Flight: A Prologue

  • 4E 171

    The wolf trotted slowly along the ridge, tracking the scent of the filthy, sweat-streaked soldiers struggling across the sands below. There were only four left in the detachment now; six other stragglers had already succumbed to thirst, heat stroke, or battle wounds.  The men wasted no energy in speaking; they shuffled forward interminably, barely conscious, marching in the cold of the desert night to preserve their water and their stamina.  Jone and Jode rode high in the sky, casting brilliance across the shifting sands, lighting what seemed to be a path forward across the dunes.  In the distance, a black snake slid across the horizon; they pushed on in the hope that they were heading in the right direction, toward the Dragontail Mountains.

    All at once, Belisarius halted his march, squinting mutely at the sky above.  The others, oblivious to all else other than ragged breaths and uncertain footsteps, stumbled into his back and nearly toppled him.  “Daybreak in three hours,” he said tersely. “Best find cover soon.”  His voice was choked and hoarse from lack of water and the inhalation of pounds of fine grit.  The officer in charge by default since the deaths of the captain and the legate, Belisarius had no delusions about their odds of survival.  They had gotten separated from the main body of the Legion, lagging behind with their wounded, during a howling sandstorm that obliterated all vision, all sense of direction, even rendering sky and earth indistinguishable one from the other.

    Aurelio collapsed sitting in the sand, and a rough sigh tore its way from his throat.  “I can’t go no more.  I stop here.”  Cleofas and Aemilian stared, exhausted, but did not protest.  “No shelter here. Gotta keep going. Just a little more,” Belisarius coaxed. “Stop here, you’ll die.  We can’t stop.”  

    Barely fifty yards behind, the wolf sat and rested, panting quietly, a dark shadow blending into the bare rock of the ridgeline.  She could afford to be patient; she had fed well on the remains of the soldiers, trailing behind the legionnaires.  The more pressing danger was the danger of forgetting; she couldn’t forget who she was, where she was going, and why.

    Belisarius stood, assessing, as Cleofas and Aemilian made feeble attempts to argue with the prone man, but there was no strength left.  Aurelio made no sign, no response, no rebuttal, simply staring at the stars, his breath shallow in his chest.  Finally, in a burst of rage, Cleofas blurted, “I’m going on. Stay here and die, but I won’t.”  Aemilian looked from Belisarius to Aurelio, then toward the receding figure of Cleofas trudging with renewed vigor across the sands, and made his decision.  He struggled to catch up to the tall slender Elf before the night swallowed him.  

    Crouching down beside his brother in arms, shaking him by the shoulder, Belisarius spoke softly.  “Aurelio. Listen. We’ve come this far. We’ve fought so many, come so close to death, and lived.  Will you die here?”  Aurelio’s eyes scanned his face, unseeing; thirst and exhaustion had left him on the verge of unconsciousness.  The tribune thought, lost the trail of his thought, shook his head to refocus.  He pulled Aurelio’s dagger from his belt sheath and wrapped the man’s fingers firmly around it.  Then, he unsheathed his legion sword and laid it across Aurelio’s near-comatose form, hilt in hand.  “No stroke of mercy, Aurelio.  Divines send, you’ll reach us before the sun is high.  Not giving up.”  Belisarius stood, balanced himself, then strode, resolute, across the sands without looking back.  Too many, he thought.  We’ve lost too many.  I won’t kill another before his time.

    Waiting until the silhouette of Belisarius disappeared into the distance, the wolf loped down from her place of concealment.  Aurelio had not moved, nor shifted position; she could see the barest rise and fall of his chest, and his eyes were open.  Still a safe distance from the collapsed soldier, on the open sands beneath the light of the two moons, the wolf shifted.  Her shoulders arched and hunched, claws growing into fingers, hindpaws stretching and elongating into legs.  She let out a choked wail, half-howl, half-scream, as her pelt pulled, stretched and sprung into place as skin.  

    Wiping a single tear of pain from the corner of her eye, the Bosmer woman stood shakily, licking her dry lips, flexing her fingers, rolling her neck.  Collecting herself, she stepped slowly, carefully toward him, her eyes focused intently on Aurelio’s inert form.  He was still armed, after all, and she was naked and mostly powerless in this shape.  Kneeling beside his head, she called his name. “Aurelio.  Aurelio.  Can you hear me?” He did not answer, but rolled his eyes in all directions, seeking the source of the voice, unseeing.  She wondered fleetingly what hallucinations and fancies played across his heat-fevered brain.  I’m going to release you now, Aurelio.  You are not my enemy, but I will give you the honor that my people give.  

    Moving swiftly and surely, she took the dagger from his hand and sliced cleanly across his throat.  Bending forward, she drank the salty concentrated blood from an artery, swallowing the liquid in slow, measured gulps so as not to make herself sick.  When the life had died from his eyes, she set to removing his clothes and gear, piling each piece neatly and straightening his limbs so that he was laid out symmetrically.  Her mer hands and knees, tender in this form, scraped on the rough sands as she carried out the ritual.  Chanting in Bosmeri, invoking Jode and Jone and Y'ffre, the woman sliced the meat from his bones, first four deep cuts to the front of the thigh, then four cuts to the biceps, finally slicing away the strips of muscle from the bone.  Then, she opened his chest and belly, exposing and removing the organ meats and heart, before she flipped him over and divested the flesh from his buttocks and calves. She left his face and his hands untouched.  Blood and body fluids seeped into the sands underneath the body, compacting it into a stiff mud.

    The sweltering heat was already rising again.  When she had harvested all that could usefully be taken in the short time left to her, she piled the meats onto the breastplate of his armor to keep them uncontaminated by the sands.  By the time the sun began to glimmer over the edge of the horizon, she had shifted back to her wolf form and begun to feed.


  • RuneRed
    RuneRed   ·  February 6, 2014
  • HeadHunter 360
    HeadHunter 360   ·  January 21, 2014
    Great story! Loved the gruesome bits :)
  • Porchdrinker
    Porchdrinker   ·  January 21, 2014
    This is amazingly well-written and a great start to what will surely be an epic story. Love the references to the Bosmeri moon gods and the god of the forest. Can't wait for the next chapter. Favorite line: "I'm going to release you now, Aurelio. You are ...  more