This story takes place shortly after the episode King for a Day....
Orestes sighed. Across the large audience chamber his queen Niobe bit her lip in perplexity. It had been five days since his rescue from the ruthless clutches of Actaeon and while it was natural for him to mourn the loss of his brother, Niobe was growing concerned that he was dwelling upon it to excess. The normally ebullient new king was quiet and withdrawn. Any attempt to draw him out of his depression was met by sullen looks and terse words. In fact, although they had just spent the morning hearing public petitions, Orestes hadn't spoken more than a few words and those had been coated with angst. "Has he smiled since Iolaus said farewell earlier today?" The queen momentarily wondered, "Have I?"
Rising from her throne, she made up her mind. She approached Orestes with the best smile she possessed and made sure her voice was cheerful as she said, "My king... it's such a beautiful day outside. Why don't we forget the drudgery of royal routine and go for a nice long horseback ride together?"
Although her entreaty was greeted with a smile, there was a miasma of pain in his eyes that touched Niobe's heart. She reached out impulsively and tenderly squeezed his hand; "The past is the past, Orestes. There's nothing you can do about it. Enjoy your life all the more now knowing how fleeting it can be...", she counselled him softly.
Orestes nodded and was just about to speak when Hector rushed into the chamber, "Sire! There's a runner in the foyer, practically on the verge of collapse. He won't speak to anybody but Iolaus ... What shall we do?" the Attican chancellor exclaimed urgently. Orestes and Niobe both hurriedly followed Hector back into the foyer. There they found a man lying on the floor with his head in the lap of Attica's royal physician. He was trembling uncontrollably and sweating from exhaustion and extreme exertion. The healer looked up as they approached. The expression on his face was grim, "This man is near death, sire. There's nothing to be done ..."
His patient groaned and gestured towards Orestes, "Iolaus! Praise the gods, I've found you ...", he rasped in a voice that was barely audible. As the king knelt beside the stranger, Hector and Niobe looked at one another with concern. Obviously he thought Orestes was Iolaus.
With compassion that only a few days ago would've been uncharacteristic of him, Orestes placed his hand on the man's shoulder and said, "Be at peace, good friend. Your journey is over..."
Weakly the messenger opened Orestes' hand and placed in it a small medallion of some kind. As he did so, he spoke but his voice was so feeble only every second or third word was coherent, "... Lenora sent ... urgent plea ... help. Uglieus ... returned ... King Paellon ... slain ... days ago ... Rialtus losing ... please help!"
With a terrible final shudder, the courier's eyes rolled back in his head and he lay still. His cold, damp hand fell away from Orestes' and, with an air of sadness, the healer gently closed his unseeing eyes.
For several deafening moments Orestes remained frozen at the dead man's side, his head bowed so that the turmoil on his face was partially hidden. This message, such as it was, sounded extremely important. Important enough to die for.
He tried to think ... Lenora? King Paellon? Rialtus? Nothing seemed familiar to him but then, he never had paid much attention to the outside world or even Attica for that matter.
He opened his hand and examined the medallion. It was made from some kind of stone, a little darker than baby blue, and had an inscription etched in it, which, Orestes was certain, wasn't Greek. A long, finely linked silver chain was threaded through two small holes at the top and one side was worn to an almost polished sheen from constant wear. This had obviously belonged to somebody Iolaus knew; something he would recognise.
As he started to stand, Orestes addressed the physician, "Make sure he is accorded all the rites of a hero." Then he turned to face Hector and Niobe. They were astonished by the liveliness of his expression and his voice, previously so sombre, boomed with vigour and decisiveness, "Hector, fetch my sword and get my horse ready! Iolaus has been gone only a few hours ... I should be able to catch up to him before nightfall."
The chancellor dashed away to do as he was bid. Orestes slipped the medallion around his neck but as he moved to leave, Niobe grasped his arm and made him pause, "Why are you doing this, Orestes? You have soldiers ... hunters ... couriers of your own who could find Iolaus ... why must you take this message to him?", she demanded studying his face intently. Attica had already lost two members of its royal family and she most certainly did not want to be a widow after only five days of marriage.
Orestes took a deep breath and, if anything, the determination in his eyes became more pronounced as he replied, "This is something I have to do, Niobe ... I need to know that I can do this." His voice dropped with his gaze as he continued, "I've never been alone before ... never been this ... lost!" He sighed and looked up at this beautiful woman who was his wife and declared, "If I am to rule this kingdom, I must know just who I am. So, I will take the trust placed in me by a dying man and deliver this urgent message myself... for if I can't do that much, what kind of king would I be?" He managed a brief smile, hoping his words hadn't sounded too melodramatic.
Niobe read the earnestness in those shimmering blue eyes and the smile she returned to him was as bright as the sun, "Go with the Gods, my king." she said simply and walked with him, hand in hand, to the castle courtyard where his horse was ready and Hector was waiting with his sword in hand.
There was also a troop of Attican soldiers mounted and ready to ride but when Orestes saw them, he shook his head, "No, old friend. This time, I ride alone; without a procession. Iolaus can't be too far ahead. Even if he is, Thebes is only a day's journey from here."
He fastened the scabbard to his belt and climbed onto his horse. Lastly he took off his crown, leaned down and gave it into the safe keeping of Niobe. With a last, reassuring smile at his dubious chancellor and his radiant queen, Orestes rode out of the castle gates alone.
Niobe watched until he dropped out of sight and then turned to Hector, "Take your soldiers and follow him but keep out of sight." she commanded, returning her gaze to the horizon. "The world is a dangerous place particularly for those as unworldly as he." Once the last horse had clattered from the courtyard, Niobe returned to the castle. She sent for the court advisers as she settled herself once more upon the throne. It might come in useful to learn more about where this messenger had come from ... specifically, where was Rialtus and just who was this Lenora?
The further he got from the city, the more Orestes became aware of how ill prepared for this journey he was. He had no food, no water, and nothing to camp out with and only a few dinars in his belt pouch if he ever came to an inn.
After hours of riding as hard as he could down a dusty, winding road, eagerly searching the horizon for a glimpse of his cousin, the king was beginning to suspect that perhaps Iolaus hadn't kept to the road. Which somehow didn't surprise him. His cousin was anything but conventional.
To spare his horse he slowed his pursuit and started to notice how unpopulated the countryside seemed to be. Not once had he come to a village or even seen a farmstead but the forests were lush and abuzz with life, the fields verdant and fragrant and the sky above clear and the most exquisite shade of blue he had ever seen.
By the time Orestes reached the river that marked the boundary between Attica and Guaranties, he and his horse were ready for a break. So instead of crossing the bridge, he guided it down to the riverside and dismounted.
It was spring and the river was high with run off from the melting snows to the north. As he dipped his hands into the racing waters, he shivered. It was very cold, too. Sitting back on his heels, the king wiped his mouth and then lapsed into a daydream as he stared out across the broad, turbulent river.
He idly wondered if he followed it south, would it empty into the ocean? He'd never been to the coast; never walked on a beach; never been out to sea but he'd always wanted to do so ... some day. He grinned; even kings had wishes lists it seemed.
He was interrupted as his horse whinnied but before Orestes could turn, something very hard struck the back of his head. As he collapsed in the grass and the world began to fade against a surge of numbing pain and strange darkness, he was vaguely aware of several figures and the very loud roar of raging water. The bandits quickly dispossessed their victim of his weapon, ring and coin purse but before they scurried away with his horse, they covered up their crime by dumping the body in the river.
The freezing waters helped revive Orestes a little. Enough that when the trunk of an uprooted tree bumped against him, he had the presence of mind to hang onto it. But he had no strength to fight against the current, the pain in his head or the cold and very quickly passed out again. Though the river at places was very rough, the broken limbs and jagged bark of the old fallen tree Orestes had hitched a ride on conspired to snag and hold him safely through it all.
Had he been awake, he would've noticed how the forests and farmlands rapidly zoomed past as he sped down the swollen river until gentle rolling foothills gave way to a range of impressive towering mountains. As the river dashed through narrow canyons and pristine valleys, the obstacles the battered old tree and its unaware passenger encountered became increasingly dramatic.
It was inevitable. Careening through an extended system of mad rapids, the badly pulverised tree shaft struck a large boulder with such an impact that Orestes was dislodged. The greedy grasping thundering waters snatched him and carried him through the rest of their treacherous aquatic maze until finally washing his still unconscious form up onto a spit of pebbly sand.
Overhead the skies were growing pale and tongues of crimson fire marked the retreat of the setting sun. The shadows cast by the tall trees and soaring peaks were enough to give the most experienced eye cause to pause but when Elphron first laid his eyes upon the forlorn shape by the backwater's edge, he had no doubts and did not hesitate.
He had seen in his long life a similar sight once or twice before. Raising his ram's horn to his lips, he sounded the Gathering and then with the agility and grace earned from long practice and experience, he descended the mountain slope to investigate his discovery.
By the time the Gladiel elder had reached the spot where the crystal clear eddy was lapping incessantly at the motionless body still half in its chilling embrace, the other members of his hunting party had joined him. His brother, Boughen, was tall and sturdy with a mantle of thick black curls framing his serious, rugged face. He was younger than Elphron but, in some ways, much older; Amy, Elphron's daughter, was like sunshine. Her lively spirit radiated from her immense green eyes and made every word she spoke sound like music; Zephyr, Elphron's son, was small and thin but very hardy. He had his mother's dark complexion, warm brown eyes and good heart. Elphron himself was the shortest of the quartet but undisputedly their leader. Something in his shrewd grey-green eyes and calm, confident demeanour said he was a man to be heeded, by friend and foe alike.
Boughen nodded towards their objective as he intercepted Elphron's path, "Looks like another Outlander tried to ride the Beast." he noted with a somewhat exasperated shake of his head.
Amy raced up to the two men, her young face full of excitement and curiosity, "Do you think he's still alive?"
Zephyr frowned and stopped in his tracks, "That's a good question, big sister. We should approach with caution, don't you think, father? He could be dangerous."
Boughen laughed, his grey eyes twinkling with amusement, "He's just one man, Zephyr. There are three of us. How could he possibly be a threat?" He affectionately elbowed his nephew, nudging him forwards and added, "Young man, you worry about all the wrong things." Amy's dancing laughter washed the frown from her brother's features and he started walking again. Elphron shook his head, trying hard not to smile too but it was a futile effort. Nobody alive could resist Amy's infectious joy.
Elphron crouched on one side of Orestes' motionless body but before Boughen could do likewise, Amy imposed herself on the other. The Gladiel archer rolled his eyes at this gentle usurpation and acquiesced without a word. The young healer-in-training examined Orestes thoroughly. She hissed very quietly to herself upon discovering the nasty cut on the back of his head but was relieved to find he'd otherwise suffered only a few understandable scratches and bruises.
While she quickly set about to stem, clean and bandage the bleeding wound, her father made his own examination. He noted that the clothing Orestes wore, while tattered, were definitely not those of a common man nor did he carry any kind of weapon, not even a dagger.
As soon as Amy had finished her ministrations, they gently turned Orestes over. "In the name of all that's sacred!" Elphron exclaimed, a faint expression of surprise lighting his normally inscrutable face.
Boughen moved quickly to his side, "What's wrong, brother?" he asked as Amy lifted the blue medallion from Orestes' chest. She looked up to see if anybody else recognised it, to see if they shared her excitement. "He's the one Lenora sent for! This is Iolaus, who saved Rialtus from Uglieus once before..." she whispered in the kind of awe-stricken tone reserved for fairy tales or myths come to life.
Zephyr knelt beside his sister, intrigued. While he knew the story of how Iolaus had helped King Paellon defeat Uglieus many years ago and how, as a token of enduring friendship, he had given Princess Lenora that medallion to be used in a time of need, he was too young to recognise the only Outlander ever to become an integral facet of Gladiel folklore. However, from the pleasure on his father's face, it was obvious he DID recognise him, "Dash found him!" Zephyr remarked and then frowned. "Why did they not return together?"
He rose slowly, scouring the shoreline and calm, dark waters for another body but despite his efforts, none came to light. Boughen squinted in the steadily darkening gloom, other more immediate concerns on his mind, and advised, "Elphron, the sun's almost gone. We're far from The Gateway. We should either make a bier to carry him or revive him so he can travel with us."
Everybody looked at Amy expectantly.
After weighing the pros and cons, she took a tiny vial from her pouch, unstoppered it and held it momentarily beneath Orestes' nose. Instantly his eyelids fluttered and he moaned.
"Quickly, turn him on his side." Amy instructed urgently. Elphron and Boughen did as she bid just in the nick of time. Orestes' entire body contracted and then, choking and coughing violently, the water he'd swallowed during his aquatic journey came surging forth.
The two Gladiel brothers held him as his body convulsed and he retched again. When at last the throes subsided, Orestes looked up at Amy with eyes of blue that almost matched the medallion he wore, "...Where...? ...Who...?" he tried to ask but the words were so frail that Amy did not understand them. She placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and felt him tremble,
"It's okay now, Iolaus. You're among friends. We'll see you safely to Rialtus, have no fear." Orestes closed his eyes briefly. He felt ill and exhausted but worst of all, he felt completely and frighteningly disoriented. He could feel in the pit of his churning stomach that something was wrong but his mind was uncooperative. He looked up at Amy again, intently studying her face. Surely he must know her...? Desperately, he glanced at the others.
Still, his mind drew a blank.
He decided to stand but was still clearly very weak so Elphron and Boughen helped him to his feet. For a few seconds the world spun crazily and Orestes nearly fainted but from a deep well of galvanising determination, he drew the strength to conquer insidious oblivion; at least for the time being. He shivered in the cold mountain air and Amy begged her companions, "Build a fire. He must get dry and warmed before it gets any colder. We must do this now or he will never make it to The Gateway."
So there on the pebbled beach near some driftwood logs Boughen quickly made a fire. Zephyr took a blanket from his pack and offered it to Orestes, "You travel very light," he remarked casually.
Orestes accepted Zephyr's generosity with a tenuous smile, "...Apparently...", he replied, at a loss for words, "Um, thank you, er..." Zephyr read the question in his eyes perfectly and quickly introduced everyone. When he was done, he left to hunt for their supper.
Elphron squatted close enough to Orestes that they could see each other's faces in the firelight, "When you first came to Rialtus years ago, Iolaus, you and I... we... met...".
It was abundantly clear that whatever Elphron was trying to say was making him feel awkward. Orestes frowned. He decided to make his situation known and save them all any further embarrassment, "Elphron... I'm sorry. I'd like to say that I remembered you but I can't ... because, right now, I really can't seem to remember much of anything...", he confessed.
The turmoil in his voice was as convincing as the exasperation and puzzlement on his face. Elphron smiled reassuringly. He was about to say something to allay Orestes' concerns when Boughen, not known for his tact, blurted, "Well, I sure hope you remember how to fight!"
Elphron chided his brother, "One problem at a time, Boughen."
Amy put a tunic and some leather pants in Orestes' hands and scolded her uncle, "The man is half drowned, uncle, and that lump on his head is a serious injury. I wouldn't be surprised if it's the cause of his memory loss...".
Slowly Orestes stood up. This time he hardly wavered at all as he retired to some nearby bushes to disrobe and put on the dry clothes Amy had given him.
As he dressed, he studied the people conversing in the bright glow of the campfire and sighed deeply. If they knew him then it stood to reason that he ought to know them but he didn't ... and yet, as he thoughtfully caressed the medallion that hung around his neck, there was something oddly familiar about them.
He didn't want to put his soaked boots back on so he returned to the fire in his bare feet carrying his soggy clothes in one hand and his boots in another. Amy looked up from stirring something very aromatic in a pot over the fire and laughed when she saw him, "You look just like a wayward husband sneaking home in the wee hours," she said with the same fond frankness reserved for all men folk in her life.
Orestes smiled sheepishly as she took his dripping burdens and distributed them on one side of the fire to dry. He was feeling much better and only half as awkward as before. Deliberately he sat between Elphron and Boughen, "Perhaps if you told me about yourselves, it would help me remember," he suggested to them.
Boughen nodded, finding this a good idea, but just as he opened his mouth to begin, two distinctive hoots from the bowels of the blackened forests caused them all to spring to their feet in alarm. "That's Zephyr!" Elphron gasped, "He's found something. Stay here, Boughen; I'll go see what's going on."
The Gladiel leader started to leave but his brother grasped his arm, "No! Elphron, I can find him a lot faster than you; you're an elder not a forester like me. Stay here where you belong."
Their argument annoyed Amy, "Will the two of you quit acting like children! Zephyr needs you... NOW... GO!"
They looked at her and then at Orestes, who reinforced Amy's point, "We will keep the campfire burning for your safe return." Boughen unbuckled his scabbard and tossed it to Orestes. There was no need for further words. Orestes simply nodded and the two men disappeared into the night.
He turned and smiled confidently at Amy despite the anxiety that had already begun to play on his nerves, "I'm sure everything will be alright. Perhaps Zephyr made a kill too large for him to handle by himself," he said but even to his own ears his words lacked much conviction.
He laid the sword against one of the logs and traded it for a blanket. Amy smiled up at him as he draped it across her shoulders and then knelt beside her. Orestes sniffed the air and his stomach growled involuntarily, causing them both to burst into laughter. Quite an icebreaker, Orestes thought with relief and began to ask his young companion a lot of questions.
Neither of them noticed the glowing scarlet eyes that watched them >from the shadows. Orestes had just tugged his toasty warm boots back onto his cold feet when a shiver raced up his spine. A few yards away Amy was foraging in her pack for something, looking incredibly pretty as the firelight danced in her curly auburn hair and high-lighted her young, rosy face.
With an effort, Orestes switched his attention from his alluring fellow camper to the darkness that surrounded them. Except for a pale moon and a plethora of dazzling diamonds overhead, the rest of creation seemed to have vanished. Orestes slowly got to his feet.
There was a tumult of sound swirling and whirling all around them but one specific noise, a soft almost whining growl, somehow caught Orestes' ear. A million subtle pin pricks of fear swarmed through his body as he searched the impenetrable shadows. Despite his vigilance Orestes still saw nothing but by then the feeling of imminent danger was incontrovertible.
Moving so swiftly and suddenly that Amy jumped in alarm, Orestes crossed the camp's ring of firelight to retrieve Boughen's sword. As he drew the weapon, the air of menace that had prompted his reaction froze the query on Amy's lips as it spread to her, too. A long, broad knife appeared in her hand as they both turned their backs to the fire to face the unseen threat out there in the night.
Orestes held the sword with both hands. It felt heavy and awkward but it seemed to help steady his nerves. Concentrating fiercely, he meticulously traced the almost imperceptible scrap of movement over the beach's pebbly surface with the sword. Suddenly, a very large spectre in black fur with sharp glistening fangs and two huge red eyes burst out of nothingness.
Orestes was ready. His sword swept through the cold air as he leaned his body away from the creature. He felt the impact as the blade struck home and grimaced at the terrible death-cry that followed. He'd barely pulled his weapon free when another attacked. Orestes didn't have time to raise his sword this time so he threw himself desperately out of the way. He landed awkwardly on his side, jarring his right elbow. Gritting his teeth against the tingling sensation in his arm, Orestes quickly switched hands and scrambled to his feet. He'd landed just outside the circle of light and was just turning back towards it when he heard Amy scream.
Her dagger was embedded deeply in what Orestes could now identify as one of the largest wolves he'd ever seen but another of the beasts, perhaps even larger than its predecessor, had the girl's wrist in its savage maw.
Orestes took a step towards her but found two more of the big predators skulking between him and his objective. Amy kicked at the wolf, trying to loosen its grip on her wrist. It bit down harder and she cried out in pain. An angry fire flared in Orestes' eyes as he leapt forwards straight at the other pair of snarling wolves. One sprang to meet him in mid-air but Orestes clubbed it ruthlessly with the butt of his sword, knocking it aside. The other scrambled out of his path, momentarily perturbed by this unexpected counter aggression.
The wolf grasping Amy's arm had dragged her to her knees by then and though she was pounding it with her free hand, it seemed impervious to her assault. Orestes landed just behind her. He spun in a reverse pirouette, bringing his sword down in a smooth deadly arc. The wolf sensed the danger too late. It released Amy but Orestes' powerful blow fell before it could retreat, severing its head with its bloody fangs from its torso. Amy fainted as Orestes wheeled to confront the last of the wolf pack.
He was surprised to find only carcasses. The bright feather flights of several arrows protruded from them and as Orestes realised what had happened, Elphron and Boughen appeared half carrying Zephyr between them.
Boughen waved his bow at Orestes who smiled with relief. "Ever had wolf stew, Iolaus?" the big Gladiel woodsman asked nonchalantly as they deposited Zephyr on one of the logs. His right ankle was wrapped in bandages and he was in obvious pain but the youngster was much more interested in the evident adventure that they'd returned to. "Wow. These are Agregar wolves, Iolaus! Man-eaters! That's why they're so much bigger than normal. I've never heard tell of anybody surviving an attack by a pack of Agregars before ...", Zephyr remarked excitedly.
Orestes was only half listening. He'd kicked the wolf's head out of his way, rammed his stained sword into the sand and dropped apprehensively to his knees beside Amy. Elphron joined him but didn't interfere as Orestes tenderly treated the ugly, oozing lacerations.
Once the bleeding was staunched, though, he was relieved to realise the bites weren't as severe as he'd feared. Her arm would be painful and the threat of infection still remained but, all things considered, Amy would soon recover and be as good as new.
The Gladiel leader watched with apparent impassiveness but his reserve was just a facade. Orestes could sense his anxiety and sought to direct it elsewhere. "Elphron. I think the sooner we get to Rialtus, the better. Don't you?" If these wolves were representative of the dangers hereabouts, Orestes didn't want to find out what else was out there. During their earlier chat Amy had mentioned that the Gladiel people were very superstitious, particularly about night- time, with all of its incumbent mysteries and myriad dangers. After this incident, Orestes could really understand their attitude but it was something else Amy had said that was really his motivation now.
Uglieus was a Creature Savant. Not only could he communicate with animals but apparently he could somehow command them and even transform them, too. When normally friendly, even docile animals had begun to grow unpredictable and ferocious, the Gladiel knew Uglieus had broken free from the tomb he'd been imprisoned in for almost ten years. Orestes was suspicious of this attack. His mind was still no more than a dizzying series of shattered images that worsened his disorientation rather than helped him any but he knew that wolves, even extraordinary ones like these Agregars, would never attack a camp of their own volition. If there was one element wolves were afraid of, it was fire. Even campfires. Something - more likely, SOMEBODY - had provoked this incident ... Orestes wasn't sure it would be the last either and because he feared that it was because of him that this had even happened, he was all the more eager to pre-empt any more like it.
Amy moaned softly as she began to revive. Both Orestes and Elphron were peering down at her solicitously when finally her jade eyes blinked open. Smiling up at them, she insisted, "I'm okay, guys. It was that brute's BO that knocked me out." They laughed despite themselves and Amy sat up, noting her well bandaged arm and looked over at Orestes, impressed, "Well done, Iolaus." Impulsively she reached up to caress his cheek with her left hand and frowned at how hot he felt, "You've got a fever!", she exclaimed worriedly, moving her hand to touch his forehead, "You could have an infect..."
Orestes interrupted her as he took her hand, sighing good- naturedly, and tried to assuage her concerns with a reassuring grin, "Amy! Please, I'm fine. I'm hot from the exercise I just had, that's all... really! Would I lie?", he asked, with an exaggeratedly incredulous raised eyebrow.
It did the trick. As Orestes eased Amy to her feet her merry laughter rewarded his effort. Boughen had meanwhile been tending to Zephyr's sprained ankle. Amy hurried to assist him, leaving Elphron and Orestes to gather their belongings. Orestes slipped the sword back into its scabbard and offered it to Boughen but he shook his head, "The man who can use it best should have it," he replied simply to Orestes' puzzlement.
Elphron dowsed the campfire and the little party set off into the night. Zephyr suspended between his father and uncle, then Amy and finally Orestes, with sword in hand, acting as a rearguard against all unknown potential perils.
They travelled slowly but steadily uphill in relative silence for hours before Elphron called a rest. Orestes wiped his brow with the sleeve of his tunic and happened to look up at the moon. At first he thought a fast moving wispy cloud was flowing over it but something about it seemed unusual. He looked closer and suddenly realised it wasn't a cloud at all. He moved quickly to Elphron and said urgently, "How far is this Gateway?"
The Gladiel leader frowned at Orestes' anxiety but something in his tone prompted him to reply without hesitation, "It is just on the other side of this glade ... about a mile. Why?"
Orestes nodded and pulled the man to his feet, "Then, go! Take your son and daughter and run like there's no tomorrow!"
Orestes turned to Boughen, who was looking at him like he was stark raving mad, "Will you stay here with me and provide a diversion so the others can get away?" he asked, casting around their immediate vicinity as if searching for something.
Boughen also answered despite his bewilderment, "Of course! Would you mind telling me what they'll be running away from?" Orestes ran to a spot between two large boulders. He took an unmistakably defensive stance and drew Boughen's eye to the moon with a dramatic sweep of his sword. Boughen's throaty curse verified Orestes' darkest, deepest fears. Although he couldn't recall the name of this threat, that certainly didn't change the nature of it any.
Elphron and Amy, holding Zephyr between them, hesitated, following the glinting blade to ... to what at first seemed to be a really fast moving, strange cloud but which was soon recognised for what it actually was by the nerve-shattering howls that suddenly echoed all over the mountainside. Amy shivered as a cold stab of fear made her gasp, "May the Gods have mercy on us! Hagriddens!"
The thunder of countless wing beats was by then audible, too. Elphron saw his brother move to stand beside Orestes and he made up his mind. The look on his face as he slipped Zephyr's arm from his shoulder was an expression his children had seen only weeks ago when he'd carried the tragic news of the king's demise to the Gladiel.
It filled them with the same sadness and fear, "Amy, take your brother and flee! If for no other reason than to warn the rest of our people of this danger," Elphron said quickly, hefting his sturdy staff, "Don't let our deaths be in vain!"
He ran towards the boulders while Amy and Zephyr reluctantly hurried in the opposite direction. Orestes watched dubiously as Boughen notched an arrow and took aim. He seriously doubted that an arrow would do much to deter these creatures. A catapult maybe ... Boughen seemed to read his thoughts and lowered his bow. He produced a short, broad-bladed knife and threw his bow on the ground just as Elphron asked, "Ever fought these fiends before?"
His arrival startled both Orestes and Boughen, making the elder smile quite wryly, "Well, I have! Two weeks ago Uglieus used them against King Paellon's army." All trace of humour left his face as he elaborated, "Hit them between the eyes. It's their only vulnerable spot! Even the slightest blow there will be fatal to them so may Artemis, our guardian Goddess, grant us all really quick reflexes during this battle!"
Orestes grimaced. The strain of existing purely on instinct was beginning to bother him more than the ache in his head. By now he'd hoped that he'd remember who he was if not where he was but his mind remained obstinately impenetrable. It surprised him how, on one hand, he was so scared that he could feel the heavy thrum of his heartbeat all over his body ... yet, on the other, he stood here confidently, willingly, almost eagerly. Almost.
"Elphron. Boughen. As soon as they're on the ground, forget the fight. There are too many of them, too few of us. Get in your best shot and then fall back.", he said, not even noticing how naturally giving orders came to him. His companions noticed, however, and Boughen couldn't resist, "I don't recall him being this bossy last time," he grumbled. Elphron was still chuckling when the night exploded ferociously all around him.
Large, vicious, grotesque abominations of perverse nature descended in a maelstrom of rapacious claws, hideous cries, rock-like muscle and huge hyaline eyes of refulgent yellow.
Orestes plunged his sword into one of the Hagriddens but it was like sticking it into clay. He had to let go of it trying to avoid a swipe by a set of scythe-like claws that shredded the front of his tunic and etched three jagged scratches across his chest. They were superficial injuries but the sting sparked Orestes' vengeance and lit a fierce fire in his eyes that was almost as bright as that of his enemy.
Twirling away from a second pass of deadly talons, Orestes seized his stuck sword, rammed his foot against the mid-section of the Hadriggen and tugged it free. Orestes ducked under the attack of two other Hadriggens before springing forward to drive the hilt of his weapon between the eyes of his main opponent. He spun away and watched breathlessly as it toppled like a felled tree to the ground. Wincing over his irritating itchy, tingly scrapes, Orestes launched himself at another.
The Hagridden were intimidating and aggressive but in this fight, being quick and agile was a better advantage. Elphron employed his stout staff with gusto.
In his mind the battle he'd survived but which his king hadn't replayed itself over and over. The vivid memories powered his struggle and with every foe that fell, his guilt eased a little more.
Boughen stayed by his brother's side. He'd been on a patrol when the earlier battle had happened. The late arrival of his troop had saved the Gladiel army from total annihilation but the damage had already been done. King Paellon and two thirds of Rialtus's finest were dead.
Princess Lenora possessed great heart and courage but lacked the experience and desire to wage war. She'd ordered Rialtus sealed and withdrawn what remained of her forces inside the impenetrable mountain catacombs where her kingdom lay. Rialtus was an Innerland. Only one Outlander knew of its existence ... even if, at the moment, he didn't know he knew. Deep beneath the mountains upon which Orestes and his friends now fought, the Gladiel were safe and secure.
As long as the Gateway held.
Uglieus didn't know where the Gateway was and both Elphron and Boughen were determined to keep him from ever finding it; even if it cost them their lives. The thought of retreating had been lost in the furore and frenzy but inevitably Elphron and Boughen were pushed back towards the glade. Orestes was forced to fight through some dense undergrowth before suddenly finding himself in the open again. However, he soon discovered he was also in a very precarious situation. Separated from his fellow fighters on a narrow slice of mountainside that plunged steeply into rubble- strewn valleys behind and on both sides of where he stood. Before he could find a more advantageous location, a veritable wall of Hagridden brawn rose ominously before him.
The satisfaction he'd been feeling over still being alive at this point in the fight was small comfort against the harshness of reality. He tried to concentrate on the enemy but he hurt all over and his entire body shook with exhaustion. Orestes shifted his footing and tried to ignore how unstable the ground beneath his feet felt.
He lowered his sword and took a step back, right to the edge of the precipice. He looked down into the gloom. One more step and ... then what? Peace? Contentment? He grimaced fatalistically. More likely an eternity to reflect upon one act of cowardice! An anger rose within him. People were depending on him. They believed in him. The least he could do was believe in himself.
A cold voice behind him broke Orestes' deep contemplation, "Go ahead. Do it! Save me the trouble of killing you myself!"
Slowly Orestes looked up and the minute he did, his fading spirits seemed to rebound. His eyes narrowed as they fell upon one of the truly most hideous looking beings he'd ever seen.
Uglieus was well named. Everything about him was misshapen, >from head to foot. One arm was longer than the other; one hand was large and beefy with a full complement of fingers while the other had just two claw-like digits; one leg was thin and straight, the other thick and twisted. Yet it was the face - if you could call it that - which was the worst of it all. Set atop a large, powerful disproportionate body, was a large florid countenance dominated by, not surprisingly, two eyes of different size and colour. Awash amidst a sea of pox-marks and boils, those pair of seething orbs gave Uglieus his only remotely human attribute.
Orestes swallowed his revulsion and stepped decisively forwards, "I'm not in the mood to do you any favours, pal!" he declared petulantly. It wasn't readily evident in either his words or posturing but Orestes' mind felt as if it were at war with itself. For he knew unequivocally that he'd never laid eyes upon this ... this whatever-it-was before in his life! "Never mind! Figure it out later," he berated himself. He raised his sword as Uglieus advanced. "IF there is a later, that is ..."
Amy and Zephyr reached the other side of the glade just as the first Hagridden arrived. They paused, horrified, at the awful sight.
Elphron had described in concise detail just what Hagridden were after his first encounter with them. As good as that description was, though it paled in comparison to the real thing. These monstrosities had decimated an entire army. How could three men fare any better?
Amy's emerald eyes shone tellingly in the pale moonlight as her father's last words rang in her ears, '"Don't let our deaths be in vain!"
She pushed her private agony aside and turned her back on the battle. They had a long way to go before she could fulfil that wish but by the Gods she would do it! The Gateway was the entrance to a cave that had been sealed by two colossal doors and camouflaged very carefully to avoid detection.
Queen Lenora had allowed Elphron and his party to venture beyond Rialtus to scout for Iolaus. She'd feared that Uglieus might intercept him or that he might've forgotten the way. As it'd turned out, it had been an astute contingency.
As Amy placed the palm of her hand on a pewter plaque in the middle of one of the Gateway doors, Zephyr placed his on an identical plaque on the other. Immediately there was a sharp clang from within and the doors swung open. Amy grabbed her brother by the arm and they slipped inside. The moment they were clear, the doors closed soundlessly behind them.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the faint torch-lit vestibule but Amy never hesitated. She pushed her brother towards an outcropping, "Zephyr, I'm leaving you here. I have to get help and I can't do that and help you at the same time," she explained in a breathless rush.
He sat down and looked up at his sister with very worried eyes, "I understand. Do whatever you need to do to save father, Amy. Just do it!", he replied.
Amy smiled and kissed him on the cheek, "I'll be back before you know it," she promised and gave him her knife. Then she vanished into the maze of tunnels that lead to Rialtus.
Orestes was relieved that the rest of the Hagridden stayed back as their master strode forwards. Uglieus wielded a pike topped by a very nasty double-edged axe. As he opened his mouth to speak, a cloud of rancid steam escaped from it and even from several yards away the stench turned Orestes' stomach, "For ten long years I have waited for this day! Killing Paellon was sweet but your death shall be like ambrosia to me!"
Waving a hand in front of his face in an effort to clear the air, Orestes retorted, "Ambrosia is for the gods so unless you're the new God of Ugliness, you don't qualify! But, here, try a taste of this instead!" He sprang at Uglieus with his head down and tackled him to the ground.
The two wrestled for several moments before Orestes finally got his non-sword hand free and punched Uglieus as hard as he could. Rolling to his feet, Orestes kicked at Uglieus's hand trying to dislodge the pike. His other appendage reached across, however and deflected the blow, setting Orestes off-balance. At the same time Uglieus brought his pike up sharply. Orestes only just got out of the way. He swore he could feel the blade's coldness as it whizzed by within a fraction of his chin. The close call seemed to ignite a fire within him. As he wheeled back towards the enemy, his eyes flashed with cold, calm fury.
Uglieus charged at him but Orestes dove out of harm's way. As he came to his feet, Orestes retaliated. His sword left a silvery trail as it sliced through the cold night air and bite deeply into Uglieus's left shoulder. He howled in pain but spoiled Orestes' moment of triumph by ramming the butt of his pike into his midriff. With a loud gasp, Orestes doubled over but kept his feet by sheer determination. Looking up, barely able to draw a breath, he saw Uglieus heft his pike and pitch it. Groaning, Orestes threw himself sideways. Uglieus's pike missed him but when as he was scrambling to his feet, the ground where he'd landed began to crumble.
His enemy's demonic laughter mixed with his own cry of terror as he began to fall. In desperation he grasped at anything and found a sound hold on the root of a gnarled cliff-side tree. Dangling wildly by one hand, Orestes' feet also found footholds and for added security, he plunged his sword into the ground to serve as an anchor while he caught his breath.
He wisely did not look down as he clung to the weather- worn mountainside. From his tenuous position Orestes couldn't see but he heard what sounded like a fight. He frowned and guessed that perhaps Elphron and/or Boughen had somehow come to his aid.
Gathering his strength, he began to pull himself upwards. It was a very slow, arduous effort and he had to pause several times. He was just wriggling up over the lip of the cliff when he felt a presence.
Half on, half off solid ground, Orestes looked up to find Uglieus's piked axe aimed at his right arm. If he let go of his sword, he would fall but if he didn't, he'd lose his arm and still probably fall. Orestes prayed that the root would be stout enough. Holding onto it tenaciously, he swung himself out of danger and towards the ancient tree itself. He grabbed the tree stump and held on for dear life.
He heard Uglieus's bellow of rage turn suddenly to terror and glanced back just in time to see the protagonist of all this turmoil lose his balance and topple head-first over the cliff. Uglieus's keening death cry echoed and reverberated through the mountains and forests.
Orestes allowed himself a moment of relief before inching around the tree trunk onto marvellously solid ground. He stood up on very shaky legs as his eyes widened in surprise.
Not a Hagridden was left standing.
Across the sloped clearing Orestes recognised the tall figure of Boughen and he smiled with relief as he found Elphron, too. He started to walk towards them but his legs gave out on him after just a few steps. The last image he had was of a wraith- like figure in white floating towards him just before he passed out.
The next thing Orestes was aware of was a gentle touch as a cool cloth was laid upon his brow. Amy smiled delightedly as his eyes flickered open, "Thank goodness!" she exclaimed. Tears of joy swam in her exquisite green eyes but her smile was as radiant as the sun.
As he awoke, Orestes realised he was not outdoors any more. He was in a small, neat room that smelled of herbs, sweat and blood.
He wanted to see more and tried to sit up but a strong hand touched his shoulder. He looked up ... to see himself grinning down upon himself ...
Before Orestes could ask any questions, Iolaus sat down at his side but did not remove his hand. He leaned closer to Orestes and his clear blue eyes were benevolent, "You'll be alright, cousin. Your wounds are superficial but you're exhausted. If you promise to lie here and rest, I'll tell you what you've missed. Deal?"
Orestes nodded eagerly, "The last thing I remember is a woman - I think, anyway - coming towards me ..."
Iolaus and Amy giggled. Orestes marvelled at how magical that unique blend of music sounded. "That was Queen Lenora, cousin. Amy summoned all of Rialtus to come to your rescue!", Iolaus elaborated. His expression turned serious and his voice was unmistakably proud as he continued, "You saved Rialtus, Orestes. Uglieus is dead and will threaten the Innerland no more."
Orestes sighed deeply but then looked up at Iolaus with a fresh frown, "What are you doing here, Iolaus? How did you know...?" he asked in total bafflement.
Iolaus smiled indulgently, "You have a lot of people back home in Attica who care for you, cousin. Niobe sent Hector after you. He found me in Thebes and explained about the messenger."
Their eyes met and Iolaus' smile broadened, "Yes... the medallion. I remembered it very well. You see, I made that medallion for Lenora years ago on my first visit to Rialtus. If you looked closely at it, there are tiny dots on it... they're footsteps. The inscription says 'follow these footsteps and you will find paradise.' When you feel up to it, cousin, I'll show you around Rialtus and you'll understand."
The expression on his face had become very wistful but Orestes understood.
He was feeling rather wistful himself right now, "So... Niobe was worried about me...?" he murmured. Iolaus felt a twinge but let it go. It was, after all, the right thing to do.
Orestes shook his head, "But... Iolaus, how did you get here so fast?" he asked.
His cousin patted his shoulder and winked at him, "You've been asleep longer than you think, Orestes." He and Amy exchanged amused grins as Orestes sputtered in disbelief, "What? But ... how long? Why?"
With a nonchalant shrug, Iolaus answered, "Only two days ... but you haven't missed much so don't worry. Lenora and I will take you surfing and sailing with us when you're ..."
Orestes almost jumped out of the bed with excitement, "You mean, we're on the coast? I can walk on a beach, learn to swim ..."
Iolaus was amazed by Orestes' enthusiasm at the same time he was very aware that Amy wasn't thrilled by it one bit. He hurried to calm his cousin, "No, Rialtus isn't on the coast but there are some fantastic Innerland beaches ... anyway, when you're better I'll take you there. Now quit acting like an excitable two-year-old, okay?"
Amy tapped Iolaus on the shoulder, "I think that's enough for now. He needs to rest. There's all the time in the world for you two to talk so for now, say good bye.", she advised, gently but firmly.
The hunter rose and nodded in agreement. He reached out, inviting Orestes to shake his hand and when he did, Iolaus deliberately turned it into a hearty warrior's clasp, "You're a good man, cousin, and you're going to be the best king Attica ever had! What you did for Rialtus proves that beyond a doubt!"
As Iolaus moved to leave, Orestes said sincerely, "I couldn't go wrong following in your footsteps."
Iolaus paused in the doorway and smiled, "You followed your heart, Orestes. YOU did what was right. I hardly had anything to do with it."
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