Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 1: The Mother’s Dirge – Part 2

Haron finished her swing and glanced toward where Commander Khan pointed. In the shadows near the collapsed remains of the second tunnel, a piece of the rock wall had fallen inward and exposed a smaller, natural cavern.

She realized the danger immediately. If the creatures got into the seam, they could potentially dig through into the main tunnels. The thought of the rest of her company dying beneath lashing claws striking from behind ended Haron’s song in a snarl of defiance.

Commander Khan had already slashed his way close to the new cavern’s entrance. Haron scrambled after him, clambering over fallen bodies and ducking grasping claws. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Makrosh stumble beneath a fresh assault, and his voice disappeared from the chorus. She bared her teeth but swallowed back her rage and grief to claw closer to Commander Khan’s location. He was half inside the new tunnel with his shoulder braced against the curve of the wall, as faint veins of his tanned stone arm laced through the nearby rock.

A mass of shadowed flesh reared up in Haron’s path, blocking her from the mouth of the tunnel. It ignored her completely, its limbs fixated on the immobile earth sohntar. “Commander, watch out!” she screamed.

The abomination snarled, and an instant later a roar of pain echoed outward. The earth commander tumbled down a short embankment of stone, glimmering dust pouring from a rent in his armor. Haron fell on the creature from behind, burying her hammer’s spike into a staring eye high on the body and ripping it backwards. With a cry of wild agony, the abomination toppled. Haron beat and slashed at it again and again, splattering the walls with ichor the color of pitch. When it finally stopped moving, she scrambled to the fallen commander, who was already struggling to stand.

“Help me back to the entrance, soldier,” he panted. He pressed his arm tightly against the wound and straightened.

“Aye, sir.” Haron slung her arm around the smaller sohntar’s back, and together they stumbled their way back toward the cavern. She caught the gaze of a few fire warriors, who nodded at her and pressed close together to block the abominations from the pair. Commander Khan shrugged out of her grip and threw himself against the wall again, releasing a tearing cry of pain from the impact as glowing tendrils raced across the rocky wall. The stone around the tunnel’s mouth cracked, and loose rocks bounced off Haron’s armor. She drew closer as Khan strained against the wall again. He yelled, and a desperate, feverish note entered his voice. A third press unleashed a wave of stone, and Haron seized him and pulled him back from cascading flow of rock. More tumbling stones pursued her and the commander, seeming intent on swallowing them as she fled deeper into the unknown crevice. Practically dragging the earth commander with her, she raced away from the crumbling flood.

Dust and harsh wheezing filled the tunnel as the tumbling finally ceased. “Good lass,” Commander Khan rasped as he sagged in her grasp. Haron got her arm beneath his head before it struck the ground and gently lowered him the rest of the way.

“Thank you, commander, for saving my friends,” she said, unable to think of anything else to say in the moment. She stared at the rocky seal behind them, straining her ears to hear the sounds of battle, but they were behind too much rock for even the death hymn to reach them. She swallowed as she thought of her brethren, dying in sight of the outpost she’d called home, but a fit of dry coughing drew her attention back to the officer on the ground. “Stay still, sir. Let me take a look.”

“Can’t do much about this now.”

Haron shook her head. “You don’t know that yet, sir. Just let me try.”

A gash had been torn in the commander’s chest plate, and she slipped her hand beneath it, tamping down her fire’s temperature to try to keep Khan’s discomfort to a minimum. Though colder than her touch, the rocky flesh was far warmer than it should have been. She traced a deep gash from his chest all the way down to his thigh, and the dust coating her hand had lost most of its luster when she pulled it back. She frowned deeply.

“Told you,” Commander Khan murmured, his deep voice much quieter now.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Haron told him.

He shook his head. A grayness tinged the rich brown of his face, and his eyes seemed hazy. “No point in that, soldier. Just help me sit up. Can’t breathe right lying like this.”

There was no way to avoid hurting him, but Haron kept her grip as gentle as possible as she helped him brace himself against the wall, propping him up against the sloping curve. His breathing remained ragged, and every once in a while he coughed, filling the space with a cloud of dimming dust.

Haron winced and cast her gaze into the darkness beyond the light of her fiery skin. “We could try the tunnel, see where it leads us,” she suggested without much hope. If there were a lava flow nearby, she could probably find her way, but all she felt was the bare rock enclosing them. She couldn’t get her bearings without a source of heat to orient herself.

“Not much point for me.” Commander Khan’s unfocused gaze followed hers, and he gave a weak nod with his chin. “Couldn’t get to help in time to matter. Besides… nice patch of earth here. Comfortable. Good place to die…”

A sad smile touch Haron’s lips. “I’m glad I could be accommodating in that manner at least, sir.”

“Enough of that ‘sir’ nonsense.” A note of sternness strengthened Khan’s fading voice. “The embrace of the earth is the same for all… no matter your rank.”

She didn’t realize her hand was still on his uninjured side until he loosely twined his rough fingers around it. “What’s your name, lass?”

“Haron,” she replied. “Descendant of Akra, servant of—”

“Haron,” the commander repeated. “Good name for a warrior.”

“All fire sohntar are warriors, Khan. Surely you know that.”

“Aye, I do. Been fighting alongside them most of my life.” He paused for breath, and Haron felt the grip on her hand tighten. “Even had a… niece of mine… marry one. Good man. Good warrior… like you, Haron.”

The smile on her face faltered. “How good can I really be, commander? I should be dead right now, alongside my brothers and sisters. I should have died trying to hold back the tide of whatever darkness is consuming our world.”

“You’re young yet,” Khan wheezed. “Young warriors… are always the most eager to die…”

She laughed despite herself. “You’re quoting General Gharshem,” she remarked. “From the Battle of Flint Falls.”

“Am I? Knew what he was talking about then.” Khan’s eyes slipped closed, and another dusty cough tore through him. Fearing he would fall from the force of the bout and be in further pain, Haron sat next to him and helped steady him. He leaned heavily against her side, his breath dwindling every passing second. “Listen to me, Haron. Not your fate… to die with me in this tunnel. Once I’m gone, follow it. It’ll lead you… to wherever you are needed.”

“Where is that, Khan?”

“I don’t know… but the earth whispers it to me.”

It could have been delirium, but Haron knew better than to argue with a dying man. It disquieted the spirit, and she wouldn’t dishonor him that way. Instead she gave a gentle nod, trying not to stare with too much consternation at the darkness closing in around them both. “Very well,” she answered at last. “I’ll do as you command.”

“Good soldier.” Khan’s voice was scarcely above a whisper now. “Now… a final favor?”

“Of course.”

“Sing me a death hymn.”

She turned her head to look at the earth sohntar in surprise. “You would choose a fire sohntar ritual over one of your own?”

“Always liked… the poetry of your people. Singing a warrior to their final sleep. Good tradition. And I heard you… back there. You have… a good voice.”

Haron blushed warmly. She did consider herself to be one of the better singers among her squad, as well as her family. Fire sohntar sang about everything, believing that anything could be improved or enhanced by a joyous voice. It touched her that Khan, an earth sohntar, appreciated her people’s traditions, and she felt honored to be asked such a request. “Thank you, Khan,” she murmured, smiling even as tears of steaming moisture pooled at the corners of her eyes. “I would be honored to.”

Khan relaxed against her, and she sang the oldest and most sacred of her people’s songs. Remembering the deaths of her fellows, she took up their names, letting the rich melody of her dirge fill the darkened tunnel. She added Khan’s name where it seemed appropriate and let the song’s words of comfort and the grace of the Mother echo in the dark. Though they revered different elements, she wanted the Mother to know of the bravery of her fallen kindred, be they earth or fire, so that her approval could rise from the depths of the world, that their passing could be in the warmth of her embrace.

As the dirge continued, Haron felt the hold on her hand slacken. She kept her ear close to Khan’s face and listened for his labored breath as it grew slower and softer. When it stopped altogether, she continued singing until the final verse echoed in the darkness. The song over, she carefully arranged Khan’s hands so that they folded over the axe in his lap. She rose to her feet and smiled down at his silent body, before turning to face the darkened tunnel.

With a deep breath, she stoked the fires within, until the flickers drifting from her skin cast dancing lights down the tunnel before her.

Her commander had given her an order to return to where she was needed.

She was not going to fail in her duty.