Darklaw – Episode 52

AVESTINE HAD SENT scouts demonward, but the few who returned were those who had not journeyed into the interior. A dozen scouts were never heard from again. Refugees from villages throughout the forest and along the Wealth River told tales of wolves raiding their homes at sunfall. The larger cities of Fivefold Woke and Ureth Mourning absorbed hundreds of families before they closed their gates for fear of spreading fever. They sent the homeless to monasteries and outer villages.

The Sovereignty and Avjakar refused to believe the tales, suspecting Avestine of some new scheme. On the other hand, Avestine knew neither of her enemies was capable of such deceit. She consulted with her senior staff, all of whom counseled against her suggestion that she journey herself. She dismissed them and spent the rest of sunfall speaking with Gerard. She had confined Rook to his room with orders to rest.

“Without their queen,” Gerard said, his dark eyes weary, “the city may become susceptible to men promising safety or glory.”

“I’ll be taking one division, leaving our two best here, under your command. I’ll also post a line of scouts along the route to allow faster dispatches. We’ll make no announcement about my leaving. The city won’t even know for days, won’t be confirmed for weeks.”

“No. It may seem like you’re sneaking away.”

“I’m going, Gerard.”

“You have a duty here.”

“Don’t chastise me about my duties. I’ve had enough of that from my Essanti. This isn’t a personal quest, despite what you think. Anything that can disappear three Darklaw ships from a bay is a threat to be reckoned with.”

Gerard chewed his lip. “If you insist on this, then we must handle it not as you say, but with great ceremony. Say you’re marching in response to pleas for help. You’ve been solicited to save the independent villages of the Demon Quarter from Darklaw, and in so doing, you can annex the lands to Arrowreign.”

Gerard had impressed her again. She had not seen this opportunity for what it was. The hope that Kami was alive had distracted her so much that she had not considered what would best serve her kingdom.

“Good. Prepare the army. We’ll have a ceremony. I’ll make an offering to both Arujan and Sula, pray for the lives of the innocent, and offer the peace of Arrowreign to the Demon Quarter.” She nodded as calculations of time, distance, personnel, and supplies filled her mind. Before Gerard walked out the door, she said, “I’m not often so distracted, but I’ve been taking you for granted, haven’t I? You’re quite dangerous.”

He nodded courteously.

The ritual offering to Arujan and Sula came at dawn, and the roasted calves and sweetbreads delighted the city. The festival atmosphere and free meat made the city joyful; the promise of heroism made it proud. The people hooted and cried as their queen and soldiers marched from the city, colors fluttering before and behind.

Avestine took one division and half her archers. Agate Bay was four weeks’ ride due to river crossings and dense forests, but Avestine didn’t plan to go deep into the forest. She expected to meet whatever army had been ravaging villages before then.

Any invading army should come through Illusion Bay and move down the shores of the Wealth River, where it could have two natural advantages—the forest for retreat and the freshwater for barrier. But this army, made up of beasts, so the tale went, preferred a canopy. She tried to think like a beast and found it only irritated her. Even so, she left her fleet arrayed at Salus Tribute to protect the city.

Gerard stayed to manage Ureth Mourning, finesse its restless enemies, and soothe its squabbling staff. Despite his stilted behavior, Rook traveled with her. She kept the army at a fast march, even though terrified villagers streamed past them constantly in their flight from the forest.

All the refugees had the same story: packs of wild animals, flocks of raptors, armies of insects so vast they blackened the sky and attacked men, women, children, their domestic animals, pets, even fields, gardens, and the trees themselves. They tore at anything living, consuming everything until all life was gone. And then they moved on.

The first victims of the uncanny legion had been Darklaw, whose troops had encroached at Agate Bay. Villagers preparing to flee with what they could carry told about the destruction of the ships by ferocious sharks and whales. The ships’ survivors who went overboard died in a bay congealed with jellyfish. As the horrific tales of death spread, story-tellers began to say the animals weren’t feeding a hunger, but a demon’s pleasure.

Avestine was in her tent after sunfall on the third day when a messenger arrived with word that scouts had spotted packs of wolves half-a-day away. She asked Rook to tell her again why he was sure it was Kami compelling the beasts. “This sort of violence, this mindlessness is so unlike her,” she said. “If she is somehow compelling the beasts, how is she doing it? And why? She wouldn’t kill all those people. Innocent people. She wouldn’t do that. You know her, Rook.”

“Who knows what’s happened since we saw her, what your brother might have done. And if she’s the Avatar—”

“The Avatar? Why would you say that? There are no Avatars.”

“You wanted me to bring you the rumors I’ve heard. This is the most convincing one. Your brother has promulgated the prophecy for years. Maybe he was successful.”

“She’s not the Avatar. That would mean—” Avestine stopped herself. She had never shared her knowledge of Kami’s parents with anyone, not even with Rook. “You told me you finished her training. My brother would have killed her. She’s no use to him if she serves me.”

“She told me she belonged to the perfect hunter. I assumed that was you, Your Grace.”

“It’s damn well not my shit brother!” She wished she had something nearby she could break.

“She wasn’t bound before she was taken. She might be reacting with confusion. That’s why I brought wrist covers.” He indicated the sack tied to his belt. “And the book. We can perform the ceremony, though you’ll have to use your unblessed sword, and we don’t have oil, but I’m sure the gods will forgive us this trespass.”  

Avestine looked away. “It’s too dull for such work.” She felt his scrutiny and tried to block his probing mind. She failed.

“You can’t let a god roam free.”

Avestine wouldn’t look at him. “I’ll take her to Ureth Mourning. We’ll worry about it there.”

“If we make it through this fetid wilderness,” snapped Rook with uncharacteristic irritation, “you might not even recognize her. But you will finish the bonding. Here. Now. You must, because love has nothing to do with it.”

“Love?” Avestine’s lipped curled as she said the word. “This isn’t about love, Essanti. I own her, like I own you. I’m taking back what is mine, what my brother stole, just like I’ll take back Sahrdon one day.”

Her lie had no effect on Rook. He said, “Then you will finish the bonding here.”

Published in Darklaw |
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