To Save a Dying World.

   The ink-black curtain of night had long since drawn itself over the quiet landscape of the road. Deep trenches made by wagon wheels were filled with the night, causing them to become indistinguishable from the packed dirt that provided the difference in road and grass. The road twisted and turned out of sight, towards the mountains and the castle which it was ultimately made to lead to. The labor of the King’s Army was not wasted on just any road.
    The road cut through several small villages on the way to the castle and it’s town. The small cottages and farms had all gone to sleep with the sun. It was still a few hours until dawn, and all decent folk had staved off the road long ago, home for dinner and evening chores, or simply to spend time with their families before the rising sun would steal them away again.
    The snap of a twig split the air. A figure, hooded and cloaked, stood as still as a fox, one foot between two pieces of wood. The figure waited, the night almost breathless at this disturbance. A small breath of wind rustled leaves of trees far back from the road, and the figure continued to wait. Once the night had quieted again, the figure set off at a brisk walk with the unmistakable gait of a woman, up the High Road.
    Aurora kept her eyes locked firmly ahead, glancing down occasionally to keep from stumbling. Her frame was encased in a ragged tunic and riding breeches; her feet in walking boots that were beginning to wear. The cloak covered her entirely, the hem just an inch or so from the ground, the hood falling just above her eyes. Aurora’s face was dirty and her hair hung lank down her back. She had come to terms with this, though still longed for a lake or even a river to rinse the grit off. However, at that particular moment, cleanliness was far from her mind.
    After more than a fortnight, Aurora was close. She had abandoned her horse the previous night in a village while it slept. The risk of anyone recognizing her had to be minimized at all costs. She had also abandoned her pack, afraid it would give her away as well. Instead, she had taken to stealing milk, cheese and even bread from farms she passed along the way. Now, everything seemed trivial. The castle was close.
    She kept walking, and two hours later became conscious that dawn was on the way. Aurora glanced nervously at the sky. She didn’t know how far another village was. Mainly, she slept on outskirts of villages in fields, careful to avoid detection. Glancing at the sky again, she gathered that she had about an hour to successfully hide herself. Estimating that she had half-an-hour to spare before she’d really be in trouble, Aurora set off at nearly a run, cursing herself for leaving the horse behind.
    The road opened up a little as Aurora walked, and thankfully, she saw the dark masses of cottages rising up from the small slopes and out of the mist that was beginning to gather over the landscape. She slowed down, unsure if anyone had gotten up extra early to begin the day’s labor. There was a very strange feeling in the air, like the silence was tangible, pressing in from all sides. A chill went up Aurora’s back and she stopped. Her eyes flicked all over the area she could see, wary of anything that seemed out of place. The last villages hadn’t felt like this…no part of the journey had. The night never unnerved her.
    Despite her better judgment screaming at her to turn and leave, Aurora pressed on, though at a very slow, cautious pace. She felt her left side, reassured by the short dagger that rested on her hip. It wasn’t much, but a sword had been out of the question on foot, and someone would have recognized her by the make of it had she dropped it or been forced to leave it. Aurora stole around the first cottage she came to, and quiet as a shadow, she stalked around the house, searching for the farm that would provide her a safe place to sleep.
    Finally, she came to it. She glanced to the sky. Dawn would begin to break very soon, and she still hadn’t shaken that terrible feeling of dread that had fallen over her being. Quickly, she crossed the large field and found a spot close enough to the woods. Pulling a hunk of stale bread out of a pocket on her filthy breeches, she ate quickly, ravenously. Her mouth was dry without water, but that couldn’t be helped.
    She curled herself into a ball, shivering under her cloak. The mist had become thicker with the impending dawn, and it chilled her. She closed her eyes and willed sleep to come, but her mind would not quiet. Aurora lay awake for much longer than she preferred, trying to figure out what had caused this to occur. It was almost as if she had stepped through a wall into a completely different world.

    Aurora awoke much later, pleased to find that she hadn’t been disturbed, but the feeling was much greater now, as if she had woken up in a world of panic. She immediately glanced to the sky. It was evening. The very distant sounds of the village came to her ears, but they didn’t seem normal. Aurora raised her head from the grass and looked towards the small houses.
    She slowly sat up, unable to believe what she was seeing. Cottages had been lit on fire, and there were screams and noises of panic and battle floating towards her. Aurora got half-way to her feet, looking like a cat ready to pounce, unsure of what to do. Get up and investigate, most likely revealing herself in the process, or hide in the woods, and let the villagers deal with the attack? Who was performing the attack, anyway? A sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach told her the answer.
    Pulling her hood up over her face, Aurora walked towards the village. Screams, the ringing of steel, and yells of fright became louder and louder with each step. Eventually, the smell of blood also reached her nostrils. Yet, there was something more, something that unnerved her the most yet. Something she couldn’t identify.
    There was still enough light for Aurora to see everything, aided by the fires set to the small cottages. She stole around the side of the farm and stood in the shadow, trying to determine what was going on. Her heart was beating painfully fast in her chest. The smell of blood was making her head feel unsteady. Fear was flooding her.
    Resigning herself to the worst, Aurora pulled her dagger out and stepped from the shadows. She was on the High Road and looked up at the rest of the village. No one had noticed her. It seemed most of the attack had stopped, but there were bodies littering the road and creating small masses on the grass. Holding a hand up to her nose, Aurora walked into the heart of the village. A group of large figures seemed to have been assigned to gathering the dead. Taking a deep breath and making sure her hood covered her face still, Aurora strode towards them.
    “What happened?” she asked quietly, muttering to the one who seemed to be in charge. He straightened and looked at her, his eyes scrutinizing her small figure. He looked as though he had been in the thick of battle. His clothes hung ragged and bloodstained on his figure, his hair tousled and matted around his pointed ears. He lifted a forearm to his forehead and wiped away sweat, leaving a dark smudge that Aurora knew could only be blood.
    “Trolls,” he said simply, his voice ragged with emotion. “Trolls and goblins.” Aurora’s mouth fell open in spite of herself. The sinking feeling in her stomach worsened, if that was even possible. The elf seemed to know the magnitude of the news he had just imparted. “No one is quite sure how it happened. They came in waves, struck quickly, and proceeded on once total destruction reigned. They were headed for the castle, I have no doubt. Unfortunately we have no way of getting word to the castle. They move faster than we could, anyway.” The elf inclined his head as he spoke, and seemed overcome for a moment.
    Aurora’s mind was racing. Heading towards the castle? Without warning, the castle was doomed. The eastern castle and the town below was the weakest in existence. The smallest army, the least defenses. Aurora had wasted all this time getting so close, to have it all wrenched away. She decided something quickly.
    “You have to move all who can away from this place. Go west, they will accept you there. Once the goblins get to the mountains, they will take it over, and claim it as their own,” Aurora said quickly. The elf looked at her more carefully in the dying daylight. Most of the cottages had been put out. Torches were flaring to life.
    “I recognized your accent. I knew you were from the west. What makes you so certain the western kingdom will accept a bunch of refugees?” he inquired sharply. Aurora shook her head, unwilling to say more, to reveal any more information about herself. She carefully stepped away and walked forward, up through the village, trying not to look at the horror and pain that surrounded her. She only had one choice, which was to get to the castle. She had not come all this way to turn back. It wasn’t that far, anyway. She would be there by dawn.
    Aurora walked the High Road as swiftly as she dared, her pointed ears desperately listening for any sound that would constitute a disturbance in the ironic peace of the night. The stars blazed brilliantly above. Aurora did not look at them. More than once, she stumbled over a rut and caught herself just in time, afraid that she had made some sound that would alert anyone, or anything, watching to her presence. Nothing seemed wrong. She wondered if the village that had been attacked was the last one before the castle.
    The night darkened and lengthened around her. Aurora kept her head elevated, her dagger clenched in a sweaty hand. As she walked, she glanced at the edges of the road, and saw a mass huddled on the ground. She froze, listening. There was no sound, no sign of life. She stalked forward, dagger raised and spine stiff.
    Though the night was dark, Aurora’s elfin eyes needed no assistance. As she came closer, she listened for ragged breathing, though she knew she would have seen the mass moving to accommodate expanding and contracting lungs. Deeming that it was dead, Aurora went closer. It was a goblin, and very dead indeed. There was a large gash that ran from the throat and deviated at the ribs down the side. Blood, almost black, had leaked onto the ragged clothing, staining it almost completely. The goblin’s leathery skin was pale, and Aurora guessed it was because of so much blood loss. The smell of the blood was overwhelming, and Aurora took a swift step back. The goblin’s presence unnerved her.
    The rational explanation was that the goblin had died on the way to the castle and had simply been cast aside by the raiding party. A more sinister explanation was that there were more around, and had left this as bait to unsuspecting travelers. Messengers to the king, the goblins would have reasoned. Ruiners of the great plan to overrun the Eastern Castle of the elves. Aurora glanced around. There seemed to be no other living being besides herself in the vicinity.
    On the edge of sheer panic, Aurora walked to the center of the High Road and kept walking, suppressing the desperate urge to break into a run. Everything was ruined now, and she wished desperately that she had her horse with her. At least that would make one other living thing, and one who wouldn’t rip her to bloody shreds at that. The thought chilled and depressed Aurora. The magnitude of the situation weighed on her mind as she kept walking, as did the reality of her solitude.

    By the time dawn was breaking, Aurora could see the massive gate to the town looming ahead of her out of the mist. The rising sun should have roused a flood of activity and voices within the town. Hoping foolishly she would hear it as she ventured closer, Aurora kept her steady stride. As she reached the gate she heard activity, though it was the wrong kind.
    The gate had been laid to waste, and the town, or as much as Aurora could see, had followed the suit unwillingly. Soldiers of the king’s army were working among the townsfolk, the only difference between them were the weapons strapped to the soldiers’ waists. Aurora entered the town, unnoticed by the grieving, working people. She kept her hood on, glancing this way and that. Blood had pooled in the spaces between the stones that constructed the street. Horribly, it was mostly the scarlet blood of the elves.
    Broken shafts of arrows, broken wooden weapons, burned out torches and even the occasional broken sword joined the blood on the streets. Cottages, shops, and merchant stands had been reduced to ashes. The worst part were bodies that had been piled and burnt far away from the road. The acrid smell of charred flesh wafted over the wreckage. No one noticed the figure that roamed in the midst of the ruined town. They were too consumed by grief.
    Aurora stopped when she saw a lone soldier sitting in the grass by the gate that led to the actual castle, which had also been broken down. He was cross-legged and had his head in his hands. Aurora walked over to him, sinking down to her knees. He looked up with a blood stained face.
    “What happened?” she inquired, before he could ask anything of her. The elf sighed and looked towards the main part of the town.
    “Trolls and goblins came from the west. We had no warning, no way of being prepared for the raid. They cut down nearly everyone in their way…set fire to everything, destroyed anything they could. The population of the town was decimated. The night watch at the castle was able to alert the army before they broke down the gate, but even that didn’t give us an advantage. By the time we got down here, they had already begun. They broke down the gate like it was nothing, and proceeded to the castle once nearly everyone and everything had been destroyed.” The elf took a shuddering breath and seemed to be unable to continue. Aurora was not yet satisfied.
    “What happened in the castle?” she asked quietly, terrified of the answer. The elf looked at her, blue eyes tired.
    “I am not sure. I’ve been down here since the attack. I can’t imagine anyone got out. The numbers were just too great, the attack too swift.” Aurora nodded and patted him on the shoulder, trying not to recoil when her hand became wet with blood.
    Wiping her hand on the inside of her cloak, Aurora proceeded through the broken gate. Anyone who wished to get out of the town and castle only had the length of daylight. The goblins and trolls would have spent the entire night killing and pillaging, then chased away by the dawn. Aurora had no idea where they could have taken refuge. Bodies littered the road up to the castle, though thankfully there were much less, and none were the bodies of the royal family. The day had a certain bite to it. Autumn had settled in. Drawing her cloak more tightly to herself, she continued on, climbing the wide steps to the castle.
    The entrance hall had been reduced to rubble, with sticky patches of blood disturbing the white floor. A few soldiers stood in the hall, what was left of the watch. One approached Aurora, blocking her continued progress into the castle.
    “What business do you have here?” he demanded of her. Clearly he was the leader. Or appointed leader in the time of distress.
    “I seek the king,” Aurora said simply. The watch captain looked back at his fellows. One took a step forward. “She’s from the west,” he assessed. Aurora nodded. The elf that blocked her shifted to the side. Compared to what horrors had occurred the night before, a westerner seeking the king was nothing.
    “King Vyden is with the royal council in a chamber in the second level of the castle. Resydn will lead the way.” The elf motioned to the other that had spoken. Resydn strode forward and bowed to Aurora before walking to the grand staircase that led to the upper reaches of the castle. Aurora followed, shocked at this display of formality in light of the situation. Perhaps it was all they had.
    They walked in silence until coming to a door. Resydn stopped and turned to Aurora, a hand on the intricate knob. He took a deep breath and said, “I warn you, the king is in the most miserable spirits. The loss of so many has hit him terribly.” Resydn opened the door and stepped in, causing an abrupt halt to the urgent conversation that had been taking place inside.
    “Resydn, this interruption is most unwelcome,” said a constricted voice. Resydn bowed deeply.
    “Certainly, and I apologize most sincerely. You see, a girl from the west has come to see the king, and we thought it most wise to admit her.” Resydn motioned for Aurora to come inside. Keeping her hood up still, she walked in. Resydn bowed again and quickly shut the door, clearly eager to rid himself of the situation. A loud silence followed the sound of the door closing, in which the three male elves assembled at the table stared at this intruder.
    “Show yourself.” King Vyden was not loud, though his voice had a commanding quality to it that was impossible to ignore. Aurora was disinclined to obey this demand, but figured she was already overstepping her boundaries greatly by even being there. She reached up and lowered the hood. There was a slight, collective intake of breath as she was recognized instantly.
    “Princess Aurora of the western realm. What brings you to my castle?” Vyden inquired mildly, refusing to show himself surprised, if he was at all. Aurora inclined her head.
    “I wanted to speak with you about the tension that has been brewing between your realm and mine, your highness, though I was in a village that was attacked two nights past, and my purpose has changed. I am here to offer the western realm as a refuge for your subjects who have survived. Including yourself.” Silence followed these words. The elf to the right of Vyden leaned forward on the table.
    “The western realm has been clear that it wishes to be no ally to us,” he interjected. Irritation that was amplified by exhaustion and misery reared up in Aurora’s chest.
    “May I inquire as to who you are?” she asked, her words polite, her tone icy. It was Vyden who answered.
    “This is my first knight, Cyril, who makes a valid argument.” Cyril looked from Vyden to Aurora. His eyes were a startling green, and were narrowed slightly as they examined her face. Aurora refused to be quieted.
    “Where else shall you go?” she demanded. Vyden smiled wryly and murmured, “We were discussing that as you arrived.” Cyril pulled out the empty chair beside him and motioned for Aurora to join the council. She was less than excited to take a seat next to Cyril, but knew turning down the invitation would be less than prudent.
    Aurora joined the table and was supplied with bread, cheese and water. Suddenly aware of how hungry and thirsty she had become, Aurora began to eat with as much dignity as she could muster with her insides aching with hunger. The table waited for her to finish, which took a much shorter time than normal.
    When she had swallowed the last of her bread and washed it down her throat with a hearty swig of water, the conversation continued. Vyden pulled a map towards him, that detailed the main countries of their world. Roads had been traced on the paper in black ink that contrasted startlingly with the faded details. Aurora guessed that they had only recently been drawn there. Several labels stretched themselves across various regions: Elves, men, dwarves, and goblins.
    “The south is dominated by men. The north by dwarves. East and west, obviously, elves. Abraxius has had no legitimate land of his own to breed his followers since the men triumphed over him in their takeover of the south. Why he has decided to take his armies to the east and west is beyond us at this moment. Messenger parties have been sent to the north and south…” At this, Aurora’s eyes widened and she made a noise of disbelief. Vyden ceased speaking and looked at Aurora, along with the rest of the table.
    “Have messengers been sent to the west?” She asked, trying to keep her voice even and less than angry. Cyril glanced at Vyden, as though he too thought this was a fair question.
    “Yes, milady, a messenger party has been sent to King Amadeus and our brethren to the west,” Vyden conceded. This was not good enough for Aurora, who felt as though she was being treated as a child. She slapped her hand down on the table, causing them to stare at her again. It was well known that the high-elves of the east found themselves to be above the barbaric wood-elves of the west.
    “Why is it that the west is always thought of last, or not at all? Both the high-elves and wood-elves are elves, are they not? Do the ties of blood mean absolutely nothing anymore?” Aurora demanded, voice shaking more with every word she spoke.
    “Milady Aurora, the western kingdom has made it plain they wish to be no ally of ours,” repeated Cyril. Aurora knew this was fact, and that she could not argue. Her father spoke of the eastern elves as though they were goblins.
    “We must decide where to go now. The goblins and their trolls will be back ere the sun sinks below the horizon. It is in either the dwarves or the mortals that we set our faith,” Vyden said, once he was positive there would be no further outbursts from the spoiled wood-elf princess.
    “The road to the north is hard. We have many injured from last night’s attack. Both ways would be a challenge, but it becomes colder more quickly in the north than in our realm. The south seems the better route between the two,” Cyril supplied knowledgably. Vyden nodded and consulted the map that he had pulled towards him earlier.
    “The Lower Road is easy enough to follow, though it does go through the Southern Pass, which may be difficult to cross. The rains will have come by the time we were to arrive, and the chance for floods increases significantly,” he muttered, more to himself than to the others at the table, and continued in a lower voice, running his finger over the thick black lines on the map. Cyril looked on interestedly, as though trying to make out what his king was thinking. The other elf at the table, who had been utterly silent the entire time Aurora had been in the room, seemed to be in deep thought and completely detached from all that was going on around him.
    Ten minutes later, Vyden pushed the map away from himself and put his hands upon the table.
    “We must leave in one hour. Please inform the town and have my army begin preparations for the move and battle immediately, Thyis,” Vyden addressed the silent elf. Aurora had expected him to continue his glassy stare into the top of the table. However, the blonde elf nodded and excused himself from the room at once. “Cyril, kindly prepare my armor and weapons. I must attend to the remaining inhabitants of my castle.” Vyden swept from the room and left Aurora and Cyril in awkward silence. Aurora put her head in her hands, overwhelmed with how much everything had changed. Cyril shifted in his seat.
    “Lady Aurora, what plans do you have?” he asked her quietly. Aurora looked up at his green eyes. His face seemed a bit ashen, as though he had been unable to rest at all. She had given no thought as to what she would do now. Her choices were limited: stay with the high-elves and go south, or try to make it back to the woodland realm. The first was less than preferable, and the second was not a sure thing. King Amadeus and the wood-elves may have moved to a safer place with the news of the goblin attack by the time she arrived. Then what choice what Aurora have? Go north by herself, when she had no recollection of any of the roads there or stay in her old kingdom and wait to die alone? She could not wait to send a messenger to see what Amadeus was going to do. She had to make her choice within the next hour…assuming the high-elves would allow her in their company.
    “I suppose in order for me to make any decision I would first have to ask if you would allow me in your company for the trek south,” Aurora said meekly, fully aware of how she had acted in front of the king and wholeheartedly regretting it. Cyril seemed to consider this and Aurora herself.
    “I do not believe Vyden would take issue to your accompaniment. You are of our race, even if your direct heritage does deviate from ours. You are a princess, as well. The rules of the court must still be followed, no matter the situation,” he replied slowly. Aurora felt that the choice had been made as soon as she realized the high-elves were evacuating. To go back to her kingdom was foolish, and very possibly life-threatening. To her irritation, tears flooded her eyes. She tried desperately to blink them back, but found she was unable to. There was a possibility she may never see her family, or home, again. The pace at which her life had changed was overwhelming.
    “I will go with you,” she said finally, unable to look at the elf sitting next to her.
    “Did you bring any supplies?” Cyril asked, in a voice that deviated from how she had heard him speak so far. Aurora could only shake her head. “They will be given to you, along with a horse. There is a bedchamber four doors down on this side of the hallway that was reserved for visiting courtiers. You will find everything you will need there, along with a bath. I will come for you when we are leaving the castle.” Cyril bowed and excused himself from the room. Aurora reached up to touch her lank hair, and dirty face. Deciding it was best to busy herself with leaving, she rose from the wooden chair and made her way out of the chamber as well.

The End

0 comments about this story Feed