The White Rider
WARNING - This short story relies on previous tales from the world of Albrene. The previous installments are The Good Soldier, From The Eyes of A Dragon, A Dragon's Battle and The Commander's Final Battle.
The White Rider
The Commander – Part 3
Kedeb drove south through the forest in what he hoped was a straight line. He was eager to get away from the cursed mountains where his soldiers lay dead. Kedeb looked up through an opening in the thick canopy above him. The waning moon was hardly visible through its prison of clouds. – Great. No mountains, no stars. What direction am I traveling? –
"You’re right," Kedeb mumbled. "There's no way to tell."
Kedeb stopped as he spotted a long snake-like shape on the forest floor. He touched the form with the tip of his spear, expecting it to come alive and strike at him. Satisfied it was a tree root, not a snake, Kedeb pushed forward.
Though he knew the danger, Kedeb could not help but replay the events of the battle two days before. His heart sank as he remembered the dragon falling toward him.
– What is this feeling? – “Get out of my head!” Kedeb screamed as he remembered the mutilated bodies of his soldiers. He could still smell the stench of their smoldering bodies in the dying light.
Kedeb brought his hand to his face to wipe away a drop of water.
“Am I . . . crying?” Kedeb recoiled his hand as another tear fell from his eye.
Kedeb stormed forward as the pale face of his lieutenant flashed before him. – I can’t worry about that now, – Kedeb moaned to himself as the familiar voice returned.
Minutes dragged into hours as Kedeb pushed through the forest. His tiresome, scarred plate armor wore against his shoulders. “If it weren’t for the danger, I’d take the damn thing off.” Kedeb thought back to his many briefings as a child where he learned the dangers of the wild forests in The Empire. He searched the darkness around him at the thought of the nanëv, the silent killers of the dark forest nights and jumped as a series of yelps, moans, and howls resounded through the forest.
Kedeb tightened his grip on the spear by his side as he struggled to see through the darkness. A flash of green light caught his eye as the ruckus continued. “Shit, it's green hounds. That means nanëv are nearby. Kedeb closed his eyes and worked to calm himself. It was all he could do to ignore the terrifying orchestra around him. He Worked to calm the storm of emotions in his mind, taking several deep breaths as he focused on his surroundings.
“You failed me!” Kedeb’s eyes opened with a start as the slithering voice of Resaguka echoed through his head. “You, the first to run from battle. Because of you, your soldiers died; because of you one of my best shadow warriors is dead. I cast you out and leave you at the mercy of the Nanëv.” Horrifying, grotesque images flooded Kedeb’s mind. His heart raced as he struggled to regain control of his emotions.
Kedeb readied his spear. He heard several monsters rushing through the darkness. – I should have looked for my sword on the battlefield. Now all I have is this battle-damaged spear – “Not now!”
Kedeb stepped to the side as he saw a flash of teeth lunge toward him. He gagged at the foul stench of rotting flesh radiating from the rat-like creature as it landed on the ground. He spun around with his spear raised as he heard something running behind him. The wood of the spear creaked as one of the creatures fell on it, causing a series of cracks to spread through the shaft. Kedeb pulled the spear away, reveling in the satisfying sound of metal leaving flesh.
Kedeb readied himself for the next blow as the unearthly howls of the green hounds returned. Leaves rustled around him as the grotesque forms of the nanëv scattered in every direction. Several massive wolf-like creatures rushed around him. The green light in their chest created shadows against their ribs, casting green hues on the ground. One of the hounds stopped in front of Kedeb, slowly circling him. He kept his eyes fixed on the creature, visible only by the soft green glow in its chest. He readied himself, preparing to dodge the moment it decided to attack.
Kedeb dashed to the side as the hound in front of him lunged forward. Two green hounds collided where he once stood. – Crafty Bastards. – The creatures staggered to their feet and began to circle him once more. The one to his left started yelping and howling the gut-wrenching screams from before. Kedeb's heart pounded as he lunged for the beast, thrusting his spear into its chest. Kedeb felt little resistance as the spear passed between the hound's ribs. Kedeb gasped for air as the hound behind him pounced on his back, knocking Kedeb over the now dead creature. With a sharp series of snaps, the damaged shaft of the spear broke under Kedeb's weight. Kedeb could scarcely breathe as his breastplate began to cave under the monster's weight.
Kedeb's armor grew hot against the boiling blood of the dead hound beneath him. He pushed up with all his might, striving to get away from the scalding liquid. The beast on his back fell to the side as Kedeb rolled over. He grabbed the sharp remnants of the spear shaft and thrust it deep into the green hound's neck. Steaming blood jetted out of the hound's neck, landing on Kedeb's breastplate. The heat from the hound's blood radiated through his armor. He watched as the creature jumped away and bolted into the forest. Kedeb fell to the ground, lying on his back as he struggled to catch his breath. His chest pressed uncomfortably against the deformed interior of his now damaged breastplate. – Glad I was wearing the armor. That blood would have burned me otherwise. –
Kedeb jolted to his feet, screaming in pain as the searing blood from the dead hound scorched the back of his leg. He took several steps forward then fell to the ground. Kedeb gripped his leg in pain, eagerly brushing off the hound's blood. Kedeb screamed as his skin began to blister from the hot liquid. Kedeb reached into the soil next to him, digging out a handful of cool soil and pressing it against his burning leg. The coolness was soothing at first but quickly began to sting and burn again.
"Sëkk!" – I hope the nanëv don’t smell my burn. No way I can outrun them with an injured leg. – Kedeb rose to his feet at the thought of the nanëv. The pain in his leg lessoned as his heart began to pound once more.
"You are worthless!! Why do you fight where there is nothing to live for!" called the roaring voice of Resaguka, urging him to give up this futile struggle against his inevitable demise.
"I don't know!" Kedeb fell silent, expecting some form of divine punishment for the disrespectful reply. – Perhaps I deserve this. – Kedeb's limp quickened into a run as the sound of a rabid horde closed in behind him. – More of them! I have no weapon –
A bright, white light appeared ahead of Kedeb. With nowhere else to run from the nanëv, he ran toward the light. As Kedeb drew closer, the figure of an illustrious woman riding a white horse came into focus within the light. The horse and rider rushed forward.
"This is it." Kedeb fell to his knees and closed his eyes. Ready for whatever fate was in store for him.
Time slowed as Kedeb listened to the hooves of the horse galloping toward him. A pleasant, foreign scent filled Kedeb's nostrils as the horse and rider vaulted over him. The forest ignited with a pure white light brighter than the noon sun. Kedeb watched in amazement as the grotesque bodies of the nanëv disintegrated before him.
The woman's horse was pure white. Kedeb could see the outline of the majestic animal's skull through the translucent white skin on its face. Though Kedeb could see no detail or dimension in the woman atop the horse, he knew she looked toward him. Kedeb's racing heart slowed as his fear left him.
"Who are you? What are you?" Kedeb's voice was soft as he continued to gaze at the brilliant figure. – She is so bright. Why does it not hurt to look at her? –
The sweet sound of the woman’s tender voice filled the air. "Oh, weary adventurer. Why must thou wander these treacherous woods?"
Tears welled in Kedeb's eyes as the woman's caring voice graced his tired soul.
"Knowest thou that these are insidious lands? Lands where the Nawnëm hunt freely in the darkest of nights. Come, allow me to take you to safety.”
Kedeb looked at her outstretched hand, beckoning him to climb onto her horse. A large part of him wanted only to run away from this personage, but something in Kedeb told him he would be safe with her.
Kedeb reached for her hand and found himself on the horse’s back.
“The turmoil within thy mind will subside with time.”
Kedeb puzzled at the woman’s voice. The words she spoke were incomprehensible, yet he understood their meaning perfectly. Her voice was soft and melodic, full of a familiar emotion Kedeb had only rarely experienced.
“Your confusion is only the result of your soul’s suppression. The light now upon you will preside for all time. That Resaguka’s power of domination shall never again rule your determination. Seize this moment of wistful relief, for the fall ahead, is wrought with strife. I would that thou should not despair, for your future is far from bare. You are free.”
– How did I get here? – Kedeb found himself limping through a field. The moon now floated freely close to the horizon. Kedeb looked up in amazement to see the innumerable stars in the black ocean above him — more than he had ever seen in The Empire. Kedeb thought back to the woman on the horse. He could not recall her leaving nor could he remember dismounting. Kedeb winced as the hot summer wind stung his burnt leg. He reached down to feel the extent of his injuries and grunted in pain as his touch cracked his dry burnt skin. Liquid oozed from the fresh fissure as he took another step.
The sun was only beginning to peak over the horizon when Kedeb found a road. The grass of the planes was shorter here. Ruts in the ground marked a path where wagons frequented.
– I should choose a direction – Kedeb stopped as the voice inside him spoke again. “Are these thoughts? Am I speaking to myself? Is that what the woman meant by the turmoil of my mind?” Kedeb puzzled as the voice did not respond. He recalled Resaguka speaking to him atop the holy mountain and how he should not allow it to control him. – Was he suppressing my thoughts? – Kedeb turned onto the road, walking away from the rising sun.
Kedeb saw a caravan of three wagons some distance down the road. The wagons halted, just out of earshot. A single horseman rode toward Kedeb. The man wore plain leather armor and held a curved steel blade in his right hand. Instinct told Kedeb to stand and defend, to pull the rider down and take his sword. But when the rider approached, Kedeb found his own movements were slow and delayed. He felt like a child in the proving grounds. He could no longer remember the moves or command his muscles to fight. Kedeb fell to his knees. – If this is the end, let it be with dignity. – He played through his many victories in life, only to realize the defeat by the dragons eclipsed them all.
“Bind hands!” The voice was smooth, yet demanding. Kedeb opened his eyes to see an elf staring back at him. The elf threw a stack of rope toward Kedeb.
Kedeb reached for the rope as he struggled to think of a way out, somewhere he could run. He looked back toward the caravan. One individual caught his attention. The figure wore a thick cloak with a hood draped over its head. Kedeb could see the figure's pale hands grasping the horse’s reigns. – A Sorcerer, no chance of running now. – Kedeb wrapped the rope around his wrist.
“Matawna de'av esra edrakef.” The rope around Kedeb’s wrists tightened and secured itself as the elf recited his spell. Sword still drawn, the elf slowly pulled Kedeb toward the caravan.
The hooded figure said something in a language foreign to Kedeb. His thoughts wandered back to the strange rider as the caravan drivers began arguing with their guards. Kedeb’s heart raced as he was led behind one of the wagons. The male elf helped Kedeb into the carriage.
Kedeb looked at the once hooded figure to see a female elf. – I wonder if they’ll be as cruel to me as we are to their kind. – The elf said something to the other, who turned toward Kedeb.
“He heal.” Kedeb grinned as the man pointed toward the female elf. – He thinks he knows dark-speech. –
The woman removed her cloak and climbed into the cart. Her hair was bright white, long and smooth. Her eyes glowed a brilliant blue against the shadow of the wagon’s canopy. – She’s no elf. She’s light-touched. – A knot formed in Kedeb’s stomach, forcing him to look away from the elf. His thoughts fell back to the many light-touched he had tortured or killed as prisoners.
– How could she heal me? She knows what The Empire has done. We are enemies. –
The wagon lurched forward as the woman beside him began examining his injuries. Kedeb grimaced as she palpated the skin around his leg. The throbbing in his leg was worse now that he was no longer walking.
The woman said something to Kedeb in her foreign language before gesturing for Kedeb to lie down. His heart raced as he did as she asked. – She will make this painful, no doubt. – The woman handed Kedeb a thick piece of leather. Knowing what it was for, Kedeb bit down on the leather. He thought back to his first battle, seeking an escape as the woman drew a blade of some kind. – Is it that bad? Is she going to cut off my leg? –
Pain rocketed through Kedeb’s leg as the woman began to dig the knife into his burnt muscle. – I mustn’t show weakness. They can’t know my pain. – Kedeb recalled his training in torture, how the instructors increased the intensity every time he showed pain. Despite his efforts, a small grunt escaped his lips during a particularly deep thrust.
Kedeb released his breath as the light-touched withdrew her dagger. Kedeb opened his eyes to find the world spinning around him. – Perhaps I held my breath a little too long. – Kedeb heard the sound of metal hitting glass behind him before the woman dropped something cold and slimy onto the burn. Almost instantly, the pain of the wound disappeared. The new sensation was cold and soothing, covering nearly his entire leg. Moments later, Kedeb felt pressure on his leg as the woman continued to work. – Why didn’t she use that earlier? –
What seemed like half an hour later, the woman said something to Kedeb before casting a spell. Kedeb’s vision blurred then went dark. The sounds and vibrations of the wagon faded into the distance as time slipped from Kedeb’s grasp.
When Kedeb woke, he was in darkness. He felt someone to his left guide him to a sitting position. The pain from Kedeb’s leg was almost gone. He smiled to himself as he flexed it a few times. The muscle was tight and the swelling reduced his movement slightly.
– It's bearable. –
“Thank you, for healing me. My name is Kedeb.”
The woman looked at Kedeb, puzzled before a flash of understanding crossed her eyes. She said a few words in her language, followed by his name. Kedeb smiled at the sound of it. – A name. Something most Imperials will never have. –
The light-touched smiled as she spoke to him again in her language before muttering a few words he could understand. “My name Nol.”
To Be Continued. . ..
Tales From Albrene
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