through it.
Gauston dropped from his horse and landed in a crouch. The wine skin slipped from his hand, all but forgotten
"I have some more bread, Lord Gauston, " Tulek joked. "I think you can leave the crumbs for the mice."
"Tulek, look at this grass. Itís been cut."
Tulek dropped from his horse ,and bent to examine the grass himself. He brushed his hand over the top, and looked back at Gauston, who was already back in his saddle and turning his horse to climb the valeís western slope..
The Shafra fled south for a reason, Gauston thought. He climbed another fifty yards, and turned to survey the area.
And, he thought, They stopped in this valley for a reason.
From above, the vale appeared more like a farm than a meadow. Tall grass framed a square area of nearly barren earth, where the grass had been cut almost to the roots. Moving south, the grass gradually increased in height. Near the scene of battle, the grass looked as if it had not been cut at all.
Tulek joined Gauston on the slope.
"They entered the vale to the east, on that slope," Gauston said, gesturing toward the opposite side of the vale. They didnít turn until they reached the bottom. They were looking for something. I believe they were looking for this," he gestured toward the recently harvested grass.
"It could have been drovers."
"Cattle donít graze in straight lines. That grass was cut, not grazed. How far south have we come?"
"Iím not sure. Iíll have to climb to the top of the slope to get my bearings, " Tulek replied, kicking his horse into motion. They dismounted before cresting the slope, leaving their horses below the ridgeline. Crawling up to the top, the two took another look around.
To the east, the Anizar highlands rolled away to the horizon, its grass undulating in golden waves. Far below, in the bottom of the vale, the Patrol waited, a small cluster of brown, gray and white shapes. A large irregularly shaped expanse of red mud marked the site of the battle. Overhead, the black shapes of carrion birds circled, wary of the men nearby, but nevertheless spiraling slowly down toward the feast of dead horses and men.
To the south, the highlands gradually descended, disappearing into a thin green ribbon on the horizon. To the west, the ground dropped off rapidly, plunging into a thick tangle of brush on the edge of a vast forest which stretched all the way to the western horizon.
"Althanthor Wood, " Tulek said, "I didnít realize we were so far west."
Gauston concentrated on the tops of the trees, only dimly aware that Tulek had spoken. They were looking for the cut grass, because the grass signaled something. Perhaps it was a landmark for them, a way to gauge their position. It made little sense to place oneís trust in something that grew back so quickly. But other than the grass, there was nothing to suggest that anyone had passed through the vale in some time.
Three solutions presented themselves. Either they had run into the vale by accident, merely looking for advantageous ground for a last stand, or they had come deliberately, expecting to find either safety or aid. The first possibility seemed unlikely; had they wished to make a last stand, they could have done so days ago when they and their horses were still relatively fresh.
The second possibility, though more likely, made little more sense than the first. What sort of safety could a band of Shafra cattle-raiders expect to find so far south? Everyone in Doraanís eastern provinces recognized and hated the Shafra. No self-respecting ĎZarian or ĎThorian would give the Shafra aid.
Gauston looked out over Althanthor Wood. Gray diffused light seeped from the clouds, creating deep shadows beneath the branches and hiding the forest floor from view.
Gaustonís breath caught in his throat. The grass was no signal.
It was forage.
"Get the patrol out of the vale." Gauston said. His eyes remained fixed on Althanthor Wood. "Ride north. If I do not return by first light, take the patrol back to Anizar and report to Lord Valn."
"Lord Gauston, as your second, it is my duty to remind you that crossing into Althanthor while on patrol constitutes a usurpation of Lord Boranís authority and is grounds for-" Gauston turned his head to face Tulek, and the grim, determined expression he wore caused Tulek to swallow his words.
"Get the patrol out of the vale. Go."
Tulek hesitated. His gaze shifted from the forest, to Gauston, to the east, and finally came to rest on Gauston again.
"Go," Gauston said.
Tulek managed a short bow. "Aye, Lord Gauston."
Gauston watched as Tulek descended to the horses. He mounted, taking the bridle of Gaustonís horse, and rode down the slope toward the patrol. Gauston started his descent west.
Loose rocks and thick brush made the descent difficult. Twice, Gauston lost his footing, tumbling into the brush. The sharp, thorny bushes dealt him some severe scratches, but saved him from further injury by stopping his progress down the steep slope.
So much for stealth, he thought, as he untangled himself from the brush the second time. Thereafter, he chose his path more carefully, until the slope leveled out and he found himself beneath the canopy of broad-leafed trees at the eastern edge of Althanthor Wood.
Gauston had no intention of rejoining Tulek and the patrol. The men had performed better than his highest expectations. During the ambush, they had followed his orders to the letter. When the surviving Shafra fled, They followed him in the chase. They had complained the entire way, and cursed Gauston for their pains, but they had followed. Even after an arduous three day ride, with little food, water or rest, they had routed and completely destroyed the remains of the Shafra raiding party down to the last horse. The men in his command truly deserved their place in the Imperial Guard, and Gauston would see to it that those who had come this far with him would live to see Anizar again.
With Tulek and the men safely on their way back to Anizar, Gauston would be free to find out who was cutting forage, and why. The amount of grass cut suggested a fairly large amount of animals. It also suggested that the animals would be located close by; moving such a large amount of grass would be difficult. Once he found them, and discovered who was responsible, he could make his way back to Anizar and report to Lord Valn. With a detailed report, he could expect to rejoin his Patrol without incident. Gaustonís position as heir to the Dukedom of Corynn forced Valn to treat him with a greater degree of leniency that other Patrol Commanders received. If he found nothing, he would most likely be discharged from service and sent back to Corynn in disgrace for abandoning his command. That would be the worst punishment he could receive; The weight of his fatherís displeasure would be far more painful than anything Lord Valn could do.
More importantly, the raids would continue, the patrols would continue, and his men would continue to die. To what benefit. Lord Valn?, thought Gauston. He imagined Lord Valn, leaning across the table, his scar more pronounced in the flickering candlelight of Lord Valnís private chambers within the palace of the provincial capital.
Gauston struck out west. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; only the warbling of birds and the occasional scurry of a small animal through the leaves and underbrush greeted him as he made his way through the woods. The gray half-shadows gradually darkened. The trees, growing more closely together, shed a thick blanket of dead leaves across the forest floor.
Gauston paused beneath a tree, and listened. Somewhere ahead, he heard the faint sound of water tumbling across rocks. Where there was water, there was often people. Besides, his mouth tasted like blood, dust and thorn bushes. Besides allowing him to wash the dust and blood from his throat, the water would be a good place to begin his search.
The ground sloped gently, gradually dropping off as Gauston neared the water. The air cooled and lost its thickness, smelling of wet stone, fern, and rotting wood, and before long a small river came into view between the trees, a small ribbon of blue-green flanked on both sides by dry white rocks. Although it may have once been a river, it was no longer anything more than a tiny stream. It wound its way over the rocks, cascading here and there down short waterfalls. The water, running a winding course roughly north to south, had cut deep ravine into the forest floor. Roots the size of a manís arm protruded from the banks, sometimes reaching completely across and into the opposite bank. Upstream, the riverbed gradually windened until it curved off to the west and disappeared from view.
Gauston lay down in the rocks beneath a small waterfall, and dipped his hands into the pool of churning whitewater. The chill stung the scratches in his hands and forearms, but the pain quickly gave way to welcome numbness. He took a deep drink, then rubbed some water onto his face and head, and then drank again. The water sent a ripple down his spine and forced a deep breath of air into his lungs.
A large gray reflection passed over the water. Gauston froze.
No more than a couple horselengths upstream, on the opposite bank, a black-garbed Shafra rider sat astride a shaggy gray horse, which was busy drinking deeply from the stream. The rider, apparently unconcerned with his horseís thirst, slouched in the saddle, his attention directed at the treetops in front of him. A long curved sword hung from a strap slung across the riderís shoulder. Idly, the rider patted his horseís shaggy gray hide, waiting patiently for his mount to drink its fill.
Suddenly, the horseís nostrils flared and it raised its head from the water. Its ears pointed back and it took a couple of steps from the bank.
Gauson silently cursed himself for forgetting the direction of the wind. It had smelled him! He quickly rolled behind the rocks that formed the waterfall.
He was not especially worried about injury. Few men could best Gauston in a duel. Even with a mounted opponent, Gauston had no doubt that he could quickly and easily kill the man. Although the Shafra had no advantage should he choose to stand and fight, his mobility gave him every advantage if he chose to run, including summoning help. A man Gaustonís size would most likely intimidate the rider into flight. However, if the Shafra thought that Gauston was somehow weaker than he was, he might be duped into an attack.
Gauston grabbed a rock from the streambed.
Iím no threat to you, Gauston thought. Iím weak and wounded, and trying to escape.. He grabbed a rock from the bank and tossed it over the waterfall to his to his left. As soon as the rock left his hand, he rolled to his right, gathered his feet beneath him, and ran in a low crouch toward a dense copse of nearby trees, making plenty of noise as he did so. If was lucky, the Shafra had caught sight of him before he made it to cover.
Though the branches, Gauton saw the gray turn, and heard the rasping sound of steel on leather.
A piece of luck, Gauston thought. The rider came within two horselengths of Gaustonís position, and stopped. He sat erect and alert, much more the warrior now that he sensed danger.
They paused there, across from each other, for no more than a few breaths. For Gauston, it seemed much longer.
Very well, he thought. If Iíve eluded you that easily, here I am.
He slid his boot into the open. The Shafra urged his horse into a cautious walk.
Gauston took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled.
The rider turned his horse and circled left, so that his right side faced the trees. He raised his sword, and brought it down in a sweeping arc through the branches. Gauston felt the tip of the blade whistle past his boot as he rolled between the horseís legs and came up standing on the other side. He felt the rings of a mail coat, cold and rough beneath the riderís cloak as he hauled the Shafra off the rear of the horse. Gauston heard the riderís surprised gasp and felt the tension in his body as the rider pitched backward. The sword fell from the riderís grasp, landing at nearly the same time as the riderís head. The ring of metal against stone complemented the sickening crunch-thud of the riderís impact into the root-tangled ground. Gauston returned to the cover of the branches, hauling the corpse after him. He crouched low, listening.
Nothing but the birds and the dismayed nickering of the Shafra horse broke the forestís calm.
Gauston waited under cover of the branches for some time before emerging..
In the rapidly fading light, Gauston inspected the corpse. He had been tall for his people; standing, he would have come up to just below Gaustonís shoulder. He wore the traditional black cloak and headcloth, with a band of bone, colored in alternating red and yellow triangles encircling his head. His neck was horribly swollen and his head pressed unnaturally close against his shoulder. A thin trickle of blood had ran from a cut on his forehead, already dried into a cracked, dark brown line across his eye and down the side of his nose. His olive-colored skin had become ashen and stiff.
Opening the cloak, Gauston confirmed what he had discovered when he grabbed the rider. Beneath the cloak, a coat of mail covered the riderís chest, stomach and arms. On his legs, he wore leggings cut to the knees, covered by wing-shaped sheets of supple leather that reached down to the boots. The long cavalry sword lay somewhere out of sight.
Gauston removed the headcloth and cloak, feeling relieved and angry. There in his hands was vindication; the Shafra certainly harbored a secret within Althanthor Wood. Gaustonís certainty ended there. The thick wool cloak and headcloth, as well as the coat of mail, conjured up far more questions than answers.
Anyone who had ever patrolled the highlands of Anizar knew that the Shafra scoffed at metal armor. They felt it beneath their dignity to trust their lives to something other than their bravery and skill. Yet, there among the roots and fallen leaves lay a Shafra corpse in a coat of mail. Perhaps he wore it as a trophy of war, proof that he had bested the Doraanian southlanders in their metal skins. Gauston had seen it before with helms or boots or swords, but never a coat of mail. Something gnawed at Gauston; a foreboding, sinister feeling that the armored corpse bore much more significance than he could grasp.
Gauston turned his attention to the horse, who stood unflinching a few feet away. It appeared sturdy enough; its thick midsection and short muscular limbs could easily support his weight. He could cover ground much more quickly riding than he could walking, and there was a good chance the horse would lead him where he wanted to go if let it choose its own direction. Gauston approached the horse slowly, hoping that it would remain calm.
The horse paid no attention to him at all. Gauston petted its forelock, and rubbed a hand over the horseís neck.
"You wonít even notice the difference," Gauston said, searching for a bridle and saddle.
The saddle turned out to be nothing more than a blanket, secured with two straps. A loose harness fitted around the horseís shoulders, upon which was fitted a few small pouches, but its head was free.
They must use knee pressure, Gauston thought. He swung a leg up and over, and with some difficulty, mounted.
Simply by sitting astride a Shafra mount, Gauston gained a new respect for his enemy. No obvious means of controlling the horseís movements presented itself. He shifted several times to maintain his balance; the blanket did little to secure him on the horseís back. The Shafra raiders routinely launched arrows and spears with great accuracy from the backs of their horses. Many of them could hold their own in a mounted swordfight as well. How did they manage without the benefit of saddle, stirrup and bridle? For an instant, he wished that he could rouse the dead Shafra and discover their secret.
Finally, he resorted to hooking his hands beneath the harness that lay across the horseís shoulders. Gently, he kicked his heels into the horseís sides.
The horse ignored him.
He tried clicking with his tongue, slapping its rump, and kicking with more force. Nothing he did moved the horse a single step. As a last resort, Gauston donned the cloak and headcloth. The band didnít fit, but Gauston secured it as best he could. Even dressed as the fallen rider, Gauston failed to get the horse moving.
"Very well, horse," Gauston said, dismounting, "Iíll leave you to your fate."
He retraced the Shafraís steps across the stream, taking one last look at the horse. It stood in the gathering darkness, waiting.
Gauston knelt down and looked at the horseís tracks. They told him nothing. At midday, he might have been able to determine what direction the horse had come from. At twilight however, the tracks melted into the deepening shadows and disappeared.
Darkness spread quickly, aided by the canopy of leaves and branches. Gauston paced back and forth along the riverbank. He had no doubt that the Shafra maintained a presence within the woods. The dead man across the stream was proof enough. If the forage belonged to them, it would explain why the raids continued despite the increased fortification of the ĎThorian Gap.
Gauston listened to the water rush past him on its way to the sea. Certainly a base would need water, especially if they had a large amount of horses, as the grass suggested. Even if the main source of the campís water was somewhere other than the stream, they obviously made use of it, as the dead rider and his loyal horse could attest. Following the stream might lead Gauston to other Shafra raiders, and with a little luck, he could tail them back to wherever they had hidden.
Gauston struck out north. He kept close to the water, but stayed under the cover of the surrounding trees. Soon, the ground sloped up, and Gauston found himself climbing. As the night wore on, the slope gradually increased, never quite becoming a hill, but never leveling out. The long, slow grade ate away at his strength; he could feel it draining away, seeping into the forest floor with each step. He heard the stream, bubbling and coughing next to him, inviting him. He concentrated on keeping his feet moving. If he stopped for water, making it to the top of the grade would be all the more difficult. The forest would claim what little energy he had left, and he would be forced to rest. He pushed the pain aside and willed his feet forward.
Darkness swallowed the forest completely. Above, the thick, dense canopy blotted out the moonlight and made progress difficult through the labyrinth of trees. Gauston climbed with his hands out in front, feeling his way around the trees as he went. His feet and legs ached, and bitter filmy bile coated his dry throat, giving him the urge to vomit. He cursed the trees, and gave in to the waterís temptation.
The stream had gone silent.
Gauston leaned against a tree and bowed his head, listening. He heard nothing but the occasional night bird and the low, persistent rustle of the breeze through the leaves. He tried to remember when he last heard the stream, but it got him nowhere. How long had he been imagining the sound? He had no idea how far he had come, and without the sound of the stream, no idea which direction he had been moving. The trees and the darkness closed in on him. He could almost feel the darkness, as if it had weight and texture, a vast thick Shafra cloak enveloping him, robbing him of his vision and hindering his movement. He imagined the Shafra finding him in the morning, huddling between the roots of some great tree, ready to surrender for a mouthful of water. The thought sickened him.
Theyíll find me dead, if they find me at all, he thought. He felt his way between two trees, searching with his fingertips for the one ahead of it. His fingertips touched the bark, and he felt his way around. He cursed the trees and the darkness. He cursed the Shafra and their stubborn mounts, their headcloths and their curved swords. He cursed Lord Valn, Althanthor, the Emperor and his father. He cursed himself. He cursed and kept moving.
A stone ground out from beneath his foot. He slipped, and scraped his left side against the roots in the ground. Gauston cursed and pounded the roots with his fists. Even the rocks seemed bent on preventing him from going on! On his hands and knees, he searched the ground with his fingertips. The stone became the object of all his hate and anger. The stone had brought him to where he was, and he had to strike back against it. In a blind, frenzied instant, he dropped to his hands and knees, feeling around across the roots, fallen branches and dried leaves for his enemy. His fingers brushed against stone, and wrapped around it as if to choke away whatever life existed inside it. He snatched it from the ground and leapt to his feet. In a fit of triumphant, gleeful madness, he hurled the stone into the air.
It skittered through the branches, and landed with a splash.
The sound brought Gauston back to his senses. He found another rock, and heaved it into the air. Again, he heard a splash.
Abandoning caution, he made is way toward the water. The darkenss became less oppressive, and Gauston could discern the dark shapes of trees by the lessening darkness in the spaces between them. The darkness receded further as he got closer to the water. He emerged from the trees to find himself at the edge of a small lake.
Gauston knelt and drank his fill, heedless of the debris and dirt that found its way into his mouth. He welcomed the taste of wet leaves and dirt after so many hours of tasting his own bile.
He looked around him. Dead trees rose from out of the water, their leafless branches allowing some muted moonlight to filter through and reflect off the still water. The hum of insects and frogs joined with the hollow sound of the breeze through dead branches. Gauson rose, watching the water lap around the trunks of the dead trees in the middle of the lake. In the darkness, he had walked right past a dam.
Why a dam?, Gauston thought. The foreboding feeling returned. The Shafra were no more likely to build dams than they were to wear metal armor. Gauston had never heard of any reports of permanent Shafra settlements; to his knowledge, they carried their shelters and belongings with them, moving as the seasons demanded. Perhaps he had stumbled upon a mill. There didnít seem to be any buildings nearby, and the sound of the millís water wheel would have given it away much earlier. Yet there didnít seem to be any other reason for dam, especially in Althanthor Wood, which Lord Boran claimed as his own personal property.
Gauston followed the edge of the water, his progress aided considerably by the dim light. Insects swarmed around his head, flying into his ears and crawling over his face and in his hair. He squinted to keep the bugs out of his eyes, and finally wrapped the Shafra headcloth tightly around his ears and over his nose and mouth. Although it did not keep all of the insects out, it relieved him enough to allow him to continue..
A large shape loomed in the darkness above the water. As he edged closer, its shape solidified. A bridge of large, rough-hewn logs stretched over the water as it narrowed into the stream that fed the lake. The distant trickle of water of stones greeted Gaustonís ears as he approached.
To his right, not more than a few horselengths away, someone laughed. Another voice spoke in a quickly moving, melodic tongue. Gauston could not understand it; he couldnít even discern where one word ended and the next began. Although he hadnít heard a great deal of their speech, Gauston had heard enough to recognize it. The speech belonged to Shafra horsemen.
Gauston stretched himself out against the ground. He felt the cool water seep into his clothing all over the right side of his body. Beneath the headcloth, an insect crawled across his lip and up his cheek.
A flurry of excited conversation followed the laughter. Although Gauston could not understand the words being used, he recognized the ease and complacency of the tone. The two spoke as if out for a morning ride. Their jovial tones and laughter evinced no sense of danger. The two sounded as content as soldiers in garrison. Garrison soldiers arenít concerned about ambush; their presence is no secret, and they take no steps to hide it. Quite often, the ease of garrison life gnaws away at their attention and state of readiness, and makes them poor solders and even poorer guards.
Emboldened by their ease, Gauston chanced movement. He inched his way forward on his belly, pulling himself along, and abruptly stopped as his sword scraped into the mud.. Shafra, in the very heart of Althanthor wood, in the heart of the Empire itself, and they laugh, Gauston thought, moving his sword to the small of his back.
He thought of the men he buried. It seemed a distant memory, as if they had been dead for ages. Had they died well? They lay beneath cold soil, whether they died well or not. They died, in a futile, worthless chase that accomplished nothing except a few more deaths. A chase that Gauston had ordered. Perhaps, if he learned enough about the strength of the Shafra presence, he could come back. He and his patrol could see to it that the deaths of his men werenít worthless after all.
He crept forward toward the bridge.
Laugh while you are able, he thought.
The Shafra sentries never paused in their conversation. Even when he stood and stepped out onto the bridge, there was no sign that the two talkative sentries even knew he was there.
A layer of hard-packed dirt covered the logs, creating an even surface to walk across. A railing had been fashioned with split logs on one side. The other side remained unfinished. Just across the bridge, long wooden rails lay in a neat pile next to a heavy axe embedded in the stump of a felled tree.
Now, thought Gauston, weíll see if the Shafra are as complacent about their camp as the ĎThorians appear to be about their forest.
With the most causal stride he could muster, Gauston marched across the bridge, setting his heels into the wood. The muffled thump of heel on packed dirt resounded in Gaustonís ears.
I belong here, he thought. Iím here to retrieve my axe.
He marched over the last log of the bridge, and right up to the axe. Pulling the axe out with one hand, he slung it over his shoulder, blade down, and continued as if it were routine. Ahead of him, a line of small spheres of light shined at intervals across a wide section of forest. A path wound through the trees disappearing into the darkness, leading toward the lights.
Gauston marched along, leaned slightly forward as if he had an urgent matter that needed immediate attention. The breeze, still blowing from the east, carried a thick smell of straw and dung.
He passed several Shafra coming the opposite direction. They walked quickly toward him, eyes intent on the ground in front of them. Gaustonís hand tightened on his axe, but he forced himself to maintain a steady posture.
I belong here, he thought.
No one said a word to him. They hurried past him without giving him a second glance. He heard their footsteps on the bridge. They faded as the distance between them widened.
. Ahead of him, the sounds of hooves on packed earth mixed with the lowing of cattle and hushed, insistent conversation. Gauston approached a gap in the trees and peered within.
The light emanated from lanterns hung every few horselengths around the perimeter of a large clearing. A fence, made of split rails ran across the center of the clearing, cutting it in half and forming an enclosure which held a large herd of cattle. Next to the enclosure, an enormous mound rose into the air, blotting out the trees behind it. A thick mat of dried grass covered the floor of the clearing, filling the air with its scent.
Near the center of the clearing, a man on horseback spoke quickly to a group of men on foot, arranged in a semicircle around him. They remained very still, their necks craned forward, listening.
Gauston strained to hear the horseman. Something about the rhythm and tone of the horsemanís speech seemed familiar. Gauston carefully reached up and pulled a lantern down from the hook in the tree, and slid it beneath the thick black cloak. The heat seared his left side, and he nearly dropped it. Switching the axe to his left hand and putting the lantern in his right, he proceeded into the clearing. The missing lantern created a narrow aisle of shadow through which Gauston made his approach unnoticed.
"Öyour trust in them. Your job is to watch them. This order comes straight from the Duke himself. You're not to associate with them. Is this understood?"
Gauston stopped in mid-stride. The man spoke Doraanian, with a ĎThorian accent. He rode a ĎThorian horse with ĎThorian-style barding and tack. Flickering light reflected in the hilt of an unadorned Imperial broadsword at his side.
Gauston gaped. He had been chasing the wrong men.
While he and his patrol ran down the Shafra, his own countrymen readied more. While his men died, Lord Althanthor passed out coats of mail and built bridges, dams and cattle pens.
Gaustonís gaze fixed on the riderís sword. His life had been spent in a blur of pain and sweat, of blood and hunger and bitter cold, for the privilege of wielding such a sword, for the privilege of maintaining the honor and unity of the Imperial Guard. He served in the shadow of his father and all of the Dukes of Corynn since the Empireís foundation. They had all served with distinction and brought victory and honor to Corynn Hall. Tales of their exploits rang through his memory, as constant as the ring of swords and the pounding of hooves. Never in his life had he doubted his purpose: to lead men in battle.
Staring at the riderís sword, he doubted. The dark trees loomed over him and oppressed him, growing taller and wider until they threatened to engulf him completely. A profound fatigue gripped his legs, wrapped around his heart and clouded his mind.
How much honor could Gauston bring, when his service was under the command of a traitor? What acts of treason had Gauston committed, without realizing it? Was he any less a traitor than his leader?
The enormity of it crushed him. At daybreak, his men would return to Anizar, to report the battle in the vale and Gaustonís disappearance. Lord Valn would ask Lord Boranís permission to search the Wood. Althanthor would refuse, commending his vigilance and duty, reminding him that as Lord Commander of the Guard, he had the situation well in hand.
And nothing would be done.
Even if Gauston returned with proof of Shafra activity within the wood, the outcome would not change. There would be inquiries, patrols, and finally, nothing.
What if Lord Boran suddenly found he had nothing to hide?
Gauston dropped the lantern. It landed upright in the straw. Its metal base resounded against the ground like a bell. He tore off the cloak and head cloth, and dropped them next to the lantern.
The lantern obscured his vision. Steel scraped against leather, and six silhouettes advanced, followed by the rider.
Gauston raised the axe, and turned it so the blunt edge faced out. He stared into the lanternís globe, into the flame that danced and flickered in distinct shades of yellow and blue over the reservoir of oil.
I may only get one blow, Gauston thought, raising the axe above his head.
At least this one will have purpose.
He brought the axe down. The sound of shattering glass roared in Gaustonís ears, flames erupted at his feet, spreading out as the flaming oil splashed into the straw.
Gauston leapt the growing fire and charged, drawing his sword as he went. He felt his left foot grow warm, and then hot; somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized his boot was on fire.
He rushed into the midst of them. He felled the closest with a blow from the axe, cleaving through the manís head and down into his neck. Blood spurted into the air and finally into a thick puddle at Gaustonís feet.
His rage burned with the forage. He whirled, parried. The axe bit again and again, sinking into soft flesh and splitting bone. His limbs worked of their own accord, twisting, entering, sliding this way and that, dealing blows and parrying others. His axe found horseflesh; he heard shrieks, shouts, gasps, pounding feet. He kept moving, cutting, parrying. Arms separated from shoulders, heads from necks, legs split, viscera escaped through gaping wounds. His blood-soaked hair stuck to the sides of his face and he smelled nothing but fire and blood.
All of the swordsmen lay dead. Gauston found that besides the burns on his foot on his boot, he had sustained no injuries. The rider lay beneath his horse, moaning and gurgling in agony. The fire spread across the clearing, creeping in an ever-extending line though the mat of dried grass. The fire crept within a few yards of the fallen horse. The smoke and heat grew more intense with the approach of the flames.
The rider sobbed, mouthing unintelligible words and slapping uselessly at the dead horseflesh on top of him. Behind him, in the cattle pen, the cattle lowed and stamped their feet.
The rider shrieked as Gauston grabbed him and pulled him out from underneath the horse. Blood trailed from the riderís boot. In two places, bone protruded from the shattered leg and tore through the leggings. The rider clutched at Gaustonís cuirass, begging for his life in choked, incoherent sobs.
Gauston heard shouts from across the advancing wall of flame, but paid them no heed. He dragged the rider to the mound, and deposited him against it. Once proud, the man lay tiny and helpless. His head lolled from one side to the other, his face twisted in pain. He managed to fight through the pain long enough to get a good look at Gauston.
"Iíll see you hanged," the rider spat.
"You wonít live out the night, traitor."
Voices cried out from beyond the wall of flame that now engulfed the trees at the edge of the clearing. Silhouettes appeared in the flickering darkness. Gauston saw flashes and glints of metal as the Shafra sentries found their way around the fire.
A sudden flash of heat and light nearly blinded Gauston as the mountain of grass burst into flame. The roar of splintering wood and pounding hooves temporarily drowned out all other sounds as the terrifed cattle crashed through the enclosure and into the forest.
Gauston grabbed the rider and draped the man across his shoulder. Grabbing the axe, he ran east, toward the darkness and the cover of the trees.
The riderís blood soaked the back of Gaustonís cuirass and leggings, but Gauston did not stop running. He maintained a brisk, steady pace, finding his way by the diffused red light provided by the flames behind him.
At the base of a large boulder, Gauston finally stopped and eased the dying rider to the ground.
"Theyíve been following, you know. I saw them, coming behind you. Twenty men, maybe more."
"How many were in the camp?" Gauston asked, tearing a piece of cloth from the riderís tunic.
"Four thousand, at last count," the man answered, crying out as Gauston pushed the bone back into the wound. Gauston wrapped the cloth around it, tying it off.
"Why?" Gauston asked.
"The rider smiled, and pointed. "Here they come."
Four men advanced, clad, in Shafra headcloths and ĎThorian mail. They brandished long, curved cavalry swords, moving forward with practiced ease and a good deal of respect for their adversary. Behind them, more advanced, indistinct and partially obscured in the smoke red haze that filled the gaps between the trees. Red light from the distant flames danced across the trunks of trees and glinted in the blades of the advancing enemy. Gauston placed himself between the fallen rider and the Shafra.
He took a deep breath, raised his weapons, and bellowed a war cry that echoed across the trees and rumbled through the advancing enemy, nearly palpable with rage and final defiance.
The attackers froze as if struck by a blow. Taking advantage of their hesitation, Gauston took up the fight.
His world descended into a miasma of red spray and crunching bones and final gasps. His limbs moved without his conscious instruction; parrying, cutting, splitting skuills, opening ribs and taking deep chunks from arms and legs. They swam before him, in a spray of blood and smoke, of chips of bone and unidentifiable pieces of flesh. Life and death merged, intimately connected in the death-throes of so many men. Gaustonís arms grew heavy and burned like molten lead, but he forced them to move, to cut, to block. Still they came, black shapes flashing before him, until a swing or a thrust replaced the enemy with a fresh spray of crimson blood and coppery stench, only to be replaced again by a cloak of black and a fiery curved blade. A lancing pain shot up his arm and into his shoulder. He struck, again and again, ignoring the slick warmth of his own blood running in rivulets down his wrist and onto the back of his hand. His legs buckled and he nearly fell into the quagmire of blood on the forest floor. He righted himself, swung the axe, and longed for rest.
He did not know how many had come, or how long he had fought. The light died away as the flames advanced, leaving him in a smoky, dim-red darkness that obscured the dead and mortally wounded men at his feet. He heard them, crawling through the blood-soaked leaves and detritus beneath the trees, whimpering and gasping for breath, vainly and hopelessly clinging to whatever life remained within them.
He turned, and barely made out the shape of the boulder. Gaustonís mind drifted, trying to form a thought, or a memory. Trees and rocks and smoke and bodies flowed together. The axe and sword slipped from his hands.
A thought, little more than a vague, conscious urge, filled him. Although he didnít know why, he felt the need to return to the boulder. Someone was there, although Gauston wasnít certain who it was or why he waited there. He had pulled him from a fire. Leaden legs moved, one, then the other, until the boulder swam into view.
A man sat propped against the boulder. Draped across his legs was the body of a Shafra warrior. Blood dripped from an unseen wound and pooled between the sitting manís legs. When the man noticed Gaustonís approach, he managed a weak smile.
"Well done," he croaked.
Gauston didnít answer. He rolled the body off the manís legs, and sank down next to him against the boulder. The man raised a flask, offering it to Gauston. Gauston accepted it, and drank. The welcome taste of Horsepiss caressed his dry mouth and throat, bringing a small measure of strength back to his limbs.Gauston handed the flask back.
The man put a hand on Gaustonís shoulder. "Iíve never seen the like."
Gauston looked at him. His skin had become pale and ashen, but the manís expression was one of peace. He smiled again, and held out a hand.
"My name is Casidar Vellorik."
Gauston took the hand. "My name is Gauston."
Casidar gave Gaustonís hand a weak squeeze before releasing it. "Gauston. Thatís a good name."
They sat in silence for a time. Pale shards of light pierced the canopy of leaves and branches, dappling the bodies of the fallen with what looked like gray petals.
"Think theyíll come again?" said Casidar.
"If they do, weíre finished. I donít think I could lift another sword."
"Whatever happens," Casidar said, gripping Gaustonís shoulder and staring into his eyes, "It will be an honor to die next to you, Gauston."
The knowledge that Casidar was a traitor seemed a distant and irrelevant memory, blown away with the smoke on the morning breeze. Here was a fellow Guardsman, one who had followed orders, traitorous or not, and would likely pay for it with his life. Gauston could muster no ill will against him.
"If Mother Sky wants me back today, Casidar, "Gauston replied, "I will be honored to make the journey with you."
From behind the boulder, the distant rumbling of hooves pierced the morning silence. The rumbling grew closer, followed by the rustle of feathers as the horses frightened birds from their nests.
Gauston grabbed the dead Shafraís cavalry sword, and rose to his feet. He reeled, and a throbbing ache rendered his left shoulder useless.
"I thought you couldnít lift a sword," Casidar said.
"They donít know that."
A rider, mounted on a large white horse galloped past, followed by a file of cavalry. One caught sight of Gauston and wheeled around, shouting for the others to stop. The rider did not approach, but held his distance.
"Who is there?" Gauston asked.
The rider on the white horse reappeared, coming closer through the trees. He dismounted.
"Captain Tulek of the Anizar Patrol, Imperial Guard at your ser-his voice trailed off. "Lord Gauston?"
Gaustonís legs ceased to work. The sword slipped from his grasp, and the ground rushed up to meet him.
Gauston heard voices.
"And the other one?"
"He died soon after we left the woods."
"Heíll hang for his, you know." Fighting through the haze and darkness, Gaustonís mind registered a flicker of recognition. The first voice belonged to Captain Tulek. The second, a grating, sharp, humorless voice, belonged to Valn, Lord Anizar.
"I didnít know that killing Shafra was a capital offense," Tulek said.
"It isnít. But burning down Lord Boranís forest while on an illegal foray will most likely be. Weíll just have to see what his Highness the Emperor decides. Mother Sky! The damned fire is still burning."
The voices receded, leaving Gauston in darkness and silence once again.
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