Dreams of Days to Come
Part Two – Dreams of the Dark
Hanetsi, Sun Queen of Metsheput, sat upon her gilded throne, her head held erect. Six burly bearers carried her throne palanquin aloft, though now they stood still, allowing for her to survey the scene before her. Around her stood tall, ebon skinned men, each in burnished silver scale coats, with chain neckguards hanging from their spiked helms, and with spears and broad shields at hand.
Hanesti wore a short kirtle of diaphanous crimson silk that clung to the contours of her supple, slender form, well suited to the heat of the day that year around settled upon Metsheput. Her skin was bronzed, as it was for all native Metsheputi, though few there could rival the beauty that graced her, with dark hair spilling down in carefully sculptured ringlets, and dark eyes brought forth and highlighted by cosmetics. Exquisitely worked gold thread bedecked with pearls hung about her neck, while strings of them had been woven through her dark tresses.
That day, though, she wished that she had worn something heavier, for a tremulous chill passed through her. The day was fair with a warm breeze blowing from inland, from the deserts. The weather had no part in the chill. Instead it came from the sight that lay spread out before her.
The remnants of a town smouldered, with curls of smoke drifting up to greet the azure sky. Around it, as far as the eye could see, was a field of butchery, of townsfolk cut down as they attempted to flee to safety, their piteous forms strewn through fields were they had fallen. Some had been hung up from the shattered wooden palisade that had surrounded the town, while others had been beheaded. Along the road that led up to the broken gates into the town, the heads had been mounted on stakes, lining the way, serving as both warning and threat.
The dark forms of carrion birds circled thick above, drifting down through the smoke to resume their feasting upon the fallen, only having risen after being disturbed by the arrival of Hanetsi’s army.
That army spread out before the ruins of the town, waiting in their serried ranks. The bronzed nobles of Metsheput led the way in their swift chariots, perfectly suited to the plains and rolling hills of Metsheput, but of little use in the jungles of the south. Behind them stood the ranks of the infantry, men in leather jerkins and steel skull caps, with shields and broad spears. The host was backed up by many mercenaries; horsemen from Hashala equipped with scimitars and horsebows, black men from the southern kingdoms, whether Kurushu bowmen or Agakwa skirmishers with slings and sharp knives, or the hired mercenary bands that recruited from across the nations of the Swordlands to the north.
Hanetsi turned, her face ashen from shock, to look upon a tall, powerfully built black man who stood alongside the throne, who hailed from Kurushu in the far south. A lion skin cloak lined with crimson hung around his broad shoulders, the mark of a general in the armies of Metsheput.
“How can this be?” she inquired. “A fortified town reduced to ash and misery? Are we certain that it was the wild men?”
“A few of the townsfolk were able to escape the knives, my Queen,” the general replied, “And they were ascertain that it had been the wild men of the jungles who had stormed their town.”
“A few? How man?”
“No more than a dozen.”
“Everyone else was killed?”
“Not all,” the general replied gravely. “There were those whom were captured, and taken back alive, the young and the strong, destined, no doubt, for their heathen altars. The rest were butchered were they were found.”
Hanestsi returned her gaze to the destruction wrought before her, as much as she did not wish to, almost unable to take in the scope of what she saw, and almost disbelieving that it had come true. There had been the dreams, yet at first she had hoped that they had been no more than nightmares, and even then, they had merely been of a dark cloud that had rolled up out of the south, from the jungles, to shroud the southern towns and cities.
Now she could see that the dreams were more than that, and that she was afflicted, much as her ancestors had been. From the earliest days of the kingdom, her bloodline had received prophetic dreams that foretold the future, enabling the kingdom to survive in the face of tumult and turmoil, and yet it had been a blessing that at the same time bore a terrible curse. Those that received the dreams died soon after, a heavy price to keep the kingdom safe.
Now her turn had come, just as she had always known it would, and now all that remained was to have the courage to face the inevitable, and to save the kingdom.
The meaning behind the dreams may have become apparent, yet the agents of the destruction were not as she expected, for the carnage she saw was unlike anything that the wild men had been able to accomplish before. Theirs was the way of ambush, brutal and effective, raiding farms and travellers. Never before had they sacked an entire town and put its people to the knife.
“What has changed among the wild men to see them attach thusly?” she inquired of her general. “Some manner of devilry mist be at work here, to stir them up so.”
“There are rumours, black rumours, of a man who walks among them, not one of their kind, but of ours, one steeped in ancient evil and arcane power, and it is he who has banded the disparate tribes of the wild men together.”
“What can we do about it?”
“The jungles are their home. We could send an army in there to try and flush them forth, and never seen them, nor the army again. It would swallow them without a trace.”
“We can do nothing then?”
The general shook his head. “If they sally forth again from the jungles, we can meet them on the field of battle and crush them. They can not stand up against us in such a confrontation.”
“Never before have they risked clashing with us in such a way. Why now would they do so? And more, how would we know where such an advent was to take place until it is too late? The borders of the jungle are vast and we can not patrol the all if it.”
“We shall find a way.”
From nearby came the sound of laughter, a woman’s laughter, and Hanetsi turned to look at what had provoked it. There stood not too distant a band of rough looking warriors, drawn from a host of nations; mercenaries all, in the employ of Metsheput. One stood out from the rest, not merely because she was female, but for the hue of her hair, a rich auburn that seemed alive among the mostly dark hair about her. With her was a tall man, his long face somnolent in manner, and clad not in the hard wearing leather and chain that most mercenaries wore but in costly, colourful and well crafted clothes.
Hanetsi’s eyes widened as she spotted the woman, for though never before had the pair met, the woman’s face stood out vivid in her memories. All the vague fragments of dreams came rushing back to her, of the flame haired woman who stood holding the darkness at bay as it flowed forth from the jungles.
Hanetsi extended the golden sceptre she carried and pointed it towards the woman. “I would speak with that one,” she announced.
The general frowned as he took in who Hanetsi was indicating. “Are you certain, my Queen? The mercenaries are an undisciplined, unruly lot, and that one more than most.”
“It is necessary.”
“As you command, my Queen.” The general motioned with his hand, indicating to a pair of the guards that they should follow him. They strode across to where the mercenaries were gathered, their carriage that of those expecting trouble. Hanetsi watched on as the general addressed the auburn haired woman. After a moment, the mercenary turned to gaze across at Hanetsi. The look that she gave was unlike any other the queen had experienced before. It was a cautiously judging look, one that lacked the deference to which she was accustomed.
Then the mercenary woman shrugged, and she and the tall man with her accompanied the general back to where Hanetsi waited upon her throne.
“My Queen, as requested, I have brought back the woman you wanted.”
Hanetsi studied the woman, and in turn was studied back. The mercenary wore a simple shirt of chain mesh, grey woollen trousers cut off at the knees, a broadsword across her back and knife at her side. Not tall, there was however a presence about her, an air of untamed primal danger, all coiled and ready to strike. In a way she remained Hanetsi of a lioness, fearless and wild. “By what name are you called?”
“Fianna of the Aedring, though to most I am simply Peregrine.”
That this Fianna was of the Aedring hardly surprised Hanetsi, for they were a primitive people, little more than barbarians, and among them the women fought as often as the men, an occurrence seldom seen in more civilised lands.
“You have seen our situation. What do you think of it?”
“You have problems,” Peregrine answered with brutal honesty, as was her wont. “I do not know much of these wild men beyond what I have heard, and that is seldom enough to form a proper judgement, not without seeing them first hand and forming my own opinions, yet if they can strike from the jungles like this and be gone before you can react, then they have no reason to halt their attacks.”
“How then would you go about defeating then?”
“I am not convinced that you can defeat them,” Peregrine told Hanetsi, “At least not by the manner in which you fight. That is no reason not to try though. What needs doing is to find the one behind it all and stop him. Cut the head off the snake and the body dies.”
“That one is only a rumour,” the general interrupted, “And even if he does exist, how would one find them?”
“You track them to their lair and end them there,” Peregrine replied. Cold was her tone and ominous her words, yet self assured.
The general shook his head, a rueful look on his face. “If only it were that simple. The jungle swallows whole armies.”
Peregrine’s look was cool, and all the more dangerous for it. “I could track a snow leopard almost before I could walk. I have travelled the Hills of Aedring, and places more fell than you can fathom. Give me a handful of good men and this can be ended.”
Hanetsi smiled. “I knew you were the one. You shall have your men, and if you are successful then you will be well rewarded.”
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