The sun had already begun the downward trek to the ends of the earth, streaking the sky with blood, and even though the horse's stamping hooves maintained a steady tempo, Mychal Geratin began to worry that he might need one more night to complete his journey.
He couldn't complain about progress, though. The horse had carried him virtually nonstop from Nurek, a grueling one-hundred-and-twenty mile trek southeast across the plains, stopping only for a few hours of sleep the previous nightfall. Such a feat would have been enough to kill a lesser stallion, but the Nurek garrison's stablemaster had insisted that the beast was a specially bred cavalry rouncey and up for a trek to the Eastern capitol itself.
Regardless of the man's boasting, Mychal knew he would have to change horses once he reached the East Hill. He grimaced at the thick gasps of his mount – the wet, laborious efforts of the beasts's burning lungs.
The sound was an inevitable reminder of his own failing health. In his head, Mychal heard his wife's reminder him that he wasn't as young as he used to be, and his own impassioned retort that if the news weren't so damned important, he would never have volunteered for the journey.
"Oh, Penya," he said aloud, wincing as the saddle rose and fell with the horse's movement, rubbing the insides of his thighs with the fervency of a man desperate to light a fire. "If this news weren't so damned important…"
He could hear her reply, as if they were together in the kitchen they'd built together almost forty years ago. "You'd what? You'd still have gone. Even if it weren't so damned important."
The darkness continued to press. The sun's agonizing death allowed the stars on the easternmost horizon to peek through the evening glaze, and the moon promised to be full, if cloaked by cloud.
In the distance, the village continued to grow, rising over the gentle plains grass as the rouncey flew toward it, but still seemed impossibly far away. The road was already beginning a gentle incline toward the swelling of the plains, where houses rose on the slopes in uneven rows and patches. Already, fires were winking into existence to illuminate the shadows of the approaching night. Yet, the East Hill was ensconced in a gloom deeper than evening. The community, so renowned for its hearty folk and warm hospitality, seemed to huddle on the back of the hill, and its ancient stone walls, which had encircled the base of the mountain for generations, stood cold and unwelcoming to the outside world.
Riding low in the saddle, taking the pressure off his screaming thighs, Mychal leaned forward to pat the horse's bulging neck encouragingly, then swiped frothy sweat on his trouser leg. He couldn't resist the smile growing on his face – despite his weariness, despite the fact that he didn't know how the Easterners would welcome him. For the first time in years, the oncoming darkness was not a thing they would need to dread, and he couldn't wait to tell them.
Even in the deepening twilight, he could make out the famed East Hill vineyards stretching for acres outside the village walls. The farmers who had not yet retired from the day's labor were utilizing the last drops of sunlight to finish their pruning.
The sound of his approach had reached them: they were dropping their tools and running for the gates. He was still too far for him to shout and be heard clearly, but was gaining quickly now. From within the village, the metallic cry of a gathering bell sounded the warning.
Without warning, the rouncey screeched and its front legs buckled.
Mychal left his stomach behind him.
He fell through eternity, seemingly weightless, and then the ground rose up to meet him – to remind him that he wasn't. His shoulder hit first, and the world turned over once more before he found himself on his back in the dirt.
It was all so confusing. Beyond the field of his vision, the horse was whimpering pitifully. Mychal forced himself to sit up, which proved to be a greater feat than ever before. Dazedly, he blinked in the darkness, saw the horses' side rising and falling in rapid panic.
The broken leg twitched. Apologetic hisses escaped bleeding nostrils.
Mychal got unsteadily to his feet. His left hand felt numb. He wasn't certain bones hadn't been broken, but he could still move the arm – albeit, not without sending arcs of pain shooting between his elbow and shoulder.
You're not as young as you used to be, Penya's voice reminded him.
He left the dying horse behind him and staggered up the hill toward the village walls. Beyond the massive gates, which had creaked almost completely shut behind the last farmer to enter, the bell continued to call.
Mychal dropped to one knee in the dust before the closed archway, sucking in thick lungfulls of air. A small company of the Easterners were coming out to meet him, some of them armed with scythes and bows. He couldn't blame them for their caution – not in times such as these.
There was insufficient wind in his lungs for him to speak, but the man approaching saved Mychal the trouble of initiating conversation.
"Are you from the West?" the farmer asked, stopping a few feet from where the courier kneeled.
Mychal gasped, wheezing. His head was spinning nauseatingly, but he nodded it anyway.
The Easterner dropped into a squat before him, reaching out to place a steadying hand on Mychal's shoulder. The darkness was falling fast now, rendering the other man's features all but impossible to distinguish. "Have you news of the war?"
His tone had taken on the severity one reserves for expecting the worst.
Mychal sucked in a painful breath. "It's over," he gasped, and immediately felt the hands on his forearm tighten their grip. "The war's over."
"You – you're certain?" the farmer demanded a moment later, suddenly as breathless as the courier. Behind him, his fellows began muttering in agitation.
Mychal offered a confirming nod – the only response he could manage.
"Open the gates!" the farmer shouted, pulling Mychal to his feet. Together, they passed into the shadow of the archway, though Mychal did so only by borrowed strength. "Open the gates! News from the West!"
Through a haze, he saw the tide of Easterners parting to let them pass. The gates were pulled wide from within to admit them, and Mychal found himself being conveyed into a gathering square. It seemed the entirety of the East Hill population had already assembled – hundreds of bodies standing close together in uneasy anticipation, illuminated by the flickering torches they carried.
"It's done!" the farmer shouted in their silence, helping Mychal toward the well. "The war is over! The siege on Ostorea is broken!"
He was right, of course, but he was assuming since Mychal had not supplied any details. That was something Penya hated passionately – counting chickens before the eggs were hatched. She was deeply religious, his wife. Such prophetic notions angered her on behalf of the gods.
There was an immediate and dramatic response to the young man's words, as though the evening breeze had breathed relief into all of their lungs simultaneously. Suspicion and fear were immediately replaced by eager expectation. Men, women, and children pressed in close to hear, murmuring excitedly, but the majority of the crowd were women and older men, considering the war had claimed all available husbands for service.
"When?" a man demanded as Mychal planted a hand on the stone wall of the well to steady himself.
The farmers helped lower him to a seated position on the well. His voice was returning as breathing became easier once more. "Barely five days ago."
"How?" another man asked as he hauled on the rope to raise water for the messenger. "They were impossibly outnumbered –"
"Cyrannus' armies arrived in the nick of time," Mychal broke in, accepting the ladle eagerly. He sloshed the water into his mouth, then dragged a sleeve across his lips. "Ostorea emptied itself in the face of the enemy, caught them off-guard. The Eastern Legions swept down on them from behind. It was a rout, a complete victory. Drove them back across the Great River."
"And back north?" The question came tinged with concern. The Great River flowed almost due south, separating East and West. Taking the fight from Ostorea back across the River meant bringing the war back onto Eastern soil.
"Back north, from whence they came," Mychal reassured the concerned speaker, lifting the ladle in salute. "I flew from the capital in their wake to bring the news. They must have driven them back nearly to Sandy Pass by now, the rate at which they were fleeing!"
Giddy cheers rose from his audience, accompanied by scattered applause. He could see the relief in all faces as the joy he'd brought warmed their hearts. Husbands and wives and children hugged one another as families, breathing the evening air anew, expelling the stale breath of anxiety.
"Who were they?" a young woman no older than twenty summers asked.
Mychal shrugged. "Not really sure, ma'am. Word is they were marauders from the north, subsisting in the wastes. We've not had much dealings with territories outside our borders, so there's not a whole lot of knowledge about those places. Couldn't rightly say, miss."
"Seemed too organized to be marauders," a man commented, more to himself than anyone present. "Too purposeful in their attack."
The fellow next to him was nodding in agreement. "James and me heard tell of… creatures in their ranks."
"I didn't witness anything like that," Mychal said quickly, to fill the uneasy silence, but he too had heard the rumors. Something about leather-skinned fiends with skeletal, bat-like wings… The imagination alone was enough to make his skin crawl. Wars always spawn as many myths as histories.
"Was it a bloodbath?" a voice asked in the gloom, probably a child from the sound of it, and the immediate parental shushing confirmed the suspicion.
"It might have been without your fine Easterners coming to our aid." Mychal lifted the ladle again, as though offering a toast to the crowd. Proud murmurs answered the compliment. "They were the hammer on our anvil. Many lives were saved for that."
"Will the garrison at Sandy Pass be reinforced? To ensure nothing comes over our borders again?"
"Well, now, Sandy Pass lies in eastern territory, remember," Mychal returned, speaking in the general direction the query had come. He was having trouble making out faces as the darkness fully set in, and his head was still buzzing from his fall. "I'm sure Their Majesties Tychicus and Cyrannus will make it a priority to discuss, but that responsibility ultimately lies with your monarch."
He hoped that he'd not said it in an accusatory manner. Eastern politics, from what he heard of them, had always confounded him. But he wanted to avoid pricking the Easterners' simple happiness. The war had reminded everyone that East and West were still brothers, albeit estranged ones, and Penya had been adamant before Mychal had set out that he mind his manners.
A small man made his way to the forefront of the crowd. The questions died away almost immediately and respectful silence fell.
Even in the flickering light, Mychal could see the aged countenance: a white beard, not unlike a horse's tail, reaching the man's waist due to a combination of its considerable length and his age-bowed back; the widow's peak of fading blonde; the trenches of concern marring a prominent forehead. He walked with the aid of a short staff, marked with symbols that Mychal couldn't understand.
"Thank you for your haste in bringing us this news, Westerner," the old man said. His voice was surprisingly youthful, buoyed by the charisma of a man half his age. "The threat, then, to the Realms has passed?"
"Ragtag companies of the bandits are still loose in the countryside, of course, but the enemy's major forces are in full retreat back north." Mychal smiled despite the throbbing pain in his shoulder and legs. "The threat is gone."
"Then it is time for celebration," the old man said, rousing excited chatter from the crowd.
"Not for me," Mychal replied immediately, although the prospect was tempting. Penya was expecting him home within two weeks, and she would be furious if she found out he'd stopped to liquor up before finishing his job. "If you would kindly lend me another horse, I need to fly to Ellis and Kilahaza."
"You're in no condition to ride!" said the farmer who had helped him walk. "Stay the night at least."
Mychal shook his head and grimaced as he forced himself to stand. For you, Penya. "This news is too important to be delayed by discomfort."
The old man's black eyes glittered in the torchlight. "Your sense of duty is commendable. You will take with you provisions for your journey, of course."
The farmer at Mychal's elbow took a step forward. "But Father –"
The old man turned his gaze upon the younger in what seemed almost like amusement. "Wesley, would you withhold joy from our neighboring brothers and sisters who are as starved for it as we were mere hours ago?"
Wesley nodded once. "Of course not, Father. I'll prepare a horse to ride." He took Mychal's elbow once more and helped the courier stand. "Come with me."
As they passed through the crowd, Mychal saw the Elder smile broadly as he turned to the crowd and rubbed gnarled hands together eagerly. "Friends, it looks like we're going to have a party."