The scent of smoke on the wind was more common these days. The odor of blood wafting about on the breeze was also a frequent occurrence. It was strange but the aroma of the blood that rained from the sky was not the same as the fragrance of the substance that coursed through the hearts of men. The chimera were becoming bolder and attacking larger human settlements with greater fever. Sir Liam and Tinaca had passed a handful of ruined farmsteads on their way towards Rayward’s Gate. The Helm Breaker wondered how long it would be before the monsters spawned by the red rains would start launching offensives on the most fortified cities of Argaia.
As time passed the number of chimera dead that were to be found in the aftermath of battle were sharply decreasing in proportion to the men who fought them. The veteran Rayward warmaster could tell that the animal things were gaining battlefield acumen and prowess. The corpses that lay on the earth at each battleground told a story of the monsters organizing their combat movements and fighting with direction and intellect over instinct.
“How much longer until we get to Rayward?” asked Tinaca as she squirmed in her seat on the wagon.
Sir Liam thought about where they might be located at the moment and the truth of the matter was that he did not know precisely where they were. While he was well traveled on the main continent the bulk of Sir Liam’s time spent traversing Argaia was on forced marches as part of a greater military movement and not as a pilgrim on the travelers path. His sense of perspective was vastly different when he considered that his traveling party consisted only of himself and the child at his side and not a grand host of fighting men. It did not make matters of comprehending time and distance any easier when The Helm Breaker also considered the fact that much of his time spent traipsing across the realm, whether as Master of Arms or disgraced knight had been under the influence of heavy drink. More often than not it was the voice of one of The Helm Breaker’s commanding officers or traveling companions that let him know he had reached a destination. After several woefully unfruitful moments of postulation Sir Liam realized that about the only thing he was sure of at this stage was how long it took to get from one end of Argaia to the other.
“Never mind that. We will get there when we get there. Once I find our bearings I will be able to tell you proper but until then just settle down,” said The Helm Breaker in a guttural congested tone. He gave a click of his tongue and rap of the reigns against the pack horses’ backs to speed the wagon along.
“Did you get lost?” Tinaca asked in her soft pleasant voice. There was no trace of fear in her words. While most other children her age would have been frightfully alarmed at the prospect of being disoriented in the hills of the Evermist Valley, Tinaca was mater-of –fact about the possibility.
“No, I did not get lost,” Sir Liam said a little more aggressively than he intended. His brash tone did not seem to offend his diminutive compatriot. “Like I said. I just need to get my bearings. Those will be plain enough to see once we come across the next sign post,” continued the large man with a cadence that softened as he spoke and became more aware of his abrasive words.
“When will that be?” Tinaca asked as she folded her hands in her lap.
Sir Liam gave out a big huff of frustration and curled his upper lip in an unmistakable mark of irritation. He felt his temper rising and was quickly reminded of why he enjoyed the numbing sensation that a night of revelry and drinking brought. He admirably refrained from exploding at the girl beside him. “Just keep your eyes on the path in front of us. We will have to come up on a sign post sooner or later,” said the Rayward man as he forced his voice to remain calm.
Sir Liam and Tinaca continued on the travelers path for some time after that. It was a silent journey for the most part. Nether of the two were particularly talkative but the uneasy quiet that followed was too much for the Rayward man or the young girl to bear. The pair made an attempt at small talk but that venture quickly ended as neither one had much aptitude or tolerance for speaking just to fill the silence. Both of them were not uncomfortable going for long periods of time without speaking to another person. They each had more than their fair amount of mental baggage to visit should they feel the desire to contemplate something besides an empty road. It was something about this day in particular that made Sir Liam and Tinaca unable to endure the long stretch of nothing but the two were unable to put a finger on the exact source of their joint trepidation.
Eventually, the smell of smoke in the air was complemented with the sight of black clouds rising into the sky. Sir Liam could tell it was not as large a blaze as what had consumed the Grand Abbey but whatever had been put to flame would be turned to ashes just as well. Sir Liam cautiously drove the wagon towards the dark billowing clouds.
“Something is burning,” Tinaca said flatly. It seemed like the girl had returned once more into her realm of emotional detachment.
“I know. I think I can see it up ahead on the path,” said The Helm Breaker as he squinted his eyes to see further into the distance.
It was hard to make out exactly what was burning against the rays of oncoming sunlight. Sir Liam glanced back at the hefty great maul that lay in the bed of the wagon. He hoped that there would not be a call to use the weapon but his hands were at the ready if the need arose. As the wagon continued to make its way down the travelers path Sir Liam could see a curious outline beginning to take shape. The wind must have carried the smoke a great length because what lay up ahead was not the unfortunate structure that had been ignited but a large group of armored and mounted fighting men. The Helm Breaker wondered if he would have preferred a band of chimera instead. At least then he would be certain of a threat to Tinaca and himself as the beasts were of a singularly destructive purpose. Men on the other hand were creatures of motive and desire making them comparably more mysterious.
Sir Liam wondered if it would be wise to try and evade the oncoming force but quickly decided against it. He knew well that running was often the best way to incite a hostel pursuit. As the wagon got closer to the assembly of men The Helm Breaker saw that their number was far too vast to be a group of brigands or outlaws. His head spun when he saw the sigil on the banners of the group ahead. The men wore armor of Rayward and flew the colors to match. Sir Liam had not seen such a massive group of Rayward Knights since his time as Master of Arms. The vision brought with it a sense of loss and nostalgic mourning for Sir Liam. The band of knights were a splendid sight to behold. The image made Sir Liam remember how good he used to look in his platemail.
“Who are they?” Tinaca asked. Her eyes were fixed unflinchingly on the approaching body of fighting men. She was unafraid of the imposing spectacle that the Rayward war party presented to the small lone wagon coming the other way.
“Knights of Rayward, looks like,” Said Sir Liam with a slight measure of bitterness in his speech.
“Knights, like you are?” responded Tinaca.
“No, Knights like I used to be. We will let them pass,” said the large Rayward man as he pulled the wagon off to the side of the travelers path.
Once Sir Liam and Tinaca were safely out of the way of the oncoming men The Helm Breaker stood up from his seat on the wagon. He looked out as far as his aged eyes could see and began trying to count the number of knights on the road. Sir Liam lost track of the sum somewhere between the second and third regiment of Rayward cavalry.
One of the lead riders broke off of the main precession of solders. He was followed by a small retinue of personal guards as he approached the wagon where Sir Liam and Tinaca were observing. Sir Liam did not recognize the man’s face at first but he could tell instantly who he was once the crest on the riders pauldrons became visible. Sir Liam could tell the insignia for the Rayward Master of Arms in the blink of an eye.
“Well met,” Said Sir Eric Greyhand as he stopped his horse in front of the wagon.
“And to you sir,” responded Sir Liam as he tilted his body slightly to shield and obscure the child at his side.
“You come from The Grand Abbey?” inquired the current Rayward Master of Arms.
“Aye, what is left of it in any case,” responded The Helm Breaker. He did not care for the other mans dismissive yet superior and entitled tone. The veteran Rayward warrior recalled Eric from when he was still a youth and squire. Sir Eric’s attitude had not changed since then. Sir Liam wanted the exchange to be over as quick as possible.
“It no longer stands,” pressed Sir Eric.
“No, burned to the ground by the chimera,” retorted Sir Liam.
“The same fate for a small hamlet down the way,” Sir Eric said as he nodded in the direction of the black smoke wafting into the sky. “Do not fret, we will stop them. You can tell that to all you meet. Rayward will crush these twisted things,” said Sir Eric brazenly. The man was about to leave when his gaze drifted down to the bracers on Sir Liam’s forearms and Rayward’s crest embossed on the pieces of armor. A moment of befuddlement crossed Sir Eric Greyhand’s face and was then rapidly washed away by an expression of comprehension. “Sir Liam Broadcliff?”
“Aye,” responded The Helm Breaker as his knuckles cracked from his rock crushing grip on the wagon’s reigns.
“Ha, I thought you had died at the bottom of a bottle long ago. I never had a chance to speak with my predecessor since assuming the mantel of Master of Arms. I think I am better suited to the role that you were,” boasted Sir Eric.
“Go on, you have a war to win and a name to make for yourself. Best hurry before someone else slays the chimera and embarrasses you,” said Sir Liam as calmly as he could.
Sir Eric only laughed arrogantly as he returned to leading the march of Rayward knights.
“I did not like him very much,” Tinaca said after the mass of armored men had finished passing by the wagon.
“I don’t like him either. He is going to get a lot of brave men killed before he dies like a fool,” Sir Liam responded as he started the wagon back onto the travelers path.