Chapter 4 (Everin)

Everin surveyed the crowd that he and Cora stood within. It must have consisted of nearly forty people. They stood in a loose huddle before the wagon, being sure to carve out a wide space for Ichoron, who leaned against the wagon with his arms crossed. They were mostly on the younger side – from their late teens to late twenties. They all had expressions of fear or shock on their faces. Everin looked at Cora. She had a look of disbelief, as if she’d convinced herself that what was happening couldn’t possibly be real. It was an expression that Everin knew well.

“You may say your farewells to friends and family assembled here, but we depart immediately after. There is no need to pack. Clothing and weapons will be provided to you at training camp,” the royal messenger spoke down to them.

Immediately, people ran into the crowd of newly enlisted citizens, exchanging tight embraces and tearful goodbyes. The soldiers stood at a distance and monitored the villagers to ensure that nobody attempted to run away or cause trouble. Everin saw Cora’s father running through the crowd. The village baker nearly bowled over shocked spectators as he raced to embrace his daughter. Everin watched as they hugged tightly and hurriedly whispered promises to stay safe and to come home, even if it meant running away. Cora’s mother and sister ran to her in her father’s wake. They all huddled together in a tearful embrace.

Everin considered saying goodbye to Margoline but decided against it. She didn’t love him. She would only miss the convenience of having him around. He’d already failed the two people who loved him most. In a way, he’d failed Cora too. He watched her tearfully hugging her family and felt the glowing heat of self-loathing awaken within him. She was the only person in the world that cared about him, and he was powerless to help her avoid this fate.

Eventually, the messenger declared that it was time to move. Cora and her parents reluctantly broke their embrace. She had to pry a wailing Crista off her leg.

“Stop it! Stop it! Cora don’t go!” She screamed as Cora’s father picked the flailing girl up off the ground.

Soldiers stepped forward and herded the group of villagers into a line in the middle of their ranks. As Cora and her parents separated, he caught a glimpse of the panic and desperation in her eyes. He knew exactly what she was experiencing – the fear of losing one’s family.

Everin’s attention was pulled to aggravated shouts coming from the crowd to his right. One of the newly enlisted young men had produced a dagger. He brandished it and jabbed at the soldiers who were trying to corral him to join the other villagers.

“Sir, put down the weapon before we have to punish you for treason,” a soldier said.

“Stay away from me! Stay away, or I swear I’ll do it!” He shouted in reply, waving his dagger at any soldier who stepped to close. They all wore alumin armor, but only the decorative chest pieces. Their arms and legs were still vulnerable to a stab of his blade.

“I’ll handle this,” Everin heard a deep voice grumble from behind him. He turned to see Ichoron marching toward the scuffle.

When he saw the armored angel approaching, the villager panicked. He hurled his dagger at the angel’s head and turned to sprint across the village square. With unnatural reflexes, Ichoron swatted the dagger out of the air before it could collide with his face. He picked the weapon up off the ground and grabbed the flat of the blade. Everin gaped as the angel bent and then snapped the dagger’s blade with his bare hands.

“He’ll pay for that,” Ichoron snarled as he eyed the escaping villager.

Ichoron sprinted with impossible speed. His armored limbs were a blur. The running man had almost reached an alleyway at the end of the square, but the angel caught up to him in a moment. Ichoron grabbed the back of the man’s neck and threw him down, sending him crashing face-first into the ground with a thud that Everin could hear from several dozen yards away. Ichoron kicked the fallen villager in the chest with an impact that sent him flying. He fell to the ground several feet away and didn’t get back up. Everin winced. He saw Gamah, the village healer, racing in the man’s direction. Ichoron trudged back to the group of soldiers and enlisted citizens.

“Would anyone else like to commit treason?” The royal messenger’s voice rang out over a shocked crowd. “No? Excellent. Let’s move.”

She and Ichoron climbed back inside the decorated wagon. The messenger’s aide blew his horn again. Onlooking villagers cried and shouted as the soldiers began to march, forcing the enlisted villagers to move forwards, leaving the square behind.

As Everin stumbled forwards with the rest of the crowd, his vision began to blur. This pounding of his heart, the chaos of events moving too quickly, and the electrifying shock of pure terror running through his body began to overpower him. All of a sudden, he was transported back to the last time these feelings had gripped him so intensely. The world spun, and McCarthy’s taunting face appeared before him. The world around him faded into a blur. Tears began to run down Everin’s face. The barrage of memories pounded his heart like an angry mallet.

“Everin? Everin? Are you okay?”

Cora’s voice drew Everin out of his own mind. He blinked his eyes and glanced around him. They had just left the edge of Greenshadow village and were now walking south along the dirt path that stretched into the horizon. Everin quickly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Cora said. “Just stay with me. We need to focus on staying alive and figuring out what’s going on.”

Everin nodded, in awe of how quickly Cora had controlled her own emotions. She brushed her hand against his, and he grabbed it, anxious for something to hold on to. She gave him a brave smile. He tried to smile back, but the muscles of his face were impossible to control.

The villagers marched for the whole morning with the procession of soldiers. Ichoron walked just in front of the group of newly enlisted citizens. The angel had been a hero in all the stories. Now, he was a terrifying oppressor.

As the sun began its descent into the afternoon, the procession halted to stop and rest. Rations of bread and water were passed out.

“Eat quickly. Then we keep moving on to training camp in Distlevale!” One of the soldiers, presumably the captain, instructed the villagers.

Just as he did with meals back home. Everin forced himself to eat the bread.

“You should try to have some, or you’ll regret it later,” he said to Cora when he saw her staring blankly at her rations.

 She shook her head.

“How am I supposed to eat right now?” She said.

Everin didn’t know what to say. It had taken him weeks to learn how to eat again after his parents’ murder. He couldn’t expect Cora to adjust to this nightmare so quickly.

Everin and Cora were interrupted by a soldier who approached them. Her helmet was off, revealing a thin-lipped mouth and straight, black hair that was cut short.

“Are you Everin Thornwood?” she asked. Her voice was sharp and authoritative.

Everin nodded hesitantly, unsure of her intentions.

“You’re to come with me. We’re not going to the training camp,” she said.

“What? Where are we going, then?” Everin demanded.

“Somewhere else.”

The soldier turned her attention to Cora, looking her over.

“You come with us too,” she said to Cora.

Nervously, Cora nodded.

The soldier raised her eyes and scanned behind the two young people.

“Hey! You! Get over here!”

One of the enlisted villagers was returning his mat to the wagon when the soldier called for him. He jumped and nearly dropped his mat. The villager turned, and Everin recognized him as Ford Holten. Ford was tall and dark-skinned with an athletic build. He was only a year older than Everin, although neither he nor Cora knew the boy well. Ford’s parents were the local blacksmiths, so he’d spent most of his time working in the forge. His parents had chosen to name their son after Ford, one of the old gods. It was a practice that was dying out in Allomoria among those who weren’t born of noble class. Nowadays, it was rare to find a commoner with one of the old gods as their namesake.

Ford hesitantly approached the group. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“You’re being given an assignment, along with these two,” the soldier said.

Before Ford could respond, the woman left.

Ford looked at his two newly assigned partners. “Do you two know what she’s talking about?”

Cora shook her head. “Sorry, Ford. She hasn’t told us anything useful.”

“Of course she hasn’t. King Valen’s soldiers are all mental!” the boy groaned.

“Don’t let one of the soldiers hear you say that!” Cora exclaimed, shocked at his audacity.

Ford rolled his eyes and shrugged. “What are they going to do? Send me off to fight a war?”

Everin felt anxiety tightening its grip on his stomach. If Ford wasn’t careful, he might get them into even more trouble.

The woman returned with two other soldiers following her. She had a pack slung over her shoulders now. Either she hadn’t heard Ford, or she didn’t care enough to punish him. From the ranks of soldiers and villagers behind her came another blow of the horn. Soldiers began to march, horses began to pull wagons, and villagers shuffled forwards. Slowly, the royal procession began to move. The woman didn’t appear to care.

“We’re going somewhere else. Follow me,” she said to Everin, Cora, and Ford.

Without a backwards glance, she began marching off the path, taking a hard left to the direction of the departing royal procession. Everin looked back and forth between the moving crowd of soldiers and the woman leading him away. Going with the royal procession to training camp definitely wasn’t an appealing option – weeks of intense physical training and then likely being thrown onto the front lines of the impending war. Soldiers like them, with minimal training, would be expendable. However, leaving with this woman meant venturing into the unknown. For all he knew, she could be planning to lead them to a fate even worse than service as a common soldier.

Everin felt a shove at his back. He turned to see that it came from one of the two soldiers that had accompanied the woman. There was no more time to contemplate where she planned to take them. Everin, Cora, and Ford all began to move forward, following her.

The country of Allomoria was bounded to the east by the Great Sea and to the west by the Stoneback Mountains. The terrain of Allomoria itself consisted of wide swaths of rolling green hills with small forests and lakes interspersed. The Elderwood Forest lay just north of Greenshadow Village and served to separate the northern and southern halves of the country.

While the miles of green expanse made for beautiful scenery, it also made traveling a pain. Everin, Cora, Ford, and the three soldiers marched up and down small knolls and green flatlands for hours. Because they could see so far in all directions, Everin was given the distinct impression that they were hardly moving at all. It took ages for the passing landscape to change.

The traveling was made even worse by the fact that the soldiers’ commanding that they not speak. The group of six moved in silence for several hours. They didn’t follow any paths. Instead, the female soldier who led them navigated by reading a map and a compass. Everin had no idea what invisible force pulled the small needle, but it faithfully pointed south no matter how the soldier twisted the compass around.

As they walked, Everin tried to enter the state that he’d trained himself to fall into – tossing his thoughts away and numbing himself. He found that he couldn’t. Too many questions and fears swirled around inside his head. They weren’t following any of the dirt paths that connected the nearby towns and villages. Wherever they were going, it must have been somewhere that wasn’t visited often.

By midafternoon, they’d come to a small forest that had sprung up in the middle of a vast plain. Compared to the immense breadth of the surrounding countryside, the forest looked small, but it was probably several miles across. Small trees and foliage began to spring up around them. Before they entered a dense clump of larger trees, the lead soldier stopped.

“This is where you receive your assignment,” she said to the Everin, Cora, and Ford. “Inside this forest are abandoned ruins from the time of the old gods. You’ll find a white tower and a large building accompanying it. Inside this building is a pool full of metal rods. Everin, your task is to swim to the middle of this pool, retrieve one of these rods, and bring it back to me.”

“What have I gotten tangled up in?” Ford groaned. “What could you possibly want a wet piece of metal for?” He asked incredulously.

“Why do I have to do that?” Everin echoed Ford. While he was relieved that this task sounded relatively safe, he was also at a loss for why this woman wanted a rusty metal rod from this pool.

The soldier shrugged. “Those are just my orders,” she said, holding up her map. Everin saw a map of Allomoria. Underneath the image was a set of written instructions. She withdrew the paper and folded it up before Everin could read any of the writing.

Ford gestured at himself and Cora. “And what exactly are we supposed to do?”

The woman grinned. “You two are in charge of making sure that he gets back alive.”

Cora’s eyes widened. “What’s in there?” She asked, pointing into the trees.

The woman shrugged. “Nothing too dangerous. It’s just the wolves you have to be careful of. That’s what these are for.” She reached into her pack and removed three shiny gray knives. She shoved a weapon into the hands of Everin, Cora, and Ford.

“And what if we don’t want to go into the woods?” Ford challenged. He made sure to wait until the woman had given him his knife before testing her.

She shrugged. “It’s either the woods or through us, and I don’t like your odds in a fight.” As if to emphasize her point, the other two soldiers grabbed the handles of their sheathed swords, ready to draw the weapons.

Ford looked all three soldiers up and down, apparently trying to guess what his chances would be against them. Eventually, he shook his head and snorted.

“Fine. I’ll help Everin grab his stupid stick.”

Ford spun on his heels and began to walk into the forest.

“And don’t think about running away either. Desertion from the royal army is a felony worthy of death,” she called after him.

Everin looked at Cora. They made eye contact and exchanged a worried glance.

They followed the boy into the trees.

Next chapter:

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