The Royal Protector took a deep breath, filling his belly with the warm forest air.
“It’s the smell. The memories that this place brings back; it all comes back with the smell. The pinnias trees, the sweet smelling mountain flowers, perhaps even the earth itself has a certain smell to it. Wouldn’t you agree?”
The two men each slowly rode the sloping forest path on horseback, and neared the temple of Innia.
“No, it’s not just the smell. It’s the sound, too. Listen,” said Prince Zulfus.
Gélin the Protector looked around, smiling but confused, “I don’t hear anything.”
“Precisely. It’s the beauty of this place. All you’ll hear this time of the season are the thoughts that live in your mind, nothing else. The wildlife here has not yet woken from the deep frost.”
Thin blankets of light pierced the forest canopy, and made the golden history of Jin-Shaw shine on the Prince’s scabbard. It was the only item that marked him as royalty. The men wore rawhide lamellar armor, and didn’t bother bringing helmets or shields for the pilgrimage to Innia. Gélin carried too much weight in weapons for Zulfus’ tastes, especially the two old javelins that he carried everywhere and never used. The Prince made occasional jabs that if you wanted to see half of the world and remain unscratched, then you should apply to become one of the Royal Protector’s miserable javelins.
“The road gets thinner by the year,” Gélin said.
“Just like the purse of the Old Creed. The temples of faith need support now more than ever. Our people will never rise from the dust without their guidance,” Zulfus said.
“No, the Old Creed by itself can’t bring us anything without the right person to follow. Someone like you, my prince. The people love you, and will follow you where you take them,“ said Gélin, pausing for a moment to think about his choice of words, “…A wise woman once told me that love seen by jealous eyes can quickly turn to daggers. We are far from the capital’s ears, and so I shall speak my mind clear and true: I fear that the King may try something to cleave your bond with the people of Jin-Shaw.”
“No. My brother is not the sort to commit to conspiracy,” said Zulfus, and let out a deep breath. “That said, he cannot hope to win the hearts of the people without supporting the temples. I will think of what you say when I rest at Innia. I instead worry that the people themselves will conspire to violence if they come to neither fear nor love my brother.”
Gélin looked again at the sides of the road, at how the forest seemed to wrap it with heavy claws made of tree limbs, as if trying to crush it. All that the forest could do was contain the path to about the width of a chariot. It seemed like an endless green corridor, flanked by primeval trees and wild bush.
“Some animals have come out of their slumber, I hear,” said Gélin, as he slowed his horse down.
The Prince furrowed his brow, and stopped his horse’s climb up the road. The moment he unsheathed his steel longsword the Royal Protector followed in tandem, and pulled out one of his heavy javelins. Both men looked around, searching the undergrowth for any signs of movement.
“Come out, whoever you are! Who hides in the shadows of trees?” Zulfus shouted.
An arrow whistled through the air, glanced the side of Zulfus’ armor, and slid across without penetrating it. Gélin spotted a figure moving through the bushes, and hurled his javelin which found a clear path to its mark. A fierce scream echoed through the trees, and three men rushed out of the undergrowth while a woman remained behind with her shortbow.
Zulfus ducked, evading another arrow, and charged at one of the men. The man braced himself with a thick wooden shield, but the Prince–with his mounted height–ignored it completely, and delivered a fatal slice to his neck. An arrow struck and embedded itself in the horse’s shoulder, making it neigh and thrash its head in a frenzy. The other two men quickly closed the distance, letting out a ferocious battle cry, and cut down the horse’s legs with their axes, felling it to the ground along with the rider. Zulfus sprang up and picked up his sword without delay, and faced the two men with shields and axes. One of the men in front of him suddenly looked up, and a javelin cut through the air, flying just above Zulfus’ shoulder, and lodged itself into the man’s shield with enough force that a flurry of splinters flew out in all directions.
Four more men scampered out of the sides of the road, surrounding Gélin and Zulfus from behind. The Royal Protector saw that Zulfus was holding his own, and so he took his spear and turned around to charge at the four men, who stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder on the narrow road. The horse began its gallop as fast as it could, though there wasn’t much distance between them. It crashed onto the shields, physically breaking the ambushers line with its body, with one of the men trampled to death under its iron hooves and another being impaled by the rider’s spear.
Gélin now faced two men, shaken and with fear in their eyes as they looked at their dead brothers-at-arms. One of them swung his axe wildly at the horse, but was stopped by a spear thrust to the thigh, followed by several more until his bloodied body collapsed. The other remaining man dropped his weapon and shield, and ran away from the battle, kicking up dirt in his wake.
The Royal Protector turned around to charge at the remaining aggressors fighting the Zulfus. The Prince was holding out, parrying their axes without a shield of his own, but couldn’t land any cuts or thrusts on the two men. Gélin looked to the left of the road, and the woman with the bow let loose another arrow aimed for Zulfus. The cruel arrow hit its target, and found its resting place between the Prince’s lamellar plates. One of the men sprung forth and finished him off with an axe blow to the head.
Gélin’s heart nearly stopped. A terrible chill ran through his veins, paralyzing him and choking the air from his lungs and throat. Cold fear turned to anger, and anger to rage, with which he kicked the side of his horse to begin another charge, one full of fury and near-madness. He did not hear the forest shaking to his left. He did not feel the winds moving with a strange magic, until a whirlwind burst from the thick trees, sending shrubbery and branches flying along with it. The whirlwind ended its path in the middle of his charge with such power that it dismounted Gélin from his horse, and sent the other two men back several feet. From it emerged a man with a short spear, and wearing a tunic belonging to the temple of Innia.