They reached the central cardinal gate of Bjori early the next morning as the heat of an early spring morning began to fill the air. The sight of the keep and the knights on guard made him smile as they passed through the gates.
The gate system had been developed after the nation of Bjori had taken control of all of Riceal. At the time, the cardinal dukedoms, the akiarks, had been established as well as their cardinal marshes, the isarks. Each akiark had eight cardinal gates corresponding to each isark. They were each housed inside small, remote keeps at the edges of the isarks and connected to one another, but they were separated from the city gates by magic and by distance. Using the gates, the time it would take to go from the capital to Bellkeep was two days rather than two weeks.
Each keep was so heavily guarded that it was near suicide for any enemy to attempt to use them. Even if an enemy managed to get to a cardinal gate and best its defenses, the nearest town’s forces would be alerted the moment the gate had fallen. Before the enemy could even get out of the cardinal keep or think to use it to take over another cardinal gate, the fallen gate would stop working and a force of knights would be waiting for the enemy to leave the keep.
The tactic had been one of Bjori’s strongest defenses in the time when they had been at war with Enox and bought them more than enough time to evacuate towns and shore up their defenses.
As they exited the cardinal gate of Ruschel, he felt the disturbance in the air and his heart clenched in fear. It was much more serious than they were led to believe if the disturbance had such an effect on the air this far from Bellkeep.
The mages murmured among themselves with concern, as they continued south towards the nearest city gate of Houlgai. None of the city gates were housed inside of a city. They were generally within a few hundred miles of the city for which they were named. The keeps of city gates were smaller than the cardinal gates, but designed to make it as difficult as possible for any enemy forces to get in or out. The path to get into the keep was a winding maze defended from above by knights and other magical defenses.
The keep at Houlgai was on full alert, though it had not activated its distress beacon to the capital. Valon bet they were aware that there was something else going on. He wondered briefly how large Veda’s influence had spread to keep the knights quiet about whatever was happening in Bellkeep.
It would be a massive headache to purge so many knights at once, but they would do it. There was no reason to believe that war was on the horizon even if the season for war was coming. They reached the gate soon enough, and Valon worried his lip.
Balros leaned towards him, “Do you feel it?”
He nodded. He didn’t know what awaited them when they arrived at the coastal keep, but he knew he wouldn’t like it.
“What is the problem?” Captain Belrose asked.
“Passage to Bellkeep has been restricted by order of the sinaki.”
“We are here on relief orders from the arka regent,” Captain Belrose said, offering the order signed by Valena.
The knight stammered, “W-Well, I would have to check with–”
“Knight, to whom do you owe your loyalty?”
“The crown of Bjori, sir.”
“Then, for what reason are you stalling us?”
He hesitated, grimacing. His partner was pale, staring haunted into nothing and silent. Valon took note of his face and the cut of his armor. He was a newly promoted knight if the state of his armor was anything to go by. More importantly, there were two ties on his arm that marked the location of his station. The more visible one was of Houlgai, but the one beneath it, barely covered, was of Bellkeep. Practically shell-shocked, he bet the man had been placed in this position this far north because his original station was no longer available.
Bellkeep had fallen. The man should have been on rest, yet he was here. The man lifted his gaze frightened and met Valon’s eyes. There was a plea there and terror before he dropped his gaze.
“Answer me!” Captain Belrose commanded, grabbing the first knight roughly.
“Bellkeep is under attack, sir!” the first knight yelped. “The forces have withdrawn to the gate’s keep.”
Valon narrowed his eyes. The second knight lost a bit more color and closed his eyes with a shudder. The first knight was lying, maybe because he had been ordered to or maybe because he just didn’t know. Balros drew closer to Valon, likely knowing what would happen next. He had expected some level of trouble, but not the prospect of full on battle. What had happened to Bellkeep’s people? Had they been evacuated in time? Why had this not been reported?
Why would Veda try to keep this underwraps?
How long had Bellkeep been under siege and by what?
“Why was this not reported? By who? By what?”
“Magical creatures from the Blue Forest, sir. They came out of the forest, down from the mountains and laid waste to Bellkeep. The Blue Forest is aflame.”
Valon’s heart lurched.
“How long?” Captain Belrose asked. “What of the townspeople?”
“They were evacuated with all haste to a nearby town, all gates have been closed to the area as of this morning. The fire started just a few days ago, but it’s been spreading–”
“Open the gate to Bellkeep,” Captain Belrose said and turned to units. “Leave the caravan and relief supplies here. We go to ascertain the extent of the damages and try to corral the situation. Be on your guard. Messenger, send word to the capital that we may need backup.”
Balros turned to him and Valon sent up a message to Valena before dismounting to help dismantle the caravan. His heart hammered as he watched the knight prepare for battle and followed suit, pouring his magic into his armor.
“What are you–”
Valon cut Balros off with a glance. The man grit his teeth, “Stay with me. She would never forgive me if something were to happen to you.”
He met his gaze and drew out a vial for him and offered it to him, “Drink it.”
Balros nodded and took the vial. He gave all the others he had away to Asher, Philip, Queste, and anyone else who wanted it for an extra boost. Mounting Riquel again he gripped his sword and hoped that he could control his power enough that he wouldn’t end up weaponless.
The gate turned a brilliant red signalling that it was open to Bellkeep and the keep was on high alert. Only by the order of the sinaki could the keep be on such high alert and it not automatically be transmitted to the capital. She was hiding it, but for what reason he couldn’t know. Valon glanced at the second knight who had not moved from his place beside the gate even as he seemed ready to pass out from terror.
“Gemini watch over you,” Valon whispered. “Strength of the blessed waters of Su be with you and wash away evil in your path. Heat of the sacred fire of Na keep you warm and burn your enemies so you walk unhindered.”
The prayer drifted as a soft blue light across the group of knights. The mages joined him, adding to its brilliance as it wrapped around each knight of the caravan, “Eye of the night watch over you and in Su’s sight, walk in grace through the valley of shadows, emerging into the realm of Na with the rising sun.
“Be as a hope to those you have sworn to protect, sacred children of Gemini. Children of Bjori, ride to battle. Children of Solomon, ride to victory. Children of Riceal, ride until you are called home.”
The prayer settled over the group and slipped around the second knight as Captain Belrose mounted his horse and ordered them forward. As they exited the gate, he felt the rain pouring down and heard the screech of a beast beyond the keep’s walls. They rode through the keep.
“Reinforcements!” Someone cried over the rain and terror. “Praise Gemini!”
“Captain Belrose!” Someone called rushing towards them as they exited the gate into the pouring rain. “Thank Gemini, you’re here. We’ve been trying to send word. Bellkeep–”
“Has fallen,” Captain Belrose said. “We were told at the last city gate. We’ve sent a call for reinforcements to the capital. We’ll do what we can until they arrive. Open the gates.”
The knight nodded, saluted and ran off crying, “Open the gates!”
Captain Belrose led them into a gallop through the small towards the slowly opening gates. As they creaked open, a blast of white hot fire flashed before them and broke against the shield of the keep.
Valon’s heart lurched and he heard the mages gasp in terror.
“Steady heart,” Captain Belrose commanded. “Mages, shield forward!”
He watched the four mages lift their staffs and cast a glowing white shield forward.
“Draw!” Captain Belrose commanded, and he drew his sword with the rest of the knights. His heart hammered in his chest and he tried to keep his breathing calm as Riquel began to fidget.
Valon stroked her mane gently. They would be fine so long as they kept their wits about them and he remembered his training. He would stay close to Balros and Quests in either case.
Captain Belrose charged forward and they all forward, following him out of the safety of the keep. As Valon rode through the gate house of the keep, lightning twisted through the sky and in the stroke of thunder, he heard the wings of a dragon.
Gemini help them.