RISING SHADOWS BY PHILLIP BLACKWATER
Wariel Ritch, general of the Human army, stood in the fields south of Baylin, capital of the Human Kingdom.
Flanked by two of his soldiers, the Ironfist twins, Edgard and Edward, he faced a group of roughly fifty Ethulan men who’d come north of their lands to pillage and plunder the Human citizens.
They were dressed in rags, torn and muddy, with most wielding the weapon of the Ethulas. The sleb’en, a metal handle with a single short blade attached resting on the top of their hands, was wrapped around their wrists with cloth for more stability.
It wasn’t a particularly efficient weapon, but served two clear purposes: it was cheap to make, and you had to get in close to fight, which the Ethulas preferred.
Wariel liked to stroll outside the main city. The air was fresher; there was a lot more greenery – and fewer people.
This morning though, he could have done without it.
On the other hand, if he had not been here, a lot of his kinsmen could have met a gruesome fate.
What was he, if not the protector of the citizens?
He wasn’t sure why the Ethulas stood immobile before him, until he looked at their faces and saw them taking in his armor. It was completely coated with a layer of gold, aside from the silver sigil of the griffin on its hind legs embedded in the middle of his cuirass, which shone like a beacon with the early rays of the sun.
“Leave now, return to your lands and never come back.”
He knew they wouldn’t. It was only for his conscience of the things that would come next.
They stopped contemplating his golden kit and raised their weapons. “If we go back now,” one of the Ethulan men said, “we might as well be dead.” The same Ethula pointed his sleb’en toward Wariel. “But your armor could solve all our problems. Hand it over.”
“Maybe you should step back, General,” Edward said. “There’s a lot of them.”
“I’m glad you care for my safety, Edward, but this is the first group of Ethulas to ever reach Baylin. I’m not moving.”
“You lot should be the ones running away,” Edgard said. “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”
Wariel glanced at the hot-tempered Edgard. The twins were a head taller than the average Human. Their nickname in the army, the Twin Towers, was an exact description of their size. It gave them a confidence most men didn’t have. Yet Wariel wanted nothing more right now than to have Edgard’s mouth sewn shut.
The group of Ethulan men took a step forward. Wariel grabbed the silver hilt of his sword, or his work tool as he had taken to calling it.
“Fifty against three? We’ll take our chances.”
“Three? Haven’t you noticed the city behind us?”
“We see it alright, but I think we can get that armor off you before anyone else shows up.”
As if to begin their lethal duel, a bell rang in the distance, signaling that the city guards were aware of the Ethulas’ presence.
The group of foreigners charged and the three Humans took a step back to firmly plant themselves to fight.
Wariel unsheathed his golden blade, grabbed his tower shield from his back, and took a breath of cold fresh air before closing his mouthguard.
His heartbeat was stable.
He was ready to do what he had been trained for.
Wariel followed the main road to Baylin, passing amongst the buildings outside of the capital, and entered the area of Lower Baylin through the main gate.
Both areas looked alike: buildings made of a mix of dark wood and rocks, usually two stories high. The roofs of the buildings, with prominent slopes, unloaded to the ground what snow had gripped to it until now.
People, dressed not much better than the Ethulas that had attacked, were packed in the streets. Some went about making purchases of either clothes or food, while others were hard at work, as if the morning’s attack had never happened.
From tailors and coopers, to butchers and bakers, every service the citizens needed was established here. The marketplace where the farmers could come to sell their products was at the center of it all. In this part of town also lived the less fortunate of the Humans.
Wariel passed through the area at a quick pace, the people making way before him. Seeing the citizens in such crude conditions made him ashamed every time he paraded before them in his golden armor. For the number of times he had done it though, most of them had stopped paying attention a long time ago.
He quickened his pace even more when the wretched smell of sweat and sickness, made its way back through his nostrils and filled his lungs once more.
Although winter had lasted longer this year, he found himself wishing it back again. He would take the cold over the smell anytime.
He glanced behind him, to the opened gates of the city. The green of the outside, which had provided him with a much-appreciated break from the stench, disappeared when the road veered right.
After a while on the main road, he felt the small uphill climb burning in his legs. At the end, a large tower loomed over both Lower and Higher Baylin, which lay on the other side of another gate and wall separating the city in two.
It was the Guard Tower, where most soldiers resided while in function in the city. Besides the tower and behind another wall, was another part of the city, closed off from both Lower and Higher Baylin, the Military Academy, where he had spent his early life training to become a soldier, and in which every soldier to be was trained.
He had come into the school at an early age, after his family had fallen prey to the Ethulas, as a lot of other families.
Sword and shield were all he knew.
Nostalgia and sadness filled him at the same moment every time he thought of that part of his life. He often wished for a simpler time, when his family had surrounded him, and the fate of the kingdom didn’t rest on his shoulders. Fate had decided otherwise: he had been chosen to protect every citizen, every family like his own who couldn’t defend themselves.
The guards stepped aside when he approached the gate between the two halves of the city and saluted him with a nod. Higher Baylin was a place reserved for nobles. Only the wealthiest and most prestigious of the Humans could afford to live there.
It was arduous for poor people to ascend in the ranks of the Human Kingdom. More often than not, they stayed in Lower Baylin or small villages all their lives.
Mainzyr, second city in importance in the Human Kingdom, fared no better. Nobility was even rarer, and most citizens worked in mines, sweating, picking and pulling iron ore from the eastern mountains.
With unlikely prospects for bettering their future, Humans were starting to embrace the independent city of Al Fizyr, west of Baylin. Even if religion spoke greatly against migrating there, more people chose this avenue every year.
As Wariel made his way through the gate and into Higher Baylin, a delegation of Elves walked past him. They were accompanied by the queen’s advisor and some of her guards.
The general stopped, perplexed, to take a good look and make sure he wasn’t day-dreaming. One of the Elves wore a white robe, while the others were wearing simple chainmail and leather.
Elves didn’t usually leave the comfort of their kingdom unless they had good reasons. Their famous Shards of Creation were supposed to provide everything they needed. He had heard rumors that a group of them had entered the city a few days prior, but had dismissed the idea, pinning it on gossip.
What could they be doing here? The Elves cared for nobody, and nobody cared for the Elves, not even Wariel. He even heard that the Elves braided their hair simply to show their pointy ears so they wouldn’t be mistaken for another race.
Their presence here foreboded nothing good.
Wariel picked up his walk again. He was already on his way to meet with the queen. She would know why they were here.
Lost in his thoughts, trying to figure out what the self-proclaimed almighty Elves were doing here, he barely noticed a large shadow passing over him.
He continued until he reached the Town Square, the market area of Higher Baylin, where the shadow appeared again and he looked up to find a large griffin circling above. If it was so far away from its natural habitat, the northern cliffs and the island named after them, it meant it was probably the young griffin tamer who had come and gone a few times.
He had taken to flying to the various cities showing off his pet griffin, trying to get a few coins from it. Wariel should have probably stopped him from bringing his wild animal into cities long ago, but what was he supposed to do? Times were hard: there was an overabundance of people for the few available trades. The poor bugger was simply trying to make a living, and it distracted the people from the difficult times. They didn’t need more people leaving for Al Fizyr.
Wariel looked down again. A delegation of soldiers was approaching. The white cloaks they wore were the official sign of the queen’s guard. The two soldiers in front stepped aside and Dana Crystaloak, queen of the Humans, was revealed amongst them.
His heart jumped. Every time he saw her, a smile crept on the corner of his lips and his eyes gleamed. Whatever bad things had happened in his day, it always went away.
The queen was wearing her usual puffy dark red and white dress, with golden laces tying it in the front and back. Her shimmering pale blond hair, resembling silver, was majestically raised on her head in a bundle, her crystal crown placed amongst it.
Her crown, a gift from the Elves on the day of her coronation, was entirely made of crystal. In a way, it looked like an oak. The rim resting on her head was made of interlaced lines imitating roots. The lines, after completing the rim, went up in the front, conglomerating into a trunk. It continued up, splitting into branches and some diamonds, ornated here and there, imitated leaves. It represented her family name well, though it had been decided long before her.
Her eyes, green as a summer forest, fixed Wariel, and a smile crept upon her face too.
Before she or Wariel could speak, a dozen people, only slightly better dressed than the ones in Lower Baylin, rushed in from all around.
“It’s the queen!”
The citizens fell to their knees where the queen had walked moments before. They tried to scoop mud and dirt from where she had walked, and what they could gather they would hold on to for dear life.
It was said that the Guide, the goddess of the Human religion, had come down from the sky riding a griffin to lay a baby girl at the feet of the first Humans. She had grown to become the first queen, and all first daughters after her were to be queens also, directly descending from the Guide.
While the griffin had lost its religious connotation and found new meaning as the Human sigil, the queen was still very much revered by the people, even though she played no active part in the Church’s activities.