The Interior White Lands…
Northbound into the Whitelands, Captain True and his party of twenty warriors had been traveling the last two days at a hard pace. Couriers had been sent south at an equally quickened ride to the White City to send word to King Ronin. Leaving the rebuilding of the northern fortress in capable hands, Captain True had departed north with his most trusted men that had served with him in the King’s Golden Army for over the last ten years.
It was imperative to scout the terrain and asses any possible uprising in the lone mountain villages. It was also vital that they reach the Overlord of the White Lands if the enemy had not already visited. Captain True did not voice his fears aloud, but the cold silence from the north in request for supplies and the disappearance of his northbound couriers did not bode well. He was sure they would find the Crystal Keep devastated by the demon enemy.
The Captain had to be in possession of all the information he could ascertain before he returned with news to King Ronin. Captain True’s devotion to his King followed firmly in his father’s footsteps. It was said that the Captain’s grandfather was among King Aro’s most trusted personal guard. The relationship between his own family and that of the royal family had been intertwined since. Captain True, being of noble blood, had taken up the sword in the name of his country and king despite his family’s position. King Ronin himself had been a second-born soldier before taking up the crown. It was because of this similar deviation from what was commonly expected from their birth that had earned the mutual respect the present king and captain currently shared. Captain True and his King had trained together for years before he was appointed the Northern Fortress to command. It was because of this respect and fond relationship that Captain True knew he could not go back to the White City without answers for his King.
The journey into the White lands would be dangerous alone for the winter threatening to break upon them with deadly force, and greater with an unknown enemy reeking of dark magic haunting the land. Treading now into the unknown, the men had left behind the wreckage of the Northern Fortress making headway into the vast White lands surrounded by the biting winds blowing down from the Crystal Mountains. Silently trusting his fellow warriors with his life, Captain true wordlessly asked the men to do the same as they rode on in pursuit of the evil that had swept through the Northern Fortress only days earlier.
Through the white haze of the brewing blizzard the crew steadily persisted onward, uncertain of the direction they were traveling. Periodically craning their necks, the men searched the skies for approach of the black-winged creatures. As if the fear of the unknown demon enemy hiding somewhere in the snowcapped mountains was not enough to cause them worry; the biting cold made it nearly impossible to ride much faster than a mule’s pace. When the storming grey skies parted momentarily to reveal the Crystal mountain peaks in the distance, the crew discovered that their eastern facing peaks put them far off the main road leading towards the Overlord’s domain. The Captain feared if they didn’t reach the Overlord’s Crystal Keep by the end of the week, they may have to turn back.
With the hope of reaching a village before nightfall, they persisted on in search of shelter from the incoming inclement weather.
“Henry, what have Oreck and Zion discovered?”
“Captain, they say there’s a village due east about three miles. We can be there before nightfall.” Henry nodded his head in the direction northeast as his tawny mane tumbled from its tie-back with frozen flecks of snow plastered to its length.
“Good, and out of this bloody wind. Hopefully they’ll be a comfortable inn where we can warm ourselves.” The Captain spared a brief perusal of Henry’s wind-burnt face and knew his nearly frostbitten hands would look just as red underneath his weather-worn gloves.
The White Lands encompassed the White Plains bordering the Kenpo forests to the west near northern Turla territory, and all the way to the eastern Crystal Mountains following the Gorlan Pass out into the rocky shores of the Upper Green Sea. The beautiful and harsh landscape contained hundreds of miles of unexplored mountain ranges. Diamond mines were developed just northeast of the Kenpo Mountains, and many villagers that were not farmers or sheep herders kept a living mining the Crystal Mountains. The rich mines were operated and controlled by the Overlord of the Whitelands. The Diamonds traveled through the mountain pass into the sea port city of northern Plymouth and exported from there, often via the green sea. Captain True and his soldiers had never ventured into the mountain villages beyond the northern fortress because Lord Osmin had, until recently, always kept them steadily supplied. Although King Ronin’s own Royal Golden Sun army had no need to venture into the White lands because The Overlord employed his own Urlan guard, the mountain villages should have recognized the Golden Sun emblem of the Urlan Monarchy. Lord Osmin’s own soldiers would have worn a similar emblem upon their armor.
The only indication that the dripping sun had fallen behind the mountains was the darkening of the stormy sky from is previous grey to black. The cold had long settled deep into their bones as the men kept a hardy pace set towards the tiny village. Its gated torch lights shone through the foggy darkness like a beacon heralding civilization tucked neatly into the valley of the mountain range.
“There aren’t very many lights. One would think they don’t welcome outsiders.”
“We carry the Kings’ flag, Oromon. They will know we mean them no harm.” The Captain assured his men. As they neared the village, an eerie stillness settled around the men that even the Captain could not easily dismiss.
“Do you hear that?” Henry whispered to the captain. Captain True held up his fist to stop the riders. Immediately they quietly dispersed and readied their weapons. The horses agitated on the frost covered earth sensing something amiss.
“Too quiet. Something is not right.” Abrigard, a stocky man with a red beard chuffed quietly under his breath. Shifting in his saddle, Abrigard began to dismount and remove his sword, but Captain True held his hand for the man to stand down. Then he called out to the closed gates,
“We bear the banner of King Ronin as the King’s Royal Sun army. We seek food and shelter this night from your fine village!” Captain true bellowed, but his announcement was met with only with a yawn of silence. An almost inaudible shift of an arrow notched in its bow brought the attention of Henry and Oromon to the east.
“Hold your weapons, we mean you no harm. We are but twenty men, seeking shelter for the night!” Captain True repeated when he noticed his men readying their arrows.
“We don’t house strangers. Be about your business elsewhere!” An unfriendly male voice quickly dismissed the soldiers from just beyond the village gate.
“What manner of hospitality is this?!” The Captain raged. “We are no mere strangers, but the King’s own army!” Captain True teetered a moment atop his horse. He was not expecting this village to be unfriendly. His men were tired and hungry, though they never complained. Denying an Urlan soldier rest and safe haven was an indiscretion he could not let go.
“Captain.” A tall and broad shouldered soldier with blonde hair tied back with a leather throng leaned in towards his captain in quiet confidence. “Mayhap these people have some knowledge of the evil that stalks this land. It may be they are taken to mistrust.”
“Ah Zion, ever diplomatic. Perhaps we shall dismount and show these villagers we truly mean them no harm.” The men began to slowly slide from their saddles and put away their arrows. Still keeping their swords easily accessible, they walked their horses slowly towards the gate.
“Good sir, open your gates, for we truly mean you no harm. We are but simple soldiers seeking refuge from the cold. Would you deny us warmth and shelter when you have it to spare? We will be on our way in the morning.” Captain True was speaking to the gatekeeper, but he kept his eyes warily upon the walls. The village could not have been very large here nestled into the base of the mountain range, although it appeared that the walls and gate has been recently erected and perhaps there were many men guarding its interior. He could not be sure what lay on the other side of the gate or what these hesitant mountain folk had been through in the last few months.
The Captain continued to walk forward; his men following him closer to the gate.
“That is far enough!” A feminine voice from above rang out. Suddenly, the sting of an arrow pierced through the night as the men barely had time to register the shot being fired. The arrow landed a scant inch in front of the Captains foot, spraying dirt into the air. The woman’s voice loud and low came from high above beyond the village wall,
“Do not come any closer! We are familiar with what you soldiers refer to as “meaning no harm!’ Disdain dripped from her sure voice. The Captain slowly leaned down to pluck the arrow from the ground.
“A sure shot she has, eh!” Henry quietly nodded at his captain, eyes wide with uncertainty and, something else. Amusement?
“Sure indeed. A little higher and she could really have done damage!” The Captain shook his head. “What do you mean, my lady? What manner of soldiers has this village erecting walls and teaching its women to shoot with such injurious intent and brazen, albeit trained, skill?”
The woman was taken aback by the soldier’s comments. Surely a soldier with the sun symbol would have known about the walls they had been forced to erect. Surely the devils they had encountered would not have noticed her archery skills, or made mention with such clear admiration. No, she could not overlook the admiration even in his reprimand. She looked down from her perch on the gate at Bernard, her husband’s uncle who manned the gate, and gave him a curt nod. He gave a reluctantly returned nod and then slowly began pulling back the heavy wooden doors.
The Captain and his men watched as the doors slid open to reveal the small village tucked away inside. The dirt road leading through the center was neatly maintained. The thatch-roofed houses were quietly resting in the darkened backdrop of the overlooking mountains. A few scattered lanterns lit in succession as the opening doors beckoned the strangers inside. With a slight rustle of fabric as warning, a lithe woman dressed in boy’s clothing leapt from the ten foot gate and landed softly and expertly into a crouch at the base of the wall with a soft thud. So this was the archer with the quick tongue. Her thick, wavy brown hair was pulled back from her delicate face revealing a splash of freckles across her nose. Her eyes were bright and alert as she took in the sight of the Captain and his men.
The Captain noticed the imprint of a dagger pressed tightly against her forearm. For some unknown reason, he felt a pulse of pride for this brave woman. A tiny grin pulled helplessly from the corner of his mouth. This night was definitely getting more revealing by the minute. A man who appeared to be more than twice the woman’s age was leaning heavily upon a wooden staff as he came shuffling into view. Two young boys just ripening out of childhood hopped from the opposite sides of the gate wall and fell into place beside the woman. Despite their smallish stature, each held a short spear in their hands with the quiet confidence of having used them before. The boys looked to be twins and shared a wealth of dirty red hair.
“Yer not from the White Lands, are ye soldier?” It was not a question. The little woman began to nod her head at the men. “There are just the twenty of you then?”
The Captain nodded back while straining to keep the smile itching at his mouth from revealing itself. He did not wish to offend the accurate lass with her bow. It was obvious these villagers were of a protective sort.
“We will need a place to stay out of this wretched snow. My men are hungry as well. We will pay you handsomely for your hospitality.” The Captain smiled then at the woman who had yet to let down her sharp guard.
“Stella’s the innkeeper. She’ll provide you with all you be needin’.” The woman had begun to walk inwards towards the buildings, but swung a careful gaze over her shoulder before continuing, “Just you best be rememberin’ we’re not rich folk around here. We need every penny we can get. The boys here can take your horses to the stable. You can follow me.” She whipped her head around and continued to lead the men into the village.
The creaking of the gate sounded behind the group of men as they hurried to keep up with the tiny woman weaving through the village. Abrigard followed the boys as they led the horses towards the stables. Henry walked alongside the Captain, unaware by how difficult a time Eric True was having in keeping his eyes straight ahead and off the delicate sway of the small woman’s hips.
To the left and the right the village seemed to come alive as if the people had collectively held their breaths until the gate had slowly opened. Women and children peaked out from newly alighted windows and the occasional stray dog or chicken rambled though the darkened pathways crisscrossing the tiny houses.
They stopped at a two-story, stone and wooden building. An older, very rotund woman with red and gold spun hair swung a lantern out to place on the hook above the door. The sign read simply: Stella’s.
The men filled the dining area with their large frames and collapsed into the chairs strewn about. Henry took a place near the door while Zion and Oreck, a giant of a man with a shaved head, casually seated themselves near the back window. Although the men appeared relaxed, any would have a dagger in your gut quicker than you could drop a shot of whiskey down the hatch. There were two older men seated by the fireplace in the center of the dining area looking as if they had already enjoyed their share of Stella’s fine ale. A tiny slip of a girl with her hair pulled neatly back into a knot came out from the back of the kitchen and wordlessly delivered some bread and ale to the seated men. With a nod of thanks to the serving girl, the Captain took a seat at the bar and turned to face their guide who had only moments ago shot an arrow at his foot and was now introducing herself as Pearl.
“Dinner’s a roast chicken, but you’ll be paying for the ale if you be havin it. Beds are clean. Up the stairs to the left.” With a curt nod, the curvaceous red-haired woman named Stella shuffled back behind the scrubbed-clean countertops towards the kitchen.
“That’s Stella. She’s an amazing cook and the ale’s made right here. Those boys taking round your horses are hers as well. They’re good boys and they do a fine job. Pretty quick with a spear or a dagger too, so I wouldn’t be underestimatin’ them or thinkin’ to keep a fair coin.”
The Inn prorieter was returning through the kitchen with an armful of steaming meat. “Aye, the boys be a fine pair a rabbit hunters, too thanks to Pearl here. What with me busy running the tavern now, she’s taken ta teachin’ all the young folk how ta handle a dagger and a bow rightly.” The older woman behind the counter spoke with great affection towards the younger woman. Her warm face and kindly manner was easier to come by than the sheet of wariness the younger woman seemed reluctant to withdraw. Placing a plate of bread and stew down in front of the Captain, Stella gave him a quick wink and hustled back through the swinging kitchen door.
Pearl felt a blush creeping up her neck and into her cheeks. She was not comfortable with the attention Stella had stirred up in front of these skilled-looking soldiers. She dropped her gaze to her hands and shrugged,
“Well, someone’s gotta teach the young ones how to fend for themselves.” She raised her eyes once more, growing more courageous as she felt the need to defend herself to these men. “My pa, rest his soul, never discriminated. My brothers, all six of em, and me; we learned how to hunt and trap, shoot and fight since we were old enough to walk. Living out here we seen bobcats, wolves and sometimes cougars.”
Knowing her upbringing reflected nothing courtly or noble like these men had probably been accustomed to in the King’s Royal Army, she quieted. They had probably been many places and seen many cities filled with beautiful women much more refined that her. She realized she had sounded a bit defensive before she remembered that the Captain had spoke admirably of her shooting skills.
It was apparent that the woman was uncomfortable talking about herself. The Captain was growing increasingly more fascinated with this tiny and stunning woman. She was unrestrained and spoke freely. He devoured his food set before him quickly while she spoke, yet he could not help but sense her quiet withdrawal. “I am Captain True, Commander of King Ronin’s Northern Fortress. My men and I are on our way to the Crystal Keep. I can not help but wonder Pearl; where are all your men?”
“Well, Captain that’s a loaded question now. There were times when our village was, well, more hospitable to say the least. We hate to have to be so uninviting. It isn’t in our nature really.” She was reluctant to continue. The Captain needed to gain all of the pieces of this puzzle.
Pearl looked up into the Captain’s silvery gray eyes and felt for some unknown reason that she could trust this man. “My late husband, Donovan, and my son Amos worked in the diamond mines like most of the good folk round here. They’d stay on for months during the spring and return in the summer. The summer past, the men did not return as usual. We waited and waited, but they never came back. A group here, Stella’s husband one of em, headed north to see what had happened. After a while we knew they weren’t gonna be back either. Grievin’ our losses, we took up the harvest ourselves. Mostly just the women and the young ones would tend the fields and the old ones would pitch in and do most of the cooking. We lost a lot of our sheep too, getting picked off by wolves that we just couldn’t fend off ourselves.” Pearl heaved a heavy sigh and looked around at the large men seated around the tables eating hardily. No one appeared to be interested in eavesdropping, but she knew they were listening to every word.
“Where are these mines that you speak of Pearl?”
There was an audible hitch in the woman’s voice before she answered, “You can’t go there, Captain. Death waits for you should you try. I won’t watch another walk off into that valley and ne’er return.” She gripped his forearm fiercely and then released it just as quickly. Captain True could feel his arm burning where she had placed her hand. His chilled bones seemed to melt from that one touch alone.
“We must meet with Lord Osmin before anything else my lady. Thank you for your concern, but we are trained soldiers and quite capable of keeping alive should there be a threat. Nothing will happen to us that we aren’t prepared for.” From his seat by the door Henry lifted one eyebrow at his captain. So the eavesdroppers hadn’t missed the heartfelt exchange between he and Pearl. A few grins threatened to rise on the men seated at the tables but a stern look from Captain True over his shoulder silenced their building snickers. Flirtatious banter aside, Captain True and Henry locked eyes knowingly before he turned his gaze back to the woman seated next to him. The men would be investigating the diamond mines for certain.
“There is something more, isn’t there Pearl?” The Captain gently urged.
Pearl shifted uneasily on her barstool. Stella came out from the kitchen then with an arm full of tankards of ale. She hustled about the tables keeping a keen eye on Pearl talking with the Captain.
There was a relentless tension clinging to the atmosphere. Something about the people in the village was off. The muffled conversation between the two older men at the table quieted down in anticipation. The soldiers sensed something more than some missing miners.
Pearl dropped her voice and leaned in closer to the captain. Her knee lightly brushed the captain’s thigh. Their eyes collided for a brief moment as everyone else in the room slipped into the background. She jerked her head to the side and caught a glimpse of Stella staring back at her. She shook her head to clear the haze.
“Pearl, what aren’t you telling me? Whatever it is, we can help you. I promise.” The Captain placed his calloused hand gently on top of her smaller one on the countertop. The young serving girl that had been gathering up empty plates suddenly dropped a mug and it fell to the ground with a crash. Stella hustled around the countertop and made the sign of the cross over her brow before shooing the girl back into the kitchen.
“It started with the soldiers, Captain. At first they came and demanded all able bodied men over the age of fourteen to come with them to be trained for the royal army.”
Grunts and hisses rippled through the men. Captain True looked to Henry as they shared a pained expression.
“Go on, Pearl. What happened after that? You can tell me.”
“Well, after we waited so long for our people to return from the mines, the loss of our men was grave.”
“Tell me about these soldiers, Pearl. No child is required to serve the King’s army. Who were these imposters?”
“They bore the royal emblem, my lord. We had to obey! They came in with their swords and demanded every last man!”
“Captain, it cannot be! What trickery is this?” Henry stood so abruptly that his chair clashed to the floor behind him.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this, Henry. King Ronin is not aware that such wrong doings are happening in his name.” The Captain looked back at Pearl and reached out his hand to wipe a single tear that had fallen from her emerald eyes.
“There’s more Captain. These soldiers, there was something off about the lot of them. They were cold like statues, almost as if they weren’t…well, human.” Pearl swallowed deeply before she continued lower, “Looking at one of em was like looking at the whole of em. I can’t quite explain it. They were off is all. A few weeks went by and Josh and Adam, Stella’s boys, were out lettin’ the sheep graze when they saw an army dressed in black marching through the valley. That night we heard terrible shrieks echoing off the mountains. I’ve lived in these mountains my whole life captain, and never before have I heard such a noise. Chilled me to the bone it did. We got started on them walls the very next day.” She shook her head and slowly brought her hands up to her eyes.
She knew she must have sounded like a blithering idiot spouting nonsense. Although she remembered her great grandmother telling tales of sorcery and magic, superstitious fancies were frowned upon in this day. She was afraid the good captain and his men would take her for a fool.
“I believe you Pearl. We may have an idea just what creatures you speak of that made those shrieks. When was this army spotted?”
“Just about three weeks ago.”
“This must have been the enemy we encountered at the fortress, Captain.” Oromon provided from his seat to the left of Henry. “The timing is right.”
Pearl cast her eyes around the room full of intimidating men. “What happened?” She barely whispered.
“We were attacked without warning by this black army as you call them. They, like these soldiers that visited your village, are not what they seem. Our Northern fortress suffered severe damage at the hand of this foe. My men and I are heading north to seek answers. We must leave at first light and it is growing late, my lady. We offer you our thanks for housing and feeding us this night.” The Captain raised his glass to Stella standing in the doorway listening intently. He then took Pearl’s hand into his own and brought her knuckles slowly to his mouth to place a soft kiss upon her hand. “We must ride out at dawn, but I thank you for your hospitality and all the information you have provided.”
“We are simply survivors now. The people of this village have seen many horrid things we cannot explain. May strength and honor go with you.” And with that, the beautiful woman nodded and departed. Captain True felt a small light that had begun burning in his very soul flicker and fade into the night with her departure.
With belly’s full and ale to go around, the men had gathered to discuss the coming morning. As the fires flickered and blazed into the night, Captain True and his men agreed that the disappearance of the villagers had been eerily coincidental to the timing and the questions raised by their enemy. It had to be investigated further, and that meant heading into the mountains and the diamond mines. Another puzzling detail that couldn’t be overlooked was the soldiers that were passing themselves off as the King’s men. They couldn’t be sure how many of these traitorous men were out there and just who was leading them.
“It would seem that we’re heading for the mountains then.” Zion tipped his tankard back and uncurled his long legs out to stretch.
“It would seem so.” The Captain met the eyes of his men and saw they were not only willing but ready. The desecration of all they stood for as soldiers of King Ronin’s army was disgusting to them all.
“What of Lord Osmin? It’s possible he’s been attacked as well. Should we search the mountains before the keep if there may be danger to the Overlord?” Henry leaned across the table and met Captain True’s gaze before he continued. Looking now to rest of the men he lowered his voice. “And where are all the Overlord’s soldiers? Could there have been an uprising?”
“We need to find out what’s going on in the mines. It is possible the Overlord has no idea men are missing. He would want to know, I would think.” Captain True wrestled a bit with the thought that Lord Osmin may already now about the missing men and chose to do nothing about it. He could have sent word to King Ronin. Osmin himself held a substantial army at the Crystal Keep. It seemed irresponsible in the least to be unaware of the happenings in the villages to which the Overlord was responsible. Something was eluding them all. Captain True rarely dealt personally with Lord Osmin and wondered what sort of man he was urgently trying to warn.
“The mines first, then to the Crystal Keep. Perhaps the Overlord will be able to shed some light on these unexplained patterns.”
“Or have some explaining to do.” The enormous man with his head shaved named Oreck had not spoken the entire night. As he rose to ascend the stairs his final words hung auspiciously in the air. Captain True was the last man to leave the dining room. His eyes raked over the dieing fire as a chill crept up his spine. He had a feeling the mines held more secrets than glittering gems.