A People With No Home
He led his people through the wilderness.
The secret exit came out miles from Tetrahin. Once outside the tunnel, Noesh paused and surveyed the strained group around him.
There are too many of us, he thought despairingly. The mothers with young children worried him the most. They would find any journey, whether it be to Aresisia or Arca, taxing, frightening and dangerous.
One approached him, her young face pale under its already pale skin. A baby peeped over her shoulder through the thick mane of red hair. Three others clustered around her legs, gripping folds in her loose clothing. He recognised her as the recently widowed Setta.
“Where are we going, Noesh?” her quiet voice was determined.
He tried to look calm and confident. His face was kind as he spoke.
“We must go far away, Setta.”
“Why, lord? Why so suddenly and quickly? I’ve no food or clothing for the children,” she gazed around the forest nervously, “what will we do out here?”
T’ajar stepped closer to Setta, putting a hand on her shoulder. Noesh cleared his throat.
“We’re heading for the Tabun’s Cave. We must go as fast as we can. No telling how close the intruders are on our tails.”
His brows snapped together in a sudden frown alarming the young woman waiting for assurance in front of him. T’ajar, in a quiet aside, urged Setta to keep near them for help with her children.
The frown remained, heavy on his brow. The betrayal of Tetrahin was a terrible blow. The lives of so many innocents now rested in his hands. He ground his teeth thinking of his nephew. Ah yes, Amis that son of a difficult and abrasive woman. He wondered how sweet T’ajar could have such a horrible tartar for a sister but why had she betrayed them all?
Jaffith and Ajalon appeared in front of him.
Both were breathing hard.
Noesh pushed his heavy thoughts from him and lifted his eyebrows enquiringly.
The two exchanged a brief glance, the one so tall and fair, the other dark and lithe.
“Rija didn’t come back,” Ajalon said quietly.
“Something prevented her from returning,” Jaffith corrected his brother, looking at his father anxiously.
Noesh stared at them unspeaking, a stricken look around his eyes. Jaffith reached out a concerned hand and gripped his shoulder.
“Father,” he said tentatively, “are you alright?”
Noesh’s mouth worked, he cleared his throat and whispered hoarsely, “Get me Jared.”
Jaffith kept his hand on his father’s shoulder but Ajalon turned and ran. Noesh’s thoughts were spinning. The girl had gone back to her chamber to collect her things. Why hadn’t she returned. Had the enemy already been within the walls of Tetrahin?
Ajalon returned, Jared close behind. Noesh took a ragged breath and looked at the worried face of his loyal, reliable Jared.
“Jared…” his voice was still hoarse.
The man nodded respectfully.
“We’ve lost another…” Noesh’s voice trailed off.
He couldn’t bring himself to say it. His beloved, vivid son Sem, that vulnerable, very young girl, Sambeth and now it seemed that he, Noesh, had also lost a princess.
He closed his eyes, a wave of despair washing over him. He felt the pressure of Jaffith’s broad, long-fingered hand on his shoulder. He reached up and grabbed it, giving a grateful squeeze in return.
Jared confirmed his worst fears. In their well-trained efficiency, the men of his household guard had sealed all doors in order to slow down the enemy. They had believed all persons to be gathered with Noesh and the people. Jared was appalled and shaken when he realised what had happened. He had trapped a young woman inside Tetrahin. She was alone to face the enemy.
“Father,” Jaffith spoke quietly, his voice coming from above Noesh’s head, “can we send someone back?”
Noesh knew who Jaffith had in mind and shook his head.
“I’m sorry, son, we can’t–“
“But, Rija?” Jaffith’s voice cracked over her name.
Noesh gripped Jaffith’s arms, his faces inches away from that of his tall son. The heaviness of grief drew deep lines on his face.
“If there were any way,” Noesh rasped, “but there are many here that need your leadership.”
Jaffith lifted his eyes toward Tetrahin.
“So, that poor girl will be taken by that wicked aberration after all?”
His throat worked and he dashed a quick hand across his eyes.
“Maybe,” Noesh laid a hand on Jaffith’s arm, something stirring in his soul, “but have faith. I’m sure she was brought to us for a reason. She may evade Altor yet.”
Jaffith dragged his eyes from the distant rocky outcrop that marked Tetrahin’s location and fastened on his father’s face.
“Do you really believe that, father?”
Noesh met his gaze squarely, “I don’t know it but something tells me I’m right.”
Jaffith finally nodded. He became aware that the people were milling around them, uncertainty and fear written all over their faces.
“The people need you,” he said to Noesh.
After a minute the old man’s eyes cleared and he looked up at his son, determination returning. He nodded to both his sons and set about putting courage into the hearts of the people.
Jaffith and Ajalon had already pulled off a marvellous feat by rounding up every person – young, old and mischievous. They had organised what supplies and weapons they could in the few moments before leaving. Then they had rallied and chivvied frightened and reluctant clans people up the dark and dusty, unused tunnel leading out from underneath Tetrahin, far, far out into the frightening, Endless Forest.
Now Noesh put them in charge of two groups. Ajalon and a handful of the men would guide the group of mothers and children, the women and supplies to Tabun’s Cave. Ajalon was imposing and tolerated no nonsense, handy for keeping children in line.
Jaffith and the other men would shepherd the old men and women and equipment. Jaffith was steady and kind.
Reluctantly, Noesh put T’ajar into her middle son’s care.
“Stay with Ajalon, my dear. He will need your assistance with the women and children.”
She nodded calmly, “And you?”
“I will go ahead with my men and see if the path is clear.”
She reached forward and hugged him hard. She knew he took the most dangerous task. For all that he was of great age, Noesh was as fit and hardy as any man. His eyesight was still keen and his hearing undimmed. She smiled at him with pride.
“Go, my love,” she said, “and we shall meet you there.”
He straightened under the obvious warmth and confidence in her eyes.
A loud explosion split the air. Every eye turned in stunned alarm. Far behind them, where their home lay hidden, a plume of thick, dark smoke climbed steeply up into the air.
“Ajalon!” Noesh called.
He was at his side in a moment.
“What do you think?”
Noesh watched the keen, intelligent face turned toward the billowing column. Ajalon stared for a moment.
“Something has torn up Tetrahin, or someone. I had heard rumours in Arca, that the army had the power to cause a building to disintegrate in a cloud of dust.”
“Mmmm,” his father responded absently and Ajalon waited.
“I’d say it is the Fallen One,” Noesh said at last.
He spun around, then paused and turned back to his son.
“He won’t find all of Tetrahin, son, her tunnels run deep. Our most precious secrets will remain hidden,” a bitter smile curled his lips, “and they don’t have the power to destroy entire buildings…yet.”
His gaze was enigmatic, enough to make Ajalon pause and realise that the depths of his father’s intelligence eclipsed his own.
Noesh became aware of weeping sounds all around him. With a start he realised that the women were crying for their home. Sorrow tinged his heart again.
“Father,” Ajalon’s voice was terse, his hand gripped his father’s arm. He nodded toward the trees and pointed, “someone approaches.”
Noesh swung about, squinting. An exclamation burst from his lips.
“It’s Reuben and Resus!”
Two mounted figures emerged from the forest, leading a horse behind them. It’s saddle was empty.
“But no Amis.”
The men swung from the saddle and surged forward to Noesh.
“My lord,” they bowed, “did young Amis find you?”
Noesh shook his head, mystified.
Reuben was grave, “He entered Tetrahin by a secret way. He said you showed it to him.”
He looked at Noesh for affirmation and the old man nodded again.
“We saw the battle. Many wild creatures emerged from the forest and almost wiped Altor out. We saw Sem and Sambeth flying.”
Reuben swallowed, the memory of that vision too difficult to retell.
“On a shimerith?” Ajalon leaned forward, his tone anxious.
Reuben looked from Ajalon to Noesh straitly.
“They were on a flying beast, my lord. They were fine until the Fallen One attacked them.”
Noesh swayed. He stood, tense and pale, supported by Ajalon as Reuben told of the great feats he witnessed in the sky.
Reuben looked at Resus, who nodded. Reuben turned his head and resolutely fastened his eyes on Noesh.
“There is still more, lord, and it sounds impossible.”
“Go on,” Noesh ordered.
“We saw Altor and his war band heading straight for Tetrahin. We were helpless to do anything to stop them. Then we felt a ripple, a something I cannot describe, like a wash of air passing through the forest and over us and that’s when they appeared on all sides, out of nowhere.”
“Who?” Noesh was hoarse.
“The animals, lord. All manner of beasts, great and small. They threw themselves upon Altor’s men until it seemed the Earthborn would be torn to pieces. Just as suddenly, the animals froze and melted back into the forest.”
Reuben looked down and kicked a tuft of grass. His eyes flickered away from Noesh and colour surged in his cheeks.
Noesh put his hand to his chest and closed his eyes.
“Thank the Other. He bought us time,” he breathed out a long, shaky gust of air.
“You believe us, lord?” Reuben’s mouth hung open but he looked relieved.
Noesh gave a short nod, his mind already racing ahead to other things, “What about Proximus?”
Reuben shook his head, “I don’t know. He was wounded by Sem and suffered the flame of the shimerith but he was whole. One moment he hung in the sky, the next he was gone.”
“Ehyeh preserve us,” Noesh whispered, “Proximus will be hot after us. We must move!”
Reuben nodded and saluted before he raced away to help Jaffith.
“Amis must have entered Tetrahin and met Rija,” Ajalon spoke in his father’s ear.
“Unless they were both captured,” Noesh replied, his eye dropping on Jaffith talking to his mother.
“Say nothing, father, until we know for sure,” Ajalon’s dark face was serious and Noesh found himself agreeing.
“We must take the people to Aresisia and pray Sem finds us along the way.”
It was Ajalon’s turn to look thoughtful, “And if he shows up with that Earthborn girl, what will you do?”
“I will beg her forgiveness for our treatment of her and inquire of the Other what His plans are for her.”
Ajalon frowned but he took a deep breath and gazed at his father with sincerity in his eyes, “Very well, father. This time I will listen to you.”
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