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Chapter 19 : Race
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Sleep. That most wondrous of states where the world melts away to be replaced by our deepest thoughts and desires. And sometimes our worst fears. That very state that had so often eluded Max in recent months. More often than not he would simply lay in bed and watch the roof as millions of thoughts played about his troubled mind. That was not, however, the state that Arthur found him in this morning. He was quite soundly asleep snoring slightly. So deeply asleep that it took Arthur five whole minutes to wake him properly so that he could pass on his news.
“They’re what?” Max demanded, now firmly awake.
“Gone, sir. Left late last night is my guess.”
Max’s head swirled with horrible thoughts of them all lying dead by the roadside, attacked as they slept. “Well do you know where they went?”
“Yes sir.” Arthur replied sheepishly.
“Well.” Max thundered growing impatient with this skirting the issue.
“They appear to have gone east, sir. Toward the king.” Arthur finished.
Max’s mind churned through all this information as Alexandria stirred beside him. All those years of keeping the children protected under his wing may all come undone in a single night. And he couldn’t imagine what the king would do if he found out that Max had let Rowena into such a dangerous situation. All manner of horrible images swam before his eyes as he rested his head in his hands.
“What is wrong dear?” Alexandria asked sleepily as she gently rubbed her husband’s back.
“I have to...” Max trailed off.
“Have to what? What is wrong?” She asked again more firmly this time.
“The children have gone to the war. And I have to follow them. All this time hiding them away so that no harm could come to them and in the end the decision was never mine to make. I love you Alexandria. And I will make sure our little girl comes home to you safe and sound.” Max kissed Alexandria softly on the lips then raised from bed and left the room silently.
Alexandria just sat in bed softly sobbing at the thought that she may never again see her family. She watched from the windows as all the villagers that had gathered at Max’s orders rode behind him as he charged off after the children, hoping he could get there before any harm could befall them.
“Good luck my love. Bring them home safely. And bring yourself home too.”
The horses thundered onward leaving a long billowing cloud of dust in their wake. They had been riding at full speed for nearly six days stopping only to eat a small bite and rest the horses. And even these small breaks seemed to carry on forever. Godric chose to pass the time by laying a bunch of not-so-subtle hints that Salazar and Helga should head back to the castle, which were always followed by a quick retort from Salazar who was growing very sick of them.
“Okay we should rest up here again.” Helga said slowing her horse while the others did the same.
There was no discussion as they set up the camp and tied the horses up. They had become so used to setting camp it was second nature now. Not a word was spoken until they were all settled around the fire.
“This is really good Helga.” Rowena said as she worked her way through the stew Helga had brewed.
“Thank you again.” Helga chuckled as Rowena complemented her cooking every night while the boys argued about heading back.
“You know I bet if you head back from here you could help them...” Godric began right on schedule before Salazar cut across him.
“Will you give it a damn rest Godric!” He snapped. “We are not going back so just shut the hell up. We’ll be there tomorrow anyway.”
Salazar saw the girls fighting fits of laughter out of the corner of his eye but his demeanour did not change. Godric seemed to have finally taken the hint as he didn’t mention it again all night.
“You know we should probably head to bed now.” Helga chimed getting up. “Like Salazar said we should be there tomorrow. Be best to be well rested. We have no idea what we could be riding into.”
The others all nodded as the meandered their way to their tents. Salazar just stared into the flames as the others fell asleep around him. He didn’t know what he would do when they finally reached their destination. He hadn’t seen Thomas since he had betrayed him. But he had sworn an oath to Godric and the others. An oath he couldn’t break even if he wanted to.
The cacophony of thoughts swirled endlessly about his mind as he sat there staring blankly into the fire, watching as the flames twisted and danced amongst the charred branches. Slowly eating at its source just as the thoughts in his mind were eating at him. He scoffed quietly as he stood up and kicked some loose dirt over the dying light source, smothering the lively flames, even taking a small amount of pleasure in their demise before he turned away and climbed into his tent.
A foot and a half of pristine snow coated the ground crunching loudly under the hooves of their horses, even under all the trees. The crimson tents of the camp were barely visible in the distance with all the snow covering them, as the foursome rode slowly through the outer perimeter passing the troops huddled by their fire keeping watch. A vicious wind tore through the trees biting hard at their faces. All four of them had their cloaks pulled around their faces to protect themselves. A light sprinkling of snow dusted the wind swirling about them making it even harder to see the camp.
There were a dozen snow covered boulders on their left sliding gently down the slope toward the camp. Helga could hear several soft shearing sounds like someone sharpening or drawing their sword coming from the campsite as they approached mixed with the sounds of hundreds of soldiers sleeping. She sighed with relief at those sounds. After nearly two weeks of riding they had finally arrived, and they weren’t too late yet. She watched the boulders drifting forward cutting a deep swathe in the snow. She was surprised by how bright the snow was even before the sun had risen. Even the deep marks in the boulders trail were visible.
“Hey I think something’s wrong.” She whispered just loud enough for the other three to hear.
They all slowed and Rowena sidled up beside her, “What do you mean?” She asked.
“There are tracks coming from those boulders, like footsteps.”
They quartet slowed even further as they glanced all around checking the area more thoroughly. About forty boulder-sized shapes were moving steadily toward the encampment, some even moving uphill. Godric and Salazar silently drew their swords and flanked the two girls. The girls both retrieved their bows and slung arrows loosely against the string as they moved forward again as quickly as they could without making too much noise. The camp looked dead as the sky gradually lightened around them, all of the troops on watch were at the outer perimeter. I guess they don’t expect anyone to get past the main guards, Helga pondered gripping her bow string tightly with two fingers.
Helga watched as the figures breached the tree line and covered the few short yards to the camp. As the figures sped up, they began to shake off some of the snow that had gathered on them revealing the animal skin cloaks underneath. The figures closest to the camp slowly stood up and drew their weapons as they breached the outer edge of the camp. Helga sat up in the saddle and drew back her arrow, aiming for the stragglers of the group. The arrow distorted slightly as it passed the grip of the bow before settling into its course. The target just dropped silently as the arrow punctured his heart from the back. Rowena’s target keeled over just as silently as she strung another arrow and took aim once more.
Godric and Salazar quickened their pace chasing down the shadowy figures infiltrating the encampment. By the time they had reached them, the girls had already taken down a third of them and were now aiming at the leaders of the group. They lunged with a quick jab in the back and a downward strike on their heads and the boys moved on to the next one quickly and quietly. The girls continued their volley often missing the boys by mere inches as they tried to take down more than the boys. Not even the harsh wind could spoil their shots as arrow after arrow hit their targets.
There were only eight left when they left the girls range leaving them to the boys to finish off. All eight seemed to be headed straight for the centre of the camp, not stopping to attack anyone as they weaved in and out of the tents. Oh no, Helga thought, they’re heading for the king. Come on guys. They moved like the shadows they were hunting, bringing them down one after another. Rowena joined Helga as they watched the boys move between the tents, now on foot because the tents were too close together for horses. They both took separate paths tracking the four remaining infiltrators.
They were only four tents from the kings. The sun peeked over the edge of the distant mountains making it hard for the girls to see as it glinted of the millions of tiny snowflakes dancing in front of them. They could just make out the boys as they caught the last four right outside the King’s tent, taking the first two by surprise but getting caught in a proper fight with the others. The girls spurred their horses forward rushing to aid the others as fast as they could. The sound of the swords clashing seemed to wake the sleeping soldiers who were rushing from their tents as the girls rode past. They arrived to watch Salazar finish his opponent moments before Godric downed his.
Godric looked at the girls and smiled, “13.” He said, wiping his blade clean and returning it to his sheath.
“Damnit.” Salazar exclaimed as he cleaned his sword off. “7.”
“9.” Rowena smiled as she dismounted.
“11.” Helga giggled mimicking Rowena.
They all turned suddenly as the King rushed from his tent sword drawn, his eyes still baring the sticky yellowy residue of sleep. “What on earth is going on here.” His gaze drifted from the quartet to the trail of bodies six times before the realisation seemed to dawn on him.
“Hi dad.” Rowena chimed breaking the awkward silence.
“What are you all doing here?”
“Bringing help and a warning your highness.” Godric said with a big smile still spread across his face.
“Help? Where is it?”
“Right here.” Godric said indicating his small group.
“You can’t be serious. I can’t let you fight. Especially not you Rowena, I can’t believe you’re even here.”
“Well if we weren’t here neither would you.” Salazar groaned.
“These guys were about to sneak into your tent and slit your throat while you slept. Then they probably would have crept through the rest of the camp and killed as many as they could.” Salazar drawled looking bored with the current topic. “But if you don’t mind we have been riding for about fifteen straight hours and had a pretty tidy little fight and would like to have a little sleep before we get into arguing.”
Helga and Rowena just stood there stunned while Godric tried his hardest not to burst out laughing at the look on the King’s face as Salazar just started walking back to his horse.
“As subtle as our friend over there is he is right, we’re pretty exhausted dad.” Rowena said when she finally found her tongue again.
“Fine, you can use those tents over there, and these guys will take your horses.” The King replied.
“That’s ok but I think we might rest the horses ourselves, you might not remember but Dracari here can be pretty grumpy around other people.”
“Alright. But we are finishing this discussion later.” The King chastised as he turned and disappeared back into his tent.
The trio just burst out laughing as they turned and headed back to where Salazar was waiting moodily with the horses.
A thick mist covered the ground obscuring everything from view. Horrible crunching sounds emanated from below as horse after horse moved silently forward. There was a heavy menacing air about these riders, every one cloaked in long black robes that hid all but their gloved hands from view. Even the sun seemed reluctant to reveal itself in their presence as it hung behind the far mountains longer than was usual for the time of year.
Their horses looked ragged and ill, their skin hung loosely about their skeleton like a badly sized coat. Their eyes were dull and bloodshot, flecked with white lines and spots. The mist appeared to thicken as the figures rode ever onward, unperturbed by the lack of life in the area. There were no birds singing their morning songs, nor any small creatures scurrying about the underbrush. It was as though these lands were dead, even though they had been lively and jolly the night before. But no normal beast could remain in the presence of this group for long without suffering at the hands of the despair leeching out from under their cloaks.
In fact for several miles there was only a single living being, riding at the head of the dark group smiling maniacally at the hiding sun. He was close now after many weeks of riding and swelling his ranks, and now Thomas could think of nothing but the coming battle. His army was now twenty thousand strong and would sweep aside the pitiful resistance that would surely await him. He could already see the smoke curling up from behind the nearby hills, the final barrier he must pass.
He raised his hand and the entire army stopped immediately, controlled with a singular purpose. “Wait here.” He intoned though not a single troop would move without command.
Thomas continued forward slowly climbing the last few hills between him and the King’s encampment. The mist clung at his heels softly as he left its reaches, noticing that the light was growing faster now he was free of its grip. As he crested the final hill he noticed sounds of battle coming from ahead of him. The King’s army was heavily engaged in battle with the Celts, and they were not faring well.
There were only a few thousand left and Thomas could see their spirit was close to breaking point. Evidently his plot to have the Celts assassinate the king had failed as he now led the fresh charge against the barbarian ranks.
“No matter,” he mused to himself as he turned and headed back down the hill, “soon I shall have the pleasure of watching him die by my own hands.”
Dark clouds stretched out over the brooding landscape, mirroring Godric’s mood as he waited for the sun to break from the cover of the dull mountains in the distance. A thick silence lay over the empty expanse beyond the camp as though the animals were afraid to come forth. Godric sighed as the dull sky behind the steel grey mountains began to lighten with each passing moment, ushering the dawn with a quiet inevitability.
Six times the Celts had attacked since Godric and his friends had arrived and not once had they been allowed any nearer the battle than the edge of the camp. Rowena was suffering the most as her father would not even allow her to view the battles, making sure she was right on the other side of the camp to where the action was taking place. Godric could feel the frustration in his friends, and every night it kept him awake as he wondered what he had really expected the adults to do.
Others began to stir in the camp around him, so Godric walked out past the boundaries of the camp hoping to hold on to his solitude for a little while longer. No word had been heard of Thomas since their arrival, but Godric knew it was only a matter of time before he arrived. He also pondered over what Max would be doing in their absence, and what punishment awaited Godric for leading them off like he did.
He sighed deeply again as he felt his spirit lighten as though someone had lifted all the cares from his shoulders. “Morning Rowena.” He said, keeping his eyes directed at the distant hills.
“I hate it when you do that. Ruins all the fun.” Rowena chided as she sat by his side. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing,” he lied glancing at her face. “OW!” Godric cried, rubbing the back of his head as Rowena glared at him. “What was that for?”
“I told you to stop lying to me. You’re not very good at it you know.”
“Yeah so you keep reminding me.” He mumbled, rubbing the back of his head.
“So?” Rowena probed after several minutes of silence.
“He’s out there,” Godric whispered, “and I don’t know if I can stop him.”
Rowena eyed Godric carefully, not daring to move. She had been trying to get Godric to tell her this for days but he had remained tight lipped. He had even begun distancing himself from the others in his brooding, disappearing for hours at a time. The only time he joined the group was when her father summoned him to their war meetings.
“And it’s not just about defeating his army. I can never forgive him for what he has done to me, and to you.” Godric confessed, staring straight into her eyes. She could see the torment swimming within him pass between them until he turned back to face the mountains.
“I...” Rowena began before a loud horn cut her off. They both knew exactly what it meant. That Rowena was about to be herded aside while Godric was allowed to stand and watch as the Celts assaulted the boundaries again. Neither one actually being allowed to aid the soldiers.
Godric stood quickly and held his hand out for Rowena. “Come on, I’m sick of this rubbish.” He said helping her up. He held a finger to his mouth as they ducked behind some small bushes a few metres outside the camp. They silently ducked into the tent containing all their gear and Godric quickly grabbed his weapons. “Quickly, before they find us.”
Godric helped Rowena into some spare armour and a rather ungainly helmet that hid her face nicely, before slipping into some himself, just sliding the helmet on as a handful of soldiers entered the tent.
“Have you two seen the King’s daughter? She isn’t in her tent.” The first asked.
Godric just shook his head, fearing that if he spoke that they would recognise him.
“Very well then, get to the front fast; we need all hands ready for the assault.”
Godric nodded and slipped out of the tent after the soldiers with Rowena following close behind. Both knew exactly where to go, which was good, because Godric could hear nothing but the heavy beating of his heart echoing in his ears. The cold steel of his helmet pressed in against his brow restricting his view and stifling his breath. Suddenly a hand grabbed his arm and pulled him back. Godric turned to see Rowena had pulled him up before he walked into the soldier in front of him who had now stopped.
Godric looked around at the ranks they were now a part of watching as they shuffled nervously, awaiting the battle ahead. They all looked worse for wear, many sporting large gashes and holes in their armour that they had given up on repairing. Godric smiled to himself as he looked back at Rowena and noticed that her armour was entirely intact, that would make it easier to keep track of her and keep her safe.
He noticed a murmur spreading through the ranks behind him, followed by the clanking of armour shifting. Suddenly the ranks on either side of him split leaving him standing alone in the path of several horses riding through the gap. He jumped to the side at the last moment as King John and his generals rode ahead to the front of the army preparing to face the enemy, and the ranks reformed again. An uneasiness gripped Godric as he felt the drum beats of the Celts approaching. Each strike reverberating in his chest as he gripped the hilt of his sword tightly as it lay in its scabbard.
The sun peeked out from behind the mountains at long last casting an eerie glow across the ranks of soldiers laid in front of him, making him squint ahead as the Celtic lines crested the final hill and marched down into position. Godric ran his fingers over his wand clipped to the inside of his scabbard. He had promised himself that he wouldn’t use magic in battle against the Celts, but it comforted him to know that it was there. His spirit lifted as a general to the Kings left raised a large horn and blew.
The soldiers all drew their swords and began the charge, yelling indistinct battle cries until with a mighty clang the two sides collided. Nothing could have prepared Godric for this moment. Celts were dashing under the swords of the soldiers and wildly swinging their axes, cleaving friend and foe alike. Many fell in the first few moments before the soldiers adapted their strategy.
Godric turned to see Rowena standing firm as their position. Godric drew his sword and a small dagger and charged at the incoming troops, taking the first down with a deft throw of the dagger. The seconds brought his axe down in a broad stroke which Godric only just deflected. The blade of Godric’s sword became entangled between the axe blade and handle and he couldn’t raise it back up to attack. The Celt smiled viciously as he punched at Godric, knocking him off balance. But as Godric fell his smile vanished as Rowena ran him through.
A quick nod was all the thanks Godric could muster before his attention was drawn to the next enemy in line, and he only had fleeting moments in which to check on Rowena as he began fighting back with the same ferociousness as those he was fighting. His movements were more like a dance, one kill leading into the next as his sword slid from one body and slashed across another. His moves were always fluid, slicing across enemies rather than jabbing and stopping. His mind was clear of all but the battle at hand, completely focused on his next few moves, always thinking of the next step.
The pair cut a deep swathe in the enemy line, leaving bodies scattered all over. Godric couldn’t help but smile at the way Rowena seemed to glide along, remaining graceful in her movements even in the heat of battle. But his attention was always drawn quickly back to a new enemy to engage. Suddenly a huge Celt blocked his path, knocking several others aside without the slightest effort. He twirled a great broadsword down through the air, missing Godric’s head by mere inches. He put his entire body into every stroke, forcing Godric to focus on dodging each blow and forcing him further and further back. Godric tried to parry the mighty swipes but his sword was battered aside each time.
The Celt lashed out with a broad upward stroke that caught Godric unprepared. The tip of the blade caught his helmet, breaking the steel surface which dug deeply across Godric’s face leaving a long gash as the helmet flew off and into the air. Pain tore through Godric as he felt blood seep into his eye, but he pushed the thought aside. Time seemed to slow as Godric saw his chance. The heavy upward stroke had left the Celts chest wide open and Godric lunged burying his sword right to the hilt and twisting it fiercely. Realisation filled the Celts eyes as his grip loosened on the sword still flying upwards and it twirled off into the distance. The Celt was dead before he hit the ground.
Godric recovered his sword and prepared to face another foe, but realised that the battle was over. The remaining Celts were retreating over the hill. His had been the final dual, and most of the soldiers were staring at him in disbelief. Godric ignored them as he looked about the battlefield which was awash with blood. His vision was impaired as he kept his right eye closed tightly, not wanting to think of the damage to his face, all he wanted was to find Rowena. Someone grabbed him from behind and sat him on the ground.
“Oh my God, Godric are you ok?” Rowena asked, the fear in her voice evident.
She cast her helmet aside and looked at him concern written in every inch of her face. Godric smiled deeply as he watched her fuss. “It’s just a scratch Rowena. I’ll be fine.”
“That is yet to be seen, Godric.” A voice stated from behind him.
Godric turned to see the king looking at him fiercely. “I’ll bet you want an explanation.” He said, standing up again with Rowena’s help.
“Not as much as us.” Salazar snapped as he walked up behind the king, “when were you planning on telling us about your little plan, hey?”
Helga looked just as angry as Salazar until she caught sight of the blood running down Godric face. She ran over to help Rowena support him.
“Well I can tell you’re all pretty upset, but do you mind if we have this argument back at the camp?” Rowena chided, “I don’t feel like holding him here all day.”
Godric laughed to himself as he nodded to her and the three of them picked their way carefully between the bodies, heading back toward the tents.
A/N: I am really sorry about the long delay, but just couldn't get this chapter right for ages. But it's all better now, so let me know what you think and you'll get another chapter very soon (and this time I mean it).
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