Yea, you guys are catching up. =P I’m currently writing chapter twenty one. So…there may start to be a longer delay between my posting chapters for you =P Hehe =)
…~4000 words left…think I can finish by tomorrow? O_O Oh yea. *cranks music up (HEATHER DALE FOR THE WIN!), gets some nice caffeinated black tea with maple syrup, finds a cozy sheepskin to curl up on (no, not a live one. -_-), and proceeds to block the world out and climb back into the alternate reality of my book* …I like this reality better anyway. =D
Beneath The Walls
We walked slowly, flitting between the shadows of the trees, Aranel’s shade traveling like a vapor ever before us. Suddenly, in the dark stillness of the night, I began to hear low voices close at hand. The dim light of a covered lantern flashed in the blackness nearby as it was uncovered for a moment. The light caught in the corner of my eyes, and I looked over my shoulder. Through the trees, barely more than a hundred yards off, I could see the dim shape of a man, cloaked heavily in night. He was grasping the narrow ropes of a ladder that disappeared quickly in the dark branches of the tree above. In one hand he held the lantern that had attracted my attention. As he veiled the light again, I caught the glint of steel under his cloak.
My blood ran ice as I realized what we were doing. We were passing through the line of watchmen Aranel had mentioned, watching the outer fences of Pethnor’s stronghold. Instantly, memories of the last time I had tried to slip quietly past a thrall of Pethnor caught in my mind. The picture played again and again, slow motioned and painful, in my mind. I saw the man on the ridge, his face masked and bow drawn. I saw the lynx on his tunic, devouring the sun. I saw myself, made clumsy with fear, trip and fall on the rocks. The stones slid down into the shallow ravine, each scraping thud echoing louder than an earthquake in my mind. I froze, hearing the crashing fall that brought us to where we walked now, through enemy lines on a quest so hopeless and insane. My mind reeled, the picture of Thalon lying on the ground, pierced by an arrow meant for me surfacing up through the fear. A horn call rang in my head, drowning out the clatter of stones. I saw again the dark masked man, turning away ad disappearing from the ridge. His imagined laughter tore my heart. I closed my eyes, recoiling back from the memories.
Suddenly, a grip like cold iron fastened on my arm, and I jolted up. A hand pressed over my mouth, blocking off my scream. I looked up, my eyes meeting Aranel’s. She glared fierce and dangerously, and dropped my arm, turning away again swiftly and passing silently by Netya to take her place in front of us again. I realized I had stopped walking and fallen behind, but I did not dare to move faster to catch up with Netya’s shadow.
We moved slowly forward, silent as wraiths in the night. Up above, the light from the growing moon became hidden, obscured by the thick clouds that now rolled across the sky. A distant rumble of thunder reached my ears, and I shivered. As we went carefully, following Aranel’s twisting path, we passed more men, singly or in pairs, standing under the trees or seated on stands among the branches, revealed by a glitter of steel and a pinprick of light from a hidden lantern. I kept my eyes fastened on Netya’s misting form, as though she were a lifeline from above, drawing me on steadfastly. I shivered as the thunder growled again, closing in above us.
A raindrop fell, and then another, filtering through the thinning leaves overhead and falling on the dusty ground at my feet.
Suddenly before me, Aranel halted. I nearly collided with Netya in the dark, biting my lip to keep from exclaiming in surprise. I stepped out to the side, looking around to see why she had stopped.
There, not more than twenty feet in front of us, stood two men. Their backs were turned and their cloaks hid them perfectly from a quick or careless gaze. One of them spoke softly, and I guessed it was their voices that had alerted Aranel of their presence. “Pethnor is sending messengers, ordering all to withdraw from the battles at the forest edge away east. He has taken the boy, as you know, and now wishes to bide in growing strength for a time, until he can reach out and take back the old city. It is for this reason you are being sent. We need reports on the actions of the men stationed there. Do not let yourself be seen, and needless to say, do not take any action yourself. Pethnor knows of your past service, and will reward you for your duties.”
The second man answered quietly. “I see. I will do as the lord Pethnor commands.”
I shivered in dread as I heard his voice. It had the same cold, cruel tones as the voice of the man who had tracked us in the forest. The same man who had set the cabin ablaze above our heads.
In front of me, Aranel shrank back against a tree, flattening herself against the trunk silently. Netya and I stepped back, out of sight as well. I felt the dead pine needles that covered the ground move beneath my feet, and prayed silently that no sound would be heard. Again, the echoes of crashing stone rang in my ears. I held my breath.
Looking cautiously from my inadequate hiding place, I saw the second man bow, taking something from the first. He turned and began to move towards us through the darkness. In hardly a second, he would be upon us. Netya shifted back in her cover, moving farther from his path. I heard a faint rustle of fabric as her cloak caught on the rough bark of the tree she stood behind. She froze, and I could almost see her expression of petrified terror lest she give our presence away. The man before us came on, unaware of any movement. He passed us by, and disappeared back in the direction we had come from. I hoped that Arhael was well hidden.
As he disappeared, I let out my breath in a silent prayer of relief. However, before we could continue on our way, creeping around the second man, he too turned and began to walk. He came slowly, straight to the tree behind which Aranel leaned.
He laughed softly, the cruel sound striking in my ears like alarm bells that only I could hear. Slowly he reached out towards her, his black-gloved hand like the claw of some giant bird intent on devouring the prey that lay unable to escape before it. I shrank back. He had seen us. All was lost.
The man laughed again, softly to himself, and stepped back. A ladder hung in his hand, previously concealed against the trunk of the tree. He began to climb up it, the bottom end swaying wildly as he moved.
Aranel crept back, careful as a fox, until she stood instead beside Netya. I let my breath out slowly, realizing I had been holding it for far too long. Aranel motioned with her head, and we followed her, striking as quickly as we could through the trees in a different direction before the man had so much as disappeared into the branches. My heart jumped at the least noise, and I almost screamed when I felt a drop of moisture hit my face. Looking up, I realized the entire sky was now flooded with clouds. They rolled, ominous and black, against the pale moon. I ducked my head again as the rain began to fall faster.
The trees began to grow thinner around us, and the ground became softer. Rough grass slowly replaced the pine needles and leaf mould. Suddenly, the trees ended altogether, and Aranel halted. Glancing back, she motioned for Netya and I to come forward. We stood beside her, looking out over the rain-filled blackness that greeted us. Suddenly, thunder broke overhead and a flash of lightning illuminated the sky, revealing everything in its stark ghost-light of energy. I gasped, stepping backwards in my surprise and fear. The flash lit up the darkness before us for barely a fraction of a second, but it was enough for me to realize where Aranel had led us.
I saw in the lightning flash that we stood at the edge of the trees, looking up a long slope, like the edge of a shallow inverted bowl leagues across, curving up in the gloom. At the top was a wide shelf of rock, a sheer cliff rising a fifty fathoms or more into the black sky. Its face was shining with rain and scarred with many twisting paths, cut like half-tunnels into the stone and weaving haphazardly to the top. All about the base of the shelf, a long wall rose, seeming barely a foot high from the distance we stood at. I could not see a gate.
The flash of light ended as quickly as it had come. My eyes were dazzled, and the darkness pressed in on me twice as thickly as before. As my sight cleared, however, I began to see a dim flickering light from the wide, flat top of the rock shelf.
Aranel spoke beside me, indicating the deeper shade of black in the night where the wall about the cliff stood. “That is where we make for. We have passed through the lines of watchmen, and should have a clear path up to the walls. I will help you to Lastare. She has rooms on the far side of the wall, near the gate. There I leave you, as I have said. Lastare can give you the location of Thalon, an she is willing. Else she will give you nothing: no information, no secrecy, no safety. I do not know in what way she will receive you.
“Once inside the walls, I guess she will let you up onto the roof of her home. That is the safest way to travel. No one will see you an you stick to the rooftops. Much of the stronghold is inside the rock, underneath the shelf you see from here. There is a great cave-like opening at its base. Pethnor will probably have your friend at the very farthest side. At least, that is where I was brought when I was taken here long ago. Be very careful. There are few visible guards anywhere, but look at every window as an eye and every shadow as a man. An you are seen, you will likely be thrown into the same prison as your friend. There you can spend the rest of your days, rotting with the other ‘heroes’ Pethnor has taken.” The bitterness and disdain in her voice stung the air around us, nearly lost in the falling rain.
Netya spoke up, her voice an angry whisper. “I know you hate Thalon, Aranel. I know you don’t think him worth a fraction of the effort and the trouble you are going to. But we do. We aren’t heroes. Far from it. A hero would have ridden in by now, braving the waves of Pethnor’s assault, and carried Thalon free in glory. If we were heroes, we would not be here at all. But we aren’t. We’re just two girls, horribly inadequate for what we must do. All we have is our friendship with Thalon. We could have given up so many times along the way. When Thalon was first hurt we could have turned and run, leaving him to the man who wielded the bow. We could have been escorted back in safety by Berion, rather than following his trail. We could have asked Arhael to take us home instead of here. We could have given up when you refused to do more than lead us to this horrible place. We could turn back even now, now that we are here and see the magnitude, danger, and hopelessness of what we are trying to do. But we won’t. Will we, Alasse? Because Thalon is our friend. Arhael said friendship is a power not of this earth, a power beyond. It is stronger than all other bonds. Because of the strength of that tie, we cannot give up.”
Aranel did not reply, merely nodding her head in acknowledgement of what Netya said. I could not tell if she was angry. Turning away from us, she began to lead the way up the sloping ground towards the shelf of rock. We toiled after her, pausing often to catch our breath as the slope grew greater and the going more difficult. The rain caused the ground to become slippery and treacherous, and I slipped and fell often, until my palms were torn and bruised from catching myself from falling on my face against the rocky wet ground. The night wore on, drawing ever nearer to midnight. The darkness grew no less, but my eyes became slowly more accustomed to it, allowing me to make out more clearly the struggling shapes of Netya and Aranel before me.
At last, as the rain began to reach its frozen fingers at last through my cloak and trickle like fire down the back of my neck, we reached the top of the hill. Thunder rumbled louder, shaking the very ground, but no lightning illuminated the sky to reveal our trembling forms to enemy eyes.
Aranel led us, running, across the flat top of the hill until we stood directly beneath the wall. The top ramparts hung out over us far above, shadowing us further and sheltering us somewhat from the blowing rain. The bottom edge of the overhang was lined with long, cruel spikes, like black icicles of steel. I shivered and pressed back against the cold wall. Aranel led us slowly along the barricade to the left, counting quietly under her breath. We curved slowly around the wide shelf of rock, ever farther from the point at which we had climbed the mountain. After we had walked several furlongs, she paused and pointed up. All along the edge of the wall, high above us and just underneath the overhang, I saw windows spaced occasionally, spattered with rain, like black mouths drooling in anticipation. A dim glow spread from the one we stood underneath, barely visible from the angle at which we observed it.
Speaking softly, Aranel pointed up. “This is where we enter. I will go up first. You will wait below until I know all is well. I will leave you to explain your story and your quest to Lastare. I hope…I hope that you will find the end of your journey without great difficulty and danger.”
I smiled. “Thank you Aranel,” I replied. “Thank you for taking us so far. I suppose…we will not see you again, then. Thank you for what you have done for us.”
“Yes…thank you,” Netya agreed. “We will not forget how you have helped us, even against your will. Thank you.”
Aranel nodded, and turned away. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she whistled softly, a strange, wild, untamed sound in the rain. Up above us, the light in the window flickered instantly off to darkness.