It had been going on this way for months, now. Leave, ride for hours. Ride until you run out of sunlight. If you're in a town, find someone to quarter you. If the town is a recent conquest, prepare for looks of disgust and hatred and smell the tea for gifts of poison. If you're not in a town, set up camp by moonlight. Use magic for light only if absolutely necessary. Sleep only until the first sliver of graphite dulls the ink of the sky, blotting out the stars, one by one. Begin to pack up. Eat your dry rations. Drink so much water, you're bloated. Make sure you leave nothing behind. Ride.
Horuk Gavrel was the highest-ranking soldier in the Terthian Land Forces. Of all the military officials, he was outranked only by the head of the ESD—Elite Sorcery Division. Horuk had fought and won many battles in the name of Terutas and its royal family. Born to a family indebted to the throne, he was sold into service at the age of six. Yet there he had been, just two mornings prior, sitting in the Princess's chambers and taking her orders directly.
Even in what was considered to be a rigid caste system, movement was sometimes possible. And Horuk was grateful every day for the way his efforts had paid off in his life. True hard work had led him to honor and prestige.
Yet now he'd been reduced to an errand boy.
When Prince Tervius had begun the war with Aur, he'd simultaneously vanished, abandoning his sister and leaving her to pick up the slack. However, while she pointed a blind finger to random regions and sought their conquest in his stead, Tereska's primary goal became locating her brother. Horuk agreed that this was important, but with battles being waged across the border, was he really best served running from town to town, turning people's homes upside-down and waving a painting of His Highness in the faces of bewildered innocents?
Presently, he sat alone in the dark. He'd volunteered to keep watch as the other men slept, his Sonic Pistol in one hand, a mug of cold tea in the other. His back rested against the sleeping, breathing form of Julene, his horse, and her warmth permeated the back of his jacket and kept his neck and shoulders from seizing with the cold. Overhead, the moon barely etched a slice of pearl into the sky. It had been new just one week prior, and the sky had been completely vacant save for the cross-like bands of stardust that smattered overhead this time of year, the center of which conveniently seemed to mark the location of the Aurish capital of Gladyn.
That would be the ultimate destination of this war, wouldn't it? But though Tereska seemed to have no qualms with perpetuating the siege and seemed more than happy to take the burden upon herself, Horuk couldn't help but wonder—why had the prince started all of this in the first place?
King Oulath Phillip Drae had come from Aur to do an annual talk with the head of the Terthian family. Since Tervius's father had passed away months prior, he was now heir to the throne, set to ascend as soon as he was wed.
According to Tereska—the only available witness after the fact—Oulath had recommended that their two nations unite at last, officially, under one banner. For this, he presented his daughter Elysse. Her name had been on the table for quite some time, along with countless other eligible bachelorettes, so it should not have been news to Tervius that she was a candidate.
But upon hearing the official proposal, Tervius had, according to his sister, snapped violently and became insulted at the proposition. So insulted, in fact, that he'd grabbed an ornamental trident from off the wall, and speared Oulath through the chest with it.
Afterwards, being of a weak constitution, he fled in the wake of his actions, and Tereska ran to find help for the dying, bleeding man on the floor of the study rather than pursuing her brother.
This, of course, was a truth Tereska only confided in Horuk, lest the news of their murderous king get around and enrage their own citizens. As far as they knew, King Oulath was merely a prisoner of the Terthian forces. A lie that Horuk scarcely believed the Queen and her fair daughter would buy. They were no fools—he had met them himself many times over the course of his military career. Yet Tereska was confident that they had no reason to fear, nor did Terutas have a reason to reveal any secrets—however transparent—to its enemies.
It was underhanded, and left Horuk with a bad taste in his mouth. But it was a bad taste he was willing to swallow in service to his Princess and his country.
Horuk blinked slowly, watching as the black linen sky slowly began to fade, washed over and over, losing its pitch a little more each time he closed, then opened his eyes. The stars blurred and disappeared into gray. As he sat, the forms of the other soldiers, asleep on the ground by their horses or in trees above, slowly became visible, blotches of anomalies in the otherwise natural shape of the forest. Horuk eased himself forward away from Julene and balanced his mug on a patch of grass beside himself in order to free a hand and reach into one of his saddle bags, procuring a pile of jerky wrapped in cheesecloth. He unwound it and slipped a bit between his teeth, tearing at it, his teeth feeling inadequate for the job of ripping apart the tough, dry, hardened flesh.
They wouldn't arrive back in the capital valley until dusk on the following evening, assuming the ride was a smooth one, and Horuk did not envy himself when that time came, making the trek to Tereska's chambers only to tell her that they, once again, turned up empty-handed. She would undoubtedly act like it didn't matter, and insist on coming along to retrieve her brother. Her presence would definitely make things more difficult. She was aware of it, though Horuk wasn't quite certain that she knew the reason why. Not that he was about to illuminate it for her.
"General," said one of the men from the tree above him. He continued eating and didn't look up, merely waiting for the other to continue talking. "I can see a prison camp from here now the fog's thinned."
The previous day's ride had been all in fog. Determined not to slow down, he dealt with the lack of visibility and pressed forward. Now, this private was trying to politely inform him that they'd wandered a little off course.
"Can you tell which one it is?"
"Looks like number Eight, based on its position near the river. I can see two cities to the Southwest. Probably Belae and Juhiina."
Horuk lifted a hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose between his eyes. They'd been meaning to go North, but in the fog they'd wandered too far East. Now they would have to go through a mountain pass to bypass the valley entrance and head straight for the Eastern barracks. The only upside to this was that there wouldn't be fog. Instead, there would likely be snow.
"Fine," he said simply, wiping a drip of tea from the corner of his mouth and standing, his back popping as he did. He ignored it. "We should stop there before proceeding. May as well see how they've been handling things since we're in the area. Wake the others."
"Yes sir," the soldier replied, and began to use the very intelligent alarm system of throwing tree nuts at other soldiers and yelling "time to go!" in a sharp voice. Horuk focused on waking Julene instead, carefully rubbing her down. Her big eyes opened, blinking sleep away apologetically, and she rose.
The ride to Camp Eight took less time than rousing the soldiers to ride there, and by the time they drew up to the gate, sun was already licking the tops of the five tall pillars of the camp, built to house the prisoners overnight, when they weren't being put to work. The camps themselves had been around for centuries, originally housing workers and soldiers. But the capacity back then had been smaller, beds meant for one man were now being used for two or three people. To make this easier, the mattresses had been removed. To fit more beds, the headspace between had been minimized, the legs of each bed sawed down at the beginning of the war. It was necessary—they needed to fit more bodies in the camp, and the productivity needed to be increased as well.
The solid stone door slowly cranked up, men supervising magic-powered wheels at the top of the entryway as the chains wound around them. As soon as the opening beneath the door was big enough, he rode forward, ducking just a little to avoid hitting his head on the stone. Inside, the upper guards gathered to greet him—the prisoners were all down working already, and therefore had other supervisers down in the forge.
Horuk strode forward, nodding at the guard who stood waiting for him. "Everything going well, soldiers?"
They nodded an affirmative, parting to allow him to cross the room without having to walk around them. It smelled like moss in the old fortress; earthy, damp and secretive. The stones were stacked so evenly, and so high. Undoubtedly, magic was used to aid in the construction of these facilities. What would have taken years by physical strength alone took only months for a few men and a lot of sorcery. Horuk often wondered how the Aurish people got along without magc. Then again, they rarely made their buildings of stone or carved them into the faces of mountains. Rather, they tended to live with nature. Floating out on the water, or suspended in the canopies of trees. The latter was how the Aurish capital of Gladyn was constructed.
Horuk had been there several times in his life. And although he would be loathe to say it aloud in this time of war, he rather enjoyed it. As much as he felt the cold, solid mountain living suited him, he felt enchanted by the diamond-studded waters of the giant lake and the earthy, organic, imperfect perfection of the trees, stretching up into the sky. Reaching for Eruv. And in the palms of those giant hands rested the Aurish palace and all of the nobility. Spiralling down the trunks were the soldiers' homes. Floating in and surrounding the lake below were the shops and the farms.
When the prince and princess were young, Horuk had escorted them to Gladyn to meet the King of Aur. The weather was incredibly mild, but he carried Tervius on his back so that he wouldn't get overheated walking around. Tereska ran ahead of them, standing on her tip-toes, peeking at the vendors in the shops. Horuk called for her often, terrified he would lose her in the throng. He hated being their chief escort at the time. They were too precious, too small, too fragile a cargo to be entrusted to him. But he never lost them.
Not until now.
"Soldier. Have you seen His Royal Highness Prince Tervius, around here, by chance?" he assumed that by now word had reached this fortress that the prince was missing. But it remained unknown to all but he and Tereska that he had in fact fled.
One of the guards—a man who would have been handsome were he not quite so tall and thin, causing him to look like he'd been drawn and quartered at puberty—let a wheezy sound come from his chest repeatedly, which took Horuk a few moments to realize was his laugh. "I think, General, we'd notice if his highness were kippin around here."
Horuk stared at the man, and wondered if his face betrayed how unamused he felt by the jest within. "Yes, naturally." He pulled the painting from inside of his jacket out, and unrolled it before them. "Are you absolutely certain?"
The guard began to laugh again, and some others joined him. One, however—a man with long, well-kept hair and a rather piggish face—stepped forward and nearly shoved his snout against the canvas as he inspected it.
"You know, General…? I think there's someone who looks kinda like that, here."
Horuk stared at the man, and his own party of soldiers erupted in a hornet's nest of anxious whispering behind him. They were, undoubtedly, just as tired of this wild goose chase as he was.
"Bring me to him."