Rising of the Phoenix
Wherefore our elders and all the inhabitants of our country spake unto us, saying, Take victuals with you for the journey, and go to meet them, and say unto them, "We are your servants."
-- Joshua 9:11
Just before the noon meal, the young men chosen for the journey by the exiled Michaeline Abbot met with all their respective fathers and each received a small sealed scroll.
"Do not lose your scrolls," Kelos' father spoke on behalf of all the elders. "Each contains your entire family history from the time of our exile to the present day. Lose them, and you may find yourselves in a difficult situation once you reach Rhemuth." Many of the fathers were weeping silently or struggling not to break down before the younger men. None of them had expected to lose their sons as the price of the restoration of the Michaeline Order.
After the noon meal had ended, the young men gathered their possessions, and the gifts to be given to the King of Gwynedd, which included ten fine R'Kassan horses, five of them recently pregnant mares, and two well-trained hunting cats along with many fine examples of jewelry. There were also sixteen remounts and twelve packhorses in the column. They knew it was going to be a long dangerous trip to Rhemuth, even while they passed through the safer areas on their route.
All of them were skilled with swords, and twelve of the sixteen were adept with the bow as well, both the Moorish horse bow and the less common longbow, and would carry twenty arrows for each bow type in their gear. They prepared their minds and bodies for the trials ahead, not knowing what they would face on the long road to Gwynedd. In addition to the sixteen, there were four men whose sole responsibility was the health of the horses. These four men were on mules instead of horses, by their own choice. All of them were aware that only one Healer was in their number, and their plans were to protect Tevas at all costs, for Healers were still rare, and if he died, their chances of reaching Gwynedd seriously dwindled if it came to a serious fight. The sixteen young men made a pact one with the other not to read their scrolls until they reached the Court of Gwynedd's King. Some had already noted the similarity between Kelos' and Kelson's names, (who was the King they all expected to meet) and had made jokes about it amongst themselves. Kelos was not amused by the jokes. In fact, he was nervous about the journey.
They would ride in ordinary laymen's clothes on their journey to avoid too much unfriendly notice from strangers, but each carried a Michaeline habit in his pack, and they hoped to wear them when they reached Rhemuth if the political climate proved favorable. This was in addition to other forms of clothing, including three changes of riding clothing per man. This was being done for purposes of maintaining their health along the way.
The second in command of the group had a Michaeline banner and a lance to attach it to should it be needed, but they would ride as a small mercenary force or a group of friends as much as it was possible to do so, in order to deflect interest away from them. It was considered imperative that as many of them as possible reach Rhemuth, for they would quite likely form the core of the restored Order.
Late that afternoon, just before sun's set, they left as a group, but were separated, half in front of the gift-train and half behind. This was done because much of their initial travel would, by necessity, be at night, it being the transition month between spring and summer, and some of the areas they would be traveling in would be too hot during the day. In addition, this would give the group some flexibility in responding to threats to the gift train, or so it was hoped.
As agreed in the planning council prior to the group's departure, the Healer, who was perhaps the most accomplished horseman of them all, rode in the second group, on the fastest of the horses the sixteen younger men were using to ride.
The first night's travel went as planned, or perhaps a little better; they made better time than they had anticipated. They reached an oasis a full hour before dawn, and set camp. Within minutes of setting camp, however, an argument ensued amongst several of the companions.
"Kelos! Get over here!" came a call from his second in command, Azim al-Ashar, who had led the second group to that day's campsite. He was standing with his hands against the chests of two very angry men who were all but coming to blows. Kelos sighed as he hurried over to the three men. He'd been afraid this confrontation would occur, for their families had been feuding ever since the remnant had fled Gwynedd.
Lorcas el-Lahim and Kasimba al-Asha had never really liked one another, but this was bad, very bad. Lorcas shouted, "This fool insults my family, and I shall not take this!" Wincing from the shout at such close range, but remaining calm despite the pain, Azim said soothingly, "Kasimba, apologize, or do you truly wish to be sent home to your family in disgrace?"
"I wish this..." and here, Kasimba noticed Kelos walking up, and reworded the rest of what he was going to say, rather than say what he truly thought of the other, "Dishonorable cur would slink off to the hole he was born in and leave us in peace. He's insulted my sister, and I'll not take it."
"Both of you listen to and heed my words." Kelos was grim and struggling not to explode in anger. "I know too well the feud that lies beneath this argument, and I will deal with both of you harshly if you persist in disrupting this trip. What is it that the Christ said? Was it not to forgive and even to love one's enemies?" He paused briefly as the two nodded, well aware of the scrolls Kelos was referring to. "He said, in answer to St. Peter's asking him if one should forgive seven times a day, 'No. Forgive your brother seventy times seven a day.' I realize both of you are angry, and understand why, but your argument was doubtless audible for miles. Endanger us all, and you will feel my wrath." He was grimly determined not to fail in this mission, and these two were a danger to it. The two men indicated their obedience to Kelos' directive, and turned their backs on one another. In a low voice that the two hopefully would not hear, Kelos instructed Azim to confiscate both men's weapons for that night. This was to prevent one of them from trying to kill the other. He also set two others as tent companions for the two, despite the fact that it would make for miserable sleeping conditions for the companions who were preventing mayhem. He was saddened that the two had quarreled. He would need them in the days to come.
"Perhaps I have a solution, at least for the riding of tonight's journey. Place Kasimba in the forward group, and Lorcas in the other..." Azim was thinking aloud, trying to figure out how that would alter the balance of the groups, since one of them was an archer and the other a swordsman, and shook his head sadly. It was not going to be easy to rebalance the two groups, especially if other conflicts arose. When Kelos nodded in agreement, then suggested swapping Ters and Hassim as well, which he believed would restore balance to the groups, Azim nodded, realizing Kelos was also thinking on the matter.
As they left the oasis on the second night's journey across the desert landscape, the two who had been so quarrelsome were sullen, and not talkative at all. Around midnight, with the stars providing nearly enough light to blind everyone, or so it seemed, they came across a small caravan that needed help. The merchant was frantic. "Ooooh! I've nearly lost my mind, as well as much of my goods!" he cried. "Four of my men," and he waved in the general direction of the caravan's main body, "are seriously injured, and need immediate help!"
With a nod from Kelos, Tevas al-Bazar, the group's Healer, hurried over to the injured men, with a two-man escort, in case this was a trap. Not long afterwards, one of the injured men fell asleep, obviously not in as much pain. The scene was repeated twice more, with only the last man requiring Tevas to go into the deepest level of Healing trance to succeed in healing him, and his escorts from the band of friends assisted in this, by linking with him as they had been trained. Some minutes passed, and the last injured man finally subsided, his most serious wounds Healed, with only minor ones remaining. Tevas was exhausted; it had been close at one point; he'd almost lost the man. The merchant was not astonished, having seen Healers in action before, but did give them his effusive thanks for the assistance, and pressed a small bag of gold on the Healer, refusing to take no for an answer. With a final round of thanks, the two groups separated.
"Bet he'll either totally ignore the fact we healed his people, or make noise about it." Tevas groused. "I'd prefer the former over the latter. It'd be safer." Kelos nodded.
Again, they reached a safe place before dawn, but it wasn't where they would have preferred to be that day. Looking at the map, Kelos and Azim planned out the next night's travel, and realized that they'd be climbing a steep pass at nearly midnight. This wasn't a good thing at all, considering. The only good thing about the pass was that it would be difficult to set a real ambush over; the pass was narrow, with no hazards noted on the map. The inky blackness the pass would cause could still cause harm, because they dared not use torches or handfire yet, for fear it would be misinterpreted as a raiding party crossing to attack.
Upon entering the small village, they reluctantly headed in the direction of the inn, which had the unlikely name of The King's Choice. Most of them realized that with an ostentatious name like that, it was likely to be an unsafe place to be, or at the very least, not as good as claimed. They had all had experience with such places.
Kelos and Azim approached the Innkeeper outside his inn, and asked about rooms for sixteen, with baths requested as well, and the innkeeper grunted as if hit. "Sure, an' what's in it for me Inn? Yet another raucous bunch o' brats to have to repair damages to me inn after they leave?" He sounded bitter, even to Kelos.
"Nay, kind sir," Kelos said soothingly. "We are well behaved, and simply wish a meal, a place to sleep today, and baths, for which we have enough to pay you." He showed the innkeeper the bag of coin they'd received from the merchant, and to their surprise, his face grew wroth. "That bag is from the last bunch of cutthroats that tried to stay here."
Azim looked in alarm at Kelos before saying, "We are peaceful men who have no interest in stirring anyone's hostility towards us, and we may be able to assist you in the repairs as well."
This offer totally startled the surly innkeeper, who hadn't expected the offer, and was mollified by it. "All right. You've four rooms to make your own for the day. All I ask is that you assist us in finishing the repairs to the common room first." He thought for a short time. "Baths and the rooms for the sixteen of you will cost thirty-two gold pieces." Kelos raised an eyebrow, but before he could respond to such an outrageous price, Kalid al-Bey, one of the Healer's two escorts, tapped him on the shoulder, and whispered, "It's an outrageous price, but he is expecting you to haggle." Kelos nodded, and named a much lower price; one that he knew was below the innkeeper's cost for such a service, and the haggling began in earnest. Almost twenty minutes later, they had reached an agreed price that left Azim stunned, for it was not quite a third of what he had figured it would take. He looked at Kelos with new respect, as did most of the rest of the company. Azim noted the faces of those who were sullen, and made a mental note to watch them carefully.
Next evening, after they had slept six hours and worked a full day's labor repairing damage done by others, they rented the inn for another night, to the innkeeper's delight, due to the danger of the pass at night. There was little trouble, even from the original two arguers, mainly because they'd worked themselves to the edge of exhaustion during the day. The next morning, after all of them had had baths again, at the same price as before, they bid farewell to the now much-happier innkeeper, and set off up the mountain.
To Kelos' private dismay, they found the trail up to the pass was obviously not in regular use, and would be harder to climb as a result. He didn't have to wonder long why it was in relative disuse, for as they approached, he realized that the sense of claustrophobia would be intense indeed, not a good thing with a large group of horses and other goods, for even more vigilance would be necessary. Those walls were also closer together than he liked. It'd be a single file up, through and back down, and that would take more time than he liked. After getting a really close look at the pass, he held his hand up in a clear signal for the groups to halt, before signaling them to gather.
Once they were all together again, he told them, "Men, we have a problem up ahead. Not insurmountable, but some of you may want to wear blindfolds during the passage through the pass. It's going to be a bit tight going through, but the good news is that there's not much of a worry about ambush during the passage. The pass is simply too tight to allow it."
There was generalized grumbling at first, then a louder voice called, "How are we to be safe, if we can't see where we're going?"
"Good question. The answer is, each blindfolded man will have a leader who will control his horse during the crossing." Again, there was grumbling, but this time much more positive sounding. Despite the offer, none took advantage of it, not wanting to admit their claustrophobia before their peers. Finally, the group began the trek up the path and through the pass.
It took them nearly half the day to cross the mountain pass, and it was dark when they got to the far end of the pass. Azim noticed something, and hurriedly put a white cloth on the lance, raising it as they descended the mountain. Kelos glanced at Azim, then down the mountain, immediately understanding the reason for the white flag.