Extended Ending, Chapter 36

Chapter Thirty-Six

To Discover Destiny

 

The skies roared with angry flame as Arius looked outside the generals’ tent. A courier approached him and offered a bowl of stew laden with meat thawed from the pack wagons, but Arius refused it.

You should eat, Arius, Guardus said.

My stomach roils uncontrollably. From fear, or anticipation, I know not. I can best Contemno, I am sure I can, but still my body seems convinced otherwise. He sat on the ground, adjusting his scabbard so it did not hinder his comfort. We are infiltrating Helsguard within the hour. My mind is buzzing with thoughts of sorcery and dungeons. He sighed deeply. I can take comfort knowing that you will be there beside me, though.

Guardus rumbled passionately. Always, my rider. 

Several minutes of quiet followed until Kyra walked out of the tent and sat beside Arius. He looked at her askance for a moment, but after several seconds he found himself smiling. “I really do apologize for trying to control you before,” he said.

“I understand why you did,” she answered. “And I thank you for your concern.” She clasped his hand. “Arius, there is something I must tell you.”

“Go on.”

Kyra fumbled as she started her sentence. “Perhaps it should wait until after the battle. If I die, then it doesn’t matter anyway.” A tight laugh squeaked out with her words, but Arius remained serious.

“Don’t even let such thoughts cloud your mind. Now go on, what do you need to say?”

Guardus coiled his head around to include himself in the conversation.

Kyra inhaled deeply, and then said, “There is a reason why Contemno captured me. And it is not just because my family has wealth. Know that I didn’t tell you this sooner because I did not want our friendship to be affected, nor did I want to put you in undue danger.”

“Just like I didn’t want you to be in danger going to battle.”

“Yes, something like that,” she whispered. “The reason Contemno kidnapped me for ransom is that I am the princess to the throne of Halderon. My father is King Jamun, and Contemno sought to use me against him. I was stronger than he expected, however, and refused. The ransom he asked was too great for my father’s coffers. Unable to pay it, he requested from his nobles that Halderon go to war against Farahdin, but being the smaller country and knowing they would surely be defeated, most of the powerful Houses refused. I assume Contemno realized this, and so he did not put too much effort into pursuing me after you helped me escape.”

Arius sat there silently. She is a princess! he said to Guardus. That is why she can read, write, and lead these soldiers so well. She has had training.

The dragon rumbled. I don’t like when people keep secrets, but I can see her reasons for doing so.

As can I. 

He spoke aloud, “Guardus and I have chosen to forgive you from keeping your secret, as long as we put it behind us and focus on the battle ahead.”

Kyra’s eyes glowed. “Thank you, Arius. I truly wish to keep our friendship intact. That is, if we both live long enough.”

“But if we die, we will die honorably, with our hearts and minds open,” Arius answered. 

His hand inched over to hers and grasped it until Tialdo approached and signaled the advance on Helsguard.

Kyra stood and said, “I better go to my soldiers. I hope to see you after this is over, but if I don’t…” She kissed him briefly, conveying more emotion in that single touch than Arius thought he had known in a lifetime. He leaned forward, but she pulled away and left, yanking her helm over her head.

Guardus blinked. You feel strange, Arius. Like your whole body has risen in temperature.

Arius exhaled and shook his head. Let’s just focus on the battle.

The army formed appropriate ranks on the road that led into the capital. Tialdo drew Arius aside and assured him that the elves would make as much of a distraction as possible to cover his advance. “The Morgat should be occupied with our attack,” Tialdo said, “and shouldn’t pay you any attention, as long as Guardus flies high enough. May the heavens give you strength,” Tialdo intoned.

“And also you,” Arius said. A division had been separated from the main body of the army, and Arius pointed to it and asked, “Is that the rear guard?” Tialdo nodded. Then Arius scanned the soldiers preparing to enter Helsguard, biting his lower lip. “Gerad!” he called. The man stood not ten paces away. “Gerad, I’d like to ask something of you.”

“Anything, Arius. What is it?”

Arius handed Gerad his satchel, containing all of his belongings, including Silfin’s gift and Galeru’s flask. “I must ask you to watch this for me, Gerad, and by doing so, you must stay with the rear guard.”

Gerad’s face fell. “But, my lord, I wish to fight! I must avenge my family and kill those responsible.”

Arius laid a conciliatory hand on his shoulder. “There are items in this bag that have great value and must be kept safe. I know you long to be on the battlefield, but you are the only one to whom I can entrust this mission. If you grow weary, there is a flask inside this satchel that you may drink from to replenish your energy. Other than that, there is a book that has great value and a scroll that contains a power the scope of which even I do not know. Promise me you’ll keep them safe.”

Arius waited for his answer. Finally, Gerad nodded. “I suppose my debt to you obligates me to obey your commands. Aye, your bag will be kept safe. It will not leave my person.”

Arius thanked him and walked back to Guardus, who stood just outside the low wall surrounding Helsguard. Geoffrey walked near Gerad, and the two spoke, but their words did not reach Arius. Shrugging, he lifted himself into Guardus’ saddle and helped Savatay and Orthel into their seats. From his vantage, the crumbling homes of the city were evident, empty save for a stray dog prowling the streets. The soldiers will come, he thought. Then, with the sable fortress in the distance, Arius braced himself as Guardus’ powerful legs pushed against the ground and his mighty wings beat rhythmically against the air.

As Guardus lifted over the wide road, Arius cheered in encouragement while the elves streamed into the city. The heat increased as Guardus gained altitude and reached the fires in the sky. “I thought they were mere illusions,” Arius said, “but the air truly burns with the intensity of a flame!”

They flew over the city’s dilapidated buildings, domiciles abandoned for better fortified homes. The empty shells of burned houses stared at Arius as he sat on his dragon’s back, looking down at the fight raging beneath him. The elven army surged forward, archers firing their bows faster than any human could. Their arms were a blur as they notched and released, the twang of bowstrings a constant buzz that permeated the battlefield. Spellcasters closed their eyes in concentration, surrounded by squadrons of swordsmen protecting them from the onslaught of soldiers. Unheard words spewed forth in the Forgotten Language, wrapping tethers around the enemy and counteracting Morgat enchantments. Arius’ heart raced as the sheer number of Contemno’s soldiers became plain: a sea of black rolling across an ocean of destruction. “What makes them fight?” he wondered.

Savatay answered, “Contemno holds the fortune of their families in his black grip. If they refuse to fight, wives, daughters, and sons will die.”

Arius tightened his fingers around his sword’s hilt. They passed over the thick wall that protected the inner city. The buildings on the other side of the wall were in better repair, home to nobles and their families. Looking at the gate, Arius prayed, “I hope the elves will be able to break through the iron portcullis.”

“With our magic it should not pose a problem,” Savatay answered.

“Yes, but I fear that Contemno may have set enchantments to prevent such forms of attack.” Then they were over the gate, and the black stones of the castle slid toward them, getting closer with every flap of Guardus’ wings. We are standing still, Arius imagined, and the fortress moves on the earth’s tentacles, tainted by the black magic that seeps from the castle’s walls. Four towers with saw-toothed crenellations marked the corners of the stronghold.

“We will land atop the north tower. That is the closest we can get to the throne room and dungeons,” Savatay yelled over the clangor in the air.

Arius looked back to the elven lines and a seed of hope sprouted inside him. The elves’ weapons promised instant death for any opponent not of their race. “Humans cannot hope to face us and win,” Savatay said, “Unless they outnumber us five to one.”

Even so, the battle continued, and the king’s army flowed out of the trenches without pause. They flooded the city, lowering the elves’ chance of victory with every additional man. Tialdo’s forces had penetrated almost half a league into the outer city, with another league to cross.

Morgat were interspersed between the soldiers with heart-stopping regularity. Arius shuddered at the sheer size of their force. “I can’t begin to think of how many there would be if a sizeable portion was not trapped in the Roedanth Forest.” He gulped and wrenched his gaze back to their destination. The castle was almost upon them, and there were three archers atop the black stone firing arrows at Guardus’ exposed wings. Arius snarled and sent a bolt of energy into one of the archers, killing him instantly. The other two merely stepped over their fallen comrade and continued their deadly hail. A burst of flame from Guardus incinerated one archer, while his spiked tail ended the other. Neither of them screamed as the force that kept them alive was snuffed out. Both wore the mark of the King’s Men. “Could they be some creation of Contemno’s sorcery?” Arius wondered.

“Does it matter?” Savatay said.

Guardus angled his wings and landed smoothly on the tower’s roof. The diameter was wide enough to accommodate ten dragons. A trapdoor was open near the outer edge of the tower and led to a spiraling staircase.

“We have no time to walk, and Guardus would never fit through there,” Arius yelled as he and the two elves dismounted. The sounds of battle drifted up on persistent gusts, overpowering anything quieter than a hearty bellow. “Guardus can break through the mortar and glide down with us on his back.”

The elves nodded and moved toward the tower’s edge. Arius patted Guardus’ armored flank, then stepped away. Growling, the dragon lifted his tail and sent it crashing down with a mighty roar. The stone supporting Guardus crumbled, and the dragon plummeted through the fracture. Arius leaped to the edge of the hole and watched Guardus frantically beating his wings.

I am well, Guardus told him. Do not worry. Be ready to jump on my back as soon as I reach the top. Someone is sure to have heard the crash and will see the debris.

Arius acknowledged him and relayed the message to the elves. “Prepare to enter Contemno’s domain,” he said with only a slight tremor.

Guardus emerged through the opening and planted his hind legs on the edge of the tower, still flapping his wings for balance. Arius leaped with ease onto his back, and the elves climbed up after him. As they descended, Arius looked at the bright red walls. The crimson stone blinded his eyes with a fiery intensity. He glanced downward to avert his gaze. There were no floors: the tower was simply a hollowed out cylinder with a set of stairs spiraling up its outer edge. The obliterated remains of the tower roof had landed several hundred paces below. “I don’t see any soldiers,” Arius said, and some of the tension knotting his stomach uncoiled.

Guardus alighted on the ground with silent feet, folding his wings so his passengers could dismount. Two hallways extended in different directions. “The corridor with orange-flamed torches leads to the dungeons,” Arius said. “I’ve seen it in one of my dreams. The other must lead to the throne room.” He walked toward the corridor and stopped. Then he spat. “Contemno has enchanted the passageway to the throne room. Elves cannot enter.” He swallowed. “Guardus and I must go alone.”

“No, there must be some way to break the spell,” Savatay insisted. “We will not leave you!”

Arius shook his head. “If we try to remove the hex it will trip a magical attack that could destroy us all. Tialdo warned me of such a possibility during our training. Guardus and I will face Contemno alone.”

“What would you have us do, if we cannot follow you to the throne?” Orthel asked.

“Take the other corridor. Maybe you can find my father before any more harm comes to him. If all goes well, you will reach him before I confront Contemno.” Shouts echoed from the castle’s warrens. “We have no time to waste. Go, and may the fates allow you to survive this day.”

“And also you,” they replied solemnly and then bounded down the corridor, swords in hand.

So it is you and I left to end this, Arius said.

It is what destiny has planned for us.

Then let us postpone our providence no more! Come, my dragon, and we will finish Contemno’s reign for eternity! 

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