by H. R. Gillette
The old warrior's breath came in short, ragged gasps as he pushed through the thick forest undergrowth, and his hands were bruised and bloody from haste. Sweat ran in tiny streams down the valleys of his skin, soaking what remained of his torn clothing.
He cast a brief look over his shoulder at the way he had come.
Cloaked in the eerie illumination of dusk, the woodland stretched away from him in every direction, identical in its near impenetrable growth except for the way he had entered. His trail was clear through the bracken; crushed vegetation and broken limbs marking his passage like a beacon in the night. The forest edge was now barely visible behind him, and silhouetted along the ground where forest met field, a dark body marred the landscape. The man wet his lips as he looked past the form, the body of his dead steed, at the expanse of grass beyond. The horse had given its last breath right at the border and collapsed from exhaustion, rider still on top. There was no way the beast could have navigated through the wood, but its body was an unwelcome indication of the retired warrior's whereabouts.
Hands shaking, the man turned his attention back to task and continued to bully his way through the brush. He needed to get past the young outskirt trees and new growth and in to the older part of the forest where travel was easier.
Out over the field in the distance, a horn sounded. Silence returned for a few minutes, only to be interrupted by the noise again, this time notably closer.
Aware his time was running short, the man gave up his attempt to maneuver through the thorny blockade with any semblance of care. At the third repeat of the horn, he threw his arms up to shield his face and broke into a run, tripping and stumbling as the brush raked cruelly at his body. Not long after, over the thunder of his own movements, the sounds of pursuit were heard behind him.
The barricade of undergrowth abruptly ended, spitting the man out into the cool darkness native to the older forest. He sucked in the earthy air as he fell to his knees, and crawled to the base of a large, thick-limbed tree. Pushing his raw fingers into the dark soil, he pawed through it like an animal until a small hole yawned from within the root bed. Imprinting the image of the hole in his mind, he stood and turned to face his hunters who filed into the glade.
"You're getting old, Alagor." One of the pursuers stepped forward. "I thought you'd give us more trouble than this."
Alagor scratched the gray stubble that adorned his chin, his expression thoughtful yet weary. "Wouldn't do me any good to keep running, would it, lad? She's not going to give it up without a fight. Never thought she'd send you after me, Bernard. Never thought you'd take her up on it if she did." He swallowed, his voice catching. "Then again, I didn't see any of this coming."
"That's because you're an old fool," Bernard's left hand strayed to the hilt of his sword. "If only you could have ignored your overdeveloped sense of justice. As things were, you might have lived out your remaining years in comfort."
"My hope for a peaceful existence was buried in the ground with our queen. Your traitor," he spat, "will never hold a legitimate claim for the throne. I'll defend that from her with every fiber of my person to my final moments."
Bernard regarded him coolly. "Give it to us, Alagor, and I'll see that your death is a quick one."
"It's not for her." The old man straightened and squared his shoulders. With a deliberate, measured movement, he drew his blade from its scabbard. The menacing motion hid the actions of his other hand, which had reached into a pouch on the back of his belt. Within the confines of the leather, his fingers wrapped around three, smooth, circular stones. Discreetly, he removed them from the pocket and let them drop into the hole at the base of the tree.
"Because you are my former teacher, I was going to allow you the dignity of an honorable death," Bernard said, "but I now realize that was too sentimental of me." He turned to the other two members of the search party. "There's no taking him back alive."
The hunters fanned out around their quarry.
Alagor felt breathless -- in the moment in which he teetered between the life he had lived and the death he faced. Inside his adrenaline-fogged mind, during that briefest of moments that somehow stretched for an eternity, he wondered if it was really the end. Had he come so far only to fail? Was he just another well-meaning man who would never accomplish his goal? Perhaps it was all for naught. Perhaps his efforts made no impact at all.
As quickly as it had come, the doubt was gone, pushed to the back of Alagor's mind with its partner, fear. At the end of his brief reflections, he steeled himself for the final task, his mind content with the knowledge that he had done all he could.
The moment was over.
Blade clashed with blade as Alagor met Bernard's rush head on. The old warrior twisted to the side when his opponent's weapon swung down. In the same fluid motion, he brought his elbow down hard on Bernard's back. The force of the blow threw the younger man off balance and he stumbled forward.
"I may be old, lad, but I'm not dead yet." Alagor pointed the sword at the other two soldiers. "Come on, boys. Now's your chance."
He did not blame the two for their hesitation. They had served under him a few years back in the castle guard, and they struck him as levelheaded young men. He could see the war between loyalty and conscience play out across their features. Indecision was a mistake most young soldiers made. He pitied them, and felt a stab of regret at his own callousness toward death. Their wary pause allowed him to take the offensive, and he swung his blade in a wide arc to force them back.
The surprised look faded from his opponents' eyes when Alagor advanced. Though young, the men were trained killers who quickly remembered their mission in light of Alagor's attack.
The old man positioned his back to another large tree as Bernard rejoined the fray. Alagor blocked what strikes he could, but he was weary from his journey and his limbs ached with fatigue. When a sword slipped between two of his ribs, he felt his body almost rejoice in the opportunity to quit. The moment he took to quell his inner rebellion only opened him up for another attack. This time, Bernard's blade punctured the tender flesh of the old warrior's abdomen. The throbbing wound was less painful to Alagor than the expression that graced his former student's face. The triumph he saw there disgusted him; enraged him. With a surge of energy, he grabbed hold of Bernard's collar and pulled the man forward. The sloppy sound of Alagor's sword entering his opponent's chest cavity was drowned out by a gurgled cry that escaped the man's lips.
He let Bernard slip from his grasp to the red-tinged forest floor. As he turned to face the other men, Alagor pressed his hand to the wound in his side. He could tell by their inaction the soldiers were disheartened. They were followers, and he understood that. He knew they would continue to fight; however, without the drive of their leader, they would fall too.
The hilt of his sword was slick with blood. He tightened his grip.
Decades of warfare made battle and those who fought battles predictable. As he had suspected, despite his wounds, it did not take long to dispatch the other two men who had been sent to hunt him down. They did not believe in their mission as Alagor believed in his, he knew that. That fact alone was the reason why he, an injured, old, exhausted warrior, was able to defeat three younger, faster men. Alagor had a cause. Even as he lost consciousness and collapsed on the ground, he knew he would not die until his task was complete.
Night had fallen. Faint slivers of moonlight filtered down through the canopy of trees and shattered the darkness that was otherwise absolute. The nocturnal sounds that normally echoed softly from each corner of the forest were silent. Not even a breeze stirred the ancient trees. In the quiet, the sound of labored, pain-filled breathing reverberated off the slumbering vegetation.
Alagor pulled his broken body along the damp forest floor. He encountered the body of one of his enemies and crawled over it, too weak to attempt to bypass the corpse. He needed to get back to the tree. His fingers searched the ground as he inched along. The parts of his body that retained feeling pricked with the onslaught of cold air that accompanied the night. Burning from the mixture of blood and perspiration that funneled from his forehead, his eyes strained against the darkness, trying to differentiate between the imposing trees.
Eventually, his questing hands found the hole he had dug hours before. The three stones lined the bottom and verified he was where he wanted to be. Relief flooded through him. The next search party would not be able to find him so easily.
His blade was gone, imbedded in the body of Bernard a good distance away. Alagor cursed silently and rolled onto his side, his strength fading fast, accelerated by the loss of blood from his multiple wounds. Exhaustion pulled at his senses, and he knew he could not waste energy tying to retrieve the weapon. He had only one option.
The old man closed his eyes as he bit down on the tender flesh of his palm. When he tasted the metallic tang of blood, he lowered his injured hand down into the hole. He rested his palm on the stones.
"For the sake of our country, I hope this works, my queen," he whispered.
Eyes still closed, Alagor began to mouth the words he had been taught. He had never tried the mantra; only just learned it, but before long he felt the coarse roots of the tree tentatively touch the wound on his palm. If done correctly, the spell would change Alagor's body from solid to liquid, allowing him to be transported through the root system of the trees and nearby plants. It was an unconventional way to travel, discovered by mistake, but in liquid form he would be undetectable and would not age. The journey, wherever it took him, would take years. The slow moisture absorption of plants, combined with the need to navigate a labyrinth of root systems, made travel of this nature impractical in any other situation. Eventually, he would reform in another place, years later, he hoped miles away. Fear of the unknown plagued him as darkness began to creep into his mind. He had no choice but to let the magic take him where it would. Before he passed out, the old warrior felt the roots twine around his hand, and he knew the transportation spell was under way.
"Can I do that?" Large, blue eyes beseeched him as the young girl pointed at the sickle.
"You're too little. Go play with your sisters."
"But I want to help," she said. "Why don't you ever let me help?"
The farmhand sighed and shook his head. "Your father pays me to do this job. If you're doing this, what would I do?"
"You could tell me about the Sorceress Queen!"
"You've heard all the stories already."
She frowned at him. "I have not. It's impossible to hear everything about someone who's still alive and creating stories."
The certainty in her voice made Alagor smile and he looked at her, impressed. It was not the first time such words of wisdom bubbled out of the young maid's mouth. Sometimes she seemed to have a better grasp of the world than he did.
"Idri, go on now. I've got a lot of work to do." Alagor tried to shoo his constant shadow off the hay bale. "I'll show you some sword fighting after dinner, how about that?"
A smile lit up her young face. "Okay. I'll scram," she said. "I won't forget about your promise."
"I didn't promise anything," he cautioned her as she skipped away. "Idri, I didn't promise anything!"
She waved to him over her shoulder without looking back.
Alagor sighed. Little idiosyncrasies of Idri's reminded him painfully of his homeland. The girl's ability to get her way without effort or argument was a talent that members of royalty acquired only after years of careful practice. She was cunning and observant. She listened when others talked. A natural leader, she was often the director of the other children, even though she was not the oldest. For a peasant child, she held all the graces of a queen.
"Come on, Al," a deep voice said as a hand clasped Alagor's arm. "The hay can wait. Let's see if we can't patch some of those fences before dusk."
The farmhand nodded at his employer. "All right, sir."
They gathered the tools needed to mend the livestock fences, left the barn, and wandered across the north pasture in companionable silence. If there was one thing Alagor had learned in his year spent with the Landsley family, it was that Ben Landsley was a man of few words. He did not volunteer information and he did not ask for any -- a personality trait Alagor was grateful for. Even that day when Marybeth Landsley found Alagor, almost dead, beneath the lone tree in their yard, her husband had not raised one inquiry. Instead, he welcomed the man into their home, cleaned him, healed him, and then employed him. He never did ask Alagor how he had come to their mountain homestead.
"Hold this for me, Al." Ben motioned to a leaning fence post. "Should take only a couple hits." A few powerful strokes of the mallet later and the pole was once again below the moisture line into more stable soil.
Spring had arrived earlier than they were expecting this year, and the rains caused a good number of fence posts to weaken in the mud. Without the line of wooden barricades, the livestock would wander and many would die on the harsh mountain slopes. The animals seemed to have a sense for weak spots along the fence, and it did not take them long to trample over a wobbly section.
The two men worked their way along the back line of fence and down the eastern border. They were halfway finished with the line nearest the house when Ben stopped mid-swing. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes against the setting sun and stared out at the way they had come. Alagor followed his gaze across the pasture.
A man walked toward them, almost lost to sight amid the tall grass and brilliant rays of the sun. The figure stumbled but did not reach out for balance. He fell to his knees, stood, and continued. The stranger cradled his left arm with his right.
Alagor saw Ben's grip on the mallet tighten. Visitors, even extended family, were rare to the private settlement. Travelers were suspicious, as no large towns were within a few days' travel. When the man was within speaking distance, Ben held up his hand in greeting.
The stranger stopped. "Evening, gentlemen," he said. "Name's Herth." His voice was strained. In the receding light, the dark crimson of blood was still visible on his face and clothing. "Could I trouble you folks for some…" he paused and leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. "A-Alagor? Is that you?"
Another endless moment reared its unwelcome head as Alagor felt his heartbeat quicken. The two men stared at one another. He had known a boy named Herth, not the man before him now. He swallowed. "Yes, lad, it's me."
"Well, thank Amos!" The newcomer tripped toward them in his excitement. "I thought you were dead. We all thought you were dead." He knelt and wept openly at Alagor's feet, and the old man lay a hand on Herth's head, saying nothing.
Ben turned back toward the house. "Best get you to the wife." He glanced at Alagor. "Supper's waiting."
By the time the three reached the house, the sky was almost dark. Lanterns illuminated the porch, and the warm glow of a burning fire spilled out as the front door opened. Idri's eyes opened wide as she watched her father and the hired hand carry in their new companion.
She tugged on the hem of Alagor's shirt. "Who's that?" she whispered.
"He's an old friend, Idri. Now see if you can't find him a blanket."
"But he's too young to be your old friend." She hovered over them as they settled Herth into one of the chairs.
Alagor shook his head at her astuteness. "Idri, blanket," he instructed again. This time the girl hurried off to find what he requested.
"Alagor." Herth reached out to him. "Where have you been? Do you have it? Is the seal safe? You must have it or she would have claimed the --"
"You need to rest," Alagor smoothly interrupted him. "We'll talk more when you wake up." He smiled at Marybeth as she knelt down to clean the blood from Herth's face. "The lady here will see you well." With a sigh, he removed himself from the uncomfortable proximity of the other man.
Alagor picked at his dinner, his mind drowning in anguish. For one year he had been free from it all. Now, he found himself faced with the very thing he had hoped to hide from for the remainder of his life. He felt Ben's attention on him and looked up. The homesteader gestured for Alagor to follow him out onto the porch.
"He'll most likely be dead before the morning," Ben said.
"Should I be worried?"
The old warrior frowned. "I'd be lying if I said no. The very fact that this man is here shows that you're in danger, even if by accident. That he knows I'm alive, well, that's a different sort of trouble."
Ben nodded. "You'll do what's needed to keep this family safe?"
It was not a question and Alagor knew it. He nodded. "You have my promise as a soldier."
"All right, then."
After Ben returned to his wife and children, Alagor stepped off the porch and headed to his modest accommodations in the barn. The small room smelled of horses and oiled leather. A tiny stove took up the corner opposite the bed. The only light visible streamed through the window from the full moon above.
He reached under the straw mattress and removed a tiny box.
"What's that?" a familiar little voice asked from the doorway.
His gaze lifted from the ornate container to stare out the window. He did not turn around. "It's a present." He almost choked on the words. "A present for someone very special."
He could see the skeptical look on her face without turning around.
Alagor did not smile. "Yes, someone like you."
Idri walked in and stood next to him, mimicking him as he looked out the window. "Are you going away, Alagor?"
He again cursed her sharpness. He looked down at her and nodded. "I have to, Idri. I'm needed back at home."
"Can I come with you?"
"Not right now, but how about if I promise you that someday you'll get to go?"
She grinned and nodded. "I'll remember that promise."
"I know you will," he said quietly. "Are you ready for your gift now?"
The blond head nodded enthusiastically, and the farmhand opened the tiny box. Inside, drawn on a little, square paper, was a picture of an elaborate shield.
"It's beautiful," Idri exclaimed. "I know just where I'll put it in my room."
Alagor shook his head. "It's not that kind of a picture. It goes on you, not on your wall."
He nodded and held out his hand.
Without the faintest hint of reservation in her eyes, Idri offered him her arm. Alagor gently placed the paper on the pale skin of her upper arm, just below her shoulder. He placed his other hand over it and softly whispered, "Seal." The image began to glow through the paper, white light visible through the spaces between Alagor's fingers. The flesh on his palm started to burn and he did his best not to show the pain. While Idri felt nothing, excruciating lines of pain shot up Alagor's arm. He bit down on his lower lip hard enough to draw blood, and beads of perspiration broke out along his hair line. After a few moments, the seal's light flared and went out. Relief washed through as the pain receded, and he inhaled sharply.
"Are you okay?" his young friend asked.
He glanced from her face to where his hand covered her arm. When he moved his hand away, the paper was gone, leaving the image on the little girl's skin. The old warrior knew a similar, smaller mark was now on his back, proof he was the one who had unleashed the seal.
Idri squealed with delight and gave him a quick hug. "Oh! What an excellent trick! Thank you, Alagor! "
He offered her a half-hearted smile. "Keep it secret. Shields protect things, Idri. Someday you'll know what that one protects."
She cocked her head. "On that someday will I see you again?"
He chuckled in spite of himself. "I do believe you might."
He watched through the window as the little girl scurried back to the house. He needed to pack his things and leave as soon as possible. Herth's arrival was an ill omen of things to come. The false queen was still looking for the royal seal. Alagor smiled. Not that it would do her much good now.
His did not regret giving the shield to Idri. Her answer assured him she would make a fine queen someday. Only the woman who wore the royal shield could unlock the castle treasuries, armories, and libraries. She would be acknowledged by the people as queen. At her death, the seal would return to paper. Giving it to Idri was a calculated risk. If he continued to carry it with him, there was the chance he could be caught and the seal lost. No one would think him foolish enough to brand a little girl with it. No one would think to look at Idri.
Alagor packed what few belongings he had and set out across the fields by moonlight. When the farm was out of sight, he turned back toward it and waved goodbye. The cold settled in and clung to him as he stood in silent tribute to the better part of his life. Only when his fingers were numb from the biting night air did he turn around and continue his journey.
Alagor's only regret, one that tore cruelly at his hardened heart, was that he had already broken his promise to Ben Landsley.
TO BE CONTINUED...
© 2011 H. R. Gillette
Bio: Hope Gillette is an award winning short story author and novelist. Her YA novel, Journey Through Travelers' Tower will be published in May, 2012. Hope's story The Toll appeared in the August 2011 edition of Aphelion. For more by and about Ms. Gillette, visit her website at Hope Gillette: Official Author Site.
E-mail: H. R. Gillette
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