That night, the oaken palisades burned. The wicked, oily flame spread to the bulwarks, just outside the stone keep’s wall, and continued to devour whatever morsel it could find. The humid night air carried the confused scent of welcoming home-fires and burning flesh. Absent was the wail and moan of the wounded. There was no neigh of the errant horse, nor any sound, otherwise. Thoroughly and wholeheartedly, this task had been completed by the commander assigned it.
By dawn, only smoldering coals remained. Scouts and surveyors rummaged through the embers, toeing aside the occasional charred skull, or examining unidentifiable slag-piles of various dimensions. Toward the peak of the day, a whistle sounded somewhere deep in the waste. All attention was turned its way. A distant voice proudly proclaimed,
“Here! We have it here! Bring the commander!”
Amidst the seekers, a murmur arose, and flowed like water toward the command tent. Those closest to its canvas flaps fell silent. The anticipation was a solid thing. It pressed on them from above. In time, a gloved-hand pushed out and held the flap aside. Through this portal stepped the mission commander, who immediately set out at a light jog toward the discovery.
The command tent was situated on a hilltop in full view of the battlefield and keep. The assembled warriors parted like wheat and allowed their commander to descend and traverse the deadman’s land.
Moments later, a soot-covered Sergeant presented his commander with a small, cloth-wrapped bundle. For the second time that morning, heavy anticipation pressed down and those professional warriors could barely contain their excitement.
The commander held the unopened package in a spread hand. It wasn’t bound with twine, but simply fold-wrapped. A slight gust of wind partially pushed aside the top flap, revealing a glimpse of dull iron beneath. With a shake of the hand, the commander exposed the rest.
An iron key.
All eyes turned to the stone keep. It was untouched by the battle, and entirely silent. Indeed, it was unoccupied. The slain defenders were sworn to protect its gate, but they dare not enter. They would never choose to enter. According to local lore, no one had done so in at least ten generations.
The commander would defy that tradition. She pocketed the key and issued several rapid hand-sign orders. For the Sergeant who made the discovery, she offered a slight bow of the head.
“Any time and always, commander,” was his response, returning the gesture.
She turned back toward the command tent and considered the next step. Upon the return, she moved more slowly, admiring the efficient application of orders by her captains. They will be ready within the hour and so would she.
The gate had seen the passage of eternity. Perhaps that was an exaggeration, but its origin was unknown to even the most learned scholars. It was even a mystery to those who could peer past such things as memory or time.
She considered this ancient portal. Its darkened wood planks worn smooth by the touch of countless hands. She could easily see where supplicants to made-up religions had placed their palms to pray. The fingerprints of curious travelers seemed to have become part of the woodgrain. They had never crossed this gate. To most, it would never be considered.
The commander had removed her armor, unslung her swords, and washed away the filth of war. She stood before the gate in her gambeson and breeches. She knew she must present truthfully, and truthfully, she was unarmed and sought peace within the walls of this place.
She wasn’t afraid. That emotion had died long ago. A death seeker doesn’t fear the thing they seek, after all.
The commander nodded to those gathered around, removed the key from her pocket, and inserted into the lock. It turned smoothly and silently, as if well-oiled. At the end of its rotation, a slight click was issued.
The deed is done, she thought.
Moments later, a deep rumble shook the guts of those nearby and the gate slowly opened. The commander darted inside without hesitation and slowly pulled it closed behind her.
Those outside, her captains and other interested parties, did not seem concerned. One captain, a black-bearded hulk of a man, looked to his aide,
“Message for the rear guard: The Fang is inside.”
The aide nodded and began her run westward.
No one lingered by the gate, besides those posted as guards. All present returned to their tasks as smoothly as the gate’s lock turned.
But, inside their hearts, they held great worry and sadness. Their leader, their beloved commander, was at great risk and they could not protect her.
However… she was The Fang, and she did not need their protection.
© CGT, 2017.
*Go to the next installment.
See also, She was The Fang.