Read The Chimaera Regiment Online
Authors: Nathaniel Turner
The crowd was silent.
Hector rushed to his friend’s side. He knelt down, taking the man’s head in his hands. But Brynjar was already dead.
The 2040th year of the Sixth Era
The thirteenth of the month of Ennemen
During the night
“Do the gods impart this ardor to the minds of man, Azos, or is his own fierce desire a god to him?”
Azos looked at Fintan, concern evident on his face. “What are you thinking, my young friend?” he asked.
Fintan pointed at the sleeping Regiment all around them. “After what happened to the Thuites, and to Duncan, I’ve longed to fight these men,” he said, “Look at them. They are drunk from celebrating yet again this night. They’ve cheered for the deaths I caused for ten nights, and I can’t sit idly by any longer.”
“Good,” Einar interrupted, creeping up beside them. Azos glared at him, but he ignored the older Sundan. “It’s time we escaped from here.”
“Escape?” echoed Azos, “We are still far from the Valley.”
“Close enough,” Einar replied, “While they’re still asleep, we break the rest of the prisoners free and go through the woods to the north. We’ll put some distance between us and the Regiment before crossing the fields south of the Valley. Once we reach the Pass of Anthea, we’ll be safe.”
Fintan nodded. “I’m with you, Einar.”
“It’s too risky,” Azos interjected, “We should wait until we’re closer.”
Einar snapped, “If we’re still within sight of the Regiment when we get to the fields, we’ll be dead long before we reach the Valley. There will be no cover and no rest out there. We need to escape now if we’re going to survive.”
Azos sighed and acquiesced. The three men gathered their few belongings and set out across the camp, headed toward the large prison tent they had once called home.
On the way there, they came upon a troop blocking their path with their sleeping bodies. Fintan drew his sword, but Azos caught his arm. Fintan cut short any reproach, whispering, “Azos, I must do this, by my own hand. At last, our situation calls for it: this is our path!”
Azos’ grip tightened. “There must be a safer way,” he whispered back.
Fintan twisted his arm away, breaking his friend’s grasp. “Remember what they have done to us. Remember how they slaughtered our people, our families. Recall that fervor you had to slay every last one of them when we were captured.” He gestured to the sleeping soldiers and said, “Now is our chance.”
Einar interrupted again. “Whatever you do, do it quickly. We haven’t got long.”
Fintan and Azos glared at each other in silence for a few moments, then Azos broke the stare. Slowly, he nodded, then, breathing deeply, he drew his own sword and smiled with grim determination. “Let’s go.”
The two Sundans slew the Leonites in complete silence, eliminating two troops of strong warriors en route to the prisoners’ tent. Einar saw that both of them would have slaughtered the whole camp, given the opportunity. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, briefly and wisely, “Dawn draws near, and the light will not be our friend here. Enough punishment has been exacted, and our route has been made through the enemy.” He gestured toward the tent, now in easy reach.
Sufficiently reprimanded, but aching to continue the fight, the two Sundans followed Einar to the prisoners’ tent. It was the work of a moment to kill the drowsy guard and slip into the canvas jail. The three friends rushed through the place, cutting bonds and rousing the captives.
Then Fintan heard voices of men outside. He gestured for silence, an order too slowly obeyed.
“What’s going on in there?” one of the Leonites asked.
“Where’s the guard?” wondered the other.
They drew closer. Then, suddenly, Fintan heard the telltale sound of swords being drawn. “This man has been killed!” one of the enemy shouted.
The other burst into the tent, weapon high. Fintan dispatched him as quickly as he had arrived, but he could not catch the other man. The Leonite tore away into the night, shouting, “The prisoners are escaping! The prisoners are escaping!”
Fear commanded urgency. The three friends and a host of captives cut through the far side of the tent. “Into the forest!” Einar ordered. Wordlessly, hoping their route would go unnoticed, the prisoners obeyed.
As they passed among the trees, they could hear several troops making chase behind them. “Don’t look back!” Einar called, as softly as he could, driving them onward. This had not gone as planned, the Alkimite lamented. They were supposed to be free and clear, unnoticed until morning; now, the Regiment would be roused early and start their march even sooner. They might even press on through the next night in an effort to catch their lost prisoners. Einar sighed angrily; they had a few more sleepless nights ahead of them.
Fintan helped the captives through the woods. Most were capable men, but several had been weakened by months as slaves to the Regiment. Fintan knew almost all of them from his time in the tent. It seemed like a lifetime since they had followed Einar into the employ of the Regiment, too long to harbor regrets now. Fintan tried to ignore his conscience, berating him for abandoning them to captivity.
A few minutes later, they broke through the trees into the open beyond, climbing a steep hill. As they crested the hill, Fintan looked for Azos, ready to sigh with relief at their escape.
But Azos was not with the rest of the group.
“Azos,” Fintan muttered under his breath, “where did we lose you? All the way back in the woodland?” Turning, he went to the edge of the downward slope, back the way they had come.
He saw Azos stumble out of the woods far below, followed closely by a troop of Leonites.
Fintan drew his sword and started over the cusp of the hill, only to be pulled back at the last moment and thrown to the ground. “It’s too late!” Einar hissed at him, pinning him down, “You won’t do any good down there!”
“Then I’ll attack them outright!” Fintan snapped back, struggling to break free, “I’ll bring a quick and heroic death to us both!”
“Don’t be a fool!” Einar answered, “The gods find no heroism in the waste of a life.”
“What am I supposed to do?” demanded Fintan. “It’s my fault he’s down there now. I brought him along, I attacked the Leonites, I brought this down on top of us!” Grief scattered his words past the choking lump in his throat. “He hadn’t dared to do anything, if I hadn’t forced him! It should be me down there!”
“It’s too late,” Einar repeated. Fintan ignored him, pushing to the edge of the hilltop, and he looked down at the scene below. Azos was dead, and the enemy troop was making its way up the slope.
When he saw his fallen friend, Fintan wept. Einar had to drag him to his feet.
The two men chased after the captives, who had continued onward at Einar’s behest.
The 2040th year of the Sixth Era
The fifteenth of the month of Ennemen
Late in the tenth hour
Lochan, the tracker for Captain Martin’s troop, watched as the Keldans paraded their chieftain out of his hall to meet with the Leonites. Captain Martin stood with imperious dignity before his nine subordinates, waiting with scowling impatience.
Lochan had done his duty with startling effectiveness. It had been simple enough once he knew from where the Alkimites had come, and where they were going. The sensible choice was to follow the river, which led to the cottage, about two days earlier.
Lochan had told Martin that no one had been there in a month, so Dyseg had broken in. They found unkempt blankets on makeshift beds, and five sets of dishes which had been cleaned just before the inhabitants’ departure. Lochan discerned that the Alkimite travelers had stopped there, and gained a new companion, likely a hermit. The rest of the troop had been more interested in the large stores of well-preserved food.
After a feast on vegetables and fruits, Kineage used his bow to provide the only meat they could find in good condition, a scrawny raven that had cawed at them incessantly from the rafters. Lochan had seen no nest with eggs, so he suspected it was a pet of the hermit that had lived there.
When they left, late that night, Martin had burned the cottage down. Lochan said a silent prayer to Carys, the Queen of the Divines, asking her mercy for their brashness.
Now, two days later, they stood in a clearing of the northern forest, waiting for the chieftain of a barbarian tribe. Lochan had been intensely interested in the great monument there, but the local Keldans had insisted that he not approach it. His keen eye spotted engravings on it in a language he did not recognize, but he had respected the Keldans’ wishes and did not go closer.
As the gaunt barbarian lord was escorted from his hall by a color guard, Lochan suppressed a sneer. The man wore rich fabrics and dyes, and he surrounded himself with slaves. The gods could not love such a man, in his vanity and selfish pride, and neither did Lochan. After spending years in the company of true warlords, the tracker was accustomed to certain deprivations for the sake of authority. Lord Fero could have gutted this Keldan in one stroke.
“I am Lord Eitromal,” the man declared, “Who are you to trespass on my land and demand to speak with me?”
Martin stood a little straighter; he was of medium build, and he had no intention of seeming smaller than his verbal opponent. He thought he was better than this lord of the lowly. Lochan knew he was no better at all. “I am Captain Martin of the Chimaera Regiment,” the man announced, “I am here as a representative of our lords, Derek, Drystan, and Fero.”
The pallor that passed over Eitromal’s angular face told Lochan that he knew the names Martin had mentioned. Even so, he drew himself up and replied, “And what is that to me?”
“About a month ago,” Martin said, “some travelers passed by here. Did you happen to meet them?”
Eitromal frowned, his curiosity piqued by this inquiry, but he was not about to break so easily. “Many people pass by these lands, Captain. Can you be more specific?”
“In particular,” the captain replied, “we are looking for a boy and his companions. They are of a people called the Alkimites, and they would have been traveling to the east.”
Eitromal appeared pensive. “I think I remember such a group. Tell me, Captain, what will you do when you find this boy?”
Martin looked at the guards, several of whom looked doubtful. Lochan eyed them carefully; they seemed to know something about the situation, something that their lord was not telling. Martin must have noticed that, too. “Is the boy still here?” he pressed. “Is he still alive?”
Eitromal scowled at being ignored. “I tell you, Captain, I will not be interrogated like a common criminal!” he said, turning away from the troop. “Guards, lead them from my lands immediately.”
Martin made a quick chopping gesture with his right hand. It was a prearranged signal. The troop burst into action. Kineage launched an arrow, piercing the throat of the guard closest to Eitromal. Lochan and Oher, another archer, notched arrows to their bows, ready to fire. Dyseg and four other swordsmen unsheathed their blades and prepared for battle. Aeilous drew his dagger and, in the space of a blink, was beside Eitromal with the curved edge at his throat.
The Keldan guards were about to react when Eitromal cried out, “Hold!” He could not tear his gaze from the keen blade only a hair’s breadth from spilling his blood. “The boy is alive, and he is here,” he answered Martin, “What do you want with him?”
Martin smiled. “I want you to kill him.”
“What!” said Eitromal, “I cannot kill a suppliant outright. The gods would certainly condemn me!”
Martin sneered with practiced disdain. “Then arrange for his death,” he suggested.
“I’ve been trying!” Eitromal responded, becoming more hysterical, “He has been fighting in our arena for almost four weeks! He has defeated every opponent arrayed against him!”
Martin sighed impatiently. “If you cannot arrange for him to die here, then arrange for one of your enemies to kill him,” he spat. “I don’t care how you accomplish it, Eitromal. You are to kill Hector, for your sake. We will be watching.
“In three weeks, Lord Derek will have slaughtered the boy’s tribe in the valley to the west. If the boy himself is not dead by then, I will send word to my lord, and you may add the Regiment to your list of enemies.”
Having said these soul-condemning things, Martin marched his troop from Keldan lands, leaving Eitromal in a mixture of relief and fear.
The 2040th year of the Sixth Era
The sixteenth of the month of Ennemen
Late in the second hou
Hector had barely slept in the seven nights since Brynjar’s death. When the Keldans determined that Gershon was unconscious and could not be wakened, they dragged Hector back to his cell. Two days later, he was thrust back into the arena, alone. No mention was made of Brynjar.
On the morning of the seventh day, Folguen came and collected him from his cell. As the Keldan opened the lock, Hector inquired with disinterest, “Another battle today?” The time for weeping had passed; Hector had hardened against the emotions that tugged at his heart, filling his mind with hateful thoughts of the lord that held him prisoner.
“Nope,” Folguen answered, “Lord Eitromal wants to speak with you.”
Hector frowned as Folguen took his shoulder and pulled him to his feet. “What about?” he asked. He could not believe that Eitromal would release them; if the Keldan lord intended their freedom after more than a month in captivity, they would have earned it already.
“Don’t know,” Folguen answered, leading the Alkimite toward the ramp. They walked casually, almost like friends, up the ramp and across the arena sands. Folguen did not threaten Hector with his sword, but kept a hand on the other’s back to direct him toward the chieftain’s hall.
As they entered the clearing, Hector saw the obelisk and his memories of their quest came flooding back. His defiant spirit, his earnest hope for freedom, and his love for Bronwyn had kept him going over the past weeks, but he had almost forgotten his task from Lord Aneirin. New resolve hardened his heart, and he swore under his breath that he would finish what he started.
Then Folguen led him into the hall. Hector recalled that he had never been here before; last time, Eitromal had exited the hall to stand before them in the open. The interior was lined with tapestries, each spaced by small windows along the sides of the building. Torch sconces illuminated the great room, their flickering light making its cold expanse seem warm and intimate. Long rows of chairs lined the room, providing a place for Eitromal’s court of advisers—who seemed conspicuously absent.
“Lord Eitromal,” Folguen announced, “The young Alkimite prisoner.”
Eitromal was anxious. He paced on the dais, in front of his throne. Hearing Folguen’s introduction, he spun on his heel to glare at the boy. “Bring him closer!” the Keldan lord beckoned.
Folguen and Hector approached the dais. Eitromal waited until they were nearly on its steps, then he sat down briskly on his throne. “Hector the Alkimite,” he said, though Hector was surprised that the lord remembered his name, “I have decided that I will release you and your friends when you have completed a task for me.”
Hector snorted his derision. He had no respect for the warlord. “You mean like defeating every gladiator in your arena?” he asked mockingly.
Eitromal bristled, working his jaw behind sealed lips. After a few moments, he took a deep breath and said, “No. This task will be performed in service of the Keldan tribe, and by it you will both free yourself and protect my people.”
Hector was not convinced. “You mean the people who cheered when Brynjar died, the people who would cheer to see me dead?”
Eitromal swallowed hard, clearly not prepared for the conversation to turn this way. “Not all of my people,” he said haltingly, “participate in the games. There are many women, and children, and—” He halted, working hard to force the choking words from his throat, “—
people, who will also benefit from your actions.”
Hector looked at Folguen, then. The guard met his gaze, but did not betray his own feelings. Hector’s heart cracked open a little, and he turned back to Eitromal, saying, “It doesn’t look like I have much choice, do I? What do I have to do?”
Eitromal smiled, timid but victorious. “There is a powerful tribe northwest of here. They are called the Termessians. They have sought our destruction for generations. By sword or by tongue, stop their attacks.” He gestured at Folguen. “Folguen and four other guards will escort you and the Sage to our northwestern border, whence you will proceed on your own.”
Hector frowned. “The Sage?” he echoed, recognizing the term, but forgetting why.
Eitromal pointed past him at the door. “That one,” he spat, his voice dripping disdain.
Hector turned to see two guards dragging Fornein into the hall. They dropped the old man to his knees, and Hector ran to his side. He was still covered in muck from the pit where he was held captive, and he was thinner than before, but not emaciated. Hector held him up by his shoulders, and Fornein patted the Alkimite’s hand in gentle gratitude.
“He has been fed,” Eitromal said, seeing Hector’s anger, “He is a resilient old fool. He will do well on your journey.”
Hector, not taking Eitromal’s word for it, asked Fornein, “Are you alright?”
Fornein cracked a smile, the mud on his skin making his wrinkles all the more distinct. “He’s not wrong,” he answered softly. With Hector’s help, he stood, but he kept his head bowed; he would not look at Eitromal.
Hector turned to Eitromal. “When do we leave?” he asked.
Eitromal frowned. His answer made it sound obvious. “Immediately.”
Hector and Fornein followed Folguen out into the clearing. They started off northwest, stopping first in the Keldan town. Folguen selected four guards to accompany them to the Keldan border with the Termessians: Evan, Salech, Dobro, and Zadok. Together, the five Keldans escorted the two prisoners far to the northwest, almost beyond the forest, into the cold northland.
The 2040th year of the Sixth Era
The eighteenth of the month of Ennemen
Halfway through the fourth hour
Two days later, the late morning sun streaked through the evergreens as they grew more sparse. Hector estimated that they were only a mile from the northern edge of the forest; far away, he could see towering snow-capped peaks and the wispy clouds of winter.
“This is as far as we go,” Folguen said from behind him. He turned, only then realizing that the five Keldans had stopped ten paces back. All of them looked wary and anxious; whatever else the Termessians were, they frightened the seasoned Keldan warriors, and that was enough to worry Hector.
“I thought you were escorting us out of Keldan territory,” Hector answered.
“We have,” Folguen replied.
“Keldan territory does not extend beyond the forest,” the one called Dobro added.
Fornein interjected, “Since when? The Keldans once controlled everything up to the northern mountains.”
“Since you left,” Salech snapped, “Since Lord Eitromal became more interested in his games, his slaves, and his clothes than in defending Keldan homelands.”
Folguen looked at him sharply, silencing him. The guard drew his lips into a tight line, then said to Hector, “The Termessians have been advancing for the last few years. They would slaughter us all if they found us here—but you are not Keldan. You may have a chance to reason with them.” Then he drew his sword and, flipping it around, handed the hilt to Hector. “You may need this.”
Hector looked at the weapon, then at Folguen. It would have been easy to kill the man who had led Brynjar to his death—but he was not the man who had killed him. That responsibility lay with Gershon and, more importantly, with Eitromal. He took the weapon and thrust it into his belt. “Thank you, Folguen,” he said, “Thank you all.”
The Keldans retreated into the woods; Hector wondered if he would see them again. Turning, he and Fornein continued northwest.
The forest continued to thin, and a stiff breeze began to cut past the trees. Hector wrapped his arms around his chest and worked to keep warm. It was not quite cold enough for snow, but the wind made him feel like it was. The conifer needles all around them bristled and stirred in the wind, as though his passing was waking the idle forest from slumber.
As they reached the last of the trees, before they stepped into the harsher winds on the open plain, Hector grabbed Fornein’s arm. Pointing toward a cluster of nearby trees, he made a gesture like eating. Fornein nodded, and they went to the small grouping, where they could huddle from the cold.
Fornein took his rucksack, which the Keldans had provided for their journey, and opened it, drawing out a few pieces of stale bread. It was not much, but it was food, and it tasted better than the morsels they had gotten in captivity. As they nibbled at their gourmet meal, Hector was finally comfortable discussing that captivity, far from Keldan ears.
“How are Bronwyn and Caradoc?” he asked, “Have you seen them?”
Fornein nodded. “When they pulled me out of my pit, I demanded to see them before I would go anywhere else. They’re being fed, though they’re not getting much else.” He took another bite. “Maybe when we get back, we can demand that they be moved to a proper house and cared for like men, and not beasts.”
“You don’t think Eitromal will let us go?” Hector asked, frowning.
Fornein made an incredulous face. “Eitromal doesn’t think we’ll be coming back at all. He’s trusting the Termessians to kill us both, which would solve all of his problems.”
Hector immediately grew concerned. “You don’t think he’ll hurt Bronwyn and Caradoc, do you, if he intends for us to die?”
Fornein shook his head. “He may be a monster,” he replied, “but Eitromal is a pragmatic man. He won’t waste what he has, even if he doesn’t know what to do with it yet.”
Hector fell silent, returning to his bread. He had gotten accustomed to eating sparingly, so he was slow to consume what he had, though he was very hungry. He was still worried about his friends, but there was nothing he could do from here—except defy Eitromal’s hopes and return victorious.
“She asked after you, you know.”
Hector looked up at Fornein. “What?” he said reflexively. He had heard what his old friend had said, but he did not really understand.
“Bronwyn,” Fornein explained, “She wanted to know if you were alright—how they were treating you.”
Hector smiled, but tried to suppress it. “What, uh,” he began, striving to sound innocuous, “what did you tell her?”
“The truth,” Fornein replied as a knowing grin tugged at his lips, “That I hadn’t heard anything, but I trusted the Divines to keep you safe.” He chuckled, quite out of character for their circumstances. “That made her mad. She demanded that my guard tell her everything he knew. She was quite insistent.”
Hector was amused and inwardly delighted that she was thinking of him. He knew that she was concerned for her friend, but he allowed himself to think that she cared for him more deeply than just that. “What happened?” he asked.
Fornein’s smile faded. “Nothing,” he answered after a moment, “She was returned to her cell.”
The young Alkimite nodded sadly. It was too much to hope for an entertaining tale about the Keldans. He changed the subject a bit. “How about Doc? How’s he faring in captivity.”
Fornein grimaced a bit. “He’s strong, which is good, but he’s defiant, and the Keldans don’t care for that. They’re feeding him less. And he’s angry at himself. He blames himself for our predicament. He thinks that if he hadn’t gotten his foot stuck in that root, we might have escaped the Keldans’ notice, or he could have been more use in a fight.”
“That’s foolish,” Hector replied, shaking his head, “We had to find the obelisk, which is next to Eitromal’s great hall. We could never have avoided the Keldans forever.”
Fornein nodded. “I told him that. Maybe it helped.”
The two men fell silent again. They had nearly eaten all of their bread when Fornein spoke up again. “How’s Brynjar? I understand you’ve been fighting in the arena with him.”
Hector looked up at his old friend. “They didn’t tell you?” he said, a little surprised. Fornein shook his head, so Hector continued, “He’s dead.”
Fornein sighed. “Carys be with him,” he prayed. Then he asked of Hector, “How did it happen?”
Hector shrugged. “The arena—how else?” he answered, a little more flippantly than he had intended. “A Wellite named Gershon broke his neck.”
Fornein nodded sadly. “And what happened to Gershon?” he asked.
Hector looked up from gulping down his last morsel. “I killed him.”
As Fornein finished his own meal, a sad expression clouded his wizened features. Hector noticed it, but hoped he could ignore it. Fornein was worried for his soul, he imagined; the old man was a Storyteller, and they had a special perception of the gods, so that they could guide their tribes into piety. But Hector did not want a lecture on the dangers of a callous soul.
For the moment, he did not receive one. The two men gathered their things, Hector his sword and Fornein his rucksack, and they resumed their path northwest into the broad clearing beneath the mountains’ shadows.
The 2040th year of the Sixth Era
The twentieth of the month of Ennemen
Late in the fifth hour
Two days later, twelve days after leaving the northern homeland of the Wellites, Lord Aneirin and his fellows stood at the western precipice, overlooking the Valley of Kyros. Resolve hardened his silver eyes as he surveyed the dell, and tendon-driven manipulators locked down tight in his anxiety; they were running out of time.