Jed woke in darkness to the hint of bent sunrays on the obscured horizon. The campfire smoldered in front of him, wisps of smoke seeping from the ashes. The Varexian lookout stood noiselessly on the rock above him.

Kara still slept soundly across from him, as if she hadn’t moved since he had gone to bed. Sticking just out of her blanket were the bundled manuscripts tucked closely against her chest and covered by her long hair.

Jed threw off his blanket and approached the campfire to warm his hands as he slipped leather gauntlets on them. Sitting beside Telman, he noted his large triangular-curved shield beside him, similar to the one in his father’s study bearing the Hayes Family coat of arms. Jed ran his fingers across the iron-plated surface painted in the same ice blue color as their cloaks. In the center was a golden crown with a broadsword running through it. He tested its weight, finding it surprisingly light, yet sturdy.

Slowly, sunlight fell over their campsite, leaving shadows where the darkness once covered the ground. Jed kept expecting Telman to wake any moment, only to find him still asleep.

Something caused his hairs to stand up. Instinctively, he grabbed the shield and held it up. In an instant, he felt a powerful blow against the shield. He caught his breath, then turned the shield to find an arrow lodged in it.

Telman opened his eyes and saw Jed beside him. “Ambush!” he said as sprang out from his blanket, snatching the shield from Jed. He smashed the arrow shaft off and screamed at the Varexians as he moved to cover Kara.

Another arrow flew at the Varexian lookout as he was about to nock an arrow. The arrowhead pierced through his leather amor and went deep into his chest. He fell off the rock in front of Jed. There was no time to react.

“Protect the girl,” Telman ordered the remaining Varexians. With shields like Telman’s, they gathered around her and formed cover. Meanwhile, Telman ran behind a boulder, searching for their enemy.

“Nobody move!” he ordered.

Jed ignored him and ran over to the dead Varexian, grabbing his bow and quiver. The wooden frame was simple compared to those his family used for elk hunting. Another arrow skimmed his shoulder as he dropped to the ground.

“Get out of there!” Telman said. “Find cover.”

Jed didn’t move. He sighted a figure amid a boulder field ahead, concealed between two hefty rocks. His focus remained on the man as he snatched an arrow from the quiver and nocked it in a single motion.

When the figure appeared again, a smile appeared on his face as he fired.

The arrow traveled fast. A second later, the figure dropped to the ground.

Telman was stunned, as were the others. The distance had been almost 200 yards. Before anyone could speak, Jed threw the quiver onto his back and ran across the campsite over to a boulder opposite from Telman.

“We need to move,” Telman said, still shocked at Jed’s kill. “No scout travels alone.”

An arrow smacked against his boulder near his hand. Telman pulled back as he turned to the Varexians. “Leave the girl with the boy. We need to hit them from the side. Jed, can you cover us?”

Jed nodded as he drew another arrow. Telman and the Varexians sheathed their swords, wielding composite bows from inside their cloaks. Kara hurried over to Jed and crouched low against their boulder. She fought back tears as she gazed at the dead Varexian and whispered a prayer. The corpse’s skin had turned darker, his eyes now white as his skin had once been.

Finished, Kara watched Jed as he scanned the area with a calm demeanor.

“Where did you learn this?” she said.

Ignoring her question, he scrutinized the rocks for any moment. Hunched low, Telman watched for the  enemy as the Varexians headed across the ridge northwest of where the first man had fallen. Telman then joined them as they crept up toward the boulder field. A flurry of arrows pelted them, bouncing off their shields as they ran for a better position and fired back.

Jed spotted three bowmen, their ashen clothes acting like camouflage as they blended among the rocks. They pulled back, while Telman and the Varexians pushed toward them. Their backs were now turned to Jed and Kara.

Then a tall, cloaked figure appeared atop one of the boulders in front of Jed. His dirtied grey clothes had perfectly concealed him until he began crawling across the rock. He now stood on bent knee, lifting a thick long white bow from his side. He then drew a hefty bright arrow from his quiver and aimed at Telman as he ran between rocks.

Jed held a long breath and fired. The arrow struck a few feet from the bowman, who instantly leapt backwards and somersaulted off the rock and behind another boulder. Another arrow in hand, Jed went to run after him.

Kara tried to grab his arm and hold him back. “That’s Arthema, Grancaliga’s best archer. Don’t fight him. He’ll kill you.”

“If I don’t, he’ll kill Telman, and then us.”

Shoving her hand away, Jed sprinted through the soft snow up to the boulders. His teeth visibly gritted, he moved boldly through the boulder field, as though daring Arthema to shoot. He couldn’t explain his intense desire to protect Telman, other than it was what he expected of himself or any soldier.

Seeing one of the enemy bowmen vulnerable, Jed tried to take a shot, but broke off at the last moment to evade another arrow fired from a hidden Arthema. He turned in the direction where it had originated and pursued his elusive foe, eager to close the distance between them.

Weaving through the rocks, he hopped from one to another to get a better view. He fired a shot at the bowmen harassing Telman to distract, then spun around to see Arthema shooting from a kneeled position in the snow. He shot back and ducked. Both missed the other, though Jed now bore a deep cut on the side of his face. But rather than frighten him, he felt more determined than ever. He kept running after Arthema, following his marks in the snow.

Then his footprints ended. Jed stopped.

Out his right eye he glanced at Arthema standing in the open, his bow aimed at Jed. He was like Kara, Telman and the others; deathly white skin, burning amber eyes.

“I now have two heads to bring back,” the man said.

Jed desperately tried to think of something that would distract Arthema. If only a moment, just to give him just enough time to fire.

He threw back his cloak hood and abruptly faced Arthema.

The man stepped back at the sight of Jed’s foreign complexion, his bow almost dropping from his hands.

“What are you?”

The delay was all Jed needed; he brought his bow up and let an arrow fly before he threw himself behind a boulder. His bowstring taut again with a fresh arrow, he peered around the corner. Arthema’s bow was on the ground, a trail of trickled blood leading away.

Suspicious, Jed waited before retrieving the bow, momentarily fascinated with the bone-like material. He then ran back to aid Telman, dispatching the remaining enemy bowmen with an arrow between their shoulders.

Coming out from behind a rock formation, Telman put his bow away and stared at Jed with amazement. He was about to speak, then noticed Arthema’s bow in his hands. “You killed him?”

Jed pointed at the trail of blood behind him. “I wounded him, but he’s still alive.”

“He’ll go back for help,” Telman said. “We’ve got to leave now.”

Returning to their campsite, they grabbed their belongings. Kara timidly approached Jed to say something, but Telman pushed her along the ridge ahead of them. “We have to get to the passageway before the rest of Grancaliga’s men arrive.”

Paying brief respects to the fallen Varexian, the band moved at a hastened pace toward the imposing mountain wall ahead of them. South of them, there was the murky silhouette of an army column.

***

Grancaliga maintained a cool disposition as a disturbance broke out at the front of the ranks. Soldiers broke out of formation in pursuit of an unknown target. Concealing his displeasure, his colonels accompanied him as he strode forward alongside the main column. A commotion started ahead. Grancaliga watched as his men within visibility of it went for their weapons, only to refrain when they saw what caused the disturbance.

A minute later, a small group of sentinels approached Grancaliga, carrying Arthema over their shoulders. A broken arrow was lodged in his side. He had a stupefied expression on his face.

When they reached him, Grancaliga dismissed the other soldiers and had his colonels stand between them and the main column. He didn’t bother to ask where Arthema’s men or his bow were as he waited for him recover and explain himself.

“The ambush was perfect,” he said.

“Perfect doesn’t fail.”

“General, something happened I couldn’t have planned for.” He gazed up at Grancaliga with a frank vulnerability, wincing as he tugged at the arrow in him.

“Who?” Grancaliga said.

“I don’t know. He was…not Forenian.”

Grancaliga frowned.

“I’ve never seen anyone like that,” Arthema said. “He was also very skilled with the bow.”

Cocking his head to the side, Grancaliga sounded severe. “But not better than you. What does that tell me?”

Arthema he nursed his wound. “General…I have not yet failed you. We can still reach them.”

“We will.”

“May I return to my post, general?”

Beholding his prized archer with a fatherly demeanor, Grancaliga stood beside him as he rose to his feet.

“You may,” he said.

He then pulled a dagger from his hip and thrust it into Arthema’s side against the arrow, digging deep. Arthema stumbled, but the general held him upright as he turned the blade inside him. When it finally came out, the blood-soaked arrow fell into the snow.

Grancaliga warded off a colonel who sought to aid Arthema as he staggered in the snow. “His suffering will remind him of his duty.”

Pushing through the group, he ordered the column to march at the double quick.

On the next hilltop, he heard cries and iron clashing.

***

“Get down!”

Telman pulled Kara to the snow as they narrowly evaded an arrow from a crossbowman standing on the slope to their left. Behind them, Jed dropped to his knee and fired another arrow. His arms were growing weary, as were his legs. He concentrated on his breathing, keeping his muscles relaxed and loose so they wouldn’t tighten up.

Pulling Kara back up, Telman hurried her over to the Varexians. They formed a semi-circle to guard her, their shields on their backs as they all ran down the hill. The heat of the triune sunlight had loosened the snow that now gave way beneath their feet. They dug their heels hard as they kept their eye out for more sentinels.

Jed followed in the back. Ahead, the mountain wall seemed to grow higher and higher as they approached. The solid rock was encased in a solid bluish wall of ice. Icicles hung like spearheads from the edges as though pointing down to the bottom section of the wall, shrouded in a fine but thick mist.

The bow on his back, Jed ran to catch up. He then found himself fallen in the snow. A solid force had knocked him off his feet. He recovered just as an enemy sentinel struck at him with a sword. Kicking it away, Jed drew his short sword and slashed at him. The sentinel parried and went for his chest.

Recalling the same ploy by Telman, he sidestepped then lunged forward, stabbing the man in the neck. The Forenian clawed at the spurting wound as Jed left him.

He came to the bottom of the hill and flat terrain. Another sentinel appeared from the snow with a throwing knife. Jed instinctively raised his sword, knocking it away before it could hit his face. By then, the sentinel had drawn a short sword and charged him.

A brief duel ensued. Jed was clearly the inferior swordsman, but his comparatively dark appearance left the sentinel unnerved as he tried to gut him.

An arrow went through the sentinel’s leg, sending him into the snow.

Below, Telman lowered his bow and smiled. “Come.”

Sheathing his sword, Jed sprinted across the flat ground and soon rejoined the group. Behind them, they heard a loud rumble of a cadenced march. A war cry fell down the slopes with an avalanche-like speed.

“He’s here,” Telman said.

By then, Jed didn’t need to hear the name. Grancaliga’s identity was revealed in how everyone spoke of him.

When they reached the mist, the Varexians slowed their pace. They grabbed their shields and entered cautiously. With Telman in the rear, Kara clung tight to Jed’s left arm as they proceeded on a narrow, well-defined path. Unable to see more than a few feet ahead, Jed’s ears grabbed at any noise.

Kara breathed heavily until Telman reassured her. “You weren’t wrong.”

“I do hope so.”

The Varexians gasped.

“What?” Kara said. “Did you find it?”

None answered. She shoved herself off Jed and ran through the mist. Jed and Telman followed her until the mist dissipated. Kara stood near the Varexians, her hands covering her face.

Jed came to her, finding a short glacial bridge spanning a vast chasm below. On the other side was the solid mountain wall of ice. A small but clear opening was at its base.

“We made it,” Kara said as another war cry blasted through the mist.

Kara and Jed went first across the bridge, followed by Telman and the Varexians. Jed inspected the passageway. Natural light shone into it, revealing a long, winding corridor.

“Why are we stopping?” Kara said to Telman.

“We have to destroy the bridge,” a Varexian said. “If we don’t, they’ll catch up to us eventually.”

“That can’t be done in time,” Telman said. “It’s made of solid ice, and we have no explosives.”

“Then what do you propose?” Kara said.

Telman’s head hung low. He held a fist against his side, then sighed. He glanced at Jed as if seeking agreement.

He knew that look too well.

“No,” Jed said.

“It has to be done,” Telman said.

Kara saw Jed’s distraught face, the resignation in the Varexians. Biting her lower lip, she confronted Telman. “You can’t do this. I need you.”

“If we don’t, Grancaliga will have you by the day’s end.”

“I can’t do this if you’re dead.”

The war chants loudening, Telman grew hasty as he spoke to the Varexians. “We need to hold this bridge for at least a day, maybe more.”

They all nodded.

“I can’t do this on my own,” Kara said as she seized Telman’s arm. He smiled as he eyed Jed. “You two will go on without us.”

Jed said nothing as Kara turned to hide her conflicted face. Telman then took him aside. “You know her importance. Will you protect her with your life?”

Jed nodded.

Telman reluctantly slid his shield off his back, handing it to Jed. “My grandfather’s grandfather made this. If I die, I have no heir. I suppose you’ll have to do.”

He then suddenly embraced the boy. “You’ll need it until you can fight without it. If you can, you’ll be a true soldier.”

Jed stepped back and held the shield with trembling hands. “I intend to prove it.”

“Keep Kara safe. Wherever home is for you, chances are she can help get you back there.”

Wielding his longsword, Telman waved the Varexians over to the front of the bridge, where they formed a solid shield wall. He stood behind them, directing Kara and Jed to the passageway.

“No matter how long it is, don’t stop until you reach the Field of Baldae,” he said. “Look out for each other.”

Her cheeks wet, Kara hugged Telman. “But without you…”

He shoved her away. “Now go. Go!”

Kara went to Jed at the mouth of the passageway. His stoic look embarrassed her so that she wiped her tears with her cloak sleeves. It wasn’t until she walked a few steps ahead out of sight that Jed did the same to his own moistened eyes.

***

Grancaliga strove to the rows of soldiers bottling up the path, his colonels close behind. At the front, sentinels maintained a shield wall covering the ledge between them and the bridge leading to where Telman and the last Varexians stood defiantly. The snow on both sides was imbedded with arrows, a dozen corpses strewn on both the bridge and on Grancaliga’s side.

“General,” Telman said. “Something you lost?”

Grancaliga couldn’t hold back a smile. He addressed a sentinel. “How long have they been there?”

“Not sure, sir.”

“Did you see the girl when you arrived…or a strange-looking man?”

“No.”

Grancaliga then noticed one of the bodies. It seemed familiar. He turned it over with his heavy boot.

Arthema; a long deep wound ran across his chest.

“He died fast,” Telman said. “As will the rest.”

Enraged, several bowmen took aim at him. The arrows bounced harmlessly off the Varexians’ wide shields. Their eyes conveyed a newly found confidence behind tightly fitted helmets.

“What do we do?” a colonel said.

“Wait,” Grancaliga said as he withdrew to the back. The soldiers who heard him were baffled, as were the colonels hurrying after him.

“Sir? We don’t understand.”

“Neither of us can leave this spot. We wait until they must or make a mistake. Perhaps the girl will turn back.”

“What if she doesn’t?”

Grancaliga laughed as he glanced back at the mountain wall. “Telman wants to die. Far be it from me to appease him.”

***

For all installments from The Legend of Forenia: The Twilight Kingdom, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue
  2. Chapter 1
  3. Chapter 2