The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 02

Davin gestured down the hallway. “We always gather on the front veranda.” Bayn obligingly turned to the stairs, leading Davin down the flight.

As they descended, Bayn said, “I have been curious to meet the Cadet who is first in his class in mathematics and science.”

Davin shook his head. “Of course there is a top scholar at the Academy, but it is not me. I have been denied class standing and forced to resign.” He felt his face redden as he had to repeat the embarrassing admission.

At the bottom of the stairs, Bayn turned to Davin. After a moment of silence, he said, “Do not be discouraged at this turn in your life. I have often been disappointed at the attitude of our Academy toward scholarship and intellect.”

Turning, he moved toward the front entry, and Davin followed him into the cold, gray day. Clouds above seemed to hint of snow, and a biting wind whistled out of the north. Stopping at the edge of the front porch, Davin surveyed those gathered for Meeting as Bayn joined the ranche hands and mounted up.

As usual on a Meeting day, a line of wagons was waiting where the front drive met the east-west road, a motley collection from canvas-covered cargo trams to fully-enclosed wooden coaches with soft seat cushions and glass side-windows. Two such coaches were parked near the front porch of Aldronne — the General’s family and house staff always traveled in the grandest style.

Those ranche families to the west would traditionally leave earlier and slowly move east, gathering neighbors as they came toward Aldronne on Meeting day. Usually, by first eight, a string of wagons waited patiently at the gate. In addition to the honor of traveling with Aldronne’s wagons, there was the advantage of forty or fifty of the General’s ranche-hands, typically well-armed. Such was a welcome addition to the smaller ranching families, who often had only the father and a few sons or ranche hands who could act as defenders. The malito problem was not frequent, but attacks could be disastrous.

Today manpower was lower. Many of the General’s men, and those of his neighbors, were in the prairies to the south, as roundup was beginning. Spring had arrived, cold and bitter though it was, but warmer weather lay just around the corner. Ranche-hands would be scouring the pastures for new-born calves and lambs as well as scouting for evidence of predators and those who might wish to appropriate a milk cow or likely looking bull.

Only about twenty mounted men were clustered together, some talking in low tones, dressed in the traditional tan longcoats and heavy brimmed hats of the ranche worker. Their stance on their horses, their general air of watchfulness, and their clearly visible weapons marked all as former members of the Nortes Governor’s Guard. The General hired only former military men into his employ.

In years past Pedron, elderly former overseer of the ranche, would be the center of the waiting group. But during the last summer, Pedron had passed into the presence of Deos, and the General was now searching for a new foreman. It was a prestigious post for which there would be many applicants.

Pedron’s daughter and granddaughter, Aliceia and Riala, would be riding in one family coach with Meara, which Belo habitually drove, while Paco took the other coach. The General might ride with his men or perhaps in the coach with the women of the household, as he felt moved on a particular Lord’s Day. Today, with so many ranche hands in the field, he was astride his gray stallion. It snorted and blew great puffs of steam in the cold, impatient to start out. The monstrous draft horses pulling the carriages waited quietly, their nature more patient.

Paco, small and lean, with dark hair and eyes and a self-effacing manner, was waiting with Charger near the family coaches, as another servant brought Bayn’s horse.

“Good morning.” Most servants would say “Seor Davin,” a title of respect, but Paco and Davin had grown up together.

Davin took the reins from Paco. Charger was a fine dark gelding, now somewhat advanced in years. Davin mounted and, a little nervously, turned to scan for the General. Already mounted, his father was currently in discussion with two of his lead vequereos.

“You have not yet talked to your father.” Davin could sense Paco’s sympathy.

“Not yet. It will come soon enough.”

“Se, se. It may be now.” Paco had spied the general, who, turning in the saddle, had discovered Davin on Charger. He slowly eased his mount around and walked it toward Davin, while Paco scuttled to his coach and took the driver’s position.

The General was a large man, nearly two meters in height. Under him, the gray simply looked like a normal-sized horse. The stallion’s name was Lanze, which meant “spear” in Sudo. Like most stallions, he was fully as aggressive (Belo said just plain mean) as his rider. Most men preferred geldings or mares to stallions, which were often hard to handle and high-strung, but the General loved the gray, a feeling that was reciprocated. Davin had seen it follow his father around the barnyard just as a puppy would follow its master.

Davin turned Charger to face the General, trying to calm his stomach as his father approached the veranda. At least, Davin thought thankfully, the General could hardly make a huge scene here in front of neighbors and employees.

The General reined in the gray, and father and son regarded each other for a moment. Davin dipped his head. “Good day, Father.”

When the General spoke, his voice was more subdued than Davin had expected. “I received word two days ago that you would be home this seven-day. Congratulations on your safe arrival and the good weather that ushered you home.” A heartfelt statement — there had been no snow lately, though the day still held promise, the winter considerably warmer than usual over the last several weeks.

Fifty years older than his son, General Kel Blackthorn was still straight and hard as a tempered arrow. He had a great mane of white hair, but no beard or mustache, a result of his army heritage. Clad in a glossy black leather coat and finely-pressed black wool suit, he wore black boots of rare antelope hide. All in all, the General looked to be just what he was — the richest and most influential leader in the northern land of the Sudos, the land he had personally conquered for the Governor and the Nortes Republic, more than forty years ago, and which he had ruled as Regent for nearly half the intervening time.

 “You returned home alone.”

Davin shrugged. “I took the northern coach nearly to Duro Piedre, on the River Roje, but the Alene coach was late. I rode on without waiting. It gave me time to think.”

“Later, we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, sir.”

His father turned the gray and rejoined his men, the stallion eager to be afield. Davin watched him a moment, heart gradually slipping back down his throat. Why does he do that to me? At least Davin was not alone in his reaction; the General intimidated everybody.

The procession finally departed with a simple wave by the General, who spurred his mount into a brisk walk toward the gate. As the General’s party reached the road and turned east, the queued-up wagons and horsemen followed, making a long procession of families on their way to worship.

Shortly they were moving up the long, steep hill at the crest of which was the Iglesa. Davin had joined his father’s workers, hoping to disappear amidst the riders. As many of the families that he knew were in the wagons behind him, no doubt some of his friends were present as well.

Two little girls were sitting with their father on one of the wagons, just behind Aldronne’s coaches. The youngest of them was serenading her father with a childhood song in between fits of giggles as she poked her older sister. Had he ever laughed so with his older brother? No, Kel junior had been too much older. Pictures of Kel in his memory were like monochrome portraits. It had been a long time since Davin had seen him.

Up ahead, a bright flash of light caught his eye. It was assertive, sharp, not the subtle light that he had refused to acknowledge just before he entered the Aldronne kitchen. The brilliant pulses of light came from straight ahead, through the trees, to the right of the trail. Among the riders around him, no one else even raised their head or took notice.

Why couldn’t anyone else see the light? For the first time, Davin felt a powerful urgency to tell someone what he had seen. Every time he had seen this light before, every single time, the next event had been . . . Davin spurred Charger forward among the General’s men, determined to give a warning.

He was still behind his father when a rider appeared up ahead in a gap between the trees. As an experienced military commander, the General always set a forward scout, and that scout was approaching with great haste. Davin’s father immediately held up his arm, bringing the column to the halt. His men and Davin moved forward as well, surrounding the General in a half-circle as the ranche hand rode up.

“Sir, there is a battle in the next clearing up-slope. About a half-kilometer ahead, though it is widely spread out. Several families on the way to Meeting have encountered a Hellport. Very large, and many malitos. Fighting is fierce, and already several are wounded. They will need our help to survive.”

There were stirs and mutters among the men — they knew what that meant — but the General only nodded, turning in his saddle. Davin had to admit that his father was at his best in time of crisis — he was as matter-of-fact as if he were asking Aliceia for another cup of coffee.

“Men, follow me. Davin, stand by our family, along with Belo and Paco.” He turned to his visitor, who had been riding beside him. “Bayn, my friend, I would take it as a personal favor if you would stay with the wagons, as all those I love remain here. If there is a need for rapid retreat or to repel an attack, I designate you second in command.” Bayn nodded.

With that the General and his men galloped down the road, the General calling out positions as they went. One discomforting thought occurred to Davin as the Aldronne riders rode away. The Hellport that had been encountered was above them on the escarpment, but those flashes he had just seen were nearby!

Urging Charger forward, Davin reined in beside Bayn, who was sizing up the remaining defenders in the column. “Excuse me, sir. Perhaps we should set up a defense to our East.”

Bayn stared at him quizzically. At that point, the wagons were in a straight line, facing north on a stretch of almost-flat ground. Up ahead, the road turned back to the east and began to climb again.

“Why to the east, young Blackthorn? Did you see something?”

“No, it’s just that . . .” Davin stumbled over the words. “I think a Hellport may form close by and . . .”

Bayn stared at him again, then nodded to Davin’s surprise. “A good suggestion, I think. You know many of the families in this column, correct?”

“Yes,” Davin blinked. What was Bayn thinking?

“Good. You must be acquainted with many of the young men your age — I’m sure there are a number in those wagons. Find them, bring them here, set up a defensive front. I’m sure you’ve studied that.”

“Yes, but . . .”

Bayn interrupted. “Listen, I must assess our defenses, make up some teams of fighters. You suspect a threat, you have the training. Find your friends, bring them here, set up a defensive front. Understood?”

Davin swallowed. “Yes. Yes, sir.”

Bayn turned from him, speaking to one of the older men who was left, pointing to the string of wagons. Bayn’s apparent confidence was energizing; Davin turned Charger and went to find his friends.