“It was a vast burning field
where no flowers grew
blood covered the embers
where no bodies were strewn
Who could do this to a land
that committed no crime
a place that had peace
In a time before time”
the devastation Arajuan
caused through out
That morning Anika awoke as the sun peeked into her tent. With the darkness gone the sun beamed the brightest she had ever seen. Only a slight trace of sulfur was on the wind much to her relief. She sat up, her stomach had a dull ache, but her legs healed except for scars on the back of them. Her shoulder where Arajuan gripped her had no wound at all. She had fallen asleep in her travel armor, so she did not need to dress. She left her tent, found Tarnink was already up and had prepared a fire.
Tarnink pulled out a pack of food and handed it to her. She tried to eat but her stomach felt numb. The food just sat and rotted. She tossed the food away from her in frustration.
“Arajuan, that vile beast, he is trying to starve me to death,” she exclaimed.
“Do not worry, Anika, when we reach the town we will find help. If Arajuan has not destroyed it. Now come here and help me pack.”
Anika packed up her food and meager supplies in her small travel pack. She watched in awe as Tarnink placed both tents and everything else he had packed into a travel pack that was smaller than the items he placed.
“Tarnink, the bag you carry, how does it hold so much?” Anika asked.
“Magic, Anika, magic,” He laughed, “This is a holding bag. It can fit near anything you want inside it. Let’s get going. We need to reach Wong before tomorrow. He needs to know of our encounter with Arajuan.”
“So where do we go now?” she inquired.
“We head straight to Stockholm, the town I mentioned last night; it is near a mile from here. I have a friend in Stockholm who might help us. In the second town, Myradal, is where Master Wong keeps a shop,” Tarnink replied.
As they walked into the woods, Anika noticed the charred and dismal look of the trees. The more she looked the stranger things seemed. Blood seeped off the leaves. She approached a large tree with a singe through its bark splitting it. Everything was charred by lightning and fire as if a storm had trailed through the forest. The sound was hallowed, not even the song of a morning bird could be heard. The silence broken only by their padded footsteps.
They walked for most the day through this desolate forest. After some time, they saw the edge. They stepped out from the woods and found themselves in a vast meadow. Anika gasped at what she saw in front of her. It was unlike anything she had ever seen in the village. The field of grass charred and burnt with smoke that wafted away. There were puddles of bright blood all over as if it rained down the night before.
Anika could not contain her shock as she walked through the meadow, her eyes scanned the area. In the distance, she could see Stockholm. Smoke rose in billows from the town.
Anika gasped when Tarnink raised a single finger to his lips. They remained silent as they walked through the decayed grassland where flowers had grown. There were no flowers now, Anika noted, no sign of life in the field. It was a bodiless battlefield. The sky that seemed so bright earlier now seemed bleak and heavy with smoke. Burnt grass and buildings drifted through the air the stench scorched Anika’s nose.
Anika and Tarnink observed the destruction in bewilderment. The shock had worn away by the time she reached the town walls. She observed the iron gate; it was open on its hinges and charred like the rest of this new empty world she had stepped into. It swung back and forth in the breeze. The town itself seemed vacant except a few here and there dressed in rags and suffering burns. With wary glances the two passed through the broken gate.
As they approached they passed an old man wearing a brown cloak that stank of ale; she gave a sad smile at the man as they looked around. The buildings of the town smoldered, the fires having not yet died. Anika glanced as she stepped over the charred body of a horse.
“What happened here?” she whispered.
“Arajuan did this,” Tarnink replied, “every town he goes through he destroys. I will go speak to the man at the gate. Try to find out if the inn is open. They might have information there.”
“Yes, sir.” Anika answered.
Anika ambled through as she looked for an inn. She stepped to avoid the puddles of blood and observed the tragedy of the survivors. One of them, a woman, sat by a fire pit and wailed in grief. The woman threw herself at a pile of ashes and screamed over her baby. Anika approached her and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She noticed the bones of a small child in the pit. She shook her head of the thought; no one could be that cruel.
He couldn’t have, Arajuan was not the cause of all this, she thought. She had heard the stories, but she had seen his eyes. They were not the eyes of a man who would kill children. She knew he had a child of his own. He wouldn’t have done this. No, not the man she linked to the scent of her protector, but the evidence was everywhere. Her stomach turned, and her heart dropped as she passed burnt buildings.
Anika became startled by a gentle tug on her cloak. She turned around with a cautious hand on her hunting knife. There stood a young boy his pale face covered in dark ash. His short messy hair was jet black and his hands were small and dirty. His coal eyes pierced her, sad and dark. He peered through them and into her soul. Anika smiled down on the boy taking her hand back off the knife.
“Well hello child, do you know where I might find an inn?” Anika asked
“No inn, you must leave immediately. Do not stop in this town,” the child commanded.
The child’s voice was soft and ominous. He looked to the darkened skies, his black eyes wide. Large drops of blood rain fell on them. Now Anika understood why everything dripped with blood. At that moment, Tarnink headed back toward her and she lurched forward as her stomach cramped again.
“What do you mean, child?” Anika asked confused.
The look this child gave her was strange and knowing. She never had seen the sky rain blood before.
“They will come and take prisoners from this town. The men will be forced to serve Gori’s army and the women will become his slaves. You must leave,” The boy urged. “I can’t allow Gori to capture you.”
Tarnink sighed, “Why should we believe you, tell us who you are?”
“The rain is My Lord’s warning, she must heed him. I was given something to give her. It might help her stomach and there is also this, maybe then you will trust me.”
The boy searched his pants and found a small vial of a silver-blue liquid. He showed this to her along with the arrow tip that Arajuan broke off the day before. Anika’s eyes widened at the familiar object. Arajuan sent this child, she drew a breath, the sulfur was in the rain. Tarnink broke through her thoughts.
“How can we trust you?” Tarnink demanded, “You obviously know Arajuan met with us. Don’t you serve him?”
“I might. Even if My Lord is Arajuan that does not change our situation, you are in danger. She must drink this,” the boy insisted.
“I will trust you, how soon do we have to leave,” she replied.
“Anika,” Tarnink tested, “are you going to accept help from someone who tried to kill you?”
“Tarnink trust me, if he were to kill us, you and I would be dead already.” Anika sighed “Well child?”
“I am Socrates. The command was to make sure you are safe. Now is the time to leave.”
The boy shoved the items into Anika’s hands. He then shocked her by transforming into a raven and lifted off into the air. They could hear him caw and then they heard drums.
“Hurry, the gatekeeper gave me a similar warning,” Tarnink said.
Anika and Tarnink ran through the town and escaped back into the woods. She sighed as they reached a small clearing in the forest. She looked over at Tarnink, despite him being older he had kept up with her speed. The benefit of being elven, you might age, but the body does not. Dragons were not as ageless.
Just as Anika made this observation, her stomach twisted inside her. She fell to the ground in pain. She still held the potion in her hand.
“Princess!” Tarnink cried out as he took the potion from her, “Are you all right?”
Anika gripped her stomach and curled into a ball. She grasped her knees to her chest. What magic did Arajuan use on her? Wracked with spasms her stomach had turned against her. He had not spared her; it felt like death. She vomited up a disgusting black substance as her body tried to purge itself.
Tarnink poured the vial Socrates gave them into her mouth. As she drank it down the pain vanished to her surprise. So, he did not intend for her to die. Maybe, she thought, he wished for her to suffer. What he had done made little sense, not if Arajuan was an enemy. That was what Queen Esmir had said, their enemy was Gori not Arajuan. She gripped the arrowhead in her hand, now a prized treasure.
Tarnink unpacked once more in the shady spot they fled to. It was not too far from the burnt ruins which made it a risk, one they had to take. He set up the campsite while Anika sat down on a tree stump consumed. Arajuan had let her live twice now. He sent the child to warn her about the soldiers returning to the city. She sat by the fire Tarnink had started. As hard as she tried the pieces did not fit.
“Tarnink, you once knew Arajuan well right?” she asked.
“Yes, why do you ask?” He replied.
Tarnink poked at the fire to get it blazed up. Then he sat with her on a nearby log. He raised a brow at her and handed her sausages from his pack. Anika took the food and continued.
“Who is Socrates?”
“Socrates is Arajuan’s eyes, and it is good you trusted his word. I admit I did not know he could take on a child’s face. If I had I would have trusted him. You think well and are quick to act, this will be vital for our success. As for Socrates, he is wise like his namesake. When Arajuan was alive…”
Anika interrupted, “When he was alive? So, he’s dead?”
“Some think he is an undead, but no I’d say he is simply very ill, but it is hard to tell. As I was saying when he was alive he was a fierce warrior in another world called Gaia. He was a Spartan soldier, they were a warrior people. His father ordered him to murder his family and so he did. He slaughtered his children and his young wife Ilisia was found dead. She was murdered by her own beloved’s hand. He then went out to battle with his father’s blessing.” Tarnink told her as he heated his own food.
“What does Ilisia have to do with Socrates?” She huffed.
“I am getting to that. When he reached the battlefield, his heart ached for his baby son and a young daughter. He lost his stomach for war and begged a fellow soldier to kill him handing the soldier his own sword. The other Spartan ran the blade into Arajuan’s belly, striking him down. Socrates flew down where Arajuan’s body laid on the field and ate his left eye after which the bird never left his side.” Tarnink said, “Anything else you want to know?”
Anika took this in, she chewed her sausage slow in thought. Elewyn was not the first time he raised a family. The image of the dead child’s bones came back to her. She gasped, if he slew his own children then he had to have killed that mother’s infant. How cruel, she thought. What was more important was that she was told to trust Socrates. How could she trust him if he worked for Arajuan?
“So, if Socrates is Arajuan’s eyes, then he works for Arajuan. Why would Arajuan wish for us to be safe? Why would he have a bird protect us? And what makes him think I want his protection? I can protect myself.” Anika rushed.
Tarnink chuckled, “I do not know if Arajuan is behind the command Socrates mentioned, but if so I wonder the motive. Whatever his intentions, it is not for our benefit, but because he has a use for you somehow. As for you not needing protection then may I ask why I am here?”
“Oh, I am so sorry Tarnink,” Anika blushed, “I meant nothing against you.”
“No harm taken, little princess, now it is time to sleep.”
Tarnink stood up and went into his tent. Anika felt so overwhelmed by the day; maybe if she slept it all would be clearer. She looked up into the trees and thought she saw a raven. It was only for a moment. She shook her head and looked again, nothing. Maybe she was seeing things due to stress. She ate the rest of her sausage and went into her tent to sleep.