Chade inhaled slowly, wheezing as he listened to the Raven’s call for assistance from across the battlefield. The clamor of fighting was muddled through the blood pounding in his ears. One of the three arrows in his back hadn’t made it far into his flesh and the stone tip grated against his shoulder blade painfully with each breath.
He watched as a steady stream of rain ran from his dark hair to the ground, mixing with the mud where his fingers were hidden. The rain continued to drench the land. It had been ongoing for weeks. He coughed and a gush of blood pushed past his teeth to join the mud puddle he knelt in. The Raven called again and Chade closed his grey eyes. You need to rise, soldier, he urged himself.
Lifting his head he surveyed the field through the veil of water. He had fought his way to the edge of the battlefield and from here it was hard to distinguish his allies from his enemies, but from their position on the field he knew they were losing. Ever since the Raven Queen had been captured, men had fallen – and quickly. He spat into the muck and gritted his teeth, pushing himself to his feet. He was the only one who could save her; and if he could save her, she could finish this war. As if in agreement, the Raven called again.
“I’m coming,” Chade grumbled. Glancing around one last time, he prayed that the rain would hide him as he began sneaking his way around the enemy’s flank. A keen sense of hearing was one of the trademarks of the Elven Clan, aside from their deadly accuracy with a bow and arrow. If Chade was to pull this off, he had to do more than tread lightly, he needed to silence the sound of his footsteps splashing on the soaked ground altogether. He made it several yards before the ground began to shake.
Chade looked off into the distance and saw three giant Cyclops bounding their way into the skirmish. Their brutish, heavy steps would certainly mask his own. He ran with every crashing footfall, the pain in his shoulder fortifying his resolve. The line of archers was now close enough that Chade could hear the arrows sing through the air as they left the bows.
A snap at his back halted Chade’s progress, and he fell to the ground in agony. A muddied leather boot hooked his arm and flipped him onto his side. Chade blinked through the rain and stared up at the stony face of Loran, the prince of the Elves.
“Chade, must we always meet under such violent circumstances?”
“Where is she?” Chade demanded through clenched teeth.
“You’re still worried about her?” Loran laughed. “I should think that you have more important issues to ponder. Like the fact that my archers have not ever missed a target, yet you took three arrows to the back, not the heart.”
Chade struggled to get his arms underneath himself as he huffed. “That’ll be your problem if we make it through this alive, Loran. You’ll have to consider retraining. I can only imagine what that will do to your Elven pride.”
Loran looked for a moment like he’d press Chade back down to the earth with his boot and finish him. Chade and the prince had fought many battles together, and not all of them had been as allies. Chade hoped his queen could end the fighting amongst the many races of this earth. But even with her power on their side it had not been so. More races had joined the fray, the Cyclops among them, and now his chosen queen was captured and he was stuck here with arrows in his back in the mud.
The arrows he’d taken had not been meant to kill him, he knew. He’d caught them weaving through the enemy trolls, dodging back towards the Raven. Very early on he had been sought out and purposefully pushed away from his queen by Loran’s best warriors. The Elves were already raging one war against the trolls and dwarves, who had sought to reclaim their land, when the Raven moved her forces into the territory. She had determined her territory included the forests in which the Elves resided, which Chade did not agree with but could do nothing to sway her mind.
The elves did not care if the raven queen ruled the humans, they would remain as autonomous as ever, but they would not have the trolls, dwarves, and humans swarming their lands. The battle had quickly taken a turn for the worse when the elves turned against the humans as well.
Chade coughed painfully as the rain subsided and he waited to be finished off. He no longer trusted the prince, not after the last time they had crossed paths. Instead, Loran reached down and yanked him to his feet. As Chade locked his knees to keep from falling, Loran secured his wrists with Elven rope.
Chade sighed. “Is that necessary?”
Loran roughly tightened the enhanced cord and retorted, “You’re foolish to think you move more silently than rain. Unlike an Elf, your pitiful ears cannot distinguish every footstep on the battlefield. Shouldn’t you know that, old friend? Maybe your head is filling with blood.”
Chade spit cruor into the mud. “That can’t be. I still recognize your hideous mug.”
Loran laughed. “Don’t be crass. If not for my orders, you’d be full of arrows by now.” Lightning struck, igniting the wine-colored sky and silencing the surrounding chaos for a fleeting moment. Chade found Loran’s amber eyes.
“Loran, why have you imprisoned my queen? You know she’s our only hope to end this bloodbath.”
Loran’s face fell somber. “That was my father’s doing. If we have her contained, you humans won’t be swarming our forests.” He brushed off mud from the front of his dark tunic. “Besides, the sorceress may not be the savior you believed her to be.”
Chade shook his head in disbelief. “No, you’ve never agreed with your father. Why now?”
Loran’s smile felt out of place against the hardness of his face. “Come with me Chade. I’ll see to your wounds and set you up in our nicest cage, for old time’s sake.”
Loran led Chade to the Elven camp. The thought of finally getting to rest sounded alluring, but not enough to overcome his tumultuous thoughts. Chade had never trusted Loran’s father, he needed to speak to the sorceress himself and, above all, ensure she was well. Again, the Raven crowed and it tugged at his soul.
The Elven-king sat in his wooden throne surveying over the Elven territories displayed on the magical map. The light brown of the dwarfs and the bright yellow of the trolls consumed most of the territories already. Fear would soon consume all others.
The alliance he so delicately crafted with the capture of the human’s bird witch was already shattering. The other Elven Lords, he felt, were losing faith in his rulership. Even if the Elven morality prevented them from usurping him, there was nothing that bound them. Desperation forced his hand but now it was too late. He had a month to wait before the next waxing moon, and dissension already grew thick in the air.
He leaned forward on his throne and studied the maps. He did not want to risk pushing his own armies towards the outer lands, to fight the trolls and dwarves that nibbled off the Elven territories beyond his borders. The show of solidarity he had provided came at a considerable cost; even if the regiments belong to his son.
He had hoped the cyclops would have softened the humans up, but even without their little witch, they were still winning. He pounded one fist against the granite tabletop before him and cracks spider webbed outwards from the blow.
Chade hunched over, bound hands in his lap, head hung, and blood dripping from his shoulders. His every rasping breath grated in his chest. Loran stood to his right, straight, tall, and stone-faced, as three of his servants removed Chade’s armor, using their blades to shear it away from the arrows.
“We should pull them out first, then administer the potion,” an elf with golden, braided hair murmured.
The other elf had jet black hair, odd for an elf. She frowned at Chade before shaking her angular head. “No. Give him the potion first; we’ll draw the arrows as it takes effect.”
Chade hung his head, twisting his wrists against the ropes.
“Remove the arrows first,” Loran said flatly.
Chade glanced at the elf prince through the hair plastered against his forehead. He’d thought that Loran, having secured his capture, would return to the fight that thundered beyond the trees. Instead, the prince stayed silently by Chade’s side.
One of the elves attending Chade’s wounds grabbed the lowest arrow. Chade howled, lifting his face to the nebulous sky as it was ripped free. He saw Loran’s lips curl at his pained cry and promised himself he would not scream again.
They tore the second arrow from his flesh while the Raven’s cries rang across the field. The sound of her desperate calls buzzed in Chade’s head. He pulled his eyes open to stare at the castle on top the hill that resembled a shimmering mirage. His raven—his queen—languished there. He’d failed her.
The elves dragged the final arrow loose. Chade gritted his teeth, stifling his torment, as sweat poured from his brow and ran down his face. He wanted to fall to his knees, but turned his eyes to Loran instead. The tall, fair-haired elf watched him intensely, and then flicked his eyes away.
Chade’s back was wet and sticky and hot. It felt as though it had been skinned and set alight. One of the elves treating him stepped to his side. “Drink this, human,” she said as she pushed a small silver flask into Chade’s mud-coated hand.
He took it and raised it to his bloodied lips, but the Raven crowed. Again the sound ate into his bones. Drink and be caged, he thought; drink and live with your failure, forever tortured by her cries.
He dropped the potion, deciding he’d rather die than rot in captivity and watch his empire fall. The flask hit the straw covered ground, spilling its contents. The creamy fluid sizzled, sending up white plumes that smelled like lavender.
Loran stepped over and roughly slapped Chade’s face. “Stubborn fool!”
Chade staggered from the elf’s strength, but remained standing and turned away, saying nothing.
Loran addressed his servants. “Bring me more healing spirit. I’ll administer it myself.” The elf servants bowed their heads.
“I don’t want it,” Chade murmured. “Let me die. You owe me that.”
“I owe you nothing,” Loran said. His servant handed him another silver flask, and he grabbed a fistful of Chade’s hair, forced his head up, and shoved the flask neck into his mouth.
Chade spluttered on the warm liquid that tasted of milk and honey.
Forced to drink, his body buzzed. He tingled and gasped and crunched himself up, falling to the floor before curling up in the straw. He screamed while his back burned as though the flesh had been stripped away and melted.
He breathed hard while the magic knitted his ragged flesh. The pain dulled to a pleasant warmth, but he stayed curled on the floor, shuddering with the shame of his failure while his queen called out in desperation.
Gloved hands scooped him up. He stood slouched, tempted to let his knees buckle as the golden haired elf took his bound hands and passed the rope that trailed from them to Loran. Silently the prince turned and started off, tugging on Chade’s lead mercilessly.
Chade trudged after Loran with a heavy heart and his head hung in disgrace, allowing the elf prince to lead him to the far side of the camp. He was led away from the activity to where the human prisoners huddled in cages. With each labored step the battle thundered louder. Chade shivered, knowing he’d failed the Raven.
“Leave us,” Loran instructed the elf guards who patrolled the cages. Each bowed their head in turn and marched away, leaving Loran and Chade alone. Chade cringed, swinging his head from the prince, awaiting the elf’s final verbal assault before the humiliation of being locked away.
Loran pulled a blade from his belt. He grasped Chade’s hands and sawed through the rope. Chade rubbed his wrists and glared warily at the tall elf. He’d been stripped of his armor and weapons so he stood still, watching Loran, and waited to be forced at knife point inside a cage.
Loran pulled his sword from its sheath, spun it around lightly, and offered the handle to Chade, who frowned.
“Your fight’s not over,” Loran said. His lips curled and his amber eyes gleamed. “I’ve mended your wounds and restored you, and now, my unlikely friend, I summon you to fight by my side. I seek to overthrow my heinous father, and in doing so we shall rescue your Raven.” He paused and held Chade’s stare, as if sensing his thoughts about attack. “ I can’t do this alone, Chade. We’ve fought together before and been victorious. We can do so again with an allegiance for the good of both our kingdoms.”
Chade took the sword and tightened his grip on the handle. He took several moments to internally debate before bowing his head and forging their pact. “My blade is at your side, my prince.”
Loran bowed back. “My blade is at your side,” he said, confirming the pact. Once they straightened Loran pulled a reed from his satchel and, putting it to his lips, released an eerie call.
In a heartbeat two unicorns galloped from the trees that skirted the camp and came to stand beside them. The great beasts were jet black, muscled with velvety hides. One pawed the ground, snorting and blowing. The other dipped its head, mane flowing in the breeze. The creature’s eyes flashed silver as the tusk on its forehead dazzled without discernable color.
Loran unhooked one of the saddlebags the unicorns wore and handed it to Chade. “Your new armor is blessed with Elven magic so no arrow, not even one of ours, can pierce it.” He smiled. “Dress quickly, we will ride to the castle to end my father’s tyranny and free your Raven.”
Chade felt new hope and strength surge through his muscles. He pulled the light but sturdy armor on as the Raven crowed, her cry like a scream across the land. Loran clamped a firm hand upon his shoulder in silent understanding. The two enemies, once friends, now sworn servants to other, stood side by side as they prepared themselves for the battle yet to come.
This time, Chade thought as he tested his grip on the perfect sword, this time we will win. I’m coming, my queen.
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Sathishya Nimne Navarani