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Authors: Steven A. Tolle

Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Sword & Sorcery

The Eternal Darkness (25 page)

BOOK: The Eternal Darkness
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“When he reaches me, I want you to run,” she whispered over her shoulder to Cherise.  “Run and do not stop.”

“I can help you,” the girl replied, trying to sound brave.

“Do as I say,” Keria stated.  She stepped forward, keeping the letter opener in front of her.

Gilam smiled at that, his knife moving.  She saw that he was preparing to spring at her and she readied herself to react.  She needed to buy Cherise enough time to run.

Before they could close with each other, in a blur of brown fur and muscle, Maxis ran into the room and charged Gilam.  He spun and tried to defend himself, but the dog reached him first, slamming into him and knocking him to the floor.  Gilam managed to get an arm between his neck and Maxis’ jaws as the dog tried to rip his throat out.  Maxis bit down and shook, wrenching him around.

Keria saw Gilam’s knife flash and the dog jerk, but Maxis refused to let go.  Somehow, Gilam got his legs under the dog and desperately heaved.  The force ripped Maxis off his arm and sent the dog flying.  Maxis collided with the furniture, twisting around as he tried to regain his footing.

With a low cry, Cherise ran past Keria before she could react and knelt next to Maxis, pressing her hands against a wound in his side.  The brave dog rose and shook her off.  He placed himself between her and Gilam, and began to advance on him, teeth bared and a savage growl in his throat.  His front leg did not seem to want to work, but he continued forward.

Keria ran over and pulled Cherise back.  Gilam was trying to get to his feet, eyes focused on the dog.

At that moment, Norlan ran into the room, with Jansen right behind him. Keria saw his eyes go wide for a moment when he saw blood covering Cherise’s hands and dress, and then a look of pure rage crossed his face.  It was a shock to see that emotion on his face, as she was so used to his calm ways.

Before she could say anything, in what seemed like three bounding steps, he closed the distance between Gilam and himself.  Gilam tried to twist away, but Norlan kicked him solidly in the ribs, sending him sliding across the floor.  Before Gilam could react, Norlan, eyes hard and his arms bulging, swung his maul overhead and brought it down with all of his strength, driving the spike into Gilam’s chest.  He struck with such force that Keria heard the stone flooring crack underneath Gilam.  The would-be assassin shuddered and then went still, eyes open and staring.


Norlan stood there for a moment, looking down at the man he had just killed, chest heaving.  Remembering Cherise, his rage faded into panic.  Leaving his maul, he turned and ran to Cherise, who was kneeling next to Maxis, who was lying on his side.  “Where are you hurt, Cherise?” he asked as he gently took her head into his hands.

“I am fine, but Maxis is hurt,” she said brokenly.  “The blood is his.”

Looking at the dog, Norlan saw several cuts and a puncture wound that was oozing dark blood.  The dog was softly whining and panting heavily.  Grabbing a nearby pillow, he ripped the fabric apart and pressed the material against the wound.  Maxis flinched when he did this, but Norlan stroked his head and whispered, “It will be fine, Maxis.  Hang on.”

Glancing up, he saw Jansen, sword in hand, run to hallway and call out for additional guards.  He repeated his call several times, and then returned to stand near Keria.  After what seemed like an eternity, several guards appeared.

Jansen pointed to the youngest one.  “Go fetch a cleric or apprentice.  You will run and, if you need to, carry the cleric on your back to get them here as quickly as possible.  Now!”  Seeing the look on Jansen’s face, the young man turned and ran.

From outside, a series of horn blasts sounded in the night.  Norlan heard the pattern that called the commander to the wall.  He looked up at Jansen.

“The call is for you, Commander,” Jansen said gently as he knelt down to take makeshift bandage from Norlan.  “We must all do our duty.”  He glanced over at Cherise, who was being held by Keria.  “I promise you that, with my life, I will not allow any harm to come to your child.”

Norlan first thought was to order Jansen to go instead, but knew that the man spoke the truth.  He had accepted the responsibility of command and he could not refuse that duty now.  Nodding, he rose and went over to retrieve his maul.  Wrenching it free, he wiped the blood off on Gilam’s shirt.

“I will return as quickly as possible, Cherise,” he said gently.  He looked over at Keria.  “You will be safe now, Majesty.”  With a quick bow, he forced himself to stride out the door.

When he reached the palace courtyard, he had a horse brought for him.  The horns blared again, coming from the West Gate.  Even though he was a fair rider at best, he raced the horse past the people who had gathered in the streets.

When he reached the gate area, he could see that many of the Watch had gathered along the wall.  Running up the stairs, he went over to where the section leaders were standing.

“What is it?” he demanded.

“There, Commander,” one of the men said, pointing towards the west.

Norlan stepped up to the wall and looked out.  In the distance, he saw fires burning on either side of the Royal Highway.  He knew instantly that the fires were burning homesteads and farms.

Out of the darkness, people began to appear, disheveled and panicked.  They ran up to the gates, begging for the guards to open the gates and let them in.

“What are you fleeing from?” Norlan called down.

One of the men, a farmer by his dress, looked up.  He cupped his hands around his mouth and responded, “You have to let us in!  It is an army of demons and half-men!”

 

C
HAPTER
F
OURTEEN

“Formation!” Norlan shouted down to the Watch members in the courtyard.  The men, after a brief moment of hesitation, shuffled around and finally lined up in neat rows.

He turned to the section leaders near him.  “Send a runner to alert the clerics and prepare to open the gate.  When we let these people in, I want them thoroughly searched.  We will have the clerics check them as well, to make sure no half-men are mixed in.”

“Commander, if we unlock the gate, we may not get it closed in time if the enemy arrives,” one of them said.

“I will not leave those people out there to be slaughtered by the half-men and demons,” Norlan replied sternly.  “Prepare the men to conduct the searches and the archers to repel any attackers until we get them inside the walls.”

While the sections leaders saluted and went to their men, shouting orders, Norlan leaned back over the wall.  “We will open the gates,” he called down to the small crowd of people.  “You will not leave the gate area until you have been searched.  Anyone who attempts to go into the city before they are cleared will be deemed an enemy and dealt with harshly.  Am I understood?”

“We understand; just let us in!” the farmer shouted back.

While the Watch prepared to open the gate, Norlan gazed back toward the hills in the west.  The darkness obscured his vision, but with the flames of the burning homes behind them, he could make out the silhouette of a large mass of figures moving slowly along the Royal Highway.

He spun back to the courtyard.  “Hurry!” he shouted to the men opening the gates.  “We don’t have much time.”

With a loud clank and the sound of protesting pulleys, the outer gates slowly swung open.  Once there was a gap large enough for several people to pass, Norlan ordered a halt to opening the gate further.  The people outside, with some pushing and shoving, desperately squeezed through the opening.

Norlan’s attention was focused on the people below and the sudden thrumming of bows behind him took him by surprise.  He snapped his head up and saw a small group of half-men, just at the edge of the light of the torches, screaming and falling as the arrows rained down on them.  The archers fired another volley, littering the ground around the dead and dying half-men with arrows.

Norlan kept one eye on the people at the gate below and the other on the highway area.  Despite the cool temperature, sweat was trickling down Norlan’s face by the time the last person passed through the gate.  He spun and shouted, “Close and secure the gate!”

He turned back and studied the night.  In the distance, beyond bowshot, he could see the dark mass of half-men begin to spread out.  He made out large groups of men who broke off and began to run towards the South Gate.

“Take horses and send word to secure all gates!” he called down.  He saw several of the Watch sprint towards the area where the horses were kept.  Within moments, he heard the sound of hooves striking the stone as the men raced off towards the other gates.

With a hollow boom, the outer gates closed.  The locks were thrown and crossbeams were inserted to reinforce the doors.  Norlan ordered the tunnel grate lowered and the inner doors closed and buttressed.  As the Watch hurried to accomplish this, he turned back to watch the enemy army.

“What is happening?” a woman’s voice said from behind him.  He turned and saw Sister Lavera climbing the stairs.  Despite her age, she still moved spryly.  Brother Trence had left her in charge of the clerics and apprentices who remained in the city.

“An army of demons and half-men appeared to the west, burning the outlying farms and homesteads,” Norlan explained.  “I need all clerics and apprentices who can use the clerics’ power to be assigned to the gates.”

“Of course, Commander,” Lavera replied evenly, looking towards the enemy.  Her reputation of having an iron will seemed evident, as the information did not faze her.  “I will set up a duty rotation so that there will always be clerics at the ready.”  She looked over at him.  “We will be spread thin.  There are only about fifty clerics and apprentices left in the city who can wield enough power to confront the demons.”

“I understand,” Norlan said.  Until they had a better count of the demons they faced, he would not know if that would really matter.

“All other clerics and apprentices will set up healing stations near the gates,” Lavera continued.  “Even without the use of the healing power, we will tend to the injured as best we can.”

“Thank you, Sister,” Norlan said.  “For now, please send your strongest clerics to this gate.  The enemy forces are most numerous here.”  He pointed down to where the people he had let in were milling about under the watchful eyes of the guards.  “Also, I need to have the clerics check those people for the demons’ influence.  They appeared ahead of the enemy, begging for entrance.  I believe that they are innocents caught up in this, but I need to be sure.”

“I will see it done, Commander,” she said as she prepared to leave.  She looked closely at him.  “Remember that you are but one man.  You have others below you who can lead.  You do not have to try to do everything yourself.”  Kindly patting him on his arm, she went back to the courtyard.

Norlan turned back towards the enemy army.  He could not be sure, but they seemed to have halted their approach.  He detected no movement towards the walls.

He stayed there for several hours, prepared to defend the walls, but nothing happened.  Recalling Lavera’s words, he left one of the section leaders in charge, with orders to send someone to the palace if the situation changed.  He climbed back into the saddle of his horse and returned to the palace, to inform the queen of the situation and check on his daughter.


Keria paced slowly around her suite, giving Madalin and Cherise some distance.  She had sent one of the guards to fetch Madalin, knowing that Norlan likely would be unable to return swiftly.  Cherise was unnerved by the attempted assassination and needed her mother. 
She is not the only one
, Keria thought as she noticed her hands were still shaking slightly as well.

She glanced over at them.  They were sitting on the couch, with Madalin holding Cherise tightly, stroking her hair and speaking softly to her.  Captain Jansen was standing against a wall in the entry hall, positioned between them and the door, his hand resting lightly on his sword.  He had assigned at least ten men from the small group of Royal Guard that made up her personal guard to defend the door, but the man had given Norlan his word and meant to keep it.

At their feet, Maxis lay sleeping, his injuries healed, though he still had some dried blood on his coat.  An apprentice that could heal had been found and arrived just in time to save the dog.  When she had finished, the girl had told them that he had lost a lot of blood and would need rest and fluids for several days, but should be fine.

If it would not shock the nobles and maybe even the people, I would name him a Hero of Sanduas,
Keria thought as she studied the dog.  He had come to save Cherise and saved her as well.  She was still amazed at the bravery the dog had displayed.  She had not been allowed pets growing up, so she had never really experienced that kind of loyalty from an animal.

She heard voices on the other side of the doors and, when she glanced over, saw Jansen step forward, placing himself in the middle of the entry hall, his hand tight around his swordhilt and body tense.  When the doors opened, she saw Norlan enter, a troubled yet determined look on his face.  Jansen relaxed and fell in beside him as Norlan came into the room.

“Your Majesty,” Norlan began, though his eyes were on his family.  “We have an urgent situation we need to discuss.”  She could see that he was being deliberately vague, likely for Cherise’s sake.

“If you will allow me, your family can stay in Marcus’ suite tonight,” she said.  “It is late and we have all had a rough night.  You can join them when we finish our discussion.”

“As you wish, Majesty,” Norlan said with a bow.

“Captain Jansen, please assign four of the men to guard the Commander’s family while they are in the palace,” she said.  “I want them safe and secure.”

“I will select them myself,” Jansen said and went out into the hallway.

After a few moments, Jansen returned.  He approached Madalin, giving her a slight bow.  “If you will follow me, I will escort you to your rooms.”

BOOK: The Eternal Darkness
11.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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