The King's Trap

By: Peter Meredith

The Hidden Land Novel 2



Chapter 1

Aric

Three miles into the forest, with the dull grey mists swirling about their ankles and the sun only a dim circle in the southwest sky, Caslin son of Fostin died. He lay upon the soft ground and breathed his last and Aric could do nothing but watch and grieve for this unknown soldier. Unabashedly, he wept over the loss of the man, while beside him—crowding him—the other men-at-arms of the Den did not. It was not their way. Their eyes grew stony and their lips became thin lines. Each touched their own chest with the palm of their hand and then touched Caslin in the same way. This was their goodbye.

Aric turned away, finding it hard to breathe. Looking back, he saw the long, thin trail of blood the young soldier had left behind; it disappeared into the magical fog. How far did that trail extend? How long had Caslin stoically bore the ruination of his internal organs, saying nothing, slowly dying? When he had finally stumbled and could not go on, Caslin had urged the others to leave him. They would not, not in this horror of a forest. They turned to Aric, but the fey had nothing left. His magic—the power of his soul—was, for the time being, spent.

Beside him, staring down at the body, Furen sighed in the heavy way that dwarves do, as if sighing itself was work. "We should not tarry over long. We know not what sort of reception our demon friend might be planning for us on the other side of these damned mists."

"I doubt there will be one," Aric said, unmoving. "Had it not been for Eireden and the Den, the fey would be no more. It is unlikely that our enemy foresaw his coming, else he would have stopped him ere he reached the Feylands."

"Either way, my Lord Fey," one of the soldiers replied. "Caslin would not want us to sit about mourning until the whole maug army came down upon our heads. He would want us to look to our duty."

In all his long life Aric Anorian had never been so emotionally spun. In the last few hours he had seen death and blood to last him a lifetime. Inside him roiled grief and guilt. There was so much guilt within him that he felt as if he were choking on it. "What about your duty to him?" Aric demanded, flaring in sudden anger. "Do you say nothing at his passing? No words of loss? Do you leave him here to be fed upon? Is this what passes for honor among the Den?"

The two remaining soldiers bristled with anger at this. Furen stepped between them and Aric. "Unlike you, my friend," the dwarf said in a gentle voice. "The Den and I, we are mortals and know much about death. Not only that we are soldiers. We laugh loudest and drink the heaviest. We live big because we know that our lives can be gone, passing in the blink of an eye. And we mourn and grieve longer than any. Caslin will be remembered, do not worry about that. Twenty years from now, you and I will only vaguely recall this young man, yet every soldier in his company will be able to tell you where he fell and if he had a wife or sweetheart. They will tell stories of him and they will laugh and cry. They know him and they will remember."

"In one thing you are wrong, Furen," Aric said in somber reply, feeling the weight of his guilt grow. "I will remember him. His death and the death of all today were caused by my actions. Only in death can I forget that." He then turned to the two soldiers. "As for my words, please accept my apologies. I was being presumptuous. I know not your ways and still would think to dictate them. That is wrong and foolish."

The soldiers nodded to this but said nothing; neither looked to have the strength for anything more. They were battered and bloodied from the long fight in the valley. Furen arranged the dead man, placing his spear at his side and his shield across his body. "There; he will lie as he fought. Come and no looking back."

Aric allowed the dwarf to pull him along and the two Den kept very close. They were afraid of the forest. They were afraid to take even a step away from the fey. Having come through without one to deflect the illusions they knew only too well what horrors awaited them if they became lost in the mists. Furen led and had no trouble getting them out of the woods; a few thousand fey had gone before them and though they walked light, many were injured and they left an obvious trail. A blood trail.

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