An Iliad: Part Three
She found herself staring at a pair of massive gates. Lord Bracken’s castle was not that large, by castle standards, but it was magnificent. The black stone glimmered with hidden light and proud towers raked the sky with beautiful spires of beaten silver. Statues of Faeries stood sentry upon the broad, shingled rooftop. Their frozen bodies were posed in a way that reflected radiance upon their half-folded wings and their stone eyes were anything but lifeless. The mansion was elegant, but obviously not snooty like Amelia’s.
Kalec led Azure into the castle, where they were met by some guards who showed them to a closed room. Kalec knocked on the great oaken door.
“Enter,” a voice called from within.
The Shadow Grarrl was seated on his bed. He smiled warmly.
“Ah,” Lord Bracken murmured. “Azure and Kalec. Have you been shown your rooms yet?”
“What?” the Draik asked blankly. Kalec said nothing and seemed to stare at the ground with interest.
Lord Bracken blinked. “Why? Well, I have a half-dozen guest rooms and I suppose you would have to pick one. Unless you have the ability to sleep in more than one place at a time.”
“We’re staying here?”
“Yes. You want to stay in one of the inns, then?”
“No!” Azure said quickly, “It’s just that... what about the other soldiers? There are hundreds of us. I don’t think we’ll all fit into your castle.” She paused then added, hastily, “It’s not like your castle is small or anything!”
Lord Bracken’s mouth twitched in amusement. “Of course not. I simply selected the more... civilized soldiers to stay here. The last time I invited sailors over, well... let’s just say I’m still missing a hunk of my wall.”
“Ah,” Azure muttered awkwardly.
Lord Bracken smirked then composed himself, “Anyhow, I’ve called you two over, because I’m short on Captains. They’ve all been promoted or... become unavailable, so you two will be commanding small forces at times.”
“What?” Azure reeled back, shocked. “But I j-just got here! I’ve never fought in a war before!”
“But you have played Lupes and Aishas before, right?”
“Y-yes.” Lupes and Aishas was a board game based on strategy. It was one of those “diplomatic things” and Azure’s father had forced her to learn it. Like poetry, she detested it, yet excelled at it.
“Then you should know the game was invented by a military genius. You already have more potential to become a general than half the hulking gorillas on our ship. Besides, Captain is a small easy rank. You’ll be General before we can blink.”
Azure felt a shiver down her wings, half of horror, half of anticipation.
Lord Bracken continued, “I will be commanding a regiment myself. There was an attack yesterday, those accursed Shadow Blades, so now we must be especially vigilant for a strike.” The Grarrl paused, then asked loudly, “Am I clear?”
“Crystal clear, sir!” Azure and Kalec each snapped a brisk salute. Azure did this automatically now; Rythio pummeled anyone who did not give that response to that question. When she turned to leave, Lord Bracken called to her, “Azure, would you stay for a moment more? I would speak to you alone.”
“Yes?” The Draik retook her seat as Kalec exited.
Lord Bracken straightened. “Well, I know that this is your first time commanding a real army. Of course, we all play strategy games, and you must be excellent at them, but commanding in the field is different.”
Azure listened intently, as he gave her pointers about leading troops. When he had finished, she rose to leave, then stopped, a question suddenly nagging at her.
“My Lord... ” She hesitated, unsure how to say it. She mentally played with a few possible phrases then settled on one. “Kalec... is he really a soldier? I mean, I’ve never seen him training and he doesn’t really... ” She trailed off. How could she describe the poetry-loving weirdo she had only known for less than an hour?
“Look like the type to fight in a war?” Lord Bracken finished for her and smiled. “Yes, he does love his poetry. But he is a soldier. An excellent one, just as good as you in strategy and he acts like a veteran on the battlefield. And... he is my son.”
Azure stared dumbly for a long time. Lord Bracken smiled again, but this time it was tinged with sadness. “His mother died some time ago. She was a warrior, like you are, and fell on the front lines, with her sword still in her hand. Kalec is a brilliant strategist; he will certainly be better than me, later. But he is sill ashamed.”
“Ashamed? Of what?”
“Have you noticed most of the soldiers around are painted?”
Azure nodded slowly. Yes, most of them were knights and nobles, rich enough to get such luxuries. Almost resentfully, Azure eyed her own Faerie wings.
“Yes.” Lord Bracken lifted a paw and looked at its Shadow-black color. “He is a basic color and is ashamed of it. I no longer have the resources to get him anything, and even if I did... well, Azure, you know your politics, even if you hate it.”
The Draik nodded again. Favoritism. If Lord Bracken painted his son, he would lose respect with whoever he worked with or knew. Oh, why was she so knowledgeable about the thing she hated?
“Yes, ashamed... Perhaps something will boost his confidence, later.” The Grarrl looked out his fancy window, as if nothing in the world existed except him and the endless sky outside. Knowing that she was dismissed, Azure made a slight bow and retreated out the door.
“Do you like poetry?” Kalec asked, as they strode though the market. Azure shook her head, honestly.
“Odd.” The Shoyru gazed distantly out into the misty harbor and spoke in a musical tone. “Fog dances in curtains, wrapping the fair ladies in their embrace.”
“Stop reciting that poem!” Azure rolled her eyes.
“But aren’t the ships just beautiful in the mist?”
“They look like wooden, floating sardine cans, to me.”
“Oh you’re so—oh! Never mind!”
They had landed in Altador harbor several days ago. It seemed at first that there was no war at all; the glorious city was untouched, still perfect in every way. But hidden sections, sections that grew more noticed each day, bore the scars: there were collapsed towers, rubble and ruins of the fine mansions that once stood, now smoldering. The battles, however, were going on many miles away, so they were to rest in the city until the invaders drew near. So for now, they enjoyed Altador’s many delights.
“I enjoy epics, though,” Kalec continued.
“You told me that already.” Azure wondered if her new friend had memory problems, as well. But then how could he recall poetry?
“Yes. Epic poetry, stories told in one big poem. They’re about heroes and stuff, the traditional ones. Want to hear the one about Jeran? I memorized it.”
“No, I don’t,” Azure told him firmly. “After this war you won’t need any epics, ‘cause you’ll have enough violence and adventure for the rest of your life.”
Kalec rolled his eyes but shrugged afterward. “Well, maybe someone will write an epic about us.”
“Fat chance of that! Who’d want to write poetry describing your ugly face?”
The Shoyru smiled, used to Azure’s remarks by now. They had become fast friends after meeting and even their petpets started to tolerate each other. Loyalty and Pharos were perched on their owners’ shoulders, watching the crowded streets with interest.
They passed a Paintbrush stall. It was nothing really fancy, just the usual Christmas Paintbrushes that everyone had and the petpet brushes. Of course they also had the pointless Paintbrush plushies, and the useless Paintbrushes like Glass and Stone. There were also some of the cheaper, working ones like Speckled and Striped... and Cloud. Azure’s eyes fell immediately on her favorite brush, the color that she had always wished for. The Draik did not carry any of her family’s fortune with her (one, it was too heavy, and two, even she could not fight off a whole army of thieves), so she could not get the brush she wanted, but...
As Azure was thinking, she noticed Kalec had his eyes glued on the same Paintbrush.
“You like that color, too?” she asked. The Shoyru blinked and muttered awkwardly.
“My mother was Cloud. And the color’s so... poetic!”
Azure could not suppress a snort as she shoved Kalec out of the shop and they continued their stroll through the marketplace.
After spending over an hour at another shop, where Kalec fussed over a certain style of hilt on a dagger that they finally bought, they headed over to the harbor. Most of the four hundred soldiers on Azure’s ship were not invited to stay in Lord Bracken’s castle, (for obvious reasons) so they hung out, relaxing at the docks, and staying at local inns.
Azure wheeled from the air and swept down on the wooden dock, her claws clattering slightly. Kalec landed next to her and opened his mouth to say something, when a bugle suddenly blared in the distance. That was followed by more horns and drums and shouting. Azure sighed with the others. Was it another drill?
Then a battered-looking Kougra, who had a broken arrow sticking from his bleeding shoulder, ran up. “Attacked!” he gasped. “We’re being attacked! Please... reinforcements... the gate to the north... ” He collapsed on to the dock.
The soldiers looked at one another in confusion and panic. Were they really being attacked? Lord Bracken took charge and ordered a medic for the messenger before assembling the warriors. “We are to march north now. Gather your weapons; there is no time to waste! Rythio, take your regiment. Kalec and Azure! Attend me.”
The Shoyru and the Draik hurried to the Grarrl with their swords hastily buckled on.
“I assigned you two the Red and the Blue Corps,” Lord Bracken informed them. “You know what to do. Let us depart!”
Azure lead her troops to keep pace with the others. Soon, they had arrived on the scene of the battle. Smoke choked the air and screams ranted everywhere. Fires licked at any wood, as volleys of iron arrows flew in deadly missiles. The bodies of fallen fighters lay in heaps on the dirt. Clashes of steel against steel rang out and echoed in the chaotic battlefield.
Azure hesitated, then yelped as a flying dagger missed her head by inches. This was no time for daydreaming, she realized. A lack of concentration meant she might find herself missing a wing. She leapt into the fray. Next to her, Kalec had also drawn his sword and was dancing with it, the blade shimmering like a mirage, with grace she could hardly credit to the poetry-crazed Shoyru. With an icy calm in his eyes, he hacked his way through the enemy with deadly skill rivaling her own.
Through the haze of smoke, Azure could sometimes make out Loyalty and Pharos, darting like bees. They weaved in and out of the chaos, dropping onto the enemy, distracting them, and flying away, too quick to be caught.
All thoughts along that line were erased, as another foe came for her. All the Shadow Blades were dressed in strange black robes, complete with black hoods and a mask that completely hid their faces. They wielded daggers—black—and some had glowing rods that launched black bolts at Azure. Soon the color was pretty much hurting Azure’s eyes. Oh, what she would give for a white flag of surrender!
But even though they were being beaten back, the Shadow Blades did not surrender. Instead, they fled, abandoning their wounded comrades and some of their weapons. Azure forced her tired body into action and joined the rest of her force in pursuit. However, the Shadow Blades darted into a grove of trees, where they simply disappeared. The soldiers combed the vegetation thoroughly, again and again, but like shadows at midday, they were gone without a trace.
Exhausted, Azure sagged to the ground, the cool wind making her shiver. There was chirping from the air, as Loyalty dove back onto her shoulder. The fierce petpet had a gash on her foreleg, but otherwise she was unharmed. Kalec also staggered over, with Pharos.
Lord Bracken was staring angrily at the trees where the Shadow Blades had gone. Azure sighed and placed her head on the grass, closing her eyes. Footsteps of the soldiers shook the ground. She heard the graceful padding of paws, this time without the constant clanking of armor. The Draik opened her eyes and lifted her head, stifling a gasp as she saw who was walking towards them. One of them was a tall, broad shouldered Lupe, his eyes grave and with a noble, kingly expression. He wore silver-plated armor, complete with magical runes etched around the edges, glowing with, well, magic. An extremely large broadsword was sheathed at his hip. Azure frowned. Not that she had anything against broadswords (except for the fact that she couldn’t lift one), but why was everyone using them, these days? Lord Bracken had a similar one, as did the Training Master Rythio, and many of the soldiers. New trend, perhaps?
Azure studied the one next to the Lupe. She was a slender, graceful-looking Blue Aisha. Her hair was a shimmering waterfall in the sun, her white dress embroidered with patterns of the sun and moon and stars. Ribbons also hung off her garments, slightly lifted up by the gentle wind, seeming to sparkle silver in the daylight. A sorrowful expression was on her face, as she beheld the smoldering battlefield.
It was pretty obvious: King Altador and his sorceress, Jerdana.
“Sire.” Lord Bracken bowed. Altador smiled wanly, while his companion went to help the wounded.
“Again?” the Lupe asked, his sharp gaze assessing the damage done by the Shadow Blades.
“Yes.” Lord Bracken fingered the hilt of a dagger. “They strike deeper into the city each time. Soon they may reach the vital places such as the Water Plant and the farms. We cannot allow this to continue.”
“You’re right.” King Altador shook his head sadly. “I hate making full war upon anyone, but we have no choice. Do as you will. Carry out the plan, so that peace may come once again.”
Jerdana returned. “Are we going to do it?” she asked.
Do what? Azure wondered, perking up her ears. She watched as Altador nodded.
“Then let me go with them,” the Blue Aisha suggested. Both King Altador and Lord Bracken frowned.
“I am not helpless,” Jerdana said, her voice slightly sharp. “The units you send are very small and they will be vulnerable in the wilderness. I will be of use.”
The Lupe sighed wearily, as if he knew he could not win this argument. “Very well. As you wish, Jerdana. But you must stay safe, understood?” He straightened and declared to Lord Bracken, “Tomorrow, then. Tomorrow we will send the Special Units to deal with the Shadow Blades. And as we must, Jerdana will go with you. May Fyora grant you the greatest of luck.”
Another shiver went through Azure, but this time it had nothing to do with the cold. He had said it: Tomorrow, she and Kalec and the rest of the unit were going into the wild, beyond Altador. Uncharted territory, where they would be at the mercy of the Shadow Blades.
To be continued...