Chapter 20: Pressing On
The mood of the group improved greatly with the return of their own mounts. Eagerly digging into saddlebags they withdrew food and warmer clothing to restore a measure of comfort. Thus renewed they felt a fresh vigor for the journey ahead. With this turn of events Umim and Mitt Cela agreed that it was no longer necessary to head to the coast in search of food. They could now continue north since the rations they possessed would be sufficient to carry them to Tel Quesel. Revitalized, they pressed on.
While the land thus far had been difficult to traverse for those unfamiliar with this particular part of the shire, nothing prepared them for what they were able to reach before mid-day. They had been steadily traveling on horseback towards what looked like a sizeable forest of scrub trees. As the group got closer they discovered no mere thicket, rather it was densely packed with standing water laced throughout the woods. The ground became so spongy each had to carefully pick the footing their horses would travel on so that the mounts would not get stuck or fall.
Umim stopped. “We’ll have to go on foot from here,” he called back after jumping off his horse. “Be careful that you stay on my track, don’t stray off it. There are some unforgiving bogs on either side of the trail that will suck up man or beast in a blink of an eye.”
The forest before them appeared impossible to pass, as if there was no route to be found at all. The others wondered how they ever would find their way through.
A putrid smell of decay filled the air, offensive to the noses of all save the scouts and Mitt Cela. Belac retched several times as he tried to adjust to the overpowering odor along with the anxiety of the idea they were to enter this forbidding place. Rebekah pressed a silk handkerchief against her face. Wide-eyed, she looked at the pools of water and mossy tufts of ground she anticipated they would be walking through, fearing to take one step forward. Strange sounds emanated from within the gray-brown mass before them, overwhelming the feeble attempts of singing birds to bring cheer to this somber place.
The party could only see several feet into the mass but observed that the gnarled trees making up the obstacle twisted into grotesque shapes. While thin and largely without leaves, they thickened towards the top making a canopy that blocked out the sun. A dim haze was all the travelers could see within.
Hai’asi looked not only at the sharp gorse throughout but the brambles as well ringing the forbidding place. The fearless warrior shuddered involuntarily at the thought of going into such a place.
“Is there no other way than this?” Hai’asi asked, doubt etching his voice. “I can’t see us ever finding our way through it.”
“To get to Tel Quesel there’s only the road from Tel Harsha. There’s also a good track along the coast, but it’s another day to get there and it’s heavily travelled. If we want to disappear from our quarry, this is the only way to do it,” Umim responded matter of factly. “Yes, it does look forbidding but there is an old smuggler’s trail that cuts right through. I’ve been on it several times. Trust me, I can lead us safely to the other side.”
Hai’asi and the others looked at the seemingly impenetrable swamp wondering what they were about to get themselves into. They were putting their trust in a man whose loyalty and competency had been questioned only a few days before.
Mitt Cela gazed with resignation at a sneering Thummim and ended the discussion. “Let’s go,” he said simply.
True to his word, Umim easily found the hidden track of firm ground leading into the swamp-covered forest as the party entered in. Within thirty minutes the woodland had completely closed around them. The experienced guide became welcome since the whole floor other then the trail became a nasty bog. The woodland was eerily dark due to a heavy overhead canopy. Below, trees without leaves covered green with moss reached out as if to grab those who passed by. Under foot a thick carpet of vegetation covered the ground. Though soft to the feet, the hidden trail had black rock below the surface providing protection from the bog. All about the air was thick and close, foul with the smell of rotting vegetation. They traveled in single file, leading their uneasy horses along the narrow path. Small midges swarmed about the dismounted party causing irritation and distraction. It was an altogether miserable experience. This went on for many hours. With the sun blocked out, it was dusky within creating difficulty in knowing the time of day.
Rebekah walked in the center of the column leading Treasure along. She tried the best she could to maintain her pace but was having difficulty keeping up. Unused to going for such an unrelenting length of time without rest since leaving the palace on the quest, fatigue had finally begun to set in. Barely able to stay awake, her eyes fluttered, closing often as she plodded along following the horse of Mitt Cela to her front. The course suddenly took a switch, but she failed to see the turn, stepping off the track. With a scream she plunged into the putrid water, beginning to quickly sink into the greenish ooze below the surface. Treasure followed and fouled herself, whinnying in terror, straining to break free.
Belac reacted with lightning quickness. Taking three leaping steps he plunged into the bog beside the petite princess who by now was up to her waist and in danger of completely submerging. Screams of woman and horse did not carry far, dulled by the thickness of the woods, but in the eye of the storm all was pandemonium. With strong arms pushing aside weeds and muck Belac grabbed hold of Rebekah holding her up for all his worth. Her descent slowed but instead he quickly began going down instead.
By this point Mitt Cela had threaded his way back to the desperate scene. He grabbed hold of the princess and dragged her out of the bog. Then with her lying on the path sobbing he switched to the rapidly sinking Belac who was now down past his shoulders, about to go under. With neck muscles bulging and arms straining Mitt Cela held on to the outstretched arms of the young man, fighting an unseen force attempting to claim the squire. Hai’asi by now had made his way up to where the battle against the elements transpired and lent his strength as well. Between the two of them they began to pull the man free whom the swamp finally released with a wet sucking sound.
Belac didn’t take a moment to rest, as exhausting as the endeavor had been. Instead he plowed back into the muck to extract Treasure who by now was beginning to flail about, risking not only sinking further, but also breaking one of her legs. First calming the horse down he then worked her hind legs free and set them onto the track which allowed the horse to use her own strength to pull free. Swishing her head back and forth while stamping her hooves in an attempt to remove the black muck from her legs, relief was evident in the filly’s deep brown eyes.
Rebekah sat crying, clutching Mitt Cela, the sensation of being sucked into the morass still alive in her mind. Hai’asi went to assist Belac who lay flat on his back on the trail while Umim and Thummim held the reins of the other horses.
“She’s lucky. In less than a minute she would have been under,” the younger scout commented insensitively
The thought caused the princess to shudder. Mitt Cela scowled in response at the shaggy haired man. Belac rolled over onto his hands and knees gasping for breath not only from the exertion but also the noxious fumes he’d stirred up freeing woman and horse.
Rebekah couldn’t speak, still overcome with emotion. She did look at the squire though, eye’s glistening, unable to take her gaze off her rescuer. He smiled slightly in return as he felt his strength return.
For the remainder of the day they moved slowly and more carefully. Rebekah refused to stop or let anyone else take Treasure. The dusk of the day turned into dark gray then black due to the thickness of the trees. The party stopped prematurely since moving even in part light would be too dangerous. Umim found a small knoll that he had bivouacked at before so they set up camp. Remarkably, it had a fresh spring bubbling up in the center of it, allowing for a welcome drink and the opportunity to wash up. A fire was no issue this deep in the forest so that became the next order of business. Using damp wood to create smoke the small blaze drove the night flyers away the party then settled down to spend an uncomfortable evening.
After a simple meal the group set the watches for the night, preparing to rest as best they could despite the screeching and singing of the animals that lived in this habitat.
After seeing to Treasure, Rebekah went over taking a seat beside Belac. “Squire Belac, I have not yet taken the time to thank you for saving my life. You risked your own for me.” Choking with emotion again at the thought, she could only say, ”I will never forget what you did.” Then reaching over she kissed him on the cheek. With a self-conscious smile at what she’d done Rebekah left him returning to her bedroll and curled up to sleep.
The squire lay still for several hours, unable to sleep. His heart pounded so hard he was sure everyone could hear it. Looking over by the fire he saw Mitt Cela sitting quietly by himself, keeping vigil over the camp. Belac got up and went to sit with the former bounty hunter.
“Some day huh?” Mitt Cela said as the squire sat down beside him. “That was a very brave thing you did today, risking yourself like that.”
“Anyone would have done the same thing,” Belac responded with embarrassment.
“Perhaps, but no one knows what they’ll do until they’re tested by being in that situation. We may all proclaim and hope but until standing on the precipice looking over, we’ll never know if we would jump.” Looking straight at the blond haired youth Mitt Cela stated, “There’s more to you than meets the eye Squire Belac.”
“I wish I were a fighter like you Mitt Cela!” Belac passionately replied.
A serious look crossed the man’s face. “No you don’t. That’s no life for a young man of intelligence like you. Anyone can study to use a sword but few can train to accumulate the knowledge and language skills you have in your position.” He looked at the eager squire, as if examining his soul. “That wouldn’t impress her you know,” he stated bluntly.
Belac was stunned by the declaration. Opening his mouth to protest, the youth looked at Mitt Cela’s expression and knew the older man could see the truth right through him. He hung his head in embarrassment, feeling his face begin to flush. “She doesn’t know that I exist as more than a servant of her father.”
“You undervalue yourself, my young friend,” Mitt Cela countered.
Belac noticed the face that always seemed hard as granite was now open and full of compassion. “The princess couldn’t take her eyes off of you the rest of the day. She’s even spoken in days past of your courage at speaking out back in the palace during the council sessions.”
The squire looked over at Rebekah who lay wrapped tight in her blanket and cloak, hands folded under her cheek. She was the picture of peaceful contentment. Disconcerting for the smitten young man the woman also looked every bit the sovereign.
“But she’s a princess and I’m only a squire,” Belac sighed
“That may be, but you are from a noble family, educated and singled out for a responsible position even at a young age. Yes, there’s more to you than meets the eye and more than is clothed in that cloak of office you wear.” Mitt Cela fixed his eyes on the squire. “Inside there’s something powerful beginning to show itself, drawing others to it. I see it…and so does she. Don’t be afraid to let it out.”
The pair sat by the fire for hours, talking of their lives and what their hopes for the future were. Mitt Cela began to feel a kinship for this restless youth who had been channeled into a life not of his own choosing. This made the man who had spent so many years as a despised bounty hunter ponder silently the truths of his life journey and how he’d ended up on the course he had. The loner was reminded of the joy in conversation and sharing one’s life.
Then there was Belac.
The young squire possessed a compelling vitality. Mitt Cela couldn’t even imagine going back to the life of isolation that even so recently he’d practiced. No, there was joy and happiness in being connected to something bigger than self.
Hai’asi joined them for it was time for his watch. Curiosity etched the warrior’s face as he saw the scribe of the journey sitting there, animated look on his face, sharpening his sword along with Mitt Cela. Hai’asi had thought of him as nothing more than a reporter of events, a mere boy in fact. His actions of the day though had shown there was something undiscovered under the surface of this strong adolescent.
The three talked as if on a leisurely hunting expedition, forgetting the weight of their task, enjoying each other’s company. The night creatures were now a fine symphony rather than irritant. Belac finally fell asleep sitting beside the fire. Mitt Cela bade goodnight to Hai’asi then carried the exhausted youth to his bedroll finally turning in himself for a few hours of needed rest. Once more he had much to ponder.
The sun was beginning to set in the west as the travelers broke out of the forest. In the distance a town rose on the horizon like an oasis to the weary travelers. It was Tel Quesel, a place untouched thus far by the war. Always known as a center of the arts and all things beautiful within the Confederation, it had apparently not changed since the fall of Emer’Ald. The town lay blissfully ignorant so became an inviting stop for the beleaguered travelers.
The day’s journey had been hard. The relentlessness of the swamp seemed never to end. If not for the steady eye of Umim, they would have been lost innumerable times. There had been no repetition of the events the day past since everyone kept a sharp watch around them. But as suddenly as the seemingly unyielding forest had come, just as suddenly they broke through the canopy, which had been a shroud. Open moorland cascaded before their thankful eyes allowing the six to see in the distance their next objective.
The party could finally remount and ride. In just under two hours they reached the edge of the Tel Quesel. Rebekah began to lead once they were in the town. She spontaneously sighed with relief at the sight of the polished granite towers of the public halls and galleries that rose majestically in the air for which this town was famous. The beauty of Tel Quesel contrasted starkly the swamp that lay not far away.
“My cousin Nevest Sirhc is lord of this town,” the princess reported with enthusiasm. “He and his sister Noner live at Sirhc Hall. It’s a wonderful manor house at the center of this fine place. It has been some time since I have visited but I know from her letters that it’s a place of hospitality and warmth. We’ll be happily greeted there.”
Rebekah directed them towards a stately two-story home that stuck out even in this stylish town. The place presented itself as one where no expense had been spared. With small turrets on either side of the building, abundant windows, lush colorful gardens framing the avenue to a wide cul de sac and a swan-filled pond, it provided a pleasing sight to the eye-sore group. Though only dusk, candles blazed from all of the light yellow, stucco building’s windows like a beacon for the weary.
Rebekah rode steadily towards the refuge from their cruel journey while the others followed.
Mitt Cela caught up to her and grasping hold of Treasure’s bridle he brought her to a stop. “One moment Your Highness,” he said with caution in his voice. “There’s still danger so we must be prudent. We’re still being pursued and have little to defend ourselves with. While this is a fine looking town to be sure, it possesses no defenses. There aren’t any signs of sentries or a watch based on how easy we were able to ride up. So I have to insist that who we are and our purpose not be revealed to anyone in this town save your kinfolk. Do you understand this?”
Instead of petulance in response to the admonition the princess was appreciative. “You are correct, of course Mitt Cela. Tel Quesel has no garrison I believe so I agree, we must remain anonymous. I will ensure my cousins understand this.”
Upon arriving at the main doors of the manor house several servants appeared, taking the horses from the travelers to the stables standing to the rear of the impressive structure. Walking up the polished stone steps the scouts especially looked at the opulence in amazement. Rebekah went to the door and slammed a heavy brass knocker several times signaling their arrival.
When the door opened an impeccably dressed man in fine clothes greeted them. He looked the travel-stained party up and down disdainfully. “May I help you?” the thin-faced man sniffed.
“Tell Lord Sirhc and Lady Noner that friends from Carnelian are here,” Rebekah replied lightly.
The Keeper of the Door stared hard at them but the firm look in the eyes of the young lady who had spoken caused him to move. “Wait here”, he commanded. After motioning them to enter into the entranceway he departed to find his master.
The group was left alone. All save Rebekah took the opportunity to gaze in wonder at the magnificence before them. The warmth of the foyer as well seeped into their chilled and tired bones causing the travelers to begin to relax. They waited for several minutes before hearing the sound of a voice, then seeing the sight of an elegantly dressed, stocky man, who appeared to be slightly older than the princess.
The lord of the manor paused looking at them first in wonder then gazing at Rebekah finally lit up in recognition. “By the rub, is this not a good joke!” the man burst out. Turning to a trailing servant he commanded, “Quickly lad, go and fetch Lady Noner.” As the man in full livery scurried off he strode over, placing both hands on Rebekah’s shoulders. “We had no word you were to come you sly one,” he exclaimed. “And you’ve brought friends? Excellent! Well thankfully you have made it in time for tonight’s party, though I dare say you will need some cleaning up. Whatever! We can look to that,” he bubbled with enthusiasm. “So who are your friends?”
Mitt Cela leaned over to speak to Rebekah and her happy cousin. “My Lord, is there a place where we can speak in private?” he asked softly.
Nevest Sirhc shrugged his broad shoulders and with a look of curiosity led them down the main hall to a large, handsomely appointed study. With a delicate wave of his hand he bid them enter, then closed the door behind the group so only the seven of them were in the room. He didn’t say a word but continued to look at them with a mixture of amusement and interest.
Rebekah spoke after introducing the members of the party. “We left Ammon Ramlah eight days ago on a journey of great importance. We ask for your shelter and protection for the night.”
The grinning man nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
The princess looked about before continuing. “I also ask that other than you and your sister our identity not be revealed to anyone in this town. Treat us only as friends from another shire and nothing more.”
The unusual request piqued the curiosity of the man. “Why all the secrecy cousin?” he asked he exclaimed. “This sounds all frightfully exciting!”
Rebekah opened her mouth to speak but was unsure what to say. Instead Mitt Cela, unable to contain himself any longer, broke into the conversation. “With respect, My Lord, do you have any idea what’s approaching this town? We’re on a mission to stop the evil of Mephistopheles. That’s what brings us here. But you, do you realize a powerful, massive army is consuming all the lands even as we speak?” The leader of the group shook his head in wonder at the insulated noble. “Ahriman will stop at nothing, smashing everything in his path, consuming and enslaving all that come before him. You’ve made no plans and you have no defenses. What are you doing?”
Nevest Sirhc held up his hands, tilting his head nonchalantly. “Yes Mitt Cela we have heard of these troubles which are touching even this shire. But we don’t really concern ourselves with what’s going on in the rest of the world. Tel Quesel has always been special in many ways. We here focus on things of beauty and happiness. It is a sanctuary from the cares of the world and so we do not believe that our territory will be touched since it has no resources or tactical advantage. No, we will remain an oasis for the beleaguered such as you.”
Mitt Cela stared at the noble incredulously but said nothing. He quickly realized that arguing with the man would be futile. The temporary silence was broken as the door opened and in strode a lovely young lady with golden hair. Seeing the princess she glided over and gave her a hug.
“Rebekah! How very nice to see you, my love,” the woman gushed. Then in mock scolding she added, “you know, naughty girl, you really should have written that you were coming so we could have properly prepared for you.”
Lord Sirhc put a finger to his lips to signal false secrecy. “No this is strictly hush hush,” he informed his sister. “A very secret mission don’t you know? We are not even to speak who they are to anyone here.” Then bursting into laughter he could contain himself no longer. “What a grand ruse! We will play your game and none shall be the wiser though you simply must come to our party tonight.”
The visitors to Sirhc Hall hesitated, unsure whether to accept the invitation or not.
Seeing their reticence Nevest Sirhc tapped his eyebrow knowingly with a finger. “People already know there are new guests that have arrived and if you do not show, well, questions will be asked. Ah see, I’m already thinking in this light. What good sport we will have with our friends tonight!”
Lady Noner then took her attention off of Rebekah and looked at the remainder of the party. She seemed wholly uninterested in them until her gaze fell onto Mitt Cela. Looking him up and down, she playfully tossed a ringlet of golden hair. “And what is your name sir?” she asked.
“Mitt Cela M’lady.”
“And what brings you to our humble town?”
Understanding the particular attention Noner was giving the man and his obvious discomfort, Rebekah stepped in to steer the conversation. “He is my protector and the leader of our journey.” Seeing a sparkle in her cousin’s eye she decided to move their conversation along. “Lord Sirhc, we are tired from our rather long trip so wish to refresh ourselves before your gathering. May we go to our chambers?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he agreed. Then looking at the state of their dress added, “I will have fresh clothing provided for any that wish to make themselves look more presentable.”
Before they left Noner breezed over to Mitt Cela. Taking his hand in both of hers the pretty young lady looked into his eyes. “I look forward to a very interesting evening,” she purred.
Mitt Cela grimaced not sure what to say in reply. Bowing as best he could he turned and walked out. He didn’t doubt that it would be eventful.