©2008 Julie Weathers – all rights reserved.
Grief hung over the camp like a shroud, binding each of the soldiers in layers of depression. They made final preparations to move to the site of the pyre and lay the half-elf to rest. Prophecy was a two-edged sword, sometimes blessing the receiver, but most often what the Fates had determined could not be turned with simple foresight. At times it seemed the Fates were the ones who sent the dreams of prophecy so they could play a game of charon with the recipients. Move, counter move. Attack, feint. Retreat, flank. For each thing done to prevent the fulfillment, they devised a new strategy. They were cunning opponents who seldom lost their game of lives turned and twisted to suit their whims.
Penroc had lost her match with them and now lay cold and dead on a stack of wood. In another place and time, they would have buried her in hallowed ground. In these days, grave robbers sniffed out new burials like trained hounds, digging up the occupants for revival by the wraiths eager for new soldiers in their macabre army. Not one fragment would be left of the old Sepha for them to desecrate.
Maija finished saddling her horse, pulling the cinch tight. The roan grunted and shifted his weight, but refused to open his eyes. She lowered the stirrup and walked to his shoulder. Her fingers separated three strands of mane just in front of his withers. Absently, with more practice than she ever desired, she laid a strip of cloth from Penroc’s tabard over one of the strands and began to plait a memory braid in the mane. At the end her eyes were watering so badly she couldn’t see well enough to thread the final strands back through the braid. She swiped away the tears with the back of her hand and swallowed hard. Her head hurt from crying. Her throat constricted and ached from too many sobs gulped away.
She leaned into the horse, laying her head against the warm, sleek neck. The scents she loved surrounded her, horse, leather, wildflowers and fern. Even the metallic scent of freshly oiled armor with more than a hint of rust was comforting. Her eyes closed as she wrapped an arm over the horse’s neck.
The ground rumbled lightly under her when horsemen approached. She wiped her eyes again and put on the mail coif to hide at least part of her face.
The three riders reined up in front of her, their horse blowing hard and flecked with lather. The leader snapped a salute as he tugged on the charger who tossed his head impatiently.
“Sepha. Storm Callers have surrounded Penroc. They’re demanding we turn her body over to them.”
“What do they want with her body?” she demanded.
“No idea. They just said they were here to claim her.”
The clanking of armor and weapons broke the forest silence as several riders mounted. They loped off towards the east where the pyre had been constructed last night. The faint pink glow of dawn still rested on the horizon when they neared the clearing. The guards stood shoulder-to-shoulder, weapons drawn, surrounding the body from the three chariots of Storm Callers and four riders who confronted them.
Maija slowed her horse to a walk and approached, followed by her guards. The center chariot was drawn by a perfectly matched pair of black dragons with brilliant blue underbellies. Their wings shimmered with iridescent hues of blues, black, purples and an almost peacock green color. The dragon on the near side shook his head, causing the heavily jeweled bridle to flash in the breaking daylight. The gold bridle was almost like a crown with ornate cheek pieces of finely wrought battle scenes. The dragon turned his head to watch her with intelligent, curious amber eyes. He snorted slightly, blowing tiny wisps of smoke from his nostrils.
The dragons were a bit larger than heavy chargers and all of them black except a gray one ridden by the nearest storm caller. Each of them wore elaborate bridles of gold, heavily encrusted with jewels and fine work. Scenes of battles adorned their breastplates and cheek pieces on the bridles. Tassels of spun silver thread dangled from the bridles and saddles.
The storm callers all wore equally ornate dress armor, but she had no doubt it was substantial enough to protect them adequately even without the substantial magic wards. Even though the storm callers were in mortal form they were still over eight-feet tall. Her embattled guards looked like peasant children playing at war compared to them.
The ground trembled under her feet when her troops moved into position around the glen. She sighed heavily. Such a beautiful, peaceful place to be turned into a battleground.
The storm caller on the gray dragon dismounted and strode towards her. He struck his fist to his chest and bowed deeply.
“Sepha, Maija. My name is Alrich of the clan Ursel.”
She dismounted and inclined her head. “Commander. How can I help you?”
He smiled at her. “You are familiar with my rank.”
“I was married to a Norlander. He taught me some of your ways. I also know your clan is the elite guard among the storm callers.”
He nodded and smiled again. His features were handsome to the point of reminding her of statues of the Norlander gods. His strawberry blonde hair was bound by a circlet of intricately woven strands of gold, platinum and a reddish metal she was unfamiliar with. His eyes were the color of a winter sky, gray and soft as felt, but she knew they could also turn cold and hard at a moment’s notice. He was clean shaven, unlike the remainder of his men. A scar trailed white and jagged from his left cheekbone to his jaw, breaking the tanned, otherwise flawless, face.
“We have come for Penroc, Sepha. Will you ask your men to stand down?”
His form began to shimmer and shrink until he was only slightly over six feet tall.
“Thank you,” she said, lowering her gaze.
“Of course,” he replied, nodding politely.
“Penroc is one of ours and I have no intention of turning her body over to you. The only way we can be sure she will not be turned is to destroy her body.”
“We would not allow her to be turned.”
“The only way we can be certain of that is to destroy her.”
The storm caller’s eyes narrowed slightly, turning cold. The lines around his mouth hardened as two furrows appeared between his eyes. “Surely you know she is a hero to the Norlanders. Would we allow her to be defiled?”
Maija noticed the storm callers stiffening slightly. The dragons sensed the change in their masters and tossed their heads nervously. Their tails brushed against the harness. Occasionally one stomped with impatience or popped his tail on the ground with a loud thump.
“We will not give her up,” she replied.
Several guards nodded in agreement. A murmur went through the troops. The ones guarding Penroc raised their weapons.
“You will die for a body?”
“We have died for less.”