When everything ends well, it’s most likely to give a start to something hideous.
The summer campaign of 2022 was suspiciously kind to our clan. Not a single plan was thwarted, each of our actions was crowned with success – we won back the trust of many clans, earned the respect of our enemies, attracted many brave warriors to our side, our word was not only sought, but also obeyed. We entered into a number of deals and exchanging of lands, money and military aid, we managed to collect our deficit very quickly, we have kept and fed our free population, we have extended our territories and we ended up establishing ourselves in a vast and fertile area of important territories close to and including the Black Sea, sharing borders with Bdin, Pontus, and Gargavrans, and most importantly, while we were trying to achieve all this, not a single member of the Dark Guard trampled the morals, values and traditions of our clan.
After the campaign, we traveled to our new territories to survey the terrain. We started planning the reconstructions, fortifications and afforestations, but one of our main tasks was also to build a strong relationship and mutual trust with the free population. At the behest of the Three Oms – Feros, Lestat and Drak, who were still in their lands in the Feywild, we began a full mobilization of agricultural labor. We called all the artisans in the areas, we have registered them, and we personally tested the quality of their goods.
The future looked brighter than ever. We walked triumphantly through the squares, enjoying our moment of fame and worship by the natives. Our pride was drenched in the sweetness of glory as if you had given the thirsty man a drink of divine nectar.
The first few days we feasted with the locals until the sunrise. They were bringing us gifts, food, clothes and bottles of their finest beverages. We were quite amazed to find out that the locals were not worried, nor scared by the rumors they had previously heard about the Dark Guards. Quite the opposite – glorious legends were spreading at the speed of the light. Tales about the Oms and the exploits of our clan over the past few years. In every town square and every village we were welcomed with tables piled with traditional regional dishes and a variety of delicious drinks from the local brewers.
And despite all that, something just… wasn’t right, we felt it for months. The wind sometimes carried deafening screams, and we knew they were neither coming from our imaginations, nor were some side effects of the alcohol. The winds sounded like a sinister omen, heralding turmoil, death and tyranny. The hot sun of August stung and burned our skins, as if every day it was trying to shine for the last time. The stars were afraid to glow in the sky, and the moon was hidden behind thick and dark clouds, unusual for this time of the year. If it happened to rain, it didn’t stop for days, as if nature was trying to cry out all its pain, layered since the dawn of time.
These phenomena were not visible to the ordinary human eye, but some of us felt the change. That faint stench in the thick air… The elves felt it, the fey creatures felt it, the druids and forest creatures felt it, the wizards felt it and we shivered with every gust of wind, sharpening our senses for some sign, something, a tiny pinch of clarity about this chaos that inevitably crept in slowly but surely. We were falling asleep and then waking up with eyes wide open, yet trying not to show our doubts to those who were not suspecting anything. We have been tirelessly looking for ways to anticipate and to predict the events so that we can prevent them, without panicking the local population.
Within two weeks we convened eight councils. We were filled with fear, but mostly anger. The layers were shifting beneath our feet, and we didn’t know why. And how can it happen right now? Right now, when we had everything we had dreamed of until recently! The former territories of Dulo were finally in our hands, we emerged as liberators of the local population, who until recently were poor and emaciated, and now they were jubilant, they adored and trusted us. Together, we began to carefully build stone by stone the future of these territories, abundant with fertile soils, diverse flora and fauna, and mineral water springs filled with countless passages of fish. The irony here was crippling with the most ugly gait.
One day, I decided to take a walk near Sredets, accompanied by Abay. Reaching the river, I tied his reins near the stream and I silently gazed at the horizon.
The sudden deafening silence struck me. The bees stopped buzzing, the birds fell silent, the wind stopped, and the sky was covered with black clouds. Abay’s nostrils were wide open in displeasure, his pointy ears – glued to his head. He stepped back, his hoof slapped in the mud.
- You feel it too, my love, don’t you? – I asked Abay calmly, watching him with my peripheral vision, still staring at the misty horizon. – Nymaenya fill’aeth! – I commanded, stretching one hand forward, while with the other I deftly pulled the dagger out of my boot.
After only a second, I felt that my pupils shrinked and my vision sharpened. My hearing began to pick up even the finest frequencies. A few kilometers away in the direction of Sredets, I could hear a galloping horse. Actually, not one, hundreds. The sound of hooves pounded in my head like thunder. For a moment I looked at Abay, whose mane stood up in worry.
- ABAY! Let’s go! We have to get there first and warn everyone! – I shouted decisively, throwing myself on his back with one jump.
Abay galloped like crazy as I was sticking my boots into his flanks. The clever animal could sense my anxiety and was doing his best until suddenly he whined loudly when one arrow passed a centimeter away from his ear. He stretched his body back and stood up on his back legs.
- ABAY, NO! – I screamed, sliding backwards from the saddle, falling on the ground.
A second arrow flew between me and him as he frantically tried to escape. I gripped the rein tightly, and Abay dragged me along the dirt.
- ABAY, CALM DOWN! – I commanded and he instantly froze in place. Only our rapid breathing could be heard.
At this very moment I saw them – three tall black figures stood before us, their bows were raised high, pointing in our direction. Two of them were aimed at me and the other – at Abay’s forehead.
- No… – I barely whispered.
As the black figures drew their bows in readiness, I shut my eyes. All of a sudden a horn blew in the distance. I felt a movement in the bushes, someone whispered something very quietly, and as soon as I opened my eyes – the black figures were gone.
‘’What the hell…” I said to myself, when suddenly black roots slid from the nearby trees, wrapping around my ankles and wrists. Some of them wrapped around Abay’s hooves too.
– Let me go!!! – I protested, trying to pull them away, but the branches dug into my skin harder and slowly began to burn it.
Abay also squealed in horrible pain. His fur, around which the roots had wrapped, began to smoke.
- No, Abay, stop! Don’t, don’t move!… Easy, my boy, easy, my dear… Don’t resist, otherwise our bones will break… We’ll stand here and wait.
In his eyes I read something, as if he was mockingly saying to me, “My Lady, I’m very sorry, but weren’t you the fairy-earth mage-druid and what not?”
- Stop it, Abay, or I’ll keep you on a leash for a week! Don’t mess with me, I’ve measured my strength and I can tell you that I have no power here. Do you think I’m an idiot? I don’t like having roots wrapped around me, burning my flesh with every move either, but you know what’s worse?… I need to pee.
I woke up surprised to discover that the meadow around which Abay and I were prisoners was covered in mud. It must have been raining quite a bit, but I had no idea how long we were tied up. The roots had retreated, nature seemed normal again. The birds were singing, the bees were buzzing, the sun was barely filtering through the branches of the deep forest. Abay seemed relatively calm as he was now eating the freshly watered grass. I stood up and was happy to find that I hadn’t peed myself, because I definitely had a much stronger desire to pee than the last time I told Abay. I probably fell asleep for only a few hours… or a day at most? Who knows?
I looked at my wrists and ankles. I could still see some burned places and abrasion marks where the roots had held me in their grip. I quickly pulled an ointment from my bag. My grandmother, Khadira, had taught me how to make it: first you crush calendula leaves and chamomile blossoms, then you add a bit of a snail slime extract, then three drops of lavender oil and a spoonful of honey. I approached Abay, who looked at me suspiciously.
- Ooh, come on! That’s enough! Same thing every time! It’s not the first time I am treating your injuries! Did something happen to you?! Come to me right now!
His solid body approached me slowly and hesitantly, but still his trust in me prevailed and he allowed me to take care of his wounds.
- Enough with the kicking, eh! I have to take care of myself too! We don’t have the whole day, we don’t even know what happened. I hope that those… whatever they were, have missed passing by Sredets… – The thought that the Dark Guards might have been captured gave me shivers.
All of them were with me in Sredets. All of them, but the Oms. And probably for their own good. I wrapped myself in four bandages and jumped on Abays’ back.
- Take me to The Dark Guards!
The sun was slowly beginning to give its way to the night. Abay was galloping like crazy and in less than an hour the horizon reviewed the tall gates of Sredets. Just before the stone bridge I got off my horse and led him into the nearby woods. Abay looked horrified because he knew what was coming.
- Stay here and wait for my return. Abay, you’re such a child! Pull yourself together and stop kicking! First of all, I can’t risk your life, we don’t know what happened here, nor for how long we were missing. Second, you are a giant battle horse, dammit, have you realized your size compared to the other horses?… Don’t look at me like that, you’re attracting attention! Besides, you have an incredibly important task – to guard my luggage. I can’t take everything with me.
The moment Abay felt important, he stopped kicking the air helplessly. I kissed his forehead, put on my hood and began to crawl through the deepening shadows of the night.
I approached the main gate when I heard two men with deep voices debating. I stopped at just the right distance so that I could hear them crystal clear, without any risk of being spotted.
- What a night, huh? – laughed one of the men. – How they begged for mercy. “Yes, yes, Master, I will serve the Empire faithfully.” Ha! Fools, how pitiful they were! I am telling you, they are cowards. Promise them a piece of bread and not to set their huts on fire and they are yours forever.
- Well, we burned quite a few houses to ashes, haven’t we? But this was necessary, some of them were trying to rebel. Well… That’s what happens when they resist and they should get used to it. And yet there weren’t many victims. I would say that it happened in a more civilized way than expected. Let’s hope the Empire manages to impose the New Order that quickly and efficiently in the other provinces as well.
- Oh, it will, undoubtedly. But let’s not lie to ourselves, the Master is too damn good at this. When he came forward, they stood as if they were petrified. The way he told them that if they disobeyed, their least punishment would be 500 lashes and they would beg to get them… Ah, sweetness…
- Everything belongs to us right now.
- And every life… – added the tall man and smirked at the other.
My thoughts were galloping through my mind, replaying everything I had heard so far. But how is that possible? Sredets had fallen under someone’s control within 24 hours? So I slept through an entire attack! Cursed roots… With what force did they come, did no one come for help? What Lord, what the hell, what Empire? Where were our allies now? Hearing the word “Empire” makes my blood fizz like fresh ale. ‘They hadn’t taken many victims’, ‘Every life belonged to them…’ What happened to The Dark Guards? A lump the size of a river stone got stuck in my throat, and they continued:
- Did they finally find their Oms?
- Nah, they haven’t. Yet. But fret not, we will find them, there is nowhere for them to hide.
- Some of the locals said they never showed up. And no one has heard anything from them for at least a year. It was said that they went to some other… realm. Something… Fey-Mey… I didn’t remember it, I didn’t hear it.
- Ah, but they’ll come back at some point, won’t they? We are not in a hurry. But who, then, if not them, has led them the last year?
- Well, some kind of a Fey… Tarrube Skarsgård or something like that, it was a long and ridiculous name, whatever. And there was another one… Erm.. Someone named Ortus. But they only replace their Oms while they’re away.
- Hmmm… Intriguing… And despite everything, the Master ordered us to look for them as well. They will jump out of the rabbit hole, they won’t hide eternally.
- Indeed, but how do you explain the fact that only The Dark Guards were missing yesterday? As if they vanished, like a miracle! As if they knew we were coming and had time to escape.
I was finally able to take a solid deep breath. So my brothers have saved themselves…
- Oh, come on! Where can they hide? Everything from Vidin in the North, to the Southwest to Noldor, the entire South in general, the Black Sea and the Northeast to East Wind – everything is now under our control. And if there is any piece of this world that is not under our control yet – within a day or two it will fall. They have no chance. They will be forced to either hide forever like mice or betray their leaders, pointing out their position. And that’s it. There is no in-between.
- Silsa mentioned that yesterday morning they found some… Was she an elf?… Nevermind, a woman, riding this way, but just as they were about to shoot her, they heard the Master’s signal and left. Well, they played with the elements a bit, as you can imagine, they tied her up with branches, but no one came back to look for her.
- Of course they won’t, they have much more important things to do. Besides, if they come back, there will probably be nothing left of her but ashes. But now… As you’ve mentioned it… Wouldn’t it be good for someone to go and identify her, at least? What if she’s still alive? What if she is one of Them?
- Enough of this speculation. We don’t have time for some defenseless elves, she could be anyone. These… Tarrube and Ortus, you’ve mentioned earlier – they will appear soon.
I suddenly felt nauseous again. The world started spinning around me. My body began to shake both from anger and confusion. ‘So… They are looking for us just because we led the clan. True, many things happened, but what were we guilty of? Why did they need us? According to what they have said, I should have been turned into ashes, but I only had a few burns… Maybe because I’m an earth magician and they used a similar magic to Entange? But I am not resistant to these spells. There is no logic in all this. Elune shouldn’t have protected me either, night hadn’t fallen at the time of the attack. But for some reason, Abay and I had stayed alive, and now the reason ‘’why’’ didn’t matter so much to me. The facts mattered – I’m still breathing. As does Abay.’
As soon as I thought of Abay, I instantly ran through the shadows back to the forest where I had left him.
Running to my horse, I reflected upon the thought that it was now unthinkable for me to walk freely… anywhere. Starting from this moment, or at least until I find The Dark Guards, I couldn’t risk being captured. ‘I need to find them. I need to find my allies. Someone…’
Caution. That word was going to become my motto from now on. But where could I go?
A few weeks passed in relatively mindless wandering, avoiding large populated areas. Of course, my thoughts were mainly focused on where The Dark Guards were, were they hiding, was there anyone who had been captured and needed help? Did they all vanish and stick together or they’ve split up?
Knowing my people well, both options seemed perfectly logical to me, but I was secretly hoping for the second one. On the one hand, because it hides much fewer risks, and on the other – if they split, they would’ve, by now, gathered solid information, which we would’ve needed in the future. We just had to, somehow, find each other.
As for the surrounding world, that heaviness continued to be felt in the air. Sometimes, when I needed to buy some provisions or food for Abay, I would stop by some god-forsaken village and remain as hidden as possible from the eyes of the locals, especially from the eyes of the Black Masks. I have heard some rumors that everyone was now having something as a personal code or number and these Black Masks were regularly checking everyone on the entrances and exits of the cities.
But the worst of all was that as time progressed, you couldn’t trust anyone.
In general, people began to be more and more careful about what, where and to whom they speak. It was becoming difficult to guess the mood of the local population. They were all supposedly disgusted by what was happening, but how could you know if they weren’t just throwing dust in the eyes? Some might’ve been converted already. Some people were maybe enjoying that New Order…
Although such a move would be foolish enough because those Imperials were initially having the habit of first taking various extreme measures such as imprisonment, whips fights and what not, in case of disobedience and then investigating whether there was any treachery at all.
Oh, but wait now. You cannot just simply invade a relatively peaceful population and spread like a plague among their territories, declare an almost total and maniacal dominance, to impose a curfew, to ban music and entertainment, to interfere in politics and to dangle around your ideologically sick carrot, screaming that you want their leaders dead or alive and still expecting someone to be delighted by your presence and greet you with a carpet of roses.
- I curse these morons! Once in every five years there is always some sick brain that decides to create an Empire. Even religious sects are less influential, these bastards took over our lands like a plague… Am I not right, my love?
In that particular moment, Abay was eating grass and looked at me frankly dumb and with a total disinterest.
- Why am I expecting empathy from a horse, damn it, look how miserable I am… I think that after all these weeks of loneliness and hiding, I’m in a desperate need of a conversation partner… Apologies, that’s not what I meant. I meant that sometimes I just wish you could answer me… Am I filling your head with a lot of nonsense? Granted. I shut up.
We were headed to the territories of The Seven Hills, when the idea of visiting Hedur struck me. The librarian saved me more than once from all kinds of absurd situations (and creatures), besides, he owed me (or maybe not) a favor because only a few months ago we had married him to the bride from East Wind, whose name I never remembered.
- Abay, I wonder if they are still together. Maybe they have kids by now? Smol Seven Windians, haha. Okay, yes, I know that my sense of humor atrophied, but remember – you are my only company. Oh, wait… Maybe distance separated them? What if Hedur is not even at home? Well… I still have my lock picking tools.
The horse stopped and gave me the most judgemental look ever that said something between ‘How can you be so ruthless?’ and ‘Are you really going to do this to a friend of yours?!’
- Oh, come on! I will build him another door. I just said I have the tools, not that I will use them. Hopefully Hedur is alive.
Hedur had a modest tree hut in the mountains, according to the map – one day away from Plovdiv. The village was called Dedevo. He was the last person anyone would ever associate me with.
Autumn anticipated to arrive sooner than usual. The leaves seemed to turn yellow and dropped down within a day. Suddenly it got cold, nature was already preparing for its winter sleep, because of which, it seemed, the people also became silent and distant.
Abay and I got from Sredets to Dedevo in about a week or two, as we avoided the main roads.
As a child, I had visited Dedevo once or maybe twice with my father, and I still remember how the small two story houses of the locals were built around the main road. Sometimes, when the skies were clear, Plovdiv could’ve been seen from there. To the right of the main road, Rhodope mountain stood proudly and revealed a huge chain of cliffs.
I remembered how when I was little, I was pulling my father, Badr, by the sleeve, begging him to go climb to the top of the cliffs and, of course, he never let me. As Abay and I walked towards Hedur’s hut, I wondered if I was now skilled enough to climb them, when another not-so-pleasant thought struck me – that I had no idea where Hedur lived, so my only option was to go and speak with the locals, risking too much in case there are some Black Masks around.
Passing by the square I stopped by the baker and bought some bread, milk and cookies. Well, you don’t go to a party empty-handed, especially if you’re ready to break into someone’s house uninvited. Especially if you’re convinced that you will do it anyway, even if that someone’s not there. I asked the baker if he knew where Hedur, the Librarian, lived. It took him some time, which I didn’t really had and just when I was about to go out, he yelled:
- Wait, wait! Hedur? The skinny-tall-curly boy with that weird-hell-of-a-bird?
- EXACTLY! – I nearly shouted out, filled with enthusiasm.
- Haven’t seen him in months, soz, M’lady.
I looked at him with immense disappointment.
- Well… That was useful. Thanks anyway.
- No! M’lady, wait! His hut is outside the village, in the forest. You see the main road? Continue straight for about… God knows, half an hour maybe, then you’ll see that the road splits. Continue along the path to the left. Remember – TO-THE-LEFT. Shortly enough, you’ll see a tree hut. Alas, I can’t promise you’ll find the boy. I heard that the Hedur boy is facing some difficult times, dealing with the divorce…
- Divorce?! – I repeated.
- Yep, yep, with Lady Katherine. – said the baker, throwing a tray of dough into the oven. – Unfortunate, isn’t it, M’lady… Are you married?
- That was… quite expected, to be honest, thank you! Have a wonderful day, Sir! – I added, trying my best to avoid his question.
- Oy! M’lady! Wait, wait! There’s another thing.
- I am listening.
- May I ask for your name? You know, in case Hedur appears?
I hesitated a few seconds, then I turned to him and answered with a fake smile:
- Aynure. Aynure… – I couldn’t think of anything else at this moment, so I added. – Radik.
- RADIK?! – he repeated, nearly screaming.
- BYE! – I yelled, bowing to the gentleman, slamming the door behind me, just in time before two black figures appeared on the main square.
To be continued…