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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Yalera the Brave - Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Yemry held up a hand in a silent gesture for Baethan to wait a moment. Then he put a finger to his lips for a second before pointing towards a thick bush. Soft rustling indicated that there was something or someone on the other side of the bush.
Baethan nodded in understanding, and then circled to the right while Yemry circled to the left. Just as they spotted a man relieving himself on a tree, they heard a twig snap in the distance. The tree waterer quickly finished his task and put himself away.
What's taking them so long?” A new man asked grumpily. “His Lordship wants to be in place to attack as soon as possible!”
Maybe the Rubidiumites are hiding and haven't been found yet,” tree man suggested with a shrug.
I don't like this,” grumpy grumbled. “I'm almost sure that something must have happened to them. We should go back to camp and try to come up with a new plan.”
Good idea,” tree man agreed amicably. The two of them walked briskly in the direction of their camp.
Baethan and Yemry held a short and silent conversation with hand gestures. Agreeing to follow the men, they crept forward slowly. Their goal was to maintain a safe distance while not losing their prey. Stealthily, they crept close to the enemy camp, and then climbed trees so that they could get the best possible vantage point.
Both felt their stomachs sink almost to their feet as they realized that this was no small group of raiders. This was a full sized army! Well, at least a full company of soldiers numbering somewhere between 100 and 200 men.
The relative silence of a camp full of impatient soldiers was shattered a moment later when a tall and slender man emerged from the command tent to shout in outrage. “I don't care what it takes, we will find that foreign wench and smite her! There's no way I'm going to let my father steal my birthright and give it away to my sniveling whelp of a brother and a foreign bride!”
He threw a thick and full mug of ale into the middle of a group of soldiers to emphasize his anger. “Prepare to ride out! Whether our scouts return or not, we will find that bridal entourage and slaughter them!”
Yemry and Baethan exchanged bone white looks of worry across the trees they were hiding in. With a few gestures, Yemry suggested that they slip away and rush back to camp as quickly as possible. Baethan nodded in understanding and agreement, and moments later, they were jogging silently towards their camp.
About halfway back, they ran into a group of their soldiers that were headed out to back them up. “Hush!” Yemry hissed preemptively. He gestured for the group to turn around and return to their camp. With a respectful salute, the soldiers did as they were told.
Minutes passed in the near silent panting of soldiers trained to run with both speed and efficiency. Finally, they were back in camp. It almost looked deserted, but perimeter guards assured them that all was well.
Everyone, prepare to leave! Now!” Yemry shouted confidently. He knew that he was still a bit young to be given command of such an important mission, but the King trusted him to do a good job, and he was not about to let the King down. “We need to find a more secure place to take a stand and defend ourselves!”
To his delight, his third in command informed him that the soldiers had been preparing to leave since the meeting was dismissed just in case it was necessary. “We've got most everything ready to go, except for the actual tents,” the older and calmly capable soldier informed him. “We can have the tents packed up in less than 10 minutes.”
Yemry nodded in approval. He gestured to the men that had returned with him. “You men, fortify our perimeter. The enemy will likely come from that direction, so keep an eye out.”
The diplomats and advisers crowded around Yemry in concern. “Commander, I know the King placed you in charge of our safety, but – !” One of them held up his hand to cut the rest of them off, and then continued their protest. “Where can we go? It's just a hair shy of full dark, and running around aimlessly in the dead of night will serve us no purpose! We would be better off staying here and talking sense into whoever is trying to raid our entourage.”
Yemry shook his head, his expression grim. “No. This is no small raiding party, this is an actual army, and their leader has stated quite clearly that they mean to slaughter us all.”
Lady Yalena gasped in horror. The advisers all started clamoring to rattle off plans. Everyone wanted to contribute their ideas in the hope that something might help them overcome this situation. Women were chattering among themselves in fear, wondering what would happen to them. Yemry was trying to argue with the advisers and regain control of the situation, but he was dealing with Lords who didn't yet respect his skills as a soldier.
Yemry,” Yalera hissed, trying to get his attention. “I know what to do.” But Yemry didn't hear her. A bit louder, she tried again. “Yemry!”
The advisers were getting louder as the argument got more and more heated. Yalera tried to tug on some sleeves to gain their attention, but they brushed her off. In frustration, she took a deep breath so that she could yell, but her twin covered her mouth.
What's your plan?” Rohan whispered the question into her ear.
Sighing to get rid of her frustration, she leaned closer to her brother. “Remember when we were watching that bird?”
Yeah?” Rohan stated inquisitively.
Well, as I was sketching it, I noticed something that would be perfect for us.” Yalera pulled the small notebook out of her pocket and showed the sketch to her brother, grateful for the torchlight that illuminated it. Rohan grabbed it from her with a grin.
That's brilliant!” He gushed, ruffling her hair. A moment later, he took a deep breath and bellowed out: “Everyone shuuut uup!”
The entire camp fell silent in astonishment. They turned to look at Rohan incredulously. Yemry wore a wry grin, nodding to his brother in thanks. Rohan held up the sketch.
There's a place that might work,” Rohan informed them all.
Yemry took the sketch and inspected it, a relieved and impressed smile stretching across his face. “Where is this?”
Baethan frowned in confusion, looking at the sketch over Yemry's shoulder. “How's a bird going to help us?”
Yemry chuckled and shook his head. “Not the bird, yutz! The cave in the cliff in the background.”
Oh!” Baethan exclaimed, flushing from embarrassment.
Yalera sighed in relief that Yemry was taking her idea seriously. She examined their surrounding carefully, turning in a half circle for a moment until she nodded in agreement with herself. “That way, I'm sure of it.”
Yemry bit his lip in thought as he surveyed the direction she pointed. There was a thick forest of tall trees to block the cliff from their sight, but where there was a cliff, there was the possibility of defending themselves. Not finding a reason to dismiss this as a viable option, he tapped Baethan on the chest.
You take a group of men and find this cliff. Meanwhile, we'll finish packing and catch up with you as soon as possible,” Yemry ordered, then held onto Baethan's arm to stop him from immediately running off. He sighed heavily, clearly upset. “And take Yalera with you. She's the one they're after most of all.”
Yemry held up a hand to stop his mother from protesting. Then he grabbed Yalera's shoulders firmly in his hands. “Your only job is to get into hiding as quickly as possible. Take Rune and Yuna with you and barricade yourself in the cave with the cats and Rohan. Hide and stay hidden no matter what!
Yalera wanted to protest, but knew that her brother wouldn't change his mind on this. Cutting herself off before she could say anything, she sighed and nodded her head. “I will.”
Rohan,” Yemry addressed his younger brother directly now. “Gather up a staff, your sword, and any other weapon you think will be necessary. Your job is to watch Yalera at all times! The others will look for the cave and defend you all if necessary and all you need to do is let them, but if it comes to it, protect her at all costs!”
Yes sir!” Rohan stated with a respectful salute as if he was a soldier under Yemry's command. Without another word, he ran off to arm himself as much as possible.
Lady Yalera took the time to squeeze her daughter tight and fuss over her fretfully. Yemry placed a hand on his mother's shoulder. “You should go with her. Next to Yalera, you are the most important person in this party. Related to the King, you'd make a valuable hostage. I can only hope that you all make it to that cave before any of the enemy finds us.”
Feeling more than a little relieved that she wouldn't have to let her daughter out of her sight, Lady Yalena tried to argue anyway. “But my attendants! I couldn't just leave them!”
Ronin put an arm around his wife. “Yemry's right, my dear.”
The Lady's attendants all clucked in agreement. “Yes, my Lady! Don't you worry about us!”
Feeling better, the Lady squared her shoulders and nodded in acceptance.
Rohan came running back just then, his arms full. He thrust a staff into his twin's hand, and then draped an extra quiver of arrows over her shoulder. He took a moment to drape a quiver over his own shoulder before double checking that his sword and a dagger were at his hips. Gripping his staff, he nodded that he was ready to go.
Yalera felt a shiver of awe run up her spine as the soldiers assigned to protect her surrounded her. Shaking off a feeling of surrealism, she whistled softly. Yuna waited patiently for barely half a second for the soldiers to let her into the circle, but then growled low in the back of her throat when they didn't immediately make room for her. The two closest to her moved aside carefully, afraid to incur her wrath.
Climbing atop Yuna once more, Yalera settled herself confidently. She knew that Yuna would protect her until her dying breath if necessary. A quick glance confirmed that Rohan was also planning to ride Rune. He took an extra moment to make sure that his sword wasn't poking his cat in the side, then signaled that he was also ready to go.
Be safe!” Their father commanded. He wasn't in good enough condition to keep up with them, and even though he knew that they would likely be perfectly safe, he couldn't help but feel like his entire world was about to be thrust into mortal peril.
Love you!” Yalera called out to him, echoed by her mother and brother.
Baethan gestured for their group of soldiers to set out at a steady pace that was as speedy as they could get without overtaxing the Lady Yalena. As a proud equestrian, she was still fairly fit, but even so, she wasn't used to running long distances on her own two feet. Gritting her teeth in determination, she silently vowed to keep up with them no matter what.
Yalera sort of led the way since she had a good idea where they were headed. Plus, no one wanted to be in front of the smilodons. Everyone remained as quiet and attentive as they could in case they ran across any enemy soldiers. Thankfully, if any of the enemy was nearby, they didn't show themselves.
It seemed to take an agonizingly long time, but eventually, they could see the cliff through the trees. Yalera breathed a sigh of relief that they were almost at their destination. And then her mother gasped out in desperation.
I'm so sorry, but I can't run anymore!” She stumbled lightly and almost fell, but a quick thinking soldier caught her. Everyone stopped to let the Lady catch her breath. Baethan sent out two soldiers to make sure the area ahead was safe.
I feel so useless,” Yalera muttered to no one in particular as the soldiers closed ranks around her protectively. “I should have insisted that we all travel as a group or not at all.”
Rohan shrugged helplessly. “This was the best solution we could come up with, and you know it.”
Is it?” Yalera asked softly in frustration. She sincerely wished that she could come up with some sort of magical solution that would fix the situation they had found themselves in. “What would Rolanna do if she was in my place?”
Lady Yalera snorted at her daughter in mild amusement. “Rolanna would do what she was told, rushing to hide for as long as it took to keep her and her unborn child safe. She would trust her men to protect her, and not argue so much about who was in charge.”
Yalera blew a stray strand of hair out of her face. “Of course she wouldn't!” She muttered derisively. “No one would dare suggest that she wasn't in charge. They'd probably trip over themselves to fawn all over her.”
Her mother actually rolled her eyes. “Oh don't be so dramatic! Rolanna would be graceful and dignified like a future Queen should be.”
What does that even mean?” Yalera asked, feeling close to tears.
Her mother's stern expression softened and she took hold of Yalera's hand. “Don't worry, you'll be a wonderful Queen – when the time comes.”
I hate to interrupt, my Lady,” Baethan stated anxiously, bowing ever so slightly to Yalena while inexplicably avoiding Yalera's gaze. “But we should really keep moving.”
Yes, of course,” Lady Yalena murmured in agreement. A hand pressed against her side betrayed the fact that she still felt unable to run. Baethan sighed in defeat and set their pace as a mildly fast walk. In his opinion, even slow progress was better than no progress.
To everyone's great relief, they made it to the clearing without any problems. Baethan looked around suspiciously, certain that there would be an ambush at any moment. His nerves wound ever tighter as time passed with no indication that anything was wrong. Finally, he forced himself to pay attention to the two who had scouted ahead.
Excellent news!” One of the scouts announced with a grin. “The cave has a natural incline leading up to it that should make it easy enough for the ladies to get to.”
Even better,” the other added. “The cave is empty of signs of habitation and offers plenty of protection from arrow fire.”
The first one took over the explanation again. “With the cliff to our backs and a lake right there, we'll only have to defend two directions.”
Baethan nodded in understanding, biting his lip in thought. His gaze followed the cliff. It curved off to the left almost a mirror image to the way the lake curved off to the right. Between the two curves, they only had an arc of about 100 degrees to defend. The trees were far enough back that they couldn't provide cover for archers if the archers wanted any sort of accuracy. It also meant that the enemy would have to come out into the open if they wanted to engage in battle. The soldiers wouldn't be able to sneak up on them.
This should work well,” Baethan announced. He chose two men who were fast with plenty of stamina. “You and you, run back to guide the commander here. Let him know that we're secure and that the Ladies will be safe until he gets here.” With a nod, the chosen ones ran off.
Baethan turned to Yalera, struggling briefly with how he was supposed to address her. Somehow, bumpkin didn't seem appropriate for the situation. He decided that formality would probably be best.
My Lady Yalera, would you kindly escort your gentile mother up to the cave? It would be best if you were out of sight in case enemy scouts spy on us.”
Yalera frowned in confusion, because even though he was addressing her directly, he wouldn't look her in the eye. She decided that his behavior didn't matter because he was right. With a meekly obedient nod, she slid down off her smilodon.
Yuna, please go hunt for the enemy and warn us when they get near us,” Yalera ordered, not entirely sure that the large cat understood her. Yuna looked around the clearing with surprising intelligence, staring at the cave for a moment before peering into the forest.
Rune shook as if trying to dislodge her rider, but not with enough force to actually do so. Rohan got the hint and dismounted. He stroked Rune's head tenderly. “Be careful. I couldn't bear to lose you!” Rune sensed his sadness and responded by licking Rohan on the cheek.
The two cats slunk off cautiously, reminding their companions that they were gigantic predators that knew exactly how to stalk their prey. Yalera gripped her staff firmly in one hand and took hold of her mother's hand in the other. “Come on,” she urged needlessly.
Mother and daughter rushed up the steep incline off to the left of the cave, standing briefly on the ledge to survey their surroundings. The treetops were about eye level and rustled softly from birds and other wildlife. The scene was so peaceful that it was hard to believe that somewhere out there lurked men who wanted to kill them. With a deep sigh, the Ladies entered the cave.

*****

What is taking so long?!” Yalera roared in frustration some time later.
Shh!” Her mother hushed her urgently. “Something's happening.” Lady Yalena strained to hear any indication of whether they were being joined by friend or foe.
Yalera couldn't help it, she crept closer to the entrance of the cave so that she could sneak a peek. Blood drained from her face making her feel faint as horror filled her. A light stinging informed her that she was clutching her cheeks so hard that her nails almost drew blood.
Our people have arrived,” she whispered to her mother. “But they're fighting off the enemy. I think we have wounded...”
Lady Yalena gasped, clutching her chest in dismay. “Ronin!”
No,” Yalera assured her mother. “He seems to be fine. He, Yemry, and now Rohan are defending each other. Lord what'shisname seems to be gravely injured.” By this, she was referring to the man who tended to treat her like she was nothing more than a fine horse been sent off as a broodmare for a regal stallion.
That's a shame,” Lady Yalena murmured, clearly relieved that her husband wasn't the injured one.
Our archers seem to be holding them off for the moment. They've backed off to almost the treeline,” Yalera announced.
This seemed to bring her mother back to her senses. “Yalera! Get away from there! If just one arrow gets lucky, you'll be hit for sure!”
Mother,” Yalera groaned, a hint of a whine coloring her voice. “I can't just sit in here not knowing anything!”
Yes, you can!” Her mother insisted, gesturing for Yalera to come sit next to her.
Yalera looked back and forth indecisively for a few moments. As much as she wanted to obey her mother, she literally felt stuck, like her feet refused to move. The whole world seemed to go silent, and then a voice boomed across the distance.
Surrender the audaciously stupid woman who thinks she can just marry into and rule our Kingdom! If you do, I promise that I will not harm anyone else! You'll all be free to go!”
Yalera watched the tall beanpole of a man turn to his second in command and mutter something. Whatever he said was not picked up by the long wooden cone he held in front of his mouth that seemed to have the power to amplify his voice. Even so, Yalera just knew that he had ordered the slaughter of everyone here the moment she was handed over to them.
Anger so pure and intense that she felt like she was on fire filled her, clouding her judgment. Without a thought, she marched out onto the ledge overlooking the clearing. Light from a nearly full moon illuminated the whole area, shining on everything pale to make it look almost as if it was glowing. Wind blew down from the top of the cliff, making her hair and dress whip around wildly. It almost knocked her over, which would have sent her straight into the enemy's arms if she could float that far.
Her mother gasped in a combination of horror and outrage. “Yalera! Get back here this instant!”
Nothing penetrated Yalera's single-minded determination. Not her mother calling out to her urgently. Not her beloved smilodon pacing the perimeter of their camp protectively. Not even her father and brothers huddled together as they planned out a defense strategy.
The only thought that distracted Yalera slightly was the sincere wish that she also had a wooden cone to project her voice. “HOW DARE YOU, YOU VILE EVIL MAN?! I HAVE DONE NOTHING TO YOU, AND YOU THINK YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO MURDER ME AND MY FAMILY?! YOUR KING SENT FOR MY HAND IN MARRIAGE TO HIS HEIR AND I HAVE NO REAL CHOICE IN THE MATTER, BUT I VOW TO YOU HERE AND NOW, I WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO MARRY PRINCE CRISPIN AND BRING PEACE TO BOTH OUR KINGDOMS. I WILL NOT LET A PATHETIC AND INSECURE MAN LIKE YOU STOP ME!”
Holding her bow at the ready, Yalera barely took a breath after her outburst before grabbing an arrow out of her quiver and shooting it at one of the enemy soldiers. One after another, she rapidly shot arrows until she ran out – save for one. Each arrow severed an enemy windpipe or embedded itself so deeply in an eye socket that the soldier fell to the ground, dead before he realized what had hit him.
Nearly two full quivers later, the tall man in charge of the enemy army was trying his best not to cower as men lay dead on the ground all around him. His faith in his army was shaken to the core since each man was so heavily armored that no arrows should be able to pierce his heart. A cold chill shook him to his core as he realized that that's why she had chosen such unconventional and gruesome spots. Another chill made him shiver as he realized that she hadn't wasted a single arrow despite his men trying to defend themselves or dive out of the way.
Tears stung Yalera's eyes as it fully hit her that she had just murdered more men than she cared to count. She wiped the tiny droplets of water from her eyes and prepared to shoot her very last arrow. Shock over her actions made her hands shake, but a deep breath helped to steady them.
THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING! LEAVE HERE NOW OR BE THE NEXT MAN I FELL!”
Please oh please oh please let him listen to me. I have no idea what I am going to do if I have to shoot him and then face the rest of his army without any more arrows.
The man looked around at his men uncertainly. They were all mercenaries with no real loyalty to him, and those that he actually trusted had been killed by her astonishingly rapid volley of arrows. His options were slimmer than he cared to admit. With a deep sigh of frustration, he gestured a signal to retreat.
Holding up his wooden cone, he called out: “My name is Hugh and I am the true Heir to the Throne. You have not heard the last from me!” With one last glare and a frustrated clench of his fist, he followed his men back into the forest. Soft rustling noises indicated that they were truly leaving the area. Silence reigned until both Rune and Yuna relaxed and sat at Rohan's feet.
Yalera's legs wobbled and she felt shaky. Everyone at the bottom of the cliff stared up at her, astonished that she had managed to single-handedly scare off an entire army. Yemry recovered first as their mother put a hand on Yalera's shoulder and tried to guide her back into the cave.
Let's tend to the wounded and prepare to defend ourselves again if necessary,” Yemry commanded. Then he rubbed the back of his neck as if comforting a persistent ache and added: “And we should prepare the dead enemy soldiers for burial.”
Men nodded as they were assigned tasks, and then ran off to perform them. Rohan rushed to comfort his sister since he knew that she'd be grieving over her actions. Most of the advisers were either wounded or winded, and so took an opportunity to rest.
This left Yemry standing alone with his father and best friend. He took deep breaths to try to calm down as he surveyed the area. It was highly defensible, but he still felt exposed and vulnerable. Ronin put a hand on his shoulder, proud of his son.
You did good,” he praised warmly, relieved that their whole family had survived the ordeal.
Baethan stood staring up at the spot on the ledge where Yalera had stood. “Did you see that? She shot and killed nearly two dozen men in less than two minutes!” He turned to face Yemry, his expression both serious and slightly awestruck. “Don't kill me, man, but I think I'm in love with your sister. Real love this time...”
Yemry couldn't help but feel amused by this statement and snorted a short laugh. “I've got no problem with that so long as you stay away from her. She's all set to be married to Prince Crispin, and she doesn't need you trying to woo and confuse her!”
I know,” Baethan muttered, sighing morosely. “I just pray that the rumors I've heard about him are wrong...”
Ronin stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I'm sure they must be. Or at the very least, over-exaggerated. There's no love in our Kingdom for Nandians, so it's reasonable to assume that our people have spread all kinds of bad rumors about them.”
Baethan shrugged indifferently. “Or maybe the Nandians are so bad that we don't need to make up false rumors about them.”
Let's hope not,” Ronin replied with a heavy sigh.

*****

For possibly the first time in her life, Yalera woke before the sun did. She heard the birds chirping and knew without asking that Rohan was awake too. He may have even been awake for some time. As far as she could tell, everyone else was asleep except for the sentries.
The light of a torch just barely reached her, allowing her to look in her twin brother's eyes. He held her tight, as if he was afraid that someone would sneak into the cave and steal her away if he didn't keep her safe. She kissed his cheek softly.
I really want a bath. She informed him mentally.
His eyes narrowed. Don't be stupid! Taking a bath now is dangerous!
I don't think so, she stated stubbornly. There's a spot where the lake meets the cliff that should be very safe. We'll have the cliff to our backs, the camp to our side, and a whole lake between us and any enemies.
I suppose... If we sent Rune and Yuna out to scout again, Rohan suggested. And guard the perimeter of the lake. Plus, it's too dark for anyone to shoot with any decent accuracy... Except for maybe you...
Yalera giggled very softly. Nah... Not even I can shoot in the dark!
Very quietly so that they didn't disturb anyone else in the cave – which was their parents and as much of the entourage as could fit, but none of the soldiers – they snuck their way out and down to the edge of the lake. Both meowed very softly to gain the attention of their cats, who were sleeping across the bottom of the incline into the cave. The cats lifted their heads to look at the twins curiously.
Go scout,” Yalera whispered, using a hand to point out where she wanted them to go.
The cats whined just once before sighing and getting to their feet. They gave quick kisses before leaving to do as they were told. Feeling as safe as she was going to get, Yalera led her twin to the spot she had noticed off to the side of the incline where the cliff met the lake. There was a small path there that led to a secluded area that almost formed a natural bath. It was even slightly warmer here!
Both twins shed their clothes, taking care to make sure that everything was completely on the path and not likely to get wet. Thankfully, Rohan had thought to bring some soap, because Yalera hadn't. She sat scrubbing herself with the water as if she was covered in a thousand layers of dirt. Rohan frowned and forced her to face away from him so that he could wash her back and hair.
I know it feels like it, but you aren't actually covered in blood,” he murmured softly.
Are you sure? It feels like it's dried on me, making me itch unbearably,” Yalera told him.
They were going to kill us all,” Rohan reminded her.
I know,” she sighed morosely. “But killing them first doesn't exactly make me better than them...”
Rohan shrugged. “Think of it this way, you're headed to their Royal Palace to marry their Crown Prince and make lasting peace between our Kingdoms. You're at least trying to make things better, and that Hugh fellow who wants to usurp the throne is only making all of this harder on everyone.”
She didn't say anything as he finished scrubbing up her back. He then thoroughly scrubbed her hair. It was hard to see since the very first rays of the sun were just now bursting above the horizon, but his fingers assured him that he had gotten all of it.
Yalera took a few moments to go underwater and rinse the soap from her hair. Then she took the soap and washed Rohan's back and hair. Many minutes passed in comfortable silence before she responded.
I suppose you are right...” she murmured. “I suppose that the only way I will feel like I have made up for the deaths of those I've killed is to make sure that no one need ever die in a battle between our two Kingdoms again.”
I know that you will,” Rohan whispered cheerfully. “You'll ensure peace.”
Yalera hugged him, feeling encouraged by his faith in her. She held him for a long time, trembling as the memories of all those men flashed before her eyes. Even she had been astonished by how quickly they had died! He simply held her and stroked her hair until she felt better, vowing to wait patiently even if it took all day.
Unknown to them, as dawn got brighter, Baethan had gone up the incline to check on everyone in the cave and quietly wake them so they could get ready to go. Yemry had decided to move on before the enemy could surround them and trap them here. Baethan had barely managed to wake three people before Lady Yalena screamed in terror.
They're gone!” This was screamed so loudly that everyone in camp heard it and – if they weren't already awake – they were now. Those who were awake all looked toward the cave at the top of the cliff.
Yemry literally dropped the sack he was carrying and ran towards the incline. Baethan came running out, but forgetting that he was at the top of the cliff, failed to turn in time. He slipped and fell off the cliff into the lake below. His surprised scream was comical until he landed in the lake with a huge splash.
Baethan!” Yemry called out in alarm.
I'm not hurt!” Baethan yelled out reassuringly, and then noticed Yalera shift around to Rohan's back so that she could cling to him and hide her nudity. She also giggled mercilessly at his misfortune. “And I found the twins!”
Turn your back!” Rohan ordered sharply, and Baethan didn't dare disobey despite the fact that he outranked Rohan. The moment his back was turned, Yalera slipped out of the water and hastily pulled her dress back on. She managed to have herself mostly covered by the time Yemry and her mother arrived.
Thanks!” She called out to Baethan, praising him for being courteous. “It's safe to get out now.”
What were you thinking?!” Lady Yalena roared in outrage. “You could have been captured by the enemy!”
Yalera laughed inappropriately. “How? I had a cliff to my back, a lake to my front, and a camp full of soldiers to come to my rescue if I so much as squeaked in alarm.”
Her mother shook her, clearly beside herself with relief. “When I woke up and saw that you were gone, I thought the worst! Don't you ever do that to me again!”
Rohan chuckled even as he slipped out of the lake and got dressed. Part of him wondered if he should be offended that their mother didn't seem to care that he had been missing too. He immediately regretted his thought as his mother rounded on him.
And you! I expect you to know better!” She chided, shaking him for a moment too. “Letting her bathe at such a time!”
Their father laughed outright. “Yalena, love! Let the poor boy finish getting dressed!”
Before anyone had a chance to say anything else – not even Yemry or Baethan, who were now standing off to the side trying not to laugh – one of the smilodons roared in outrage in the distance.
Move!” Yalera commanded in no uncertain terms as she shoved everyone out of her way and rushed to the center of camp. They all let her go since she was headed to where more guards were. The two smilodons leapt into camp quite abruptly, and then roared again as they faced the thick forest.
Sounds like we're about to have company!” Yemry shouted out just in case his soldiers hadn't figured this out. “Defensive positions!”
My bow!” Yalera cried out, racing up the incline to fetch her bow and as many arrows as she could get her hands on. She had to fight quite a few of her advisers – who wanted her to stay in the cave – but managed to grab her bow and escape before anything major happened.
Standing on top of the cliff in the gray but full light of dawn, in the entrance to the cave, she saw movement that should be impossible for the enemy army to make. Tree branches rustled rhythmically. As if they were being shaken by something as it walked along. Something huge...
Wait!” She called out urgently. “Get back!”
Yemry looked up at her in surprise, but before he could decide whether or not he wanted to listen to her, one of his soldiers gasped. Others choked back screams, shaking as they tried to hold their ground despite desperately wanting to fall back. Yemry felt positively gobsmacked!
From the forest, something none of the soldiers had ever seen before emerged. Slowly, an animal that was a good 10 feet in height and broad shouldered stepped out of the treeline. It moaned threateningly, waving one of it's massive feet in a warning. It's feet were shaped somewhat like an elephant's, but had three long, sharp, curved claws that protruded from them. While raised like this, those protruding claws pointed out at the soldiers, resembling knives ready for the kill.
Yalera rushed to Yemry's side. “Order them to fall back!” She hissed urgently. She turned towards the smilodons. “Yuna! Rune, come here!”
Rohan was also gesturing for their cats to come closer, calling out to his older brother. “It's not dangerous so much as it's afraid! It thinks our cats are trying to attack it!”
And look, it's female,” Yalera pointed out. “She's probably trying to protect her young!”
All the more reason to consider it dangerous!” Yemry insisted. “It's 20 feet long! It has to weigh thousands of pounds!”
Rohan gave up trying to argue with his brother and focused on leading his cats up the incline into the cave, forcing his mother to go before him. Once they were out of sight, the gigantic sloth might decide the threat was gone and leave them in peace. Rune and Yuna were reluctant to follow when danger was still so near, but they trusted him and eventually did as he insisted.
Yalera stamped her foot in frustration. “Father! Tell him that the Megatherium aren't dangerous! They are herbivores! They aren't interested in us so long as we leave them alone!”
That's a Megatherium?!” Yemry roared the question. He recognized the name of the animal as something his father had told him about when he was growing up.
Yalera suddenly realized that he had been sent away before he was old enough to go hunting in the wild forests that bordered their land. She and her twin had only seen a Megatherium twice before, and both times had been awe inspiring experiences. She couldn't blame Yemry for not knowing what to do.
But the Megatherium are extinct!” Baethan protested, holding his sword at the ready.
So are smilodons!” Yalera argued sharply and then gesture to the cave where her cats were currently waiting.
Ronin placed a calm hand on his oldest son's shoulder. “The Megatherium really are harmless.”
You think smilodons are harmless!” Yemry protested.
Ours are because they were raised with love!” Ronin insisted. “I know that most of them are very dangerous predators! Megatherium aren't predators and if we try to attack this one, we're just going to get hurt!”
Seeing that Yemry was finally listening, Yalera got between the soldiers and the Megatherium. “Slowly and calmly back up...” she ordered, holding out her hands soothingly. The Megatherium had been pawing at them threateningly, but hadn't attacked anyone yet. “You're fine, we're not going to hurt you,” she promised it in a sing-song voice.
Move!” Yalera growled when the soldiers hesitated. She continued to face the Megatherium with her hands up as if she could stop it from attacking with sheer force of will. “Go back to your babies. We're no threat to you.”
The Megatherium waved its foot at her uncertainly. It clearly didn't want to fight with these small creatures that waved large sticks, but it also wasn't certain that they would leave it alone. It looked from Yalera up to the cliff where the smilodons had disappeared. That's when it noticed even more of the tiny creatures staring at it, which made it even more hesitant. It was clearly outnumbered!
It looked over to Yemry, who reinforced the order to back away carefully. The Megatherium felt mildly reassured by their slow and steady movements away from her. Slowly, it lowered its foot back to the ground.
That's it,” Yalera purred soothingly. “We're not going to hurt you. You have no reason to fear us.”
The Megatherium seemed to stare at her intently. It was as if the 20 foot long animal was trying to peer into her soul. As if it was deciding whether or not to trust her.
From the forest – many feet off to the side of the Megatherium – enemy soldiers roared ferociously. They wanted to scare the Rubidiumites and hadn't seen the giant herbivore yet. Their shouting caught its attention, and it turned rather abruptly to face them, rearing up onto its hind legs. It advanced on them shockingly quickly, and slashed at several of them with the long, knife-like claws of its front legs.
Kill it!” One of the leaders of the mercenary army called out in fear. His men responded by shooting it with arrows and throwing spears at it. Most seemed to bounce off its thick hide, with only a few lucky shots penetrating it just slightly.
The fight did not last very long at all as Prince Hugh once again called for a retreat. He didn't want to lose his men unnecessarily, and also prayed that the creature would kill his enemy for him. It was almost comical to the soldiers under Yemry's command who had been terrified themselves just moments ago.
After the enemy had left, the Megatherium turned its attention once more to Yalera. To everyone's astonishment, it lowered its head slightly. As if saying: You don't plan to hurt me, I don't plan to hurt you. Then it turned back to the forest and slowly ambled away.
Yalera sighed in relief. She turned to grin at her older brother. “You see?”
Hmm,” Yemry harrumphed. He was too embarrassed to admit that he had been too scared to think clearly. Secretly, he was happy that she had been right, because if she hadn't, they could have all died today.

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