|Regulus of Exile Chapter 2|
The Black Rider
The Great North Road
As night fell, an unseasonable icy wind blew in from the north. It swept down from the snow topped mountains to race across the lowlands. The chill air washed around a ragged convoy as it crept along northwards into twilight. The refugees of Alquvia were walking the long dark road to safety.
The frigid chill of the air cut to the bone, matching the cold emptiness in the refugee's hearts. Out of all the refugees there was one heart that felt the chill more than most. It bore the burden of an entire empire's pain. Their loss and suffering were an agonizing ache within her; for she was Aurelia, former empress and leader of them all. She lay upon the floor of the wagon they had bartered for passage in; curled up in a ball, wrapped in the only blanket they had.
Arash had done his best to comfort her after they had escaped from the tunnel. However there had been little enough time to plan their next move before, they had been forced to flee once more. The pair had jumped upon a barge moving upriver; hiding inside one of the open cargo crates on deck. The pair had struggled to stay silent as the Falshin soldiers rocked of the barge in their search of the vessel. They had even heard one soldier sit on their box to take a rest as the remained continued their search; they had remained undiscovered.
Now with three days onward travel behind them, the pair had joined a caravan of refugees headed to Spavati. It was the free trade city of the northern empire; a special administration zone within the Alquvian Empire that paid taxes to the motherland, but was not technically a part of the empire.
To the minds of the refugees Spavati was their best hope of safe haven from the invasion. Word was being passed from person to person as new pieces of information were ‘discovered’. Arash had spent all of his time, when not resting, jumping from wagon to wagon in search of this information.
He had created a convincing cover identity as a ‘Ganderian’ Merchant. In their distressed condition few of the refugees had bothered to question where a ‘Ganderian’ came from and so as yet none had discovered that no such place truly existed. He had used this cover to move through all of the displaced peoples, becoming well known and trusted. In his talks with the Alquvians he had heard more rumours than he had heard in the rest of his life put together. In some cases he could tell that the refugee he was speaking too was making up the rumour to seem more important. However in most cases they genuine believed what they were telling him, no matter how farfetched the notion was.
He normally returned to find Empress Aurelia in the same place in which she had been when he had left her. He realised that the pressure of such a loss must have been almost unbearable, so for the most part he had avoided telling her what he had heard. However on the evening of the third day, with the whole convoy shivering in the twilight, he decided that something had to be done.
He moved to the rear of the wagon, checking that the driver was not paying attention, and sat beside the former empress curled up in her blanket. “Your highness, are you awake?” he spoke quietly trying not to be overheard. The balled up blanket twitched, yet no response was given. Arash sighed and decided to wait a few moments more before trying again. “Your highness, I need to speak to you.” The blanket twitched once more, but the silence persisted. Finally Arash gave up on waiting and pulled the blanket, forcing the empress to sit up.
As her head appeared from beneath the fabric the look in her eyes almost broke Arash’s heart. The agony of loss was etched across her face; eyes puffy and swollen, hair tangled and expression forlorn. “What?!! What do you want?!!” Aurelia’s tone was harsh and unfeeling as she showed her obvious unwillingness to hold a conversation. “We need to have a conversation Your Highn….” Aurelia scowled at the use of the honorific. “I have no throne, so stop calling me Your Highness!! Aurelia is my name, use it.”
Hearing her angry yet defeated tone Arash felt it did not bode well for what needed to be said. “It’s about your people; they all believe that you are dead!” The sentence struck Aurelia’s mind like a physical blow to the head. To her people she was she was now the walking dead; a forlorn hope left over from bygone age. “There are people saying that your entire High Guard was dragged out into the forum and massacred; that the palace is burning and the Falshin will destroy the city.” The next set of rumours made Aurelia sick to her stomach; in the back of her mind she had known that her High Guard were gone, yet to hear the manner of their end was almost too much to bear. “There is no proof of any of this but we have to do something about the rumours, Aurelia. They need hope or else the people will despair and we will never get you back to the throne.”
The wagon was filled with the sound of mirthless laughter as Aurelia shook as if she wept. “Get my throne back?!” She shook her head disparagingly at the idea. “Alquvia could withstand a siege for years if the occupiers are given time to prepare. You do not know how many times I have heard that phrase from the imperial historians and advisors.”
She tucked her legs up tighter to her chest bringing the blanket in closer as she did so. “My advisors once told me if every legion came home to protect Alquvia, then the entire empire would fall into anarchy; millions of our people would suffer and die for one city. We have no armies, no Legatus to lead them and even if we did we couldn’t take back the city with a frontal assault.” She laid her head upon her knees. “It’s over, now leave me alone!”
Arash could not help but be impressed by the empress’s assessment of the dire situation, even if it was perhaps the most negative thing he had ever heard. Before he could respond she spoke again; though very softly as if only to herself. “We have no way of fighting, we can’t recall the legions and they control my capital; the empire is fallen!!” Arash was looking around warily as Aurelia’s words could reveal their identities; they were surrounded by her people but one could never be too careful.
Their conversation was interrupted by a cry from the lead wagons “Time to make camp! Make for the forest clearing to the west!” The wagon lurched suddenly to the left spilling a barrel of fruit onto the pair and destroying any hope that their serious conversation would continue. Arash stood and walked to the front of the wagon “I had better organise our sleeping arrangements.” He walked away leaving Aurelia to cover herself with the blanket once more.
The Imperial Throne Room, Alquvia
The great doorway of the imperial palace laid where is had fallen those few days before, torn asunder by the force of the Rogue Falshin assault. Beyond the entry the gardens were filled with burning pyres of unspeakable foulness. Not content with mere conquest, the Rogue Falshin had begun tossing the remains of those who had been slaughtered onto the fires like so much common kindling.
On the great marble steps stood the man known as Daršam, he was watching the handiwork of his troops with a sort of sinister pride. The stealth with which troops had used entered the city; the efficiency with which they had moved to their staging points and the speed with which they had struck. All had been planned to perfection by one mind; the mind of the man who now basked in the glory of his victory upon the steps of the palace.
He was approached by a soldier wearing a blue plumed helmet “Sir, an Alquvian Senator is demanding to speak with you. She’s saying that we couldn’t have done this without her.” Daršam smirked and signalled for him to come closer. “What is this Senator’s name?” A loud female voice answered the question before the soldier could. “It’s Senator Aedifica Cassia Omid and you know damn well who I am Daršam!” The soldier spun around drawing his sword to strike down the insolent woman, but his hand was stayed by his commander. “It’s alright soldier, the good Senator here was the one who cleared the way for our operation. You will show her every respect from now on.” The solder snapped to attention his placing this hand on the side of his head in the typical Falshin salute. “Yes Spahbed!”
As the soldier walked away Aedifica was trying to suppress her laughter. “Spahbed? You’re still allowing them call you that?” Daršam scowled in annoyance at her tone “This is a military operation. Would your Legatus allow his troops to stop referring to him by his rank?” Aedifica was still trying to suppress her giggles and threw up a mock Falshin salute “No Spahbed.” Daršam walked forwards and took in the sight on his troops at work once more. “Until this operation is over, I shall remain Spahbed Daršam Arika. Once the city is completely under our control, then there will be a change. The Spahbed will be gone and in his place will stand an Emperor!” Aedifica walked in front of him, ensuring he would not get lost in his own treacherous reverie. “Then the Emperor will give this Senator the free reign to build the designs that have been denied to her for too long.”
“You think you can tell me what I will to do?!” Daršam’s tone was cold and dangerous; making Aedifica understand that her life and future were very much in peril. She took a moment to carefully prepare her words, calling upon the years of training she had received in public speaking. “I merely assumed out that a great ruler would take care of those who have been loyal to him. Such as a woman smart enough to trick the entire Alquvian Senate into exiling their greatest Legatus and removing his Legion from the capital.” Daršam’s jaw twitched, but his expression remained dark. “Such a woman would be of use to a great ruler and should be kept close in case she is needed.” Daršam’s expression softened at her argument. “I swear Aedifica, if I did not know you were half Alquvian and Falshin I would swear you were half snake.”
Aedifica was annoyed by the comment but said nothing as she knew it was meant as a compliment. “You will get your chance to build you designs Senator. First you should come see what Marzban Parisa has been doing. It seems he has sent all his time with the lady soldiers we captured; he’s been talking to them for days.” The pair walked away from the monstrous pyres back into the palace, to observe what the Marzban had been doing with the prisoners.
Outside The Refugee Campsite
In the inky blackness of midnight, the air of the tree line was filled with the stink of saddle sore horses and sweat drenched men. The smell came from the group mounted men who had crept up silently upon the forest clearing. Their horse’s hooves had been wrapped in cloth so as to conceal their approach and the men had not spoken a word the whole time they had been moving. They watched the unprotected refugee camp with hungry eyes; silent, unmoving and waiting. Their minds were so filled with the thought of plunder that they did not notice theirs were not the only eyes watching from the darkness.
In the refugee camp itself, the road weary people slept exhaustedly; not possessing the energy to do anything else. Some slept holding those they loved, others held their most treasured possession, whilst those least fortunate merely held onto anything they could to keep warm. Arash and Aurelia were part of the latter group, holding onto their blankets to stave off the night air. The pair had been moved out of the wagon by the owner and had acquired enough cloth to make a makeshift tent to sleep in.
Aurelia slept fitfully, barely staying asleep as the hopelessness of her situation even plagued her dreams. Visions of what happened in the Imperial Forum in Alquvia filled her mind, causing her to jerk wide awake nearly throwing off the blanket. She silently wished she had something to wear other than the long light gown she had been wearing for her performance. The elegant fabric hung from around her neck leaving her back and side exposed, before tapering around her hips and flowing down in a slim fishtail style. The gown was undoubtedly beautiful and was perfectly tailored to Aurelia’s figure; however in terms of being practical when fleeing for your life, the dress did not do so well.
She compensated for the gown’s failings by pulling the blankets in tighter as she sat up. She loathed the idea of raising herself from the warm spot she had been sleeping in, but the nightmares were more than she could stand. She shivered as she looked around the dark campsite to see what was happening and saw that all was still, except for a single solitary figure.
As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness she saw that figure was wrapped in a long black hooded cloak. The figure was walking from the far end of the campsite, silently making its way towards the largest wagon on the far side of the campsite. Aurelia watched as the figure stopped at the wagon and then saw its hands do something to the side of the wagon before walking away.
The figure’s odd behaviour piqued Aurelia’s interest; what had the person been doing to the wagon? Why had they gone to that wagon? Why were they awake and moving about at such a late hour? All these questions and more swam through her mind as the figure slipped silently through the tents back the way they had come.
Aurelia stifled an exhausted yawn as she felt her eyes begin to droop once more. Even with all the nightmares that were awaiting her, she could not deny the fact that her body was screaming out for rest. All such needs were wiped away in a rush of adrenaline as the first screams went up from the tents and wagons closest to the tree line. Mixed in with the screams was a deep, heavy rumble like a clap of thunder from nearby. The rumble grew in magnitude in the next few moments and soon the ground shook with its noise.
Arash was instantly awoken by the sound and rolled over to look out of the tent to see how bad the storm was. When he saw that there was no rain fall, his mind was instantly alert. Throwing himself to his feet, he struggled out of the tent next to Aurelia. As the pair stood to look towards the sound the first fire appeared. It was only a moment later that the flames erupted into an enormous blaze, as if fuel had suddenly been thrown over it. The same thought crossed the minds of every refugee as they saw the flames ‘The Falshin had come!’
It was as people began to flee from the flames that the horsemen in the trees made their move. They rode out from their cover whooping and yelling as they chased the fleeing refugees. In the light of the flames it could be seen that every raider wore the same clothes; an unusual woollen red hat with the top folded over, a black leather vest over a filthy shirt and tan trousers. Their eyes were filled with bloodlust and face fixed with evil grins. The refugees fled from their assault terrified of being struck by the long studded clubs being wielded by each raider. Aurelia and Arash were running away as fast as their legs could carry them; unarmed and unprotected they would be no match for the horsemen.
Arash’s mind was a whirl of activity as he leapt from wagon to wagon keeping watch over Aurelia as he went. They had to get to safety for without Aurelia the war would be a certainty. He looked behind him as he leapt seeing that the horsemen were smashing their way through every tent and wagon as they rode; there was nowhere to take cover and only one way to run. He took to the ground keeping close to them Empress’s side as the thunderous sound grew louder.
Aurelia could feel her heart pounding so hard that it felt it was trying to break its way out of her chest. She screamed to herself within her mind ‘I can’t die here! I can’t die here!’ as she kept running as fast as her body would allow. The pair felt the ground rumble under their feet and the vicious cries grew closer and closer behind them. Aurelia twisted her head from side to side searching for any kind of cover, somewhere she could be safe. As she looked across the camp she saw the same cloaked figure she had noticed earlier, sitting on a red horse with something in his hands.
From nowhere the raiders suddenly flew backwards off of their horses, thudding to the ground giving the refugees time to run. “What is it?! What happened?!” The men were had had been unhorsed were struggling back to their feet and shouting their confusion to their still mounted fellows. “There’s a rope, a black rope! It’s strung up across the camp, cut it down!!”
The cloaked figure rode fast out from his hiding space, charging straight for the centre of the raiders. The largest of the attackers looked around just in time to seem the cloaked figure riding him down. “It’s The Black Rider!” were the man’s last words as the Black Rider struck out with a lance skewering the man through the midriff. Without stopping he twisted the lance using his saddle as leverage; the tip flexed down then snapped back upwards launching the inert body off the lance and into the crowd of dismounted horsemen.
The few raiders left mounted tried to come to the aid of their comrades, but height of the rope stopped the horses from moving forwards. Even if they had been able to advance their efforts were too little too late. The Black Rider wheeled towards the dismounted raiders and threw his lance through the group. The weapon whistled as is sped through the air to strike the man who was rushing to get the raiders mounted once more.
The raiders were in complete disarray as the reeled from their sudden reversal of fortune. One brave raider ran straight at the Black Rider, swinging his club at the red horse’s head. The animal instinctively ducked its head leaning forwards and sending the Black Rider to his feet in the stirrups. The brave raider saw the opening and reversed the swing sending the club up at the Black Rider’s head. The move was good but not good enough, as the Black Rider had drawn his sword. Using the momentum of the horse’s dodge he was already cutting downwards and the blade sliced down through the studded club, filleting the man from shoulder to hip.
The Black Rider stopped moving for a moment staring unflinchingly at the raider before flicking the blood off of the sword. The raiders momentarily froze then a cry went up from the rear of their group “Run for it!!” the one voice of despair immediately broke their morale. They turned tail scrambling to grab onto their horses and ride away, holding onto the saddles any way they could.
The refugees stared in amazement at the Black Rider as he sat motionless watching the backs of the fleeing raiders. The refugees came forward to be nearer to him, the shade that had ridden from the darkness to be their salvation. As the people made a half ring around him the flames caught on a large wagon, creating a burning silhouette behind him. The Black Rider turned and faced the people, his sword resting on the pommel of this saddle. “Gather your things and put out these fires! We’re moving out before they come back.”
|Regulus of Exile|