Another chapter so soon? Crazy, I know. I’ve been really making these sparse for the last while, but with how close I’m getting to finishing, I thought I’d let a couple more trickle out here over the next few weeks. They’ll likely all be Harael chapters. And without further ado, I give you Harael’s fourth chapter…
Harael sighed in relief as he crested the rise in the road. Down the far slope, winding north, the stone road led to the sprawl that was Barrier. The military camp, and the city that had sprung up around it, pooled around the foothills of the Pirin Mountains, clutching the road north like a stone and metal fist. He thought he could make out the gates, miles away, light grey against the dark slopes of the mountain pass. All too soon, he knew, he would be passing through those gates and across the border of the empire.
Not alone, though, not with the escort of two hundred soldiers filing along the road ahead of them. Not with however many hundreds more, waiting in Barrier. And not with Teramus, constantly by his side.
Teramus, walking a little behind him, seemed deeper in thought than normal. He’d been loquacious on the journey north, even indulging in an anecdote of his childhood south in Pallonia. But today he was silent, brooding, and his eyes kept straying to the east. Harael understood why, and didn’t want to talk about it, either.
Nonetheless, his eyes dragged that way as well, leaving behind the greys and browns of the city and mountains ahead to gaze upon the greys and browns of the forest, a mile away and spreading out to the east. He was not one prone to tall tales, but he understood why the locals called it the Haunted Forest. It was bleak and thick; even had he not grown up along the Jinda River, on the plains, he still would have felt uncomfortable entering under those boughs. He could still chuckle when the farmers and woodsmen complained of horrors in there, though. By the Flame, even if they were real, he would need only to recite a brief prayer and turn into ash whatever threatened him.
He shivered, and pulled his cloak closer around himself. The three week journey north from Letaal brought them into cooler climes and higher elevations. He told himself that the chill was from the winter air, and had nothing to do with his imagination running wild in regards to the forest.
“Have you ever wondered why we keep pushing like this?” Harael looked at Teramus.
“What do you mean?”
Harael gestured north, a sort of vague waving of his hand. “Our assignment. Going over the border and into Nera Nasha. Why, with such a large empire already, Letaal keeps pushing outward. It’s been constant, ever since Pirinaan and the first emperors. First Heart, then Hareen, Tuul, Icefall, Aura, and Pallonia. They even tried invading Tin a century ago. Now it’s Nera Nasha and Roetel. The Emperor keeps eyeing more and more land.”
His explanation worked wonders for the expressiveness of Teramus’ features. His brows pulled up, his eyes opened wider, and one corner of his mouth twisted. Mention of Pallonia could do that to Teramus.
“Well…” Teramus began, rubbing his shaven jaw line. “Pride can always be considered. And greed. Tin has some of the most valuable mines in the world. Back home, we had the finest cloth and dyes. I know that entire side of our culture was adapted soon after you Letaalese finished the conquest. Roetel has spices and foods that fetch incredible prices, here in the empire. I should know.” He chuckled.
Harael nodded along with his list, but felt that there was still something missing. “The cost of so many invasions, though…and we have plenty of fine products in the empire already. The mines around White in the Icefall Mountains are as large as any in Tin. Hareen has many of the same plants as grow in Roetel. Plus, there’s Nera Nasha.” He waved north once again. “What can we gain with invading? Swamps and access to the northern icelands?”
Teramus was silent for a time, clearly mulling over Harael’s questions. “Perhaps something to do with the Avernen? They are unnatural creatures.”
“Unnatural, yes, but hardly a real threat to the empire as a whole. They rarely come out of the swamps, and they surely don’t have the numbers to threaten us.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Harael. I have no answers.” Teramus made a funny noise, halfway between a snort and a laugh. “By the Flame, I hardly even know the answers to my own questions. I hardly even understand the Faith.”
Harael felt his pulse spike. Talk of the Faith was always a fraught situation with Teramus. “Surely you don’t mean that.”
Teramus shrugged, looking away.
“Teramus. You cannot mean that. You’re a Cleric of the Fifth Shade! You put in years’ worth of study and training, right alongside me!” Harael took a deep breath, lowering his voice. He didn’t want any of the soldiers to be hearing their conversation. “I know you, Teramus. You have done things with the Flame that even I could never manage.”
Still not meeting his eye, Teramus shrugged again. “I know. It just—it just doesn’t make sense, sometimes. My parents told me stories, when I was younger. About home, before the Letaalese came.”
Harael stilled himself, afraid to distract Teramus from talking. More stories about his childhood!
Teramus finally turned back to Harael. “Things were different, back then. The Faith wasn’t there. They had their own beliefs, their own practices and histories. Their own fire.”
Harael was suddenly uncomfortable. He glanced around, nervous, but no soldiers were nearby. They had maintained their pace as he and Teramus slowed and fell to the back of the column. “The Faith is true, Teramus. The Flame is true.”
Teramus sighed. “I know. I see it; by the Flame, I follow it every day. I’m guided by the Flame.” His brown eyes, so rare for a Pallonian, turned distant. “But I always wonder what it must have been like, before the Faith. What I could have been.”
Harael didn’t know how to respond. He knew that Teramus dealt with doubts, but he’d never really understood why. It seemed almost foolish, to him, for Teramus to be so burdened with doubts based on fantasies.
So, instead of continuing with the subject, he began walking again. “We should catch up.” Noticing the sun, creeping toward the horizon from under the cloud cover, he added, “And I want to be inside and warm before sundown. The flaming weather here in the north is miserable this time of year.”
Teramus grunted in agreement and picked up his pace. His legs, slightly longer than Harael’s carried him quickly along the road. Harael hustled to keep up, and found himself puffing before long. That put paid to any talk for a time.
They caught up with their escort a few miles further on. Harael tried to ignore the amused glances that passed among the soldiers when they did; no doubt the men thought their red faces and gasping breaths funny. Instead of berating them, Harael pushed forward, seeking out the squad of Phoenix Guards who had accompanied them on Selonius’ orders.
He found them in the middle of the column; four were riding in the back of a wagon, relaxing and bantering among themselves. The other four were on horseback, just behind the wagon. The captain, a harsh Letaalese man from Far Jinda named Oritten, glared down at them when they bustled up. He was intimidating, Harael had to admit, with his dark eyes and glowering brow. The burnished armor he wore, stylized in flames and gilded at the shoulders to show his rank, added to the effect.
“You shouldn’t wander off, you know,” he grumbled. “We’re safe enough here, but over the border….”
Harael hurried to placate him. “Oh, never you worry. We’ll behave. I can’t speak for Teramus, but I can assure you that I have no desire to fall prey to the Avernen or any Nera Nashan raiders.”
Next to him—and seemingly much less winded—Teramus nodded. His cheeks were already returning to their normal shade.
Oritten looked down at him, nonplussed. “Give me all the cheek you want. All I care about is bringing you back to the First Cleric alive and in one piece.”
Harael rolled his eyes and grinned at Teramus, but his friend was back to his somber self. Perhaps their pace catching up to the column had taken more out of him than Harael thought. Ah, not that it matters. We’ll be inside the walls and in a nice, cozy barracks soon enough. While the thought of spending time in Barrier wasn’t high on Harael’s list of dreams, the stone buildings behind those high walls surely held out the cold of winter better than the canvas tents they had been using on the road.
Barrier loomed, now, the outskirts only a half mile or so away. The military camp, surrounded by that sturdy wall, had sprouted a large merchant town around it. Harael had heard that many soldiers, when their time was up in the army, retired there. There was plenty of work to be had, whether foresting, mining, or serving as guards for merchants’ caravans. The roads south through Heart were grown particularly infested with bandits, in recent years.
Harael had no doubt that many of them were retired soldiers themselves.
Oritten, on his fine black gelding, did not seem impressed by either the skirting city or Barrier itself. He maintained his glower through their approach, only occasionally glancing down at Teramus and Harael. Harael didn’t mind, though; his attention was elsewhere.
Namely, the gates above Barrier on the north side of the city. They plugged the largest pass through the Pirin Mountains, forming the first line of defense if the Nera Nashan were ever to attack. Harael had heard only rumors of the gates, but they looked to live up to the stories: three gates, in rising succession up the road. Each was anchored in a wall; Harael could not see the farthest gate, as the middle wall was twenty feet higher than the northern wall’s own thirty feet. He knew from rumor that killing grounds lay between each pair of walls, and the tunnels under them were riddled with kill holes and arrow slots. It was a formidable barrier, worthy of the city’s name.
He nudged Teramus, pointing. Harael could see his friend was impressed; Teramus had spent most of his life in Letaal and Meriil. While both had their draws, especially Letaal, neither had the martial irresistibility which Barrier presented.
“There is no way the Nera Nashan can get through there,” Teramus whispered. “Right? There’s an army behind those gates, and priests to support them.”
Harael nodded. They were now in among the first inns and houses of Barrier; while it seemed a normal city at sundown, he knew that a different sort of place awaited them inside the walls. Thousands of soldiers, he supposed, and one of the largest temples in the empire. He and Teramus would not be the highest-ranking priests.
“And us among them, soon enough,” Harael noted. He scanned the sides of the street, smiling to himself when he saw two young girls running and playing some game. It disappeared after a moment, though, and he looked to Teramus. “Before we get sent out over the pass and into Nera Nasha. I still don’t understand what we will be looking for, other than revenge against the Avernen—and they hardly need two Clerics from the capitol for that.”
Teramus met his eyes. “You’re too curious, Harael. Sometimes things are no more than they seem.”
Harael snorted, glancing down and moving deftly to avoid a gift Oritten’s horse left on the road. “Too curious? Hardly. One can never be too curious.” He looked back at Teramus. “Learning things is one of the last real joys I have.”
“Is that so?” Teramus laughed. “You must have such a hard time, being a Cleric of the Fifth Shade and living in the wealthiest city in the world.”
“You know what I mean,” Harael muttered. “It’s not like I get to do whatever I want. The Faith keeps me busy, and you know exactly how busy that is.”
“Like sending you on vacations into hostile nations?”
“Exactly.” Harael nodded emphatically. “And when I’m home—in Letaal, mind you, not Arbor, which I haven’t seen in years—I’m stuck with running temples in the Third and Fourth Tiers.”
“You really do have it tough, don’t you?” There was a note in Teramus’ voice.
“You’re still making fun of me, aren’t you?”
Harael scowled and closed his mouth. Teramus chuckled, but there was an edge to it. That was when Harael remembered just how different his life must look to his friend; though they did many of the same things, had many of the same duties, Teramus truly was stuck in a foreign land.
As Harael walked by a warehouse with straight Pallonian columns, it only hammered the point home. It was a foreign land, yes, and also one that had taken Teramus’ culture and forced it into a greater whole. That must chafe, even after these many years.
“I’m sorry,” Harael muttered.
Teramus looked at him, surprise and confusion evident on his face. “For what? I was only speaking in jest.”
“I know,” Harael said. “But I realized how things must be for you, living here. Constantly seeing reminders of your home. Constantly being reminded of the past.”
Teramus raised his eyebrows; he seemed to mull over his words for a moment. “You overestimate its effect on me, I think. Letaal is more like home to me, now, than is Pallonia.”
Harael waited for him to go on, but Teramus fell silent as they approached the camp wall. The soldiers in their column halted and parted, leaving room for the Phoenix Guards and priests to approach the gate.
The gate was open, but two full squads of pikemen stood guard; an officer, one hand on the hilt of his sword, approached.
“You must be the priests from the capitol.” There was no question in his voice; Harael gathered that the brown-haired officer was used to operating with decisiveness. “We have a barracks for the soldiers, Your Brightness, and rooms in the temple for you and your companion.” He bowed, first to Harael and then to Teramus. “I trust these accommodations are suitable.”
Harael nodded. “Of course. We are honored by your hospitality.”
The officer waved that off. “Nonsense. Visitors here are rare, much less visitors of your rank. We will do all we can to ensure your comfort while you are within these walls. If you need anything, talk to the steward,” he pointed back through the gate and to the left, at a small house, unattached to any barracks. “His name is Ranaal. If anything else comes up, you may ask for me. I am honored to be Captain Azritan, of the Third Barrier Legion.”
The chill air was nipping at Harael’s nose and ears by the time Captain Azritan finished. The sun was now no more than a glow tinting the eastern horizon; splashes of pink lay across the mountains to his right.
“Very good, Captain,” Teramus said. “Lead us to the temple, if you will.”
Azritan bowed again and told off two guards, one to lead their soldiers, and the other to guide Harael, Teramus, and the Phoenix Guards. The soldiers peeled off soon after passing through the gate, filing into a huge, blocky barracks. The remaining group of them ventured into the deepening evening inside the wall.
Barracks were interspersed liberally with warehouses and open training grounds. They followed the main road, which turned to dirt after the gate. Smaller paths branched off among the barracks and storehouses, but their guide kept them on the larger road. It led straight into the camp, and after some minutes Harael glimpsed the temple.
Like all Pirin temples, it was roughly pyramidal. From experience, he knew that the layout would be triangular, with housing for the priests at the base. The temple proper began at the point—which they now approached—and extended back into the widening structure. Atop the spires burned bright white flames, steady and fierce. They brought a smile to Harael’s face, though he knew that they would have to deal with a White Robe while staying there.
The soldier leading them kept glancing over his shoulder, and Harael wondered if the boy—for he was a boy, Harael saw, hardly more than fifteen or sixteen—knew one of the men in his group.
“Son,” Harael said, “is there something you wish to ask?”
The boy’s eyes grew wide, and he shook his head. “Oh, oh, no, Your Brightness. I was just—“ and he cut off, glancing down. Harael then understood.
“It’s the Phoenix Guards, no?”
The boy nodded.
Harael laughed, and even Teramus chuckled. “They are a sight to behold, truly.”
Oritten, now dismounted but leading his horse behind them, snorted.
Harael could see the color rising in the boy’s cheeks from the bright white light of the flames ahead. “What is your name, son?”
“Mine?” The boy seemed shocked that a priest would want to know. “It’s, uh, it’s Lukas, Your Brightness. I’m from Phoenix, in the province of Aura.”
Harael nodded, hoping he appeared wise for the boy. “Well, Lukas. When you return to your post, let Captain Azritan know that I found your reverence for the Faith well-placed. The Phoenix Guards have a vital role, protecting our priests, and you are right to be in awe of them. Perhaps, with hard work, you might one day find yourself among their ranks.”
Lukas’ eyes widened, and a grin split his face. “Yes, Your Brightness. Thank you!” He returned his attention to the path ahead, leading them past the front entrance of the temple and along a smaller stretch that led around the left side. At the rear, there was a large stable and a half dozen porters and servants, ready to aide them. Lukas bowed deeply and bid them good night before hustling back the way they came. Harael smiled to himself, happy to see the Flame burning so brightly in one so young.
The porters came forward and began unloading the saddlebags and single wagon carrying their effects. A servant, wearing a typical brown smock, stepped up and bowed. “Your Brightnesses, if you would follow me?”
Harael and Teramus hurried inside after the servant, eager to get out of the now-biting night air. He glanced back at them over his shoulder and said, “Your things will be brought to your rooms. As it is, you should be more than comfortable with them. They are just this way.”
It was blissfully warm inside, warmed by scores of flames hanging in burnished caskets along the halls. The temple was a large one, but their rooms were close. Set across the hall from each other, and just down the way from what the servant pointed out as the office of Chaplain Dymaen, they were convenient to both the stables and the main temple.
Inside his room, Harael found a surprisingly large bed and an empty wardrobe. Along one wall was a washbasin and a mirror, opposite the bed. He smiled. The priests here were pampered. A servant bustled in with his bags, bowed, and left them inside the door.
Harael moved to unpack, but seeing the plump mattress atop the bed brought to mind the ache in his legs. They were stronger now, after so many days of travel, but he was not about to turn down even a few extra minutes of sleep. It was a matter of moments to strip off his robes and tunic.
The mattress sucked him in and the blankets were delightfully toasty, especially after he muttered a quick prayer and summoned a small flame to hang in the corner of the room. With a smile on his face, Harael closed his eyes.
It seemed only moments later that Teramus was shaking him, eyes wide and urgent. The sounds of yelling and bustle came through the open door to his room, and he saw two Phoenix Guards run by as he opened his eyes.
“Wake up! Wake up, burn you! The Three Gates are under attack!”
Read the next chapter: “The Three Gates”