Authors: Steven A. Tolle
“I am tired, but no longer have the weariness like before.” Jonas replied, looking closely at her. “You look like you are ready to fall asleep standing there. You can sleep as we travel.”
As they turned back to the wagon, Dominic was speaking to Keria, who was rising from the wagon bed. “You will be more comfortable on Dontas, Highness, than bouncing around in the back of the wagon. If you feel you still need to sleep, I can tie you off to keep you in the saddle.” He said with a slight smile.
Keria gave Dominic an unamused look without replying, but took his hand to help her down. Marcus came over to help her onto Dontas. Jonas climbed onto the wagon’s bench, Hailyn joining him. He reached into the wagon bed, carefully avoiding contact with Jake, and pulled a blanket out. With a nod to Dominic, who was now mounted on Shadow, they rode back onto the road and headed west.
As they rode, Hailyn glanced back at Jake, lying there pale and unmoving, and tears came to her eyes. She tried to control them, but with her body worn down, she failed.
“We will find a way to help him, Hailyn.” Jonas said softly, voice sympathetic. “Have faith in the One. I don’t believe that this rescue mission was the only purpose of Jake’s appearance.”
Nodding, she faced forward, tears still flowing. Jonas rolled the blanket into a tight ball and placed it next to him on the bench. “Lie down and sleep.” He said gently. “Things will look better when you wake.”
Hailyn lay down, curling up on the bench and resting her head on the blanket. She felt Jonas’ hand come down to rest protectively on her shoulder. That touch seemed to release her and she immediately fell asleep.
They continued on for the rest of the day, Dominic in the lead, Marcus in the rear, but they neither saw nor heard any sign of pursuit. As the sun began to set in the west, Dominic found a small gulch off the road, sheltered on three sides by steep walls and hidden from the road. There was only one way in, so they could easily defend the position.
Despite this added protection, Jonas agreed with Dominic that it would be better to forgo a fire, so they ate cold rations for the evening meal. They unsaddled the horses, allowing them to feed and rest. Dominic and Jonas sent the others to bed, taking the first watch. Marcus used the blankets to set up a sleeping area for Keria, and then lay down on the ground close to her, quickly falling asleep. Hailyn set up her blankets next to the wagon.
Jonas went to the wagon to check on Jake. Covered in blankets, Jake was still unresponsive, looking frail, his hair streaked with white.
But he is alive.
Jonas thought gratefully. He gave a rueful shake of his head, and then turned to head out towards the road where Dominic was keeping watch.
Dominic was sitting on a small log, his sword out, studying the approach to their position. Jonas sat down next to him, laying his staff across his knees, grateful to be sitting down, his body still tired. They sat in silence for a while.
“How did you find us?” Jonas asked quietly, breaking the stillness. “I did not expect to see you again when you did not catch up with us after that first day.”
“The half-men and their masters were more persistent than I expected.” Dominic replied, still staring ahead. “Even though I thinned them out some, I was pushed farther south than I planned and was forced to hide out for a time. By the time I got clear and circled back, I had little hope that I would catch you, even though I drove Shadow hard. I almost missed where you left the road. I moved as fast as I could, but was slowed by a couple of fights along the way. Once I saw that your trail ended at the road that led to the demons’ lair, I assumed that you went in on foot. You did a good job of hiding the horses, but I saw the signs leading off from the road. By the time I got to the
rocks, night had fallen and I saw you slipping into the cliff face. I tried to catch you, but you were good at staying ahead of me. Once inside, I had several encounters along the way, as you had stirred up the place. I followed the sounds of the battle and fought my way to you. The rest you know.”
“Well, I am glad that you were there.” Jonas said. “You helped Jake when he needed it and that enabled us to prevail. I will admit that I thought I had lost you again when the demon lord struck you.” He chuckled softly, laying a hand on Dominic’s shoulder. “But you have always been tougher than anyone should have the right to be.”
Dominic smiled slightly at the comment. “If it makes you feel better, I was not very confident about my chances at that point either.”
His smile faded. “What are you going to do about the boy?” Dominic asked. “If you think it may cost you your life, you had better be sure whatever you do will work.”
Jonas frowned, thinking, and then shrugged his shoulders. “Jake is alive; that is what is important. He seems stable, though he does not seem to be improving. There is always the possibility that he will recover on his own, but I will watch him closely. If we get him back to Sanduas, I can study him, then determine a course of action.” He paused for a moment. “Also, I will send a message to Tomaris. He may have some insight into this.”
“I think that may be the best option for now.” Dominic stated. “From what I saw and heard while at the Keep, Tomaris seems likely to have the knowledge and power to help the boy. There is no need for you to risk your life.”
Jonas nodded and they fell silent, turning their focus to the task at hand. They kept watch without incident. A little past midnight, Jonas woke Marcus and Hailyn. Jonas handed his staff to her, then crawled into his blankets and let sleep take him.
Jonas woke up shortly before dawn, the air crisp, the night slowly giving way to the approaching sun. The extra sleep had refreshed him, the residual weariness now gone. He looked around and saw that Dominic was also up and about. They grabbed some rations and went out to relieve Marcus and Hailyn. They sent them back to get something to eat and prepare to depart.
He and Dominic returned to the same fallen log, eating in silence. As they sat there, the sun finally rose, bathing the hills in light. Finishing their meal, they were preparing to return to the wagon when they heard the sounds of an approaching horse on the road. Reacting immediately, Dominic drew his sword and moved quickly towards the road, Jonas close behind.
Dominic found a place where he could take the rider by surprise, crouching behind some thick bushes next to the road. He brought his sword up, prepared to act quickly as the hoof beats drew closer. He waited, still as a stone, sensing Jonas right behind him, ready to support him. He watched the road, which curved away from his position to go around a hill, expecting to see a half-man ride up, planning an attack in his mind.
When the rider came into view, Dominic saw that he was riding confidently, scanning the surrounding trees, dressed in chainmail over leather, a sword hanging from his belt, and a golden eagle emblem on his chest. Dominic relaxed, stood and stepped out onto the road, raising his hand in greeting. The rider saw Dominic instantly and raised a hand in response. Dominic had recognized him; he was the lead scout from Alleon’s army.
Sergeant Werdan was a short, wiry man in early middle age. His hair was graying, age lines creasing his forehead and the corners of his eyes, but he carried himself with the air of a veteran. Despite his age, the brown eyes above his chiseled nose were still piercing and predatory, reminding Dominic of the eagle emblazoned in his chest. Dominic remembered him from his army days, knowing that Werdan had been a soldier all of his life, never marrying or having children. He was also a taciturn man, quiet and serious, passing over promotion because he preferred the solitary life of a scout.
All in all, a good man.
Dominic thought as he listened while Jonas finished explaining their situation.
“Once you have your people ready to go, I will lead you back to Sir Alleon.” Werdan said shortly, but politely, while his eyes never stopped scanning the surrounding area. “I will keep guard while you make ready.”
“We should be ready to move quickly.” Jonas replied. “How far to Alleon?”
“They will have begun to march by now, so we should meet them by mid-day.” Werdan said.
“They are headed here?” Jonas asked, surprised. “They had taken the southern road. What happened?”
“We found evidence that the princess was not on the southern road. I will let Sir Alleon explain it to you, Brother Jonas, if you don’t mind.” Werdan replied, clearly not comfortable with extended conversation.
“That will be fine, Sergeant Werdan.” Dominic interjected. “We will gather our things and be ready to move shortly.”
Werdan nodded, riding off a short distance to where he could better watch the road.
Dominic and Jonas made their way back to camp, arriving to see that Marcus had already hooked up the wagon horses and was saddling the other mounts in preparation to depart. Hailyn and Keria had repacked and loaded the supplies in the wagon. Dominic and Jonas went over and told them of the arrival of Sergeant Werdan.
Thanks to Marcus’ effort, they were moving out to the road in just a few minutes. As they turned onto the road, Werdan rode over, giving Marcus a short nod and Keria a bow from his horse. “I am glad to see you unharmed, Your Highness.” He said politely. “Sir Alleon will be relieved to see you as well.”
Werdan rode off to take the lead and they began to head west again. Dominic took up the rear guard while Marcus rode next to Keria behind the wagon.
The weather was comfortable as they rode, with a light breeze and scattered clouds drifting in front of the sun as it slowly rose in the sky. Dominic dropped back from time to time, seeking signs of their enemies, but the forest remained quiet.
Just as Werdan had said, they came upon three of Alleon’s outriders shortly after mid-day. After a short conversation with Werdan, two of the soldiers took up flanking positions near the princess while the third rode back to relay the news to the main force. After another fifteen minutes of riding, Dominic could hear the sounds of Alleon’s army moving along the road.
Werdan rode ahead to give his report to Sir Alleon. Alleon, dressed in full armor, halted his forces and rode out to meet them. He was clearly relieved to see Keria as he greeted her, a wide smile creasing his face despite trying to look serious. He promised to return her to the safety of the city as quickly as possible. He gave Jonas a hearty welcome, his good nature shining through.
Dominic rode over, Alleon giving him a salute as he drew near. “I see that I should have followed you.” Alleon said self-consciously, though his eyes still shone with good cheer. “Next time, I will let you take command and you can just point me in the direction you think is best.”
“You did what made sense at the time, Alleon.” Dominic replied. “We have the princess back, that is what is important.”
“Truly.” Alleon said with a smile, nodding. “Let’s surround her with clerics and soldiers before my luck runs out.” He motioned Keria to ride forward. “Highness, if you will.”
They rode back into the army, the soldiers cheering and calling out greetings to Keria, the clerics gathering around Jonas and Hailyn. As they approached the supply wagons, Dominic was surprised to see Keria’s carriage mixed in with the wagons. He looked questioningly at Alleon.
“We found it along the southern road, abandoned, the afternoon of the second day after we parted.” Alleon told him. “There was a small enemy force waiting in ambush near it, but we quickly defeated them and turned around to follow your path. I pushed the horses hard, trying to make up time. The clerics were somewhat cross with me for that, as I all but exhausted them as they had to heal the horses every time we stopped.”
Alleon stopped, sliding off his horse with a clang, and motioning them down. “We will have a quick meal and share our reports.” He called over his officers and had them deploy the soldiers in defensive positions around the area. Jonas sent the bulk of the clerics with the soldiers.
Several aides quickly set up a field table from the wagons while the cooks heated up some rations. While they ate, Jonas and Dominic told Alleon about tracking down the kidnappers to the demons’ lair and the destruction of Creatos.
Alleon glanced over at Jonas’s wagon, where Hailyn was watching over Jake, and shook his head. “I know he was training with you, Dominic, so I do not mean to give offense, but I didn’t think that he had that kind of courage.” Alleon said, respect in his eyes.
“Courage can be found in anyone, Sir Alleon.” Jonas said. “The One provides us all with the capacity; it just takes the right kind of motivation for it to come out.” He glanced meaningfully at Keria.
Alleon told them what happened with his force. He expanded on what he had already told Dominic. The army had followed the passage of the half-men and demons south until they came upon the abandoned carriage. He had sent several search parties into the surrounding hills, looking for signs of the princess. One of these parties stumbled onto the waiting half-men and demons. They lost two clerics and ten soldiers before they were able to gather enough forces to crush the demons. Once the fighting was done, Alleon had ordered the dead soldiers’ horses hooked up to the carriage and turned the army back towards the crossroad. They moved as quickly as possible to try to catch up. When they had bivouacked near the miners’ camp, Alleon had spoken with their leader and learned that Dominic’s group had come and gone. He sent Werdan ahead to see what he could find while the army followed.
“You made quite an impression on the miners, Dominic.” Alleon said with a short laugh. “I heard them debating whether they would open their gates if you returned!” Dominic smiled grimly at that.
Suddenly, Keria, who had been sitting next to Marcus simply listening, stood and spoke. “I want to thank you for all of your efforts, Sir Alleon. Please relay my deepest thanks to the soldiers and clerics under your command for their courage and commitment in the attempt to rescue me.” She said.
“Of course, Your Highness.” Alleon replied.
“What is your plan now?” She asked.
“To get you back to the city as quickly as possible, of course.” Alleon stated.
“Seeing the size of this force, I am thinking of something else.” Keria said, her face neutral.
“What would that be?” Alleon cautiously asked.
“I want the demons and their followers punished.” She stated. “They took me hostage and killed the members of my escort, including Costuas and poor Nataly.” Her voice broke briefly, but she recovered. “I want you to go and clear out that nest of demons where I was held.”
“Princess, I would gladly mete out justice to those that have harmed you, but, with all due respect, my mission is to recover you and return you safely to your father, the King.” Alleon said, looking uncomfortable. “He will hang me from the walls of Sanduas if I don’t immediately bring you home.”
“My father is not here, Sir Alleon.” Keria stated primly. “Also, there were others trapped in that place; I heard their cries while I was confined. When it was just our small group, I knew there was
no option but to leave them to their fates. Now, with this many soldiers and clerics, we should be able to overwhelm the demons’ forces and rescue those poor souls.”
“I cannot risk your safety now that you are free, Princess.” Alleon protested. “I am sure the king will allow us to return and destroy that place
you are back home. I will ask the king for the honor of leading that mission in the names of the lost.”
“I will not abandon those people trapped there, now that the means to rescue them is here.” Keria said stubbornly. “Consider this a royal command.” Alleon frowned and slowly shook his head, looking for a way out.
“Princess, I understand your grief and desire for retribution, as well as applaud your compassion, but Sir Alleon is under orders from the king.” Jonas said, joining the conversation. “Do not place him in a position to have to defy you or your father. Let us return to Sanduas. I will support Alleon to return with as many clerics as can be spared.”
“I can’t believe that you would leave those people in bondage, Brother Jonas.” Keria responded, shaking her head. “If not for me, would you simply depart knowing they were there?”
“No, Your Highness.” Jonas said reluctantly. “But you are here. That changes the equation.”
“I will always be grateful to you for rescuing me, Brother Jonas, but, in this, you are wrong.” Keria stated, a defiant look on her face. “I cannot force you to support me, but the soldiers fall under royal command. I will send them against the demons without your clerics, if I must, but I will not leave those people.”
Jonas frowned at that, his face tightening, but before he could reply, Dominic spoke. “I may have a solution that will satisfy both sides.”
Both Jonas and Keria looked at him for a moment, then nodded that he should continue.
“How many clerics are here?” He asked Jonas.
“Thirty-eight, plus Hailyn and myself.” Jonas replied.
“Give me eighteen of your strongest clerics; Alleon can spare thirty soldiers. I will lead that force against the demons; I have a feel for the place now.” Dominic replied. “The clerics will be better weapons than soldiers in the warrens at the demons’ fortress. That will leave the bulk of the soldiers and half the clerics with Alleon.”
Jonas considered it for a moment. “I will send fifteen and go myself.” He said. “Like you, I have been inside and I will be best able to organize the clerics.” He looked at Keria. “If this is something you are insisting on?”
Keria nodded. “I am, Brother Jonas.”
“As for you, Princess, you will go with the rest of Alleon’s force back to Sanduas.” Dominic said. “That way, your father cannot fault Alleon for not returning you as quickly as possible. Also, you can look after the boy until Jonas returns.”
Keria nodded her acceptance and turned to speak to Alleon. She could see the disappointment in his eyes, knowing that he would miss the fighting. “Sir Alleon, I would ask you to go with this expedition as my champion. I wish for you to deliver the justice you mentioned.”
“I would gladly accept such a charge, Highness, but your safety was placed into my hands by the king.” Alleon said, rising and giving her a bow. “I am not sure how I can satisfy both demands.”
“Put your second in command. With all of the soldiers and clerics arrayed around me, you have accomplished all you can to keep me safe.” Keria replied. She gave Alleon a brief smile. “Please go for me. I will explain things to my father.”
“It will be my honor, Your Highness.” Alleon said, a smile crossing his face as he bowed again. “I will bring your justice to those foul creatures and succor the lost souls.”
They moved quickly to organize their respective parties. While Dominic went to the supply wagons to get another breastplate, Alleon called for volunteers to join him and ordered his second, Captain Grashin, to get the rest turned around and ready to move. Jonas called the clerics together, explaining the situation. He picked out his fifteen, then put the remaining clerics under the direction of an older female cleric named Silvan. He took Silvan over to the wagon where Hailyn was still sitting, explaining what had happened to Jake.
“Do not allow any of the clerics to attempt to heal him; it may be fatal to any who attempt it.” Jonas said as they stopped, gesturing at Jake. “Just keep him comfortable and have the soldiers help move him, if necessary. Once you arrive at Sanduas, send a messenger to Tomaris’ Keep. Inform him of Jake’s condition and ask for any help he can provide. If I do not return, you may need to send Jake to the Keep.”
“We will care for him, Brother; you worry about yourself and those with you.” Silvan replied. She looked over at Hailyn, who had climbed down while they were talking. “I will see Hailyn safely back to the Temple.” She said kindly.
“Master, I also have been inside, perhaps I should go with you-” Hailyn began.
“No.” Jonas stated firmly, shaking his head. “You have done more than I should have asked of you. I do not doubt your courage or skill, but you will return to Sanduas.” He gave her a knowing smile. “I want you to help Silvan with Jake. If he wakes, he will likely wish to see a familiar face.”
“Of course, Master.” Hailyn said, quickly glancing over at Jake. She looked back at Jonas. “Please be careful.”