The Fall of Men

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 35

The dream called upon the imagery of the pile of bodies burning outside the walls of the settlement. They were the soldiers that had fallen during the attack, stripped of their gear and piled up to be turned to ashes that would later dissolve into the ground or fly off in the wind. Shiloh sat up and shoved the blankets off him as the odor of the smoke sneaked its way into his nostrils. He looked around at the neat four walls of the room inside the stone building. The smoke was laced with the odor of meat and spices.

Outside the window, he could see a bit of the coastline as the sunlight crept along the cold waves that cuddled the shore. Shiloh swung his body around under the tangled covers and placed his feet on the cold, rough wooden floor. His toes brushed against the edges of the stiff hide shoes before he could shove his feet in.

The smell of food cooking became stronger as Shiloh descended from the northern wing of the castle. The air in the lower tower was muggy, despite the licks of cold air tickling at his feet. The fire in the main hall crackled and flustered with the cold wind coming under the heavy main doors. From the sides of the long hall, the stretched-out tables had been brought out and rested upon the dirty, worn carpet that could have, at one point, been called ornate.

Zethurus glanced up from his book at Shiloh. The mage had positioned himself at one of the tables, under a candelabra to study one of his books.

“You didn’t get much sleep.” Zethurus muttered as Shiloh reached for the chair beside him.

“Neither did you.” Shiloh grumbled back, taking a seat.

“I don’t require much.” He said, flipping a page.

“We shouldn’t be wasting time when we could be readying men.” Shiloh added.

“You can’t lead men on an empty stomach.” Manek said aloud, his voice traveling to the far end of the hall. Shiloh looked up to the throne, where he had missed the Emperor, sitting impatiently in his dull yet intricate sleep wear.

“My apologizes your highness.” Shiloh began to stand. Manek’s eyes were immediately drawn away by the approach of a maid, carrying out a wide oval tray holding several piles of food. Another of the ladies approached Zethurus, offering up a similar, though smaller, portion of the same food.

The mage waived his hand and pointed in the direction of Shiloh. “I will wait. Allow him to eat up.”

Shiloh returned to the seat as the smell of the food entered his nostrils, causing his stomach to churn eagerly. The first handful to his mouth was a slice of dense, doughy bread, flavored heavily with salt and a strange herb he had never tasted.

Manek suspended his chewing just long enough to call out down the steps. “Enjoying it are you?” He gnawed, the lump of food still resting in one cheek. “The meat, I hear, is something from Slana, across the sea. Butchered from a bovine with horns as wide as roadway between buildings.”

Shiloh yanked at the dried stringy meat between his teeth before ripping off a few strands. His chewing slowed as the jerky returned to a more palatable form. He looked down at the remaining food before pushing it away from himself across the table.

“Not hungry?” Zethurus noticed.

Shiloh swallowed the minuscule bite he had taken. “Rich. Hopelessly rich.”

“You mustn’t waste food, good man.” Manek argued, raking up bits of food off the tray with his grubby fingers.

Shiloh stood and stomped to the middle of the carpet just below the long treads up to the throne. “How can you eat your breakfast so calmly while the enemy could be marching upon us at this moment?”

“Tulefore isn’t a stranger to conflict.” Manek groaned with pleasure as he swallowed down the food. “Even now, my messengers are spreading the word to those who are present. And I’ll have you know, we shall have a grand event when they arrive. This meal… hardly breakfast it is… is just to hold my over until that time.” He added, looking for more spots of food on the tray.

“You fat fool!” Shiloh cried. “What you call conflict is purely superficial. You haven’t been on the front. You simply wait here for your fetishes and delicacies to show up on your lap. And here we are, waiting for Xiandol to deliver on us the destruction they so much desire!”

Manek’s bulging neck vein hesitated as the doors at the far end of the hall opened.

“Is the truth so foul to you that you can’t speak?” Shiloh redoubled.

“Mr. Shiloh, you should calm yourself.” Zethurus spoke up, standing.

The bearded man marched up the long carpet and stopped just behind Shiloh, placing his hand on the guards neck as he finished his rant.

“What is-” Shiloh muttered, turning around to the man. The two men’s eyes met, driving Shiloh to take a knee. “Danus, My Lord.” He uttered, his gaze fixed to the ground.

“Stand.” Danus ordered, removing his grasp on Shiloh’s shoulder.

“Brother.” Manek mumbled, passing off the tray to one of the servants.

Danus looked Shiloh in the eyes, his face stern. “I had to come immediately upon hearing the message. It seems my fears of the conflict at the front worsening have come true. And with you being here as well, Mr. Shiloh…”

“My Lord,” Shiloh shuddered. “There is much to tell you, and yet we would never have the time.”

Danus took Shiloh’s other shoulder, rocking him back and forth gently. “I was so happy to have at least my son able to return from the front, only to have those hopes crushed when he was forced to immediately head back.”

“Terren is dead, My Lord.” Shiloh sighed.

Danus turned his head down to the ground. “Then my daughter. You must have brought her somewhere safe, then?”

“I… do not know.” Shiloh admitted. “I was away when Xiandol attacked.”

Danus lifted his head slowly and turned away from the guard. “When I retreated from the front, what was the sole order I gave you?”

“To protect your blood, sir.”

Danus nodded his head slowly. “I always knew Terren was too headstrong that any words of caution would bounce right off him. I thought that the cold air of the mountains would cool his temper.”

“He died protecting your daughter.” Shiloh said.

“I would have expected no less.” Danus murmured back. “I worry, though, if that was all in vain.”

“Lady Kiaren had me on an assignment. As much as I disdained leaving her side, it was necessary.”

“If we are at war with another, we can not allow ourselves to simply fall victim to our own poor judgment.”

Shiloh stomped his foot loudly. “We can’t even be sure if she fell to Xiandol.”

Danus turned back to Shiloh and dug his hand into the guard’s neck. His face was turned to the ground, the tears pooling at the corners of his reddening eyes. “Of course.” He mumbled, shaking his head. “We cannot let ourselves be distracted while Xiandol continues to march upon us. Zethurus.”

The mage closed his book and walked over to place himself beside the other two. “Yes, My Lord?”

“The news I’ve heard… of Xiandol having an invincible army. It can’t be true.” Danus said, leaning in.

“Invincible, no, but hardly something we can take on as we stand.”

“Some magical force? Where did it come from?”

Zethurus cleared his throat. “I must believe it is the power of the artifact.”

“And after all I… we did there.” Danus grumbled. He straightened his back and turned to the set of long treads up to the throne. Manek stared down at the group, his head resting tiredly on his fist. “Brother, how can you sit so comfortable while our countryside is being threatened?”

“The Order will come.” Manek sighed tiredly.

“You can truly be so sure of that?” Danus raised his voice. “Do you intend to ally with them?”

“They would never ally with us.” The Emperor sat up. “Their treaty is with us as well as Xiandol, as you know. Siding with us is tantamount to breaking the terms of the accord. As if our Empire were wielding the magic ourselves. It wouldn’t be long before Xiandol would use the excuse to nullify the treaty as well. But the Arcanus will attempt to enforce the treaty and put Xiandol in their place, without our aid as they should intend.”

“Unacceptable!” Danus shouted, his voice echoing throughout the drafty, desolate room. “We shall not allow the order to act even slightly on our behalf. This is our fight. Brother, we have battlemages at the ready who have just returned from Slana with Silvus.”

“You can’t be serious, Mr. Lord.” Zethurus spoke up. “The Order is powerful, as well as the Xiandolan army.”

“I have to agree, Lord Danus.” Shiloh grabbed at his back. “It is too dangerous a position we would be placing ourselves in- making enemies in people whom we should be able to trust.”

“Silence!” Manek called out. Danus took a step back down, pushing Shiloh back father. “It seems that our rational is as lacking as our forces. There must be a middle ground we can hold while we wait for this situation to play out. Allow the others to arrive. Someone, start preparing my breakfast!”

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