The morning air was crisp as it wafted in through the open doors. Pausing for a moment, Farah Bailey breathed in to savour the scent: old hay, stale water, and animal dung all wrapped under the thin smell of dampened, dirty wood. These were the smells that most ladies would stay away from: the smells of rural pleasantries and the reality of life. The pastoral perfumes soaked into her plain coloured attire.
She exhaled, letting the scents linger as she opened her eyes again. Father was still abed, and getting worse by the day, but things still needed to be done. Mother was certainly in no state to do anything about it, and Farah didn’t mind. The work kept her mind off of things. The horses were well fed, well watered, and healthy… unlike father. Farah could do nothing for his health, but maintaining the livestock – that she could do.
“They told me you’d be hear.” High-born accented tones of the Great City struck her almost as sharply as the man’s dress. She fumbled with the water bucket in her hand, startled by his approach.
“Where else.” She tried to hide her embarrassment, swinging the bucket to and fro as if by intent. She dropped the liquid into the designated trough, trying to regain her composure. Watching the swine fighting over old cobs was great entertainment for her as a girl, but now it served equally as well as a way to refocus herself for this new company.
“How are the horses?” He said simply as if not noticing the startle his presence had caused her. Maybe he didn’t notice.
“They are quite happy.” The chocolate mare closest to her whinnied approval at that.
Sir Yoyde chuckled in that charming way he did when he thought she was being witty, or cute. He chuckled more often these days. “Oh, Farah,” he finished her name, hollowing out the “ah” sound. He lingered there for a time like savouring the taste of it on his lips. “Are you quite happy?” Apparently the time for small talk was over. Usually such a forward question would make her uncomfortable, but not from this man.
“I’m alive.” That was the best she could do. What sense was there in lying to him? Besides, he would know if she did. Of course she wasn’t happy, but she was managing nonetheless.
The rough hands of this Glanderxe knight came to rest on her delicate fingers as they leaned against the wooden beams of the swine pen. His paws felt monstrous, strong, and comforting as they hugged her own in a bear-like embrace. “Care for a distraction from all of this?”
She looked into his eyes and thought for a second that she was falling, falling through the blue expanse depicted therein. His golden locks were rough like straw brushing the chin of his rugged face. You certainly are a distraction. But that’s not what he meant. She let out a shy smile, embarrassed at the thought. “What did you have in mind?”
He led her by the hand to the doors of that wooden shack which houses the animals of Coere Ghante. The village was silent under the blanket of morning dew. The sun had barely crept out of the secret places of the night. In the bliss of dawn it caked the earth with a ruby glow, and sparkled off of the finely brushed coat of a blond stallion.
“I have already been for a ride this morning,” his eyes grinned more than his mouth as he turned to look at her, “but perhaps I will be worn out enough that you could keep up to me.”
“Sir,” she faked insult, “I have pick of the finest mounts in town. Not only do I take after the animals, but I ride them with equal frequency. I fear that the pride of the Great City has gotten into your head.”
“I hope your horse can ride as fast as that tongue.” He pulled his hand away from hers and placed one on each hip in challenge.
“Faster.” Farah mimicked his posture, but thinking again, stuck one hip out for effect.
He pulled up a foot and pointed at the glistening leather garments it wore, chocolate coloured to match his riding gear. Apparently Yoyde had come dressed for the occasion. “These boots have kicked the rear of the of the finest riders in the lands. I might have to take them off to give you a fair fight.”
“Now who’s tongue is faster than their horse!”
The doorway of the stable was filled with the red dust from the road as eight feet – four chocolate, four blond – kicked off. Sir Yoyde road ahead of her at a canter until the street turned left from town. Leaving the rough construction of her rural home, Farah kicked her mount into a gallop. Feeling the muscles of the beast tense at her direction, she launched past the cocky man from the City. This was her true home: wide open fields. No matter the state of things at the house, she could almost forget herself with the freedom of the ride. The Great City was a distant memory, barely visible behind the riding pair in the clear morning. Forests speckled them to the right, with farmer’s fields to the left. That globe of light laughed at them, barely visible through the trunks of pine and maple.
Sir Yoyde came up beside her, having sped his mount appropriately to catch her. “Alright, m’lady. You’ve had your head start. Now, allow me to show you how we ride in the City.”
“Ha,” Farah didn’t fight down the urge to laugh at him. “A horse can’t find its way through cramped and busy streets! Watch and learn.” The mass of her dress billowed up behind, laughing with the excitement as she raced ahead of him once again.
The road curved further from village and field, disappearing into closely knit trees. The crunch of freshly fallen leafs added themselves to the game. They chuckled with glee as the riders glided over them. Some jumped into the air and sang a sweet melody as they brushed against her face. Farah imagined them slapping the man behind her and laughed, though she knew they probably treated him with the same respect.
Farah looked back to see Sir Yoyde right on her tail. Her chocolate almost looked as if his tail slapped the chasing blond in the face. Even with his fancy clothes and well dressed horse, the knight couldn’t catch her. His legs hung in the stirrups and boots kicked wildly against the side of his mount, but it was in vain. Farah’s bareback escape was liberating. The horse knew its true potential not the man or woman atop.
She lost all thoughts of Coere Ghante amidst the trees. The wind beat against her face and drove her memories away: memories of father, mother, Mert. They held no consequence here. The only thing that mattered was the road ahead, and the man behind. Farah slowed her mount and pulled it off the road at the approaching stream. The crystal waters trickled across a low bridge up ahead, but Farah preferred this clearing. It was out of the way, and it was hers. There was nothing there but the rushing silver line and memories: good memories. Memories of picnics with her brother, talks with mother, and both with her lover… There was some pain in remembering him, but as the two horses lapped up the wet and the two riders watched each other, that pain no longer mattered. Here there were happy memories: and she hoped to have many more such memories in this place, with this man.
The tunnels had been dark, populated by nothing but the sparkling of little lights bouncing from wall, ceiling, and floor. Cargh had walked ahead of me telling stories of glory, of hatred, of history. Ahbin the First had been the tale, and our journey west had been the trail. Now, the only tale these stone spoke was one of deception: the castle above depicted the Rock no longer standing firm, the hearts of his followers beneath showed it. Shaken from all sanity, skewed by their lust for blood, they turned their sword arm on each other and hearts against their people.
Cargh didn’t show it on his face, but I knew what he must be feeling. This mask was solid and strong, standing firm like the Rock he served, but underneath I saw sorrow. If only striking a rock would pour forth the water that welled up inside him. He hid us in the uneven folds of the walls, or behind vacant doorways into empty room, but that didn’t stop me from watching him. While we hid behind stray barrels, loose boxes, and creaking doors, he hid beneath his armour. Having no need for secrecy now, he had gone back to fetch those spoils of war, but they couldn’t hide the man beneath them. Beneath the harsh words, hard iron, and harder face I saw a broken man. I saw a man whose friends were now enemies. He gave a respectful nod and shared customary courtesies with his brothers here, but with each one that passed, I saw a little piece of him slip away. I wanted to comfort him, but first that mask of stone had to be removed. I had already made Cargh remove his armour onces, and he surely wouldn’t do it again.
Not everyone would have been able to see his pain, but I could. I saw myself mirrored in his eyes. Each passing allmarach looked more and more like Sir Reuben, my own personal defector. Finely crafted helmets turned to hooded robes. Curt nods from one to another showed the glisten of red hair beneath. Their courteous grunts turned smooth and I heard Reuben’s malice spill forth. He soothed me with those passing words, and I could do nothing but back away in response. Those green eyes spoke of loyalty, alive with approval. My own eyes had no loyalty left, killed by this red-haired monster. He shot unnatural daggers from outstretched hands. They circled around me until I was a sparking immobile statue. He approached me slowly, whispering lies in my ear and calming me with his voice. I could do nothing to stop the madness, but stood stupid and helpless before him.
No sooner would he release me then another allmarach would come. Cargh hid us again, but he couldn’t hide me from what I saw through his eyes. He couldn’t hide from those personal demons, ever with me, swirling around in my head. They took on the voice of this Duke turned defector. “Ever loyal to her cause, and yet you come here in defiance of the crown.” His voice sounded calm, but the words lashed at me with electric power. They left me shocked and silent. I wanted to pull our Lady Eyes and slice the man to pieces, but he knocked her away and continued to circle around me, speaking lies.
One Reuben became two, became three, became four. “You are not a loyal knight. Nothing but a mmm… warrior without a sword.”
I saw Cargh’s axe dig into that helpless man’s chest. “What is a warrior without his sword.” Blood poured out from the wounds along with my sanity. One after another the images flashed through my head: brief and wretched memories. Those Reubens spun around me faster and faster. I wanted to fall over, but couldn’t. Dizziness overtook me, but the lightning storm from dozens of Reubens held me fast, swimming in a cloud, lost in a dream, surrounded by demons.
“I am disappointed.” The taller Reuben said as I tried to steady myself.
“He is escaping!” I heard myself say in desperation, but it wasn’t me any longer. I was back in the room with Othban and Cargh. Guards stood at the door.
Sir Reuben smiled at me with sorrow in his eyes. The band of shorter Reubens – turned allmarach warriors – stood around him. No more red hair, no more cloaks, no more paralysing lightning from their hands. The hair was replaced with helmets of steel and iron, the cloak ever-shifting armour, and the hands filled with weapons.
Cargh turned and rushed at me before I knew what was happening. He had been caught with an escaping prisoner and he played his part well. One mail-covered fist and the game was over. I had seen this man kill one of his own. The axe-man came for me, but with no weapon in hand. He struck me down, but not a killing blow. Sir Reuben watched from behind, pleased at what he saw. The only thing I saw were Cargh’s eyes as the world around them faded away. They floated in a sea of approaching darkness. Many emotions were in those eyes: fear, anger, pain, loss, loyalty, promise. The eyes faded into black, but I knew he had a plan. That promise stuck with me, even through unconsciousness.
The land was glorious and strange. Trees stuck out like sore thumbs in the distance against the purpling sky. Rocky fields stretched the distance where hills and mountains used to be. The great mountains in the far west were nothing but a sliver of their former existence. Ash rose from gravel in billowing clouds. It spun around like desert cyclones sporadically and then sputtered out. It shot into the air as from a geyser, leaving that shadow of death behind as it fell back to the ground.
The Great Quarry of Kho Arian wasn’t so great any more. Few mountains stuck out from the field like fingers of death stretching from a long lost grave. Below the fingers there was a hand, and below that a body: the body of the living dead.
Tiyhak fazed in from death itself, skin glistening with its power. He closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of molten ash. A normal person would have coughed and spat at the taste, but Tiyhak was used to death. This place smelled of it, was born for it. He saw a single strand stretch to his bird who sat beneath ash-covered leafs. Soon that strand would be two, then three, then many more. Here, the army of death would be born. Tiyhak could think of nothing more appropriate. The place was already dead, long forgotten, cast away like some abandoned project.
He reached down into the ash and the cold remanence of a long lost forest filled his trembling fingers. Bringing it to his face, he filled his nostrils with the musty old scent before launching it into the air. He laughed and watched it fall in a cloud around him. His bird came down from the tree above to rest on her master’s shoulder, knocking more ash from branches and leafs.
“It all starts with you, my friend.” Tiyhak reached up and stroked the side of the bird’s face. The greasy feathers held that strange unnatural feel of the dead, like touching a shadow of what once was or reaching through a cloud to touch the rain. The night informer cawed out a response, and Tiyhak smiled. “Certainly, though you would not make the best of generals.” He laughed again, sucking in ash as he did. The stuff coated his tongue and inside his mouth turning saliva grey like old mud or dying hair.
The bird was not his first, in truth, but that seemed to matter little now. He still felt the raw emptiness inside when thinking of that day on the bridge, but it was better now. Old wounds take time to heal, and that friend on his shoulder helped. “I think you deserve a name,” he said as they walked through the cloud of ash like two lovers in a garden.
The bird fluffed her wings, shaking off some ash, then relaxed again on his shoulder. Great low-hanging pools swirled around them as Tiyhak kicked up the mess with his feet.
“Ash.” Tiyhak chuckled to himself, but the bird didn’t seem so amused. “What, you do not like the name?”
The bird looked over, daring him to call her that.
“So cute when you pout, dead one.” He brought a hand up to stroke the bird. “Look, you are all covered in the stuff.” Tiyhak tsked as he brushed the bird with his backhand. “Nothing to you but ash and death.” He stopped stroking then let a smile crack open his face.
The bird didn’t seem to like that look, cocking her head to one side while scowling.
“Ahsdea.” Though the bird could easily see where he got the name, she didn’t seem to mind. Ahsdea raised her head and cawed an approval. She almost looked regal with head held high, eyes sparkling with joy.
The army of two reached the nearest mountain by Ahsdea’s direction. Amidst the ash it was hard to see, but this close up it was evident that the Pharosh had cut giant sections of the stone away. The unnatural right angles of the thing almost looked amusing. In one such artificial corner there was a small crevice through which the bird now flew. Tiyhak had to squeeze himself through the barely visible slit in the rock. Ash hung heavy in the opening and Tiyhak closed his eyes to keep the sting away. Once through the entrance, a tunnel opened up a bit, but his cloak didn’t seem to care. The now ash-covered garment tore up one seam, having caught on a sharp protrusion.
“Ahsdea. That ‘doorway’ is smaller than would be my preference.” He raised the tail of his cloak in defence. “Look.”
Ahsdea looked back in apology before flying on ahead. Tiyhak gathered her strand into his hand to provide some light in the cave. The crevice was naturally formed. There was no smooth precision in the walls, a trademark of Pharosh construction. As they descended, it opened into a type of central hub where passageways of varying length and girth joined together. Some were barely more than a dance in the wall of the crude chamber, but others stretched out farther than Tiyhak could see. The chamber rose to a point where a shaft of light spilled down its centre. The shaft was smooth and straight, like someone had drilled a hole in the top of the mountain to form it. Rusty metal pipes and busted open contraptions were strewn around the opening: the only thing that remained of the lift that was once there.
“Certainly that would have been famously useful.” Tiyhak scowled as Asdeah, but she offered up no response. The longer shafts from the chamber had the familiar punched-through look, set in the stone for some purpose at one time. Tiyhak found the more “natural” passageways less than useful, but the others… They opened into small chambers and larger expanses where the stone had been cut away with cold precision.
Ahsdea led him down the widest tunnel, which arched in slow but determined angles, into the depths of the stone. As they travelled into the heart of the mountain, Tiyhak found his spirit-light to be of little use. Soon a bright red glow shone in the distance, brighter than he could manage with only one strand to play with. The walls lower down speckled with life as the light played with tiny crystals therein. Eventually the light-source was revealed. A giant river of lava flowed out directly in front of them. It was as if the staircase – or sorts – had been ruined with a lava spill. It fed out from the sides of the rock and from beneath – that liquid fire pouring down.
Tiyhak smiled. “Perfect.” The liquid death proved Cargh’s story to be true, not that Tiyhak had ever doubted him. The man seemed eager enough to fight the Pharosh, as any good allmarach would be.
Ahsdea came to rest on his shoulder. Again he stroked her fine wings which almost seemed to steam with the heat from the lava. “Perfect for father’s army.”