Chapter 1: The Rider

The Audaxi Chronicles

Hello, everyone!  Welcome to our new regularly updating story, the Audaxi Chronicles.  If you’re a fan of medieval fantasy, then this series is for you!   Hopefully this will become a regularly updating series along with The Adventures of Elizabeth Shelley!

 In the world of Hiraeth, a cracking kingdom with a deceptive history is born.  The Lands of Hiraeth are teeming with sorcery and dangerous creatures, after a ravaging war when the Highland King led a disastrous effort to conquer all Lands.  But the future could turn as a young rider looks for the Highlands’ last hope.

 

The fading light of twilight cast long shadows of the pine trees, creeping up onto the path, dusky summer silhouettes.  The crickets synchronize from the forest, blending into a lazy, monotone symphony of buzzing.  A bleak orange light shines in from the west through the pine needles, dancing among them on the forest ground.  In sync with the crickets, the thumps of the horse’s hooves pound against the earth, the only other sound in the empty sunset, the only creature at work in the hot summer eve.  

 

The forest path arcs upward, and the chestnut horse slowly rises above the treeline, its rider edging it faster.  Leaning forward in the slim saddle, the boy wrings the reigns in his hands, his hood flapping about behind his neck.  The soft path strewn with pine needles slowly dissolves into a rocky valley as two great, brown slopes rise on his sides.  Huffing, the horse lets out a whimper of protest, and his rider can feel his limbs straining beneath his own aching thighs.  Reluctantly, the rider allows the horse to slow, trotting their way into the deep shadows of the thin valley.

 

Leaving the pine trees behind, a sudden chill fills the air, and the rider yanks his hood back over his face.  As the path reaches a peak and begins to decline, the boy urges the horse back up to a gallop, pounding up clouds of dirt and dust.  The slow descent of the sun urges him forward, quicker, onward.  Time is fighting against him.

 

Before the sun disappears below the mountains, the rider passes through the shadows of the twin peaks on either side of the valley, as his horse lets out a small whinny, as if to ask ‘where are you taking me?’ He pats the horse’s neck in response.

 

Ahead on the path, east and past the thin line of mountains, ancient green trees grow tall in clumps, slowly gathering to a lush, dark forest.  Passing one of the old willows, the rider shivers, as two knots in the oak look remarkably like weathered eyes, wrinkled and somber and wary.  He’s heard the rumors and stories of the Watcher Wood, passed through both the high and low circles, weaving their way into people’s minds like a snake in the grass, hissing warnings to travelers near and far.  He pulls his cloak closer and urges his horse deeper into the wood.

 

Not long is he racing beneath the trees against the fading light when the back of his neck prickles with an unnatural tingling of some sixth sense, matched with a slight drop in the pit of his stomach.  Someone’s eyes are on him.  His first thought is of panic. The trees.

 

But when he slows his horse to a trot, soft grass leaving imprints from the hooves, he can hear rustling, here and there, in the bramble and undergrowth around him.  He lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.  Of course it’s not the trees.

 

Following the weaving green path, he’s not too sure what to do, but he figures he’ll let them make the first move.  For the first time since he left last night, bouncing in his saddle with one hand on his reins and the other on the scabbard at his hip, he realizes that this would probably be a grave mistake.  They’d sooner kill him than help him.

 

Five minutes after trotting along, hearing them rustling in the shadows, leaving everything up to them, a silhouette of a man appears down the path in front of the rider, as if out of nowhere.  The rider can’t see him, really, as shadows cover his face, but he stands still as stone as the horse trots up to him, halting a foot in front of him without a command.  A long spear digs in the ground in the man’s left hand, as he casually twists it.  Silence bleeds between them from the forest around them.

 

“Please.” The rider says, voice cracking through the space between.  “I need your help.”

 

The shadow over the man’s face betrays nothing, but as he squirms uncomfortably in his saddle, he can’t help but feel a change in the air.  Surprise splashes in, filtering out some of the tension in the air.  Not all of it, however.

 

“I need…” The rider says hesitantly, as rustles in the brush around him remind him that he’s completely at their mercy.  “I need to see the Enchantress.”

 

The man’s head cocks to the left, as if considering his options.  Light uncovers most of his face, revealing a tan, wrinkled face with the long, curly black hair of the Vaga.  His dark, arched eyebrows overtook his face, shadowing his eyes.  The light spills onto his plain, white cloth shirt and weathered brown pants, and it twinkles off of the metal edge of the spear.  Then, he turns and steps down the path, without another look at the rider.

 

As his horse grunts, the rider opens his mouth, to call him back, to beg, to cry, but the Vaga ahead of him halts and gives a forward gesture with his spear.  Kicking his horse gently, he cannot help but think that probably if the answer was no then he would be dead.

 

The smell of roasting fish and ripe fruit reaches him first, not long after trotting behind his guide, and then the squealing of children and the murmurs of voices are quick to follow.  A minute of two after that, he spots a man through the trees walking alongside him at his right that he hadn’t seen before, and then, he could tell he was flanked on all sides by the Vaga.  

 

Eventually, the trees thin, revealing what he could only assume is the current Vaga camp.  A huge meadow expanse spreads out before him, tall yellow grass swaying gently in the wind.  A stream interrupts the grassy sea, over on the right, and he can hear above the gaggle of the camp the distant roaring of waterfalls.  Beyond the stream and around the camp, the rest of the forest picks right back up, but here in the clear, he can see the mountains he traveled between earlier.  

 

Squishing the tall meadow graze are at least thirty caravans and tents, built of deep red wood and canopy and decorated with tiny bells and stars and chipping paint.  The Vaga people gather here and there, looking extraordinarily like most groups of people he has seen: a small group of women with long braids, some holding babies or wrestling toddlers, sitting around a fire roasting meat; warriors, both men and women, off to the right by the stream, stabbing at the air with thin long spears; a few broad-shouldered youth brush horses or watch over cows and oxen that graze through the camp; children giggle and run around and past him.  It occurs to him in that moment, watching a few children in light grey tunics chase each other around, that he is probably the first of his kind to be in this camp in fifty years.  

 

His guides, or, he realizes, his captors, wait for him to dismount his horse as another Vaga approaches.  The activity in the camp slows to a halt as the woman, who has crinkles around her eyes and grey curly hair to her waist, and a necklace of some deep blue jewels linked together by what looks like bone, marches up to him.  When she halts directly in front of him, she gazes up at him, about a foot shorter, but she seems to tower overhead.  The camp stares at the newcomer, some whispering under their breath, more glaring with cold eyes and fidgeting with a weapon in hand.

 

The old woman in front of him peers at him with suspicion, dark brown eyes digging into his skin.  He notices that the sun has finally abandoned him, leaving the world in darkness, but somehow, the camp is still in the light, and he sees for the first time glowing orbs floating above the tops of the caravans.  Like balls of floating fire, they are a collection of yellows and light blues and greens, drifting lazily and kissing the treetops.  

 

“Highlander.” The old lady’s stern voice brings him back down to reality, and the pit of worry at the back of his throat returns.  “Why have you come?”

 

“I…” His voice sounds weak in the thick summer air.  “I need to see the Enchantress.  I need her help.”

 

A snort sparks in the space, and a young man with a bushel of hair steps forward.  He seems young, but with a strong set jaw and burgeoning muscles, intimidation leaks from his every movement.  

 

“Etana,” the young man steps forward, “this is a Highlander and an Audaxi at that.  Let us show him what we do to those from the Mountain of Graves.”

 

He cannot help but feel an itching to grasp his scabbard as his teeth clenches at that name.  But his mission comes back to him, resurfacing in the memory of that scream last night.

 

“Please.” The words feel forced, but he hopes they do not sound it.  “We are desperate.  I need the Enchantress.”

 

“Let me…”

 

“Enough, Filo.”  The old lady interrupts, giving the young man a scathing look.  Turning back to the rider, she says, “For what purpose?”

 

He swallows, already knowing what this will elicit.  “That I am not able to say.  I am under strict orders from the king, and he…”

 

“The king.” The old woman gives a rueful smile.  “And why would we ever help the Highland king?  Because of all he has done for my people?”

 

He had no response to that.  Before he could even attempt one, however, a voice rings clear and bright above the crowd.

 

“Luckily, it’s not for you to decide who I help.”

 

A young woman steps out from the small gathering crowd, sauntering up with a casual grace.  Her bright blue eyes are shockingly different among the deep browns and blacks of the Vaga, and as she walks up, her long, chestnut hair curls outward and bounces lightly on her shoulders.  A deep red cloak, tattered with tears and holes, lays across her shoulders, covering her simple brown dress, which drags a little on the ground.

 

She smiles at the rider, a sort of half smile which seems as though she knows something he does not, some joke he is not informed of.  But it’s kind, kinder than the suspicious looks of the rest of the camp.

 

“Come.” She says, a voice like a breeze ruffling the trees. “Let’s talk in private.”

Please leave a comment or a like to tell me what you think, especially if you’d like to see more of this series!  The next chapter should be up next week!

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