Chapter 19: A Treasure
Wading through the water onto the shore of Sardonyx side of the river the six remaining members of the party were unsure what they would find to greet them. With fear of further attack foremost in their minds, they braced themselves. Hitting dry ground the men drew their weapons in anticipation of what might appear over the hill that they were at the bottom of. Instead of further assault or even onlookers they found nothing other than a light breeze and the chirping of birds. Bright yellow buttercups and golden rod added a splash of color to the otherwise non-descript meadow. The peaceful scene made the shire appear blissfully unaware of the horror that had transpired only minutes before in Chrysolite.
The hippocampus stayed at the water’s edge watching them curiously. Rebekah ran back into the river, giving her deliverer an affectionate hug. Mitt Cela raised his hand in salute to thank them for their saving action. The majestic beasts dipped their heads in return then with an elegant swish disappeared below the shimmering water.
The remnants of the party could see their enemy hadn’t moved from the grisly place of their handiwork on the other side of the river. While some seemed to be searching the bodies of the dead guardsmen, the others were standing on the shore and docks watching them.
A quick meeting determined the best course of action was to move out immediately. Unsure how long they would be alone, nor confident they could tell friend from foe, none wanted to chance an encounter with anyone.
Rather than head in their intended direction they moved west along the bank as if going to Tel Melah. They would carry on this ruse until clearing the crest of the slope that the river sat at the base of. Once out of sight of any onlookers they would double back and head in their true direction.
Hai’asi ran to the top of the grassy green hill. After surveying the surrounding countryside and seeing no movement of man or animal he signaled the rest to join him.
Reaching the top of the hill and regrouping on the other side in a lush meadow below, Mitt Cela’s grief was replaced with a blazing anger. He returned to the peak of the hill and standing alone glared across the river at the followers of Mephistopheles. The array had been preparing to burn the enclave of buildings but stopped. Even across the river the followers of Mephistopheles could tell the lone man standing on the rise opposite was staring at them, creating a curious sight.
The bounty hunter raised his sword high in the air and let out a primal yell, then screamed, “Mark this well you scum, I will avenge the deaths of those men.” He let the words hang across the river then shouted defiantly, voice ringing across the divide. “You haven’t seen the last of Mitt Cela!”
The sound of derisive laughter could be heard in reply by the remnant of the party from Carnelian who had listened to the brooding man’s challenge. Slowly walking back towards the despondent survivors no one said a word to Mitt Cela though Umim had a strange look on his face as if seeing the man in a new light.
Hai’asi spoke first urging them to action. “We have to leave right away. Who knows how long it’ll be before we can find any horses. I’m also certain this won’t be the only time we see those cursed riders,” He spat on the ground in anger. “I don’t think it was an accident that they found us. They knew exactly who they were looking for and where to find us.”
“What do you mean captain?” Rebekah asked, still overwhelmed by what had just transpired.
Hai’asi looked accusingly at Umim and Thummim. “It was no coincidence that we met them today. That’s all I’ll say on the matter. We must go because on foot our journey is now more than doubled.”
There was little discussion and no point in debate. While their route may not have changed their circumstances had been dramatically altered. Still, the push of their mission beat like a drum calling them to continue on. Unfortunately time was still in short supply and the dark menace still threatened all the lands. Their setback would not cause Ahriman to pause in deference. Thus a higher level of exertion than previously thought would now be required.
Initially they set out west at a quick rate for a short distance, than turned due north to avoid Temon. Mitt Cela and the two scouts were in the lead followed by Princess Rebekah and Belac who now walked beside her. Hai’asi brought up the rear, watching for any sign of pursuit.
In a brief period of time they reached the road to Tel Melah forcing them to cross. The area remained quiet matching the now unmoving air. A heightened tension replaced blissful tranquility since this had been an area in the past possessing an active population. Though there should have been people on the road no one could be seen. The contrast to the road they’d just been traveling on in Chrysolite was dramatic. Those who made the connection could only assume those who had not fled already were holed up in the fortress at Temon.
The lack of traffic made them feel naked and vulnerable standing out as they did. Lacking any cover in the bare stretch of land Mitt Cela went first. He moved cautiously while the others lay hidden as best they could. Stopping in the center of the road the experienced outdoorsman looked for a long time in each direction. Seeing only a grouse hopping across their trail, that another time might have made good hunting, he signaled the others to cross.
Each did it at a run. Safely on the other side they pressed on at a rapid pace until out of view of the road moving into the rough, open moorland of Sardonyx.
The determined band trudged on for the rest of the day through the desolate land, not talking or stopping for a break. They passed through non-descript lichens and moss, interspersed with small rocks jutting out of the dark ground. Beyond the thick, fan-like bracken, it was an altogether uninviting spectacle. Often Rebekah and Belac would look behind uneasily to see if anything pursued but their only sight was the steady image of the grim-faced Hai’asi pressing on, axe in hand, constantly scanning to the sides and rear.
As night began to fall, with the sky clear the remnant of the original party from Carnelian still didn’t pause. Moon rising, it’s shine provided a dim light they could continue to follow.
Knowing the Tel Harsha road still needed to be crossed, Mitt Cela, found a fair sized depression in the unyielding plain that would conceal them. Finally it seemed that their progress had been sufficient. This seemed as good a place as they were likely to find to stop for the remainder of the night.
Thummim gathered some dry sticks and tree branches then began to build a fire. Without warning Mitt Cela strode to the pile the scout had built kicking it over as a spark had just begun to flame.
“Hey! What was that for?” the man demanded, angrily jumping to his feet.
“You fool,” Mitt Cela grunted, shaking his head. “You’d make a fire like that? It may as well be a signal pyre. The smoke and smell would be a dead giveaway to our position.”
The scout was stung by the criticism, and the fact he had failed to realize the error. “So you’d have us stay out in this moor all night with no heat?” Thummim shot back. “Your precious princess will freeze.”
Mitt Cela didn’t say a word but pulled out his long dagger. Thummim’s hand went to the hilt of his sword but the tall man instead knelt down, cutting out a piece of dense black turf the size of a brick. Then with flint and steel he deftly lit a small piece of rope he’d pulled from a pocket inside his jerkin, using it to light the object. The brick immediately gave off a small red glow but no smoke or smell.
Standing up, Mitt Cela looked contemptuously at the scout. “For one who’s supposed to know this part of the confederation so well I’m surprised you don’t know the turf and its qualities,” he said derisively.
Thummim didn’t say a word but turned his back, sitting down in a huff. Mitt Cela smiled grimly and sat himself. Pulling out a small bag with dried meat he offered some to Hai’asi, Belac and the princess. No further conversation took place in the snug encampment. With Hai’asi acting as the first sentinel for the night they rolled up in their cloaks as best they could by the small glowing fire and tried to sleep.
The following morning the skies turned slate gray while the air hung thick with moisture, though rain had yet to fall. The travelers felt the cold biting through their flimsy garments right to the skin. Unfortunately all, save Mitt Cela, had lost their extra, heavier clothing brought on the journey since they had been in their saddlebags with the horses. He’d kept everything in a leather pack, which he wore upon his back. The now protector of Princess Rebekah rigged his cloak to fit the young woman. He pulled on an extra woolen shirt to ward off the weather.
A bigger problem for the party was the lack of food. Again, most had been in their saddlebags and that which they did have in haversacks became spoiled when it got wet in the river crossing.
Once more Mitt Cela came to the rescue. Used to all forms of weather, he had packed with such instances in mind. Having wrapped his food in thickly waxed paper his had been protected from the elements. Though not desperate yet, they would need to find a fresh source of nourishment before too many days.
Continuing north the group began to veer east once they crossed the road to Tel Harsha in order to give that town a wide berth. The two scouts now began to lead the way since they knew the territory intimately. Mitt Cela followed closely behind and the rest after him.
The ground became increasingly more uneven, starting to roll slightly. Jagged rocks sticking out of the ground and the occasional scrub tree dotted the terrain. Thick forests loomed far off near the horizon but other than that there was little to see and little to shelter them. A wind began to blow from the north with the odd sprinkle of cold rain adding to their discomfort. The group pulled the hoods of their cloaks up and leaned into the weather. The constant buffeting slowed them down but still they trudged on.
As the day drew to a close Mitt Cela spotted a small hollow, covered in heavy brush and strewn with boulders. It would give them shelter from the elements and observation.
Once in their home for the night the man who had become their de facto leader asked Belac to stand first watch. After cutting another turf brick for a fire, he removed a carefully folded oiled tarp from his pack. Taking some twine and a few stout sticks he quickly fashioned a small lean to. Next Mitt Cela gathered a bit of moss growing in some of the hollows of the rocks, putting it down completing a snug little structure. Instead of lying in it himself he turned to Rebekah, who had been watching the undertaking. “Come princess,” he said, “you can stay here for the night. I know it is not a palace but it’s dry and will keep you warm.”
The selfless act of the resourceful man touched the princess deeply. “You are very kind sir,” she replied, voice heavy with fatigue. “Thank you. Elder Samej knew what he was doing when he asked you to accompany us.”
Thummim grunted derisively but didn’t say anything.
Mitt Cela ignored the scout. After distributing a meager ration of food, he sat down with his back against a rock, stretched out his legs and sighed in satisfaction.
Hai’asi had observed the whole scene. The warrior came over and sat down beside the outdoorsman. “You certainly have a way in the wilds Mitt Cela,” he commented while chewing reflectively on some dry meat. “I must say, I admire your skill.”
“When you live in the elements as I’ve done you learn to adapt to survive, or you perish,” the man responded rubbing the scar on his cheek. “I’m just thankful my skills can finally be put to use for good.”
The pair sat silently for a few minutes. Then Hai’asi, his voice sounding as if his mind were far away, continued speaking. “I wonder how they’re fairing back in Carnelian,” he pondered. “I wonder and worry about the lads I left behind in the south. I hope they’re well.”
“I’m sure they are.” Mitt Cela could see the concern in his friend’s eyes. “Your victory bought all of us some time,” he tried to encourage the warrior.
“Yes, but how much?” the captain responded then carried on in frustration, “Now here we are without mounts and with no food. I’m afraid that we’ll fail and everything, all the sacrifices that have been made thus far, will be for nothing.”
“Don’t fear Hai’asi. That brings nothing but frustration. Instead simply do what’s in your capacity. Any more will not only be a distraction, but will take you from your calling.”
The warrior looked out into the darkness of night, unconvinced.
Mitt Cela paused for a moment, weighing something on his mind. “Have confidence in yourself and your cause,” he said with determination in his voice and a gleam in his eyes. “Focus on the elements you can control and not what you can’t. You still have a mighty task before you, one in which all our fates may hang. Best to ponder how you can succeed there rather than wallow where you can’t.”
Hai’asi looked surprised at the advice coming from the bounty hunter. He pondered it for a moment then nodded approvingly. “That’s sound council. How does one who’s spent so much time apart from man gain such wisdom about him?”
“How do you think I gained it?” Mitt Cela chuckled. “It was all that time alone I had to ponder the folly of my past. You speak to one who has traveled the road you now journey. There are many things I still don’t know, but one I do know with a certainty is that Elder Samej made the proper choice when he picked you.”
The captain of Amethyst said nothing in reply but rather hung his head in quiet reflection.
Umim, seeing a break in the conversation came over to sit with the two men. Mitt Cela gave him a frosty glare but remained silent.
“How well do you know this area?” the scout asked, seeming as if he’d been pondering things himself.
“Very little,” Mitt Cela responded honestly.
“I know it intimately. That’s why I was asked to come along on this trip. I’ve spent many years in these wilds. This is hard country, I can tell you. Without mounts and food our journey will be near impossible to make.”
“None the less, we must,” Mitt Cela said matter of factly. “If you feel you’re not up to it then you’re free to leave,” he said pointedly, looking hard at the tanned face of Umim. “No one will stop you.”
Umim stood up indignantly. “Listen Mitt Cela, I’ve been in Carnelian longer than you have. I love the Shire and her people, likely even more than you do. The opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself through serving them is important to me. Besides, I know you and your reputation. You have no right to be judging me,” the scout declared passionately. “If we’re to survive and save those who are important to us, then we have to work together. This tension between us has to stop. Trust me or all of High Steward Samej’s plans will amount to nothing.”
Mitt Cela was taken aback by the intensity of the pronouncement. He looked up in the air, eyes closed, for a few moments. “You’re right. I have judged you harshly,” he replied, looking intensely at the scout. “Very well then, we’ll see if your word is backed up by your actions. What would you have us do?”
Umim seemed content with this answer. “At the very least we need food. Soon we’ll enter into the forests and swamps and there’ll be none. We must travel closer to the coast before we continue on. There are some villages in the area where we can get food and extra clothing.”
“But that’ll add time to our journey won’t it?”
“And there’s no other way?” Mitt Cela knew this to be true but felt it must be confirmed.
“If we’re to make it to Tel Quesel at all there isn’t,” Umim said grimly.
“So be it,” Mitt Cela sighed in resignation. “I’ll trust your judgment,” the still skeptical man confessed, ending the conversation.
From the pitch dark save for the soft warm glow of their burning turf Mitt Cela relieved Belac early from his watch. Exhausted, the squire eagerly lay down in his cloak to sleep without a word. It was not only kindness that brought about this action but also the leader of the group had much to ponder.
The new day dawned worse than the previous. Uninspiring dull gray clouds filled the colder air. Though overcast, a fresh wind caused the thick clouds to swirl about. Rain continued to threaten but none was falling yet.
Breakfast for the party consisted of two oatcakes a piece and some water from a skin. Then bracing themselves against the elements they continued on. The six were now heading due east under Umim’s direction in search of food.
After a short period the scout picked up a hard-packed trail obviously used for driving animals in happier times. It seemed a safe route to travel since they were now in relatively close country, with trees all about. Taking advantage of the poor visibility, the group took the path since it also headed in the direction they desired. A welcome addition was solid footing giving them a break from the uneven terrain they’d been on for two days. Entering into a small forest, the densely packed evergreens brought appreciated relief from the blowing wind. The invigorating fresh scent of the trees and flutelike song of a wood thrush soothed their strained nerves until suddenly the sound of approaching horses caused them to freeze for a moment.
“Riders approaching!” Hai’asi barked from the rear.
“Quick, get into the shelter of the trees,” Mitt Cela commanded, unslinging his bow.
Weapons at the ready, the group waited.
Heart pounding in fear, Rebekah began to visibly tremble. Like a soothing balm she felt a strong arm slip around her, giving reassuring confidence. A surprised princess of Carnelian found her comforter to be the quiet squire, Belac. An unheard of breech of protocol in the palace, the bold act of kindness instead brought a sense of security to the scared young woman.
Belac hadn’t said a word. The squire didn’t even look at her, instead, sword gripped firmly in hand he focused on the road waiting for the enemy to show. His own heart pounding, he had thought only for a moment about what he did. In the end, protocol or not, he couldn’t allow the beautiful princess to face the threat without doing what he could to comfort her.
The approaching party moved slowly now, as if knowing something were in the woods. Mitt Cela had an arrow fixed in his bow, ready to fire. Not a sound could be heard other than that of hoofs on ground. Through the trees the first horse came in sight, Mitt Cela prepared to loose his arrow but then he noticed it was brown with a white mane.
“Treasure!” Rebekah exploded, bursting out of her hiding place and rushing to her horse.
“Princess!” Belac yelled in desperation. He tried unsuccessfully to hold her back than jumped out himself to chase after her.
The others knew they were discovered so leapt out ready to strike. Instead, only six riderless animals rode up to them. It was their horses.
As Rebekah stroked her beloved mount even Hai’asi was moved by the scene hugging Scobeo Deo affectionately.
“This is like a dream. How did you find us girl?” Rebekah asked in amazement. In reality it didn’t matter since they were reunited. Treasure nuzzled into her to show the joy the horse had at the reunion.
Looking with love in her eyes, Rebekah could not know that after her crossing of the River Halcyon Treasure had gathered the five other horses and followed almost instinctively, setting out on a long, dangerous journey of her own. Galloping around to the first bridge crossing, then through scent and instinct she led the others along relentlessly until reaching the point of this joyful reunion.
Umim was deeply moved by the scene. After examining the saddlebags on his own horse he patted it happily. “This is quite the reunion. Its Treasure you call her, isn’t it?” he asked, looking at Rebekah.
The princess could only smile and nod her head, tears welling up in her clear blue eyes.
“She’s a treasure indeed,” Umim agreed, smiling now himself.