As Ordered by the Gods
There was a strange, almost serene moment of hesitation to when Sarati barked the command to an unseen ‘Toren’. The only sound that could be heard was a strange, heavy whistling noise from deep in the verdant shade. The leader turned—and he caught the business end of a flail directly in the face. A sickening crunch sound resonated when it happened and a heavy thud as the felled leader collapsed, unable to even gasp a dying breath.
Toren came out of the shadow, instantly making it known he was a force to be reckoned with. His back and shoulders were thick and broad, and his arms were almost like tree trunks. The grim expression on his face spoke volumes of what he could and would do with his enormous meteor flail.
Out of Garril’s group, it was none who were more surprised than the other. All of them had stunned looks gripping their faces; and Sarati, smiling almost proudly in the midst of that bloodshed. Even the footsoldiers, who were previously so keen on detaining them had suddenly fallen silent.
“Come on,” one of them said. “We can’t leave them there! Get them!” And on that command, the footsoldiers reluctantly started to move back in for the kill. Their numbers were greatly diminished though: there were for of them left, and with their ringleader down, they were not nearly as useful as a bowl of vegetable soup.
Ardray did not hesitate. As easily as she had executed the first kill, she swept a footsoldier off his feet with the blunt end and gutted him with the bladed end as he was in midair.
“Damn it,” one of the footsoldiers swore, locked in arms with Garril. That one footsoldier was far more intelligent and experienced than he could afford to pass off. But apparently, this group of simple young people could take down more than half of his faction. It was well past the time to take charge of the situation.
“What are you smiling at?” Garril said, cutting into his concentration as he prepared once more to swing. The footsoldier’s expression was grim, even as he whispered those words of an ancient tongue.
Tarja suddenly twitched. Though she was sitting sedately in her chair, relaxing at Van Mara Citadel, she was suddenly shocked in the small of her back. Whatever it was made her fall out of her chair and land on the floor.
“Tarja!” Artturi and Elinan both motioned for her at the same time. Each taking one of her shoulders, they propped her up.
“What happened, Tarja?” Matti asked her, materializing in the air between Artturi and Elinan. Tarja’s eyes were wide, and her hands shaking. Her skin had even become a slightly pallid shade.
“Garril!” she gasped. “Ardray, Solnel, Rhylor, Vankesa! They’re in danger!”
“They can handle themselves,” Artturi reminded her. “And they were going to the smith’s. They’re sure to have their weapons by now.” Tarja shook her head at that.
“They do,” she said. “But they’re surrounded. And I don’t know how good Garril is with his sword.”
“What about the rest of them?” Elinan asked. “They can afford to protect him, right?”
“I don’t know,” Artturi countered her. “We should go.” He turned his eyes toward the window. “But...where are they? And how will we get to them?”
“Garril,” Ardray asked shakily. “What is he saying?”
“I...” Garril started, but faltered. True, even he did not know what the man was saying. But surely it was sorcery—or some other kind of kind of enchantment. The words he spoke were nearly silent—so barely audible that, in fact, Solnel, Vankesa and Rhylor could not hear them as they continued braining the remaining footsoldiers. Not even Sarati, nor Toren, noticed as they simply watched on with some amusement at the footsoldier’s last defenses crumble.
“All men down!” Rhylor said victoriously as he pulled his hooked blade from a footsoldier’s gut. He turned suddenly, seeing Garril frozen in one spot and the remaining footsoldier wiggling his fingers vaguely. Quietly, he was speaking something in an alien language.
“Isn’t that in Athastrian?” Solnel was saying to Sarati.
“It is,” she said, swallowing gravely. She whirled around quickly, peering into the verdant gloom of the forest path. “Everyone. We have to start running.” She looked gravely at the footsoldier. “He’s a magician, casting a long but devastating spell. If you don’t want to die, then run!” With fluid grace, she jumped on Toren’s waiting back, and he started to run.
“Come on!” she urged them, losing her collected air. “Run, damn you, RUN!” And without turning again to wait for them, she and Toren vanished into the forest.
“We should go,” Solnel said. He turned to run—and found he could not move from his spot. He tried lifting his feet, but they were locked in a frozen stasis.
“What’s happening?” Vankesa asked, unable to even flail his arms. Looking around, he realized that everybody was also frozen. Not even their faces could move, as soon the same paralysis took over the muscles in their faces, frozen in an expression of sheer horror.
“Cades, pasilla, castido, llarme,” the magician footsoldier murmured, a cold smile dancing on his lips. Slower and slower the wiggling of his fingers went, until he suddenly stopped.
What is he doing?! Garril thought, enraged. He could not move, nor think of counter for such powerful magic. He felt all the blood drain from his face in frigid revelation: he could die there in an unknown forest beside a glimmering stronghold of marble. He could see its marble expanse peeking through the dense wood; laughing at his imminent doom.
The footsoldier was suddenly cut off, as a glowing golden triangle of light appeared behind him. It rotated slowly, benignly floating in its fixed place. It seemed to be of no threat, nonetheless catching hold the footsoldier’s attention. And then it rotated rapidly once firing a blinding beam of pure energy. The footsoldier was thrown against a tree.
“Lord Vattiksi!” Rhylor cried when the magician’s hold on them had broken. For just a moment, he fumbled with his blade, nearly dropping it on his toe.
Artturi stepped through the golden triangle, his pale blond hair and the cape of his cloak flying in all directions as it was being thrown about by the gale-force winds.
Garril could not help but speculate how epic it was to see him come through that way.
“That spell would have been nice if it worked,” he said smilingly to the magician without even a sidelong glance; “but mine was just better.” The magician had been permanently fused to a tree, and was bleeding profusely; clutching madly at his midsection simply did not seem to work.
“Wow, uncle—” Garril started, but was stopped by Artturi with a raise of his hand in mid-sentence.
“Don’t try flattering me, young man,” he said gravely. “You and all your friends have explaining to do.”
“But it wasn’t—” Solnel protested, tripping on his own words. “It was Sarati... And she was...”
“She was what?” Artturi said with a dangerous raise of his eyebrow. “I’m getting impatient, and so is your aunt, Garril. Why, even Matti is a little jilted, and you know what happens when Gods are jilted.”
“No...” Garril admitted slowly. “No, I don’t know what happens.”
“That,” replied Artturi gravely, pointing at the magician fused to the tree. “Now, are we going to go?”
Garril sighed, admitting to himself that he did not like this side of his uncle. Artturi was just as good as Tarja—if not more insistent—at getting exactly what he wanted to say across.
“All right,” he said finally to Artturi. He went through the gilded triangle first as Artturi extended his arm to let him go through. Solnel, Rhylor, Ardray and Vankesa all followed suit, temporarily glancing at the bleeding man against the tree. Once he was sure they had all gone through the other side, Artturi stepped through and the spinning golden triangle shrunk and vanished into a tiny dot.
“Wait here,” Tarja told her brother with a steel edge in her voice as she closed the door to a room where Garril and his friends waited. They had all returned to the Van Mara citadel after their run-in with the oddly skilled footsoldier in the forest. Tarja had brought the five of them into a room to scold them, and had quite purposefully ejected everybody from the room, including Baron Rodune and the Goddess Matti. She seemed incredibly angry when she closed the door in all their faces.
“Will this be bad, Lord Vattiksi?” the Baron asked worriedly.
“Knowing Tarja,” he replied a little laughingly; “and believe me, I know Tarja; she will probably make the poor boy deaf.”
“Deaf?” the Baron cried, more tearfully fearful than outraged.
“Or worse.” Artturi smiled. He pressed his ear against the door, hoping to hear Tarja’s form of punishment on the plaintive group. “I can’t hear a thing,” he said frowning.
“Men!” Matti sighed exasperatedly, materializing atop Artturi’s soldiers. “I think sometimes if women weren’t around, you men would retreat to caves and eat bears.” She placed her hands on the door, and like a small galaxy, points of light made that little section invisible. “Am I right, Elinan?” Matti continued inexorably.
“Oh yes, Goddess,” Elinan agreed smilingly, also taking a place on Artturi’s right shoulder. He did not even grunt under her weightlessness. “And then again they’d eat it raw. Who else would cook it for them?” She paused for a second. “Ah—don’t tell Kaneru I said that. I wouldn’t want him to think I’ve turned against his teachings.”
“Of course not,” Matti said. She peered into the circle from where they could see Tarja.
Tarja was in a waspish-looking position, putting all her weight on her left leg and with arms crossed. What was visible of her pale, perfect half face was contorted in an angry grimace.
“And just what have you to say for yourself, all of you?” she asked all of them with a vehement fury coming into her voice. None of them would answer, all of them fearfully interested in the patterns of their shoes. They did not look at Tarja directly, or anywhere else for that matter. Solnel coughed sheepishly for a moment, but stopped when he felt Tarja’s icy-cold blue eyes probing him.
“Well rough is thy sister, my Lord,” Baron Rodune noted.
“This isn’t even half of it, your Excellency,” Artturi responded. “That you can trust me about.”
“...I can wait here all day, you five,” Tarja was saying to them. “Either you speak up now, or we start celebrating your birthdays here for the next eight years.”
Still, the five of them did not speak. Shamefully, they hung their heads low and in silence. Tarja sighed exasperatedly, and then she lowered her arms. She raised one forearm and aimed it at Rhylor.
The Baron Rodune gave an obviously angered gasp. “What will she do with my son?” he exclaimed, his hands going right to his sword hilt.
“Calm down, man!” Artturi reprimanded, thrusting his arm out in front of the Baron. Reluctantly, the Baron let go of his sword hilt and stared back into the room.
“Please don’t... do that,” Rhylor was saying lamely to Tarja’s unwavering gesture.
“So you will talk without the spell!” She put down her finger and lowered herself so she was eye-level with Rhylor. Her piercingly cold eyes bore deeply into his, as if probing his mind for information; for the truth. The eyebrow above her visible eye arched up sharply.
“All right,” he conceded. He let his arms drop to the side; Tarja relaxed also into a less imposing stance and moved farther from him. “We’d left our weapons with that smith when we arrived in Van Mara last week, as you already know. When we went to get them, the smith was gone. Now, I found that odd because Suthan doesn’t normally go any place at all due to his bum leg. Funny story behind that leg, he—”
“Rhylor,” Tarja interrupted him. “You’re stalling.”
“Sorry, madam,” he apologized quickly. “Anyway. We found a hallway in his smithy that led to the outside.”
“An escape route,” Ardray supplied.
“Yes. We followed that route to the outside, which was a forest just outside the city. The first thing we—or should I speak for myself—I noticed was a wide trail of blood leading into the forest. I...” He stopped, suddenly unable to continue. The image of the defiled body of the smith was grained all too well into his mind.
“We found him dead,” Garril said simply, taking over. “I...don’t want to go into too many details of it. Anyway, we tried to leave and tell the Baron about it, but a man came out of the forest. He was followed by about eight others...and...” He swallowed heavily, not knowing just what Tarja would do if she knew he killed a few men. Garril sighed slowly, deliberately averting his aunt’s eyes.
“Why is your nephew stalling?” Matti speculated aloud to Artturi.
“How should I know?” he responded. “I only met the boy last week.” A sudden grating laugh came from Elinan then.
“That’s odd-sounding,” she said. “You’re his uncle and you only met the poor boy a week ago.” She smiled to herself. “I find that amusing.”
“You’re a Khontic,” Artturi said, eyebrows flat. “You’re supposed to find everything amusing.” Elinan smiled again, this time more fondly.
“Yes,” she said with immodesty. “It’s a failing of ours.” She peered back into the glowing cluster of lights that made the section of the door invisible.
“We...fought them.” Garril forced himself to continue, albeit grudgingly. “We had to fight the men. It...it wasn’t hard at all. And I...uh...”
“You...what...?” Tarja asked in a dangerously quiet voice.
“I had to kill them,” he said finally. Garril sat there, silently hanging his head in unvoiced shame. Tarja was also silent, brewing in illicit shock. Ardray cast a concerned look in Garril’s direction, and then once at Tarja. An intrinsic rush swept through her.
“Tarja...” Ardray said slowly. “He didn’t want to. But what else could he do?”
“Am I talking to you?” Tarja snapped. “Stay out of this—this is between my nephew and I—alone.”
“Then why are the rest of us here?” Ardray retaliated with indignity. “The point is, Garril did it only because he had to defend himself.”
“And it would not have happened,” Tarja flared; “had Garril and the rest of you come back here to ask the Baron about it. You could have spared him from seeing all that—”
“Is that what you’re worried about?” Ardray asked in a grating voice. “You’re worried Garril will be exposed to that kind of thing?”
Tarja gave her a hard icy look. But Ardray was inexorable.
“Will you look at him?” she continued, standing up and spread her hands. “He’s seventeen years old. I think he can handle himself! I know he can and will handle himself if he has too—but I don’t quite think you can!”
“Don’t tell me how to raise my nephew!” Tarja said in a shrill voice. Probably subconsciously, she raised her right hand and aimed it at the door.
“Damn it,” Artturi swore openly. “Move, move!” He rolled out of the way of the door, making sure to place at least four feet of space between him and the door. He bowled Elinan over, rolling over her as the two of them came to a stop near a table. Artturi saw the Baron, opening his mouth to speak.
His vocation was silenced by a blinding blast that threw the door against the facing wall. It shattered into a million splinters. When the seething light cleared, Tarja stepped through the doorway.
“I’ll be in my room if anyone needs me,” she said ominously. “I’m sure you won’t need me—for a good day or two?”
Artturi, Elinan and Baron Rodune all shook their heads in fearful unison.
“Good.” She turned on her heel and without even bothering to say a word or make hand motions, Tarja became a gray blur and vanished into the wall of her room.
And before anybody could have a chance to say anything else, Ardray came out of the door, glowing angrily with the essence of fire.
“I cannot believe that woman!” she said in an outraged voice that had an overtone of a blazing wildfire in it. “Of all of the...” And then she trailed off into a colorful line of swears that were absolutely charged with venom. Even the Baron’s face went pale at some of what she said. Even when she was at the end of the hall, the flame surrounding her was still as bright as if she was still standing in front of them.
And then Garril emerged from the room. His face too was contorted with an unvoiced anger. The electric blue glow around him was enough to speak his fury. Errant little arcs of energy were flashing off him and shocking metallic objects all around—including the Baron’s suit of armor.
“No, no, it’s perfectly all right,” the Baron said sardonically as Garril stormed off down the other wing of the hall.