The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 07

Chapter 4: Decisions

The General’s coaches in the lead, the wagons slowly left the churchyard, no longer a collection of worshippers but a silent funeral procession. Hoping to remain unobtrusive, especially to his family, Davin urged Charger toward the gate, among a group of riders from various ranches. He had no desire to talk as he grappled with Donaia’s words — and with the other events of the day. Scattered oaks, their leafless boles stark against the wall of the fort, watched quietly, as if brooding over the earlier, bloody events. Their branches gently swayed in the crystalline cold.

The absence of familiar faces in the wagons, the saddled horses without riders, all bore mute testimony to the day’s events. No one spoke. The entire wagon train edged forward sluggishly, out the gate of the Iglesa compound and right, toward the winding road that descended from the cliffs.

Time began to lose its distinction and melt into simple motion. The gray afternoon was cold and harsh. Davin felt dimly aware of reaching the switchback roads that descended to the plain, but he was roused abruptly by the sight of the first malito battle. Fewer malito bodies were strewn along the upper site, but Davin still felt the depressing impact of the deaths that had occurred. Along with the splashes of the black malito blood, many brownish-red spots and patches stained the ground.

All too soon, his portion of the long procession turned south onto the level section of the trail, near the spot where Peto had died. Ahead lay the bloodied road, remains of malitos still in piles and, a little farther along, to the east side of the road, the enormous carcass of the GranMalo, flung back against cracked and broken cedar trees and undergrowth, its ponderous form terrifying even in death. Davin stared in wonder, amazed to still be alive. The GranMalo was pocked with arrows, including one that protruded from its skull, but the killing arrow — the one that had pierced its left-center eye — could not be seen.

The sobbing and moans increased as the wagons passed the death spot of the children. The GranMalo remains did not frighten Davin — it never had. But he wrinkled his nose at the acrid odor that seemed to penetrate not only his nostrils but his skin like some insidious acid, despite the cold. He was glad to pass it by, along with the scene of Peto’s death.

Hearing hoofbeats behind him, Davin turned to see Meara approach. He had thought her in the family coach, but she sat astride one of the Aldronne horses that had lost its rider earlier in the day. Reining Charger in, he waited as she caught up, allowing several wagons to pass. Meara looked tired but determined, her features exposed but most of her long blonde hair hidden by the cowl of her longcoat. Her face was a soft oval, with a strong nose, widely-spaced gray eyes, a soft mouth, and a firm chin. Even Davin had to admit, grudgingly, that Meara was a beautiful woman.

“Hello, Brother,” she said as she drew alongside. “I did not get to see you at breakfast to welcome you home.”

“I did not expect a welcome.” Davin stared at her, almost seeing a stranger. This last year, she had changed as dramatically as Donaia. “Certainly, my return is no great occasion.”

“So I heard.” Her voice was soft, but strong, not musical but quite pleasant. “I was there when the priests talked to father. Despite your — resignation from Academy, you must have learned some lessons that counted. Your lance work was exemplary, and you probably saved Riala’s life. I even saw you send an arrow at that great beast.”

Davin nodded absently. An arrow at the great beast. There was no adequate comment that he could make, at least, that she would believe. “My last arrow,” he said.

“Oh? It is good then that Bayn’s arrow found its mark — I saw him shoot and the thing collapsed. But that does not lessen your effort. I saw you kill two malitos right near our coach, and I told Father so. And Bayn said that you killed several malitos with the bow.”

Davin clucked his tongue. “There were so many at first, I doubt if anyone missed a shot.”

“Even so, I do not think this Bayn throws compliments around carelessly. I heard him mention it to Father, as well. Despite your problems at Academy, I think Father has no reason to be ashamed of his son today.”

She didn’t seem to realize that the implication of today was more insulting than if she had said nothing. Meara was charming and articulate, except where it came to Davin. “And what will you do now? The University?”

Davin shrugged, which she could not see under his heavy coat. “I must talk to — to Father. I have some ideas, but only time will tell.” By which he meant, “whether or not Father will listen to me.” Like Aliceia, he always called the General “Father” when speaking to Meara.

“I think he wants to talk soon,” she observed, pointing up the trail. “He is coming this way.” She smiled slightly and patted his arm. “Good luck, Brother. I will be curious about your . . . joint decision.” She called Davin “Brother.” Her older brother, Kel junior, she always called by name. She rode on, catching her father’s hand for a moment as they passed.

Davin waited patiently. He had been hoping to avoid family until Meara had caught up to him, although he had glimpsed his father several times as the General talked to each family, consoling the bereft and praising the fighters who survived. Now, meeting unavoidable, Davin waited until his father joined him near the rear of the wagons.

They rode in silence for a while. Eventually, the General surprised him by reaching out to pat Davin on the shoulder. “I was proud of you today,” he said quietly. “Bayn told me you loosed many arrows, and a number found their mark. He also said that you were a fearless fighter with the longlance.”

Davin hardly knew how to reply. After a moment, he said, “Thank you, Father. In truth, there were so many malitos at first, it was hard to miss. And when the malitos shifted their attack to the rear of our column, I was afraid for our family. And I had to focus on saving my own skin.” It was not really true, but it seemed the humble thing to say.

The General’s smile was grim. “As was I. No sin to be afraid — all men are afraid in battle, at least sometimes. Bayn says you even shot at the GranMalo, possibly a very punishing shot at the end. You know that he killed the beast.”

Davin nodded. “So they say. I did not see,” he lied. “I was just trying to get off a shot of my own.”

His father squeezed his shoulder. “And a creditable shot it was, according to Bayn. The women were in danger, and you responded decisively, the hallmark of the true soldier. I am proud. Very proud.”

Before Davin could reply, his father continued, “I should never have sent you to the Academy.”

The General lifted his eyes to the plains. The head of the column was already well out onto the flats, and in the distance, the outbuildings of Aldronne were faintly visible through the afternoon haze. “I suppose we old soldiers are all alike. I wanted all my sons to be like me, to embrace the military and to have a career in the Guard. But you have your own strengths. It was my mistake to force you in the wrong direction, not yours for failing to live up to my unrealistic expectations.”

Davin almost laughed. Instead, he stifled the chuckle and matched the General’s gaze toward the horizon. Davin had not really hated Academy. Indeed, he had made a number of close friends, and many of the instructors had certainly been his strong supporters. But who would rally in battle, even the war exercises held each summer by the Academy, around a short, nearsighted leader with a soft voice and a desire to remain in the background?

As his father remained silent, Davin tried to look at the General’s confession generously. Davin always been the problem, he admitted to himself. Kel, a born leader, was the perfect son to his father.

The General cleared his throat. “We have learned from our experiences, you and I. Bayn brought word from several of your professors, who were extremely impressed by your ability to plan, your scholarship, and your bent for science. You did well in your studies. I believe we will find a better path from your — difficulty at Academy.”

The General picked up speed as though he had reached some significant decision, both talking more rapidly and urging his steed to a fast walk, forcing Charger into a canter to keep pace. Alarm bells went off in Davin’s head, making him suddenly afraid that if he did not quickly get some of his own ideas before the General, it would be too late.

Struggling to keep his mount alongside the General’s prancing warhorse, Davin tried to insert a few words into the so far one-sided conversation. “Father, I . . .” he began. The General plowed on, ignoring the timid interruption.

“I have come to a decision, something I should have done two years past. You will enter the University, and will learn the techniques of business and management to run Aldronne. I would not be surprised if you do a better job than I ever have, with your bent for strategic analysis and planning. Your head for figures is better than mine, and you will learn to master the details neither Kel nor I have ever had the time for.”

Davin fidgeted, listening to his father plan his life. The dreams that Davin had for his future were the kind that would never occur to his father.

“Kel will not return to Aldronne in the foreseeable future,” the General continued. “His destiny is with the Governor’s Guard, I think, perhaps to lead it in a short time as I once did. But there is a need for management of our properties, and leadership in the operations of the ranche. You will fare far better here,” he said. He patted Davin’s shoulder again.

Davin stared idly ahead as his father’s words continued. Davin had grown used to the family, mainly Aliceia and the General, planning his life. But . . . Things were no longer the same. Not since the GranMalo.

Shaking his head, Davin tried to refocus on his father’s offer. It was all so perfect. His father forgiving him. An escape from the sheltered life he had led. No more excuses, no more comparison to Kel. He could have a place at his father’s side, a meaning which his life had always seemed to lack. Even now, his father magnanimously offered options.

And yet . . .

Perhaps it was the GranMalo, the shock of his battle experience, or the strange — energy — he had felt when he loosed that last arrow. Perhaps it was merely that Davin finally wished to dispute his father and his master plan for Davin’s life. Whatever it was, he spoke.

“I want to be an Engineer,” he said, his last two words rising almost to a shout. Two of the ranche hands turned to see the commotion, but the amusement in their faces was cut short by the General’s frosty visage, and they quickly about-faced and rode ahead.

“I want to be an Engineer,” Davin repeated. “I . . .”