Vermillion, page 1
By Greg Wilburn
Copyright 2015 Greg Wilburn
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“Shh! You’ll wake the night!” Ghandel hissed at Juniel in a whisper. Juniel, only a lesser Limphel, made shushed apologies to her superior as she treaded softly among the leaves. Ghandel led the way through the darkened forest, feeling surer with each step that they were nearing the camp at Kindel’s Grove, where Commander Hanlem had stationed the 47th battalion.
Juniel huffed aloud as they reached the Tistern River, failing to keep the small deer she held steady on her back. “Not so loud!” commanded Ghandel as his eyes searched the night for enemies. After a few moments of holding their breath, Ghandel shifted the giant stag he’d killed to his left shoulder and said, “Okay. Let’s go.”
Juniel didn’t register the signal to move at first; she’d lost herself in the cold, black eyes of the white stag, which glared at her with the milky film that had spread over the pupils. A small pocket of vomit reached her throat, but she forced it down quickly as Ghandel told her to move for a second time.
They waded into the cold water slowly, causing nothing but a few ripples in the slow-moving river. She watched the stag’s gaping mouth glide across the surface of the water, its tongue dragging along the top of it. Guilt sank down into her stomach as she thought about how thirsty the stag must have been to still be trying to drink even after death.
She came to as Ghandel gently lifted her out of the river as if she was a feather. She looked around carefully, her hand on her dagger. Ghandel shifted the glorious stag to the center of his back and slowly unsheathed his sword, the Davenir. Juniel remembered how many battles were hidden within the blade, testifying to Ghandel’s strength and skill as a second class Limphel in the ranks of the armed guards.
Ghandel made a gesture to move forward. Juniel moved her kill between her shoulder blades and slowly followed her leader into the black forest. Insects chirped excitedly as they crept through, a night symphony soothing to Juniel’s ears. Hours passed under the high moon that let slim beams seep through the dense roof above them. Juniel heard Ghandel sigh with relief as they reached the edge of the forest and saw a clearing with tall grass swaying in the moonlight.
The way the moonbeams glistened atop the dew on the grass made each drop appear as a tiny star, creating warm hope within Juniel. Without thinking, she walked away from the security of the shadows at the edge of the forest and took in the cool air in one large breath. She lost herself in thinking of Daleli, the one who’d taken her to that spot on one of their excursions through the forest. They spent the whole night together laughing and talking underneath the stars. Juniel became lost in the thought of her betrothed that she didn’t hear Ghandel’s warning to stay hidden. His words fell on deaf ears as she sucked in the night for a second time.
The sharp pain that ripped through her chest forced Juniel to look down. She saw the steel laced arrow quivering in the center of her chest, scorning her for her vulnerability and small frame. Time slowed and her vision blurred as she watched the crimson pool spread and soak into her green garments, turning them a slick black. Her airways collapsed and blood filled her lungs and mouth. She could do nothing but cough blood and shiver as the cold waves of death washed over her.
In her last moments, she wasn’t prepared for the second and third and fourth and fifth arrows that entered her body, hastening her death and sending painful spasms of agony shooting throughout it. Juniel looked into the star-shimmered sky and begged the merciful goddess Alael to watch over her fiancée Daleli as she slumped to the ground and returned to the earth goddess Gaelia.
Ghandel let soft tears slide down his cheeks as he watched from within the shadows of the forest. He wanted to rush out and face the enemy that had stolen a dear comrade away, but a small fear wormed into his heart, rendering him immobile. Although he was a seasoned warrior that could best most others, he let something stop him. And in those crucial moments of preserving Juniel’s honor, Ghandel excused himself by saying that it was her own stupidity that had killed her.
But the truth was still within Ghandel, infecting his heart and forcing him to relive visions of the past. He flashed back six years, returning to the time when Mentilm had destroyed his home in the city of Bodrane and wiped it off the map. He’d failed then too.
He remembered how he watched his wife, Isella, and his two children, Bosren and Tiflen, killed before his eyes. They were viciously torn to shreds by three large Mentilm as he helplessly watched from afar. He was a farmer then, and had no skill in battle. He held the woodcutting axe in his hands, but his shaking body prevented him from moving.
Eternities passed before him as he watched the slow death that destroyed his family. He himself would be dead too if it hadn’t been for the warrior Irtran, who saved his life. From then on, Ghandel committed himself to becoming a great warrior to avenge his family and redeem his cowardice.
It was the fact that Juniel resembled Isella so closely that made him take her under his wing after he became one of the greatest warriors in the armed guards. She even laughed like her. He’d loved her, but the only thing that kept him from taking her as his own was that she was bonded to the hafbreed, Daleli. Even so, it was enough for him to have her by his side and train her.
But what had drawn Ghandel to Juniel was the very thing that prevented him from avenging her death. The horrible visions of death from the past stunned him and returned Ghandel to the pathetic mass he’d once been when Isella was taken from him. He was helpless again, a useless onlooker to the second death of his Isella.
The hunting party, a group of three Mentilm, rose from the swaying grass and neared their kill. Ghandel cursed Juniel for her stupidity and the Mentilm for their savagery, which would never be forgiven. The three males took hold of Juniel’s body, laying it next to the deer she’d caught, and began the slow process of dismemberment. Ghandel stayed hidden for a few minutes and left when the snapping of her bones was no longer bearable.
When Ghandel finally reached camp at the dawn of the new morn, he found Rawren, the company’s best archer, waiting for him underneath the shadow of a Syclan tree. “What happened, Ghandel? Where’s Juniel?” he asked in concern as Ghandel waved him off in his numb state, heading straight for Commander Hanlem’s tent. Rawren followed a few steps behind, nervous to hear the report from Ghandel when he would give it to the commander.
The small company, seventy-nine strong after the death of Juniel, held twenty-nine tents in the midst of the encampment. The tent in the center was where the commander and his major general took refuge. Ghandel neared a plain green tent that looked the same as the others in the sea of green and entered slowly. Commander Hanlem and Major General Pralm were standing near a desk, discussing the next mission they would carry out.
Both males turned to face the sorrowful Ghandel as he reached the middle of the spacious tent. Ghandel cut the rope on his back and let the rare stag drop to the floor. Then he made courteous bows to his superiors and kneeled before them. Hanlem and Pralm bowed in response, but when Hanlem told Ghandel to rise, the large Limphel remained kneeling.
As “Rise, Ghandel” came out of Hanlem’s mouth a second time, Ghandel started to tremble with shame. Soft tears hit the royal emblems sewn into the soft rug below, turning the brilliant gold a putrid yellow color, almost like pus bubbling from a rotten wound. “What’s the matter, Ghandel?” asked Pralm in an un
“Ghandel, what’s wrong? I’ve never seen you this way,” Hanlem inquired in a sympathetic tone as he helped the male rise to his feet. Ghandel stood tall, a few inches taller than his commander, but couldn’t find words to say. Hanlem asked Ghandel what had broken his iron will so easily, to which Rawren stepped from within the shadows of the doorway and responded on his behalf. “Juniel’s missing. I fear that something has happened to her.”
Hanlem and Pralm’s eyes grew wide and searched Ghandel’s wet face. “Ghandel, you must tell us what happened.” Pralm said in a harsh tone as he stepped near. Hanlem agreed in a softer, hushed tone that brought calm to Ghandel’s sorrow and finally allowed him to speak. Then Ghandel spoke heavily, providing a detailed account of the scouting mission he’d carried out with Juniel and her unfortunate death at the hands
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