chapter 72: the cycle of pain

After fighting the final herd, the halfling troops– for now they could truly be called that– made their way back to the forest. What greeted them was a worried looking Hedra, who ran out of the forest to meet them as soon as they were within sight. Even she could tell at a glance that they had lost many people throughout their journey. “Is everyone okay?” She asked hurriedly.

She had received news that they had suffered repeated attacks while fighting the creatures, and had even lost Savir when they finally found the herd that they were looking for. Naturally, the one that she sought answers from was not Danar who had led the group back, but Shara who lost the most in this journey.

Shara gently nodded her head, a calming smile on her face. “We’re okay now… But, we have changed so much. We can’t go back to the Rest.” Even she herself knew that they had changed from the repeated attacks of the foreign creatures.

She knew that Danar had led them to the herds, but truly that was all he had done. He had not made them take any actions at all that would look provoking, and had even gone to measures to ensure that they would always have greater hiding spots each time. Yet, every time they saw a herd, and the herds saw them, those creatures would open fire. Even though she knew that Danar led them to the herds, she had to accept the fact that it was the herds that chose to battle.

What was even more worrisome was that it was not merely one or two herds. If that was the case, then she could dismiss it as individual hatred, like they had originally done for the herd that they had entered the plains to hunt. This was not simply a matter of one small family being hateful towards the halflings, but rather the entire race.

Seeing Shara’s thoughtful look, Hedra hesitantly asked. “Are… are you sure?” Truthfully, she had not come to terms with the mission that they set out to do in the first place. That was why she so quickly offered to stay behind when a volunteer was called for. She hated the fact that one intelligent being would willingly hurt another, and she let that hatred fuel her decision to join the Bloodied Hand.

Shara saw Hedra’s look, and nodded her head slightly. “I’m sure. We may have strayed from Aurivy’s teachings, but let us still be of use to our people. We will not fault you for wanting to return to the Rest. But if you do, I ask that you pass along a message for us.”

Taking a deep breath, Shara spoke with conviction, placing her hand gently against her chest. “We have seen the darkness that lies within the plains. They are creatures of both intelligence and hatred. We gave them every opportunity to pass us by, and yet they chose to attack every time. In our defense, we have shed blood. In our hatred, we struck first against an enemy that we knew would see us dead.”

Hedra let out a small gasp, covering her mouth with her hands as her eyes shook, but Shara only continued speaking. “These creatures are great in number, greater than what we possess in these woods. There is no guarantee that they will keep to their plains, and they may one day journey here in search of us. So… the Bloodied Hand will build a Rest here, at the very edge of the forest.”

“We will take in those who would help to defend our people, but like the other Rests we offer no shelter to kinslayers.” At this point, Shara’s resolute gaze softened, and she looked gently at Hedra. “Go, and tell them that we are here. And until we are all safe, this is where we will stay. If you want to return, you will always be welcomed here.”

Even though Shara said that, it was clear from her face that she did not believe that Hedra would return. They had simply strayed too far from the teachings, and had even spilled first blood. Hedra was too pure, much like Shara herself had been before they first left the Rest.

Hedra hesitated again, yet eventually nodded her head. “I, I will tell them. And I will pray for you. May Mother watch over you all.” She said as she lowered her head, closing her eyes. During the few days that they had traveled to the edge of the woods from the Rest, she had truly developed a good impression of Shara. To know that the sweet girl from before, who had only come along on this endeavor because she was following her father, was now talking about spilling blood as if it were water… She really couldn’t imagine what they had been through.

Like that, she walked with them back to the forest, and allowed the beasts and monsters she had been watching over to return to their halfling companions. Those that were still alive, at least. For those that had passed away on the journey, they were either taken in by another halfling, or allowed to wander freely.

Once that was taken care of, Hedra departed alone, taking with her only her own companion. Her companion was different than most, as it had a rather strange body. Due to its lack of legs, she would often let it rest on its head, its green translucent blob of a body jiggling with every step she took. Although slimes were notorious for being weak and unintelligent, she had become good friends with this one, and had been caring for him for a while.

Back with the Bloodied Hand, Shara let out a relieved sigh as she saw Hedra go. It was just too dangerous for anyone to stay here without being able to fight. Next, she turned towards Danar and the others, a warm smile floating onto her face. “Well, Danar, shall we begin building?”

Danar chuckled slightly, shaking his head. “Why are you asking me?” He asked with a similar smile, which only caught Shara by surprise. With how he had led them back, and even taught them the darker nature of those creatures, she and many others had suspected that he would ‘take it upon himself’ to lead them when they settled down. Truthfully, they would not have even had any objections if he did so.

“Well… aren’t you…?” She asked, confused, unable to finish her question.

Again, he shook his head, glancing back to the plains. “My work is done. Although it was not my goal to do so, I led many of our kin to Mother’s embrace. If I had tried to lead us back without fighting, perhaps we would not have lost any more people. Yet, I felt that you all needed to see how cruel they were.”

Turning his gaze back towards Shara, he held a gentle smile. “I am no better than a kinslayer right now, though it was not my hand that killed them. This Rest has no place for me anymore, it’s in your hands now. I only ask that you stay true to your words. Protect the others, and do not allow these creatures to harm any more of our kin.”

After saying that, he let out a sharp whistle, calling his bird back to his shoulder, and began walking off. The thought of staying and leading them had crossed his mind, yet Shara’s words when she spoke to Hedra had hit him in ways he did not expect. He realized that she was right, the Bloodied Hand’s Rest had no room for kinslayers, and that was exactly what he was now. So, like Savir had done before him when he gathered the group, he cast himself into exile, leaving behind a confused party.

Shara stood motionless for several seconds as she processed what he had said. His words were true, and yet she did not want to accept them. There were only two people in her life that had ever taught her truly valuable lessons. One was her father, and the other was Danar. And now, both were gone. Her mind was spinning, trying to find the words that would make him stay, yet she found none.

Danar’s figure had nearly faded into the foliage when she suddenly stepped forward and yelled. “We will call for you! Your work is not done yet! When battle comes, we will call! And you will answer!” She shouted, her eyes red. “You don’t get to just leave after all of that!”

There were a few among the Bloodied Hand who nodded their heads slightly at her words. Danar had caused nearly a hundred halfling deaths, more than any single kinslayer, all to teach them about the cruelty of these creatures. To them, he had lost the right to give up now, it was his duty to pay back each of those blood debts. Not with his own blood, but with that of their enemies.

In response to her words, there was a somewhat happy laugh ringing out from the direction that Danar had walked. She was right, he had no intention of just ending things there. He would join them when called, when it was time to fight, but he could not live among them. He had caused too many deaths to allow himself that.

Finally, his hooves had carried him to the city of King’s Hope. Ryard had been traveling almost nonstop since his herd had been attacked. Though his pace had been slowed due to having to hunt and rest lightly, he had still made it here as quickly as possible. The large stone walls, at least a dozen heights tall, showed the remarkable craftsmanship of the city. It had not been crafted by the hands of man, but by nature itself when one of the Knights of the Round ran the city’s perimeter.

Standing guard at the gate were two centaurs, each of whom wore leather armor and carried a wooden spear. On the left was a normal centaur, while the one on the right had white wings attached to their lower body. This was a mark of the capital, a place where all centaurs were treated equally. Never would only one race hold dominance in any area, save one.

“What troubles you?” Asked the pegasus centaur, his face showing concern as he looked to Ryard. The man’s body was full of untended cuts, most of which had begun to heal. He was not an Alchemist, and had no knowledge of how to heal his body through anything but time.

“My herd… they were killed.” Ryard said, panting for breath as he approached. He had come all this way to deliver this message, and even the bar of life above his head showed the severity of his journey.

This time, it was the left guard that spoke. “Oh? And what manner of beast killed an entire herd, but let one foal escape?” He asked with a sardonic smile. In this man’s eyes, Ryard had simply been a coward that ran away from a fight while his herd was fighting some monster. And he had no idea how true his suspicions were.

“Please, I must speak with the King.” Ryard insisted. “These were no normal monsters. They possessed weapons like our own, and a viciousness that would put any beast to shame. I could not tell how many there were among them in the group that attack me, but it was bigger than any herd I had ever seen.”

The guards’ faces darkened as they listened to his words, the genuine fear in Ryard’s voice enough proof that he was not lying to them. The two of them looked to each other and nodded. The pegasus reached into his leather satchel, searching among the promise scrolls that all guards carried on their shifts. When he found the one that he was looking for, he tore it, much to the relief of Ryard.

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It was foolish for the guards to leave their posts, so every pair of guards was given a  promise scroll, with an impossible promise. Upon tearing it, their captain would be notified and send people to investigate. As expected, two more guards approached the gates from within before five minutes had passed. This time, it was a normal centaur and a unicorn acting in unison.

When they approached, the newcomer guards asked the pegasus that tore the scroll. “What’s the matter here?” Obviously, this centaur had something to do with their summons.

“This man needs to be taken to the Knight’s Court. He has news that must reach the King’s ears.” The pegasus answered, nodding towards Ryard. This was the best that they could do, as only the Knights of the Round had the authority to demand an immediate audience with the King at any time.

The faces of the new guards showed surprise as they again examined Ryard more carefully, before nodding their heads. “Very well.” One of them said. “We will guide him there.” The two of them parted slightly, turning to the side to allow Ryard to walk between them. Naturally, as this was the reason he had come, Ryard did not hesitate to follow along.

As they walked through the city, he could not help but marvel at his surroundings. As one of the herd, he had never been to the city itself. He had only heard rumors of it and its location from passing herds. Wide buildings made of wood and stone lined a dirt road, and centaurs of all types could be seen interacting pleasantly with each other. There was barely any hint of the tension that had once existed between the ‘cursed’ and the ‘blessed’. Now, they were all one people. And those that did not agree with this view were free to wander the plains to seek Tryval’s guidance.

Soon, he was led to the tallest building within King’s Hope. Located at the very center of the city, it was likely built as one smooth, circular wall of stone. There was only a single gate in or out, though there were many windows to see into the outer halls of the building. And just like the gate to the city, there was another pair of guards stationed here, who glanced curiously to Ryard as they approached.

“What is going on?” One of the guards, another pegasus, asked. Although one of the duties of the Knights of the Round was to be forever ready in case of an emergency summons, such things were very rare.

“There is need to convene the court. Call the Knights, there is urgent news that must be delivered.” The normal centaur among Ryard’s guards spoke in a heavy voice, catching the other two by surprise. They had expected Ryard to at most be some criminal needing tried, not thinking he had some dire news.

The two centaur guards hurriedly nodded their heads, pushing open the wooden gates to the court. Inside were  three halls, one to either side and one directly ahead. With the two guards from the entrance to the court replacing those that had guided him there, Ryard proceeded down the direct path towards the center of the court.

Soon, they arrived at another large wooden door, which took both centaurs working together to push it open. Ryard had to wonder where they managed to get the wood for these doors. Did they send people beyond Tryval’s lands to harvest the tall woods? Or did they simply harvest from every tree within a day’s gallop?

When they entered the court, the pegasus cleared his throat and shouted loudly. “Knights of the Round, there is need of your presence in the court!” His voice carried through several holes in the wall, instantly echoing throughout the entire building.

The court itself was circular, with twelve elevated stone windows evenly spaced along the single wall. Though, these windows did not lead outside, as was evident when one of them displayed the form of a wizened old unicorn. Beneath his window was an engraving of a horn. Likewise, every other window had an engraving beneath it as well. One was a dagger, one was a crown, one was a face, and so on.

Each window marked the seating area for one of the Knights of the Round Stable, and soon they appeared in their windows one by one. The last to appear was the one within the window marked with a crown, a normal centaur. This was the one area where variants and normal centaurs were not equal, for there could only be one successor to the crown, the Knight of Leadership personally chosen by the King himself.

“The Knights are gathered, the Court may begin.” The Knight of Leadership spoke with a heavy voice. Each of the Knights here represented a voice. Twelve voices for twelve different aspects of their culture. Among them, six were normal centaurs, while four were pegasus, and two were unicorns.

“What brings you here today, young buck?” Asked the Knight of Fellowship, marked by two intertwined lines.

“My herd was attacked, Knights.” Ryard explained. “By beasts I have never seen.” He then went on to explain how his herd had been trotting about when they saw a weird, scaled beast among the tall grass. Finding it similar to various deadly snakes, their Greymane immediately acted and shot the beast for the safety of the herd. The Knights all nodded at this, believing that action to have been wise.

Only allowed on

However, after this, they heard how a shrill cry was heard from that same grass. Preparing to shoot again to finish the beast, what they saw was the body of a man sticking out. Though, it seemed to be a man smaller than any centaur, as his entire body did not even reach their waist. Unlike what they had just shot, this ‘man thing’ had no scales covering its body, and even wore clothes.

Again, however, the Greymane shot his arrow, causing the man thing to dodge. Among the Knights, several frowned when they heard about the second shot, while others nodded as if it made sense for the safety of the herd. But the words that came next were what truly startled them, making them doubt the truth of the story.

“After the second shot, there was another cry, this one of pain. And then, it was as if they poured out of the grass. I could not even count their number, but my greymane was slain within seconds. Still more were coming out, and I knew that we could not win the fight. So yes, I was a coward, I ran.” Ryard admitted, lowering his head in shame.

“I ran to King’s Hope, praying to Tryval that those here could help. I have no doubt that it is too late for my herd, but my herd is not the only one that wandered His lands.” He said, glancing around to each of the knights, his eyes pleading. “I beg of you, send help. Do what you want with me, but do not let my herd have died in vain.”

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