Allon ~ Book 1

Chapter 1 (excerpt)

     The Jor’ellian Fortress at Garwood was two miles from the province’s main town, buried deep in the Southern Forest. It was one of the more secluded of Allon’s religious sect, those who worshipped Jor’el. The construction was simple, weathered yellow stone framed by timbers. The main tower stood in the middle of the rear wall. The upper chamber of the tower was the headmaster’s private retreat for work and study with an assortment of books, maps, and parchments.
     Master Ebenezer was near sixty years of age by the look of his thinning hair and relaxed features. He wore the blue and silver robes of his order and sat at the table writing, his brow wrinkled with concentration. After signing his name, he placed the pen aside, and reached for the drying dust to sprinkle on the paper. He gently blew off the dust and carefully folded the paper. On the seam he placed his seal in wax. When that was done, he laid hands on the parchment and offered up a silent prayer, lips moving, but no words spoken.
     The door to the chamber burst open, startling Ebenezer. He saw a man of middle years in the threshold wearing a brown and gold uniform with a feathered cap. “Jasper?”
     “Latham’s men have been spotted heading this way. Sir Angus is preparing to flee with Ellis.”
     “We will make what defense we can to give them time to escape.” Ebenezer shoved the parchment into Jasper’s hand. “Take this. Hide it in your boot or tunic, anywhere. Just keep it safe until you can give it to Angus.”
     “What is it?” asked Jasper while tucking it in his boot.
     “Angus will know when he sees it.”
     Noise from outside drew their attention to the window. In the courtyard below they saw five soldiers in Latham’s black and purple uniforms shoving and threatening the four priests who stopped them from entering the Fortress’ main building.
     “Quickly!” Ebenezer urged Jasper from the room.

     Sir Angus of Garwood, lord of the Southern Forest, possessed strength and vigor equal to any man half his age of fifty-two. His gray leather doublet was gathered about the waist by a great leather belt. Black breeches were tucked into knee-high boots. An impressive dagger hung at his right hip, a two-edged sword in his hand.
     In a rush, Angus ushered Ellis, a golden-haired, blue-eyed lad of sixteen, through the main hallway of the Fortress. Ellis was hastily dressed, his doublet opened and shirt only partially laced. He held a sheathed sword and buckle as they rushed into the farthest back room. On the wall, Angus reached for a sconce and pulled it. Instead of being ripped off the wall, it acted as a lever revealing a dark passageway behind the panel. He grabbed a nearby torch and motioned Ellis into the opening. Ellis tossed the sword buckle over his head and shoulders before hurrying into the darkness. Voices came from the corridor and Angus closed the passageway from the other side.
     “It won’t take them long to find the lever.” Angus held the torch high to see their way through a damp, dark tunnel.
     Worried, Ellis looked back over his shoulder. “Do we have far to go?”
     “A couple a hundred yards then up a few steps to a hatch in the forest floor. There’s a shed nearby where I had Jasper move the horses for escape, only I never expected it this soon.” Angus nudged Ellis to keep moving.
     The tunnel had several sharp turns, making it difficult to keep one eye out for pursuit and the other on where they were heading. Once Ellis smacked into the wall when he tried looking back passed Angus. Finally they reached the hatch.
     Hearing the noise of pursuit, Angus struck the torch against the wall to extinguish the light. “Go!” he snapped at Ellis.
     Ellis scurried up the ladder, but it took some effort for him to push the hatch open then scramble out. Angus was close behind and quickly turned to close the hatch. It slammed down on top of the lead soldier and Angus stood on the false forest floor to prevent the hatch from opening.
     “Hurry! Find something heavy. I can’t hold it if he’s reinforced.” Angus grunted at an upward effort that threatened to erupt beneath his feet.
     Ellis struggled to roll a good size log from a few feet away. Being only sixteen, he was strong but not fully developed in muscle. When the log was close enough, Angus grabbed Ellis and moved him on top of the hatch so he could deal with the log. The veins in his neck and shoulders strained when he lifted one end of the log over the hatch. It fell with a heavy thud just as an attempt was made from below to dislodge Ellis. Painful groans and cursing came from the tunnel.
     “To the horses,” Angus ordered. No need to saddle the horses, Jasper had done his job well with three horses ready to go.
     “Shouldn’t we wait for Jasper?” asked Ellis with some anxiety. He was mounted and watched Angus vault into the saddle.
     “He’ll join us when he can. Ride hard and fast, and don’t look back,” Angus said, but while Ellis did as instructed, he glanced back. “Jor’el keep you safe, Jasper.” He kicked his horse to hasten after Ellis.
     They urged their mounts through the forest and onto the open road, heading northwest. The River Conn was five miles from the Fortress. Across the river was the Region of Sanctuary and safety.
     Suddenly they heard a shout from behind. “Halt in the name of King Marcellus!” They saw three mounted soldiers emerge from the wood pushing their horses in hot pursuit. “Bring them down!” the lead soldier ordered.
     Two soldiers armed their crossbows; but before they could aim and fire, a sharp whistle was followed by an ear-piercing screech from above. A massive eagle dove at one of the soldiers. The force from its talons sent him to the ground. The second soldier ignored the eagle’s attack and kept his course, loosing his shaft when Ellis’ horse was midway through a bend in road, giving him a clear shot.
     The arrow struck the horse in the neck, killing the animal. The violence of the fall threw Ellis over the horse’s head and he landed hard on the ground where he lay winded and dazed.
     Seeing Ellis go down, Angus wheeled his horse about. At that moment he saw a wolf leap from the outcropping and take down the horse of the soldier who shot the arrow. Behind the wolf, two figures emerged from the trees. The large newcomer was hooded and cloaked from head to toe and armed with a sword. The other was small, dressed in a forester jacket, cowl pulled up, with a bow and quiver slung across the back. The cowl of the smaller figure was blown back by the wind to reveal a dark haired girl. Even with this intervention, Angus could see they would not reach Ellis in time to stop the last mounted soldier from trampling him.
     Digging in spurs, Angus sent his horse on an intercept course. It was a terrific crash, sending men and horses to the ground. A vicious kick in his side by a flying hoof staggered Angus. The soldier avoided the hooves and scrambled to his feet sword in hand. Angus’ sword was only partially drawn when the soldier lunged, wounding him deep in his chest. He collapsed to the ground in great pain.
     An unexpected blow from behind sent the soldier pitching forward, critically wounded. Quickly, the cloaked man knelt to examine Angus’ injuries. The wound was very serious. A low stunned whiz caught in his throat upon seeing Angus’ face. He looked to see the girl beside Ellis. “How is he?”
     “Alive, but wounded. No, stay down,” she said when Ellis tried to rise.
     Ellis fell back on his elbow with a grunt of pain staring at the girl who watched him with compassionate green eyes. She was near his age with a tan complexion from living outdoors. Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a long thick braid.
     The man joined them and examined the large abrasion and few cuts on Ellis’ forehead. “Not bad. How do you feel, my lord?”
     “A bit dizzy. Who are you?” Ellis sat up and tried see the face under the hood.
     “Someone who wants to help.”
     Over the man’s shoulder Ellis saw the wolf nudge Angus. “No!” Ignoring his own pain, he stumbled to Angus. The wolf backed away.
     “Torin was only trying to rouse him,” the girl said. She patted the wolf’s head when it came to stand beside her.
     “It’s a wolf!” Ellis snapped then fearfully gasped at seeing Angus’ wound. “He can’t die. I must get him some place he can be cared for.”
     The man knelt on the other side of Angus. “We shall, but it is up to Jor’el if he lives.” He motioned the girl to Ellis. “Take him into the shelter of the trees while I see to his friend.”
     “No,” insisted Ellis, remaining beside Angus.
     The man said nothing to the objection, rather turned his attention to Angus. With his dagger, he cut away the bottom part of Angus’ tunic and used it to bind the wound. “Stay with him while we fetch the horses,” he said to Ellis.
     Ellis tenderly brushed the hair from Angus’ forehead. “You can’t die. There are so many questions. What will I tell Darius?” He swallowed back a sob and wiped his eyes when the man and girl returned with two horses.
     “We need to get him on the horse. Where we’re going it is best he is not on a litter,” the man said.
     Once the man and Ellis had Angus on his feet, they lifted him over the saddle of one of the horses. “Won’t he bleed to death?” asked Ellis.
     “His own body weight should be pressure enough to slow or stop the bleeding for a time. Now, mount, my lord.” He indicated the second horse.
     Before mounting, Ellis anxiously glanced back down the road the way they had come. There was no sign of Jasper, but the man mistook his concern.
     “We must hurry before more soldiers come.”
     Once Ellis was mounted, the girl took the lead, heading into the forest. Ellis followed her, the man with Angus’ horse behind him. “Where are you going? The Temple is that way.” He pointed across the River Plain.
     “Nearly eighty miles. He won’t last that long,” replied the man.
     Ellis shivered at the statement, his eyes impulsively looking at Angus. “Then how far are we going?”
     “Far enough to be safe from the king’s men but close enough for his safety.”
     Ellis followed them on a northeasterly course away from the road and into the forest. It seemed like forever as they wound their way through the trees and he began to grow impatient. If the man’s statement was true about Angus then they couldn’t travel too far. Besides, the direction they were heading led to a place he knew, or rather heard about since growing up in the Southern Forest. Thus he lashed out: “Where are you taking us, the Kirsh Swamp?”
     “The swamp isn’t safe from the king’s men, but where we’re going is,” she replied.
     Ellis shoved a branch from his face before breaking into a clearing. He scowled and wrinkled his nose at the murky and stale-smelling landscape. “We are going through the swamp.”
     She paused at the swamps edge. “It’s the fastest way to safety. Follow me closely.”
     When she began moving again, he kicked the horse forward. The animal was wary in picking its way through the muck and mire. He did his best to steer the horse, but both were having difficulty navigating the boggy terrain. The horse stumbled, protesting to the increasing depth of the swamp. Angry, Ellis snapped the reins, which made the horse rear, pulling the reins from him. He seized the horse’s neck to keep from falling. Sharp pain shot through his head and he grimaced. Swift hands caught the reins and he heard a soothing voice.
     “Nas ciuine, mo Raine,” she said and the horse became quiet. “Her name is Raine, and she wishes to be treated nicely,” she said seeing Ellis’ baffled gaze. “Urrasair mi.” She guided the horse to solid ground.
     Once on the other side, Ellis snatched her arm. “How did you do that? What did you say?”
     She was startled by his abrupt action. “You’re hurting me.” Her fear drew a snarl from the wolf and a cry from the eagle overhead.
     Ellis released her, warily regarding the wolf. “What was that strange language?”
     “The Ancient language of the Guardians,” said the man bringing Angus’ horse beside Ellis. He waved the girl ahead and she was swift to obey.
     “There are no more Guardians,” refuted Ellis.
     “Not at present, but who knows.” He turned his attention to lead the horse after the girl ...

~ To be continued in the book “Allon”