Chapter Three - Rhadem's Noose

The night had chauffeured a heavy mist into Tyer. In the early hours of the morning, Naphine entered Prince Aram’s chambers disguised as a bundle of cloak.

“Prince Aram,” whispered Naphine, waiting patiently for the prince to respond. “Your highness, it is time to wake,” he eventually called a little louder.


Naphine sighed. His breath was faintly visible as it coalesced with the vapour that had crept through the open balcony. He sauntered back out of the chambers and procured a torch from the hallway. Re-entering the room, he lit four torches around his master’s bed, and stepped out onto the balcony.

He had greatly longed for his home the past few months of his journey, he thought, as he peered through the haze. He could not see the harbour right now, but the faint glows of many fires by the palace walls and buildings lit the air. As he turned back to the room, Aram stirred.

“Ah, you have woken,” said Naphine. “I have readied the baths for you, to present you before your journey.”

Aram looked at him through blurry eyes, soon clearing. “It is morning, then; I was not quite sure if I was still dreaming…the night is very…thick,” he said, looking to the balcony. Naphine rewarded him with a chuckle and then brought a robe to the prince.

“At least we’ll have some cover as we travel,” said Aram, rolling over; his luxurious goatskin bed reforming behind him. He stood up and enrobed. “Good Mohisis,” he said, “I have grown unused to such service, Naphine!”

Naphine smiled, and with a bow, said, “I have worried non-stop that the other servants of the palace would neglect you, so I sped my return!”

“And I am glad for it,” said Aram. “I have missed you, Naphine – not for your service, but instead for your companionship…I am glad you are home.”

“Thank you, my lord. Now shall we prepare for your departure?” said Naphine.

“Lead the way,” said Aram. “If you remember it, that is,” he added with a grin.

Aram’s bed chamber was in the southern wing of the palace, while his balcony faced east. Deyas shared the floor with him, along with the four other lavish bedrooms that were all empty, save one that Mirei was guest to that night. As Aram passed, he noticed that her door was ajar.

On the lower floor of the wing were the living areas for the Kingdom’s heirs. A kitchen and its adjoining dining room were the centre of the ground floor. To the south of the dining room, at the very southern tip of the palace lay the library; classroom of the palace children, and where Aram had received his education in history, politics, language, arts and philosophy from Rae. Dosnai, technology advisor to the king, taught him mathematics and ‘modern’ experimentation, which he enjoyed and excelled in, but ultimately fell to the wayside in the skills required as a ruler.

To the north of the dining room lay the baths. Astonian machinists developed an intricate system of filters and beds, made of silver, zinc and limestone that would purify the water as it cycled through. They also designed a chamber where water would pool around a boiler, the bottom of which was heated by coal. The boiler was refilled periodically with fresh water, and the resulting steam was used to power a small mechanical paddle lift which would lift the hot water surrounding the boiler up to a second catchment area, from where it flow out of a lion statue back into the pool.

“I will go to the kitchen and have rations prepared for your journey,” said Naphine, as they reached the ground floor, “along with the updated map, if you so still wish it.”

“Yes, the map! I will take it with me,” said Aram, “but please use discretion in the matter; I am not yet sure who we can fully trust after the attack yesterday, and we must be cautious.” With that Aram continued to the baths. As he entered, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that he was not alone.

The baths were tastefully designed with marble. It was relatively narrow at its entrance, but soon swept away on the right, becoming a large rectangle that was the main pool. In the far left corner there was the diagonally placed lion’s head facing the entrance, and marble pillars lined all sides, interjected by small wood fires to heat and light the air. Mirei was under the statue, eyes closed, as she let the rejuvenated water shower her. She ducked underwater, and her long hair and light undergarment clung to her as she resurfaced. Wiping her face dry, she noticed Aram sitting on the steps of the bath, eyebrows raised.

“Good morning, Aram,” said Mirei, eyes twinkling.

“You do know that only members of the House are allowed to bathe here, don’t you?” said Aram, with the faintest curl on his lips.

Mirei’s face contorted in horror. “Oh no!” she fretted, as she hurriedly tried to clamber through the water. “I didn’t know…I’m so sorry,” she continued.

Aram could not contain his smile, although Mirei was too busy blushing to notice it. As she stepped up past Aram, he stood and took her hand. “Wait, silly,” he said. “You’re my guest, which means you are a member of the house!”

Mirei stopped, and stared blankly at him. He was still grinning and she soon realised that he was mocking her. She gaped for a moment, before looking at him disapprovingly, and pushing him harder than even she had anticipated. Aram, caught completely off guard, went sailing through the air and into the reservoir with a great splash. He flailed his arms twice, while Mirei giggled, and then he floated, face down, motionless.

Mirei rolled her eyes, planted herself on the steps and folded her arms, waiting for him to run out of breath. She was not going to fall for his tricks again so soon.

After a satisfying gurgle and splutter, “I’m glad to see that you still care,” came Aram’s muffled voice from the pool. He swam over to Mirei and gently pulled her into the pool with him, to which she did not protest. “I’m sorry…it was just too much fun teasing you,” he said, grinning, and then softly kissed her cheek.

“I just…” Mirei started, as they remained close. They searched each other in silence, when after a few moments Mirei finally pulled herself into Aram and kissed him on his lips. He knew he should have backed away, as was proper for his position, but instead found himself leaning closer.

“I’m sorry for pushing you in the pool,” she said, smiling. Aram grimaced.

“That’s ok, I think I deserved it,” he said. “This palace is your palace; treat it like you would your own home.”

“Thankyou,” said Mirei, looking around the large room. The walls were alive with dancing lights from the torches reflecting off the water. “I think I would find it very hard to get used to such luxury,” and after a moment of thought, she cheekily added, “but that’s not going to stop me from trying!” and pushed away from Aram, floating to the side of the bath. Aram then chased her, but she was much too nimble for him, and he tried in vain to catch her.

“Are you going to be okay?” Aram asked, eventually giving up and leaning on a wall of the bath, lightly panting. “Travelling north alone, I mean.”

Mirei smiled. “My wit may sometimes escape me when I’m around you, Aram, but it won’t be the first time I’ve had to fend for myself…I will be fine”

“Please be careful,” said Aram. “Take a horse from the stables, and Naphine will help you with anything else you need. I must go to prepare, now. I hope to return within the week, so if you are in Tyer before I am, please stay here and await me.” With that, he swam to the steps and climbed out of the bath; leaving Mirei to hug herself and her thoughts.

Buen-oh snorted.

“What’s the matter?” said Aram, rubbing her muscular neck. He had organised provisions for their journey and he was now saddling his horse; Deyas had kindly offered Buen-oh to Aram, after she kept throwing Deyas off when he tried to ride her.

Buen-oh said nothing more, and patiently let Aram finish his work, when Hisae entered the stables.

“We are ready,” he said, and simply walked back out.

Aram grabbed the horn of the saddle and climbed up; a spring in his step. He then guided Buen-oh out of the stables. She happily trotted out into the early morning grey, and Aram made his way over to the barracks, which lay on the south east portion of the palace grounds, not far from the stables.

The large square barracks housed the Royal Personal Guards while on duty, and were Hisae’s mainstay. At the front, by two glowing iron cradles, Hisae waited with four other guards, all mounted on the local Astonies; the cantles of each horse were stocked for their three day journey. Aram sidled up to them, and the other horses sniffed Buen-oh with interest.

“It looks like we will be deep into Rhadem Forest, by the time this fog lifts,” said Hisae, looking up into the slowly brightening mist.

“And all the better for it!” said Aram. “The less that people know of our departure the better…I was going to suggest leaving by harbour, at least until past the city confines, but I think we are safer by land, now.”

“Aye, we would do well to stay out of the bay this morning,” said Hisae. “If we took route on boat we would not see land again until the other side of the Blarai!”

‘The other side of the Blarai’ had become a part of the language in Astonia, although in this instance Aram was sure Hisae had meant it literally. To reach ‘the other side of the Blarai’ was to be pulled by the currents of destiny, to a destination altogether and usually remarkably different to the course set out for; that’s how many of the merchants in the Old World had in fact discovered the small fishing town of Tyer, generations before. Its natural bay weakened the tides of the greater sea beyond, but only served in making it all the more treacherous, as the undercurrents lost none of their potency to a small ship.

Putting the thought aside, Aram clicked and Buen-oh walked on, the other horses following instinctively. They followed a path that led to the southern palace gate, passing servants and carts transporting newly acquired meal items to the kitchens. The servants sleepily ignored them, preferring rather to contemplate how they could more interestingly peel a sack of potatoes for the king’s eating pleasure.

The air, although moist, was very still as they approached the gate. Hisae trotted ahead to speak to the gate guard, who nodded to his superior and rushed to un-barricade the large reinforced doors. Three other guards nearby ran to help him, and soon the wide doors opened inwards. Behind the doors were another set of gates, identical but instead opening outwards into the city.

Aram and the four guards on horseback reached Hisae as the gates were fully open, and the company continued into the streets as the gates closed behind them. Outside of the southern palace wall was the town centre; normally a hive of performers, jesters, musicians, artisans, their stalls and their patrons, but this morning it was deserted – not unexpectedly so, of course, but advantageously so. Even if there were any lingering visitors, drunk on wine and too befuddled to find a better place to spend the night, they were nowhere to be seen behind the thick blanket of low cloud.

The company, led by Aram in single file, moved slowly to avoid any unnecessary sounds that might wake the inhabitants of Tyer. Aram took a wide street that went directly to the southern gate, through the more affluent southern Tyer. The advantage of which was that even if someone did hear them pass, they would at least not be clearly seen as they would through a narrow, more conspicuous ally. They went by what Aram knew to be the Royal Library on the left; a giant building that was the heart of understanding in Tyer, and the royally commissioned cultural heart on the right, the Temple of Mohisis; an equally large and impressive sanctuary for the Astonian God of Balance and Power, Mohisis. Aram had spent many years in and out of the buildings, in study and in thought, but could only faintly recognise their looming presence in this early morning haze.

Soon after the edifying constructs of Tyer, the southern residential estate began. Traditionally, only the merchants, intellectuals and lords who had contributed a tremendous amount of knowledge, wealth or military power to the kingdom were granted land here, but more recently the requirements had become less than stringent; anyone who took the king’s favour, even momentarily, were given access to Tyer’s most prestigious estate – much to the dismay of the long standing inhabitants being evicted, having fallen out of favour.

Aram was only too glumly aware of the politics the city had now been swamped in as they rode through, but that would be a battle he would fight when his reign began, he thought, and not on this cold springtime morning. In the normal customary sun of the Tyer spring, the elegant houses of the district gleamed of Tyer architecture. Although space was now at a premium within the city walls, clever engineering was still abundant. There was still promise, he thought.

While Aram’s mind was idling, Hisae was very thoroughly watching and listening for a heavy breath, a misplaced step, or a restless bush. In the light of the attack the previous day, his mind was on the task at hand: to get Aram safely out of Tyer and into Tryllia, the Hladin capital. A long while later down the road, after a snail’s race, the mist had quite strongly brightened to the likeness of a pearl, and the Tyer city gates loomed ahead.

“Halt!” called a voice, deafening the silence before it. Hisae spotted a young guard at the gate, and trotted towards him while Aram stopped.

“I wouldn’t come any closer!” cried the guard. “I have strict orders to not let anyone come in or out of the city without the Royal Guard’s permission!” Another guard appeared from behind a tree, quickly running back to his pole arm.

Hisae rolled his eyes. He dismounted his horse and calmly walked towards them.

“And what happens if it is your Commander that wishes to pass?” he whispered to their blank expressions.

“We…err…I…I’m sorry, sir!” the first guard stuttered upon recognising Hisae.

Hisae smiled. “Do not fret, young one,” he said. “You are performing your duties as instructed. Now quietly open up, let us pass, and close the gate behind us. I will be absent for the next week on state task; during which captain Yarian will be your commander.

The young guards took a few moments to digest Hisae’s words. Suddenly they both stood at attention, and whispered back: “Yes, commander!” and scampered to open the gate. Soon the company was out of Tyer, and they picked up pace considerably.

They took a heavily worn road that ran south from Tyer. A bridge had been built to cross the Glamorne River, which was only one of the many technical achievements of Tyer engineers; the river was wide at this point so close to the sea. Beyond the bridge, the road weaned through Rhadem forest to Hrala; both the most populated city in the Guiphir Region of Southern Astonia, and home to Lord Muadli, and then on to the Hladin border. Hrala was ideally situated as a stopping station for the trade route between Astonia and Hladin, and as such prospered greatly. It also produced, as one of the most fertile lands in Astonia, enough grain and livestock needed to feed the entire kingdom, as well as enough surpluses to export to the north.

The still air was crisp, yet damp. The six riders crossed the Glamorne Bridge, and soon found themselves on the doorsteps of Rhadem. Hisae’s left eye twitched. “Aram,” he said siding up to the prince. “I will lead from here, and the guards will follow at rear.”

Aram looked at him questioningly.

“This is where your father was attacked yesterday,” Hisae continued. “I do not want to linger, so please keep up…H’yah!” he cried, and shot off into the mist. Buen-oh, needing little encouragement, was quickly after him at a not too strenuous gallop. Aram wondered if Hisae had bothered to tell the guards of his plan, as he precariously looked behind to see nothing but the swirling mist of his passage. The fog suddenly thickened and darkened around him, and he assumed they had entered the forest, but could barely make it out.

Hisae’s lumbering size created a tunnel in the mist, so even though he was ahead Aram could still make out his form. The road was by no means straight, and Aram turned as closely as he could with Hisae lest he found himself dismembered by a rushing branch.

A great ride then ensued, without pause, until half the morning had passed and the mist had weakened considerably. Aram could now clearly make out the trees around him, and thin pillars of light poked through the canopy of the forest. Behind him, Aram could not see the guards, and was worried. Hisae, oblivious, allowed his horse to gradually slow down through a canter to a walk, and Aram caught up as he stopped by a large fork in the road. Both horses were panting heavily.

“How did you do that?” said Aram, as he stopped by the royal commander.

“Do what?” Hisae responded. He dismounted the colt he was riding and patted it.

“When we started through the forest, I could barely see you,” said Aram, astonished, “not to mention anything else around me. How did you ride with such speed?”

Hisae only nodded, knowingly, and a smile crept onto his mouth. “That, my young prince, is the fruit of many years of living through Rhadem. I know it as if I would my own home…as it has been on many occasions, actually,” he said, as he crouched down and picked a flower; gazing at it nostalgically.

It then dawned on Aram how little he actually knew of Hisae’s life previous to his long serving post as commander. He knew Hisae had been a soldier of Astonia, but only to that extent. He had been Aram’s teacher in the arts of combat and discipline for as long as he could remember, but he had never before spoken of his past. Aram dismounted Buen-oh, to give her a well earned rest, and sat on a fallen trunk next to Hisae.

“You’ve lived here?” said Aram, trying to wean more information out of the scarred giant. Buen-oh wandered off with the colt in search of water and some plants to nibble.

“I have,” said Hisae, “as both a man and a child.” Aram could only smile to himself; Hisae as a child was something he found hard to imagine. “But those are tales for another time,” Hisae continued, “when perhaps my guards are a little faster.” A distant gallop began lightly echoing through the forest. It soon turned into a full melodic rhythm, and Aram looked back to see the four guards approaching, slightly ruffled, but relieved upon finding them.

The guards also dismounted, and one of them removed a goatskin flask from his saddle, passing it to the others after taking a long gulp himself.

Hisae stood up and whistled. His horse had vanished behind the thin veil of remaining mist, and it soon came trotting back; Buen-oh at heel. He fed the horse the flowers and roots he had picked, and then turned to his guards. Buen-oh came to Aram, expecting the same.

“Do you know why you were left behind?” said Hisae, as the guards quickly huddled together; knowing full well what was coming and hoping that they would be better protected in numbers. “Well?”

One guard, with a tinge more courage than the rest, said meekly: “Because you wanted to see if we could catch up?”

Hisae stared at him, while the others’ eyes bulged. Aram could not help but feel somewhat privileged by being the only one not under Hisae’s scrutiny, although he definitely took his fair share while growing up.

“What do you mean to catch up?” Hisae asked sternly. “There is no catching up…there is only not falling behind! I think the fog must have come from inside your head, it was that thick. Anyone else?”

The guards were cowering now; all too afraid of their commander’s wrath to speak. As their minds raced with reasons why they wanted to live, Hisae’s face softened. “I did not warn you,” he sighed, “in order to prepare you.”

Aram watched on curiously. The guards did not seem to understand, and were merely confused by the lack of shouting. Hisae turned to return to his mount, when one of the quicker guards spoke out after a flash of insight.

“Commander!” said the guard.

Hisae paused and looked at him; disappointment obvious within him.

“Thank you, Commander,” said the guard. “The lesson in learnt.” Hisae gave him a vacant smile, nodded, and took the reins of his colt as he began walking away. The other guards quickly, to Aram’s amusement, asked the first what Hisae had meant.

“What lesson?” came the first whisper.

“Why didn’t he tell us?” was the second.

“I’m not thick, am I?” was the third.

Finally the fourth hushed them with his hands, and whispered, “We have to be ready for anything!” A resounding ‘aah’ then filled the air as Aram was walking away with Buen-oh to catch up with Hisae. The guards soon followed suit.

Hisae had stopped by a stream to let his horse drink, and Aram did the same. He looked at the staunch man beside him, in respect of his philosophy.

“You know, Hisae,” said Aram, “these are good men. They do try their best to please you and the captains of the Royal Guard.”

Without saying a word, Hisae leant down and cupped the running water in his hands. He drank some of the clear liquid and splashed the rest on his face; shaking briskly from its sharpness. “I know, Aram,” said Hisae, standing up and facing him. “I do not like seeing them getting killed is all. Yesterday…Marek threw himself at the arrow, when he could just as easily have thrown himself at your father…it makes no sense to me. His bravery was the pinnacle of courage, his reactions were impeccable, but his lack of thought unnecessarily cost Astonia a trained Royal Guard, a Citizen, and a Good Man.” He looked back at the guards waiting patiently for them, and then back to Aram. “I just want them to be mindful, and ready.”

Aram nodded his head. “So why don’t you just tell them that?” he said.

Hisae rewarded him with a chuckle. “Perhaps I should!” he said, and then walked back over to his underlings. “Men,” he said, and the guards stood at attention. “Do you know why you have been chosen to come along for this mission?”

The guards remained motionless; eyes fixed upon Hisae. None spoke, and Hisae paced in front of them.

“You have been picked,” Hisae said, “because you have the most promise of all the regulars in the Royal Personal Guard.” Aram, judging their subtle reactions, saw that this came as quite a surprise to them. “I am tough on you,” continued Hisae, “but you will find that when the time comes – when your life and the lives you protect are under threat, you will be thankful for your training.

“Prince Aram, here,” Hisae said, gesturing behind, “is the future of Astonia. It’s hope, if you will. If something happens to him then anything that you once loved about the kingdom is threatened. Prince Deyas is just as important, of course, but he is not here with us right now for you to protect.

“When Marek was killed yesterday, he performed the ultimate sacrifice for his king, and his people. It was his sharp sword-edge reflexes that saved King Dunos, and not his ability to predict what was yet to become. We were all surprised, but he never once forgot why he was there…he remained vigilant. He was watchful, even though he had no real immediate reason to be.”

Hisae took a moment to regather his thoughts, and let his words sink in. Buen-oh, who was now in the middle of the other horses, snorted and became agitated. Only Aram paid her any attention.

“This is a dark time for our kingdom, and—” Hisae paused. The guards sensed it too and slowly began drawing their swords. “Well that just proves my point!” Hisae finished, as he turned to hawk the dense forest around them.

Aram, who was comforting Buen-oh, was first to hear the scream. A foreign tongue, he thought; one he did not immediately recognise, but the tone was something he knew was not very welcoming. A roar followed the scream, and thirty six men, surrounding them, forty paces away and bearing arms emerged from their cover to rush them from every direction. They were dressed in farmers’ pants, but their pale, scrawny bodies were scarred, strongly suggesting this was not their first fight. Their scalps were hairless, and their eyes were demonic. Fiery paint covered their faces and arms; this was a perfectly placed ambush.

Aram gave Buen-oh one last rub and pulled his sword from her saddle; the Son of Astonia – his as heir to the throne. He revelled in its steel, diamond dust encrusted gleam for a moment before smacking Buen-oh hard on her hind with his palm. She bolted, taking the other five horses away from their danger, and stampeding over three men in their way.

Instinctively, the company of six formed a circle, each facing outwards.

Twenty paces.

“Get behind me!” shouted Hisae to Aram over his shoulder.

“No,” was Aram’s calm and defiant reply.

“Don’t be foolish, Aram. Get behind me.” said Hisae, calling over the roar of the oncoming wave.

Ten paces.

“If you fight for Astonia, then I fight with you,” replied Aram, also shouting. “Pray you’ve trained me well!”

“Later. CHARGE!” screamed Hisae, and all six Astonians sprinted outwards into the brigands. In a synchronous dance; almost symphonic, the guards and Aram took three steps and barrel rolled under the first swings of the mercenaries. The second wave of men, completely caught by surprise behind the protection of the first were gutted as the six sprang up and struck two blows to two different men, each in unison, and each in quick succession. The first wave, caught within its own arced momentum plummeted into itself. Three men were unintentionally wounded by their comrades, and lay on their backs with small spears protruding from their chests. The rest were winded, collapsing, and so momentarily out of the melee; within five seconds almost half of the attackers were dead, dying or winded, and not one of the Astonians had even a scratch – such was their drilling in combat.

The third and larger wave was immediately at their doorstep, and the mercenaries had quickly attuned to the tactic. Three men had Aram’s blood in their eyes, and were charging to surround him. Just as Aram had sliced a gaping wound in one from the second wave, another sword was closing. He parried the blow, ducked another, and parried again from the third man. He was unable to make another strike count. The blows from the first man were abound with immense strength, and Aram found himself being knocked back; his sword ringing loudly in protest from the giant two-handed sword punishing it. This bandit was dressed in filthy leather armour, so he presumed his was the voice he heard moments earlier, and most likely the leader.

Hisae had dealt with his quota easily. His double edged axe dripped with the blood of his foes, and it was thirsty for more. To his left, one of his guards had been knocked over by the force of the third wave, and was fighting from the ground; the fear was evident in his eyes, as he rolled and kicked the blows away. With his left hand, he threw dust into the eyes of the man above him, while a second man swiped the vulnerable limb. The sword did not penetrate his chain mail, but it clipped the skin of his hand and blood burst out, stinging him in agony. The guard dropped his sword and clutched his hand, fearing that his end was near. Hisae pulled a dagger from his boot, and pitched it squarely into the throat of a third man, about to strike and claim the first Astonian victim of the day. Shocked, the man fell back to the dirt floor, his life passing away.

The guard on the ground then saw his escape and rolled away from the second man’s new blow. The first, who had been blinded, was rubbing his eyes and desperately trying to distinguish friend from foe, when Hisae’s great double axe severed away his outstretched arm. The grounded guard rolled again to find his sword, and in desperation lunged into the second man’s loins as he was preparing his final strike. The man’s face became rigid, and he dropped his club to hold his gut together as he sank to his knees. The guard, relieved, finally breathed the tension from his lungs and remained grounded, gripping his wrist to cull the bleeding.

“Are you okay?” said Hisae, leaning over him.

The guard’s face was contorted to control the pain, and he nodded to his commander. Hisae then felt a blow on his left shoulder that made him lose balance and fall to his knees, wincing. A synapse fired and told him that it was a dull blow, and not an edge, so it could not have been pierced. Without further pause, he spun with all of his might and left the man behind him with one less leg, toppling him over onto his back, and squirming in misery.

As Hisae stood, he saw the man had a mace, and one that was anything but dull. He felt his shoulder and there was a deep indentation; blood covered his fingers. The pain then grew intense, and he screamed himself into frenzy. The men who had been dazed had now regained control of their minds and rejoined the fight. Hisae hacked at them inexorably, and even though he was severely outnumbered, he ruthlessly outclassed them in skill. There were only nine of the brigands still standing after Hisae’s burst of rage, while strewn about them lay their fallen comrades. The other guards, tiring, were still holding their ground and working off their assailants. Aram, having now despatched the weaker two of his aggressors, was struggling to match the sheer strength of the leader. With another parry that knocked him to the ground, the leader paused to address the last of his band.

“Thur gaarth non dien!” the leader shouted, and then looked at Aram through bloodlust. Aram had suddenly recognised the words; ‘The heir is dead’ echoed in his mind.

Aram scrambled to his feet with new insight. “Vota trai” he said defiantly, lunging at the surprised giant. ‘Not yet’ he had said.

With fierce determination Aram stormed the man previously towering him. The leader, now on his back foot struggled to embrace the agility of the Son of Astonia. The sun, still streaming through the forest caught the sword as if it were the break of a glistening wave, each movement creating a tiny, blinding flash. The bandit missed a strike, and Aram caught his shoulder, but it was nothing more than a graze.

The leader’s footing weakened; dizzying now from both the burning flash of the sword, and Aram’s relentless pursuit. The sword flashed above; block. There was a flash on the left; parry. It was then in front and was pushed to the right. There were then two flashes; the leader’s sword went up and then back to his left, but the Son of Astonia was no longer there.

Aram sunk his sword deep into the leader, just above his hip, with an upwards thrust, between his brigandine and leather cuisse. The warlord’s open palm sent Aram sprawling to the ground once more, but he looked down to something he had not expected during the long hours he had waited in ambush. As he pulled the Son of Astonia out, he fell to his knees; eyes cloudy. He held the sword in his hands and looked solemnly up at Aram.

“This thievery of the light…it is sharp,” the leader said in Astonian, as he twisted the sword to make it sparkle.

“Why did you attack us?” said Aram, walking up and taking his sword from the leader’s bloodied hand. “Tell me…and I will spare your life.”

The leader laughed and then bowed, to cough out the blood quickly filling his lungs. When he looked back up to Aram, his chin was stained scarlet. “My life is already forfeit…I have failed. You have no power to spare my life…there are many in line behind me, eager for the chance to…” He then paused to embrace the pain that coursed through his body. “Astonia will be destroyed; along with every rat that festers it…the will of Norsvok is great.”

“Norsvok?” said Aram, but the leader remained silent. Still holding Aram’s gaze, he spat at the prince’s feet, and snarled his twisted, broken teeth. The leader saw one final flash of Aram’s sword before darkness enveloped him, and his head rolled away from his slumping body.

The few remaining bandits had fled, with the guards in chase, and Hisae came up beside Aram, sighing heavily; obviously calming down from his earlier fury. His expression was calm, but a small furrow cross his brows; his pain now visible.

“My hide is not as thick as it used to be,” Hisae said. “I think I have become too used to the comforts of the palace lately.”

Aram stared at the beheaded warlord by his feet, not hearing Hisae’s words. He was rigorously searching his memory for any trace of Norsvok, but could find none. Perhaps he was a rising warlord, he thought, with the conquest of Astonia his ambition.

“Aram?” said Hisae, no longer wincing; instead wondering whether the prince was still there. Aram returned to his senses, and looked at Hisae beside him. The tunic that covered his broad chest and chain mail was drenched in blood. Mostly that of his victims, he assumed.

“Who were they?” said Aram.

Hisae looked at the leader sprawled at their feet, and then back up to Aram with slight bemusement in his eyes. “I would normally have asked them that while they could still talk,” he said.

Aram huffed, and shrugged to acknowledge Hisae. “He would tell me nothing, and patience escaped me,” he said. “All he mentioned was that this aggression was willed by Norsvok, whoever that may be.”

Hisae squinted. “Norsvok? I have not heard the name,” he said. “We will ask Rae when we return to Tyer…he will know. For now, though, I need to tend to these wounds. Will you fetch some barrow root for me; its plant is purple and it grows near the streams here in Rhadem.”

Aram quickly earmarked his thoughts to aide his Commander, and during his search for the plant, Buen-oh returned with the other horses. She trotted to and nuzzled into him as he intently scanned the foliage by the stream. She watched him curiously as he found the plant, and took several samples back to Hisae.

Hisae took one of the plants and held it up proudly. “Ah the Barrow Root!” he said. “Many times has this blessed plant warmed my blood after the dark nights in this cold forest!” Hisae then pointed to the root in case Aram had not seen what he was talking about, and said, “You will do well to remember the life giving elixir of this root.” He then twisted the cone end of the thick rubbery root and it snapped off, allowing a creamy paste to ooze out of its wounded shell. “Hold this,” he said, handing Prince Aram the root.

Aram put a little paste on his finger, but the result was nothing like he had expected. He stared at his hand as the paste dissolved and seemed to seep into his skin. “I cannot feel my finger!” he said, as Hisae removed his chain mail. The commander only looked up to the prince and smiled.

Hisae turned his back to Aram, and said, “Please do that here,” pointing to his bloodied shoulder. Aram saw the wound for the first time, and was mortified.

“Hisae!” said Aram. “How can this small thing heal such a great wound? Should we not return you to Tyer so the Royal men of healing can cure such a thing?”

A sullen look of impatience crossed Hisae’s stare. “Pah! They would not know healing if it rattled their heads together until they passed out,” he said. “You will see its magic…just cover my wounds in it.”

Aram looked at the blood drying on Hisae’s back. There was one large open wound the size of the walnut, and several smaller ones peppered around it, but they were difficult for him to make out. “Should I wash this first, so I may see what I am doing?” he said.

Hisae replied over his shoulder; “no such thing, just put the paste on and you will see,” he said.

Shrugging, Aram lifted the root to Hisae’s shoulder and squeezed it so the paste dribbled out. He wiped it onto the large wound that he could see, and immediately the paste began sizzling. Tiny bubbles escaped the new liquid and a small cloud emanated from the sticky pool. Hisae seemed untroubled by its effect. After the bubbling settled, the paste had become a sticky patch that filled the wound, and whatever the paste and liquid had touched was now clean of the drying blood. Aram quickly applied the paste to the rest of Hisae’s damaged skin and soon enough he had dressed the wound completely. He took a moment of awe in its chemistry.

Hisae flexed his shoulders, stretching his arm. Grimacing mildly, he eventually nodded his approval of the medicine. “Now that is taken care of, we must keep moving.” Hisae shuffled to his horse, which had been chewing Barrow leaves with Buen-Oh. He pushed their heads away from the plants; “That will make you drool, stop it!” he said.

The colt had already chewed enough to make its tongue loll from the side of its mouth, though, and had begun to slobber. Hisae shook his head at the steed. Attached to the saddle was the Commander’s Horn; the defining call of an adult Astonian ram. Sucking the mild sweat soaked air into his lungs, he blew hard on the horn and its trebled boom echoed through the forest, shaking the birds from their branches, and ducking the frogs into their ponds. The horn also told the guards to return to their Commander and regroup.

While Hisae waited, he fiddled with his chain-mail. Clumsily trying to realign the links that had been stretched by the mace, he eventually muttered a curse in frustration and took it to the stream to wash. He watched the blood mingle with the clear water on its way through the forest; enough to spy, but not enough to be noticed.

Soon enough the party had been reunited, but none of the bandits that fled had returned with the guards. “They just seemed to melt away,” said one of the four, to Hisae’s nonchalant shrug.

“We will not waste our time chasing them,” said Hisae. “We must keep moving. How is your hand?” he said to the previously injured guard.

“It hurts,” was all he said, still clasping his wrist.

“Here,” said Hisae, handing the guard the barrow root. “This will help dull the pain.”

The guard stared at the root; it was obviously foreign to him. He then looked back up to Hisae. “Do I eat it?” he said.

Hisae chuckled. “You can try,” he said, “but I think eating it only works on horses.” He pointed to his colt which was trying to drink water with its misbehaving tongue. Buen-Oh was next to it, slowly leaning to one side before her lower half staggered to catch up. “Squeeze out the insides, and apply it to your wound.”

“Oh,” said the guard, and followed Hisae’s command. His face furrowed as the paste bubbled, and then lit up when the tranquilising effects of the plant suddenly overpowered his pain. “This is great!” he decided, and rubbed some on his leg, which had been troubling him. He then passed the root around to the other guards, who treated their own minor ailments; completely irrelevant to the skirmish beforehand.

So the company moved on, adrenaline rotting and the perfume of sweat gripping its prey; the horses didn’t seem to mind, though, since they were now mostly high on barrow.

On the other side of Tyer, where the mist was not so thick, another traveller entered the district of Sul-Phor after a relatively luxurious ride. At least, nobody tried to kill her.

Fully provisioned from the Palace’s kitchen, Mirei had left Tyer just as the city was stirring. The rocky Mandone plains accompanied her east to the Five Fall River, a pacing rapids stemming from the lakes between the mountainous northern region of SulPhor, and the old capital territory of Hornaine, where she followed the river northeast across the regional border. Occasional travellers passed her way, some gloomy, some excited, and some just plain carefree about their passage through the Astonia.

She would reach the first village of the province, Glyciarune, by nightfall, and hoped to find an inn to rest and consider her next move.

The edge of the Rhadem was now near. Hisae had led another gallop through the rainforest, and nightfall was approaching. The company of six slowed their horses to a trot as they entered a dell. As the path lowered and elevated, it crossed the second stream, and third water body of their journey; a perfect place to camp and allow their mounts to rest from the hard day’s riding.

“We stop here for the eve,” said Hisae, after having scanned the horizon to his satisfaction. “You, firewood, you, water, and you, get me some damn tea made…everything you need is within thirty paces, so do not go any further,” and three of the guards went merrily away to fulfil their orders. The fourth stood sheepishly around, lost without the others, finally deciding to lounge as best as he could on a long rock and play with the makeshift bandage on his hand.

Aram, having dismounted Buen-oh, was stroking her neck as Hisae came up behind him. Buen-oh acknowledged his arrival with a shake of her mane and a snort…the memory of Barrow still warm.

“Aram,” said Hisae, waiting for the prince’s attention.

“Yes, Hisae?” he asked, turning. “How is your shoulder?”

Hisae’s face burrowed. “My shoulder? What about my shoulder? Oh…right. No, it’s fine; hasn’t bothered me at all, actually. No, what has been bothering me is your safety.”

Aram looked himself over to make sure he was all there. “Unless my eyes deceive me, I look fine. I think you are performing your service perfectly.”

Hisae’s breath was sharp, but he said nothing.

“I’m sorry…I did not mean to patronise you, Hisae” said Aram. “I…”

Hisae barely shook his head and blinked slowly. “Nevermind,” he interrupted, waving his hand. “I wish you had not killed the leader of that rabble so quickly; he may have given us some useful knowledge under…more encouragement.”

“I know. He could have lasted at least an hour longer I think. I do not know what came over me. His words still echo in my ears, though, and they are burning my very soul.”

“What did he say, exactly?”

“The heir is dead.”

“I see…and then you cut off his head?” said Hisae, accompanying the question with a raised eyebrow.

Aram could not help but allow a smile to creep over his face. “No, that was when he had knocked me to the ground, and thought he was about to run me through. I’ve told you all he said after I disarmed him,” he replied.

“Did he say that in Astonian? He spoke our language?”

“No. Well, yes, he spoke our language, but he said that in another tongue.” Aram paused.

Hisae, waiting patiently for the rest, rolled his eyes when he realised he would have to delve. “Okay, in which other language did he speak?”

“Nebhunese,” said Aram. “Not the same accent that I am familiar with, but definitely Nebhunese.”

“I see,” said Hisae. “Do you think there was anything especially strange about that ambush?”

“You mean apart from the fact that we were completely surprised?”

“Well, that’s how ambushes work,” said Hisae, “but yes, apart from that.”

Aram looked thoughtful for a moment, and finally back up at Hisae.

“How did they know?” said Aram.

“Exactly! How did they know, indeed,” nodded Hisae. “We could have been anywhere in Astonia this morning. How did they know we would be leaving exactly as we did, and not travelling some other route? They must surely have predicted our route beforehand – I do not understand how they could have travelled faster than us, unless they were nearby already, or had prior knowledge.” Hisae waved at the gathered horses to emphasise his point.

“We were also outnumbered six to one,” said Aram. “Either they were terribly trained, or we were exceptionally so.”

“As much as I’d like to think I train my Guard well, it felt more like we were slaughtering farmers than soldiers,” said Hisae, with the bittersweet expression of having claimed victory while being greatly outnumbered, but knowing all too well that the victories worth bragging about are the ones most difficult to earn. “Did you see how they were so incompetent, that they basically killed each other for us?”

“I was engaged by the leader very quickly, so I did not know what was happening to the rest of you until it was over,” said Aram. He felt a little embarrassed that he had lost awareness during the battle, but he was still thankful that he held his own. “Do you think they could have been from the same group that attacked the King yesterday? Maybe that first attack was meant to be a lure after all.”

“I know not, Aram. There was only one assailant yesterday, and maybe we just had the bad luck of charging straight into them here today. I could have believed they were just mindless bandits until you so graciously filled me in on your conversation with their leader,” returned Hisae.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a conver-“ started Aram.

Hisae quickly waved the prince quiet. “It doesn’t matter. What is important is that it seems that the Personal Guard has foiled a second plot to destroy the Astonian Throne. This reeks of planning, and so, I worry for your safety. We must not delay our travel, and must reach Muadli post haste.

“Assuming he isn’t a part of this plot,” Aram wondered aloud.

Hisae thought for a moment before responding. “That is possible, but unlikely,” he said. “I’ve known him since we were children, and I have seen his loyalty personally, when he rode to break the Nebhunese siege of Dreemon when they tried to take the Glamorne province, before you were born. I don’t think there are many men who I would trust before him. Rest now, we will depart by moonrise.”

As the party regained their strength, ate their meals and drank their tea, they listened to the forest breathe the evening away, and as the moon motioned its mastery of the sky, they continued on their way to Hrala, the seat of power in the southern Guiphir province of Astonia.

Next Chapter

Page of Contents

QR Code
QR Code chapter_three_-_rhadem_s_noose (generated for current page)