This is part seven in my Astral Mage serial. Continues from The Queen last week!
The horses were saddled and ready in the courtyard when Artemuse and the Queen reached the stables. Artemuse gulped when she saw Mirage, a gigantic beast of a black stallion. The Royal Crest on his saddle gleamed, a flash of gold against burgundy leather
“He’s a big horse,” said Artemuse. She hung back, too nervous to approach him. She’d never had any occasion to learn to ride – her wings took her wherever she needed to go.
“Don’t be afraid, Arti. He’s perfectly friendly.”
Artemuse looked at Mirage, and she swore she saw amusement in the horse’s eyes. The Queen swung herself up into Prado’s saddle, and gestured towards the stallion.
“But…surely he’s used to the Monarch?” asked Artemuse.
“Oh he hated him. It’ll make a change for him to carry someone who doesn’t wear spurs, for one thing.”
Mirage arched his neck and nudged Artemuse with his nose.
“You see? Just climb up, Arti. We don’t have a lot of time.” The Queen smiled but determination coloured her tone. Artemuse nodded, finally realising that the responsibility for the safety of Rhodenius had passed out of her grasp, and into the influence of the Queen.
Artemuse placed a foot in a stirrup and hauled herself up into Mirage’s saddle. Her behind had barely touched the leather before the Queen gave a cry and the two horses clattered out of the courtyard. Artemuse clung to the reins, her knuckles white, as Mirage followed Prado into the cobbled streets of the city.
She had no idea how to control Mirage, but after a few moments, her stomach unclenched. The stallion avoided obstacles with ease, veering around them or leaping over them, before Artemuse even saw they were there. His muscles bunched and stretched beneath her and a flicker of trust in his abilities tickled her mind. She wasn’t sure she’d ever enjoy riding, but Mirage knew what he was doing better than she did.
The horses almost flew in their haste. They’d reached the lower levels of the city by the time Artemuse noticed how quiet the city was. The alleyways and squares should have been thronged with people, shouts ringing out among the everyday clamour, yet the streets were empty. She wanted to call out, to ask the Queen what was wrong, but the wind kept snatching her words away.
The northern gateway to the city lay ahead. Fewer people travelled into Rhodenius from the north, preferring not to travel across the Lesian Plains, so the gate was smaller and less ornate than those serving the other entrances into the city. The portcullis was up and the thick doors stood open, with two guards bearing halberds at either side. Artemuse never travelled into the city through the gates but even she could tell that the number of guards along the wall was less than usual.
The guards stood aside and the horses galloped through the gateway. Narrower and lower than she’d expected, Artemuse wondered how on earth Eddister could have led the Statue Army through it.
The Lesian Plains were a vast expanse of grassland, bordered on all sides by mountains. Rhodenius lay within the southern mountain range where the peaks were at their lowest, and Artemuse’s tower clung to one of the smaller cliffs. The ground swelled and fell in an undulating pattern that deceived the eye – the Plains looked empty, but Artemuse knew Lord Draumir’s advancing army could be anywhere.
The Queen pulled Prado’s reins, and her horse drew level with Mirage. She leaned across to Artemuse.
“I’d imagine the Army are but a few miles from here by now. Our own militia should be catching them up from the western gate,” she shouted.
“Why was the city so quiet? Where did the people go?”
“They’re still there, I just strongly suggested they stay in doors until we return. If we don’t return, they’ll abandon the city,” replied the Queen.
“How?” Artemuse couldn’t imagine how thousands of people would be able to leave the city quickly if Lord Draumir should approach. Surely he’d find them on the road, and cut them down where they stood.
“There are more tunnels under the city than the one Eddister guards, Arti.”
A great shadow fell across the land. Artemuse looked up to see a vast creature circling in the sky above them.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing upwards.
“What’s what?” The Queen followed her gaze, but shook her head.
Realisation dawned. If Artemuse could see the creature and the Queen couldn’t, then whatever it was flew on the astral plane, not within the mortal realm. There was only one thing it could be.
“It’s a Vaal’kyr,” shouted Artemuse.
Looking more closely with her mind’s eye, she saw thick black feathers, talons like scythe blades and a long snout filled with vicious fangs. A long tail tipped with a razor sharp dagger trailed in the sky behind it. Deep green eyes burned with intelligence, and the creature gave a deep nod when it caught her looking. Artemuse could sense emotions on the astral plane, and the creature was respectful but alert.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected the Vaal’kyr to look like, or how they’d act, but the monstrous yet graceful animal was not what she’d pictured at all.
“Where there is one, there will surely be others,” replied the Queen. “In what direction is it?”
Artemuse pointed the way, and they guided the horses towards the circling Vaal’kyr. They sped across the plain, the horses kicking up grass as they ran. A second Vaal’kyr joined the first, and a third, and Artemuse realised they were running up an incline. She could only dread what she’d see when they reached the top.
Continued next week!
Image by Inanti. Edits by me.