Welcome back to the Audaxi Chronicles! This chapter is a bit long (but they’re all a bit long, aren’t they?). If you like this kind of content, be sure to let me know, and share with your friends! If you want to see something different, let me know that too!
The Audaxi Chronicles
“Raff, would you keep up?” Trask yells from his big white horse twenty feet ahead.
“You’re dragging us all behind, kid!” Vukan calls as he kicks his brown mare up to a gallop.
Raff leans down to give his horse a stroke, feeling the thick and pulsing muscles underneath her skin, and then he kicks her gently, coaxing her to a trot.
The yellow afternoon sun pours onto the pale green tall grass that sways ever so gently in the wind. About twenty minutes south of Rinnreal, Raff and the other Audaxi, following behind Prince Nolyn, ride over a giant empty plain like ships on a great green sea. Far in the distance to their left, the Eastern Mountains rise out of the haze, a shaking apparition of great silhouetted peaks all in a row. In the direction they ride, a mess of trees awaits them, a hole cut out in the middle where the Highpath leads directly south and eventually to The Cliff.
At the back of the group, Raff sees the seven other young men upon their horses spaced out in front of him like a pack of wolves on the prowl. At the head of their group, Prince Nolyn rides on his spotted mare, sword clanging on his hip and a simple but glittering circlet on his head. Trask is at his side, as they occasionally throw a word back and forth as they gallop down the slight slope.
Behind them, Vukan sits squat on his horse, bouncing a little in his saddle, and Cathal looks even taller when next to the smaller man. Jerah, Orion, and Lars ride in front of Raff, weaving in between each other and sharing jokes and laughs.
And then there was Raff, trailing behind as usual. This time he’d been staring at the swaying of the grass underneath his horse’s hooves. The lightest light green, the tall grass caressed the horse’s calves, swaying ever so gently in the breeze that looks like a mirage in the desert. And with the mountains just barely visible in the distance and the puffy grey clouds in the sky, Raff couldn’t imagine that he is actually there, outside of the dirty dark walls of Rinnreal and striding across the plains.
He shakes his head, his curly brown hair dancing about his face, to refocus on the horses ahead of him and the mission. Catching up like he always does, Raff falls in line at the back of the pack, as the plain starts to slope downward and the trees grow closer.
The afternoon sun warms his back as Raff fidgets in his saddle. He stares at Orion, Jerah, and Lars’s backs, with their matching blue cloaks. Jerah’s lanky figure cuts stark on the left, and the back of Orion’s ruggedly handsome face shakes with a laugh at Lars’s last joke to Jerah’s right. Lars laughs as well to whatever they are discussing, his golden locks dancing in the sunlight.
“How far is the town, again?” Raff calls up to the young men in front of him.
Orion slows his horse to fall in line with Raff. While all the Audaxi are older than him, Orion is the only one who seems the oldest of them all, which is odd because he’s the same age to Nolyn and Trask. With his chiseled features and tall stature, Orion was a squire at eight years and a knight at thirteen, and he traveled all through the Lands and beyond for six years as a member of the Royal Army. That is, until he returned to Rinnreal upon the news of the prince’s new Audaxi, which he proved himself to be apart of.
“Another…” Orion trails off, looking up at the sun. “five hours, if I had to guess.”
Raff nods solemnly, running the soft leather of his reins through his hands. Down the gentle slope in front of them, the entrance to the forest rises up, and Prince Nolyn and Trask ride confidently through.
Jerah calls back to the two of them and Lars at his right. “I still don’t understand why we’re even going.”
Lars says, rolling his eyes, “Because a farmer got scared of his own shadow and came running to the crown looking to get some silver.”
Jerah laughs at that, guiding his horse gently around a smooth black rock jutting out of the grass.
“I thought he said he saw a beast.” Raff says, urgent seriousness in his voice.
The two ahead laugh, but Orion looks at the backs of their heads seriously. “Well, Yundr is known for its magical connection. It’s in the heart of the forest, at a crossroads in the Highpath. Supposedly the Fae creatures are spotted around there, the Traveling Folk. This was around where they lived in ancient times.”
Jerah and Lars stare seriously at each other for a second before bursting into laughter. Orion chuckles along, but only a little.
Lars barks a laugh. “Well, if ancient magic creatures are about, we should have brought the Enchantress!”
“Oh, laugh all you want.” Orion says, suddenly deathly serious and with a shadow over his features. “But the magic we know is only remnants of the power of the Ancients. They could destroy us all in a heartbeat…”
Jerah interrupts. “Yeah, if they didn’t all flee from us. Stop telling faery stories; you’ll frighten the children.”
With his last word, he gestures with his shoulder back to Raff.
“You are only two years older than me.” Raff says with a quick laugh.
Jerah twists in his saddle, grinning back at him good-natured before kicking his horse up ahead.
Then, the forest sits directly in front of them, with a large gaping hole like a mouth for the Highpath. Trees crowd in like arrow in a quiver, pressing in on each other so much that all Raff can see is darkness. The edge of the forest is almost a clean break from the prairie edge, as if an Ancient simply took a huge sword and chopped it off. Suddenly, Raff could more than believe Orion’s story of the Traveling Folk still existing.
One by one, Raff watches the forest swallow his Audaxi brothers, following after the prince and the second. Then it takes Vukan and Cathal, the small man and the big man side-by-side. Jerah and Lars enter its jaws, and Orion follows at a trot.
And Raff follows at the end, as usual, taking one last glance at the tall, jagged mountain of Rinnreal in the distance behind them.
The rest of the day passes in the misty haze of the forest. A mirage of faded greens and blues underneath the overlapping canopy above them. Any sound is muffled, quieted in the deep heat that is trapped under the trees, except for the faint buzzing of the late summer crickets that nowhere in the Highlands could escape.
A daze falls over Raff in the afternoon, as his friends grow quiet and as the horses’ steps are muffled by thick mossy grass on the forest floor.
So maybe it was his fault, when he got lost.
Minutes before, he had been following behind Orion’s horse, as they fell into a line and slowed to a walk. The trail had been rounding a curve, and the horses in front of his veered casually to the left.
Or at least, he thought they had gone left. But suddenly, he sees that he is alone.
Halting his horse with a yank of the reins, Raff looks around, turning himself in his saddle. In every direction the thick forest continues, with no sign of any other living being, let alone seven other men on horses.
“Orion?” He throws the word out softly, hopefully.
The forest is his only answer, a myriad of buzzing and softly floating mist. Around him, slight hills rise and fall softly, as the leaves flutter hypnotically in the passing wind. The breeze feels good on his damp, sweaty skin. Raff unhooks the thick blue cloak from his shoulders, laying it across the saddle in front of him and reveling in the breeze against the light leather on his shirt.
Alone still, Raff pats his horse in thought, still wondering how he could have possibly lost the others. Finally, he kicks his horse to a trot.
“Prince Nolyn? Trask?” He calls ever so softly, the memory of Orion’s story of the Traveling Folk stuck in his brain.
He’s never really been one for faery tales, the stories all the kids of Rinnreal gathered by the West Well to hear the old storyteller recount. The Traveling Folk, those creatures and magical people, who lived when the Ancients lived and helped shape the Lands. He never really liked those ones. He’d always ask to hear the heroic stories, like the knights of old.
But now, alone in the Yundr Forest, one of the oldest Highland forests, he could almost believe them. He could almost believe the stories people were telling of the Ancients and the Traveling Folk returning.
A sudden chill whispers on his skin. Looking up, he sees the blackness setting in, the sun probably creeping down below the horizon. Swinging his cloak back on his shoulders, Raff tries to pick up the pace and urge his horse to a gallop, assuming that someway, somehow, if he rode far enough, he would find an end to the trees.
But his chestnut whinnies, shaking her head with a snort. When he tries to change their direction, she doesn’t listen, continuing in a straight line.
Raff frowns. He’d never had problems with her before, but now the horse seems to be completely disregarding him. He tries to yank the reins toward him to stop her, but she keeps clopping along, as if she has no idea he was there.
Then, as suddenly as it began, they crest the top of a short hill. A grassy glade, haunted by mist, the trees part to reveal almost an empty meadow, nearly in a complete circle. Above, a black sky with the tiny pinpricks of stars just starting to appear hangs about the grass, touching the trees on the outside. Large moss-covered stones surround the outside of the meadow, evenly parted around the circle as if placed by someone. Raff’s horse halts in the exact middle.
“Raffym of the Highlands.”
A voice, creeping out of the mist. No, not just one voice, but many. Like the sound of a crowd, a cacophony of men and women and children, speaking in unison. Jumping a bit in his saddle, he unsheathes his sword in a flash, bunching the reins in his other hand, dancing his horse around in a circle.
“Who is there?” He demands, even though his hands are shaking.
“We are the Mirja.” The voice says. “The Ancient one. We see the beginning, and the end, of all things.”
Suddenly, in front of him, appears the shape of a woman in the mist. Only a blurred outline, like a reflection in a foggy mirror.
Out of her mouth, the voice says, “It is certain. The Traveling Folk will return. The Lands are to fall and become a lawless land, a forgotten people. It is certain.”
Raff stutters in spite of himself. “Who-why are you telling me this? What is happening? The Lands can’t fall!”
“It is certain. But,” The woman stares with dead, sunken holes for eyes, “it is also certain. That there is a way.”
Raff feels his fright lift, if only slightly, in curiosity. The Lands, and the crown, cannot fall. He has dedicated his life in protection against just that. He swore an oath.
“The prophecy is certain. The Traveling Folk will return. The Prince of the Highlands and the Enchantress of the East can sew the broken pieces of Hiraeth back together. The Second Son of Rinn can lead Hiraeth into a golden age, but only with the Vaga sorceress. It is certain.”
Then, the Mirja’s, the mist-creature’s, face darkened, becoming a dark, stormy deep grey.
“You are the Keeper. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. It is certain.”
A thousand questions are bursting like dams exploding in Raff’s mind. But, before he can even open his mouth, a great gust of wind, flapping loudly through his cloak and whipping his hair, blows. His horse starts dancing and bucking her head, spooked.
The wind picks up so much that Raff has to look down and away. Eventually, it ebbs away until just a whisper. And when he looks up, the mist and the Mirja are gone.
The sun has long set before he finds his way to the town of Yundr on the opposite end of the wood. A tiny place of wooden huts and hunting people, Yundr seems to shake around him as his horse, still scared, thunders into the town by the path.
He finds most of the other Audaxi with the prince in the small local tavern, surrounded by admiring and thankful peasants. Heartily recounting their apparent tale of adventure, Lars and Vukan stand on the long wooden table, acting out an epic fight in the yellow candlelight.
“Raff!” Trask notices him in the doorway first, and the noise immediately dies down.
Orion and Trask rush over to him. “Where the hell ‘ave you been?” Vukan calls gruffly, still on top of the table.
Prince Nolyn sits at the head of the table. “We lost you about three hours ago. You missed all the fun!”
The story is on the tip of his tongue, as he looks at the prince, leaning forward in his seat with expectant eyes, crown glittering on his head, but something inside him pulls away.
“I, uh, got lost.” Raff says flatly.
And his Audaxi brothers accept that, mocking him a little but nothing he can’t handle. Only Trask seems to look at him with a glint of suspicion in his deep brown eyes. He listens to their tale of heroics, apparently against a viscous group of bears, given a seat at the table next to Orion and the prince, near the fire.
When they ride out the next day, Raff almost forgets about the encounter with the Mirja, but the words they said echo in his mind, ever so softly. And the sense that this is just the beginning weighs down on his heart as he follows the prince, and the Audaxi, back home.
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