Chapter 16: Fearful AnticipationChapter 16: Fearful Anticipation Jonas was young, only twenty, yet he had been in the army since he was in his late teens. His father had been a general, and Jonas had grown up learning from him about battles and weapons. Now he was in charge of the group that was searching for the gryphons, marching from Dalentia to the caves near the border of Stargonia and Olandern. Jonas’s angular, clean shaven face often held a serious expression, his blue eyes calm and alert, and his mouth set in a straight line. His nose, which had been broken when he was a boy, had never healed properly and was crooked. His black hair hung to just below his jaw, and he kept it tied back and out of the way. At first glance, one would have thought him stern and harsh, but he was kind, and although sober, he knew when to be lighthearted and jovial. His men willingly followed him; they knew he was wise and trusted by the rebellion. He pointed west with his sword and beckoned to his men. “This is the way we go. There are caves on the cliffs, perfect hideaways for gryphons.” Jonas sheathed his sword and pointed to two of his men, who were fast and light runners, as well as trackers. “Boaz, Tristan- run on ahead and look for caves. You know what signs to look for try to be back by nightfall, we will not make camp until dark. I want to get as far as possible today.” Boaz and Tristan, barefoot and dressed only in tunics belted at the waist, set off running, the wind tousling their hair. The two runners had worked together since they were very young, traveling together, looking out for each other, and each ready to die for his friend. As young boys, they had gone through school and training at the same time, finally both joining the army and now helping search for the gryphons. Jonas continued the march, and his men followed him. They moved as quickly as possible through the day, stopping only to eat at midday. As darkness fell, Jonas gave the order to make camp, and by the time they had eaten dinner and all their tents and mats were ready, Boaz and Tristan were back. They were exhausted, and while two men attended to them, bringing them food and water, they told Jonas of their finds. Tristan spoke first. “We saw the caves in the distance. They’re a long ways away, but we should be able to reach them before three days are out. Of course, we didn’t go into the caves, we didn’t want to risk anything, and we had to turn back because the sun was starting to set.” He stopped, as if not wanting to say something. “But the ground was bloodstained. Three mounds were there, built by men. Ciaran was there before us.” He hesitated. “We can find out more tomorrow.” Boaz stood and looked at the camp and the men gathered around him, Tristan, and Jonas. “They may do the same to us.” “However they may be on the same side as us. When we reach the caves, nobody will touch their weapon unless a gryphon makes the first move. Do I make myself clear?” Jonas’s eyes were earnest, and they held the attention of all his men. Nods and words of agreement rippled through the army. “Good. Now get some sleep. We have no time to lose.” Riona knocked one final time, and then took a step back, moving a bit closer to Eunan. A small window in the door opened, and a pair of eyes appeared. Riona heard the nun gasp and wondered why. “I I’m sorry” the nun stuttered, “it’s just last year, we had a young man stay the night here and you look almost exactly like him.” Riona was curious to find out more, but she would wait until later. “I don’t know who it would’ve been I don’t have a brother.” The nun seemed to snap out of her thoughts. “Come in, though. I’m sorry about all that.” Riona stepped inside, followed by Eunan close behind her. “How may we help you?” The nun asked, being quickly joined by many more. “We’ve come for protection from Ciaran, or well, she has.” Eunan replied. “I’ve lived with her family for quite a few years now, and her parents wanted her to come here for safety.” “Protection we can offer, at least for some time. There’s no telling how long it will be until Ciaran comes even here. And you, young man, you may stay the night her if you wish.” “Thank you, ma’am. But I’m afraid I need to be on my way as soon as Riona is settled in.” “I understand. If you come with me, I can show you to one of the spare rooms. I believe we have an empty one you can use.” Riona followed the nun up three flights of stairs. If it hadn’t been for Eunan walking only a step or two behind her, she would have been scared – really, really scared. At the top of the third flight, the nun turned to the left down a small corridor, at the end of which was a door leading to the spare room. Unlocking the door, the nun opened it and silently returned to her duties. Eunan stepped inside and set Riona’s bags down in a corner. Riona closed the door and sat down on the bed, her lower lip beginning to tremble. Eunan sat down beside her. “Riona, things will get better. And soon.” Eunan sighed, looking at Riona carefully. “I liked the old Riona better – the lively one, the Riona with a spring in her step. You used to be the first to laugh; the first for fun, the first to start playing a game. I miss that. When I come back, I want to see that in you again... please try, Riona.” “I’ll try... It’s just... it’s so hard...” A tear ran down her cheek and she buried her face on Eunan’s shoulder. “I don’t want to say goodbye.” She was beginning to hyperventilate; her words came out unevenly, and her breath came in sharp, deep breaths. Eunan held her close, stroking her hair. He kissed the top of her head, trying to calm her down. “I don’t want to, either. But it won’t be that long. Things will start moving quickly as soon as we’re able to gather an army.” Eunan stood quickly, steadying Riona as he did. Riona wiped away her tears, and then got to her feet. Eunan swept her up in a huge brotherly hug, then left, leaving Riona alone. “She’s here, yes.” The nun who had welcomed Riona told the Abbess. “ We knew she’d be coming.” The Abbess. replied simply. “But so soon...” “Ciaran is playing his pieces faster than we expected. We will have to send out the pigeons.” “The messenger pigeons?” “Yes, with a message of speed and haste. We have no time to lose.” “Yes, mother.” The nun left the room, hurrying up to the tower room in which the pigeons were kept. She tied a message to each pigeon’s foot, sending them out to their designated cities – the pigeons had been trained a few years before to fly to certain cities when released, so in times like these they could be used and be trusted to fly to the correct destination. Riona watched as the pigeons flew off, leaving from the same place and then dispersing, like grains of wheat on the wind. She brushed a last tear off her face, and prayed for Eunan. He would be on his way to Faerloe by now, but it would be a long journey, as he was on foot. Poor Eunan – it would be lonely for him, he always loved to have some sort of company with him. He would have the mountain animals, but they weren’t much help when one wanted to talk. Yet she knew he would not be alone. Riona was glad that Eunan had the Creator as his best friend. This friendship had only come shortly after Matthias had left the first time, when Eunan began to understand hope. The change had been so immense and so sudden. The old Eunan had been left behind him an instant.. Deep inside, Riona knew that Eunan would not be alone on this journey, and this thought comforted her. Although she held this comfort, she was worried that Eunan would be captured or killed, and that would hurt her deeply. She longed for the day when Olandern would be saved and they would be reunited. Riona prayed that this day would come soon as she stood at the window. She imagined Eunan out there watching, and waved. In her mind, she pictured Eunan turning, smiling, and waving back to her. The image brought tears to her eyes, but she was thankful that Eunan’s face was deeply imprinted in her mind so she would never forget him, no matter what happened. As Eunan went down the mountainside, he turned and looked back at the convent one last time. He said a silent prayer for Riona, praying for courage, peace, and hope for her. He knew she would stay strong on her own, especially with the Creator at her side, but she would lonely, and would probably spend most of her time alone outside, as the weather permitted. Already it was getting cold up there, the snow didn’t usually fall until January or February, but in December the wind became strong and things sometimes froze. Eunan shouldered his pack and turned away, setting off toward Faerloe. Two days later, Jonas woke his men early, knowing they were within a day’s distance of the gryphons. Breakfast was quick, and then they were marching again. Jonas expected to be at the caves by nightfall, hopefully before then. Boaz and Tristan were with Jonas at the front of the army, discussing what to do when they reached the caves. “How should we go about it?” Jonas asked. “That’s what we’ve still got to figure out.” Boaz replied. After thinking for a minute, Jonas spoke up. “I’ll go into the caves myself. We can go from there later.” Boaz and Tristan nodded, then moved back with the troops. The sun had set by the time they reached the plains, and the men were struggling to keep warm. Once fires had been made and blankets pulled out, they laughed, sang, and joked as they ate. Jonas sat a ways away from everyone, half smiling as he watched them. He was glad they were in good spirits, but something weighed heavily on his mind. What if the gryphons were not in the caves? What then? Many would count the rebel cause lost. The caves were their last hope, the rest of the country had already been searched many times, all with no sign of the gryphons. His mind whirling with unanswered questions, Jonas bent his head and began to pray. The cave was dark.. Jonas entered cautiously, a lighted torch held high above his head. In the dim light it gave off, he could only see shadows. There were walls on both sides of him, so he moved forward. An open space lay before him, enclosed on all sides except the one he was on. It was empty. “Hello?” Hello, hello… the cave walls echoed. “Hello?” There was no answer except his echo. He slumped against a wall, dropping his torch and putting his head in his hands. “I thought for sure they’d be here...” Something moved behind him, making a loud noise... Jonas woke with a start, shaking his hair out of his eyes. Looking around, he noticed everyone had gone to bed. Getting to his feet, he walked around the camp. There were not many men, only twenty or so, yet every man counted. Jonas knew that before freedom was won, many would die fighting. He wished fighting wasn’t necessary to overthrow Ciaran, there was probably a better way to take care of everything, but no one wanted to try to figure out how. Still walking Jonas silently named each of his men as he passed by them. He stopped by the youngest of them all, Brodi, a lad who was not yet seventeen, but like so many others, an orphan who had escaped into Stargonia from Olandern. Brodi, his curly brown hair tangled and falling into his eyes, lay on his back, eyes open and staring up at the stars. Jonas knelt by the boy’s side. “Hey.” Brodi said. “Are you doing alright?” “Yes. Just worried, I s’pose.” Jonas nodded. “I’m worried about what tomorrow might bring. If the gryphons are there, who knows what they might do. And if they’re not... we’re doomed. I keep thinking, though. I’ve wanted to see a gryphon my whole life.” Brodi turned onto his side and looked Jonas in the eye. “They’re such beautiful, majestic creatures. Even if I glimpse one as I lie dying, it’d still be worth it.” Jonas ruffled Brodi’s hair. “I like you, Brodi.” Both smiled. “Tell me if you get cold, I think there’s some space left by one of the fires. I’m glad it doesn’t snow much by the coast. Get some sleep, now.” “You too. ‘Night.” Jonas walked off, re wrapping his blanket and covering his head from the cold night air. He added more wood to the fire, then settled down to get some more sleep. Before the rest of the camp was awake in the morning, Jonas buckled on his sword and put his cloak on. He lit a lantern, and then began to walk toward the cave. He tried not to think about the dream – which was really more of a nightmare – from the night before, but it slipped into his thoughts time and time again. As he entered the first cave, he thought of Brodi, and wished he had invited the boy to come along. It was a bit risky, but what was it Brodi had said? “Even if I get killed glimpsing a gryphon, it’d still be worth it.” It wasn’t exactly as comforting as the way Brodi said it. Jonas stopped and looked around him. He had entered a large cavern, with stalagmites and stalactites protruding from various places. The lantern didn’t give off much light, but as he went deeper in, someone darted behind what looked like a gryphon. A few shadowy figures started toward him. “Wait,” A voice said quietly. It was a girl’s voice, and she stepped out from behind a gryphon. She was slender, not quite tall, but not short either, and although her knee length black hair was free and unbound, she was still very refined. At first glance, her face looked perfect, unblemished. When Jonas looked a little closer, however, he could see a thin scar running from the tip of her chin across her mouth and up to just below her left eye, which, unlike her right, was green. Her right eye was brown. From looking at her, Jonas guessed she was no older than eighteen. “Whose side are you on?” “I am a rebel.” The gryphons backed off. “What do you want here?” “We want the help of the gryphons.” “To fight Ciaran?” “Aye.” The girl turned to face the gryphons. Speaking in a strange tongue, she began to confer with them. Her name was Calaeda, and she, like Eunan and Brodi, was an orphan. The gryphons had found her when she was ten, and for the past eight years, she had lived with the gryphons. She had brought them joy, and in return, they took care of her, bringing her whatever she might need. Calaeda hated Ciaran and his men, they had killed her parents, made her run into hiding the caves where the gryphons had found her and they had given her the scar she now bore with hatred. While living with the gryphons she had almost forgotten about Ciaran’s men and the rebellion, but each night as she sang herself to sleep, her long fingers traced the scar. Turning back to Jonas, she took a ribbon out of her pocked and began tying up her hair, preparing to leave. “We’ll help, just tell us when and we’ll be there.” Jonas nodded. “Now that we know where to find you, it shouldn’t be too long. We’ll send a messenger when everything is ready. We didn’t think the gryphons were here.” Jonas nodded to Calaeda, then went out of the caves. Jonas returned to his men with a light heart, grateful they had found the gryphons. “Good news! The gryphons are in the caves.” A few men started forward, and Jonas held up his hand. “But let’s not disturb them they have said they will help us, and we’ll hold them to their word. Messengers will be sent here when it’s time.” The journey to Faerloe took three days in the tunnels, with Eunan jogging most of the way, and stopping to rest every now and then. He reached Faerloe late in the afternoon, and hurriedly made his way to the stables, knowing he had no time to lose. The stables in Faerloe were large, and yet they were clean and very well organized. When Eunan reached them, he pushed the huge double doors open. The musty smell of hay and horses filled his nostrils. Rows of stalls were on his left and right, all filled with horses. Eunan walked down the isle, looking into each stall to look at each horse. He stopped in front of one that contained a horse that was a beautiful black. Strangely, his coat had an orange ish tint to it, and it almost looked dappled in the dark light. “Hey, you’re a beautiful horse, aren’t ya, fella?” Eunan whispered, stroking the horse. “That’s Oadied,” A voice from behind Eunan said. “Oadied means durable in the Ancient tongue.” Eunan stopped petting the horse. “I am Micah, and you would be?” Eunan turned around to see a man about Der’s age, his hair a dark blonde, with a neatly trimmed beard. “I’m Eunan,” Eunan replied, shaking Micah’s hand. “Matthias sent word that you’d be coming.” “So you’re –” “Yes, I am against Ciaran.” Something troubled Eunan. How had Matthias sent word so quickly? It had only been a few days before that Eunan had agreed to go on this mission – type thing. “How did Matthias send word?” Eunan asked. Micah whistled. Almost immediately, a grey wolf came lumbering in. “Greetings, Eunan,” It said, its voice low and raspy, but calming at the same time. Almost immediately, Eunan knew this wolf was on his side. “I am Star Rider,” the wolf continued. “The majority of the wolves are rebels, however, there are some who have turned to Ciaran, mostly the black wolves, but there are traitors among us.” “I am glad of your support,” Eunan answered. “Our troops will grow quickly once I have a horse. That’s why I’m here.” He turned to Micah. “I’m afraid I can’t just give you a horse,” Micah bit his lip. “Trust me, I’d love to – but I’m running a business here, and although I try to serve Stargonia in whatever way I can, this could amount to too much.” Eunan nodded. “The leaders of the rebels will meet tonight. You can speak there, and maybe they’ll donate to you. I myself will pay half the price.” “When exactly is this, and where?” “Behind the town square, there’s a run down barn that no one ever uses. The rebels meet there every week after dark.” That evening, Eunan made his way through the square, Star Rider at his side. Underneath his cloak, his hand rested on Paleidan, ready to pull it out at a moment’s notice. He shivered in the cold December wind as he looked up at the cloudy sky, from which sleet had just begun to fall. Pulling his hood up, Eunan began to run, and Star Rider was fast behind him. When they reached the door of the barn, Eunan pushed it open and stopped inside. Star Rider entered behind Eunan, already speaking to the number of men gathered there. The door slammed shut behind them. “This is Eunan,” Star Rider explained to the gathering, who had abruptly stopped their conversation when the odd pair entered. “He is sent by Matthias, and is to be trusted. Some might call him an apprentice, but he is here to recruit troops. War is upon us – we’ve taken a while to see it coming, but Ciaran is preparing to fight Stargonia.” As Star Rider finished speaking, the door burst open, and a boy, not much younger than Eunan, spoke, half panting. “The nuns have sent out the pigeons. We must move with all haste.” The boy’s face was flushed and red, and his freckles were faint. His bright red hair was covered in a cap, pulled down almost to his starry black eyes. “Sit down, Jeddediah,” an elderly man, most likely the head of the Faerloese rebels, commanded. “Yes, Malcolm.” Jeddediah nodded at Eunan, took his cap off, and sat on the floor. Malcolm turned his attention to Eunan. “This young man here is going to help us with the speed and haste. Go ahead, Eunan.” Eunan pushed back the hood of his cloak. “Matthias sent me to travel around Olandern and gather together an army to fight Ciaran. We already have two hundred or more men waiting in Jarel. We’re waiting for the right time. Now it’s almost time for the gryphons to take wing. But to defeat Ciaran, we will need more than two hundred. Who in Faerloe is willing to fight for freedom?” The men in the room seemed to come alive, looking at each other and then getting to their feet. “We will ” One of them stated. “And we will rally the rest of Faerloe.” “Thank you,” Eunan said, “Thank you.” “Eunan has one problem, though,” Star Rider began. “He has need of a horse. Micah will provide one, but Eunan will need to pay at least half of the price for a horse.” Eunan looked around the room hopefully. Would anyone offer to help? Then Malcolm stood, and taking Eunan’s hand, placed fifty londqa in his hand. The other men in the room followed Malcolm’s example until Eunan had enough money for the horse. Finally, Jeddediah stood. “I’ve got no money to give up, Eunan. But I do have this.” Jeddediah unsheathed a small dagger. Kneeling down, he offered it to Eunan. “I want to help you, to travel with you. I have a horse, I know how to fight. All I need is Malcolm’s permission.” Jed turned to look at Malcolm, his eyes pleading. Eunan looked from Jed to Malcolm. He placed a hand on Jed’s shoulder. “I will accept your help if Malcolm allows it. But please, stand.” Jed stood, and Malcolm looked at both boys. He was quiet for a minute, thinking. His eyes were filled with wisdom, and as he stroked his beard, they darted around the room. “Yes, Jed. You have my permission to go with Eunan.” “I leave tomorrow at first light.” Jed thanked Malcolm, then turned to Eunan, who was speaking to the rebels. “Thank you for your support. I will see to it that you are not forgotten when this is over.” Eunan left the meeting and walked over towards the stables. Micah was about to close up for the night, but he let Eunan in. “I was hoping you’d come before I left,” Micah said, opening the door to Oadied’s stall and grabbing his halter to lead him out. “I think Oadied is the best horse for you, my boy. Go ahead and try him out.” Eunan swung up on Oadied, grateful there was no saddle – back in Jarel, he’d always ridden Eldrian bareback. Nudging Oadied forward, Eunan rode him up and down the stable, coming to a stop near Micah. “He’s wonderful,” Eunan dug in his pouch, pulling out the money he had been given. “Here you are, half of the money.” “Thank you, Eunan.” Eunan slid off Oadied. “I’ll come for him in the morning, if that’s alright.” “Of course.” Chapter 17: A Plan Black as night, Unalid ran through the darkness. I must get to Ciaran, the wolf thought. He must know this information. The ‘apprentice’ is here. He’s going to the major cities... it’s time to capture him. Earlier that evening, other black wolves had helped relay the information to Unalid. He knew Ciaran would be pleased with their news. Early in the morning, Unalid found Ciaran in his usual tower, talking and planning with Donal. After giving his report, Unalid sat back and waited for Ciaran’s response. “Let him have his fun,” Ciaran said. “We will catch him when the time is proper, don’t worry. I’ll send a hawk to follow him.” He turned to look out of the window. “But, highness, couldn’t it be too late by then?” Whirling on the wolf, Ciaran threw him against the wall and laughed as he whimpered, sliding down the wall to the floor. “You will do as I say.” Unalid scrambled up and bowed, leaving the room, and growling at Donal as he left. “Breacon!” Breacon looked up. He was standing in the courtyard of the castle, sparring with one of his scouts. Peter leaned over the edge of a balcony. He was grinning. “Aye?” “Come quickly!” “I’ll be right there,” Breacon told Peter, then, sheathing his sword, turned to his opponent. “Sorry. I’ll come find you when I’m free again.” The other young man shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. You were about to kill me anyway.” Breacon shrugged, and then ran up to the king’s throne room. He pushed the door open and burst inside. “What is it?” “Fresh troops!” The King said. “Hurrah!” Breacon shouted. For a few minutes they stood rejoicing. “But what do we do now?” Breacon asked. “Regain Anat.” The King suggested. “We’ve tried too many times, it would just exhaust our troops. We need to train before we do anything. Ciaran’s men are strong physically, but they would be easily swayed from following him. We need to plan ways to outsmart them, convince them to join our side, and conquer them physically as well.” Peter explained. “Tomorrow I’ll gather all of my generals together, and we’ll see what we can come up with.” We’re finally moving! Breacon thought. “How long do you think it will be before Ciaran attacks again?” “I don’t know. Our friends in Olandern say that he’s preparing for all-out war. We must, too. Though when the blows will begin to fall, I can’t say. The rebels are trying to gather an army of their own.” “Should we try to cut off the head?” Breacon asked. “Attack Llyanta when the rebels do, and crush Ciaran, then work out to the cities he’s captured?” “Ultimately. But first we must get into better contact with our friends in Llyanta, otherwise all of the news we receive will be weeks late by the time it arrives here.” “Aye. If they’ve found the gryphons, they would be of great help. But we cannot count on what we do not know. The way we have it set up now is the fastest way possible.” “But our men still stop for the night.” Breacon reminded. “Have them riding all of the time, and it will cut the time it takes almost in half. Station men at different inns, and have some of them sleep during the day, so that when the messenger rides in, the man can immediately get a fresh horse and ride on.” Peter nodded. “It may be the only way to get news faster. We cannot trust the pigeons, if one were shot down by the wrong person – even if it were for food – news could get into Ciaran’s hands. The wolves here are no longer talking beasts like the ones in Olandern… what do you think, your majesty?” The king nodded. “It is the only way.” “Then let us decide which men are to go…” Eunan did not sleep well that night. He was worried, and although he now had a horse, many things still weighed on his mind. For one, Ciaran had spies everywhere. If word got to Ciaran about what he was doing, and where he was, he was as good as dead. When a glimmer of sunlight appeared on the horizon, Eunan was at the stables, waiting for Micah. He had only to wait a few minutes before Micah arrived and unlocked the stable door. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long,” Micah said, letting Eunan inside. “No, not long at all, thank you. You came sooner than I expected, actually.” Eunan walked over to Oadied’s tall and opened the door. “I’ve much to thank you for, Micah, and would love to stay in Faerloe longer, but I can’t spare the time.” “Farewell, Eunan. Godspeed!” Eunan nodded to Micah as he swung up on Oadied, then rode out of the stables and to the town square, where Jeddediah was waiting on a horse, Star Rider at his side. Jed waved as Eunan approached them. “Mornin’, Eunan!” “Good morning, Jed, Star Rider.” “I’m coming with you two rascals,” Star Rider began, “you’ll need someone to look after you. And if you get into any trouble, I’ll be able to get a message back here.” “Thank you very much, Star Rider. Now, I think we have some mountains to cross!” “Going over the mountains themselves will take days on horseback, lad. No, it’s around, through the foothills we go. Follow me.” Star Rider set off running, and the boys wheeled their horses around and followed the wolf. By the time they stopped for the night, they had reached the smaller hills and were about to enter a set of larger ones. Jed made a campfire while Eunan tethered the horses, and Star Rider rested, as he would be taking the first watch that night. After a small meal of bread and cheese, Eunan picked up a long stick from the edge of the campfire. “Shall we spar?” He asked Jed. In reply, Jed took another stick in hand and smiled. “May the best man win.” Eunan nodded and began circling Jed. Jed made the first move, attempting an attack. Eunan blocked, then attacked. Jed ducked out of the way. Suddenly there was a gleam in his eye and he began to move forward, forcing Eunan back. Eunan tried to make Jed retreat, but Jed only pushed harder. Finally, Eunan backed into a tree, and the surprise at the impact knocked the stick out of his hand. Jed’s stick was at Eunan’s throat immediately. Thinking quickly, Eunan used the curve of the tree to move out of the way, then somersaulted to avoid Jed’s stick, which was swooping down on him. Eunan saw his stick near the fire and reached out to grab it, then rolled over to block Jed’s sword. “You’re good, ” Eunan said, attempting to get back on his feet. Jed moved quickly, lightly pressing the toe of his boot onto the wrist of Eunan’s sword arm. “Alright, I surrender ” Eunan shouted, half laughing. Jed released Eunan’s wrist, and Eunan got to his feet. “Where did you learn to sword fight?” Eunan asked. “I studied with Malcolm. Training was tedious and I rather hated it, but now it’s paid off. How about you?” “Well, I’ve had one training session with Matthias. That’s it, I’m afraid.” “You must learn quickly, then, I thought you’d trained for at least a few months.” “Obviously I still have a lot to learn, though.” “I’m willing to teach you all I know.” “That would be wonderful, Jed. Now, let’s get something to eat. My stomach tells me it’s well past dinner time.” At midnight, Star Rider woke Jed. “It’s time for your watch.” Jed stretched and sat up, yawning. “When do we need to leave by?” “We should be on the move shortly after dawn. I want to be over the mountains by tomorrow. Wake us at first light, we’ll eat quickly and leave.” Jed’s watch was uneventful, and they were ready to leave sooner than Star Rider had hoped. The young men mounted up and they started off at a fast walk. Sometime during the day, a hawk screeched overhead. Eunan, alarmed, looked to the sky. Star Rider broke into a run, dashing for the cover of a near by clump of trees. The hawk turned and flew away, leaving a foreboding feeling with the messengers. Eunan and Jed looked at Star Rider. “Ciaran uses hawks as his spies. I fear we may have been seen.” Star Rider said. “Is there anything we can do?” Jed asked, quite concerned at the tone of Star Rider’s voice. “We could change course, but I don’t think that’s the best idea right now. Everyone will have some sort of price to pay before freedom is won. This is a risk we have to take. Let’s keep moving.” Nodding, Eunan nudged Oadied on, praying for safety and speed, and that the Lord would help them with their mission. Jed kept his eyes ahead of him, but every now and then he would stop and look to the sky. Star Rider led them, turning here, going through some trees there, stopping for a breather every now and then. The following day they rode unhindered. The hawk was not sighted again, and the horses were well rested. Star Rider was pleased with their progress, and they laughed and joked as they rode. Eunan and Jed continued to spar around the campfire, and the swordplay of both young men improved. Eunan felt surer of himself each evening, and a few times he caught Jed off guard and was able to win a match. Matthias hopped out of the boat and pushed it onto shore. No one was anywhere in sight, but there were signs of life on the island. “Hello?” He shouted. “Is anyone there?” That was pointless, but what else can I do? Something in the bushes moved, and Matthias put his hand on his sword. Then the bushes parted, and a young man’s face could be seen. Matthias relaxed, letting his hand fall down at his side. They stood still for a minute or two, neither moving, both watching the other intently. Matthias broke the silence. “I think you’re the one I’m looking for.” One look had told him who the young man was, he was almost an exact image of his father. “Maybe, maybe not.” “I am Matthias, and I’m here on behalf of the rebels.” “I came here partly to get away from the rebels.” “They need you, Nathan.” Nathan stepped out of the bushes. “Why do you need me? Can’t someone else take my place?” “Someone else could lead them, but that would end in chaos in the end, there would be no king.” Matthias moved closer. “They will follow and fight more willingly with you at their head.” “I know.” Nathan scratched at his small beard. “How long do I have to decide?” “It’s early January. One of my men, Eunan, is back in Olandern gathering troops. By the time we’re ready, it’ll be mid to late February.” Nathan sighed. Must he really make this choice? And why did id have to be such a short amount of time he had to make his decision? He had known it would come someday, but inside he hadn’t wanted it ever to come, yet now it had. He nodded. “That gives me a while to think, then. I don’t want to lead an army. I’ve had absolutely no experience fighting. My dirk is only in case I need to use it. I know nothing about battle strategies. Yes, I know who I am. I know the whole of Olandern knows. But I don’t know how wise it is for me to lead them.” Matthias scrutinized Nathan. “I know what you mean. The fact that you’re the crown prince is a heavy burden on your shoulders. I’d help if I could. All I can do is teach you sword work like I did Eunan. We can plan a simple strategy together, but one that will work well. Whether you show up for the battle or not, there’s still a lot I can teach you for when it’s over.” Nathan stared at his bare feet. “Alright, I’ll do that much. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be there.” Matthias nodded. “I’ll take you to my hideaway.” Nathan's hideaway was deep in the forest, hidden away high up in the trees. He had constructed it over the past year, adding more as time went on. Now, Matthias stood in the middle of the house, surveying what Nathan had built. The main room was built around the trunk of the tree, the boards resting on the branches below. Small walls rose up around the edges, and the trees provided a sufficient roof. A small bridge led to another tree, in which Nathan kept reminders of Anya, sick and orphaned animals he cared for, and other things he held dear. As Matthias entered, he looked around him, then quietly turned and went back to Nathan. "I... I saw the sketch of the little girl. I'm sorry, Nathan." Nathan was blinking back tears. "Yeah..." He choked. "Thanks. It was only a little over a year ago. Fever took her, she got sick in a storm. She was everything to me. I was all torn up for a long time, still am some. But the animals have helped. They've become my friends even the alda." Nathan smiled through his tears. "Even though some of them get a bit annoying with their cunning tricks." He motioned to his bed, fashioned out of leaves and wood, then covered with the boat's sail. "I'll make you a bed later." Matthias began training Nathan the next day. There was a lot Nathan had to learn, and so little time until Matthias had to be back on the mainland. Not knowing if Nathan had a sword or not, Matthias had brought another from the supply Der kept in the back room of the inn, hidden in a secret wall compartment. He handed it to Nathan, who unsheathed it and, like Eunan, watched sunbeams reflecting in the blade. He held the sword in his hand, his arm unaccustomed to the weight. He looked at Matthias, who stood holding the sword with ease. “Now, since you have a dirk, we may be able to do a bit of the Florentine style, which uses two swords, and often one is shorter than the other. But let’s start with the basic sword work first.” Matthias instructed Nathan in much the same way as he had Eunan. They worked on sword work most of the day, and the rest of the day they spent doing various activities in the forest and down at the beach, talking, praying, and training. Matthias had Nathan run in the water to build up strength, and they spent a few hours swimming. Nathan was exhausted after the first day, but he knew that even if he did not lead the army, he would still be the king. Yet it seemed strange to him to do one but not the other. For the present, he thought mostly about his training, wanting to focus on that. On the fourth day, Kalnam appeared on the horizon. Kalnam was a city that Ciaran had destroyed around the same time that he ordered the demolition of Bywyn. Star Rider decided that they should go through Kalnam, just in case there were some rebels there, rebuilding after what Ciaran had done. Eunan had agreed, since they were avoiding the fort, one of the strongholds of Ciaran, Kalnam would only be a few miles out of their way. Dismounting, Eunan entered through the broken-down gate. Rubble filled the streets, and only a few houses remained whole. Jed stood close to Eunan, and they surveyed the ruins together. The messengers split up to search through the town, but it was deserted. The horses needed to rest, so they made camp outside of Kalnam. As Jed lay down to sleep, he thought he heard a hawk, but he was too tired to investigate, and by morning, he had forgotten about the incident. They entered Padrea late the next day. Their stop would be quick, Star Rider knew where to go, and other than delivering their message, they only needed to stock up on food. Star Rider knew where the house of one of the rebels was, and so he took Eunan and Jed there. Shortly after they knocked, the door opened. “Is Alexander in?” Star Rider asked. “You haven’t heard? Ciaran’s men took him away the other day. Serves him right, those rebels have got to learn someday.” The door closed. They turned and left, not sure what to do. Making an announcement would be a mistake, and they did not know of any other rebels around. “There are bound to be some rebels in the inn,” Eunan suggested. “That’s where all the news is.” They found the inn quickly, ordered some food, then sat down to listen to the conversations going on around them. It was hard to hear much, all around them people were arguing, singing, laughing, and cheering. Star Rider had the sharpest ears, and before long he heard a few rebels discussing the latest news, old news to Eunan, but it had just arrived in Padrea the day before – Matthias was gone to Madiela. Eunan and Jed seated themselves at the table, Star Rider at their feet. “We couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I understand you are all rebels..?” Eunan asked. Startled, one of the men replied, “Aye.” “Sorry to hear about Alexander. But we have good news.” Eunan lowered his voice. “It’s time for the gryphons to take wing. Matthias has sent me to gather troops. My friends are from Tharia – we were just there, recruiting troops. We don’t know when we’ll need them, just we know we need men. If you could get men together and be prepared to go at a moment’s notice, we’ll send a wolf or pigeon when we’re ready. We need as much help as we can get.” “I and my friends will help in every way we can. I am a blacksmith by trade, but I can make swords if need be. And we’ll spread the word.” “Thank you, thank you so much.” One of the rebels took a swig of his beer, then lifted it into the air. Eunan realized that quite a few people were looking at them suspiciously, and knew the man was creating a diversion as he jumped onto another table and began to sing. A rebel leaned in closer to Eunan. “Is there anything else you need?” One asked. “Just some food.” “Follow me.” Thanks to the dancing rebel, they slipped out of the inn unnoticed. They followed the man through an alleyway, and he opened the back door to a house. “Wait here, I’ll be back shortly.” He returned in a few minutes with a bag full of food, which he handed to Jed. “God bless you on your mission.” “And you on yours.” The messengers walked to where they had tethered their horses and prepared to leave. As the boys swung up on their horses, a procession of soldiers walked by, the last of them leading a blindfolded man. Eunan watched in horror as they made him kneel on a platform in the town square. A man in a black robe stepped forward, drew a sword… As the shouts of the crowd grew louder, Eunan turned his face away. Star Rider glanced at Eunan, then at Jed. Jed seemed not able to turn his face away from the awful sight, his eyes were glued to the scene, yet they were filled with terror. “Let’s go,” Star Rider said. Both boys followed willingly. “Donal, is there any news on this Matthias fellow we’ve been hearing about?” Ciaran and Donal were taking a stroll in the gardens, wanting to get away from the inside of the castle, which was bustling with activity, soldiers were training and preparing for the oncoming battle, and today most were getting armor fitted. “Yes, actually, we figure he’s on Madiela by now. We’ve set the watch on the coastline like you asked, he’ll be caught when he comes back. We’re expecting him any day now.” Donal picked a flower from a nearby bush as they walked passed a bunch of them, sniffing it and then dropping it behind him. “Good. And the boy and his companions?” “They left Padrea this morning, heading back this way. They will probably come between Llyanta and Jarel, and then around the desert to the lone cities to the East. How far are we going to let them get?” “Only passed the far edge of the desert, possibly even before then. It will only be a few more days before they reach the desert, and then we’ll send a few men in, not more than twenty.” A servant ran up to Ciaran and bowed. “Your highness, we have a few men ready for you to view.” Ciaran and Donal followed the servant as they went up to the tower. Below them, a hundred soldiers stood. The front lines were armed with spears and daggers, followed by the swordsmen, then the archers, with their longbows and crossbows, and finally the cavalry. At their head stood a flag bearer, holding a green flag bearing a werewolf, shown as half wolf and half man. All the men wore tunics over their chain mail, and all the tunics were embroidered with a black wolf’s head. Ciaran nodded as he surveyed them, from the tips of their pointed helmets to the toes of their leather boots. “They look fit to fight a bunch of rebels, don’t you think, Donal?” “Aye, highness. More than fit, more than fit…” Chapter 18: Taken. On the road that ran between Jarel and Llyanta, Star Rider brought up an important topic, one that was troubling both him and Jed. “Eunan, what do you think about us coming with you to the lone cities?” Eunan sighed. “I haven’t thought about that yet… but I don’t want to create a risk, and someone should stay behind just to keep everything in order. Jed, I’ve been so thankful for your company, but I think it may be best if you return to Faerloe.” “I… I was thinking the same thing, Eunan. I don’t think I’m quite ready to go so far yet. I don’t want you to go alone, though.” Jed answered. “That’s alright, Jed. You don’t have to worry about Eunan being alone, I’ll go with him to keep him company and help him if he needs it. Not that he’ll need much help, Eunan has much wisdom for his age.” Eunan was quiet for half a minute, then suggested they sing. And they did. It was the last happy time they had together. Garalay, the last city before the desert, was in an uproar when they reached it. Soldiers dressed in the garb of Ciaran’s men were attacking a group of rebels meeting in the town square. Star Rider stopped as they neared the square, and Jed and Eunan dismounted from their horses, holding their reigns. Eunan covered his sword with his cloak, but kept his hand on top of the hilt, just in case. “Shouldn’t we do something?” Jed asked. “I don’t know,” Star Rider said. “It may be better to let this one go.” Eunan turned to Star Rider, trying to suppress his anger. “We can’t just let this one go. Star Rider, look, over there… the soldiers are killing innocent people – children, women! It’s not right!” His voice was rising, and his hand gripped his sword hilt tighter. “We have to do something!” “Eunan, don’t do something rash in your anger. I see, I know it’s not right. Do what you think is best right now, while still considering the effect of your actions. But remember, there won’t always be someone to help you. Let’s go.” Star Rider charged at a soldier, claws out and mouth wide open, ready to kill. Eunan swung up onto Oadied, and Jed followed his example. They drew their swords, and followed Star Rider. As they advanced, the rebels turned and saw them, and knew that these young men and the wolf were on their side. Filled with hope, they grabbed anything they could and used it to fight against Ciaran’s men. It was late at night when the fighting calmed down, and many from both sides lay wounded or dead. Star Rider saw Eunan standing near the edge of the square, apart from everyone else. He surveyed the scene in front of him, tears filling his eyes. Star Rider ran over to him, and Eunan knelt next to the wolf, burying his face in his fur. Star Rider put his paw on Eunan’s shoulder. “It would have been much worse if we had not done anything.” Star Rider said. “We gave them hope, a chance to win. This is the first of many battles, lad. Before Stargonia is won, there will be much more death.” Jed appeared behind them, and he sat next to Eunan, putting his arm around him. “I don’t like it either, Eunan. I can’t remember when Ciaran took over Faerloe… I was so little then.” They were silent for a while; then Eunan remembered why they were there. “We have a job to do,” he got to his feet, and they found a cluster of rebels nearby, standing and praying together. They waited until the rebels were done, then approached them. “I – we – apologize for barging in like that, we thought it was the best thing to do. We’ll stay for a day or two, help clean up and all, but we’ve also got a message to deliver, it’s from Matthias.” An older man, large and mean looking, interrupted Eunan. “Well, get on with it, boy.” Looking around at the rebels, meeting them in the eye, Eunan said carefully. “It’s time for the gryphons to take wing.” Many looked confused for a minute, then understanding showed on the face of one of the men. “So soon.” He whispered, as if deep in thought. Snapping out of his thoughts, he looked up at Eunan. “Send the word, we’ll be ready.” “Thank you. We’ll need you to spread the word in the town… I guess most of the rebels here are what we see now. I pray we’ll have enough to fight Ciaran.” “Aye.” There was a moment of silence. “I think we have some work to do.” Eunan stuck his shovel in the ground and looked at his blistering hands. They had been digging graves all morning, and now the afternoon sun shone down on them. Using a rag to wipe the sweat off the back of his neck, he picked the shovel back up and moved down a little further, breaking the surface and shoveling out dirt. By nightfall, the town square was relatively clean, and Eunan, Jed, and Star Rider were inside the house of Daniel, the Garaloese rebel leader, sipping steaming cups of tea. As the rebels discussed various people who had died and who was left, Star Rider, Jed, and Eunan held their own conversation. Eunan was leaving the next morning with Star Rider, and Star Rider was giving Jed a few last-minute instructions. A fire burned in the fireplace, and once bloodstained garments hung there to dry. It was warmer in Garalay than it had been in Jarel, the desert was not even a day’s journey away. Eunan would have liked to go around the desert, but that would have taken days longer. He would take Oadied with him, hoping a horse would make his journey through the desert a little faster. After staying the night at the house of a rebel, Eunan and Star Rider woke early the next morning. Jed followed them to the edge of the town, leading Oadied while Eunan walked. At the gate, Eunan turned to Jed and hugged him. “Thank you so much, Jed. I’ve been so glad to have you along with me. And you’ve taught me so much about swordplay. No matter how this ends, you’re a wonderful friend, and I’ll come find you as soon as it’s all over.” “I’ll be there in the front lines, Eunan. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m sad you have to leave, but I know I’m doing the right thing staying here. I’ll be able to help spread the word when we’re ready to fight. G’bye, Eunan.” “Goodbye, Jed.” Eunan squeezed Jed one more time, blinking back tears. “God bless.” As the gate opened, Jed handed Eunan Oadied’s reigns, then waved as his friends rode off into the distance. Eunan liked his first impression of the desert. The red-orange dunes could be seen for miles in the distance, and as the sun glinted off them, he thought they were the most beautiful thing in the world. Oadied began to climb a dune, and Eunan knew that even these small dunes were hard for the horse, and was thankful that the desert of Olandern was a small one, unlike the one in Stargonia, which could take almost a month to cross, and the dunes were massive there. By the second day in the desert, Eunan was beginning to tire of all the sand. Later in the afternoon, the wind began to blow. It was a strong wind, and the sand rubbed against Eunan’s face as it swirled all around him, chaffing his skin. Star Rider shouted to Eunan to get off Oadied, and he did, grabbing the horse’s reins. Eunan breathed through a scarf, wondering why it had to be sand rather than snow. At least he would have been used to snow, they had plenty of that in Jarel every January. He stumbled along through the sand, every now and then stopping to fix something, rearrange his scarf, or wipe the sand out of Oadied’s eyes. Star Rider didn’t complain, even though sand was getting all over him, in his mouth, eyes, nose… They lost all track of time in the sand storm, and when it finally cleared up, it was afternoon. How many days had passed, neither he nor Star Rider had any idea. They stopped to rest, and shortly after they began to move on, they could see the edge of the desert. Eunan breathed more easily after this, he had begun to think they had gotten lost in the sand storm. As the sand faded into grass, Star Rider glimpsed something move behind a tree. It was not in the forest, so he did not think it was one of the Keltoi, a Celt-like tribe who lived in the forests. “Eunan. Over there.” Eunan glanced over to where Star Rider pointed with his paw. His moved his hand to rest on the hilt of his sword. Suddenly, a group of Ciaran’s men stepped out of the shadows. Eunan whipped his sword out of its sheath and let go of Oadied’s reigns, turning towards Ciaran’s men, who were quickly surrounding him. His mind was suddenly filled with choices. Should he run? Fight? Surrender? His hand made its way up to his neck, where a thin chain held the ring around his neck. Eunan knew he needed to keep it safe. Hadn’t Matthias told him to guard it with his life? Where could he hide it? If captured they would search him. But there was nowhere he could put it. He turned to find Star Rider, but found the wolf gone. Eunan sighed. Sure, maybe Star Rider would tell the others that he had been captured, but right now Eunan would have liked it if the wolf would’ve helped him fight. There was no more time for him to think. Ciaran’s men were upon him. There was no escape – it was fight or give up. Eunan whirled on the nearest soldier, trying to defend himself. And so the fight began. For a time, Eunan was able to hold them back, fending them off with his sword. A few times one of their swords cut him, and he knew he could not last much longer. A few more minutes passed, and then he sank down to his knees. Before everything went black, the last thing he saw was the blood stained sand, his bloody hand releasing his sword, and Ciaran’s men running towards him. He woke in a dark, damp room. Above him was a metal grating through which the only light in the room poured through. There was a ladder leading up to it. Eunan sat up. He had been lying on a hard bench, and a ratty blanket was underneath him. Eunan tried to stand, but he was drained of strength from the battle. He looked down at his sleeves, which were torn and blood soaked. He tried to figure out where all he had been wounded, but was not able to figure out exactly where. For the first time in a while, Eunan wished for a hot bath, or at least something to wash the dried blood off him. The grating opened, and a soldier came down the ladder, holding a length of leather in his hand. Eunan remembered the ring and quickly his fingers went up to his neck and he unclasped the chain, and stuck the ring underneath the bed. The soldier spoke roughly. “You’re to come up with me.” When Eunan didn’t move, he added a few words on. “Ciaran’s orders.” “I don’t obey Ciaran’s orders,” Eunan replied, not looking at the soldier directly. “When you’re in Ciaran’s prison, you do.” The soldier kicked Eunan’s leg. Eunan winced. Still glaring, he stood as best as he could. The soldier steadied him, but then twisted Eunan’s arms behind him and quickly tied the leather strap onto his wrists, knotting it tightly. Eunan gritted his teeth. If Matthias could see me now... he thought. The soldier forced Eunan to go up the ladder, following right behind him. When Eunan reached the top, two other soldiers grabbed him and latching onto his arms, marched him into the Great Hall, where Ciaran was waiting. “So, this is Matthias’s little helper, is it?” Ciaran walked in a circle around Eunan, taking a good look at him. Eunan stared at the floor, refusing to look Ciaran in the eye. “You know, lad, that if you don’t talk, we have methods of extracting information from our prisoners. A few days without food, an hour in the torture chamber...” Eunan remained silent. Ciaran tipped Eunan’s chin up to look him in the eye. “Come, now, we wouldn’t want that, would we? Just answer my questions, and then I’ll decide what to do with you.” Eunan glared at Ciaran. “What’s your name?” This is a question I can answer safely, Eunan thought. “Eunan.” “Eunan, hmmm? Now, tell me, Eunan. You work for Matthias. But what all do you know about the rebellion?” “Only that it’s to overthrow you.” “Strong words, my boy. I’d be careful next time. Anything else? Do you, by any chance, know how the rebels will overthrow me?” “In a battle, that’s all I know.” Ciaran released Eunan’s chin. “You rebels really think you can beat my trained and well organized troops in a battle?” “Aye.” “Follow me, boy, and I’ll show you what my men look like. Then you tell me.” Two soldiers walked on either side of Eunan, and a third marched behind him as they followed Ciaran to a field where his troops were training. After watching them for a few minutes, Eunan turned to Ciaran. “Your soldiers only obey you as long as you’re around. Only a few are rooting for you, Ciaran. I wouldn’t trust them. We rebels know what we’re fighting for, and we want what we’re fighting for. We have hope, your army lives in fear of what you might do…” Ciaran held up his hand, and Eunan stopped talking. After a nod from Ciaran, they grabbed Eunan and turned to go, but stopped as he continued speaking. “Take him back to the dungeon. Feed him, though. I like this boy. I can see him as a great general in my army someday.” “I won’t ever fight for you,” Eunan muttered under his breath. Chapter 19: Death Sentence After two weeks of training, Nathan was able to fight Florentine as well as he could with the sword. Matthias was well pleased with his progress, and they began planning a strategy. Matthias pulled the worn map out of his pouch, spreading it out on the floor of Nathan’s tree house. “Here is where we’re hoping to fight.” He pointed to a plain outside of Llyanta, surrounded by a border, the forest and the desert, and an open space on the South. “We won’t have a very organized army, we have men from all over just coming in to fight. Before everything happens, we’ll send them a message through the pigeons, and each city will have a certain place to be. “Now, what I want you to do is place each army where they should go. We’re assuming that Eunan will get help from all the cities, though how many… I do not have any idea.” Nathan stared at the map. Matthias had brought in a few shells the day before, all different, and had chosen specific shells to go with certain cities. Nathan picked up the biggest shell, and placed it right outside the desert. “Garalay,” he stated. Placing the darkest shell on top of Llyanta, he turned to Matthias. “Would it work for the rebels from Llyanta to attack from the city?” Matthias nodded. They continued in this way, until Nathan had placed all of the shells on the map – Faerloe and Padrea right outside the forest, and Jarel and Rakya blocking the only way of escape left – out to the sea. “See, planning a strategy isn’t so hard,” Matthias said. “I don’t think I could have done much better myself, to tell the truth, Nathan.” Nathan’s face turned red. “Thanks, Matthias. But what about how we do it? Pikes, archers, cavalry?” “The way it’s always done. Cavalry last, pikes first, then we have the infantry second. We’re going to try to get the archers up higher somewhere, maybe hiding in trees, but ones that aren’t in the forest, of course. There is a little bit of a rise along here, right before the desert. That should be the best place for the archers.” Nathan nodded. He opened his mouth and closed it again, sighing. “You’ve helped me so much, Matthias. And I thank you. But I think it’s time for you to go back to the mainland. We need to get word out about the strategy, and people there are waiting for you.” “You’ve not come to a decision, then?” “Not yet. Don’t be expecting me. It’s not something I want to do.” Matthias scooped up the shells off the map and rolled it up. “I’ll leave now. I’m praying for you, Nathan. I’ll be in Mytymnea if you need anything.” Nathan watched as Matthias pushed off and started back to Olandern. Although thankful for Matthias’s help, the trainer’s presence was a constant reminder of the decision he had to make. It would still weigh on his mind, but maybe not quite as heavily. Star Rider ran the last few feet out of the desert. It was his duty now to take the message to the lone cities. Three days later, he returned to the house of the rebel they had stayed at before in Garalay. Jed was there, discussing a few plans, and when Star Rider entered, he jumped to his feet. “Star Rider! Where’s Eunan?” Breathlessly, Star Rider replied. “… captured…” Then he collapsed on the floor. Jed turned to the rebels. “You hear that? Eunan’s been captured.” He drew himself to his full height. “I think it’s time.” “Aye. It’s more than time, lad. Come with me, we’ll write up a note and send it with the pigeons. Do we have a plan? A strategy?” “We can come up with one. It shouldn’t be too hard.” “They’re there.” Jonas said. Breacon looked up from the map that lay on the table, and Peter turned from the window. “The gryphons?” “Aye. And they will fight on our side.” “Oh, praise the Creator! May He grant us victory against Ciaran!” “Do you think this is it?” Breacon asked eagerly. “Do I think this is what?” Peter wondered. “When Adan regained Cathonys, he said that one day Daron would be defeated all the way. Do you think this is when it happens?” “I do not know. Adan did not say when it would happen. He did not say how it would happen – it may not be with a battle, or it might. One day we may all wake up and be with the Creator.” Breacon nodded. “But we can hope to be free from the sin that reigns in this world nonetheless.” “Aye, indeed we can.” “Do you know how many gryphons there were?” The King asked Jonas. “I saw around two score, but I do not know how many there are.” “Even two score will help our ranks.” Someone knocked on the door. Peter ran to the door and peered out. “Ah, come in!” He said. It was one of the messengers. “Eunan was captured,” the messenger said. “Is there any news of Matthias?” The messenger shook his head. “But the rebels said to move immediately. We’re to go to the border and wait. They will continue to send messages.” Breacon looked at the messenger, speechless. So soon? “Thank you, “ Peter said. “Go to the kitchens and get some food. You look as if you need it.” The messenger bowed and ran off. “Well, you heard what he said.” Peter looked at the other men in the room. They nodded. “We must send out our men, and send them out now.” Then he, too, was silent. “And we must pray, before we are sent out, for the Creator’s mercy on us, and that His righteous judgment would fall on Ciaran. Come.” All of the men bowed their heads in petition to the Creator. Save us, Creator! Breacon begged. Don’t let Ciaran get away with this evil, this treason against Your name. Hear the cries of Your people, living in oppression beneath one who serves Daron. Matthias’s return to Olandern was uneventful, and Matthias spent most of it doing some more planning. He still wondered how everything would come together, if the gryphons had been found… he jumped out of the boat and into the shallow water near the shore. Matthias pulled the boat ashore and stepped onto land. He took all of his things out and set off running. In the distance he could see Itheial, and went toward it, but as he got closer going straight, towards the desert. A hawk swooped above him, turning to dive down on its prey. Little did Matthias know it was a signal. A group of Ciaran’s men was waiting just outside of Rakya. When the hawk dove, they moved out into the open, closing in around Matthias. Before Matthias could run the other way, there was no way of escape, and his mind still whirling with unanswered questions, he drew his sword to fight. As he parried and attacked, a young soldier came up behind Matthias, hitting him on the head with the hilt of his sword. Matthias crumpled to the ground. Eunan was standing over him when he woke, concern written all over his face. “Hello, Eunan.” Matthias said weakly, trying to sit up, but falling back down. “Was he there?” Eunan asked eagerly. When Matthias looked confused, Eunan tried again. “The prince, was he on the island?” “Aye.” “And is he coming?” “I… I don’t know yet. He said… he said maybe. What about you, Eunan? Do you have troops… ready?” “Aye, well, ready to come fight, that is. I just don’t know how we’ll alert them.” Matthias moved around on the bench, trying getting comfortable. “Star Rider should do it, though. He’d know.” “You met Star Rider, then?” “Aye.” “He’s a wise wolf. I’m glad you’ve met him.” “Aye. He came with me, but I was captured just across the desert. I didn’t see him anywhere once Ciaran’s men attacked. I think he got away.” “Mmm.” “I’ll be quiet now. You need your rest.” “Thank you, Eunan.” Ciaran walked around Matthias, his sword pointed at his prisoner's chest. "The leader, eh?" Ciaran put his face close to Matthias's. "Do you know what I do to leaders?" Drawing back, he stuck his sword between two floorboards and leaned on it. "I make examples of them. You, young man, will die tomorrow morning. Donal, take note, a public hanging tomorrow morning, a warning to the rebels. I'm done with Matthias, take him away.” Ciaran turned away from Matthias as two guards came forward and dragged Matthias back to the dungeon. Chuckling a little to himself, Ciaran sat down on a chair. “So we give them hope and then take it away. Donal, tomorrow we can claim Stargonia as our own. The rebels will be hopeless without their leaders.” He laughed. Matthias was forced down the ladder into the dungeon, where he took a seat on the bed. "Eunan, I'm to die tomorrow." He said, staring down at the floor. "You're not being serious." "Ciaran gave the death sentence, a public hanging tomorrow morning, an example to the rebels." "I wonder if I'm to die, too." Eunan looked up to the opening in the trapdoor, staring at the glimmer of light that seemed their only hope. He stood and walked to right under it, the cold snow crunching under his feet. "I've been here a little over a fortnight now, Matthias. I wonder why Ciaran hasn't killed me yet." "He was waiting for me. If you don't die tomorrow, you'll be there to watch me, like or not." He wished he could be a little boy again, and run into his mother's arms. He was not ready to watch anyone die, much less a friend like Matthias. Eunan curled up in a ball on the floor, thinking and praying. Riona stared at the snow on the ground below. So much time had passed since she had last seen Eunan. Closing her eyes tightly, she prayed for him, for his safety and that the Lord would give him strength. She wondered how much longer it would be until everything ended and who would win. It seemed so likely that Ciaran would, he had the army and the power, or so it seemed. But so many people were against him; the rebels had a chance of succeeding. And with the underground, things were almost favoring the rebels at least it seemed so for now. But things could change at any moment.