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EmberVale - Chapt. 1 " The Ivory Passage"

Updated on January 12, 2017

Written by: KyAuna Alonzo

Frigid winds bit like angry razors on the faces of the soldiers, turning them crimson with cold. The faint sounds of icy armor clunking were muffled by the multi-pitched winds that rushed through the passage. Four men road ahead of the mild army, icicles formed in the manes and tails of the steeds. “This damn cold is likely to kill the men before they get to see battle,” the horseman to the far left stated. He rubbed the ice crystals, that had landed and taken hold, from his short wiry beard. His face was void of color, he blinked his deep green eyes repeatedly as the harsh glacial breath forced them to water.

“Captain Waesphine, we’ll reach the other end of the passage before nightfall,” the rider to the right of him stated flatly. He was easily, in appearance, twice the age of the young captain, though in reality he was nearly timeless. Sterling eyes squinted ahead at the distant destination; crow’s feet collecting at the corners of his eyes, “We will camp once we’ve reached the other mouth.” A long pointed beard reached from his paled face to the middle of his chest, colored with salt and pepper. He let his eyes drift from the day’s goal to rest above. He turned his head, “Captain Ravamyar, what do you make of those clouds?”

The rider on the far right adjusted his helmet and focused his olive green eyes on the sky. A pause lingered a moment as he scrunched his naked face into a calculating expression. “It would be wise to break for camp soon. There is something ominous about their swollen faces,” he pulled his eyes away to look at the silent rider to his left, “Your Majesty, we don’t want to be caught unprepared in a storm.”

Piercing indigo eyes turned to the man with the salt and pepper beard, “General Reywenys, what do you recommend?”

“At this pace,” the general began, “we could make it to the mouth in another five hours, six at the most.”

“Perhaps,” Captain Ravamyar nodded, “but the clouds could birth a storm in as soon as three.”

Captain Waesphine made a face, “None of our men, including ourselves, are conditioned for more hostile weather than this. Five hours be damned, we should make camp and prepare ourselves to wait out whatever storm barrages us.”

The prince looked ahead, “We’ll continue on for another hour or two. Once out of the mouth we have less than a day’s travel before we lay down our long term camp. Any closer we get today, is less ground traveled tomorrow.”

They continued forward, “The Serpent’s Spine feels like purgatory,” Captain Waesphine complained to himself. The Ivory Spine was the mountain ridge that snaked through the land from one shore to the other with broad bases and jagged peaks; there wasn’t a surface not smothered by heavy ice and snow. It was given its name for the snake like pattern the mountain range made as it cut through the land. There were few passes through the mountains, all unhospitable. The Ivory passage was assumed the least treacherous, leaving many of the miserable men to wonder what hostilities they had avoided.

Captain Ravamyar halted his horse and threw his fist in the air, his eyes scanning for movement to his right. The men behind all paused in their steps to follow his gaze. “What is it?” General Reywenys asked quietly, steering his horse closer to the Captain’s and trying to see what he saw. The sun had long since been suffocated from sight and the wind blew tiny beads of ice into his eyes and he could hear nothing by the unrelenting howls of the disapproving winds.

The pause lingered a moment and then Captain Ravamyar shook his head and lowered his arm, “I must be seeing things. There is too much white here, it’s like staring into darkness…stare hard enough and you’ll see monsters.” They started forward once more, the General calling out the order to pick up the pace. His horse tossing its head in annoyance before quickening its stride.

A faint cry sounded from somewhere in the in the middle-front of the ranks, then another. Captain Waesphine looked over his shoulder in time to see a gigantic white bear barrel out of the snow and tackle three of their men. “Holy shit,” he yelled. The other three horsemen turned as two more bears thundered out of the landscape and dove into the tightly confined soldiers.

The bears were easily another half the size of the largest bear from their homeland. They ripped into the men with their teeth and slashed whole pieces of armor from their bodies with their claws and powerful arms. Screams of men being torn apart crudely rose above the wind with the sounds of the ravenous bears. The four horsemen unsheathed their swords and rode toward the bears. Men stabbed at the beasts, desperate to spare their fallen brethren, but the bears would turn and increase their carnage. In the midst of panic archers released arrows at the terrors that tore at the flesh of their comrades only to hit a fellow soldier more often as a bear.

Crimson washed the Ivory Passage clean of its endless white, sprayed with broken bodies, limbs torn from their places and bones that have been splintered between great teeth. Arrows stuck in limp frames that littered the passage, some with eyes fixed wide on the carnage as they died. General Reywenys leapt from his horse and raced toward one of the snarling beasts, more red than white. Snow melted under hot blood had pooled, Reywenys’s boots splashed into the blood of his men and could feel the hot and cold sprinkle leap up him. He gripped the sword firm with both hands and swung down with all the force he could muster. The blade ran deep into the shoulder of the angry bear. It turned, bloodied teeth bared, it tested its injured leg and stumbled. It roared at him, spitting flesh from its teeth. The bear swiped at him with its injured leg, but the muscles were too damaged, it bounced slightly and swiped at him with its other arm, missing. General Reywenys hurried toward the bear again, his blade biting deep into the side of its neck. The bear’s scream was haunting. It staggered before it rose up on its hind legs, doubling its size. Coppery rust filled his nostrils as the scent of blood flooded in. Fresh blood poured down the bear’s chest and back. Captain Ravamyar appeared at his side, eyes wide with adrenaline and his mouth crudely carved into a snarl of its own. The Captain attacked, slicing and stabbing at the bear’s chest and stomach. The bear swiped down making contact with the Captain’s head, knocking him to the side with ease. The bear came down, careful not to bare weight on its injured leg. General Reywenys rushed forward before the bear could react and with three heavy, desperate, swings he watched the animal’s head roll from its shoulders and its body slump lifelessly to the ground.

The General looked up to see Captain Waesphine standing, panting with a bow drooping from his fingertips, beside the prince looking down at a second fallen bear. His eyes searched the blood stained ivory landscape for the third. There it fled up the side of the mountain in the shoulder deep snow. It paused briefly, its onyx eyes turning on the gore it had wrought. Blood still dripping from its saturated face, it released a thunderous rumble from its throat before it continued its hasty retreat up the mountain, before it disappeared entirely in the white.

For now, it would seem that the attack was over. General Reywenys turned his attention to the unconscious Captain that lay at his feet. He knelt down, his knee sinking into the slushy red puddle that surrounded him, and felt for a pulse on the side of Ravamyar’s neck. He was rewarded with the distinct throb of a pulse and nodded to himself. “Have we lost him?” The Prince asked, appearing over the general’s shoulder.

General Reywenys shook his head, “No, he’s been downed by he’s not dead.” He stood back up as the prince removed the helmet from his head. He ran his gloved hand through his lily white hair, leaving trails of crimson to follow the paths of his fingers. His features more distinguishable, even in their smothered light, from the angel and shape of his eyes, the height of his cheekbones and of course the most tell-tale feature of all…the point of each ear. The general stood and faced the Elven prince, “No doubt he’ll suffer a headache when he wakes, but I think that will be the worst of it.”

Prince Ethland nodded stiffly, “Good,” his eyes shifted to the butchery around them, “We need to determine how many of our men we’ve lost and how many have been rendered useless.”

“We’ll need to try to move further on before setting up our camp,” Captain Waesphine stated dryly, “This much blood will draw in more unwelcome guests.”

There was brief silence before Ethland spoke, “Have the bodies of our dead burned. We don’t have the time to dig graves, nor would the ground submit to it.” He signaled to have his horse brought to him, “I’ll ride ahead with General Reywenys, take what men you need to burn the dead and transfer the wounded, the rest will follow to put up camp.” He returned the helmet to his head and mounted the horse brought to him. The two men nodded their acceptance of their new orders and the general moved over bodies as he made his way to his own steed.

The swollen clouds slowly opened themselves, releasing purity from their breath. A flake melted against the porcelain cheek of a young woman. Vibrant copper curls whipped about her face and wrapped itself like fingers around her shoulder with the influence of the growing wind. Warm honey eyes looked down at the gore below, her expression void of emotion. Safe on her ledge he watched as the army moved forward while a few remained behind. She inhaled deeply and extended her hand, catching a single snow flake upon the tip of her middle finger. A slight smile graced her roseate lips as the snow flake lingered there before tenderly she blew upon it, sending it back out among its sisters. She pulled the white hood up around her head as the wind filled with new vigor and blew harder, howling at the men below.

Padded paws sunk deep into the powdery snow as the crimson saturated bear approached from behind her. The massive animal grunted but the woman didn’t turn her head to the sound, her eyes remained fixed on the soldiers below. The bear sauntered to her left side, his dark onyx eyes turning to the bloodbath in the throat of the passage. The woman lifted her hand and gingerly rested it upon his massive head. The two baring witness in hopes that the storm would deliver good on the threat it promised.

“Your Majesty,” a guard knelt at the side of King Tanean Elzeiros’s dining chair. The blind old king turned toward the voice and nodded, still chewing his meal, “There were some serious reports of an army approaching through the Ivory Passage. It has been confirmed that the reports were true.” He paused for a brief moment, “Sire,” he began again, “It would appear that we will are soon to be under attack.”

The king swallowed his food and his age worn face furrowed into a frown, “And who is it that would be attacking us?”

The guard fidgeted a moment, his eyes shifting to the one other person at the table and then back to the king who stared at him without seeing, “The flags bare the phoenix of EmberVale and Prince Ethland has been seen riding at the army’s head.”

The king’s face fell grave, “What is their count?” He asked somberly.

“Sire,” the guard said carefully, “they number nearly nine thousand.”

“And at most we may gather seven of the same,” King Elzeiros stated flatly.

“Call for the commander, our generals and the council,” the woman at the King’s right ordered. The guard’s eyes met her amber orbs that were vailed by long raven lashes and in the surface of flawless pearl skin, hued pink only upon her cheekbones and the pale pink of her lips. Long midnight curls cascaded down her back and over her left shoulder, shining like onyx silk in the candle light.

“Valra, no one has yet been able to penetrate the walls of Darwaeton Stronghold,” the king attempted to reassure his daughter. “Though,” He continued as he turned his attention back to the guard, “It would not be unwise to send for them all the same.”

“Yes Sire,” the guard stood and hurried from the room.

King Elzeiros cleared his throat roughly, “There was a time when Elves were considered peaceful beings. Such was a time before King Azulmar.”

“He who thinks himself an Emperor,” Valra stated bitterly.

The blind king sighed, unable to strip the worry from his features, “He has conquered enough to proclaim himself so.”

“Why come here?” Valra asked, clearly distressed. “Why bring war to our doorstep?”

There was a moment of stillness, “Azulmar has a sickness of the mind, his greed certainly will not end with our defeat,” King Elzeiros said then added gingerly, “It is unlikely to come to war.”

Valra stood from the table and went to the nearest window, her eyes searching the colorless landscape. Part of her expected to see the army marching across the snow, but she saw no soldiers except for their own. Her amber orbs moved to the skies and she felt a breath of hope swell in her breast, “A blizzard is forming.”

“Let us hope that it will afford us a day or two,” King Elzeiros said attempting to stand from his chair.

Concern crossed her features as she watched her elderly father struggle to rise. Going to him she lent him her arm, “Were fortune truly on our side it would turn them all to ice in the night.”

He offered her a smile, the most he could muster, “We mustn’t rely on favor,” he patted her hand gently, “Come, let us see what trouble mere men can muster.”

King Tanean Elzeiros

Source

Banshee winds ripped around the tents, threatening to tear the metal steaks from the frozen flesh of the earth. The sky had been washed away in white, white that swallowed up everything in its icy grasp. Men shivered in their dark tents as the fires sputtered in the blizzard, most going out. Three larger tents and one largest sat encircled by the others, large enough to fit the body of a single sleeping man inside. Warm light glowed through the rippling thin walls of the larger tents. Ethland stood at a table, his indigo eyes memorizing the layout of the stronghold. A fire burned in the center of his tent, the light making his hair appear as though it were glowing white hot.

The tent curtain opened but Ethland did not pull his eyes from the layout, “Report.”

Captain Waesphine stepped further inside, allowing the curtain to fall back into place behind him. The heat was a welcome to his numb body, “We managed to take stock of the dead and injured. Roughly thirty of our men were killed when the bears attacked and little more than twenty others were wounded.” He was silent a moment as he moved to the lure of the dancing flames, “We did our best to burn the bodies but the storm refused the fire life.” Ethland nodded silently, his eyes looking up to see the Captain. The young man had sharp icicles growing backward from his shoulders, his face was robbed of all color. His light ash brown hair was short and as stiff, dusted thickly with snow and ice. He was a young man of 29 but here he looked dead and ancient, his dark green eyes were the only things that gave him the appearance of life.

“The storm can have them,” Ethland stated indifferently.

Waesphine shifted his stance as he began to feel his limbs again, a growing red hot pain began as tiny nips from hot iron needle like teeth on his face, fingertips and ears. The more feeling he regained the hotter the pain became. He looked down at the flames to reassure himself that he was not standing at the fire’s center. The heat in his blood throbbed and ached, making him long for the numbness to return. His eyes began to sting and water, he stepped away from the fire on shaky legs. “We departed from Fae’ierVale with nine thousand men and in that time we’ve lost little over four hundred men.”

“It is still enough to take Darwaeton Stronghold,” Ethland stated, turning back to the layout.

Leonelis Waesphine moved to the table, leaning heavily on it and hoping his body would remain beneath him, “Your Highness, the storm may take more.” With little to no heat many men would likely freeze to death in the night, “Pray the storm doesn’t linger too much longer.”

Ethland frowned, “I hold no stake in prayer. This is no holy mission that the Gods of our people would offer favor toward. This is a mission of blood.”

The Percheron stood to the left of the tent, he was 19 hands high and easily 2600 pounds with the grand muscles that layered its legs and chest. He was dark gray with a white snowflake pattern over his body, his milk white mane and tail were wavy and long. Ethland would have both trimmed and tied before battle. The horse turned his head to look at the two men, his large gray eyes watching lazily, his brow was broad and masculine, his face was handsomely long. His ears twitched as he listened to the sounds of the storm and the voices of the men in unison. The horse had been bred in the royal stables of SilverSteam and it would soon carry the small kingdom’s defeat to its gates. The horse had been a gift to Aylmon Azulmar to buy good favor and peace once the King had begun invading neighboring kingdoms. It had only succeeded in securing five more years of safety.

Captain Waesphine was silent a moment before he drew in an uneven breath, “I’ve also brought you the head of the bear that General Reywenys severed. I thought it would make you a fine trophy.”

“Where is it?” Ethland asked with interest.

Waesphine gestured to the curtain, “I’ve left it just outside.” Ethland nodded his approval briskly and once more returned his eyes to the layout. “How far have we left to the stronghold?” The captain asked as his eyes angled down to take in the carefully drawn out lines.

“We have the Ironwood forest to get through. The village and the stronghold are less than an hour on the other side,” Ethland frowned, “Assuming we can get out of this damned passageway,” his voice was hard.

Waesphine ‘hmmmed’ and turned his head slightly to the side, “perhaps we send a few men ahead to collect information on their resources. No doubt they have catapults, at the least.” He placed down a finger along the wall line and felt it complain harshly up to his shoulder, “These walls will be difficult to breach. We could try to ram the gates with trees from the forest but if they’ve reinforced them then it could be of great effort for little reward.”

“We have greater numbers,” Ethland’s returned indifferently.

“Yes,” Waesphine agreed, “But that could easily be changed if they are able to pick us off from behind their walls. We need to find a way inside so that we may have the advantage their walls as well as. From outside the smaller numbers matter little, but from within we can easily turn their sanctuary into a prison.”

Ethland’s jaw tightened, “I am aware.” He ran a hand over his forehead roughly, “Once the storm lets up then you are free to put together a team to evaluate the stronghold and search for vulnerabilities.”

“Of course,” Captain Waesphine affirmed.

“Dismissed,” Ethland stated, eyes rising to watch the young captain exit. The base of the Serpents Spine was the last place the prince wanted to be. He saw no tactical advantage to taking SilverSteam but it was his grandfather’s demand that Ethland take the kingdom. Waesphine disappeared from the tent, admitting a gust of frigid wind to race inside, wrap its grip about the prince before being cut abruptly by the heavy curtain door. It had felt as though the cold had reached inside him and ripped the breath from his lungs and the warmth from his blood before disappearing. He looked down at his arms and could feel the little bumps rising to the surface of his light skin.

The horse nickered and Ethland realized he was holding his breath, he exhaled sharply and drew nearer to the horse. He reached out his hands and stroked the long face of the grey horse, “Steady Solaris, we ride again soon,” he soothed. He knew the cold had little effect on the animal but how could he expect the horse to accept confinement when he himself resented it? He patted the horses neck and then went to the curtain of his tent and pulled it back. To the right of the entrance sat the massive decapitated head of the bear. He picked it up and was surprised by its weight, it was heavier than he expected. He backed into the tent and let the curtain fall shut before he turned with it and took the head to the hard table. He set it down with a dull thump and turned it so that the black eyes reflected the fire.

He moved to the chair and angled it, staring at the reflective dead eyes. He spoke as though assuring someone in the room, “I will have the head of the bear.”

“Stay low,” Waesphine ordered. Four following soldiers hugged their armored bellies to the snow smothered hill twenty minutes from the stronghold walls. There had been no sound in the Iron Forest except the occasional cracking of weighted branches. Dawn barely whispered its rays above the horizon and the air held its breath.

“It’s too quiet,” one of the men whispered as he fidgeted.

Captain Waesphine couldn’t deny that the silence had a slightly predatory feel, especially with the forest at their back. They’d seen no animals, and what was more odd was that all the time he’d hiked in the darkness through the vast maze of ironwood trees they’d not heard the evidence of life except the crunching of snow beneath their heavy boots. And yet, he could feel a steady gaze and he could not shake the warning feeling that made the hair on the back of his neck raise.

The stronghold walls and towers were decorated with soldiers standing watchful, silhouetted against the rising sun. “I think I have all the information I need,” Waesphine stated on muted tones, with no wind to muffle his voice he worried the distance it could carry. “It would not be wise to linger here,” The sun would only rise higher and he knew that soon the light would catch on his armored soldiers and they’d be impossible to miss. They’d be better to die here than to report back as seen and all hope of surprise evaporating. Ethland was not well known for forgiveness, he would not be the one to risk consequences’. The soldiers nodded and began to crawl backwards in the thick powdery snow, shoveling it into their armor in places. Waesphine fought to keep himself from wincing as the cold collected inside his own armor and pressed against his clothes, leaking through and biting deep into him.

Once they were far enough behind the hill the men stood, shaking the snow from within their armor the best they could, then walked back to the silent forest that never stopped watching them. Once they broke the tree line the air felt as frigid as ice and the glacial stillness stole the very breath from their lungs. “Captain,” a soldier whispered, the feeling of unease was suffocating. Waesphine held up a finger, his dark green eyes scanned the interior of the frozen forest, nothing moved.

“Shhh,” said the captain. Branches cracked and complained, occasionally relieved as snow slid from them to disappear below. Then moments of silence would pass and the men would once again move forward only to pause as the trees moaned. They moved painfully slowly deeper into the forest, pausing too frequently to make good time. The men shivered, trying to keep their armor from coming together and ringing against itself. The sun was nearly directly above them but it offered no warmth through the thickness of the reaching branches high above. Waesphine’s eye caught motion and he stopped midstride, staring in the direction he thought he’d seen movement. Once again he could see nothing there. Tired, cold, paranoid in this strange frozen wasteland, these could all have been reasons his mind could have played tricks on him but he stared regardless. Slow minutes passed and no one dared to move, barely breathing, before Waesphine signaled them forward again.

A grumble reached their ears, a sound that had been mistaken for moaning in the trees when it was further away. It was too late to correct their mistake. A beast emerged from its hideaway in the snow. It stood on six lean legs, four in the front, its legs and torso shaped similarly to those of a muscular horse. Although, in place of hooves there were talon toed feet, like that of a lizard and the powerful legs were seven and a half feet tall from ground to shoulder. Pale white scales covered the creature from nose to tail. A long neck arched and ended with a sleek snake like head with ice blue eyes that stared, unblinking. White quill like feathers began in the center of its forehead and reached halfway down its neck, thinning where it began then widening only to thin again as it ended. Ivory spikes stuck straight out on either side of its jaw and cascaded downward from its chin. More stuck out from its elbows and six varied in size near the end of its long, thick, lizard like tail. The creature turned its head slightly and hissed between its sharp teeth, flicking a snake like tongue through them at the men. It took a step forward and one of the soldiers cursed under his breath. Waesphine heard a sword unsheathe and then the others followed. He watched at the white feathers turned from white to a red, the creature pulling them forward and vibrating them so that they shook quickly as it hissed louder. “What the hell is it?” One of the men asked unnerved. No answer came.

Waesphine attempted to step to the side and the creature lunged forward, landing hard several feet away and sending powdery snow flying everywhere. He pulled out his own sword and held it at the ready. The creature parted its jaws and released a sound that was a strange combination of a shriek and a roar, and then it attacked.

The cries of grown voices echoed off the solid trunks of on-looking pillars, their roots soon to be saturated with puddles of crimson. The terrifying creature bounded through the snow with nimble grace, moving with incredible speed. Its flexible neck arched down to catch a soldier by the head, lifting him into the air, then used one of its talon armed front feet to catch the torso and disconnect the head from the man’s shoulders. The man’s screams came to an abrupt still, the creatures fine toothed jaws closed completely on the head, crushing it as easily as one would a grape. “Run damn it,” Waesphine ordered over the cries of terror. They ran, through the thick crisp snow that reached nearly to their knees. The creature turned, releasing another screeching roar from its reaching neck and parted jaws. Its tail snapped around, the ivory spikes impaling another man through his armor. It pulled the screaming body back, pouncing on it and ripping out the man’s throat with a final gargled crunch before he died. It ripped the lifeless body from its tail and raced after the fleeing men.

The last soldier pulled an arrow from his quiver and fitted it to his bow, his breath fueling the freezing fire in his chest. He took aim and released the sting and sent the arrow into the back of the knee of the man ahead of him. The scream made Waesphine glance over his shoulder and he saw as the man fell to the grown, hands around the shaft of the arrow, face contorted in pain and shock as he was passed by his fellow soldier. Waesphine didn’t waste time watching another of his men dismembered, he summoned every remaining ounce of his will and ran all the harder. A blood curdling scream cut short signaled the death of the wounded man, a twinge of guild panged in his stomach but there was nothing he could have done to save the man. His focus had to be surviving until he reached the other end of the forest, where he hoped the creature would not follow. He was broken from his thoughts as an arrow hissed passed his ear, he looked back to see the panicked face of the archer as he tried to fit a second to his bow. ‘Damn coward,’ Waesphine thought as a bitter taste filled his mouth. He’d been able to out run them all because of the grace that had been passed to him by his father. Being half elven was common in Fae’ierVale but it was also looked down upon, and Waesphine had had to work all the harder to prove that he was just as deserving of respect as those who were pure blooded. Another arrow flew past him, further off target this time, it was obvious that he was firing desperately. Two passed him, the man behind him was doing his best to hit him.

Waesphine looked over his shoulder once again, seeing the creature leap into the air and land on the archer, crushing his spine and snapping his legs. Without warning, his legs were no longer under him and he almost cried out and he turned to look ahead, half expecting to be confronted by another beast of nightmares. But found instead that he was hurdling down the side of a steep hill. He hit trees, frozen mounds and rocks on his way down. He held up his arms to protect his head and face the best he could, closing his eyes tight until he came to a harsh and sudden halt. He opened his eyes and found that he’d been lodged against a rather large tree. His back and chest were on fire and his head was swimming, he tried to lift his head to look the way he’d fallen only to find a sheet of snow sliding down after him, the beast had yet to come after him. He blinked hard and strained to see if he could hear it, hear anything, but before his shaken senses could focus he was gently being wrapped in a blanket of snow and ice. He tried to squirm so as not to become entombed, but the sudden pain shooting through his body drew his cold lids closed.

Ethland

Similar to what I picture when I think of Ethland
Similar to what I picture when I think of Ethland

“Your Highness, we’ve found Captin Waesphine,” a soldier reported at the entrance of Ethland’s tent.

“Where is he?” The prince asked expressionless.

The soldier fidgeted from one foot to the other, “the medical tent my Lord.” The young man’s eyes shifted downward a moment, “he was the only one found alive. The healer says he has some broken ribs and likely some other bones as well.”

This caught Ethland’s attention, “Ambush?”

“Captain Waesphine is rambling in his sleep about a creature.” The young man attempted to meet the prince’s gaze but dropped his eyes quickly after, “It was not an ambush by any men.”

There was a brief silence as Ethland considered the news then inhaled sharply, “You are dismissed.” The young man bowed and backed away before turning and briskly walked away. The prince looked at the drawing of the Iron Forest on his detailed map, his jaw tightened a moment and then he relaxed it as he exhaled. His eyes landed on the head of the bear, “This won’t stop me,” he said to his empty tent. Grabbing the thick cloak off his bed post and hooked the clasp at the throat then promptly left for the healing tent.

“Your highness,” the healer acknowledged as Ethland entered. She was a human apprentice under the renowned and royal physician, Tanyl Delsaran. The elven physician had been requested by Ethland but his grandfather had been stubbornly reluctant to part with him. Ethland was not confident in the young woman’s abilities; he embraced the notion that humans were not capable of fully understanding the complexities of elven medicine. His indigo hues met with her ash gray orbs briefly, before she dropped her gaze to the floor awkwardly. “The captain is resting on that bed there,” he gestured a hand without looking. Blood had come to rest beneath her fingernails and dried, blood that was not her own. She absent-mindedly reached up a hand and pushed stray strands of auburn hair behind her rounded ear.

He didn’t speak, instead he simply strode past her in the direction in which she’d gestured. There on a cot, that she’d attempted in making slightly more comfortable than usual, laid Captain Waesphine. Ethland eyed the carefully wrapped bandages around his rips, across his chest and over his left shoulder, and his left arm was carefully bound in a sling. He was steadily asleep. Ethland cleared his voice and the captain’s dark green eyes snapped open, “Your majesty,” he drowsily attempted to sit upright, a cringe smearing itself across his face involuntarily.

Ethland shook his head, “Stay as you are.” He grabbed a poorly constructed chair and seated himself beside the cot. “Why are you not in your own tent?”

“She doesn’t want me to be moved. Wouldn’t have me move at all if she had her way, yet it is far be it from anyone to stop me from taking a piss when the urge strikes me,” Waesphine said with a sly curve to his lips. He was not shocked by the prince’s visit; he knew why he’d come.

“Even so,” Ethland stated, “it would be far more comfortable to remain motionless in one’s own bed than in a poor excuse for one.”

Waesphine made a face, “Aye, I’ve brought that to discussion,” he said with a weary nod, “The woman would be a rival for his Majesty in stubbornness.” The two shared a smug smile before Waesphine’s humor evaporated from his eyes, “We were ambushed.”

“By who?” Ethland questioned calmly.

The captain shook his head, “Not who, what.” He paused a moment, summoning the all too willing memory of the event. “I don’t have even the words to describe the creature. I doubt there is even a name for it. I doubt many ever escaped the creature alive, my own life remains mine solely out of good fortune. Even in the snow it is a wonder it didn’t find me and take me.” His eyes were wide with the fresh memory, “Lucky still that I had heard the soldiers searching and was strong enough to push my arm through the snow.”

“The others in your party, they’re all dead?” Ethland pressed.

Waesphine nodded, “It ran us down in knee high snow. One of my men took it upon himself to try to better his odds and shot another through the knee. Tried to shoot me too, when we two were the last.” He laid his head back on the scratchy pillow and blinked hard, trying with great effort to banish the memories. He’d forever live with their dying screams in his ears and their deaths to haunt him in his sleep. He’d seen war, and the gruesome deaths that accompanied it, but they didn’t compare to what he’d seen in that forest. He didn’t have an explanation for it. “If ever there is atonement waiting in the next life it certainly isn’t in the belly of flame like they claim. No, it is this place, with its snow, ice and beasts that can hide from even the keenest of eyes until they choose to take you.” He shook his head, “Should ever I die, I’ll only be sent back here.”

Ethland didn’t offer any words of comfort; part of him believed that the broken captain could be right. He let the chilled air linger between them before he spoke, “Did you gather any intel on Darwaeton Stronghold?”

Waesphine turned his head the best he could and nodded, “The walls are too well fortified and guarded to go over and too thick to go through. There are two gates, west is the main and east is adjoining the village of SilverSteam.” He coughed hard, his lungs crackling like ramped fire over dry wood. “Numbers and force will not be enough to overtake them. Even assuming that we do succeed, we would lose a substantial portion of our men.”

“I will take this into consideration,” Ethland stated standing.

“If I may,” Waesphine said following another coughing spell, “It is known that this is a human kingdom, there are some of different blood yet rarely any better. Your army is largely elven but there is a decent percentage who are solely human. Should we, over the next couple days, trickle our men into the village. Allowing them to move in and out of the gates, find inns and establish themselves as travelers; each unknown by the others except for small groups. This would make it less suspicious than everyone arriving individually. Once we’ve established a sizable sum then you give the order and our men take the defenses before they have the time to react. Once they’ve claimed the gates they can open them and the remainder of your army can pour inside.” He paused, waiting for Ethland to share his thoughts, when the prince didn’t, he continued, “I see little other strategy that will execute as well for you. You may have a battle that wages for days with the possibility of maximum casualty or in hours at most with minimum casualty.” He knew he was pressing but his confidence was firm in his plan.

Ethland allowed his gaze to linger a moment, “I will take this into consideration,” he repeated before he turned abruptly and strode away, passing the healer woman who scrubbed at her fingers and hands in a copper bowl of steaming water.

“Farwell your Highness,” she said, pausing and sinking into a rehearsed gesture of respect. Ethland said nothing in return, and simply slipped from the untied tent flap doors out into the unforgiving cold.

“He certainly could have suggested a worse plan,” General Nichrune Raywnys stated with a thoughtful tone. “Should you decide upon another route then know that you have nine hundred in heavy cavalry and another fourteen hundred in light cavalry, seven hundred archers and four thousand in infantry.”

“We can construct battering rams and belfries, with all that the Iron Forest provides us,” Captain Rainesin Ravamyar added eagerly, “Catapults would be easy enough as well, given a couple weeks or so.”

Ethland frowned, “That is too long, my grand…” he stopped himself, “Our Emperor will be expecting to hear word of our victory soon. I’d rather give it to him than make him wait.”

“It would seem then,” Nichrune said, exhaling heavily across the table, “Waesphine’s suggestion may be your best selection if you do not want to dedicate sufficient time to this siege. It is the only plan that requires the least amount of time and virtually no preparation.” Disappointment lingered across his face but he did not break his gaze from the prince, “I am six hundred and ninety-seven years old and I’ve never before and never shall go into battle under prepared. You must dedicate yourself to whatever course of action you chose to take and follow through with it.”

Rainesin looked at the older elven man before returning his own gaze to Ethland, “Should, for any reason, Waesphine’s plan fail and the men are unable to overtake the gates, we still lose only a few men…not enough to diminish our strength.”

Ethland was silent as he listened to the advice of the two men. He knew his grandfather would be impatient for news of their victory but he was reluctant to follow Waesphine’s plan. There was almost too much ease to the plan, too much room for failure, yet the others were telling him that even failure would be less of an injury to them than failing with any advance.

“The stronghold is notorious for its success in halting previous attacks,” Rainesin stated, “Perhaps it may be best to try a different approach than those that have tried, and failed, before us.”

“What of the creature in the forest?” Ethland questioned firmly, “It lies between us and the stronghold.”

Nichrune looked at the flames, “We will be sending a larger party through the forest, I have my reservations that it will attack a group of that size. Besides,” he stated with a hint of remorse, “It’s killed four men today, I doubt that it is still hungry.”

“Very well,” Ethland said with reluctance, “Tell three hundred of the men that they will be leaving or SilverStream village beginning first thing in the morning. Captain Ravamyar, you’ll be assigning the men to their groups and their times. I will wait no longer than a week in this frozen abyss.” He smiled and added, “Let us turn this white to red.”

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