The palace air was far cooler as the sea breeze made its way through the whitewashed adobe structure.  Barely clearing the spear wielding guards at the entrance of the Regent’s Hall, the Valley Knight was immediately inundated by those wanting to petition the Regent for positions in the new government and so on. The Knight had no intention of getting involved with local politics. Though in taking the Regent’s commission to create and command an army, he was already up to his neck in political intrigues!

 

     Creating a path through the press of courtiers was the Tenaree Sadiki.

 

     “Stand aside for the Montsho Banga!”

 

    The Knight noticed his new attendant took to the task of service with pride that hid any perception of him being disdainful of having been beaten in combat. Years ago, on his quest for ‘The Skull-Faced Man’ the Knight would have left no enemy in his wake alive. However, he had learned from Qatula all enemies need not die immediately.

 

     In fact, Sadiki was turning out to be quite useful. On scouting forays and wielding the twin bronze fighting knives he’d forged, the Tenaree warrior had proven a valuable asset in the field. Most useful was his account of the Tenaree’s spiritual leader the ‘Red Spirit’. The apparently powerful witch according to Sadiki was more like a ‘fire goddess’ than anything else. It was she who gathered the fractured warring tribes and forged them into the Tenaree, the people of the desert.

 

     ‘Whoever she is’ thought the Knight, it would take a great deal of luck alongside a far larger and experienced army to push the Red Spirit and the ‘people of the desert’ back where they came from! If Little Fish and the Chief were here, the Valley Knight would be able to squeeze a bit more confidence out to spread over the small crust of hope he had for success….

 

     Once beyond the press of courtiers, the Valley Knight and Sadiki stepped past more bronze spear wielding guards into the Regent’s Atrium. Awaiting his arrival was the Regent Agozi, Minister Namba and Ade Meru along with several administrative attendants. To the Knight’s surprise, the attendants stopped their buzzing about with scrolls and wax tablets. As a wave, they all bowed at the waist as he approached the Regent’s platform.

 

     Reaching the base of the platform, out of respect the Knight took a knee before the Regent and his heir. Sadiki fell to his knees and lowered his head to the floor behind him. With a large smile covering his face, Regent Agozi clapped his hands loudly once and rose to his feet.

 

     “Your arrival is timely Mazi Montsho Banga! Another moment longer and I would have perished beneath scrolls and requests from courtiers!”

 

     Turning towards the Minister, the Regent looked disdainfully upon the ruler of Sea City.

 

     “If it were up to Minister Namba, I would be swept away in a tide of tablets and scrolls!”

 

     The Knight noticed the Minster’s displeasure at being made light of barely registered within his stoic expression.

 

     “Kimoni Agozi, you judge me too harshly.”

 

     “Too harshly indeed! Now Mazi, tell me of your progress with rebuilding the army?”

 

     Without rising, the Knight looked upwards to the middle-aged Regent. Mere weeks ago, he was little more than a bedraggled refugee with barely the clothes on his back. Now, adorned in clothes of blue with a beaded collar wrap of blue and yellow glass beads, a crown of bright blue feathers and restored health, the man he’d saved in the forest looked the part of a King.

 

     “Kimoni, your army grows at a steady pace. New volunteers arrive every day among the refugees as the Tenaree continue to ravage the surrounding countries. Sea City is now considered ‘safe ground’ as we have managed to repel several attempts by the Tenaree to infiltrate and raid the surrounding area.”

 

     A large smile appeared upon his grey-bearded face then Regent Agozi remarked, “That is splendid news Mazi! How soon before the army can march upon these damned Tenaree? I look forward to seeing the heads of their leaders cooking in the sun atop the palace once we have reclaimed Palm City!”

 

     The Knight did not appreciate the exuberant cheers of the courtiers at the Regent’s vision of victory. He noticed Minister Namba did not share in the group enthusiasm.

 

    “Pray tell Mazi Montsho Banga, who will continue to feed, clothe, equip and bivouac this ‘ever-growing army?’ Sea City resources are stretched to breaking already! We have spent weeks making the preparations for this ‘major attack and siege’ you say is coming. Yet, all we have seen are a few foolish Tenaree savages who find their lives ending at the ends of our spears and arrows.

 

     Where is this ‘mighty horde’ you say lurks out there in the forest? Our scouting parties have been to the edges of Palm City and have laid eyes only on a burned-out city of rotted corpses. Where are they Mazi? Perhaps, they have had their fill of mayhem in this country and gone onto easier lands to take?”

 

     The Valley Knight tilted his head slightly to one side as he faced the Minister. It always amazed him how ever-present were those who saw nothing more than the ‘cost’ of a great endeavor and were at all times ready to withdraw support the moment all seemed well. Men like the Minister were quick to judge and faster to point fingers when their incompetence came to a head.

 

     “My good Minister, though you have been rightfully informed of the lack of Tenaree troops maintaining a base in Palm City, have you not read the reports of the strange sounds coming from far off into the deep forest in many directions? Did you know that three scouting parties sent to seek out the noises source have not returned?”

 

     The Minister’s smug look ebbed away as he looked down upon the kneeling Knight.

 

     The sudden tension in the room caused the new heir to Palm, Ade Meru to speak up.

 

     “What do you think these sounds are Mazi?”

 

     The Knight knew an intervention when he heard one. He had done so many times for his wife the Priestess when those making requests of her became unreasonable.

 

     “Ade, it is my firm belief that the Tenaree abandoned Palm City along with all the other areas they’ve taken because they are not their prime objective.”

 

     Before the Minister could interject, Ade Meru raised her hand and asked, “If the taking of cities and the murders of their people are not the enemies ‘prime objective’ as you say, pray tell Mazi what is their terrible goal?”

 

    “All evidence points to the Tenaree having come here to extinguish the lives of all in this land and take it as their own. As they finish off the remaining villages and settlements of the surrounding countries, the Tenaree are building ‘machines of war’ which they will use to attack Sea City, the last place where a concentrated resistance remains.”

 

     Minister Namba threw up his hands in disgust.

 

     “Are we supposed to believe these wild imaginings? ‘Machines of War’? What sort of foolishness is this? Kimoni Agozi, please tell us you don’t believe this man?”

 

     Everyone present including the Valley Knight was surprised by what happened next.

 

     “Minister Namba! I pray the Lord of the Land and Goddess of War help you mind your tongue! Do you not know to whom you speak? This is the Montsho Banga! My daughter and I along with N’Sisi of Palm and even this Tenaree turncoat witnessed him ride into this world from the land of the Gods and come to our aid!

 

     With my two eyes, I watched him astride a noble beast slay an entire troop of Tenaree including one of their vaunted War Chiefs! You were there atop the wall when with one black arrow, he slew two of our enemy hiding among our people trying to reach safety. You have seen he has taken our enemy’s powerful weapons, made them stronger and placed them into the hands of our people. With his help, our walls are impregnable and we have an army more formidable than any we have ever had!

     If this man believes we are not yet beyond the clutches of the enemy and that they have yet to show us their worst terrible as they have been so far, then I shall heed his council! Is there anyone in this hall who can rightfully make a case to the contrary?”

 

     At the last echo of the Regent’s query, silence fell upon the atrium and all eyes were upon Minister Namba.

 

     The Valley Knight could see the embers of the fires burning within the Minister’s eyes fade down as he pressed his emotions deep. Breaking eye contact with the Knight, he turned to the waiting Regent and bowed deeply.

 

     “Kimoni Agozi…please forgive my outburst. My zeal in looking after the nation’s interests has gotten the better of me. I give forth my humblest apologies for doubting your faith in the Montsho Banga.”

 

     Giving his old friend a pat on the back, Regent Agozi leaned in and said, “Your ‘zeal’ is expected Minister. Do not allow it to get your head separated from your shoulders. A man such as yourself who can view the world with practical eyes will be needed to rule our new seaside citadel. But in our hour of need, we also require those who can envision the ‘fantastic’ and improbable.

 

     Do what must be done to maintain the army. If by some measure of good fortune, the Tenaree have had their fill and moved on, we will rejoice. If not, I want the army to be well-trained, well-fed and ready to drive those bastards into the sea!”

 

     With another pat, the Minister knew he had been forgiven and stood upright then stepped back to his place beside the throne.

 

     Smiling once more, Regent Agozi stepped down the dais to stand before the Knight. Signaling for him to rise, the Regent looked his fearsome black and white clad War Chief in the eye.

 

     “Mazi, what is next for the army?”

 

     “Kimoni, the troops will continue to train under Champion M’Bezi. I shall take Champion N’Sisi and a small mixed group of her best troops and we shall find out where the enemy is and what they are up to. Has there been any word from the Prince of Island City if he shall lend troops to help fend off the invasion?”

 

     “Yes, Mazi the Prince has sent word that ships and men are on their way. Of course, his price was a ‘royal marriage’.”

 

     The Knight watched the Regent look with pride at his daughter as he gave the news. It was the look of a man whose fortune had changed greatly through misfortune. But soon, he believed his descendants would be Kings and Queens!

 

     The look Meru gave the Knight at the announcement made his stomach suddenly twist.

     “That is good news indeed Kimoni. Now I must be on my way as the troops await me for the coming sortie.”

     The Knight left quickly giving no backwards glance to the princess.

 

     “Come Sadiki, we shall be hunting sign of your countrymen this night….”

 

     Running to catch up the Tenaree retorted, “I have no ‘countrymen’ save you ‘Black Sword!”
****

 

     Kisses and hugs abounded on the beach as Chief Svengald greeted those coming ashore. Smiles flashed as worn out Aesir bodies hauled themselves up the slope only to collapse upon white sand. The last boat carried the one person the Chief most wanted to see! An exhausted Ghilda found the strength to leap over the side and into the arms of her husband standing waist-deep in the surf.

     Though considered a fine stoic woman, Ghilda burst into tears as she gripped the hard-muscled form of her husband. The smell of him was slightly different than she remembered, but it was her man and Ghilda was not letting go!

 

     Svengald too had little success holding back tears as he held his wife in a great crush. For long moments after the last of their people came ashore, the pair stood in the surf holding one another in silence. For the dozenth time, Svengald kissed the top of his wife’s red-gold hair now encrusted with salt.

     Looking out at the quickly setting sun, the Chief turned back to shore and saw Little Fish had a fire going. Amid the smell of smoke and steam coming from a spot high on the beach, an old familiar fragrance filled the air making his stomach roar like a Forest Lion!

 

     “Come Vife! I want you to meet someone.”

 

     Unwilling to let go of his waist, Ghilda stumbled along up the beach where she took in the sight of her people lying in various positions of repose on the sand and each other many snoring loud enough to wake the dead! She dared not stop to sit down with them or she too would be felled by exhaustion.

     Her husband walked them both to a strange contraption made of strange looking leaves that blocked the light of the fire from the forest. Near the fire, was another strange sight as smoke and steam rose from the ground. A delicious scent mingled with the vapors and upon contacting her nose, Ghilda’s long empty stomach twisted violently.

 

     “Ugh! My stomach’s so empty, I doubt the head of a giant would fill it!”

 

     Svengald grinned and gave his wife another kiss.

 

     “Careful Vife. Where we are going, the opportunity to prove that may come to pass!”

 

     Before Ghilda could question his statement, two young people came out of the forest carrying what looked to be ‘hairy brown stones’. Ghilda immediately went on her guard though she had neither blade nor axe after their ordeal at sea. One was a very comely young woman with pale skin flushed pink and bright red-brown hair. Most striking were the maiden’s bright hazel eyes. Ghilda could have sworn she’d seen them somewhere before….

 

     Her reminiscence was abruptly halted when she laid eyes on a tall youth with skin dark as the forest he’d just walked out of! Upon a muscled breast lay a strange talisman similar to a ‘fish scale’. But it would have had to come from a fish large enough to swallow men whole! In the growing dark, the scale seemed to ‘glow’ with faint light like that of the embers of a dying fire.

 

     Ghilda suddenly felt her husband’s strong grip upon her shoulder.

 

     “Ghilda, give greetings to two people you have ‘known’ of all your life.”

 

     Skepticism exploded across Ghilda’s face.

 

     “These are but children and I have never seen his like before! Who are they?”

 

     Svengald did his best to keep his amusement to a mere chuckle at his wife’s expense.

 

     “The girl, you have met and spoken with before, but this is her first time ‘meeting’ you. The young man, you know him well. You have sung songs about him ever since you were a little girl!”

 

     Ghilda was far beyond perplexed. She was much too tired for games and her ire suddenly rose. Stepping forward speaking the Aesir tongue, but with what seemed to be an older dialect was the maiden.

 

     “Greetings to you Ghilda, Svengald’s Vife! It is an honor to meet she who the ‘Red Chieftain’ holds dearest. I am Mjarga daughter of Utsgald.”

 

     Ghilda was not remotely amused by this jest.

 

     “Svengald, after all I have been through I don’t want to hear lies and whimsies! Who in Niffelheim are these people? Why are you smiling and what happened to your eye that you must cover it?”

 

     “Calm yourself Vife! Listen and understand who stands before you.”

 

     Forcing herself to turn to the obvious tricksters, Ghilda then saw the strange looking young man step forward into the firelight.

 

     “Greetings to you Ghilda, Svengald’s Vife. The Chief has spoken so often about you, I feel I grew up in your presence. My name is…‘Little Fish’ and I am also honored to meet you!”

 

     Ghilda still had not made the connection, but to see someone who was obviously from a land so far removed from anything she’d ever imagined and hear them speak her native tongue like he’d been born to it was unsettling!

 

     “Vife, this is Mjarga the Witch of Aesirfjord. The young man is known to you as one of the ‘Black Demons’ in the ‘Saga of the Red Chieftain’.”

 

     Ghilda now fearful, had a growing suspicion everything her husband had said was true. The Witch Mjarga had given her the magic stone that guided them to her husband. She watched her husband throw himself into a whirlpool of light and not long ago, she’d nearly reached out and touched the ‘Midgard Serpent’, Jormungandr!

 

     “H-how, can t-his be? Is it w-witchcraft?”

 

     The young woman who could not have been more than fifteen springs old took her hands and smiled brightly in the light of the fire.

 

     “Do not worry Chief’s Vife. I see you and I will meet many, many years from now. I gave you something the Red Chieftain himself had given me to pass along to the right person when the time came. You have already lived that time. I have not…yet. I will remember your face and will know you when the time comes for me to meet you again.”

     Ghilda’s mind was aswirl with confusion, but those eyes belonged to none other than Mjarga the Witch!

 

     “Svengald, how do you know these people?”

 

     The trio laughed uproariously and then Svengald hugged her brutally.

 

     “Ah my beautiful Vife, that is a very long story I shall tell over the evening meal! Fish, please tell me we have a meal waiting for us that will rival the one made for us on another beach several years ago?”

 

     “It will be close as I can get it since we didn’t have time to gather as much. Besides, since Mjarga didn’t cook it will be safe to eat!”

 

     “Hey! That’s not funny!”

 

     “You’re right ‘Fire-Hair’, it’s reason to rejoice!”

 

     Ghilda was lost for words as her husband held her close and laughed deeply as the pair bickered playfully as they continued to prepare the meal. It was obvious so much had happened to Svengald in the ten years he’d been lost to her. He’d no doubt had strange and wondrous adventures and her heart ached he did so without her….

To be continued....

© 2016 H. Wolfgang Porter. All Right Reserved.

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