Friday, March 11, 2016

The King's Challenge #241 - #243

TKC 241, 242 and 243

The edge of this stretch of trees is in sight before darkness takes us. After telling the others to stay back and out of sight, Damin and I creep to the treeline. It is beyond dark out there. A Glonu soldier may be standing a metre from us, weapon trained, and we will not see him. Relying therefore on sound instead, we hunker.

We too must make no noises.

Damin is good at this, I realise. Another man will be nervous and those nerves will be clear in uneven breathing louder than usual – a dead giveaway – but I cannot discern one breath from the man at my side. In fact, he serves to encourage me; I hope I am as silent as he is.

Hours we sit unmoving.

Sounds do penetrate the ink of night, most of them of a more natural order. An owl hoots intermittently somewhere to our left. Bats meander on the edge of hearing. Scuffles in the undergrowth reveal the nocturnal population is awake.

A sneeze cuts into the silence at one stage, then a marked shush sound. The others know to keep it quiet, but accidents happen. I am even more wary, for that sneeze travelled quite a distance.

Near the arrival of a new day, when it is darker than anything that goes before, a noise stiffens my every sense. Beside me I feel Damin tense. A boot scrape. As if a man wanders the night in stealth. Perhaps he shifted a loose stone. Perhaps he is not alone. Maybe a patrol is headed directly to our vantage point.

Then, by the stars, it changes.

Light floods the area. Sound explodes.

A cruiser. A night flight.

The beams hit the territory we inhabit, a flood of light. Almost I curse aloud, but survival is paramount and that instinct limits the involuntary reaction to a thought rather than an action.

Fifty soldiers hunker on a riverbank directly below us. To the last, each man is awake and alert.

Damin’s lips draw back in astonishment, but he contains himself. His gaze flicks around before he nods at me, and I agree with him. Where we are is well camouflaged from casual inspection. The soldiers cannot see us. I am beyond amazed they did not hear the sneeze of earlier.

Thank the stars they did not hear us.

The cruiser lowers with a high-pitched sound that entirely disturbs the calm of the soldiers below. Men hurtle up, some swearing, other gesticulating in irritation. The swift ship hovers and the men march towards it. A ramp lowers and one by one the soldiers vanish into it.

The cruiser lifts and gives the area a final light sweep. In the search, I realise we are now alone.

The ship swirls up and vanishes into distance.

Damin releases an explosive breath. “That was too close.”

“These Glonu are far better at soldiering than they were in the past,” I mutter. “At least we now have a lay of the land.”

The territory below our hideaway is flat and open, with a river running through it. We cannot cross here without being seen. Left of us is forest and to the right is a ridge that climbs ever higher.

“Where we go next depends on the Ilfin flyover,” Damin remarks.

It feels as if he reads my mind and I glance sharply at him.

He shrugs. “I am no doubt thinking what you are thinking.”

I give him a grin. Right.

He stands then and stretches mightily. “It will be light soon. I am going to bring the others in.” He walks away without waiting for my agreement.

“Do that,” I mutter under my breath. Damin has been leader long enough not to ask permission, although it sometimes leads to the two of us not seeing the same.

The darkness gradually gives way to the greyness of pre-dawn. I watch a pair of deer come down to water to drink. This Arc is beautiful; how dare we destroy it in battles for supremacy? The deer have no concept of war and yet they will feel the results. Innocents. They deserve protection, not annihilation.

Inhaling, I stare at them. My thoughts move to memories of Makaran. It has been thousands of years since I have seen my homeworld, but the images remain sharp. The deer there are larger and far more skittish than these local creatures, but they were respected and cherished. Makaran has ever harked to the natural world. Nature forms part of the Ilfin.

Why then this need to make war? Why am I soldier before I am a forest wanderer … when I desire only to walk amid giant trees?

Lyra kneels beside me. “Enris, you need to rest.”

I glance at my sister. Why does she not remember Makaran? How am I the one cursed to always know, to remember?

“I am fine,” I murmur, looking away.

It is the orb. With the brightest clarity, for the first time I understand it is the magical device that has changed my future. The day my father placed it upon my palm in the Tiled Dome was also the day everything changed for me. I am aware of the Warrior talent and how debilitating it is once it assumes supremacy – it kills the host in swift years – but the orb prevents it coming to pass. It heightens the Warrior … and keeps him alive.

I have been alive too long.

I am weary of war.

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