It's in beta now, as I mentioned in a prior post. I will be shopping it around for some agents soon and then looking for a publisher. We'll see how this goes.
The below excerpt is © 2010 Clifton Hill, all rights reserved.
An unnamed man sat casually in the corner of a busy tavern in the large seaport of Corlea—the windows dark with night. An untouched mug of ale adorned his table—dripping in condensation and dimly lit by the orange glow of burning wall sconces. Sitting as far from the revelry as possible he was lost in shadow wearing a black cloak that covered his face and body in darkness. The air was filled with raucous noise, as the sailors on leave sang discordant but merry, drunken tunes. They swayed with their song, their mugs in the air, while others spun and jumped about. A mix of other customers filled the scattered tables, and long dingy bar; while a squinty-eyed flutist played along, sitting on the hearth of the fireplace.
A softly moving finger arced back and forth as the black-cloaked man appeared to keep tune with the sea shanties—another joyous customer. But the man held much more maligned thoughts than apparent as he imagined himself dancing among the drunken mass, his slim dagger held in reverse along his forearm, as he slit their throats to musical accompaniment. Swirling around their falling bodies, a shadow of death, content to hear them cease their abandonment.
He smiled broadly at the thought, though the expression did not touch his eyes. Any that would be foolish enough to consider him jovial would be sadly mistaken.
Into the tavern rolled a man of large girth and short stature, clothed in silk and jewels. As out of place in the rowdy tavern as a fish out of water. He scanned the room with small eyes set in a pudgy face, his nose twitching at the smell. He placed one finger to his sparse mustache at the olfactory offense, just below the nose—though the gesture was without effect. Far below his standards, yet he was there, seeking someone. The light from the room picked up the rich maroon color of his clothes, though fine, they were soiled in places from greasy foods and sweets.
Seeing the black-cloaked man in the corner he gave a slight start, then relaxed. Searching the rest of the room he made his decision and waddled forward on short legs. Reaching the table, the richly attired man cleared his throat with nervous authority.
The unnamed man remained sitting with his hand upon the table, the finger waiving still. Without looking up at the newcomer he spoke with a curious accent, “Sit, Corbin Phallish.”
Eyes shifting back and forth, the man called Corbin corrected hesitantly, “That would be Lord Corbin Phallish, good Sir.”
“You will be called what I choose, now sit,” though there was no anger in the voice, it was all said with such conviction and confidence that the self-proclaimed Lord quickly grabbed a chair and flopped down—issuing forth a creaking protest of wood in the process.
“And what is your name good Sir?” asked Corbin quietly as his eyes shifted nervously, worried about being overheard. Though in the noisy din of the tavern no one could have heard them at the next table—just two paces distant.
The unnamed man shook his head slightly, “No name needed Phallish, if we need to meet again, I will find you.”
Corbin looked unhappy, but decided against complaint with the dangerous looking man, “So you say that you have a proposition for me?”
The man looked at Corbin in the eyes and said slowly, “One you can not refuse. You know who I represent.”
Corbin nodded warily.
“You know that there is no fighting us.”
Corbin nodded again, “Never wanted to get tied up in the whole thing to begin with. Always knew things could be arranged. Dormir and his grandiose plans were far too patriotic for me,” his smile was irritatingly ingratiating. “So what is it that you want me to do?”
“Nothing much will be asked of you, or the others. It will be easy work, from which you can only benefit.”
“We work with many, Phallish. You didn’t think that we were only seeking to work with you?”
“No, of - of course not,” though it was clear that Corbin had not thought of others at all.
Ignoring Corbin’s short-sightedness the unnamed man cut to the point, “You just came from the conference. You have orders to wait on a ship of engineers and escort them to Stronghold if there is a siege.”
Corbin dropped his jaw in surprise, amazed that the man knew what had happened just minutes ago in a secret conference organized by General Zakea Dormir and yet had managed somehow to arrive to the tavern first; sitting idly while he waited for Corbin. Any doubt of his authenticity was now gone from Corbin’s mind.
The unnamed man continued, “You will not do that. You will take the engineers and hole up in your keep. You will stay there and give no aid in finances or other to any of the Molroun rebels.”
“Your information, is uh, incredibly accurate. I think this can be all arranged, but what if I refuse?” Corbin’s daring words lost their effect as he squeaked out the last in nervousness at the man’s nearly—but not quite—hidden expression.
Sweating under that stare, Corbin abandoned the question, “Uh, well, but—but what about my recompense?”
The unnamed man replied quietly, “You will get to live and keep your land.”
Blanching, Corbin continued on, “Of course, but my good sir, I take on great risk to accomplish this, and it will be very difficult. To—to impede the war effort I must risk the name of my family, my fortune and my armies. I could lose everything in this. I must also arrange for all of the complicated changes in my towns and villages to make sure that profits are not going to the war, and that we are upholding our end of the bargain to an absolute,” at the last Corbin smiled, as if he was showing how very good of a business partner he would be, if only the man would agree to some of his requests.
The man said nothing.
Continuing nervously, while Corbin’s fingers plucked at the short hairs of his mustache, he began to outline what he should be given in exchange for his assistance.
The black-cloaked man’s nose flared in insult as he thought to himself while the pig named Corbin prattled on. He disgusts me with his gluttonous sweat and fearful stink. He is like swine, plumped up for the slaughter, but none I would like to eat. He sits across the table from me wheedling, desiring, wanting more and more and more. He wants assurances of safety, he wants money, he want, he wants, he wants... I am close, but not quite ready, to lean across and slit his jowels with a second smile, stand up and leave. But that is not my job...not yet.
Finally he said, “Enough! You will get nothing more than your land and your life,” but to forestall more of the incessant whining from the man he pulled out a small pouch and pushed it across the table into Corbin’s hands.
Corbin pulled the drawstring loose and peered secretly inside. Smiling at the sight of precious gems and golden coins he closed it swiftly and stashed it away, “Surely there is—”
The unnamed man scowled as he interrupted, his tone dangerous, “Any more land or riches you wish, you must take on your own. If you do well, you may...be further rewarded.”
Corbin gulped down the rest of what he had to say. Though he looked like he wanted to protest, he seemed to decide against it and nodded his head unhappily. Thinking to himself how he could take advantage of that permission when the time was right instead.
“We’re done here, do not disappoint. I, or another, will contact you again. We will be watching,” with that the man rose and left.
Corbin stared after the man’s back, which slipped too quickly out of sight amidst the press of customers.
Touching the pouch of gems and coins, he smiled at the weight of it—a small fortune in itself.
Swallowing dryly, Corbin looked at the sweat beaded mug of ale. Still full, though most of its head had disappeared. His mouth and throat were so parched, he had sat through the whole conference with little more than boiled tea to drink. Unable to stand the stuff, Corbin had abstained and the low-class but incredibly wet-looking mug beckoned to him. Reaching out quickly he picked up the mug and put it to his lips. It was little better than swill to a man of his taste, but it was better than nothing. With the full pocket of jewels he would reward himself better that night. Gulping down the contents quickly he rose and waddled his way through the press of bodies and out into the night, a smile on his lips and a dribble of ale on his chin.
The unnamed man walked down the alley backing the tavern, glad to be away from the detestable Lord of Phallish Keep. The man would do as he had wanted, he had no doubt. He might look in on Corbin from time to time to make sure his own stupidity did not change things, but for now he needed to set up a meeting with another.
The man passed swiftly through the back alleys of Corlea, heading to his destination.
Located at the Southernmost tip of Molroun the bustling seaport was a center of influence. In a land without central leadership it allowed those of different backgrounds to come together peacefully and discuss how to find common ground. To many it seemed a haven of tranquility. But any large city had its unsavory sections, no matter how prosperous or civilized it was. Despite this the unnamed man walked without concern—comfortable in what would be considered by many to be a dangerous area of town. Awash in the smell of garbage and old urine, the man passed through a long and narrow alley—the sleeping spots of beggars vacant as they tried to find a few more coins for the day.
The unnamed man stopped suddenly and turned around in the silent alley to face the way he had come, devoid of all life...except for three men clothed darkly and stepping lightly that had been following in the distance. The unnamed man faced them without concern or surprise, waiting.
The three were skilled trackers, and had not made any noise, yet the unnamed man had obviously heard them. Now he stood watching them from under his hooded cloak.
Glancing amongst themselves in confusion at the discovery, there was an exchange of nods, the three men then walked closer. They needed information and if it could not be gleaned by stealth it would be found by force. Pulling weapons free from concealment they faced the unarmed and unnamed man with two short and agile-looking swords and a small crossbow among them.
They walked to within a few paces of the black-cloaked man and stopped. The man with the crossbow stood in the rear, his weapon trained on their target, while the others had their swords at the ready. The tracker in front addressed the unnamed man quickly and without pretense, “Why did you meet with Lord Phallish at the tavern? What did you speak of?”
The unnamed man gave no reply, his eyes were the only thing that moved as he looked over the trackers. Several moments stretched out quietly. The trackers shifted their feet and moved their weapons, feeling a sense of foreboding.
The one in front shared a look with his fellows before turning back, “Look, if you don’t tell us—”
But he never finished as the black-cloaked man lunged forward faster than should have been possible. The tracker dropped his mouth in surprise but brought his sword around quickly—with skill. The unnamed man batted the weapon to the side with a metallic ring, grabbed the man’s other hand holding a dagger and crushed it with an iron grip—emitting a gasp of pain from the tracker. The crossbowman rushed forward as his target was obscured, the other man moved quickly forward as well. But they were too late as the unnamed man grabbed the front trackers surprised head and twisted with a loud snap. Grasping the body, he flung it through the air with unnatural strength to slam into the crossbowman—sending him flying into the wall with a crash, and bouncing into a pile of garbage on the ground.
The remaining swordsman didn’t blink as he flung a dagger from his belt at the attacker. It spun through the air with precision, but was caught mid-flight with a deft hand. Without expression the black-cloaked man flung it back to drop the swordsman with a thud.
The remaining tracker staggered to his feet, reloaded his crossbow with quick hands, and ran backwards as he trained it on the man and fired. The bolt flew true at its target but missed as the man twisted to the side—a blur—then jumped the remaining dozen paces to the shock of the tracker and threw him into the wall with force.
The crossbow fell to the ground and cracked, as the last tracker—dropping to hands and knees—shook his head in a daze.
Grabbing him by the throat with one hand, the unnamed man pushed him up against the wall.
Grunting in protest, the tracker sought breath desperately in sputters and gasps. Eyes wide, and blood running from his scalp, he forced out, “Who - are - you?”
The unnamed man tilted his head in amusement and replied, “You know who I am...” as he silenced the last of the three.
Chapter 1 - Changing Tides
Soon they would change the tide of battle, in what would be the start of the end of the war. Or at least that’s what Hestea Hammerblood hoped as he rode a sturdy bay roan. He gripped the reigns loosely with strong hands, tanned a golden hue, as he looked over his men—riding in tight formation around the general and his officers, watching the rolling hills around them with cautious eyes. Their hands were alert on sword hafts, anxious fingers toying with bow strings. They were not nervous, they were just ready.
Many had been with the guard before he had joined, experienced and devout warriors, but they had taken to his leadership effortlessly.
It was an accomplishment most fathers would have been proud of.
Hestea’s forehead creased at the thought beneath long, sandy locks.
“Fronteu,” he called to his second in command, “you know this area. How much longer till we hit the Galladel?”
His lieutenant, Marcus Fronteu, turned in his saddle and looked at Hestea with a quirked eyebrow. He was slightly older than Hestea, and had lived in Molroun all his life—unlike Hestea, though none of these men could know that. “Should be soon, Captain. If you had the ears of a dog, you could probably hear the rush of water by now.”
Hestea smiled. Marcus said it in jest, but sometimes he had to wonder if it wasn’t in some way true.
Staring forward, Hestea listened intently. The sound of the moving army was loud at their backs. Hooves and boots plodded along the dry and hard road with the clink of metal and the scratch of wood. The sound of thousands of voices, speaking softly to their fellows to pass the time was a small murmur. Straining, Hestea tried to hear something that shouldn’t have been possible.
Yes! There. Over the hills. Not too far. He could just make out the flow of swift water in the distance.
Just as Marcus had said. Ears of a dog though? He didn’t know. “Good,” Hestea replied to his lieutenant. They still had a ways to go after they crossed the Tanberry bridge, but by the time they hit the river they would know the location of the enemy.
“Anxious, Captain?” asked Marcus.
Hestea smiled. “A little, Fronteu.”
Marcus nodded his head, thinking he understood. Any Molrounian would be excited to finally put the enemy on the defensive.
But Hestea was not anxious for the fight, he was worried about his general. Are we biting off more than we can chew? he thought. He looked back to his guard—wearing the badge of Dormir upon their arms—riding with pride. They were strong. He had tested them, trained with them, taught them everything he knew; learning much in return.
He hoped it was enough.
With the gurgling river Galladel, as it rushed by rocky obstructions behind them, the army caught up with Scoutmaster Haslin at the edge of Tannil Wood. The young scoutmaster was busy conferring with some of his men, while a company of soldiers were busy covering a series of pits at the forest edge.
The scouts went running back into the wood; disappearing within the foliage in long strides to rejoin their fellows in the field.
Brand, the scoutmaster, seemed pleased as he relayed the information to General Dormir, “The enemy is right where we thought they would be.”
“Excellent work, Haslin. The obstructions?”
“Almost done, Sir.”
“Good. See that they’re finished and rejoin us.”
The lean scoutmaster saluted and ran back to the soldiers.
“Things are moving forward well,” said Marcus to Hestea.
Hestea nodded, rubbing nervous fingers over his leather reigns, hoping it was true.
Chapter 2 - The Headache of Talent
Walking alongside his apprentice’s horse, Sethil Longmere did his best to keep Rousche from falling off his gelding, as it navigated the forest undergrowth.
Nearly catatonic with a headache, Rousche was in no position to walk or ride and lay upon the neck of his horse—arms slack and swaying with the gait. Sethil knew it was not his fault and but a curse of his gift. He scowled anyways and rubbed a nervous tic in his weathered cheek with a boney finger.
A magus of the Third Circle, Sethil had seen many years, and despite Rousche’s incredible ability, it could be a tiresome chore to watch after the young man.
His other apprentice, Jokai, walked at his back; leading their horses.
Despite puffing breaths, Sethil could not keep pace with the army and was falling steadily behind from his normal position near the fore. A squad of soldiers held back to watch after them, but it was irritating to Sethil to have to move so slowly. If they didn’t reach the open soon, he would have one of the Molrounians carry the lad himself until they could ride at a faster pace. But they would not be needed for another hour or so.
Pulling off his thick leather helm, Sethil wiped away beading sweat he did not see on any of the soldiers—hands on their weapons.
Finally, Sethil sighed happily—seeing the light that poked through at the edge of the forest. Beyond it would be a long meadow that rose slowly and turned into rockier hills beyond. He’d be able to jump back on his horse then and guide Rousche’s gelding at a faster pace.
Jokai cleared his throat in distress. “Master, we’re nearly at the back.”
“I know, don’t worry,” dismissed Sethil with a flick of his fingers, “we’ll be out of the forest soon. We’ll catch up then.”
Sethil knew if he looked, that Jokai would be frowning. It was an adoption from years of service as Sethil’s apprentice.
Knuckling his back, Sethil grinned despite himself, though he was also glad to be done with walking. His old bones had already seen too many years.
Sethil looked up at Rousche. “Don’t worry, lad, I’ve got you.”
Face contorting, Rousche turned squinted eyes on Sethil. His mouth worked as he tried to fight off the fog of his headache. “Master! There is—something.” Grunting, Rousche pulled himself up with shaky hands. Sitting tall in his saddle.
“What is it?” Sethil asked immediately. Feeling at his store of power he instinctively sought the connection to draw more.
Fighting for some lucidity, Rousche pointed and shouted with sudden clarity, “The enemy is here!”
Sethil’s eyes nearly popped out of his weathered face as he looked to where his apprentice had pointed. Just barely visible to his Quan Sight he saw a building of power up near the meadow—where the last of Zakea’s forces were pouring out into the open and falling into rank amidst the tall, concealing grass.
Sacraith! he thought tensely and then drew hard on the Great Circles of Quan.
Three of the lingering soldiers nearly leapt at Rousche’s exclamation and went running forward, arms waving as they shouted the warning ahead.
“It’s a trap,” Sethil whispered.
His attention distracted, Sethil failed to notice a low tree limb as they came to the edge of the forest. With a thump, Rousche went tumbling from the saddle, knocked unconscious by the blow.
Sethil winced as he swore, “By the Eighth Circle!
“Jokai! Grab Rousche and follow me. The general needs us!”
Irises glowing with the building power that was life, Sethil ran as fast as his old bones could carry him—his face like weathered stone.
Chapter 3 - Crossing Currents
A towering Saeordin armored in black iron and leather, clove through the defending soldiers with a roar of his giant blade. His prominently hooked nose stuck out from his helm like a hatchet as he forced his way through the Molroun line. Saeordin regulars scuttled along at his sides, lashing out at anyone that came close as he mowed down the defenders with surreal strength. His mouth was turned up in a wicked grin and his pace was unslowing.
The Molroun soldiers were tough despite the onslaught and after the giant was bleeding from multiple wounds, a flight of arrows took the altered soldier in the head to drop him with an agonizing grunt. More Saeordin regulars filled in, their forging brute forgotten underfoot; the path behind littered with bodies.
A grizzled Molrounian in worn leather, was struck down by a bolt of energy. His pale face contorted in pain as he dropped to the ground, grabbing the badge of service upon his arm—as if seeking solace from its design. The charged air crackled and popped, shaking morale and confidence of those all around. But they stood their best against the barrage. Dedicated to fighting the Saeordin horde, no matter the price.
Standing head and shoulders taller than any other with a massive build, Hestea surveyed the bloodshed on the chaotic battlefield all around. A wintry-looking sky of stale clouds fit his mood. Looking to the side, he saw General Zakea Dormir bellowing orders and realigning their defense within the lush meadow that was turning quickly to mud.
Shaking his head, it seemed hopeless to Hestea to gain much from this day.
He stood within a space of calm in the center of the battle, closed in on both sides by the enemy, whose prescient movement had foiled Dormir’s plans of ambush; turning predator into prey. The setback infuriated Hestea to no end. Despite this, the general was his usual unflappable self—radiating confidence—while Hestea felt the control of his anger slipping; the veil of battle beckoning at the corner of his vision with its alluring shimmer and promise of power.
Hestea’s strong jaw clenched, as he wished to be in the thick of it. To do something. It was agonizing to watch fellow soldiers struck down, mere paces away. Saeordin blades of midnight rising and falling—good Molrounian men dying, while Hestea was restrained by his duty.
But then, a half dozen enemy warriors broke through the line and charged at the general and his party. In a glance, Hestea saw them as experienced Saeordin regulars, well trained and armed, with faces set in fanatical zeal; their movements fluid and quick.
He couldn’t let them get close to the general. They were not mercenaries living for coin or those that had been forced into service—they were the real enemy.
Trained and armed machines of death.
The familiar surge of adrenalin lit Hestea’s veins with fire amidst a rush of anger, he rushed forward without a word; before his men were even aware of the breach. The veil of battle descended upon him, giving him focus as it shunted out reason and duty. The shimmer of its strength sparkled through his vision as if crackling energy. Everything slowed down, as if time itself had changed speed or he had begun to move faster. Everything was more clear, but at the same time like moving through a cloud. Enveloped in the action with no time to think, only act and react.
Lungs pumping and legs pounding the ground he felt the rush of wind on his golden skin as he closed with the attackers; his long, sandy hair rippling in the wind of his passage.
The interlopers saw him bearing down, confused at his rash one-man attack.
Time slowed further.
Their expressions slowed: every twist of lip and blink of eye was readily apparent as confusion changed to surprise. Fingers gripped weapons harder, muscles flexed, veins throbbed.
Overhead, a fireball seared slowly through the air to engulf two of Dormir’s force in a roar of agonizing fire; their writhing shadows just barely visible as they fell to the ground. Another fireball smote the ground in Hestea’s path, a fount of damp earth and grass erupting sluggishly from the impact. Leaping without pause, Hestea smiled viciously at his adversaries, grabbed his great two handed war hammer from the thong on his back and leapt again into the air to bring it down with a horrible crunching sound; the man in the lead was crushed to the ground. Massive shoulders bunching, he twisted and lunged without pause; the hammer taking the next man in the chest, armor plate squealing in metal fury, flinging him into the air before he crashed into the ground—lifeless.
The remaining warriors didn’t break stride, and spreading out as they raced at Hestea they surrounded him with weapons flashing through the air. But Hestea’s mighty hammer swung quicker, breaking bones and blades with ease. Shouting with surprise in the foreign tongue of the Saeordin they realigned themselves. Flashing hand signals they coordinated and made their stand against the goliath. Despite skill and ruthlessness, they were cut down one-by-one. The last two standing—grunting in pain and shock—went down before they could even think of retreat; though Hestea knew that regulars rarely ran from battle.
In a moment of reprieve Hestea glared around; his chest swelling with breath, white teeth bared, but there were none left to oppose him. The line ahead had closed and though nearby men-at-arms seemed boosted by his valor, shouting his name like a battle-chant, they were falling back towards the general faster every minute. Hestea could see the enemy over their heads as they clove through Molroun soldiers, seeking to break through the line in true.
Hestea was on the balls of his feet, torn with the desire to rush into the masses and rage on the enemy, but the veil of battle had lifted and duty held him back.
“Fall Back!” shouted General Dormir, raising a horn to his lips he blew two quick blasts.
The sound of retreat echoed across the defiled meadow, giving Hestea a cringe of disgust. Hastening back to his general, Hestea found the grizzled Captain Gaston Fuswick glaring at him with reproval. Grumbling in irritation, Hestea ignored the look as he rejoined the general.
Gesturing precisely, Dormir parceled out quick orders to his captains, “Haslin, verify the way is still clear and the impediments are unaltered. Fuswick, we need to buy some time, delay the enemy in route.”
Quick nods of ascent and the two captains were off.
Hestea marshaled General Dormir’s personal guard, falling into formation as they sped off. The line came running to join them with groups of archers firing at the enemy to slow their pursuit. Dormir directed his command back into Tannil Wood.
With extreme discipline in the face of a large pursuing foe, they melted into the evergreen forest. Those astride a horse dismounted with speed, while everyone broke into small organized groups and wound their way quickly through the thick trees and underbrush.
Birds rose into the sky, squawking at the intrusion as they wheeled about. The peace of their forest homes disturbed once too many that day.
Hestea ran alongside the general, alert for anything. The canopy above cast all into shadow and gloom. Turning to the general as he loped gracefully over roots and shrubs, he asked with a mixture of anger and suspicion, “What happened, General?”
“They knew we were coming Hammerblood,” huffed Dormir. “They knew...” he eyed Hestea with a meaningful look before refocusing on the path.
Hestea shook his head. Brand’s scouts had given the enemy’s position far from where they had been ambushed. Why?
Then Hestea’s throat rumbled suddenly as realization hit. Traitors!
But how? How could they turn on their own? The thought was infuriating and it felt like the already minuscule advantage of surprise was slipping through grasping fingers.
Crashing through the forest behind came the enemy, but slower. Men swore and horses screamed as it appeared Saeordin cavalry had neglected to dismount: laming horses in burrows and breaking heads on branches. Even those on foot could be heard in their indignation as they tripped and stumbled through the undergrowth, while attackers deployed by Captain Fuswick, were adding to the confusion.
Dormir’s force plunged on, their pursuers falling back, and the occasional arrows and bursts of energy diminishing to none.
Heart beating in his ears, losing himself in the constant plodding of his feet—one after the other—Hestea dwelled on the battle. His disappointment grew until the imagined voice of his father formed in his mind, ever critical, ever cutting, You will put the Order at risk, Hestea.
No, he thought to himself. It had all been necessary, I had to leave, I couldnt just stand by and do noth—
You are an impetuous fool!
No! he shouted in his mind, I had to do something. I had to help!
You would presume to know better than the council? Or your own father!?
Gritting his teeth, Hestea came back to his senses when he was startled by Scoutmaster Brand Haslin reappearing from behind a tree. “General, the way is clear and the traps are still set.”
“Good, extend your range on the other side of the river, check our supply train while you’re at it, and...make sure we aren’t surprised again.” A hint of annoyance could be heard in the general’s otherwise stoic tone.
“Yes, Sir,” and Brand was off again, a grim look on his face.
Chapter 4 - The Waters of Escape
After nearly an hour of flight, they had gained several minutes lead, and Hestea could see they were nearing the forest edge. The gloomy sky was starkly bright in comparison as they exited. Ahead, the land dipped to where swift Galladel flowed slate blue and the Tanberry Bridge stood like a stone and timber beacon of safety.
Issuing quick commands, Dormir set the force into action: Long archers and magi took most of the mounts and galloped over the bridge. The rest of the force flowed towards the river with strict order.
Hestea marveled at the calm confidence of the general as he kept control, despite knowing the enemy could break free from the forest at any moment. Still impressive, even after a year and a half in his service.
“The longbowmen and magi are in formation, General,” said the tall Captain Spirit Mai-Shir in his full plate armor.
“Good,” said Dormir, “send the next group through.”
Nodding, Spirit took off to a clanking of metal, while Dormir took stock of the formations on this side of the river: The remaining archers stood at the fore, surrounded by a defensive ring of infantry facing the forest. The rest of his force spread out along the riverbank, queuing up one group at a time to cross the Tanberry, some dangerously close to the river’s edge.
Their position was precarious. Hestea knew they were not arrayed to defend themselves beyond the merest of efforts. If the enemy came too soon or too strong they would be forced to fight with a split force.
Time was everything.
It made the guard captain look back at the forest nervously with each group of Gaston’s men that came spiriting out of the wood to rejoin them.
Looking to the general, Hestea asked, “We have traitors in our midst, General?”
Dormir nodded with squinted eyes. “The rules are changing Hammerblood. Longmere swears there were no Scryers watching us with their magic and I have every confidence in Minaou’s ability with Sight. So it leaves us to assume foreknowledge of a more pedestrian nature. Today was far too fortuitous for them. They had to know.”
The general paused to stare back at his men crossing the bridge. “Whether we brought the enemy within our ranks or they turned those of our own, I don’t know; but the days we could ignore the threat...are gone.”
“By the Sacraith!” spat Hestea.
Out of the corner of his eye, Hestea saw a soldier cringe at the name of the dark magi that led the Saeordin with their black magics.
Dormir nodded, then snapped his eyes back to the forest, as if had heard something.
Hestea strained his own ears. Tuning out the rattle of armor and weapons, the snorting of horses and stamping of hooves, he began to hear the wind in the leaves of the distant forest, the animal chatter—and yes—there was something else. Whether the general had heard it or not, the enemy was coming, and coming quickly.
Two bird calls in quick succession came from the forest. A hush fell on the army.
“Ready yourselves!” shouted Dormir. The sound of steel and leather rattled as men brought their arms to bear, knocked arrows and an air of readiness settled.
Groups continued across the Tanberry with haste, knowing time was short.
A moment of relative silence passed as a gentle breeze swayed the long grass in front of them, and the river gurgled as it flowed quickly by behind. Every eye was focused on the edge of the forest less than two hundred paces distant, dark with gloom. Shadows took on strange shapes in that darkness, contorting into nightmarish imaginings then vanishing with a blink. Eyes strained and teared, trying to see into the depths. Trying to see the enemy before they saw them.
Impatience building, Hestea adjusted his bracers and armband.
Then great flocks of crows and finch began bursting from the canopy. Trees swayed and the underbrush shook as the enemy horde came crashing out of the forest. Laying eyes on General Dormir’s force a great battle cry went up, repeated behind them as rank upon rank took up the roar; then they came, pouring out of the forest in endless numbers.
“STEADY!” called Dormir, his defensive positions gaining strength through his steely resolve. Nearly half of his army had already crossed the bridge and Dormir intended for them all to make it.
A score of paces from the forest, as the foe picked up speed— their prey in sight—an eruption of consternation and agony arose as the first two ranks were cut in half. Dropping out of sight as if the earth had sucked them into its belly, falling into large camouflaged pits of sharpened stakes; killing and maiming without discrimination.
Archers on both sides of the river unleashed a volley of arrows. Arcing high, half were aflame and landed at the edge of the forest, catching dry brush on fire; while the rest thinned the enemy ranks like a deadly rain.
Then from across the Galladel, Sethil and his magi reached out with their minds, whipping up a windstorm of leaves and fire—blinding the foe. The enemy quickly became a mass of confusion as even the mighty Saeordin shielded their eyes against the onslaught. The few that escaped the mire of swirling smoke and dust were felled by arrows, while the rest turned and retreated. Seeking to regroup and regain their strength.
There was a burst of cheer as the Molroun force raised their voices in exuberance
Dormir turned and waved at Sethil on the far bank.
The magi master shook his head. The Sacraith were not near.
Dormir looked pleased. “Seems we have a turn of luck.”
“General, we’re next,” said Hestea with a glance back for the forest, anxious to have Dormir safe before the enemy could regroup.
Leading the way, Hestea took the general and guard across the Galladel. The remaining defensive positions dissolved, and the rest of the army made their way onto the Tanberry and to the safety of the other bank.
Behind them the fire was spreading rapidly among the dry brush, as the enemy tried to reform within the tangles of the forest.
Rousche was propped up against the burl of an oak while Sethil ripped apart the Tanberry Bridge. His other magi: Massani and Geret both glowed with the power of Quan as they joined their efforts to his.
A force of archers lingered as the majority of the column of Dormir’s force marched away.
Jokai added his own power to Sethil’s, draining the lifeforce from the surrounding shrubs and grasses. A halo of withered flora spread out from him as he funneled the small amount to Sethil through their connection.
Despite Jokai’s concentration, Sethil saw the boy’s face and knew he had a question.
“What is it?” he asked irritably, wanting nothing more than to be done with the place that reeked of failure.
His teeth grit in concentration, Jokai opened his mouth, paused, then asked, “Why - didn’t - they - follow - us?”
Sethil had no doubt who he meant. “Bah! They’re lazy. They have their own agenda. They risk their own skin for no one!”
Jokai looked confused amidst his studied effort.
“Right, right. I know. Why would I want them to follow?” Sethil scowled. “Well, I don’t.”
A support beam was near to falling from Sethil’s attack, while Massani and Geret lifted a boulder high above their heads on flows of Quan.
Jokai was still confused, but Sethil was at a loss of interest in explaining himself.
A fountain of water accompanied the explosion of wood as the suspended boulder rocketed down, eating a hole through the floor of the Tanberry with a loud crunch. Wood fragments flittered away as a groaning and creaking shuddered through the bridge—its structure weakened near to collapse.
“Good,” said Sethil, with the work nearly done. “Lorient better have some sweet leaf,” he mumbled to himself.
There were no other bridges or fords for many leagues, so Hestea smiled as the magi force lit the nearly destroyed bridge on fire behind them.
Hestea’s lieutenant, Marcus, noted with wry humor, “I hope we don’t have to pay for that.”
“If they tried, Dormir could show them their bill.”
Marcus laughed. Dormir did not fight the Saeordin for gold; but if he were to charge Molroun for his services, it would be more than any could have paid.
With a crackling forest fire breeding behind them on the other bank, Hestea looked to the road ahead. They had lost their chance to strike a blow at the accursed Saeordin today, but they still lived.
For now, that would have to do.
After smothering the spreading forest fire, the enemy command emerged from a smoldering Tannil Wood. The lower commanders were busy chastising those that remained of the first couple ranks—angry at the failure of the vanguard.
The tail end of General Dormir’s force was still visible in the distance while the bridge burned merrily. Large gaping holes from sections ripped apart by magical fire and force kept any Saeordin from following.
A stern, smoke-stained commander on horseback bearing markings of rank reined in his horse once he had cleared the forest. Deep-set cruel eyes hidden beneath a furrowed brow gazed after the retreating force as a couple remaining support timbers finally gave way with loud rending cracks and the rest of the bridge collapsed into the rushing river. Debris flowed down the waterway swiftly, as if intent at escape.
“Where is the captain of the first wave?” asked the commander to his second on horseback nearby. Without replying, the man pointed to one of the ditches littered with bodies—including one dressed as a captain, skewered on a sharpened stake. Shaking his head, the commander asked, “And the second wave?”
“He’s over there nursing a wound, and counting the remnants of his company, Dux Malfere.”
“I see...promote his second to captain,”
Malfere’s second looked questioningly at him. “And what about the captain, Dux Malfere?”
Malfere replied without expression, “Kill him.”
Nodding his head as if it was to be expected, the Saeordin trotted his horse over to the former captain, drawing his sword as the commander looked on.
The above excerpt is © 2010 Clifton Hill, all rights reserved.