Thursday, September 22, 2022

Flash Fiction #529 -- The Long Way Home/28

 

For a long time, Rory did not know where he might be and didn't care.  When he opened his eyes for a moment or two, the room seemed dimly lit and the bed steady.  Still on the ocean, though.  He could hear the water against the hull.

Safe, he thought.  Quiet.  No one needed him to do anything heroically stupid.  All he had to do was rest.

Jamison sat by the bed when he woke the next time.  He looked haggard, and the ship moved with little jumps and turns.  Rory wanted to go back to sleep.  He knew it would not happen.

"Where?" he finally asked and drew his friend's attention.

"Almost to Tember Port."

"Sciwhen," Rory said.  He hoped he might be wrong.  This was not where they had supposed to be heading.  It seemed as if at every turn, he got farther from home.

"Why?"

"I am not privy to those decisions," he said, and with just enough of a tone that Rory knew it annoyed Jamison.  

And why not?  They'd been deciding on their own before this.  Important decisions to save lives and bring out information.  He turned his head and saw the bag with the coded papers.  Good.

Rory forced himself to sit up.  The room moved in ways that had nothing to do with the ocean.

"Why are we here?"

"Mostly because we needed allies," Jamison admitted.  "And I think because it was the least likely direction for us to head.  The Atrians turned aside early on and headed back toward their own lands.  Apparently, they couldn't decide on which enemy to attack and left it for all of us to sort out."

"Or the New Order of Man and the Atrians are allies," Rory said, and slipped his legs off the bed.  He sat there, waiting for the dizziness to ease.

"I would hope for that alliance," Jamison replied and looked in a happier mood.  "Just think of two such fanatical groups working together.  Neither would survive."

"You probably have that right," Rory agreed.  "Where are we?  We must have gone a long way from the last battle from the amount of rest I've had to recover this much."

"This is recovered?"

"Relatively speaking.  I pray to the gods I never have to go that far again.  Do you know where we are?"

"At the edge of a tidal river, the Mendin," Jamison replied.  "I don't know this area --"

"It leads straight to the Schiwen capital, Schi.  Well defended, and no one goes there without an invitation.  The tide helps."

"What are we going to do here?"

"What we've done since the start: try to figure out what is going on.  Well, you can't say it hasn't been interesting, at least."

"Exciting, but that doesn't always mean good.  Nor does interesting.  Wouldn't you rather have a quiet life?"

Rory stood and stumbled over to the table, grabbing at the chair and sitting down with Jamison's help.  He thought about what Jamison had said as he waited for the world to stop moving.

"I am a priest," Rory reminded his companion.  "I spent the last few years of my life mostly in quiet contemplation.  I liked it.  Just the same, I do feel needed now.  Those years of quiet taught me my magic.  I don't want the rest of my life to be this way, but I can't go back, either. That's not a matter of want, but of trust."

 " I have never seen you as a priest,"  Jamison reminded him.  The ship took a curve to the right while the crew shouted orders above them.  "I have seen you as a mage, but not in a temple."

"You are saying I should give up that part of my life?"

"I would never tell you what you should do, only that I agree -- given the circumstances with Pyrida --  that the matter of trust is real."

Rory nodded.  Jamison got them food and water and sat down to eat with him, all in silence.

"Kaltrina?"

"Sleeping.  She was on watch last night.  I fear I am going to lose her to the Schiwen army if this keeps up."

"The only way she would go is if you went as well."

"That would be a different future," he agreed with a bright smile.  "I suspect Prince Palkin has other plans for me."

"Probably for all of us," Rory agreed, ignoring the fact that he served his own Queen.  "This is a mess, and I still don't know if we are siding with the proper people.  Not that I think the people we are with are wrong, only that I can't be certain of their reasoning and plans."

"I trust them.  I've spent time in their conferences on the Springer, and so far they tend to caution.  Going to Schiwen for help was safer than trying to cut north and fight our way back to where we began."

Rory couldn't argue with that idea.  He was glad not to be heading back into the heart of the trouble.  Not that he expected there to be peace in Schiwen. Too many things were going wrong just now.

"We'll be to Schi soon," Jami said.  They'd ate mostly in silence.  "Andora says she'll see us through what we need to do and continue to be our guide while we're here.  That should help."

Rory trusted Andora, so he didn't argue.  Part of him wanted to, just to show that he had some say in what was happening around him.  It seemed as if everything had been spiraling out of his control from the moment he ran into Jamison and Katrina.

This was all madness.  They both knew it.

Rory could tell they must be coming into port by the sounds on the ship and the clank of noises beyond the Springer.    Rory spent some time trying to straighten his clothes and hair.

And then he heard fighting on the shore.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Flash Fiction #528 -- The Long Way Home/27

 

Unanik stared at Rory with a frown.  Then he caught the mage by the arm, but only because the ship had started to turn. Sailors and soldiers shouted across the deck, and the wind moved fitfully in the sails.  Zorian came bounding down and grabbed Rory a bit more forcefully.

"You better have a good reason --"

"Pyrida," Rory said with a wave of his hand toward the ship behind.

"No, no," Zorian replied and shook Rory several times before he got control.  "Pyrida is the most powerful mage in Sundry!"

"That's what he's always said," Rory replied.

Zorian stopped and stared into his face.  "You don't think it's true."

"I've had some doubts for a while, but it wasn't something to pursue.  Maybe I'm only hoping now.  It is Pyrida.  I know the feel of his magic too well.  Keep us on as erratic a path as you dare.  I need to marshal more magic before I try to take him on.  Even if he's not as strong as he pretends, that doesn't mean he's weak."

Zorian stared, nodded, and pushed Rory into Unanik's hold. The General nodded at some unspoken agreement that probably had to do with Rory's sanity and how to keep him safe from his actions.

He didn't argue.  Not right now.

Rory also trusted Zorian to keep things going.  Unanik finally gave him over to Jamison and Keltrina, both of whom looked as worn as Rory.  They found a place to sit, the three on the deck amid all the soldiers.

Everyone did their best to stay out of the way of the sailors who were doing their best to obey the orders given by Zorian.  The ship turned, heeled, and almost spun more than once.  It did not help Rory's stomach or state of mind.

He sat quietly, though, and the others left him alone -- probably too tired to care much by now. Rory felt the same way, but he thought that feeling away and tried to sort out everything in his mind.
Everything started with the King's death, but none of it made any more sense than it had from the start. Pyrida being in the middle of this and on the wrong side. It confused him.
Confusion?
Rory closed his eyes and sat very still while he let his mind drift away from all the things that had bothered him and kept him from focusing on anything else.

Pyrida may not have been as powerful as he pretended, but that didn't make him weak.  The feeling that he barely touched the area around Rory wasn't a weakness.  Pyrida didn't want to draw attention.

Pyrida was far too close.

Rory scrambled to his feet, startling everyone around him, especially when he lifted his hands and sent out a spray of colorful lights.  They were not dangerous.  They did, however, seek out magic.  Rory was not surprised when a few danced out toward Zorian, but he directed them back to the others.

They collided with an unseen figure standing midship on the starboard side.  Although he couldn't see the features, there was no doubt who the figure was -- and that he'd been looking for Rory.  Only Rory had stopped using magic and had blended into the already crowded ship.

They had found each other now.

"Jami -- clear everyone away," he ordered.  People were already rushing away from the odd, brightly lit shape.  A few soldiers were drawing weapons, but that was not something he wanted.  "Weapons can be easily turned.   Be careful."

Jamison had started to pull his knife -- he shoved it back away with a start and then rushed off to stop a dozen swordsmen.  Rory gave him what little protection he could spare.

Then Rory forced strength into his legs and headed for Pyrida.  There was no use hiding anymore for either of them.  Pyrida brushed away Rory's little magic lights and dropped his shield.

Not Pyrida.  Queen Calladona.

No.

No.  Rory sent a wave of magic to strip away the disguise, surprising Pyrida, who had thought seeing the Queen would startle him.  Whatever the Temple Master had intended to do, it died in his hands in a flash of power.  He was Pyrida this time, both surprised and not pleased to be brought to light.

"You can't win against me," Pyrida snarled and added a touch of reverberation to his voice.  Pretentious.  "You never could."

"I was raised at court," Rory replied, which won a frown of confusion.  "I knew that, diplomatically, it was not wise to better you."

Pyrida had a temper.  He usually kept it mostly in check,  but he saw no reason even to try this time.  Rory had insulted and challenged him.  He roared as he called up the power --

And a lance of bright blue fiery power burnt through Pyrida's right arm and side.

Rory should have been paying attention to Zorian, who had now drawn Pyrida's wrath.  He started to curse but saw how much the attack had unhinged Pyrida.  Good.

Rory attacked, though he didn't try to get past the Temple Master's defenses.  Instead, he used that power as a fulcrum to shove the confused mage backward -- and then up and off the ship.

Pyrida had not been prepared to fly.

Rory rushed to the spot and leaned over the railing, Zorian only a moment behind him.

"Did he go under?" Zorian asked as he tried to scan the water.

"Maybe, but I'm still alive, so he's not dead.  It was foolish to attack him, my friend.  Thank you."

"We are in this together," Zorian replied.  "And it was a damned good thing you knew that wasn't the Queen.  It stunned me."

"I could tell by his face that it was not the Queen.  I think he forgets my link to her sometimes.  I -- I need to rest."

Rory felt himself slipping away again as Zorian caught him by the arm.



Friday, September 09, 2022

Flash Fiction #527 -- The Long Way Home/26

 

Zorian dumped Rory on the deck and didn't even pause to see if he had survived the drop.  By that action, Rory knew they were in some trouble still.

It did give him a chance to consider the situation, though.  Until now, the New Order of Man had been a strictly military cult.  Where had they gotten a mage?

Where had they gotten a mage with this much power?

Atria was his best guess, though why the Atrians would send one of their few mages was lost to him.  Unless ...

Would it be worth risking a mage -- and one of considerable power -- to stir up trouble in Euriday?  What could they want here?

Prince Palkin landed unceremoniously beside him and looked around to ensure he was out of sight, as best as any of them could be.  Rory barely had the ability to nod.  His arms were leaden and his legs almost as bad.  Even catching his breath proved hard.

Palkin looked down at him and frowned.  "You need to be careful, friend mage.  We must find another way to deal with the enemy's magic."

Rory almost protested that idea, but the Prince was right if for no other reason than they might lose him and need things they could do on their own.

Something he needed to consider.  Quickly.

The magic in the air had died down to a slight tingle, and the magically-fueled storm also began to fall apart.  The fighting continued, but that was work for others.  As much as Rory wanted to leap in and help his friends and other companions, he knew it was not wise.

Soldiers began to arrive on the ship's deck.  Palkin went to help with his people while Rory tended the wounded, using only the lightest magic to help where he could.  Even that wore him down, though.

Zorian dragged him away and off toward the front of the ship. Bow?  His mind would not sort out anything now.

"You are trying to kill yourself, aren't you?" Zorian demanded.  Jamison, Keltrina, and Andora had joined them.  Rory felt better for having them there.  "Are you listening to me?"

"Not if I can help it," Rory replied.  "Stop making those sounds.  I am doing what I can to help."

But Rory knew Zorian had been right to pull him away.  He could hardly lift his head and wisely kept his hands in his lap where no one would see them tremble.  Not that he fooled the others, only that he could lie to himself.

"What is going on out there?" Rory asked with barely a slight nod toward the world.  He could tell they were casting off, and the sounds of trouble had lessened, but he could see nothing.

"We've fought the New Order off our ships, and we're the last pulling out," General Unanik said as he neared.  He did not sit down, which meant they must be out of range.  Rory didn't stand to find out.  "The New Order's ships are badly damaged, so they're going to be walking home.  We'll arrange for them to be met along the way.  All we have to do is sail back to the capital."

Rory looked up with a sigh.  The travel was rough, and his head ached.  He didn't want more trouble.

"You sound as though you think we are going to have trouble," he said.

"We still have the Atrian fleet."

"Do we?"

"Oh yes.  You were right -- it was behind the outlying island.  Five ships, from what we can see.  The storm is still kicking up a lot of water."

"Can we get out ahead of them?"

Unanik gave an uncharacteristic shrug.  "Captain Leschan is working with Zorian, who knows these waters.  We're ignoring why and how he knows them."

"Very wise since he also works for my Queen."

"I suspected as much.  So we have two agents of the  Queen of Sundry working in our lands."

"At least two," Rory replied.  "I would expect more."

Unanik gave a little laugh.  "I suppose that's fair since we have a few in Sundry."

"We have so many in various lands that it's a wonder others haven't noticed a population drop."

"That's probably my fault," Unanik admitted.  His voice dropped.  "I sent Queen Intesia to take refuge at Queen Calladona's court.  Quietly.  We had been seeing too much activity on the borders, and I feared to leave her at her country estate with so little protection."

Rory wanted to ask indiscreet questions, but he'd been taught better.  Unanik waited for it but nodded appreciation when Rory said nothing more.  So Rory had probably passed a test for whatever good that did him.

Not much good and no help in this.   He felt something tingle in the air and stood so suddenly that he startled everyone around him.

"More magic," he warned.  He traced the path, limping until he saw the ship coming behind them.  The magic felt unsteady, which relieved Rory of some worry.  They were both on the same level of energy.  Rory just had to be a little trickier than his opponent.  He'd proven good at that back at the temple.  Even Temple Master Pyrida had trouble avoiding his elaborate traps.

He tested again and felt an odd sense of knowing this magic --

"Oh, damn."  He spun, found Zorian on the Captain's deck, and waved his arms.  "Zorian!  Turn off this path!  Now!"

"If we turn, we head for the rocks or the Atrians --"

"Atrians!" Rory shouted.  "Trust me!"

Zorian mumbled things he could not hear at this distance.  Just as well.  Zorian spoke briefly to the man who must be Captain Leschan.  That man gave orders, and they were soon turning.

Rory hoped it was soon enough.  He focused his magic back on the other ship, caught the thread of his enemy, and felt a familiar sense of dismay.

"Pyrida is the mage with New Order of Man."


Friday, September 02, 2022

Flash Fiction #526 -- The Long Wy Home/25

 

Well, the first thing that could go wrong was the weather.  Not being from somewhere close to the ocean, Rory did not expect the wind's fury.  Back at the Euriday capital, they'd had the protection of solid buildings and even a few hills.  The wind came straight off the ocean and brought half the sea.  Crests already as tall as ship decks were crashing against the ships and the sea wall.

Then the scene disappeared behind a wall of rain and more wind. Rory lifted his hands, ready to do what he could against the weather --

"No," Zorian said and caught hold of him.  "This can help us.  All we have to do is follow the path.  Move, people!  Go while we have the weather.  Have ye' never seen rain before?  Go!"

Others were spreading the word and no one arguing.

"Down off this hill before the path turns into a waterfall," Junal ordered and hurried on past with just a pat on Andora's arm.  "Get him down to the ships.  We will need him there."

Rory didn't particularly like being referred to as if he were an unwieldy piece of luggage.  On the other hand, General Junal had a point.  Besides, Zorian and Andora gave him no choice.  The two caught hold of him as if he had no legs of his own.

"Don't argue.  Let's go," Zorian said.  "Fighting behind us."

Rory had not even noticed until now, which showed how much he needed the help of the others.  He didn't argue as they swept him down the path.  Rory thought Andora must have been here before.  She anticipated twists and even moved off the trail not far from where a new stream of water rushed over it.  That narrowed by a slight ledge, and they could leap it with no trouble.

By then, they were down to the little village.  Rory saw shadowy people moving at windows, and his hands wanted to twitch and be ready for magic.  They never slowed, although both his companions were gasping by then.

"Let me walk!" Rory ordered.

"Not until the shore," Zorian replied, and Andora grunted in agreement.  "Not far.  Get away -- away from the fighting and be ready."

They wouldn't let him go, and Rory couldn't argue their reasoning, so he spent the next few minutes preparing a core of magic that could be used for trouble -- either there or on the way.

Rory thought they needed time to stop, rest, and think -- and the only way that would happen would be on one of those ships and away from everything else.  Rory set his sights on that goal and let the others worry over the trouble they could handle without him.  He was glad to see Prince Palkin with Jamison and his wife, though. He trusted Jamison and Keltrina to manage any trouble there.

They were to the docks with a flood of people behind them and the sound of battle not entirely hidden by the storm.  That they were where the Atrians wanted them was not a pleasant thought, but he had to think the Atrians had not taken him into account.

It was time to do something helpful.  When Rory pulled away from Zorian and Andora, they didn't argue this time.
If there were enemy ships out there, he knew they had to be behind the only island within sight -- even in this storm -- off the shore.  Someone with power directed that storm toward the shore.  Maybe more than one mage.  He was going to have to surprise them.

And it wasn't going to be easy.

He hadn't considered that there might be ships under shields and much closer.  His attempt to strip the magic from the nearest part of the storm and push it back on the enemy immediately showed the problem.

"Oh damn," Andora said as the first part of a ship showed itself.  "Hell."

"They aren't flying the Atrian Flag," Zorian pointed out.  "What the hell are they?"

Rory was about to complain about the two wasting time when he realized he could hear considerable shouting and movement behind him and on the ships.

There was more magic in the air, too.  Rory had to focus on it since he could not tell where or how it might strike.  The first attack was one he had somewhat anticipated.  Lightning snaked across the sky, moving with a slowness that was not natural.  He prepared as it forked into three lines, two heading for ships and the last coming after him.

Rory leapt forward, away from his two companions, and caught the bolt of power on a shield that barely held it back.  The glare blinded him, and he could only feel the power lessen.  When it dissipated, Rory was back down on his knees and blind to everything around him.

Someone grabbed him and dragged him toward the ships.  Lights flashed before his eyes, and he thought they were under attack at first.  Rory finally realized it was the return of his eyesight.  His hearing came with it, which he had not consciously noted having a problem.  All he'd heard was a roar, but now the sounds began to define themselves into various trouble spots.

Rory blinked and managed to see that Amanda was the one pulling him out of the way.  He had not expected it to be her and looked around with worry until he found Zorian and Jamison closer to the ship than him.

Euriday and Sundry soldiers had surged onto the dock to meet the New Order's troops as they made prodigious leaps from their own ships.  Magic helped them in what looked like flight -- but the power was badly used since their enemies had only to stand, draw weapons, and wait.

Andora handed him off to Zorian who threw Rory over his shoulder and rushed up to the deck.  Rory wished they could have flown.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Flash Fiction #525 -- The Long Way Home/24

 

For far too long, they all stood staring at each other and waiting for someone to answer.

Andora cursed, spun, and took off at a run. Jamison headed for the Euriday troops. Prince Palkin looked at Lt. Tanrun as though he hoped for some answer from him.

"I've told the scouts to look toward the sea and the bay whenever they reach high ground," Lt. Tanrun admitted. "They've seen nothing so far, and I can't say that I trust it."

Palkin nodded and ran his hand through his hair. "Kerric would have thought of it, but I am the true son of a land-locked country. I didn't consider an enemy fleet. You did well, Tanrun."

"Thank you, Prince Palkin," the man said and even smiled. Then he looked past them and sighed. "I think our rest is over."

The Euriday and Sciwhen troops were already starting to gather up their things. The Sundry did the same without being ordered. Andora was the one who came to them with the news.

"Unanik and Junal had thought it would be best to rest before we head into town in the morning. They changed their minds in light of your wise question, Tanrun. There is no reason the Atrian fleet should be anywhere near here. Therefore, it most likely is hiding close by, probably behind the islands a few miles offshore."

"It's that kind of wisdom --" Zorian began.

"Paranoia," Andora corrected.

"-- that is going to keep us alive," Zorian finished. "And I fully believe in the wisdom of paranoia. I am sorry Temple Master Pyrida took himself off in such a hurry --"

"But he didn't take me along," Rory added with a sudden feeling of shock. "And I find that odd. Pyrida doesn't believe we should make direct interference in the problems of countries. I think he must have realized this has gone far beyond Temple politics and petty problems."

"Meaning we are in serious trouble," Andora interpreted.

"That would be my guess," Rory admitted. He shook his head. "Honestly, I don't know if my mind is processing anything properly. I might be more paranoid than I need --"

Andora shoved him to the ground. People began shouting, and he heard weapons drawn. Andora didn't try to hold him down. By then, he had listened to a few arrows pass far too close. The two of them crawled quickly to cover.

"Atrians?" he asked. "Or has some army from half a world away decided to join us? Maybe Tassanians? Avanti? Maybe some troops from Jainta? And thank you, by the way."

"Atrians," she said. "At least as far as I can tell. I think they're trying to drive us back from the bay --"

"Which means they're not ready," Rory finished. "So we have to go now."

Andora agreed with a grim nod. She looked all around as though looking for a safe path out. Rory had a different idea, though.

"I'm getting behind the archers," Rory said as he settled on his heels, looking around and preparing to sprint.

"I don't think --"

"Magic," Rory reminded her. "Warn the others."

"Don't try to kill any of them," she hissed in a warning. "I don't think your friends could get you away fast enough this time!"

Rory nodded in agreement. Even too many minor wounds would tell on him. However, broken bow strings didn't hurt. He put his knife in hand -- and moved.

He barely heard Andora hiss in surprise as he used his power to move so fast he wasn't seen as more than a flicker to shadow. Rory saw her move away toward their people to warn them that he was not where they thought.

He thought he heard Zorian curse.

By then, he passed through the brush and made more noise than he liked. Several of the Atrians looked his way with worry, but by then, he was in a slightly cleared area where they stood.

They were ready to fire. That made it even easier for Rory. He sped across the front of the line, cutting ten bow strings in one quick movement. Then he moved out of the area and dropped, winded, into a slight depression.

His heart labored, and he couldn't hear much at first except for a dull roar -- But that turned out to be the yells of the frightened Atrians. They were moving away in haste, but he didn't think they would go far. Unanik and Junal were already taking advantage of the moment of panic and their own soldiers were on the move.

Rory got out of the way and stumbled back behind the lines. Someone was going to be carrying him again soon.

Andora had been waiting and snagged his arm. "Well done," she said and dragged him along. Rory's feet were having trouble finding the right pace again. "Most of us are heading straight down, through the village, and onto the ships. Some have gone ahead to give the signal so they can prepare for us, but with as much stealth as possible. Can you make it?"

"I will," Rory said, but he hoped Zorian was close in case he didn't go very far. The dark night seemed darker sometimes, but Andora never let go of him.

They did rest with some of the others. Rory knew Jamison and Keltrina were close by. Maybe Zorian as well, though he didn't hear his older friend. He hoped nothing had happened to the Admiral ... but he didn't look around or ask. Not right now.

The village was well-lit but didn't look busy. Troops were moving through with no apparent trouble. The town stretched out near the small harbor where three ships were ready for them, and two more holding off and prepared to move in, oarsmen already in place.

The sight revived Rory. The village was long but narrow where they would go through and a straight path to the ships.

What could go wrong?