Dreamers Do Lie Chapter 1 – Ethilirotha

Dreamers Do Lie Chapter 1 – Ethilirotha

So this was his eternal resting place. His reward for faithful service.

The ground bucked and swayed, knocking him off his feet. He thudded against the rocky riverbank, one foot inches from the churning water. The ground continued to gyrate beneath him to the rhythm of the river’s current.

Arimand had never been much of a seaman; solid ground was surprisingly difficult to manage after a full day crammed into a crowded riverboat piloted by a pale, bony figure in an ebony cloak. Without the stench and crushing press of bodies, he could breathe easier, but his legs wobbled, as if made of mush.

A whistle of chill wind whipped past his ears as he rose to his knees. Disturbed by the breeze, his long, black hair momentarily obscured his vision. Clawing it aside, he surveyed his surroundings.

Barren wasteland stretched in all directions, dull, drab and dusty. Jagged boulders and ragged tors jutted from the cracked terrain. In the distance, a single stunted tree pierced the sky with twisted, brittle branches. What a charming place.

To his left and right, other riverboat passengers struggled to progress. One raggedy man gave up walking, dragging himself on his stomach instead.

With all the grace of a newborn calf, Arimand stood and stumbled forward. His foot descended harder than he planned, and he winced. Walking had never been so difficult. His mind and body couldn’t seem to work together.

For awhile, he focused on putting one foot in front of the other without falling on his face. Slippery stones littered the uneven ground. There was little else to break the monotony of the landscape. After the first hour, the dizzy, swirling sensation eased, freeing his thoughts for other things.

He took inventory of his belongings. He still wore familiar leather armor. Metal bracers covered his wrists and forearms. Worn leather boots cradled his feet. His cloak was missing, but he wouldn’t have worn it into battle. There was a disturbing hole in the left side of his shirt, just beneath a split in the armor protecting his chest. His sword hung from the sheath strapped to his belt. Could he still consider it reliable?

As he crested a steep rise, a series of distant, dilapidated structures caught his eye like bleached bones rising from the wastes. A camp? But if those were tents, how did they withstand the robust winds? As if summoned by his thoughts, a glacial gust tore through his hair. Arimand shivered, sorely missing his cloak.

The sun had long since disappeared, but a spark of light nestled in the center of the precarious structures. Would the camp’s inhabitants allow him to huddle near their fire until the sun returned to the dense, cloud-choked sky?

The wind howled again, and Arimand turned his aching feet toward the hope of warmth.

It was hard to measure time without the moon and stars. It may have taken an hour to reach the outskirts of the camp. It may have taken four. He stumbled through a shallow canyon littered with loose rocks and struggled up a steep rise on the far side.

The ramshackle structures were tents, made of threadbare fabric and rickety supports. There weren’t enough to house the crowd clustered between the fires. He estimated each of the dozen shelters could comfortably house four, six if the inhabitants didn’t mind crowding. Yet he counted more than a hundred adults and several dozen children.

Angry eyes narrowed as Arimand approached. Suspicion tracked his steps as he inched toward the large fire in the center of the crowd. On the threshold, his boots scrabbled against a thick patch of gravel and he fell to one knee.

A hush fell over the crowd, broken only by the fire’s crackle. The smell of roasting meat made his stomach rumble. How long had it been since he’d eaten? Breakfast had been sparse, and dinner the night before had been hastily consumed amidst battle plans and troop markers. The boat had contained only an ever-growing press of confused people and the ghoulish face of the boat master.

Arimand shuddered. As he tried to rise, hands pressed against his shoulders, forcing him lower. He tensed, bracing for a fight.

“I mean no harm.” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I only want to speak to your leader.”

“Who are you?” a gruff voice demanded.

“My name is Arimand,” he answered, lifting his head.

A short man had never loomed so tall in his vision. Black curls fell in a mad tangle of hair and beard. Muscular arms crossed a deflated abdomen. Fierce eyes burned from the sockets of a skeletal face. All supported by legs that should have been too stubby to manage the bulk.

His silence compelled Arimand to continue. “This morning I commanded a legion of Onroth’s army.”

A murmur passed among the crowd carrying the words new arrival and hasn’t figured it out.

The unease he carried from the riverbank sank like a lead weight into his stomach. His fingers brushed his chest through the hole in his shirt. Fighting to keep his voice from trembling he asked, “Where am I?”

“Welcome, Arimand,” boomed the voice of the camp’s squat leader, “to Ethilirotha. The badlands. The outermost circle of Hell.”

Hell. He had been hailed a hero in the kingdom of his fellows. And he had been damned for it. He’d made a fine soldier, but not so fine a man, it seemed.

“Cheer up, Arimand, most people in this circle were damned by circumstance. You’ll be surprised how many soldiers end up here. But you should know our former deeds, titles and reputations don’t mean a thing in this place.”

Arimand bowed his head. “Understood. Might I respectfully ask your name?”

“Since you ask respectfully. I am Eselt, leader of the Vorilia Clan.” A hint of amusement gleamed in his deep-set eyes as he motioned to the crowd.

Head spinning, stomach clenched, Arimand fought to maintain his focus. This morning, he departed a tent far sturdier than these with confidence for the coming battle. Whose steel stole his life? Had they put his body to the torch yet? Does it matter?

He shook his head and scraped his fingers across the coarse stone on which he knelt. “I hoped… wondered what I could exchange for a night by your fire.”

Several angry exclamations answered his query.  Eselt silenced them by clearing his throat.

“You learn fast, Commander. Our camp is open to the hard-working and trustworthy. That means backbreaking labor under watchful eyes. But for one night’s grace, while you get used to your new home, you can exchange news of the war above.”

“I will tell you all I know, but my knowledge is limited to a single front.”

“Like others, we take what we can get.” Eselt nodded.

The pressure eased from Arimand’s shoulders. He rose awkwardly, wincing as icy wind raked his newly scraped knee. Hostile looks accompanied him as he limped in Eselt’s wake. The crowd parted, allowing their leader to settle in a prime position next to the fire, which seemed smaller than it had from a distance, less inviting. The tents did little to block the wind, but Arimand wasn’t going to complain.

Children darted among the adults, carrying small, chipped, stone bowls. Arimand sat beside Eselt and turned his hands toward the fire, grateful the tongues of heat held the chill at bay. Not expecting to be served any time soon, Arimand paid the camp little mind until a harsh harrumph once again summoned silence.

“An extra mouth to feed?” Just beyond Arimand’s left shoulder, a wooden ladle threatened to clonk Vorilia’s leader in the head. The shrunken, middle-aged woman waving the ladle would only reach Arimand’s shoulders if he stood, yet she towered above Eselt. A tattered kerchief held her scraggly, dirt-colored hair in a heap on her head. “You haven’t bothered to look at the stores. It’s hard enough to stretch for all we have.”

“I’m well aware of the situation,” Eselt barked. “Information is as valuable as food around here, Dwenba. We have this conversation every week.”

“If you ever listened, we wouldn’t have to. I don’t want the littles to suffer…”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Arimand interjected when the woman paused to sniff. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble. I’ll try my best to make it up to you.”

Dwenba looked stricken. “Never mind,” she huffed, spinning on her heels. “You men just go back to your talk about wars. It’s all you care about anyway.”

As she stormed away, a ripple passed across the canvas of the largest tent. The entry flap drew aside, spilling light into the night. Wide, green eyes blinked in his direction, framed by a halo of fiery hair. A tiny jolt spilled across Arimand’s spine as his gaze locked with the stranger’s.

Eselt traced his stare and leapt to his feet. He shoved his way through the crowd, shouldered the young woman back inside the tent and jerked the canvas closed. Pale fingers lingered a moment on the dirt-smeared cloth before they faded from view.

Bewildered, Arimand turned back to the fire. He glanced over his shoulder as Eselt returned to his place.

The clan leader clapped him on the shoulder so hard, he nearly fell over. “Don’t get any ideas inside that head of yours. You stay away from that tent, and don’t concern yourself with what’s inside.”

Arimand bit his tongue against a retort. “I recognize a disciplined camp when I see one. Thieves don’t make it far in Onroth, you know.”

Eselt grunted and fixed his gaze on the fire. A child scampered between them, depositing a bowl in Eselt’s hand. Another regarded Arimand nervously before passing him a portion.

It was smaller than the others. Fair enough, he supposed; he hadn’t done any of the work. He sipped the bland broth, savoring its warmth as it eased the ache in his gut.

“Well?” Eselt demanded. “This meal ain’t free.”

“Right. The war. Where should I start? What do you know?”

“Last we heard, Vesald had just begun an all-out assault against Irynt.” He chuckled when surprise flickered across Arimand’s face. “It ain’t so difficult keeping track of mortal affairs down here, even if you’ve been dead hundreds of years. New souls arrive every day, all as eager for food and shelter as you.”

The tips of Arimand’s ears burned. “Of course. The war dead wouldn’t be sorted by nation.”

“We get men from all four empires, usually low to mid ranks. If the generals are dying, they’re deeper in Hell than we hear from. Haven’t found a Corvalan yet, though.”

“They’re just defending their borders. Can’t imagine there’s anything sinful about that.”

“The way other soldiers talk, everyone’s just trying to defend Corvala. The old gods must disagree.”

Arimand snorted. “They’re all fighting over who gets to march through the gates and conqueror Corvala. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive.”

Eselt arched an eyebrow. “You ain’t no green recruit.”

“I won’t bore you with my credentials. I saw wars before this one. Everyone talks about the sanctity of Corvala, but the emperors don’t care. Even in Nywor, where the church still holds sway. This war is about expansion, about who gets to control ‘the holiest of lands,’ nothing more.”

“Whatever they want, they seem determined. Near as I can tell, they’ve been at war a little over a year now.”

“Eleven months, actually. Give or take a couple weeks. Time blends together on the battlefield.”

“Damn,” Eselt muttered. “My calculations are still off.”

“Time moves differently down here?” His day on the riverboat certainly seemed endless.

“Everyone knows that. But no one’s sure what the difference is. Seems inconsistent to me.”

“In any case, Nywor and Vesald joining forces surprised the Irynt legions, who were already deep in Nywor territory.” The half-barbarian warriors of Vesald were well known for their war-time tenacity. The other empires had taken to hiring their clans as reinforcements, though he doubted money had been involved this time.

“Why Irynt thought Nywor would stand aside and let Vesald do all their fighting is beyond me. This war is well past the hiring of mercenaries to pad the ranks.” And Nywor’s army was hardly worthy of scorn. Enough paladins filled their ranks to make their battlefield magic difficult to counter. Besides, they were zealots, all of them. They considered every battle a holy war.

“That front has turned into a disaster for Irynt and they’ve sounded the retreat. But the withdrawal has been slow. If Vesald hadn’t split their ranks to focus on us, they may have been out of luck.” Irynt’s army wasn’t used to fighting on the rolling plains of Nywor. Their favorite tactic was to strand their foes in the southern deserts, cut off their access to water and pick them off in a series of quick raids.

Arimand happened to know that Onroth’s emperor had hoped to take Corvala uncontested while the other three empires were busy dealing with each other, but the Nywor-Vesald alliance shattered his dreams.

Eselt arched an eyebrow. “I thought you only knew about one front?”

Arimand bowed his head. “I know most about the border between Irynt and Onroth, where I was stationed. But Irynt’s push into Nywor, and subsequent retreat, were relevant to my assignment. Our generals thought it would be a marvelous idea to push into Iryant while their main force was busy and assassinate their leaders.”

“A bold move.” Eselt seemed impressed. “How did it go?”

“Evidently not well. At least, not for me.” Arimand tried to recall what happened after he and his men broke camp. A haze clung to his mind, refusing to part. He must have given the order to ride, but had he sounded the attack? Or had they been ambushed? How close was he to his target when an enemy blade struck true? Was it worth the effort to recall? He shook his head. “Iryant has that choke-point on its northern border. The only way in is by sea, if you don’t want to violate Corvala’s borders. I can only assume we failed to identify the best landing point.”

“It seems no one is any closer to their goal. We all thought the war would end when the curse on Corvala lifted.”

Arimand set his empty bowl on the ground and stared into the flames. “So did we. But then the emperors started pointing fingers. It’s only a matter of time before someone drops the pretense and closes on their true target. Even if Corvala can pull their army out of disarray, I don’t see how they can win the war without allies.”

“Politics,” Eselt spat. “I never had the stomach for it.”

“Nor I,” Arimand agreed. He hadn’t believed politics mattered so long as he performed his duties. Perhaps the master’s intentions mattered as much as the soldier’s. He’d have plenty of time to ponder that, no doubt.

The children returned to gather the dirty dishes. Arimand eased to his feet, regretfully abandoning the fire to relieve a tiny straggler of his burden. Laughter followed him to the cooking fires. He ignored it. Eselt had already revealed the way to gain further grace, and he had contributed no effort to the making of the meal.

The camp women didn’t protest. While they hated sharing their meal, they were pleased to share their work. Arimand scrubbed dishes until the skin of his fingers shriveled. Then he shifted heavy crates until Dwenba was satisfied.

When the work was done, a stranger led him to a tent. Ten occupants squeezed into the space he thought would suit six in a pinch. Those who shared his assignment had already settled, leaving him with the draftiest location near the front flap. Still better than nothing.

Exhaustion crashed over him as he lowered himself to the ground. A thin smattering of hay and a blanket covered the floor. It wasn’t much different from a bedroll on the hard-packed ground of the forests in his homeland. He’d slept in worse conditions.

Arimand huddled close to the warmth of the tent’s other occupants. Sleep claimed him the moment he closed his eyes, leaving him no time to wonder if the dead could dream.

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