Here’s the next chapter in the Audaxi Chronicles! If you’re new here, check the tab at the top to start the story from the beginning and find out what happens to Althea and the Audaxi! Again, this is a longer chapter, so let me know what you think by leaving a like or a comment below!
The Audaxi Chronicles
In the blackness of the night, Althea creeps with the Audaxi and their prince through the forest, north, following behind Orion and feeling a bit like the blind leading the blind. After being ambushed in the Pass by the Tiergans, Althea wonders a bit why she came on this rescue mission.
Because there’s a scared girl out there who needs your help, she reminds herself.
Silence lowers its heavy hand upon them, stifling in the cool air. Eventually, they reach an edge to the forest, where a long stretch of open land lays ahead of them, flat and hard and dry ground.
“There!” Orion whispers, dismounting and pointing ahead.
Across the stretch of open land, the mountains loom, particularly rocky in this region. And inset in the closest mountain, about fifty feet up, a large structure juts out, nearly impossible to spot in the dark if not for the faint glowing lights from inside. Its dark stone melds into the mountain, with tall towers and jettisons that reach up here and there. Very faintly in the darkness, Althea can just barely spot moving shadows of sentries and guards.
“We can’t go any further across the plain, or they’ll spot us.” Trask says, joining Orion on foot. “And by now, they’ve probably heard of what happened in the Pass.”
“No element of surprise for us, then.” Nolyn says, dissatisfaction in his voice. “Storming the gates will be difficult, but not impossible. Tiergans are tough but sloppy. Untrained. We just won’t catch them by surprise.”
“Well,” Althea says, staring at the shadowy sight in front of them and thinking, “not necessarily.”
The young men look toward Nolyn, warily, who stares at her.
“What do you mean?” He asks, reluctantly.
Althea smiles. “If they know what happened in the Pass, then they know we’d have to come this way. That’s where they’re expecting us to come from.”
Raising her eyebrows at Nolyn, she waits for him to interrupt, to tell her she’s wrong, to say anything. But he just studies her face in the low light, green eyes narrowed in…what? Suspicion? Thought?
“They won’t expect it if we come down from above.” From her saddle, she points up at the castle, above it to the rocky mountain peak nearly lost within the low-hanging clouds. “We’d have to go on foot, especially to avoid any riders they have out. But it wouldn’t be impossible.”
Nolyn doesn’t respond, as he studies the fortress ahead of them.
“We can leave the horses in the forest.” Orion nods and points. “Go up and to the right, away from the path to the castle. It’ll be a tough climb but probably will give us a better edge in the long run.”
Everyone is suspended in midair, waiting for the word from their prince.
Trask shares a quick glance at Althea before saying, “Wh–what do you want us to do, sire?”
Finally, Nolyn shakes himself out of whatever reverie he was in, looking to Trask. “I think I have a plan. But it’ll be a risk.”
“This is a terrible plan!” Althea whispers to Raff. He gestures in the mix of a shrug and a nod.
Two hours after their conversation in the forest, Althea is crouched with Raff and Orion behind a few boulders above the Tiergan fortress, out of breath and sweaty. They’d climbed as fast as they could, keeping the looming castle on their left and darting past the occasional riding party of rough-looking and brown leather-clad Tiergan men and women.
“He’s had worse.” Orion laughs breathlessly, staring over the edge of the rock they’re behind to the back of the castle. “Trust me. Ready?”
He straightens, pulling his bow from his shoulder and retrieving a thick arrow with a lightweight rope attached to one end from his quiver.
Althea takes a deep breath. “There’s no way this works, you know that, right?”
“But it’s all we got.” Raff whispers from her left.
At that, Orion notches the arrow, pulling it back, and then he sends it away into the dark with a barely audible thwip. Soon as he does so, Althea, rolling her eyes, brings her fingers together from both hands and looks up. From her fingertips, a thin, barely visible streak of white light shoots upward into the starry night sky. For the Tiergans, it will just look like a falling star.
But to Nolyn and the others down the mountain, it’s a signal.
“Alright, fine, let’s go!” Althea whispers, guiding Raff gently to the rope from the arrow, now tightly tied to a crevice in the boulder.
And the young knight begins to shuffle his way along the rope, across the sharp drop and over to the fortress.
Once Raff is halfway to the square yellow window they’d been aiming for, Orion gestures to Althea to follow.
“Find her quickly.” He whispers.
She nods, inhales sharply, and grabs the knotted rope with her upper arms. Swinging her way into the open air, Althea mutters a prayer for balance and luck, keeping her focused on something other than the steep, rocky drop-off below her.
Then, a cry sounds out from across the fortress. Althea gasps, stopping in her place. The clanging of metal rings out, telling her that Nolyn and the others have started. She picks up her pace, passing over the Tiergan’s outer wall and finally to Raff, who leans out the window to give her a hand.
“See?” Raff says, hauling her inside the stone hole of a window. “Easy.”
Althea huffs in response, scanning her eyes over their surroundings. A simple stone hallway, with dark brown walls and floors, and two torches blazing on either side of the window, the room is empty.
“Okay, which way do you think?” She asks, still slightly out of breath.
He frowns for a moment, as they look left and right into receding darkness. “Well, up, probably. The most defensible position for a fortress like this.”
Althea swivels to him, her brow furrowed. “Not down?”
“There’s no dungeon in here.” Raff says. “The fortress is built into the mountain. You can tell from the outside. Come.”
He grabs a torch from the wall and picks a direction, striding to the right and leaving Althea thinking about that. And about him.
She rushes to catch up, before whispering to him, “That was smart. How did you know that?”
His curls dancing in the torchlight, Raff simply shrugs.
After reaching a rickety old door at the end of the hall, which leads them to a staircase, the two of them stride upward, taking the stone steps two at a time, circling around the tallest stone tower up to the peak of the fortress. Minutes of climbing go by, interrupted only by the sounds of clashing metal and neighing horses and shouts any time they pass a window.
Finally, another rickety wooden door appears at the top. With two guards standing strong on the outside.
“Hey!” One shouts, pointing at the two of them.
Without missing a beat, Raff pulls out his sword.
Althea instinctively pulls her hands back and shoves them forward. The guard on the left flings back against the wall by some unseen force. Raff disarms and knocks out the other with surprising speed.
“Not bad.” Althea says with a smile, and Raff grunts in response, walking to the door.
“It’s locked,” Raff says, flicking the heavy metal padlock helplessly.
“Stand aside, my young friend.” Althea says with mock seriousness, bending down to the lock.
Closing her eyes, she puts two fingers together, pointing toward the lock, with her other hand on the back of the metal padlock. Imagining the inner workings of the lock, she feels the tiny particles that make up the metal, the stubborn life of the stone, the deep creaking of the cool surface.
And with a twist of her fingers and a click, the lock pops open.
“Not bad.” Raff says as she opens her eyes and throws the lock aside.
She smiles over at him, in the dark, and for the first time, he offers a real one back, and she pushes open the door.
Inside lays a simple bed, with a young girl of about fifteen years on it, eyes wide and terrified.
“Who are you?!” She shrieks, backing as far from them as possible.
“It’s okay.” Althea says, in a calming tone. “My name is Thea. This is Raff. He’s an Audaxi. You’ve heard of them, right?”
The girl doesn’t change her expression, but she nods.
Althea continues. “See his blue cloak? We’re here with the prince. Your mother sent us.”
The realization seems to hit her a second later. “Oh! Thank the Ancients!”
Then, she coughs, violently, doubling over. Althea rushes in the dark room, placing her hands ever so gently on the girl’s pale and bony back.
Raff, still at the door, calls to her. “We have to go, Thea! Nolyn can’t hold out forever!”
“Did you just call me Thea?” She says teasingly, still focused on the girl’s lungs, trying to pinpoint the problem.
Raff stutters. “I–uh–we need to move!”
Althea rolls her eyes and then asks the girl, “Can you walk?”
She nods with her wide brown eyes and stands, stifling another cough in the folds of her simple brown dress.
And with that, Althea and Raff rush back down the stairs, supporting the girl between them. They don’t see a soul, all probably off toward the fight. When they reach the end of the stairs, racing to the window, the arrow is there, but the rope falls away from it, down into the abyss of the fortress.
“Damn!” Althea says, leaning her head out the window. “The rope’s cut!”
When she does, shouts echo up from below. Looking down, she sees a squadron of Tiergan men and women, with weapons that look quite sharp, and an Audaxi fighting them off valiantly. She doesn’t have time to see who it is, as one Tiergan shouts, “Who is that!?”
Yanking her head back inside the window, she barely misses an arrow flinging past her head.
Turning to Raff and the girl, she says, “Maybe we should try the front door, yeah?”
Raff nods, pivoting to lead the way in the other direction. Althea guides the girl to follow close behind, as they descend through staircase upon staircase.
At the bottom of the long stairs, the Kinnell girl points to a door. “That–that way. That’s where they took me in!”
But then, her knees buckle from underneath her, and Althea barely has time to grab her underarms to stop her from fainting.
“Raff,” she says, as he hoists the girl in his arms, “she has some sort of disease attacking her breathing. Her lungs, mouth, throat. She’s not going to be able to get out in the middle of a fight!”
Raff contemplates for a quick minute, then says, “Well, you said you could defend yourself. Can you get us out? Then I can carry her.”
Althea steels her mind for a minute, and then she reaches under her cloak to pull out her two long daggers. Glittering silver in the low light, the daggers feel comfortable in her hands from the days and nights of practicing in the light northern air. With slightly curved ends, Star and Thunder fit the shape of her palms, deadly and beautiful.
Raff looks slightly impressed. “Okay, let’s go.”
He pushes the door open with his shoulder, and they disappear into the fray.
Althea dissolves into motion, feeling the rhythm of the fight. She swipes with her daggers, stopping the long, curved swords of the Tiergans and digging them into their rough leather. She feels Raff at her back, the girl in his arms, and she cuts them a path through the screaming and the anger.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she sees a Tiergan with his sword raised, about to slash down on someone in a dark blue cloak. Awakening a training within her, she flings the dagger in her right hand, Thunder, underhand about twenty feet, where it digs into the back of the Tiergan.
As she runs forward, Raff at her back, he slumps to his side, and she yanks Thunder out to face Prince Nolyn, red-faced, breathless, covered in sweat and blood.
“Your Highness!” Raff exclaims, relief flooding his voice.
“That’s two for me, now, by the way.” Althea teases, wiping Thunder on her leg.
“Hello, Raff.” He says, turning on his heel to swipe his sword through an approaching Tiergan. “Why aren’t you–uph–anywhere else but here?”
“Rope got cut. Your risky plan, it turns out, was way too risky.” Althea says. “We have to leave. Now.”
He grunts, his dirty auburn hair swaying and dripping with sweat, his jaw clenched, his eyes focused with a fire. Nolyn grabs at his belt with his left hand, whipping out a thin, bone-white horn. Pressing it to his lips, he lets out two short, yet surprisingly loud sounds, deep and distinct like a minstrel’s horn.
He leads the way, making their way slowly toward the front gate. The other Audaxi end up surrounding them, somehow, as they reach the gate that leads down the mountain. The Tiergans begin to cheer, mistakenly assuming the horn was for retreat.
And suddenly, before they’d even reached the plain, horses came out of nowhere. Their horses. With Orion leading them all.
“Come on, now!” He shouts, throwing a mess of reigns on the ground. “Mount!”
And somehow, someway, Althea, Nolyn, and the Audaxi ride away from the Tiergan fortress, the girl safe with them, off to Rinnreal and to safety.
The ride back to Rinnreal is filled with treating her patient and, surprisingly, laughing with the Audaxi and reveling in their victory. Even Nolyn isn’t as annoying, although he does protest any time she brings up that the tally is now her two, him zero.
“I cut down so many Tiergans getting out of there!” He protests, anger seeping into his voice and his smile disappearing. “They would have done horrible things to you, and you know it!”
“Probably.” She says back. “But they’d have to get through me first. And that doesn’t change the fact that I still have saved your life twice now.”
And he scowls, because even he can’t deny she held her own in the battle.
Vukan lets out a guffaw, while Lars and Jerah chuckle as well in the back by her. Luckily, none of the Audaxi suffered greatly in the battle, although there had apparently been one scary moment when Trask got trapped in a room with five of them. But he, and the others, walked out relatively unscathed, comparing new battle scars.
They stayed the night at an inn in Sera, at Althea’s insistence for her patient. The girl, named Ciry, thanked her immensely, and by the time the ten of them rode into Rinnreal the following afternoon, her cough had greatly lessened, her condition nearly healed, and her face now with a smile.
The sun pours over their shoulders, creating an unnaturally warm day, by the time their horses lead them up into the city with confident raised heads and light hearts. Althea runs her fingers through her hair as they pass the common people walking to and from work and the market, trying and failing to tame her bush of curls. Raff rides next to her, with a wide-eyed Ciry in his saddle, staring at the city around them. Ahead, a crowd gathers around Nolyn, who nods, cold and regal, to his people from his horse.
Proceeding up through the crowds of people gathered at the market, with shouts of “Meat here!” and “Cloths!” and more as they make their way through, young children running barefoot alongside their party. Eventually, the horses take them up the mountain, through the inner wall and into the castle.
Greeted by the sounds of clanging metal, from the blacksmith and the young knights practicing in the yard, Althea, the Audaxi, and Nolyn, with the Chieftain’s daughter in tow, dismount. Squires rush over to them, to Althea’s surprise, eager to lead their horses into the stable. Althea laughs a little and passes her reins to the bright-eyed, frumpy young girl with choppy brown hair. The kids rush away, and Althea joins the others near the gray-stone steps leading up to the castle door.
Right as they come to the base of the stairs, a shriek calls out, and Tolia, the Chieftain’s wife, rushes down the stairs, a gown of bright green trailing behind her. Ciry breaks from their lines, running up to her mother’s arms. They collide in a mess of tears, as the king appears in the door behind them.
“Not bad, princeling.” Althea says to Nolyn, sauntering up next to him and nudging him a bit as she crosses her arms.
He turns to her, suddenly, so close to her. His eyes are dark, narrowing slightly as he looks down at her. The sunlight catches his hair and his cheekbones, glinting half of his face in shadow.
“Why are you here?” He whispers, almost out of the corner of his mouth.
Althea raises her eyebrows, surprised at the question. “I’m here because your father sent for me. Because I saved your life.”
He glares at her for a minute. “I don’t trust you.”
“A shocking revelation.” Althea whispers.
“I don’t trust you, and you know that.” He continues on, ignoring her. “But I can’t seem to get rid of you. So if you’re here for another reason, a harmful reason…”
He leans in, only a little, a look that means death on his face. “If you intend to hurt my family or any of the Audaxi, I will not hesitate.”
She swallows but matches his stance, his glare, his posture. “Oh, I know that.”
He blinks, a little surprised at her, halted a little in his tracks. Finally, he nods. “Good.”
And with that, he struts off, bouncing up the castle two stairs at a time with Trask in tow, leaving her bristling beside Raff. Past him and within the castle doors, the king stands in the shadows, and he offers her a slight nod, a dip of his head, a sign of respect.
Then the prince reaches the heavy, tall doors, and they swing shut behind him, leaving Althea out in the sunshine.
Raff comes up next to her, offering a friendly yet slightly awkward greeting. “You did well, in the fight.”
She looks over to him. “Not so bad yourself.”
The young man opens his mouth and closes it a few times, as if unsure of what he wants to say. Finally, he spits it out. “If you–you want, we could spar. Or train together. If you like.”
Althea squints at him, just a little, in the sunlight, tilting her head just slightly. Then, she smiles.
And she walks off with him, across the yard and in the dazzling yellow sunlight.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter in the Audaxi Chronicles! Let me know what you think down below, and be sure to follow so that you know when the next post will be up!