Chapter 11: The Mountain Pass

This chapter is super long sorry! But I’m trying to write this series with a bit more imagery and description than usual, so bear with me! Hope you enjoy!

The Audaxi Chronicles

Althea

She stands at the edge of a burning lake. Dark black puffs of smoke curl up from the blood-red flames tinged with yellow. Dancing across an inky surface, the water almost doesn’t seem disturbed by the fire, as it spreads from one bank to the end, flickering and filling up the round surface.

 

Surrounding the lake, spindling brown tree branches, shadowed in the night air, grab at the lake like the hands of some strange god. The forest raises around the inferno, as if it sits in the heart of a valley. But the fire doesn’t spread any further than the lake, as the forest around and beyond stays untouched.

 

She knows immediately that it’s a dream.

 

Her bare feet stand on the forest floor, dry dirt underneath her toes and twigs poking into her skin. Her skin doesn’t prickle in the night air, even though she only wears a light dress. It almost dissolves into the night with its dark blue tint. Her hair is neatly brushed, loose curls falling over her dark shoulders and down her back. The heat from the fire caresses her face and her arms, dancing light on her in the moonless night.

 

She feels the satisfaction that tells her that somehow, for some reason, she started the fire.

 

She stares ahead, across the lake and over the flames. Two dark figures appear, standing side-by-side on the opposite bank. Peering through the flickering light, she tries to make out their faces, but they remain shadows. But she feels them looking at her, beckoning her. Like dark faeries promising her hidden knowledge.

 

Without hesitation, she steps forward. Her foot crunches on the ground, but she stares ahead, through the smoke to the figures. She keeps on, until she reaches the water’s edge, where lapping fire explodes out of the surface.

 

As if in a trance, she simply steps forward, her foot stopping on the cool water’s surface, as if some sort of magic was keeping her afloat.

 

Walking on, the flames nearly tickled lightly on her skin, like a thousand feathers brushing against her, as she made her way on. But then, the smoke jumps into her lungs, clogging them up.

 

Her eyes widen, and she coughs, bending forward. When she looks up again, the figures on the opposite bank are gone, as meer smoke billows in their place.

 

Then, she falls into the water. For a scary second, plunging into the great deep.


And then she wakes to the sound of a scream.

 

Jerking up in her tiny straw bed, Althea coughs, as if trying to get smoke or water out of her lungs. When she stops, she sees the sun flickering on the floor of her room, dazzling it in yellow. Her bed sheets, a fine linen that are much nicer than what she was used to, lay twisted at the end of her bed, and her nightgown is dripping in sweat.

 

When she finally catches her breath, she sits still, thinking over the dream. With the study of magic, weird dreams sort of come with the experience. Althea couldn’t help but remember the nights, long ago, when her mother would wake screaming of chaos and blood, and her aunt or grandmother or one of the other women in their caravan would groggily come in and hug her back to sleep.

 

Shaking the memory from her mind, she tries to determine whether she dreamt the scream or not. Then, very distantly, a sharp, high wail breaks out, thin and from far away. Standing, she throws herself together quickly, washing her face and her mouth and pulling on clothes, rushing out to the physician’s workroom and past the empty beds. The wail calls out again, from somewhere deeper inside the castle.

 

Following the noise, Althea twists and turns through the stone hallways, all dripping in gold from the morning sun and the candles. She squeezes past servants with arms filled with laundry and trays and tapestries and the like, shuffling past a noble or two who seem to be headed back to their homes outside the castle but within the inner wall. 

 

Eventually, she finds her way to the throne room. The huge, ornate doors stand open, which is unusual. Inside the room is packed with people, nobles and Chieftains and common people alike. Crying echoes about the chamber, and mutters flick through the crowd. Pausing by a red-draped guard, whose shiny metal helmet hides the entirety of his face, Althea gestures at the commotion.

 

“What’s happening?” She asks, intrigued. “Why’re there so many people?”

 

Even without seeing his face, Althea can tell he just looked at her like he thinks she’s simple. “Today the king receives his people. Meeting demands, solving quarrels. Doing his job.”

 

He looks away, straight ahead like his partner on the other side of the open door, clearly ending the conversation.

 

“Highlanders.” Althea mutters under her breath, and she enters the crowd in the giant room.

 

Eventually, she pushes her way through until she stands by the wall, where, as luck would have it, one of the Audaxi is posted at guard, with a sword at his hip and one of those blue cloaks draped on his shoulders.

 

“Raff!” She calls to him, a smile on her face, like they’re old friends. He looks mildly uncomfortable as she plants herself next to him. “What’s going on?”

 

The boy brushes a hand through his curls, shuffling his feet underneath him. Another Audaxi, Orion, she thinks his name is, gives Raff a pointed look through the crowd from where he is posted about twenty paces closer to the thrones. The king and the prince sit, looking regal and pompous, on their thrones further on, discussing something with the crying woman in red. Then, Raff looks at her, brown eyes staring intently into hers.

 

He has a young face, years younger than her, but he can look deadly serious. And old, like he was an Ancient in another life. Raff seems to be studying her, as if he is weighing her character on a scale right in front of them. Suddenly, she feels like the uncomfortable one.

 

“A Chieftain’s wife.” He finally answers. “Tolia, the wife of the Chieftain of Kinnell. Kinnell is the Land of the Cliff, down south. It separates…”

 

“It separates the Highlands from the Lowlands.” Althea finishes for him. “I might not be from Hiraeth, but I know basic geography.”

 

Raff harrumphs a little at that. “I didn’t mean…anyway. Apparently her daughter was taken.”

 

“Taken?” Althea says, interested. “By whom? How?”

 

Raff shakes his head. “Not sure. Something about Tiergan men coming down from the mountains. How they could have had enough men, though…”

 

He trails off, unable to finish let alone answer that question, and Althea huffs.

 

Tierga, one of the “Unruled” Lands off the east, as the Highlanders call them, houses a rough people, with one old king. With the Lands as unstable as they are, the Tiergans have taken the opportunity to spread not only into the Lands but beyond. The Vaga had run into trouble with them too often, Althea remembers.

 

“Rise, Lady Tolia.” The king says, standing from his throne to offer the older woman his arm. She gladly accepts, wiping her eyes rather unladylike and bowing her head to him. “Dry your eyes. Of course we shall help. Nolyn?”

 

At his father’s call, Nolyn casually pushes himself off his throne, almost smirking a little. Althea bristled, clenching her jaw.

 

“The prince and his Audaxi will go after them.” The prince nods at his father’s words, looking just slightly down at the grey-haired woman from a step above. “They will bring her home, I assure you.”

 

Althea turns to Raff. “Does it bother you at all, to just get volunteered for this sort of thing? Without any say?”

 

She’s joking, of course, hoping to crack a smile out of him. But he turns and says in all seriousness, “We’re helping people.”

 

Smiling a little apologetically, Althea turns her attention back on the throne.

 

“Please, sire,” the woman’s voice grows soft, as she glances around at the faces gathered in the room, staring at her sorrow, “I think…she may be hurt. She was ill when they took her, and I…I’m worried the stress…plus whatever else they might have….”

 

Incapable of finishing her thought, the woman nearly falls to the floor, if not for the king at her side. A great sob escapes her throat.

 

King Ri stares at the woman in his arms with his brow furrowed, worry dissolving into careful consideration. He raises his head, slowly, the silver crown atop his head catching the sunlight from one of the long, thin windows on the side. His eyes pour over the crowd, almost individually picking out each person, from his left to his right, before discovering Althea on the side by Raff.

 

“Our personal court physician will join the search.” His voice falls into the silent room like a brick. “She will attend to your daughter’s needs immediately on her rescue.”

 

His eyes, still trained on Althea’s, light up only slightly, as if he’s excited by the decision. Althea’s eyebrows raise in surprise, as the eyes around the room slowly land on her, including Raff on her left.

 

But Althea stares straight ahead at the king, who offers a small smile. Behind him, Nolyn’s face takes a minute before his mouth drops in surprise and anguish, but just as he starts to speak, the old woman’s head lifts.

 

“Really?” She looks from the king to where Althea stands. “Oh, thank you, my king! I, and Kinnell, cannot offer you enough thanks!”

 

And at a wave from the king, the receiving session is over, and the crowd erupts into discussion and movement, as some gather in groups while others flood to the door.

 

At the head of the room, the king turns around, saying something to his son behind him. Althea can’t hear, the rabble of the people bouncing in the room and interrupting.

 

“So, the Enchantress is blessing us with her presence on this journey.” The Audaxi from earlier, Orion, strides up to Althea and Raff. “Well, I don’t think we have been…properly acquainted.”

 

At that, Orion takes her right hand, leaning down to brush his lips against her knuckles.

 

It’s the friendliest greeting she’s received so far in Rinnreal. She laughs.

 

“Does that work with all the women?” She asks, genuinely curious.

 

Orion raises his face, which, she did have to admit, is very handsome. Fluffy black hair, high cheekbones, and a chiseled jaw, Orion stands about half a head taller than her, with the aura of someone who has seen the world. She could see how that could be intoxicating.

 

“Less often than you might believe.” He laughs, light and airy, but real, as if he stripped layers of fake charm away in an instant.

 

“That means never!” Vukan calls out from behind him, his rough voice booming in the hall.

 

The others circle around her from their various points in the hall. Vukan standing by Cathal, introducing themselves as the short one and the tall one. Lars and Jerah, coming up at her right, whisper between each other what was probably a rude joke before bursting into guffaws. Orion insists that she shouldn’t pay any mind to them.

 

Immediately she feels the air of familiarity within them. Most she’s noticed here and there in the castle, and all she’s seen with the prince on multiple occasions. As for the prince himself, he still stands on the steps, Trask at his side and speaking in low terms to the king, while another Chieftain escorts Tolia away.

 

After a solid minute, the king walks away, and the Audaxi quiet around her. Nolyn simply stares at her, squinting just slightly, as if her very existence disturbed him.

 

Then, he says flatly, “We leave at midday.”

 

And with that, he strides away, behind the thrones where a door leads deeper into the palace, closer to the royal chambers at the heart of the building. And the Audaxi disperse, heading off in different directions, discussing saddling the horses and who needs boots fixed or swords sharpened.

 

Brennan Trask walks up to her, a naturally easy stance to his stride and his Lowland features much softer than the other times she’s seen him. He nods at her. “Enchantress. If you’re…”

 

“Althea.” She interrupts. “I do have a name. Althea. You can call me that.”

 

The young man opens and closes his mouth, startled a little, as if he doesn’t quite know how to take that knowledge. He lands on just moving forward. “If you’re joining us, you need to know how to protect yourself. The Tierga are fierce warriors, and we cannot spend our time protecting you.”

 

Althea offers him a slight smile. “I can protect myself just fine, thank you.” Then, she adds in for a teasing effect, “But it’s sweet that you’re worried about me.”

 

He leans in, just a little, toward her and says, “Oh, I think you’ll find there’s nothing sweet about me.”

 

At that, he walks off in the direction Nolyn left, leaving Althea a little stunned.

 

“Did he just…” She says to herself, forgetting Raff next to her, smiling a bit. “Well, at least someone in this castle has a sense of humor.”

Three hours later, she finds herself atop Serenity, her big black mare, riding out of Rinnreal town’s outer wall, down the Mountain of Graves, surrounded by the young men in navy blue cloaks on their horses.

 

The day passes in awkward silence for Althea, as she rides in front of Raff and behind everyone else, the permeating isolation of being an outsider hanging in the air around her. In front of her, the Audaxi weave in between each other, a tight group galloping side-by-side in complete familiarity. Ahead, Nolyn and Trask lead the group through the Highland of Hiraeth, across the open plains and down the Highpath to the south.

 

Trying to ignore the feeling that she’s completely intruding on something that feels sacred, Althea concentrates on the giant open sky above her and the breeze sweeping through her curls. Light puffs of clouds lazily trace through the sky, way off into the distance in all directions. The direction they head lay clumps of bushy forests with fading green leaves, as the tints of autumn are beginning to touch the Lands. She can’t see the Eastern Mountains, only rolling hills and farmland to not only the left but also to the right. Behind them, the more hilly area of upper Hiraeth and Ondin beyond hids much of their view.

 

The Highpath, which is only a treaded-down grassy path at this point, with no resources available to make it a real path, separates the Land of Hiraeth to their left and Sera to their right. Every few hours they’d pass a tiny peasant town or a clump of farmhouses, with the common folk hard at work. Some travelers pass their paths as well, mostly families headed southbound or young men and women traveling alone or sellers with their wagons and mules.

 

As the sun turns orange and begins to sink below the trees, the party continues, the sounds of hoofbeats echoing in the night air. The nine of them ride through the night, hanging a left at a fork in the Highpath to head into Kinnell, out of forests and into more long, black plains. Althea, at the back of the group with Raff, stares at the silhouetted world ahead of her and stifles yawns.

 

Eventually in the inky black night, deep and huge shadows rise up from the horizon in front of them. The Eastern Mountains, smaller than those up north where a few months ago Raff brought Althea through to save Nolyn. They must be getting close.

 

Right as she thought that, Althea and her horse almost bump into the others, who have halted ahead of her.

 

“We’re nearly to the mountains.” Nolyn says, as the Audaxi and Althea gather around him. “The Tierga lands lie beyond. We’ll go past the mountains, through the Cliff’s Pass. They can’t have gotten too far.”

 

Althea coughs, ever so lightly. Eight faces of the eight young men swivel toward her. “Uh, just, are you sure that’s a good idea?”

 

Nolyn’s jaw clenches, and his hand squeezes the handle of his sword. “Yes, actually, I am. The Tiergan men have strongholds past the Eastern Mountains, and the quickest way through and out of Hiraeth is the Pass.”

 

“Well, yes, but,” Althea says, “they know that, too. And they’ll know that someone will be coming after the Chieftain’s daughter and thus coming through the Pass. They’ll be waiting, either with a scout or even an ambush.”

 

Mixed reactions from the Audaxi, as they look to their prince.

 

Nolyn inhales sharply. “We have to get there as soon as we can. We’re wasting time even discussing this! The Pass is the quickest way to reach them!”

 

Althea throws up her arms, in defeat. “Okay. But if we’re ambushed, that’s on you!”

 

“She has a point.” Surprisingly, Trask speaks up, his voice calm and deliberate in the cool night air. “They must know the Chieftain’s wife escaped. It’s not impossible that they left someone behind, in case.”

 

Althea’s eyes meet Trask’s, just briefly, and he offers a slight smile. But everyone looks to Nolyn, whose handsome features are screwed up in dissatisfied consideration.

 

Finally, he shakes his head. “No, I’m not risking this girl’s life on an assumption.”

 

At that, Althea has a tiny bit of respect for him.

 

“Plus, why are we taking advice from the vagarinn now, hm?” He adds before kicking his horse forward again.

 

“And immediately, he loses it.” She whispers to herself, as Trask gives her a sympathetic look and as the others follow Nolyn. “Remarkable.”

 

The next thing she knows, the white-yellow rays of the sun peeks up from the mountains and the overcast clouds, and a deluge of thick wooden arrows rain down upon her and the Audaxi.

 

In a meadowy valley, with two huge mountains stretching up on either side, rocks upon rocks gathering up and disappearing into low-hanging clouds, the first arrow had thwipped down a foot away from Althea’s horse and lodging into a mossy rock.

 

From there, the scene devolves into a rushing mesh of shouting, arrows coming down, horses whinnying and snorting. Orion and Raff swing their bows from their backs. They try to send their attackers a few back, but Althea edges them onward.

 

“Go!” She shouts. “They’re too high!”

 

As she speaks, she swivels a bit in her seat. Then, she mutters a quick incantation, the first helpful one that comes to her mind, moving her hands through their positions as quickly as possible. Pulling her hands apart and directing Serenity with her legs, Althea feels everything else fall away, as a ball of shimmering light blue erupts from her fingers. Spreading her hands apart in a jerky, quick motion, the light flings outward, encompassing the Audaxi in a glowing shield.

 

In front of her, she sees looks of shock and exclamations, but the arrows falling from above chink into the shield instead of into their heads.

 

“Keep moving!” Raff shouts from behind her, urging the Audaxi onward.

 

All her focus on keeping the thin layer of blue alive, a tiny spark of relief goes off in her mind when she barely registers Raff grabbing the reins to Serenity, directing her to stay alongside him.

 

And then, just as suddenly as it began, the arrows stopped, and the Audaxi slow, the Eastern Mountains behind them and the unkempt Tiergan forest ahead of them. The feeling of Serenity slowing beneath her catches her focus, and Althea lets the shield go, as the pale blue layer of magical sheen flickers out around them.

 

“Well…” Althea says through deep breaths.

 

“Don’t say it.” Nolyn shouts over to her, interrupting.

 

“I can say whatever I want, so therefore,” she shouts back, “I told you so!”

 

He grimaces, as Lars lets out a relieved laugh. “Well, we’re alive. That’s what matters!”

 

“Where to now?” Raff asks, still directly at Althea’s right.

 

“I think,” Orion says, craning his neck to look around, “I remember a Tiergan fortress not far from here, from back when I was in border patrol. As a squire, and back when we patrolled regularly.”

 

He adds the last sentence for Althea’s benefit, who nods. “If it’s close, that’d probably be where they’d take her. Especially if she is ill.”

 

Nolyn, his hair disheveled and his mouth in a thin line, nods, indicating to Orion to lead the way.

 

“Why would they care if she’s ill?” Vukan barks.

 

“Well, I mean…” Althea starts.

 

“If she’s dead, they have no leverage.” The prince interrupts, shooting her an evil eye. “The Tiergans have been wanting to expand into Kinnell for years now, even since the Conquering. They’d want a trade.”

 

“Oh, we’ll give them a trade, alright.” Vukan laughs, nudging Cathal to his left.

To be continued in the next chapter! If you liked this, leave a like or a comment below! Thanks for reading!

 

Picture from: http://woopins.com/pin/5992/

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