“Take Alna and as many supplies as you can carry. She has never failed me, and will protect you on your journey. Head East and do not look back. Should I live, I will find you. You have my word.”
Nothing more was said. Orren watched Sara, Alna, and the child until they were but a dot on the horizon. Two of the horses left owner-less from the day’s melee he sent in different directions. Maybe he could obscure the path of those fleeing, buy them some time. Others would come for sure now. The last horse he mounted started off North, following the path the soldiers had created. Alone again.
He passed fields of grain and vineyards overflowing with grapes. The occasional plantation house marked the landscape. These were no simple farmhouses like Sara had occupied, these were more akin to the mansions in the ancient cities of the far west: fountains, gardens, ornate stone work and windows of painted glass. He passed a few workers in the fields. They fled when they saw him, saying nothing.
Those in the martial orders of Sorrakam were required to wed, and if able, to be fruitful. The bonds formed between the warrior and his bride were indissoluble, sanctified in waters from the summit. The Sorra was present in their unity, imbuing it with power. From this they drew strength: it gave them reason to fight, to live, to die.
Save heresy, there was no crime more severe in Sorrakam than to purposely violate this bond. Sometimes one is taken before old age of natural causes, and while the pain of those left is still acute they can find solace in knowing that The Sorra had need of them. Their suffering has ended. But to have one’s lifebond shattered purposely? Little comfort is left them save for rage, rage hotter than the holy forges at the depth of the mountain, rage that will consume a man and all those around him.
A heavy rain began to fall as the landscape grew dense with houses and storefronts. Eyes peered from behind shuttered windows, unsure as to the purpose of the stranger trudging through the mud and stinging rain. The streets were empty. Doubtful that he would find anyone to welcome him here. They feared him perhaps, or they feared whatever consequences might be brought upon anyone who dared aid him. A people grown accustomed to the sacrifice of their own children are a broken people, easily kept in line.
He continued through the town until a sharp peak came into view through the grey. An enormous keep stood before him. It’s full size was obscured by the clouds, but it was massive, and ancient. It did not bear any architectural similarity to the houses in the town surrounding it, nor to any culture he knew of. Torches burned despite the rain on either side of a great portcullis. A crimson banner with purple trim hung above the gate. He stood before the closed gate and shouted:
“I am Orren, Shieldbearer of the Holy Order of Sorrakam. I seek the master of this keep. I wish only to talk.”
He stood motionless in the rain, face lit by the flickering torches. Without warning the gate was raised and score of armored soldiers rushed out and surrounded him. Orren steadied his horse but made no move for his weapons. He slowly dismounted and raised his arms to either sided.
“I wish not for violence here.” He said, “My name is…”
A soldier struck Orren in the back of his head with the handle of his sword sending him face-first into the mud. He looked up just in time to see the second blow, then all went black.
Where are you?
A voice surrounded him in the darkness, her voice. He could see her face; pale white, eyes closed as though asleep. Her black hair floated weightlessly, like they were submerged in a great black sea. She looked the same age as the day he first saw her. He reached out and took her hand. The flesh withered and turned to ash, falling through his fingers. He opened his mouth to scream into the abyss but no sound came. He was alone in the darkness, a darkness that he could sense, that sensed him.
A cold bucket of water roused Orren from his nightmare.
“On your feet” a gruff voice shouted at him from above.
He came-to on a hard stone floor of what must have been a prison cell. Two soldiers lifted him up and shoved him out into the corridor. His hands and feet were shackled. He was naked but for the thin cloth garments he wore under his armor, his weapons nowhere to be seen. He was at the mercy of his handlers and so said nothing. They led him up torchlit stairs and through corridors of gray stone. The storm could still be heard outside unleashing its fury upon what was now his prison.
It was not long before they came to a great hall lined by two large feasting tables. They were empty but for a few candelabra evenly spaced to light the gloom. Chairs were all neatly tucked into the table, did not look as though they had been utilized in quite some time. A fine red carpet ran through the center of the room to a raised seat upon which sat a solitary entity. Two guards stood on either side of the seat of honor, polearms in hands, staring blankly past Orren and his jailers.
The figure that sat before Orren wore only a large hooded robe of crimson and purple. Below the hood peered out two eyes, sunken behind flesh of unnatural hue; it was grey-white, like the skin of a drowned man left to rot in the sea. The being removed the hood and revealed a head completely hairless. The face was slender with a sharp chin, thin purple lips over perfect white teeth. Man or woman he could not tell by appearance alone. The face wore no expression, then it spoke.
“Was…bold of you to ride up to my gate on a stolen horse. Nothing so interesting has happened in my lands for quite some time. I would inquire as to its rider and his companions but the fact that you are here and they are not tells me all I need to know. You wore the armor of a foreigner. Is it customary in your land to flaunt your crimes at the home of those you’ve wronged?”
One of the jailors shoved Orren forward, “Answer him.”
“I came not to flaunt my actions, indeed I wish that I did not have to slay the men I did but they left me no choice. Their request could not be granted.”
“Their request? You mean returning that which did not belong to you? I’m not sure you comprehend what you’ve done.” the entity spoke, betraying no emotion in its voice.
Orren replied: “I know that this land is in the grip of a darkness that has no place in this world. I felt it in the valley, heard its whispers in my dreams, saw what it demands of your people. I came here to offer my aid in banishing this evil. This would not be the first time I have faced its like.”
When he finished his words the guard to the right of the throne broke his stare and looked down at him. The guard wore a curious expression on his face for a brief moment before returning to his stone-like gaze, then the robed figure began to laugh.
“You really haven’t a clue what you’re dealing with here do you? Why would we want assistance in removing our benefactor?” The corpse like figure laughed again, a cruel laugh soaked in venom.
“We have all that we could want! A bountiful harvest every season, surplus enough to foster trade with the nations to the east. Our people are never hungry, our soldiers armed with fine weapons, our power and influence growing every day. And at what price? An unnamed child left on the valley floor every now and again.”
“The deceivers make no agreements for the benefit of anyone but themselves and their kind. The price is always much greater.” Orren said.
“So I should let my people return to a life in which famine and poverty are more than just whispers from the past? Tell me, how is the life of one child too much to pay to avoid the death of a score of children that would result should our farms fail to produce?” There was coldness in the being’s voice now.
“There are fates worse than death.” Orren replied.
The being lifted its hood again, hiding its face in shadow. “I know, and soon you shall know too. Take him to the garden, have the flayer extract any information he possesses regarding the child and then leave him for the birds.”