n_wilkinson: (darkmoon)
[personal profile] n_wilkinson
Title: Prisoner of Conscience
Series: Erland, Book One (War of the Animum universe)
Genre: Fantasy Adventure
Warnings: graphic violence, character death
Summary: The maris are born and bred to be warriors, hungry for any challenge. For Erland, however, the thrill of battle is dulled by its lack of purpose. When a simple patrol becomes an ambush, Erland makes a choice that goes against everything he's been taught, and the consequences are worse than he could have ever imagined.

Chapter Seven

A week passed, bringing with it silence and solitude. Erland had nothing to do but think, not that he needed any more time for thought. There was little else to occupy his time.

 

The further north he traveled, the worse the weather became. The cool, moisture of the dargon homeland’s spring disintegrated. It left stifling, humid air behind, stretched out over a vast rangeland covered in rock. There was very little vegetation.

 

Erland's unprotected skin began to burn under the intense glare of the sun. The humidity made it difficult for Erland to breathe. The maris, after all, were better suited for the cold mountains.

 

Erland altered his schedule so that he was traveling in the cooler mornings and evenings. During the day, he slept in what shelter he could find.

 

Coren pressed forward, unbothered by the thick, sticky air. His tail constantly swished, batting away the biting insects that loved Erland’s skin just as much as Coren's hide.

 

Soon Erland found himself nearing familiar territory. Trees with dark green needles sparsely dotted the landscape and the ground became ridged. Sharp juts of rock burst from the landscape in an intimidating fashion.

 

Recognition stirred inside of him.

 

He was near the Vaula Pass, where his fellows had been ambushed and all of his war party had been killed. He had time for a detour. Erland clucked his tongue, nudging Coren to adjust his route.

 

He didn’t know why. For closure, perhaps, or to pay his respects. Maybe he needed to remind himself never to make the same mistakes again. Perhaps it was simply something that needed to be done.

 

It was midday before Erland located the narrow path between two high ridges. Approaching it from the southern side, he caught sight of a small stand of green brush off to the side. Erland dismounted from his horse and led him over to the leafy foliage. Hopefully, that would ease Coren's hunger.

 

Erland crept into the silent gorge, one hand grasping the earrings he reclaimed. He had threaded Vyalee’s onto the ties for his loincloth so that he wouldn’t lose them, and returned his own to their rightful place.

 

The floor of the ravine, once he could see it, revealed only rocks and animal tracks. The corpses of his maris companions were gone. Perhaps they had been consumed by the death eaters, perhaps not. But even carrion eaters left skeletons behind.

 

It had not been long enough for them to have turned to dust. Erland knew of no race or tribe that collected the bones of the fallen, much less the maris. His eyes narrowed. His claws clenched so tightly to the rings in his hand that their sharp points cut deeply into his flesh.

 

Erland stepped forward, feet sliding over some weapon half-hidden in the dirt. Crystal-clear memory showed him the exact spot where Vyalee had fallen.

 

He half-imagined that he could still see blood spotting the ground and splashed against the wall of rock behind it. His heart grew heavy. He knew he would never forget the sight.

 

Erland’s breath caught in his throat. Vyalee had listened to his words, his plea for surrender, even if it wasn’t the maris way. His best friend had trusted Erland until the last possible moment, though every maris instinct Vyalee possessed had raged against that trust and lost.

 

The earth gave a tremble beneath Erland. He blinked as his skin prickled. His innui woke from its slumber, slow to respond. A trickle raced down Erland's spine.

 

Something subtle in the air changed. He could taste the sharp and acrid scent of peril. He took an unconscious step backward.

 

He did not see a rising dust cloud from either direction, so there was no stampede. Nor was this area prone to landshakes.

 

The land vibrated yet again. The sandy soil rippled, hard enough that Erland nearly lost his balance. Erland quickly tied Vyalee’s rings back onto the strings of his cloth, and whirled around. He pressed his back to the canyon wall, almost tripping on the same half-buried item in the sand.

 

A strange keening noise echoed from beneath the ground.

 

Coren neighed and took off into the underbrush, gone in a blink. Ralen bedamned. Animals often new what the intelligent did not.

 

Erland tensed as that shiver of danger sizzled once again down his spine. There was danger here and he was out of time.

 

He dove for the item that had tripped him. His fingers wrapped around the shaft of what appeared to be a spear

 

The ground exploded a few feet away. A shower of red dirt and rock sprayed into the air as a supine body emerged from beneath the soil.

 

Three times Erland’s own height and waving pincers from its massive mouth, Erland laid his eyes on a monge. He had never seen one before, but they had been described to him. This was, without doubt, that hairy, segmented creature. The shrill keen only confirmed it. Its large, gleaming fangs sent genuine terror down Erland's spine. His wing nubs quivered.

 

He didn't have the time to be afraid.

 

Erland scurried backward as the creature wriggled from its prison, swinging its massive head around in search of prey.

 

Erland scrambled to his feet and the monge’s head swiveled his direction. Erland vaguely remembered his father explaining that the monge could detect vibrations through the ground.

 

The monge threw itself his direction, far faster than he expected. Erland’s fingers tightened around the shaft of the spear as he dove to the side and twisted to avoid one of the nasty looking claws that lined each one of its many segments.

 

Erland rolled across the ground as the monge narrowly missed colliding with the solid wall of the ravine. It quickly coiled its body and centered on the maris’ movements as Erland leapt to his feet. He scanned for something, anything truthfully, to help him in this battle. He mourned the loss of his wings, knowing that if he could fly, the monge’s speed wouldn’t be a problem.

 

The keening noise emerged from the beast’s mouth once more and it lunged at Erland, pincers snapping. He darted forward, leapt over its surging fangs and landed clumsily on its back.

 

His injured hand scrabbled for purchase, palm slicing open as he grasped onto one of the many hooked spikes of the monge’s spine. The creature immediately reared at the unexpected weight on its back. It flexed its body and Erland threw himself toward the beast's carapace, clinging tightly. Erland aimed the spear at the monge’s hairy hide, briefly drawing blood, before he was bucked from the monge’s back.

 

Erland twisted in midair with the same agility Vyalee had always envied, landing easily on his feet before springing forward. He dove under the creature’s
twisting body, avoiding impalement on one of the claws.

 

The monge undulated to the side, twisting its head around, and catching the end of Erland’s flailing arm between its pincers.

 

Erland cursed as flesh was torn from his arm, blood welling up bright and scarlet. He whirled and struck out again. His blade scraped across the monge’s underside, drawing a viscous, green fluid that hissed as it struck the rock. Erland recoiled, fearing that he had struck the creature’s poison glands. He knew that a monge’s saliva was strong enough to melt bone.

 

Bone.

 

Suddenly, Erland understood all too clearly. While the monge preferred to eat their meals live, if hungry enough, they would consume fresh corpses. His companions had been devoured when the dargon left them there to rot.

 

Erland’s eyes reddened, a surge of anger spreading through his entire body. The monge were solitary creatures and fiercely territorial. It had to have been this one who had committed such sacrilege, keeping his comrades from their funeral pyres. His teeth clenched in rage, eyes flashing.

 

He would kill this beast, or perish trying.

 

The monge gurgled, keening cry cut off from the wound. It slammed its body down, trying to crush Erland beneath its greater bulk. Erland dodged to the side, flinging his spear as he moved. The monge twisted away, but was not fast enough to avoid the large gash through three of its segments. Blood spilled to the ground, staining the rust-toned soil. An acrid, rotten scent permeated the air.

 

The monge shuddered, rippling its entire body as it swung its head around to find his opponent. Erland circled the creature, trying to get through to something vital. Spines and carapace were everywhere on the monge’s body, protecting it from weapons. It was rare that the monge would reveal its fleshy underside.

 

The ground rumbled, nearly throwing Erland from his feet. He paused to regain his balance and the monge surged in his direction. Erland allowed himself to tumble from his feet, a sharp claw catching his thigh as he struck the ground. He was forced to roll, passing neatly under the monge’s body but wincing as the stumps of his wings were crushed beneath his weight. Rocks dug into the half-healed wounds, eliciting fresh flows of blood.

 

Erland cried out as fangs clamped around his calf and he was jerked up from the ground. He scrabbled, barely able to keep his fingers on the spear. The monge flailed its head, whipping Erland against the wall of the ravine. He snapped against the stone and something within him cracked ominously.

 

Erland struggled to remain conscious. He swiped his spear at the Monge's mouth and managed to strike the pointed tip across the beast's carapace-covered face. The blow couldn’t have hurt, but it was startling and the monge dropped Erland.

 

It reared back, shaking its head, as Erland hit the ground in a crumpled heap. His mind spun as and he struggled to get his feet beneath him.

 

Erland bit back a moan and stumbled to his feet. Blood trickled down his forehead.

 

The monge shook off the blow and lunged for him once more.

 

Erland threw himself to the side and stumbled toward more open space. The beast managed a skillful turn, body gliding across the rocky soil with a scrape of carapace over stone. It opened its mouth wide, the gaping maw aimed for Erland.

 

The monge skidded across the ground. Its claws dug into the soil to slow itself as its back end turned toward the wall. Its forked tail slammed into the rocky walls of the gorge. There was a moments pause before cracks splintered throughout the stone before rock exploded outward, spraying bits of dust and stone into the air.

 

Everything around Erland quaked and dust clouds rose into the air. They obscured his vision and filled his lungs, causing him to cough. He peered through the ensuing haze of dirt. It was several seconds before the avalanche ceased and when he could see again, he found himself standing alone. The monge had vanished.

 

He caught sight of a small heap of dirt, mounded no higher than his knees. The monge had gone beneath the surface, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

 

Erland’s heart beat in anticipation. He stood still, straining to catch any sound as he felt the land shift beneath him. The tremors were too widespread for him to get a good lock on the monge’s position.

 

Erland spat, trying to cleanse his mouth of the silty soil. His claws tightened around the spear, one strongly, the other clumsily.

 

He wiped blood from his eyes and waited. He moved slowly, hoping not to give his position away.

 

The ground trembled then surged beneath him. Erland’s arms pinwheeled in an attempt to keep his balance.

 

His feet sank into the shifting dirt when the pile collapsed beneath him, below the horizon of soil. He was going to be swallowed whole. The earth rumbled as he twisted to get free, but it was far too late. The monge surged up, catching Erland in its maw. Erland growled and jammed his spear into the monge’s mouth, trapping its jaws open.

 

Acidic saliva burned at the flesh of his legs as he sank into the creature’s mouth. Erland threw his body to the side, grasping at the monge’s bottom jaw and clinging to stained teeth. A keening noise echoed in the beast’s throat as it worked its jaw, trying to remove the obstruction. It coughed and gagged, body writhing as it continued to emerge from the ground.

 

Erland clung to the monge’s mouth. The rough rasp of its tongue scraped the bottom of his feet. He dug the claws of his toes into the wet appendage, blood welling up in the scrapes left behind as he climbed his way free.

 

He could hear the spear cracking and straining. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before the monge freed itself. Erland tore his claws into the beast’s tongue and thrust himself out onto the ground, rolling across the rocky soil.

 

Above him, the monge thrashed its head from side to side. It threw itself at the wall of rock, head striking the solid stone. It paid no attention to Erland as he scuttled away on hands and knees. There was a sharp crack as the spear finally snapped under the pressure, one half of the haft falling down the beast's gullet.

 

The other half, spear point and all, flew into the air, tumbling to the ground with a clatter, joining one of the monge’s formidable fangs. The tooth was large, about the size of Erland’s forearm, and gleamed an untouched white.

 

More rocks tumbled from the lip of the ravine, barely missing both Erland and the creature.

 

Erland rolled to his feet and shook off the dizziness. He searched the ground and spotted the sharp point of the spear. Erland dove for it as the monge wailed and thrashed around. His fingers wrapped around the broken haft as the monge regained its denses and darted at him. Pincers snapped within inches ofh is arm.

 

Erland rolled and came up on his feet.
He threw himself at the rock wall and used his momentum to leap higher into the air. For a single, blissful moment he was airborne, and then he came back down, landing on the monge's back. Erland instantly started to slide back and he scrabbled for a handhold, his useless hand floundering.

 

Erland jerked to a halt, dangling. A spinal spike sliced open his palm and Erland hissed. He hauled himself up through sheer force of will and straddled the curved ridge of the monge's back carapace.

 

The beast roared, thrashing its body in an attempt to remove him. Erland held on for dear life and used the spikes as handholds to climb toward the head. Blood streamed from his fingers.

 

In a desperate attempt at freedom, the monge hurled its back at the wall.

 

Erland flattened against the creature’s spine in a split-second. He gasped as he slammed into the rock, crushed between it and the bulk of the monge. Several of his ribs cracked on impact. His crippled fingers spasmed, their hold weakening. Pain and nausea spun through his innards. Black spots dotted his vision.

 

The monge reared back, preparing to slam him once more. Erland groaned and forced himself to climb the last segment. He was now within reach of the head.

 

The monge whipped its body through the air. Claws scraped across the sun-baked earth. Erland grasped the spear with both hands and thrust it into the monge’s skull. He drove the sharpened point and wooden shaft deep. The blow jarred every bone in his hand as the sound rang through the dust-choked air.

 

The beast let loose a garbled cry of pain. It convulsed more wildly than before.

 

Erland lost his grip and was sent flying. He crashed to the ground. Every muscle and bone in his body cried out from the impact. Several of his ribs slid wetly together. He spat up blood.

 

Erland forced his eyes open, watching as the monge hurled its head against the wall in a vain attempt to remove the spear tip. The ground shook from the force of the blow. The monge went abruptly still. Blood splashed onto the cliff as the monge slumped. It collapsed into a heap, twitching.

 

It was dead.

 

Erland had won against a foe that alarmed even the bravest of maris warriors.

 

Pride blossomed within him, but it wasn't enough to combat the litany of aches and pains. Or the unsettled spinning that had taken over his thoughts. He tried to get up, but couldn't seem to move his limbs. His breathing rattled through his lungs. Everything hurt.

 

The edges of his vision were gray. Exhaustion pulled at every limb. Maybe what he needed was to sleep.

 

So Erland did.

 

He didn’t dream for once. Instead, he floated in an endless sea of gray where he didn’t think or feel guilt or remember his own failings. He didn’t rest or heal, but his mind reset.

 

He woke an indeterminable time later. Night had fallen, bringing with it a chill. He was still alive. Perhaps this was the most surprising thing of all.

 

Erland groaned and peeled his eyes open. He tilted his head to the side, gaze falling on the corpse of the monge. Neither he nor it had been touched, not even by the carrion eaters. Many creatures were wary of approaching a monge, even one that appeared to be dead, believing that it was only using a feigned immobility to catch unsuspecting prey. That in itself might have been enough to spare Erland.

 

He rolled over to his side and then pushed himself upright. His breath caught in his throat as his ribs protested with a fresh wave of fire. Erland grimaced, one arm wrapping around his abdomen as he dragged himself to his feet.

 

He took stock of his other injuries, noting that he was covered in dirt and slime. The wounds on his head, leg, and arm had all clotted with blood and dirt. They were in desperate need of cleaning before infection began to set in.

 

Erland felt as if he should be dead. He tried to remember if there was a source of water nearby and bit his lip in frustration. A year had passed since he was last here, but there was a semi-stagnant pool fed by an underground source. He scrunched his nose at the thought of the stale water, but it was better than nothing.

 

He looked back at the monge corpse. It was truly dead. He almost couldn't believe he'd done it.

 

Something gleamed from the corner of his eye. It was the monge fang, lying on the ground a few feet from the sagging corpse.

 

Erland limped toward it, kneeling to pick up the fang. If he returned home with it, perhaps the shame of his lost wings would be overlooked.

 

Erland returned to his feet and headed south out of the ravine, where he last remembered the pool to be. His mind was surprisingly blank as he stumbled around. His memory had never been the best; Vyalee had been much better at recalling things.

 

He found the pool nestled in an alcove created by an outcropping in the sloping walls of the ravine. He lurched to the water’s edge, and stumbled over the smooth, fist-sized pebbles. He still felt dizzy, and weariness tugged at him from every angle.

 

Erland slumped to the ground, dropping the fang beside him. He leaned forward, wincing as the movement shifted his ribs, and scooped some of the silty water into his mouth. Grimacing at the slightly metallic taste, Erland drank his fill anyway.

 

Erland sighed and wiped his mouth. He slouched, scanning the area around the spring.

 

It was enclosed, a thin stand of trees on one side with a few boulders scattered here and there for cover. Scraggly vegetation, more like the scrubs that dotted the desert, sprang up in scattered clumps on the periphery. It would be a safe place for him to rest and recover from the battle.

 

Erland gathered some wood and twigs from the copse of trees, finding several nut-bearing trees as well. He built up a fire near the water’s edge and gingerly lowered himself to the ground between it and the water. He scooped the lukewarm fluid over his body, cleaning off the blood and soil that caked his skin.

 

His wounds stung, and Erland winced but bore the pain. It was nothing compared to what he had suffered at the hands of the dargon.

 

He finished cleaning himself, his mind absent of all those swirling, conflicting thoughts haunting him. He thought of nothing but survival. He hadn’t the energy to dredge up celebration for his victory.

 

He heard the jingle of metal on metal, the sound of Vyalee’s rings jangling together. Erland’s eyes flicked to the five small hoops dangling from his tattered loincloth. He was impressed they had survived the battle.

 

Clawed fingers untied the jewelry, and he held it, all five pieces, in his palm. Golden metal gleamed in the light of the orange fire.

 

His thumb rubbed over
the rings. He missed his battle-sworn desperately. Vyalee would have been more excited than he to know that Erland had taken down a monge.

 

Or truthfully, Vyalee would have been furious that he missed such a glorious fight. He would have chastised Erland for not watching his back. They would have celebrated over a pint and one of Lesana’s special crabapple cobblers as Lesana also lamented missing the battle.

 

With a sigh, Erland glanced once more at the rings before tossing them into the fire. He hoped that this symbolic burning would release Vyalee from Alcadia, enabling him to move into the afterlife.

 

It should have been done months ago, immediately after Vyalee’s death. Erland prayed that the tardiness of the gesture wouldn’t reflect badly on Vyalee. As much as Erland wanted to keep the rings for himself, he had no right. They would go to Lesana afterward and no one else.

 

Erland popped a few more of the treenuts into his mouth. One hand stirred a stick in the fire. His torso continued to ache but, lacking wrapping materials, there was nothing he could do.

 

His gaze shifted to the monge fang at his side. In Kayel, he would receive praise for such an exploit. It would be enough for another ring, giving him four. Ulsie, his father, couldn’t deny the honor of such a feat either.

 

Ulsie had never expected much from him. Erland was the runt of his family, much smaller than his brothers and sisters. He had compensated for his size, or lack thereof, with speed and agility, but he did not have the power of his siblings.

 

Erland wanted to imagine that his father would be proud of him. The monge's tooth should serve as an excellent token of a battle hard-fought and won.

 

Erland brushed his fingers over the smooth enamel of the monge’s tooth. The pad of his forefinger found a groove and Erland realized why the tooth was so light. The monge used its pincers to attack, not the fangs, which were mostly used to inject its venomous saliva. It would be annoying to haul with him for its size alone, but Erland would not leave it behind.

 

He still had a fair distance to go before he would reach Kayel, a journey that would take longer now without Coren and in his current health. If he were attacked, he couldn’t be certain he could defend himself. He would have to use stealth tactics if he hoped to survive.

 

Erland leaned up against one of the boulders and attempted to get comfortable. Lying down might be preferable, but he imagined it would be much harder to rise the following morning. He closed his eyes and relaxed, drifting off into an uneasy sleep.

 

He awoke the next morning when the sun peeked over the horizon and drops of dew dangled from the silvery-green leaves. He was stiff and sore, his ribs aching. He rose to his feet and stretched, audible cracking and popping noises echoing in the dawn.

 

The fire had burned out during the night and grayish ash coated the rock in a thin film. Still fighting back the vestiges of sleep, he poked a clawed finger through the remains and recovered Vyalee's rings. He brushed off the ash and looked over the darkened metal, streaked by the heat of the flame.

 

Erland tossed another handful of nuts into his mouth for breakfast and tied the monge fang to the tattered remnants of his loincloth. He tried a few mouthfuls of the metallic-tasting water.

 

Erland turned back toward the ravine, exiting north through it toward the mountains of his homeland.

 

Carrion eaters circled overhead as he passed through the gorge. It wouldn’t take long before the monge corpse, already decomposing in the hot, humid weather, was consumed. A new monge would take over the abandoned territory soon.

 

Erland could see the snow-capped peaks of Kayel in the distance. Every heavy step was a step closer to home.

 

Over the course of twelve days, Erland stumbled toward Kayel. He foraged for food along the way. Simple nuts and berries were the best he could gather, other than the occasional rabbit. He was lucky in that water was readily available, especially the closer he got to home.

 

Twice he was forced to avoid the enemy, dodging off the main road and hiding in ditch. One had been a dargon scouting party, the sight of which had caused his blood to boil. They were so close to the Kayel border, abnormally close.

 

The other had been a horu war party, diligently tracking the dargon scouts. They were a larger group, nearly twice the size of the dargon.

 

He passed through a village that had been destroyed in the dargon-horu war. He did not know the name of it, but it was located on the shifting border between the horu lands of Norun and his own home, Kayel.

 

Most of the buildings had been laid to waste and set aflame. Belongings were flung in all directions, toys broken and crushed beneath many feet. Scattered bodies of the horu littered the ground, most with arrows pin cushioned in their bodies. Erland recognized the fletching as belonging to the dargon. The horu did not use duck feathers.

 

The corpses were not that of warriors. They were females, males, and children, none with the build of a soldier, but the laymen, the day-to-day workers. They should have been exempt from combat.

 

The maris did not fight civilians. It was a waste of time and there was no challenge. The War way was not to kill, but to enjoy battle. They wished for the thrill of a challenge

 

This entire war was pointless. Erland had already lost his brother and best friend to a conflict that held no purpose. What drove the dargon and the horu? What were they fighting for? No one even remembered, and that made Erland’s stomach churn. Broken bodies for a reason no one could recall, the horu and the dargon lifting their weapons because they couldn’t think any better than to keep fighting.

 

Worse, the maris held no stake in this war. Their only interest had been the challenge to be had, the blood to be spilled, and the battle to be enjoyed. Driven by what? Some ancient tradition of bloodshed that only spoke of bestial instinct and little intelligence? A mindless adherence to a ‘maris way’ that had only grown less relevant over time?

 

Erland couldn’t understand it, couldn’t abide by those same traditions anymore. There was no testing of mettle against women and children, just death for the sake of killing.

 

The dargon and horu were not a challenge; they weren't even considered a threat. There was no reason for this war, for the maris to continue on their current path. Erland’s own kind was dying for something that had lost its intention.

 

Who would put an end to this madness? Who had the power to make an entire country see reason? Erland knew of no maris who could argue for pacifism and not be driven out of Kayel for such beliefs. What maris would dare cross the traditional way?

****


a/n: Feedback, as always, is welcome and appreciated!
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