Ronin had left the other three warriors from the cave behind to bring Anara’s Stallion Storm, back at a slower pace. The stallion was very sick from laying out in the cold rain after such a long and tiring run, but Ronin couldn’t just leave him there in case the enemy came back for their dead. Ronin had given the Rydell orders to take him back to the caves and care for him as best they could until he could send a healer.
Now he was trotting Kitchi, on a hidden trail only members of The Shadows knew of. It cut through part of the valley and would allow him to get to the trail that led to the village faster. When they reached a small flat area before the steep incline of the Mountain began, Ronin gently reined Kitchi in and dismounted. “Just a little farther, we’re almost there.” He said as he loosened the cinch so that the panting stallion could breath easier. He rubbed a hand over the stallion’s lathered neck and shoulder, feeling the heat and sweat burn his hands. He hated pushing the horse so hard but they didn’t have a choice, he had to get back to the village and report Anara’s capture and a more detailed report of what they’d found out on their mission.
Ronin looked up at the mountain grimly. I need to get there quickly, but running Kitchi into the ground isn’t going to help. He fidgeted impatiently with Kitchi’s saddle and bridle and then poked through the few contents of his saddlebags impatiently. He only carried the bare necessities: a strip of hardtack, canvas sack, small canteen, small jar of medical cream, two vials, sharpening stone, two throwing spikes, one curved dagger about as long as his forearm were all on one side. On the other side were two crossbow bolts, one of them broken, both soaked in blood even the rain hadn’t been able to wash away, along with Anara’s rolled up, bloodied cloak.
Ronin just stared at the bloodied cloak and arrows for a moment before he closed the saddle bag, unable look at it any longer.
Ronin poured the contents of his canteen into the waterproofed canvas sack and gave it to Kitchi, who drank it greedily. Ronin’s own throat burned with thirst and his tongue was thick and heavy in his mouth, but without his horse it would take him nearly two days to reach the village. It was another hour of hard riding to get to a meadow where the village kept a large herd of horses. Ronin could get a fresh horse from there and then it would be another four hour ride to get to the village. He would have to ride through the night.
He turned away from the horse and rubbed his hands over his face. His hands trembled slightly as his thoughts turned to his sister. By now she would be well on her way back to the castle they’d just barely escaped, and by the time he reached the village and they gathered enough warriors to pursue, she would have nearly reached it. With every fiber of his being, Ronin wanted to turn around and gallop after her but he couldn’t, she had ordered him to get back to the village and report what they had found. As much as he didn’t want to obey her, he couldn’t deny that thousands more would die if he did not. For a long time the tears had streamed down his face unchecked, soon to be washed away by the rain of the storm, until finally he could cry no more.
Ronin gazed to the east across the valley toward the green haze that was the small forest. He looked beyond it as though he could see her and her captor riding away. “Anara.” he whispered her name brokenly. His knees hit the ground and the pain of his broken heart overflowed, “God why would you let that happen? Why would you help me get away and not her?” he whispered, his head hanging down. “WHY DID YOU ABANDON HER?!” he lifted his head and screamed at the sky as his pain turned to anger. Kitchi shied away at his sudden scream, nickering nervously, thunder rumbling in the distance ominously. Ronin’s eyes felt hot and he didn’t realize he was crying again. “You could have saved her! It would’ve been so easy for You to reach down and protect her!” his voice cracked and a broken sob escaped his lips. For a moment the silent sobs shook his shoulders and hot salty tears slipped from his eyes.
“AAAHHH!!” Suddenly he screamed and brought both clenched fists down on the hard ground as hard as he could. He kept punching the hard, stone ground, screaming at stormy clouds overhead until his knuckles were bruised and bleeding. He did not stop until his anger was spent and all that was left was just overwhelming grief.
Two tears slipped down his face and dripped onto his clenched and bleeding fists, soon followed by just a few raindrops. He turned his face up and felt the cold drops touch his heated face. Just a few raindrops at a time continued to fall as Ronin stood and tightened Kitchi’s cinch, mounted, and continued up the mountain. The sky seemed to weep as if it too, shared his pain.
Ronin was numb as he continued to push Kitchi on toward the meadow, stopping more frequently for longer and longer breaks. They reached the valley shortly after the sun had set and what little bit of light it had offered through the thick storm clouds vanished. As they entered the small valley with him leading Kitchi, he looked around wearily. Spotting the small cabin and small adjoining stable, he led his exhausted stallion toward it. The stallion was trembling all over and white with lather. A light shone through the little window and two figures came running out when he was nearly to the door.
“Ronin? Is that you?” one of them said in disbelief as they held the lantern up enough to cast a little light on his weary face. “Fenri, take Kitchi and get him rubbed down, he looks ready to drop!” The taller figure handed the lantern to Fenri who reached for Kitchi’s reins.
“Follow him Kitchi.” Ronin mumbled to the horse as he surrendered the reins.
“Ronin, what happened?” the taller figure asked as they helped him toward the small cabin. As they stepped through the open door and into the warm cabin, Ronin suddenly realized just how cold he was. He shivered violently in his damp clothes, and the person swore under their breath. “You can tell me later, right now I need to get you out of those wet clothes!” The person deposited him in a wood chair at the small tabled closest to the stove, and then tore through the cabin, overturning a chair in their pursuit of something warm and dry.
Ronin stared at the man’s back, trying to see who it was. When the he stood and turned around again, he saw the golden blond hair and brown eyes with tanned skin, freckled cheeks and angled jaw.
“S-Sun, I…”Ronin stammered through chattering teeth.
Sun hurried over and helped Ronin unclasp his cloak. “Don’t talk, just undress. You can tell me whatever you need to when we have you dry. He silenced Ronin’s protests as he quickly helped Ronin out of his wet clothes and into the dry ones. Once changed, Sun wrapped a thick blanket around Ronin’s shoulders.
As Ronin soaked up the warmth of the stove, Sun stirred a pot and then ladled something into a bowl and handed it to Ronin. The rich scent of cooked meat and vegetables reached his nose and Ronin remembered that he had eaten nothing since late afternoon the day before. As he devoured the thick stew, Sun draped his clothes over the other three chairs beside the stove. He sat a pitcher of water and a large mug on the table in front of Ronin as well. Ronin quickly drained three large mugs of water to ease the burn in his parched throat.
Ronin sighed, leaning back in his chair, the now empty bowl on the table beside him. “Sun.” he called, fighting off the sleep his exhausted body craved.
The blond looked up from where he sat straightening the mess he’d made and hurried over.
Ronin blinked lethargically. The food in his stomach and warmth from the fire was just making it harder to stay awake. “I need you to saddle Tempest for me.”
“No, you need to stay and r-” Sun tried to protest but Ronin cut him off sharply.
“Sun! Anara has been captured and her last orders to me were to get what I know of Nosidia’s plans to the Chief! Now saddle Tempest!” he slammed his left hand down on the table, reopening the bloodied scabs on his knuckles.
Sun’s eyes widened and he took a step back, startled. Ronin was always soft spoken, rarely ever raising his voice so that alone was reason to be alarmed. But he was dumbfounded to hear that the best warrior The Shadows had ever seen had been captured.
Then his eyes registered the bleeding hand on the table. He reached out quickly and snatched Ronin’s left hand, examining the torn skin on the knuckles. There was so much dirt caked on them that he had missed the blood before. Frowning he reached for the other hand, pulling it into the light despite Ronin trying to pull his hands back. Both hands were caked in mud and Sun couldn’t see the torn skin very well.
“Did you hear me? I need to get to the Chief!” Ronin nearly shouted at the older man impatiently as he filled a large bowl of water and grabbed a handful of rags. Sun knelt on the floor in front of Ronin and reached for his hands. Ronin jerked them back, “We don’t have time for this! If you won’t saddle Tempest, then I will!” Ronin started to stand as he shoved Sun out of the way.
As he walked toward the door on stiff legs, he heard Sun say, “Please Ronin, don’t make me do this.” Ronin ignored Sun and was almost to the door when he felt something hit him at the base of his neck, hard.
Sun grabbed the unconscious boy under the arms before he could hit the ground and drug him over to a bed close by the stove and laid him on it. Looking down at Ronin, he said quietly, “Rest for a bit, and when you wake, Tempest will be ready.”
Sun cleaned the bruised and bloodied hands and was searching for a roll of bandages when Fenri walked through the door. He stared at the sleeping young man’s hands, “What did he hit? He couldn’t have done more damage if he’d punched a rock wall!” he looked over at Sun who was digging through a cabinet, tossing things around before slamming the door shut angrily and going to the next cabinet. “Sun, stop! What are you looking for?”
“Bandages and medicine, what do you think?” he retorted as he continued to toss things around.
“Stop!” He shouted. “They’re right here, where they always are.” Fenri reached for the small box next to the door and placed it on the floor beside the young man on the bed.
“Thank you Fenri.” Sun said greatfully and then set to work spreading cream over the boy’s knuckles and then wrapping them carefully. It was a good thing he was unconscious because that would have burned like nothing else when he washed the mud out of the torn skin.
Fenri stood by the stove and watched Sun work. When he was finished tying the bandages, Fenri spoke up. “That poor horse looked about dead and Ronin doesn’t look much better. I know for a fact that that boy loves that horse and he would have never pushed him so hard, especially in the dark. And then there’s the messenger that came ripping in for a remount earlier today on Ronin’s orders. What’s going on Sun?”
Sun gave a heavy sigh, studying the sleeping boy, as he sorted out his words. He looked up at Fenri, his brown eyes conflicted. “Captain Anara and Ronin have been on a highly classified mission for the last few weeks. Even I don’t know what the mission was, but I do know that they weren’t supposed to be back for several weeks yet. Something went wrong and all I know is that Captain Anara has been captured by the enemy.”
A tense silence thick enough to choke on settled in the room after these words. Fenri’s mind refused to accept what he’d just heard. “No, that can’t be right. We are more than twice her age and she could literally beat the both of us with both hands tied behind her back!” He thought back to the training exercise a year ago when they were practicing getting out of ropes and fighting while tied up. Anara had proven exceptionally skilled in this with her unbelievable agility.
“I don’t know how it happened, but Ronin wasn’t lying. We’ll let him sleep for an hour or so and then I’ll wake him. He was demanding that I saddle Tempest for him and wouldn’t even let me fix up his hands, I had to knock him out to keep him from leaving.” Sun still stared at the sleeping boy, his voice quiet and serious.
Silence filled the air again. After a minute of the suffocating stillness, Sun stood with a sigh. “Watch him for me, I’m going to bring Tempest in.” He unhooked the small whistle from the wall and walked out into the stormy night without another word.
Fenri filled a bowl of the stew and sat on a chair next to the boy to eat. After a moment he faintly heard a three note song outside. That would be Sun calling in the horses. He watched the boy sleep as he finished his food and thought that even in sleep, Ronin looked broken-hearted. He and his sister had been very close to each other, and losing her might just be enough to break him. Anara had been like his mother after theirs died when Ronin was just four and Anara was seven years old.
Fenri had never talked to the kid all that much, but he had know Anara fairly well, there weren’t many in the village who didn’t know her personally to some degree. Anara, prodigy and best warrior The Shadows had ever see. But that wasn’t what made her so special, more than anything on earth she loved Ronin and her village. If it came down to saving Ronin of those she loved at the cost of her own life, Fenri had no doubt she would sacrifice herself, that was just the kind a person she was. Her unwavering loyalty was one of the things he admired about her.
She was loyal, but she didn’t follow orders blindly, and had gained a reputation for her outright refusal of an arranged bonding when a few members of the council had decided it was time for her to breed more warriors like herself for the clan when she had just barely turned twenty. Most of the girls chose who they would bond with by the time they were twenty-one and arranged bondings had been all but forbidden by the clan’s founding Chief.
Anara’s Chief blood’s temper had been fully roused that day, and though normally known for her extraordinary level headedness and self control, she had torn into the three elders and by the time she had finished her lecture that would put the harshest of parents to shame, they cowered before her. The Chief himself was so insulted that he nearly put them to death, but Anara had suggested that their punishment should be cleaning the pig-pens every day for a year. Never before had the pig-pens been kept so clean.
Fenri leaned forward on his chair, resting his elbows on his knees, folding his hands and resting his forehead on them with his eyes closed.
Lord, I don’t understand why You let that happen, but I trust that You have a reason for it. Please keep our little girl safe in your hand, don’t let harm come to her. She is Your Child, for You have called her by name and You live within her. Help us through this. Ronin will need You now more than ever, give me the wisdom to know what to do.
He kept praying for a long time until he heard the door bang on the wall as the wind shoved it open and Sun walked through quickly, throwing his weight against it to close it.
“How is he?” Sun asked as he laid more wood by the stove.
“He sleeps like the dead.” He glanced at the boy who hadn’t even twitched when the door had slammed into the wall. “Did you check on Kitchi while you were out there?” He queried.
“Yes, I think he’ll be fine with some rest. If it weren’t for all our horses having exceptional footing, Ronin probably would be dead right now. Any normal horse wouldn’t have been able to navigate the mountain in the dark.”
“Kitchi does mean brave, remember.” Fenri commented. “It’s been about an hour, should we wake him up?”
Sun was quiet for a moment more. “I gave Tempest just a little grain, when she’s done with that I’ll saddle her up, so for now just let Ronin sleep a little longer.” He looked out the window and saw a flash of lightning as the storm intensified. “Maybe by then this storm will have settled down a bit.” He got himself some food and took Fenri’s place beside the bed saying, “I’ll watch him for awhile, you better get some sleep Fenri. I’ll wake you in an hour when I wake Ronin.”
“Ronin… Ronin, Wake up!” Someone shaking him and calling his name pulled him from his exhausted slumber. He opened his eyes but they were so dry that he couldn’t keep them open. Blinking like crazy he tried to sit up only to find that every muscle in his body throbbed with pain. A hand helped him up and he swung his legs over the side of the bed.
I don’t remember going to bed. He tried to organize his scattered thoughts.
“Ronin, are you okey? I had a hard time waking you up.” Someone said.
Ronin blinked and rubbed his eyes, trying to focus on the blurry blond mass. As the image came into focus, he saw that it was his old friend Sun, who was looking at him worriedly.
Sun? What is he doing here? Where is here anyway?
He looked around and saw the log walls of a cabin and the faces of two men, Sun and another whose name he couldn’t remember. Suddenly it all clicked into place and his eyes went wide. “How long was I out?!” He said in a panic. He stood up too quickly and got so dizzy he would’ve fallen on his face, were it not for Sun’s hand steadying him.
“Easy there Ronin.” Ronin held a hand to his head as the dizziness slowly faded. “The storm got real bad for awhile so I decided to just let you sleep. It’s about two in the morning, you were out for almost six hours.”
“Six hours! How could you let me sleep so long?!” Ronin accused, reaching for his boots by the fire.
“Ronin calm down! Whatever you have to tell the Chief, it can wait that long! The storm only just quite and it would have made the trail impassible! As it is you shouldn’t be going out on the mountain after dark!” Sun shouted, exasperated with the boy’s uncharacteristic impatience.
“Sun.” The other man laid a calming hand on Sun’s shoulder.
“I know Fenri, I know.” He shook his head and walked toward the door as he put on a cloak. “I’ll bring Tempest around.”
Ronin slid his knee high soft soled boots on quickly and worked on wrapping the laces securely.
“He’s not angry with you.” The voice broke through Ronin’s swirling thoughts. When he looked up at the brown haired, blue eyed man he saw Fenri looking at him softly from across the room.
“I know how dangerous it is out there, I’ve grown up in these mountains after all, but I have to get home.” He said quietly, fiddling with his boots.
“I know. Sun knows it too, he’s just worried about you. And with Anara captured…” his voice trailed off. “Anyway,” he shook his head to clear it and tried to put on a smile. “If Storm is the finest Stallion The Shadows have ever raised, the his dam Tempest is undoubtedly the best mare. If any horse can make it up the mountain tonight, it’s her.” Fenri patted Ronin’s shoulder in a reassuring manner. He pulled another thick tunic that was a charcoal grey out of a wood chest and handed it to Ronin. “Put this on, it’s mine so it’s a little big but you can wear it over what you’ve got. You can’t help Anara of you die of cold.”
Ronin took it gratefully and slipped it on. He looked around for anything else he might need and spotted small horn hanging from a peg by the door. “I’m going to need the horn to get by the sentries, it was too big a risk to bring mine with me on our mission.” Fenri nodded and handed the small horn to him.
Ronin heard a horse snort outside the door and he swiftly fastened on his cloak as he headed for the door. There stood Sun at Tempest’s side, making sure that the cinch was tight and the saddle bags strapped down securely so that they couldn’t flap round.
Tempest stomped one chocolate brown leg nervously and tossed her flaxen mane and snorted. Tempest was a chocolate brown mare with a silky, long and thick flaxen mane and tail that shimmered in the dim light cast by the open cabin door.
Ronin walked around to her head and stroked her soft face. “Easy there pretty girl.” He smoothed her forelock out of her eyes. “You will need to be surer of foot tonight than ever before, Anara needs us. We have a long way to go with not much time and you’re the only horse that can make it the rest of the way up the mountain in this weather.” The tall mare shifted nervously from foot to foot.
“She smells the saddlebags.” Sun said grimly.
The scent of Anara’s blood makes her uneasy and the remnants of the storm aren’t helping. Ronin thought as he gave her one last pat on the neck before he hauled his stiff and pained body into the saddle.
As he gathered the reins, Sun put a hand on his leg. “Don’t do anything rash out there, and if the storm picks up again find a place to hunker down. You can’t help Anara if you’re dead.” Ronin clenched his jaw in determination. “And remember that no one else has ever been able to ride Tempest but Anara. She may be the best mare I’ve ever seen and the mother to Kitchi, but she was given her name for a reason. Remember that.”
“I know Sun. What you don’t know is that I have ridden Tempest before.” With these final words, he turned Tempest toward the trail leading through the mountains and put her to a trot, leaving Sun and Fenri behind in confusion.
He sat lightly in the saddle and allowed Tempest to decide where to put her feet since she could see better in the dark than him. As they entered the forest the thunder continued to rumble ominously.
For the first hour Ronin was able to go a little faster than The Shadows forced march pace while the ground was smoother and Tempest had good footing. When they got to the base of the three mountains he would have to go between, he gave Tempest a longer rest. Then the began the steep climb. It would take them two hours to get to the top of the ridge between two of the mountains and Ronin had to stop and let Tempest rest halfway up and again at the top. It only took them an hour to get down the other side and by now, sunrise was just over an hour away.
When they got within twenty miles of the village where the outermost sentries would be, Ronin raised his horn and gave one long blast followed a second after by one short one and then another long blast. He waited a few seconds and then did it again. He did this five times without even slowing Tempest from her lope. A moment later he heard an answering call of one short, one long, and another short blast. Very faintly in the distance Ronin could hear another horn sounding the alarm as the warning was relayed throughout the line of sentries. The sky was turning from deep blue, to pink in the east.
He stopped and let Tempest catch her wind before galloping the last two mile stretch to the village. The gates were already open for him to pass through and the road to the Meeting hall in the very center of the village was cleared of people as they crowded on the side to watch him fly past. Ronin reined Tempest to a stop and nearly threw himself off the saddle. His entire body ached from the strain of such a hard ride and his muscled nearly refused to take his weight.
“See to it that Tempest is cared for well, she has run all the way from the meadows.” He shouted over his shoulder as he removed his saddlebags.
“Yes sir!” Someone said as he walked stiffly toward the large double doors of the meeting hall. Two people rushed to open the large elaborately carved doors for him.
Ronin had strode through those impressive doors hundreds of times, but never had the task of standing before the chief been so daunting. They swung open smoothly on silent hinges and revealed the cheif sitting on his large wooden chair with the clan’s crest of a falcon with its wings spread out, perched on the withers of a horse with its neck arched and one for leg raised carved into the high back above his head.
Ronin walked toward the chief as his eyes scanned the room, taking note that the full war council was present. The room was full of about twenty people aside from the Chief and himself. They were all seated around the large circular wooden table with the chairs closest to the door empty.
“Why is the council here? Did you not get the message I sent Chief?” He demanded. Were it not for his status as not only the Chief’s son but a high ranking member of the Shadows, he would have likely been punished for his tone. He was far too tired to care about his tone and he was impatient to relay his message.
“Those here can be trusted explicitly.” The Chief waved away Ronin’s accusation. “In your message you said to prepare for war. You will explain exactly why in a moment.” His father said grimly. “But first you will tell me where Captain Anara is.” Chief Nolam searched Ronin’s eyes and for a brief moment the chief was gone and all that was left was a desperately worried father.
Instead of answering in words, Ronin stepped up to the large round table and tossed the saddlebags so they landed in front of him. The chief reached for the bags. “Left side.” Ronin directed and watched expressionlessly as the Chief opened the leather bag.
The Chief started to reach in when suddenly he froze and his face lost all color.
A few on the council who had so far been silent, started to shift nervously and whisper among themselves. “What’s in the bag?” “Why has a war council been summoned?” “What is going on?” “Why is the Captain not with him?” Other’s leaned forward to try and see what was in the saddlebag Ronin had delivered.
Slowly Nolam stood and pulled out the rolled up cloak. The bag slipped to the floor and the cloak unrolled to reveal a very large blood soaked area around the two holes. A clatter was heard as the two arrows that had been rolled up in the cloak fell to the floor. The whispering stopped abruptly.
Ronin stepped forward and picked up the fallen arrow that had rolled closer to his boot. It was the unbroken one. He took another step toward the round table and slammed the crossbow bolt so the tip bit deep into the wood and said, “Captain Anara has been captured.”
Those five words echoed throughout the hall like hammer blows to a metal gong.
A little softer he said. “There is no help for her now. She will be interrogated until they think they’ve gotten all they can get from her unless she dies from her injuries before they make it back to the castle. It would be a mercy if she never made it to those dungeons.”
Ronin was silent again and watched the chief’s face go from pale and shocked, to a mixture of raw pain and silent rage.
For what seemed like many long minutes, though it was only a few seconds, nothing happened. And then the chief sat deliberately in his carved chair again, as though he were forcing himself not to go after Anara to rescue her from the torture she was on her way to face. He closed his eyes tightly for a full minute before he finally asked, “What did you learn of Nosidia’s plans on your mission?”
Ronin looked at the eyes trained on him from around the room. “Has everyone here been informed about the mission we undertook?” He looked to the chief for confirmation. Nolam nodded. “Did you read them the message?” Again the chief nodded. Ronin took a deep breath and then began his tale.
“For the first few days, we worked at a few taverns to gather some information and we were able to pick up more rumors about the growing army. We could find no sign of any of our spies in that area. After almost a week in a tavern that the soldiers frequented, we decided it was time to move on. Anara caught wind of the Castle needing new kitchen staff and stable boys and we were able to successfully infiltrated the castle under the guise of two siblings looking for work which we received with nearly no questions.
We spent the next week integrating ourselves into the castle’s routine and soon enough Anara was able to gain access to the dungeons to carry meals down. I was assigned to help her and what we found down there was something I never wish to see again. Men who had committed petty crimes were tortured until they were nearly dead, and then they were hung on the wall across from the prisoners awaiting torture until they died of their injuries.” Ronin shuddered as he relived the memory. Even with all his experience, Ronin had nearly lost his stomach when he’d gone down there, and after that Anara would request that a guard help her so that she could keep her little brother away from the place.
“In the beginning of our second week in the castle, we started to see evidence of the growing army. Swords and shields were being made by the hundreds in the armories and more were shipped in every week from other forges miles around. Anara and I decided that it was time to try and get into the office of one of the council members. We were able to get in one night and find records indicating that Nosidia’s army now numbers nearly twenty-five thousand strong and growing by the day.”
Gasps were heard from around the table at this news. “Twenty-five thousand?! Ronin are you sure?” A man in his mid fifties with dark brown hair and grey temples asked. It was one of Ronin’s old teachers Cedrick, a retired member of the Shadows.
Ronin nodded. “The next night we made it into the Chief accountant’s office and found a hidden record of someone sending funds and weapons from Almovia. It took Anara and I a week to find out who it was and that was only because they got sloppy when a new shipment of gold came in. They were smuggling bags of gold coins inside flour bags across the border, but the bags of gold had the Baron of Naklime’s crest on them. There was also a message with the Baron’s personal seal on it saying that more weapons would be on their way before long.”
Ronin reached into his shirt and pulled out the letter that was carefully sealed in an envelope to protect it, and handed it to the Chief as he said, “Anara was worried that the King might not believe that the Baron of Naklime was a traitor, so she insisted we bring that back with us.”
Without waiting for the chief to open the envelope, Ronin continued on with his story, eyes glazed over. “The same day that the shipment of gold arrived, the king called a council meeting. Anara was able to infiltrate their secret meeting room and hide in the rafters to listen.” He smiled inwardly with pride at how his sister could sneak almost anywhere she wanted. “She was able to hear them speak of spies in the Almovian King’s courts and she said they mentioned how easy it was to buy one of the king’s advisors. We were unable to determine exactly who they were referring to. ” The chief frowned deeply and the war council shifted uneasily.
“There’s more,” he continued “she said that the Nosidians knew far too much about the Shadows. They knew how old our warriors are when they begin their training, they knew which side of the valley the village is hidden in, although they don’t know exactly where. They even seemed to have a vague idea of our numbers and how we fight.” Ronin let this sink in for a moment. “Anara and I suspect that we have a traitor in our midst. The most likely scenario is that one of our spies in Nosidia that we hadn’t reached to check in with yet has been compromised.” Ronin paused and waited for the Chief to speak.
Tense silence filled the room for a few minutes as the council and Ronin waited to hear the Chief speak.
The chief gave one long, tired sigh before he looked up into the eyes of his son. His insides twisted in fear and his heart demanded that he go after his daughter to save her from certain torment, but he could not. His clan needed him. More than just his clan, the king of Almovia would need to be warned.
He searched the eyes of his son and his heart broke even more. He could easily see through the strong front Ronin portrayed and what he saw beneath was deep and utter shame, guilt, pain, and hidden beneath all of that, Ronin’s father saw absolute fury.
After a long moment of searching the eyes of his son, the chief once more addressed the rest of the room. “Summon every villager, every elder, every child, every warrior, and every sentry that can be found. At sunset we will gather on the big hill overlooking the meadow on the other side of the village and pray for Anara. All we can-” his voice caught and he coughed to clear it before he continued, “all we can do to help her now, is to pray.” The room was silent after this. “You have until sunset.” He reminded. “You may leave.”
As the chief dismissed the council, Ronin’s mind and body went numb. The consequences of three days of almost no food or rest finally claimed him. He swayed unsteadily as his eyes drooped and then staggered forward, trying to grab the edge of the table to brace himself but he was too far away. Instead of the edge of the table, Ronin felt two strong arms firmly take a hold of him, stopping him from falling to the stone floor.
Ronin looked blearily up at his father’s worried face and blinked once. “I’m sorry.” he said guiltily before his eyes slipped shut and he went limp.
The chief’s vision grew blurry as his eyes grew wet. “You have nothing to be sorry for my son. You’ve done well, so rest, I will wake you when it’s time.
Ronin stood beside the chief as they looked around at the gathering clan. They stood on the top of a large hill that overlooked both the village and a large meadow. Ronin and his father stood in the center of a growing crowd.
The people whispered nervously, unable to figure out what was going on. Occasionally there would be a large gathering on this hill to pray during times of great trouble, but not since the Clan of Shadows had made the decision to join in the the fight of the Ten Year War had nearly the entire clan been gathered.
“Chief,” a low, soothing feminine voice said, “You have called us, and we have answered.”
They turned around to see a woman who looked to be in her early thirties. Her auburn hair was escaping its braid, and she had bits of mud splattered on her clothes. She had a long jagged pale white scar running down the whole left side of her face, marring the perfect tanned skin. Her eyes were a soft brown that showed her uncertainty and worry that looked out of place on her naturally regal and proud face.
“Thank you Tanwen, I am very glad you were able to make it in time.” The chief said greatfully.
“I came as soon as I heard the summons. I heard the alarm being raised this morning from my post to the North and if I may ask sir, what is going on?” She looked between the chief and Ronin, suddenly seaming to realize something. “Where is Anara? Why is she not with you?” Tanwen saw pain and guilt immediately come to the surface in Ronin’s eyes and her blood chilled. Anara can’t be de… No! I refuse to think that! There must be a good reason why she isn’t here. She tried to convince herself as her worry only grew tenfold at the Chief’s next words.
“She is why the clan has been summoned to the Prayer Hill.” He looked over the faces of nearly six hundred people, and then toward the sun which was just reaching the horizon. A large bonfire was burning next to him with plenty of extra wood to last through the night and it crackled without the usual cheer. Everything seemed dark and subdued. Children who should be laughing and fidgeting, stood close to their mothers and clung to parents and each other. Babies fussed but did not cry, teenagers stood rigidly, their eyes solemn without the usual teasing mirth.
The chief sighed heavily and sent up a quick prayer for the right words to say to his people. “This morning I called a war council to decide what to do about a threat that has arisen.” He trailed off and looked around at the people who’s undivided attention he now possessed. “Nosidia has built up their army, and once again will march on the valley after the next spring thaw.” A few cries of despair and anger rose from the crowd. “There are two reasons I have called you here now, and I ask that you hear me before you give your judgement.” He said solemnly, and waited a moment in silence to impress upon them the severity of the news he was about to share.
“Nosidia has built their army to such a size that they now outnumber Almovia nearly two to one. The Almovians are at war with pirates on the northern coast and that has taken a large number of their forces.” He looked around at the serious and fearful faces. “We have a choice to make, Clan of Shadows. Do we rise to the aid of Almovia once more, or do we leave them fight alone?” He was about to say more, but an angry voice rose up from the crowd suddenly.
“Why should we help them? We owe them no allegiance!” Someone shouted. “During the Ten Year War our clan was nearly wiped out! Do wish us to throw our lives down for them and have our children’s blood soak the valley once again?” An older woman from the other side of the fire pushed her way to the front and looked around. “I may not be a warrior, but I say we stay in our own valley where we are safe!” She pointed to the ground she stood upon and murmurs of agreement rose up all around the crowd.
“You are right in a way elder,” The Chief conceded, “but you have not heard the other reason.” He reminded firmly.
“Then let us hear why you would send us to a war that is not ours to fight!” She scoffed.
The chief’s fist clenched for a moment at her blatant disrespect but his face remained steady and serious. “But is it not ours to fight?” he looked around and raised his hands in a questioning manner. “For the last several weeks my only son and daughter, Anara, Captain of the Shadows and Ronin, her second in command have been investigating why every single spy we had in Nosidia went dark after reporting that their army was acting strangely. Three days ago, Anara was injured and later captured five miles from the caves at the mouth of the valley.”
He looked around and noticed that Tanwen had both hands covering her mouth, face drained of color. “As we stand here, she is chained in a Nosidian dungeon being tortured. It is too late to go after her now and rescue her, but will we let her die in vain? She sacrificed herself knowing full well what would happen so that Ronin could bring us this warning!” He swept an arm toward his son who stood stiffly, looking into the fire.
“Have we grown so weak that we will allow the enemy that slaughtered an entire village full of women, children, and elderly during the war just because they lay within our borders, to take a daughter of ours?! Do you think that when Nosidia has conquered Almovia, they will leave us in peace? Do you have your eyes closed that tightly against the truth?!” The chief accused, and some in the crowd looked at their feet in shame. The old woman who had spoken out flushed red and backed into the crowd, humiliated at her outburst.
Everyone was silent again as they watched the chief try to collect himself as his head bent down so that they couldn’t see his face. When he at last lifted his head again, every father’s heart constricted painfully and they pulled their children closer to them. Mothers clung to their husbands and children. Not a single heart in the crowd didn’t feel pained at the sight of their chief.
The chief had tears he could no longer hold back running down his cheeks, glinting in the firelight. His eyes silently begged for help to save his daughter. His shoulders were broken down like an old man who’d had a hard life and he seemed much older than his fifty-two years.
“Would not leave my daughter to suffer in vain. Even if I stand alone, I will stand in the valley come spring thaw and demand the blood of the Nosidians in retribution!” The Chief shouted into the night with conviction.
“You will not stand alone my Chief! I, Tanwen Elethia will fight beside you!” I voicespoke up almost immediately from behind him. The Chief turned and gave her a grateful smile. Her watery eyes blazed with her warrior’s rage and determination before she kneeled, resting her right hand on her upraised left knee, her head bowed.
“I, Ronin of the Shadows will fight by your side my Chief.” Ronin’s face reflected Tanwen’s as he took up her stance as well.
“I, Cedrick Irontree will fight by your side my Chief.” The chief turned around again and saw his old friend nod and kneel as well.
“I, Kassi of the Shadows will fight by your side my Chief.” A young raven haired girl with striking green eyes who was good friends with Anara stepped forward and kneeled.
One by one, Warriors and villagers alike called out their pledge to fight by his side as they kneeled until he stood surrounded by a kneeling village.
“Thankyou. Thankyou my friends.” Was all the Chief could say for a long time. “We will make them Rue the day they trifled with us!” He roared and a roar from his warriors answered him.
The Clan of Shadows would remind the Nosidians just why simply mentioning their name would send the most experienced Nosidian warrior shaking in his armor in fear during the Ten Year War!