Chapter 3: The Highland Castle

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The Audaxi Chronicles: Chapter 3

These formalities seem to pick away at the time that is running out.  As Althea and Raffym sit up on their horses between the two great mountains, looking off into the dark, Raff feels as though all the Lands are frozen, in the still silence of night, and maybe if they just didn’t move, his prince could stay alive.  


Raff clicks his horse forward, however, back up to a canter, leading Althea into the darkness and to the seat, hoping against hope that he will not be too late.


He watches the day sun creep over their heads and high in the sky as they ride, alternating between cantering and trotting.  The sun feels like an hourglass, reminding him that time is waning, that they need to move, that the prince could be dead already.  


Next to him, Althea rides on her big black mare with a relaxed ease which made him angry, as she gazes left and right with big eyes as they pass.  She seems curious, like she has never been west of the mountains before. Her seeming lack of concern did not hinder anything, however, as she kept pace with him at every turn.


Racing through the Highlands, their two horses pass through wide open grasslands with tall yellow grass that kisses his heels and clumps of small tall-treed forests that grow more common as they ride.  When the sun rises over the mountains, the chill on the ground began to warm as they stops quickly to eat thin chewy bread Althea had packed and water the horses.  But as the sun reaches mid-day, Raff feels his chest tighten as they reach a crest on a plain, where they can see, up on a mountain on the horizon, the light grey stone of Rinnreal.  


The way to the keep ahead, tall and fortified on Rinn’s Peak, is the unkempt Luy Forest, thick and deliciously green.  The forest stretches in all directions but behind them, opening below the hill they stand on.  Smoke drifts out here and there from various campfires and homes, floating up lazily to the fading blue sky.  


Rinnreal in the distance creates a formidable sight. The lush, green mountain of Rinn’s Peak supports the light grey stone of the keep’s walls, and the way the sunlight shines somehow makes the keep disguise itself as a simple mountaintop.  But at further glance Rinnreal’s parapets and towers jut up into the sky, tiny flags fluttering in the wind at their tops.  


Looking at the keep from afar, Raff cannot help but relax a little, like a muscle within him was tightened which he did not even know about.  Something about seeing his home, his entire world, up on the mountain within sight lessens the anxiety in his chest.


“We should be able to make it by nightfall.” He says, glancing at the girl next to him.


Althea nods and then gestures toward the castle.  “It’s funny.  It looks…prettier than I thought it would.”


She can’t seem to take her eyes off of it, gazing up at it with those wide eyes.  He realizes that she’s probably never seen any sort of structure like it.  The stiffness inside him returns, reminding him that she’s not just a stranger, but a Vaga.


“Well,” he says, dripping with sourness, “with a name like Mountain of Graves, I suppose you don’t expect much.”


At that, he clicks to his horse and gallops down the hill to the opening in the forest where the path begins, leaving the Enchantress to follow.


Riding through the afternoon, they make their way as quickly as possible down the main road in the Highlands, the Highpath, through the forest.  They make little conversation, weaving their way over the dirt and grass, surrounded by the trees and the brush.  In another time, the Highpath to Rinnreal would have travelers and merchants and adventurers and farmers, with taverns and towns and farms and homes here and there.  Now, they passed open fields of charred ground and clusters of wood beams from once a house and one hunched, seedy merchant leading a particularly sickly donkey.


Dark has already fallen for by the time the Highpath curves upward, and stars begin to pick their way through when the two of them leave the trees behind, and soon the sound of hooves on stone echo in the air.


As the Highpath fades from a dirt clearing to a wide but rough stone path, the wide grassy plain slowly fades into the town of Rinnreal.  Past a few farms and houses outside of the town, Raff and the Enchantress rush past the first signs of civilization, a few common folk no more than blurs to their pace.  


Finally, a great stone wall looms in front of them, the light grey stone littered with vines and dirt.  Reluctantly, Raff slows to a halt, as the great wooden gate locks them off from the town and their goal.  The Enchantress halts next to him, her red cloak’s hood pulled up over her curls, cheeks flushed.  In the dark, he can barely see the deep red capes of the Highland King’s soldiers.


“State your intent.” A gruff voice calls down from the wall.  The Enchantress raises her eyebrows a little to his right.


“Soldier.” Raff calls up, attempting his most commanding voice.  “Sir Raffym, of the Audaxi, on orders from the King.”


He hears a mumbling above them and then a loud creaking as the gears of the gate begin to grind it open.  


“Apologies, sir.  Didn’t recognize ya.” The man calls back down.  It sounds odd to hear him say, for a man probably twenty years his senior.


But the gate lowers, revealing the winding main road of the stone city within.  They pass, eagerly picking up their swift gate.  Luckily, the streets are mostly empty, candlelight flickering in most windows, so they gallop through the streets.  Raff leads, his hairy steed disrupting a few stones underneath as he passes, with the Enchantress’s big black mare right behind.


Raff’s heart pounds against his chest as he rides, thoughts flying so wildly through his brain that he cannot think of anything at all.  Weaving through the streets by memory, he takes her the quickest route up to the outer castle wall through the town, the cramped building passing by in a blur.  


The outer castle wall, separating the town from the castle, has two soldiers guarding the entrance, but they step aside to let them through without stopping.  In the castle courtyard, an open stone expanse that leads to homes of nobles and chieftains surrounding the castle, they slow to a trot, and Raff dismounts before his horse even stops.  


The great stone structure of towers and rooms and parapets and staircases loom above them, and the Conqueror’s Staircase leads up to the formidable front doors.  People rush here and there, servants and nobles alike slinking through the dark.


Five men stand in wait for them at the foot of the stairs, and as the Enchantress dismounts, the men walk up to them.  When they come closer, Raff can see that in the lead is Chieftan Enlil, a short, balding man in surprisingly simple clothes who takes pride in being close with the king.  Two servants stand with him, who immediately take the reigns of their horses, and the two other men are some lesser nobles whose names Raff can’t remember.


“Sir Raffym.” Enlil opens his arms in welcome, ever the host.  “And, I’m assuming, our friend from the east.”


He shifts his gaze to the Enchantress, who was untying a bag from her horse.  Hefting it over her shoulder, she turns back.


“Hi.” She says simply, as if not speaking with the third most powerful man in the Lands.  “Where is he?”


The Chieftain nods, and suddenly the three of them are off, a notch slower than running, speeding through a side door to the castle and through the rooms.


“What’s his condition?”  All thoughts that Raff had had of her lack of concern fly out the window as her big blue eyes narrow into a focus.


“Well,” Enlil says, his surprise at her lack of formality apparent, “Galen would be able to tell you better than I.  The prince had taken a hunting trip several days ago and returned with a wound, one which worsened at an alarming and unnatural rate.”


As they pass, they rush by many nobles still in their evening wear, standing and whispering in low tones.  Raff barely has time to blink as they climb, making their way up to the prince’s tower.


“Hunting trip?” The Enchantress’s focus seems disrupted somewhat, but then she shakes her head a little, readjusting.  “When was this?”


“Thirteen days past.” Raff says.  The two look back at him, almost surprised he is still there.  “I was there.  The prince had run off after a stag, and we found him with the wound and the stag dead next to him.”


She gives him another look, this time with eyes narrowed and lips pursed.  “Huh.” She says, but then the moment’s gone, as they reach the top of the staircase and push through a door.


Down that hall, two men stand outside the prince’s door, along with three female servants who rush around, in and out of the door.  The men are both extremes, one very tall and one very short, are dressed not in the soldiers’ deep red but regular, unmatched clothes with the dark blue cloaks of the Audaxi.  


Raff does not even register which of his brothers they are as they stride right through the open door into the warzone.  Inside the cavernous prince’s chambers, however, everything stands unnaturally still.  The other four Audaxi stand and sit in a corner by the prince’s table with wide eyes.  Near the fireplace on the other end, the king, with his greystone crown, and the captain of the guard in his reds stand with stricken faces.  


“You’re too late.” A greying man with a wizened beard steps out from the door to the prince’s bedchamber.  The Royal Physician, Galen’s hands tremor slightly.  “The prince is dead.”


Sorry this update was a bit longer, but to be honest I couldn’t find a different stopping point before this, also because I love cliffhangers ;).  Please share with your friends if you enjoyed it!

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