Of Armor and Bone: Chapter Nine
The cold gray morning had settled over the forest. Zethurus’s meditation had taken him through the cold, pitch black night. A tingling up his shoulders and neck alerted him to some life force in range of his shelter incantation that cloaked him from outside contact. His eyes shot open in time to hear the rusting of dead leaves on the forest floor.
A lone skunk slinked by through the muddled vegetation, bringing with it a faint trail of pungent odor. The black-and-white striped animal quickly disappeared out of sight on way to return to its burrow for the daylight hours. Zethurus exhaled a long breath of relief. He slid down off the stump he had been resting on for the night. His legs had become stiff and the part of his cloak he had been resting on carried a spot dirtied by the dead wood and moss.
The horse nibbled on yellowed vegetation quietly. With one of its hind legs lifted in the air, it gently poked its head around to scan for any premature green shoots budding up from under the dead leaves. The wizard scanned the area, looking for any other signs of life. With a wave of his hand, he dispelled the incantation. The cold air caught in his lungs and sucked the warmth from inside his body.
With a few steps forward, he placed his hands on the horse’s neck and bunched up parts of its mane between his fingers. “Alright, you damn animal. Just a bit farther, and we should be free from this mess,” he said, tugging roughly at the thick hairs. The horse flinched slightly and shifted away.
The wound on his arm still wept blood into the tightly wound strip of cloth he had ripped from his cloak and tied around it. None of the magic he had attempted to use on it had been able to heal the damage. With dirty fingernails, Zethurus scratched at the purple bruised skin around the gash. The horse fussed as he mounted its back, but tolerated his movements as he picked up the reins.
The dirt road was muddy but bare of any recent imprints of horseshoes or men’s boots. Zethurus urged the horse onward out of the wooded area and out the several meters towards the road. Each pace was uneven and rough as the animal struggled to maintain its stride with one foot limping. The mage continued to dig his heels into its sides. The cold breeze caught his face as they entered the clearing of the path, and he pulled up the fur lining of the cloak.
The road headed off in the direction of the southern port away from Tulefore city. It was where Zethurus was raised, away from bustle and commotion of all the citizens. However, when it was found that he and his parents were of magical blood, they were transported- or dislocated, rather- to the big city as part of a measure to keep track of those with magical aptitude.
Zethurus urged the horse on with withering patience for some time. The early morning fog drifted around lazily, but the sun gave no signs of wanting to appear. Far in the distance, a rumbling could be heard, only faintly at first. The mage slowed the horse to a stand-still, while listening.
The sound of pounding horseshoes grew closer. He attempted to guide the horse off the road, but it had long decided to disregard any of his rough guidance. Zethurus grit his teeth and concentrated to send magical energy outward towards his uninjured arm, readying himself for an attack. As the sound grew and the people came closer, he could feel the power prickling in his fingertips. Finally, the first of the group came into view.
Hesitantly, upon catching a glimpse of the tan and blue cloaks of the Tuleforian soldier, he let down his guard. The men on horses approached him and skid to a halt. He found himself surrounded. His horse snorted and pawed the ground nervously.
“Identify yourself!” One of the soldiers called out.
“I recognize him, sir.” Another announced. “He is our mage, upon the Sing front.”
One of the soldiers; a man more heavily dressed with shining armor pieces, paced around Zethurus on his horse. “Why aren’t you present at the Sing encampment?”
Zethurus licked his lips and pulled at the reins to steady the horse beneath him. “I had no choice but to leave,” He lied, avoiding eye contact with any of the men. “We were attacked.”
“Then,” the captain accused, “You should be there supporting the troops, offering your healing.”
“It was impossible.” Zethurus rebutted. “They attacked in the dead of night, a small group of men- strong, unstoppable. There was little I could have done.”
The captain trotted his horse around, examining the mage from any every angle. “Is that so?” He said, incredulously. “Just a few men, defeating the forces we had stationed there?”
“They wielded strange equipment, enchanted with magic. I faltered in an attempt to fight back,” Zethurus continued to fabricate, “in fear that I may break the treaty.”
“To hell with the treaty!” One of the soldiers shouted. “You deserted the camp! Are you satisfied at watching our brothers die!?”
“Silence! The captain interjected loudly, causing the horses to jostle. “We were ordered to pursue Lieutenant Terren’s squad. Did you not come across them while you were fleeing like a… coward?”
Zethurus pursed his lips. He looked around at the men scowling at him. “I did not.”
“And the commander…” The captain asked. “…I must hope that she did not fall in the attack.”
“She was not present at the time.” The mage answered quickly.
“I am not one to question her actions or whereabouts.” Zethurus explained curtly.
“I swear, all of you people are useless.” The captain spat. “If nothing else, we shall bring you back with us and maybe you can aid in some way.”
Zethurus grabbed the reins of the horse and lifted them in the air, to no reaction of the animal. “I am going nowhere with this lame horse of mine.”
The captain scanned the crowd of other soldiers and finally pointed to one that caught his eye. “Leave it.” He gestured back to the horse. “We can afford one more traveler. Hop on over there.”
Zethurus grumbled and slid down off his horse, pulling off the saddle and reins. He quickly tossed them to the side and slapped the horse’s side to cause it to jolt off. One of the other soldiers nodded to him to jump on his horse.
“We must waste no more time.” The captain ordered as he trotted to the front of the pack. With a loud ‘hyah’ his horse reared up for a moment before taking off in a gallop. Zethurus had just enough time to grasp onto the man on the horse with him before it started moving.
Out of the corner of his eye, Zethurus spotted what looked like a dark figure deep in the trees, but before he could get a second glance, the horse had taken him out of view.