Seth imagined the sound of undergrowth being trampled under the charge of mail-plated boots. In his mind’s eye, a soldier clad in black plate armor, adorned with the crest of Cairndale, smashed through the wooded landscape, sword unsheathed and ready to slay. Seth envisioned himself breaking from his patrol to follow this servant of the Witch-Queen, moving soundlessly behind the wild charge of the enemy warrior. He knew the man was bound for Eastcliff’s wall, that he meant to assail the small town’s patriarch, Lord Archibald, amidst the ruler’s speech to his people, and Seth would not stand for it.
As he doubled back on his patrol route, he continued to play out this fantasy in his mind. The forest-dwelling birds would scatter before the on-rushing warrior of the Bladed Scourge, the Witch-Queen’s mighty armed force. The soldier would break from the tree-line–still unaware that he was being followed–and Seth would pounce, driving a dagger into a gap between his target’s helmet and cuirass. The man would crumple to the ground in an armored heap, leaving Lord Archibald to deliver his speech in safety.
So enthralling was his imagining that Seth never heard the swift footsteps behind him. If he did, he had no time to react before a dagger’s point was jammed sharply into the base of his skull. A firm hand pulled Seth’s head back, easing the passage of the dagger into his brain. Seth was momentarily aware of a burning sensation at the nape of his neck as his vision swiftly receded into darkness. But that awareness faded rapidly, leaving his body limp and lifeless.
“That’s the last of them,” Garyn said in a low voice, slipping his dagger free of the dead scout and letting the body fall to the ground.
“That is, assuming the others hit their marks,” Zuna replied, emerging from behind a tall tree.
Both warriors had foregone their primary weapons–Garyn his broadsword and Zuna her twin shortswords–in favor of daggers, which far more suited the subtle task at hand. The two warriors wore light armor, a patchwork of mottled green designed to blend into the woodland that bordered the southwestern edge of Eastcliff. Garyn much preferred his chainmail, but such armor was hardly suitable for moving quietly amongst the trees. Likewise, Zuna would have much preferred to wear her padded leather armor and to wield her shortswords, but that would have to wait for now; their assignment was not yet concluded.
“Their lord should be taking to the wall shortly,” Zuna said, taking the lead as they moved carefully up through the trees.
Garyn closely tailed his more experienced comrade, hoping all the while that the other members of their detachment had successfully eliminated Eastcliff’s remaining patrols beyond the wall. An ambush was the last thing they needed.
“We’ll be fine,” Zuna said, somehow sensing Garyn’s trepidation, “Sergeant Tahlin wouldn’t have sent you if he wasn’t confident in your skill.”
Garyn nodded, but looked doubtful nonetheless.
They moved onward, northeast through the wooded terrain, stopping just short of where the tree-line had been cut back, well away from Eastcliff’s border wall. From their concealment, they watched the city’s wall: a tall construct of stone, broad enough for soldiers to walk upon, with watchtowers placed at even intervals along its length. Even from where they lurked, prone in the foliage, they could hear the dull roar of the ocean lapping against the cliffs east of the walled city. The air smelled faintly of the salty ocean spray, and gulls cried their shrill song in greeting to the slowly rising sun.
“Is that him?” Garyn made a subtle gesture in the direction of a section of wall just north of their position.
“Looks that way,” Zuna replied after a moment of observing the figure who’d ascended the wall. “Ready your weapon.”
Garyn unslung his bolt-rifle from over his shoulder and brought it into position with a fluid motion, staying prone all the while. Even a slight excess of movement could alert those watching from the wall towers. The weapon relied on two heavy springs to fire its projectile: a quarrel which tapered to a wicked metal barb. Garyn slotted a quarrel into place and drew back the priming handle, compressing the weapon’s powerful springs. His index finger rested just outside the trigger-guard while he sighted along the length of the rifle. Zuna mirrored Garyn’s actions, though she targeted the nearest watchtower rather than the robed man standing atop the wall. If Garyn missed, she could easily shift her aim to the left and strike Lord Archibald, but Sergeant Tahlin had ordered Garyn to make the initial attempt. A test of sorts.
“Children of Eastcliff,” Archibald called in a smooth baritone voice that carried in every direction, “we have withstood the Witch-Queen’s forces for five long days. Twice they have struck our wall, twice we repelled them. By the glory and benevolence of the Gods Above, and by the providence of my great wisdom, our wall shall hold.”
A cheer rose up from the far side of the wall. Zuna and Garyn both smirked at the foolhardy words of this charismatic revolutionary.
“See now how I stand,” Archibald continued once the uproar of his audience had settled, “guarded by the might of our fighting men, and how I am unscathed by the Witch-Queen’s dark legion! They dare not strike me, they cannot strike me, for I am the beloved of the Gods Above, the chosen to guard you against the Bladed Scourge! We have cast off the shackles of servitude, we will not worship the loathsome witch or her feeble father!”
“Enough of this,” Zuna ordered. “Fire.”
Garyn’s index finger slid into the guard and he slowly applied pressure. Carefully, gradually he squeezed the trigger, keeping his sight fixed on the unsuspecting lord. With a sharp snap, the springs released their tension and the barbed quarrel hissed through the air. Lord Archibald, facing away from his assailants while he addressed his audience, never saw the bolt that plunged into his body, punching cleanly between his shoulderblades. The moment Zuna saw Garyn strike his target, she unleashed her own bolt at the guard in the nearest tower. He had no time to duck below the rim of his tower and caught the quarrel squarely in his chest. The projectile punched into his armor, knocking him to his back. He’d likely survived the blow, but he’d be no immediate threat.
Simultaneously, the snap of other bolt-rifles sounded from elsewhere along the tree-line. The other scouts were firing upon the wall’s watchtowers, not a constant barrage of bolts, just a single shot from each scout to occupy or incapacitate the watchmen.
Lord Archibald’s body toppled forward over the edge of the wall, driven by the force of the bolt. Garyn and Zuna heard cries of anguish from beyond the wall, but they did not linger to observe the disarray. Zuna led the way on a hasty retreat through the trees, Garyn close behind her, weaving sporadically in case any of the Eastcliff Militia hoped to follow and return fire. They did not slow their pace until they reached their encampment: a well-guarded forest of tents set up to obstruct the only viable road to Eastcliff.
“Good shooting, Garyn,” Zuna proclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder. “Tahlin will be pleased.”
Garyn beamed at the thought of his platoon sergeant’s pride.
* * *
Azyriana stared into her own glowing red eyes, reflected from the water’s surface. She stood on one side of the small, elevated pool, gazing fixedly at her own reflection, her pale face framed by jet-black hair. Her features were striking in their symmetry, and her skin was unblemished yet possessed of a certain inhumanity. Perhaps it was the shimmer of her eyes or the sharpness of her features which leant her this elegant yet predatory appearance. To look upon her was like beholding an alluring spider’s web at whose center waited a grim demise for those who became ensnared. Most inhuman of her features–more so than her sharpened nails or pointed teeth–was the pair of great, leathery black wings which extended from her back.
The small pool of water into which the queen gazed stood at the center of a private room in Azyriana’s castle. This was a holy place, a place of reflection, but one for the Witch-Queen’s eyes only. Four candles blazed in sconces fixed along the pool’s edge, bathing the area in a warm yet ethereal glow. Though it faintly illuminated Azyriana where she stood, it stopped abruptly before the figure across from her, as if the light itself feared the being’s presence.
The figure was an immobile suit of ebon plate armor, holding a greatsword in its right hand and sporting a buckler on its left arm. The buckler bore the face of a snarling demon, and was made of the same gleaming black metal as the armor and sword. The demonic face looked ready to erupt from the shield’s surface and rend the flesh of those it beheld. The armor’s most defining feature was the pair of curved horns jutting from its helm.
“My forces continue to siege the shoreline city of Eastcliff. Those rebels will pay dearly for aligning against me, particularly when they border no settlement foolish enough to join them.”
Azyriana’s voice was like a fall breeze–crisp but not jagged–a smooth wind tinged by the ominous portent of winter. She raised her eyes when she spoke, as though she addressed the empty suit of armor.
It gave no audible reply in the silence thereafter.
Azyriana looked down again to the pool and met her own infernal red gaze.
“Your suggestion to abstain from the use of conjured siege weapons proved fruitless,” she said carefully. “I see the merit of stomping out the rebels with only our army’s brute force, but the effort has made us look foolish and ill-prepared, rather than powerful and unconcerned for the strength of their pitiful revolt.”
She was silent for a moment before lowering her gaze, albeit grudgingly.
“Yes. My apologies, Father. The fault was with my army, not your wisdom.” The words of apology struggled past her lips.
A tentative knock at the door–quiet though the sound was–startled the Witch-Queen. With a simple gesture of her right hand she extinguished the four candles, plunging the room into a darkness broken only by the glow of her eyes. She walked with a measured pace across the room and drew open the door.
Azyriana’s eyes traveled over the slender form of the young man who stood before her. Though he was of age, he remained fairly short and fragile in stature: he stood half a head shorter than the tall Witch-Queen. For nine years he’d trained diligently in numerous arts–diplomacy, magic, history, musicianship, artistry, and so forth–all to be her Anointed Subject, the personal servant of the Witch-Queen. And now on his twenty-first year of life, he’d come into her service.
“Van,” Azyriana glowered at her Anointed Subject, her stare burning into his eyes, “you are not to disrupt me in this chamber, you know this. I ought to have you beaten for such a transgression, or do the deed myself. Though perhaps a bit of mutilation would be more sufficient; which of your fingers would you prefer to lose?”
Van’s eyes widened for a few moments, his expression stricken with terror until he caught the flicker of a sly grin on his queen’s face. He returned the smile with a nervous laugh that segued into an amused chuckle.
“Really Van, I’d imagined you would be used to my humor by now. While I don’t favor interruptions, I assume you come with news, yes?”
“Yes, my lady,” Van replied. “I’d not have disturbed you, but I have word from Eastcliff.”
“Let us talk of such matters somewhere more comfortable,” Azyriana said, leading the way down the corridor.
They strode into a room which was in every way the opposite of the austere reflection chamber. Tapestries adorned the walls, a soft rug occupied much of the floor, and comfortable chairs were set before a hearth. Azyriana extended her right index finger in the direction of the hearth, channeling the magic of the Weave, the web of magic veins which invisibly blanketed the known world. A spark of flame emerged from her fingertip and floated lazily toward the wood set within the fireplace. When spark struck wood, a burst of magic sent the fire immediately into a full blaze, crackling merrily and warming the room.
“Sit,” Azyriana encouraged Van, selecting for herself one of the inviting, high-backed chairs near the fire.
She sat down and folded her wings comfortably about herself. Rather than sitting in the opposite chair, Van waited for Azyriana to get comfortable before sitting on the ground by her feet. The Witch-Queen chuckled and patted Van’s head.
“You can sit in a chair, you know.”
“I prefer it here,” admitted the Anointed Subject.
Azyriana settled back into her chair, letting out a soft sigh and willing her turbulent thoughts to grow calm. Conversing with her father in the private chamber was always such a tense activity. It took a tremendous force of will and left her body and mind tightly wound. Her right hand casually stroked Van’s hair and he beamed with delight. She’d chosen her personal servant quite well.
“Now, what news have you?” Azyriana asked after a short while had passed in relative silence.
“Ah yes,” Van replied, breaking from the almost delirious calm that the queen’s attention had induced. “I’ve heard that one of the squadrons of the Scourge has succeeded in assassinating the city’s ruler. Tomorrow they will attack the wall with renewed vigor. They hope to have broken the morale of the rebels, and their assault plan seems sound. Though it does rely on conjured siege weapons.”
“Good, good.” The news was a pleasant change of pace after the prior two attempts on Eastcliff’s wall had met with striking resilience on the part of the rebel city. “Let them use whatever they need to take the wall.”
Another moment passed in silence. Van leaned against Azyriana’s legs, resting his head against her right knee. She continued to pat his head, all the while contemplating her army’s victory. Another loss was out of the question. A mere militia could not withstand the lash of the Bladed Scourge for long, even cowered as the Eastcliff rebels were behind their wall.
“Tomorrow,” proposed the queen, “we shall go for a hunt, whilst we await news of my warriors’ victory.”
Van visibly rejoiced at the prospect. He’d not yet hunted beside Azyriana, having only served her directly for a short while now. But surely a hunt with the Witch-Queen would prove spectacular.
“And what shall we do tonight, my lady?” he innocently inquired.
“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” she whispered in a light, playful tone.
* * *
Garyn was oblivious to the noise of the camp around him, caring not for the sights or sounds of soldiers going about their business as night drew on. Sergeant Tahlin was proud of him, and that was all that mattered. Zuna had made their report, praising Garyn’s stealth and marksmanship. Garyn had stood quietly at attention, trying not to look too happy about how well things had gone. When she’d concluded, Tahlin thanked her for a job well done, then turned his eyes on Garyn.
“You’ve come a long way,” he said. “I remember knocking the sword out of your hands when you first squared off with me in training. Well done, Garyn. You’ll make a fine sergeant yourself one day.”
Tahlin turned and strode away, leaving Zuna and Garyn to their own devices. The squad leader turned to her subordinate, and saw that he was grinning like a fool at Tahlin’s words of praise.
“Feeling validated, are you?” quipped Zuna.
“Well yes,” Garyn responded, “but it’s more than just that.”
Garyn spent the next half hour trying to explain to Zuna just how important Tahlin’s words were to him. He told her of the day he’d signed on to military service, leaving his southern farming village behind, riding atop a horse in the midst of a mounted platoon led by Tahlin. At first Garyn had been woefully bad at swordplay, and Tahlin gruffly dismissed him as mere fodder for the enemy. Garyn always felt motivated by this in a strange way, determined to raise his worth under the sergeant’s scrutiny.
Garyn hung on Tahlin’s every word, callous though some of them may have been. He watched Tahlin spar with all manner of weapons. He learned, and in time he became skilled. He became worthy of Sergeant Tahlin’s approval.
“Praise from your hero must be quite rewarding,” Zuna said when Garyn finished his rambling tale.
They’d moved to sit by a cook fire, and now helped themselves to portions of meat. They’d brought provisions along on their march from Vrokas-Thune–the sprawling capital city whose Sword District housed much of the queen’s military–but supplemented those rations by claiming cattle from farmers along their path, declaring the livestock a tribute for the queen’s armed forces. They ate for a while in silence, enjoying the simple meal. It was a small meal, but sufficient; enough to fuel them for the next day’s efforts. At sunrise, they’d storm the wall, and this time they were determined not to be driven back. The militia had been lucky thus far, hiding behind their precious bulwark, but they were only a militia. Ultimately the Bladed Scourge would surge over that wall like a great wave of clattering steel, bringing bloody retribution to every rebel.
“I hope I’ll earn more praise tomorrow,” Garyn said around the last of his meal of bread and salted meat.
“I’m sure you will,” Zuna replied. “But if either of us hopes to accomplish anything tomorrow, we’d best get some sleep.”
* * *
A long while later, after the sun retreated beneath the rim of the sky, the Scourge camp activity died down. Night guards walked their perimeter patrols, but the remaining soldiers slept in tents or by the now-extinguished campfires. Only one fire still burned, a lonely pool of light attended to by Garyn. The young warrior sat by the flickering flames, occasionally prodding the coals with a metal rod to keep the blaze alive.
“Couldn’t sleep?” came a voice out of the darkness.
Zuna stepped into the ring of firelight, holding two leather drinking-jacks. She handed one to Garyn. He graciously accepted the drink and sipped from it, unsurprised to find that it was the spiced mead favored by much of the Scourge. He downed a good portion of the pungent honey-wine in a large gulp.
“You’re nervous, aren’t you?” Zuna inquired, sitting beside Garyn on a log near the fire.
He nodded and continued to sip his mead for a while before speaking.
“I feel uncertain of my strength, afraid that my sword arm will fail me in a time of need. I wish that I could find a source of power on which I could rely, something that would never fail me.”
Zuna thought about that for a while.
“The only reliable power is that of your blade,” she said at last. “The blade will never willfully turn against its master, and it is always strong so long as it is well-kept.”
“But what good is a blade if its master’s arm is weakened by fear?” countered Garyn, not in a harsh tone but with genuine curiosity. “A blade is a tool on which one can always rely, not a source of power. Perhaps there is some merit to that old saying: The power of one is in the power of his nation.”
“That may well be,” came a new voice, “but the rebels have no nation and they’ve repelled us twice.”
From out of the shadows stepped Sergeant Tahlin, holding a massive drinking horn from which he sipped the savory honey wine. The sergeant seated himself across from Zuna and Garyn and took a long drink from his horn before he spoke again.
“When I was young, I heard a tale about a boy who wanted to be a warrior like those of the old legends, those who slew legions of dragons and whose blades never failed. But to be such a warrior, he needed a source of power which would lend him great strength and courage. Blessed armor or a magic sword, perhaps. An old woman told the boy that such a source existed at the top of a high mountain far to the north of his home.” Tahlin took a pause to drink from his horn before continuing. “He knew nothing of the terrain, but this ambitious–and quite likely foolhardy–boy took to the mountain with as many supplies as he could carry. For days he climbed, whipped by wind and stung by snow, before he reached the summit. There, bolted to a large rock was a metal box, and inside it he found a pile of river-smoothed stones, stones polished to a beautiful shine.”
Tahlin was silent. Zuna and Garyn exchanged puzzled looks.
“Magic stones?” Zuna offered.
“No, and he was enraged. He seized a stone and–thinking himself deceived–prepared to throw it from the mountain in a fit of futile fury. Then, the stone caught the light of the sun, and do you know what the boy saw in it?”
“His reflection,” Garyn almost exclaimed at realizing the moral of the story.
“Exactly. Now get some rest, you two. I won’t be letting you sleep in while the rest of us slay the rebels.” Tahlin finished his horn with several great swigs before rising and trudging off to his tent.
Zuna placed a hand on Garyn’s shoulder and held his gaze with her fierce green eyes as she spoke to him.
“Tahlin is right, your best bet is to rely on yourself, have faith in your own strength. And stay close to me. We’ll get through this.”
“Thank you, Zuna.” Garyn offered her a warm smile before they went their separate ways for the night.
When dawn came, the camp was already alive with activity. Soldiers bustled about, putting on coats of armor, helmets, and readying weapons of all manner. Bolt-rifles were standard for the troops of the Bladed Scourge, but other equipment tended to vary in form. The Scourge valued function over form. So long as a soldier could pass various requisites with their chosen equipment–and could afford that equipment, of course–they were permitted to wear and wield their preferred implements of battle. The most consistent feature of the Scourge’s equipment was its coloration, an impressive interplay of black, red, and silver which rendered any Scourge soldier identifiable on the field despite their variance in armor.
Those warriors already in their battle gear formed up into platoons and were soon joined by their slower-to-rise comrades. Garyn stood to Zuna’s left in the first squad of a platoon overseen by Sergeant Tahlin. Tahlin wore a coat of chainmail and a helm emblazoned with the ram’s head emblem of the Queendom of Cairndale. His weapon–a thin, razor-edged blade with a small circular crossguard–was sheathed at his side. He eyed his platoon with a stern gaze, but Garyn detected the hint of an approving smile. First Platoon was always prompt and orderly in forming up, Tahlin saw to that.
Zuna had always favored an evasive style of fighting, which was why she’d opted to have her leather armor reinforced by wizardry, rather than paying for a set of heavy, clunky metal armor. Her fiery red hair was done up in a topknot and adorned with an emblem of the Queendom.
Next to Zuna, Garyn shifted in his shirt of chainmail, fidgeting with the lobed pommel of his broadsword. His bolt-rifle hung on a strap over his back and a round buckler clung to his left arm.
“At ease there,” Tahlin barked, and Garyn did his best to relax.
“This whole ordeal has been your first full engagement, hasn’t it?” asked Zuna.
“It has,” Garyn admitted quietly. “Yesterday’s job was easy enough, killing from a distance. But they’ve held the wall well, we’ve barely skirmished with their forces at close range.”
He let his thought go unfinished, swallowing around a lump of nervousness in his throat.
“You fear that if we breach the wall, you won’t hold up well in close quarters,” Zuna concluded.
“Just remember what I told you,” Tahlin cut in, striding closer to the first squad, “your strength comes from within, Garyn. Doubt yourself and you’ll lean toward failure. You have a fine sword and you know how to use it. Trust in that.”
“Yes sir,” Garyn replied, his voice resonating with a greater confidence.
Ahead of them, the company commander took up her place before and between the two platoons. Tahlin marched briskly back to his station, his back to his platoon. The company commander was of orcish descent, built naturally with powerful musculature and an imposing stature. The tusks that jutted from her mouth were not so large as those of a male orc, though they still lent her an air of feral menace. She was an imposing figure in black plate armor, with silver insignia to denote her status. She raised a battle horn and blew three sharp blasts. The troops quieted down and the last few stragglers hurried into place. For a moment all was silent, save for the gentle purr of the chill morning breeze and the light clinking of armor.
“Your orders have been given to your platoon sergeants and squad leaders,” the company commander called out, her voice rolling over the assembled soldiers. “Second Company has their own marching orders and objective for the day. So stay together, pay close attention to your superiors, and we will take the wall.”
“For Cairndale!” roared the troops.
At that, the platoon sergeants turned to face their respective units. Tahlin gave the orders and his soldiers began to march, separating from Second Platoon and plunging into the trees south of Eastcliff. Garyn found confidence in their motion. There was a certain peace to be had in the quick rhythm of their double-timed footsteps. They wove between trees, crushing undergrowth beneath their boots, keeping a constant pace even through the thickest of foliage.
Tahlin went over the plan again in his mind, meticulously accounting for every detail, trying to factor in every possible variable. Soon they would come to the tree-line south of the city and then open fire on the wall guards while Second Platoon circled around and did the same from the north. The full force of Second Company would thus be free to attack the gate as the wall guards struggled under a hail of bolt-rifle fire. The damnable rebels would have no choice but to open their gate and engage Second Company beyond the wall, lest the sixty-four soldiers of the company reach the gate unimpeded and destroy it. Tahlin couldn’t help but smile at the image of his platoon and the second platoon of their company erupting from the tree-line to flank the militia and cut them off from their own gate. They would die a grim death, caught in the press of the Bladed Scourge like a helpless fowl ensnared in the jaws of a striking serpent. And if the militia decided to let the gate be attacked, then a number of contingencies could come into play. Eastcliff would pay for its treachery.
* * *
Raek stood on the west wall, just to the left of the massive wooden gate. In the recent attacks on the city, the east gate had been all but ignored by the aggressors thanks to its formidable defenses and positioning near the sea. The west gate, however, was in peril of being brought down in a future attack. But the Eastcliff Militia would not let that happen. Their bowmen–Raek among them–were well-practiced archers.
“Raek, we have movement on the west front,” called Arik from the nearby watchtower. “Looks like a large portion of the Scourge is coming up the road!”
“Sound the alarm,” Raek called back.
From atop the tower, Arik blew hard on a battle horn, its deep resounding note joined shortly thereafter by those of the other watchmen. The militiamen hastened to reinforce the guards, notching arrows to bowstrings as they took up positions on the wall. In the distance, like a glistening herd of animals, a company of the Bladed Scourge moved at a steady pace toward the wall. As they drew near, the attackers raised their shields high, and the first volley of Eastcliff’s arrows clattered uselessly to the dirt amongst the invaders.
“Pick your damned shots with more care,” called a watch captain.
Raek dropped to one knee and sighted in down the length of his arrow. He scanned the approaching group for any small hole in their defense: a shield angled poorly or held too high or a soldier not covered down behind his comrades. There! Raek released the bowstring and sent his arrow plunging into the leg of a soldier on the company’s left flank.
“What are they doing?” Arik shouted from his perch.
The company was dividing down the middle, making a path for a team of men at the rear of the group to ready a massive ram. The ram was a tremendous, steel-capped log set on four wheels. Soldiers stood at protruding posts along the ram’s frame and drove it forth with brute strength. The Scourge had not used such a weapon in their prior attacks; Raek assumed one of their wizards must have conjured the gate-breaching construct. Clearly the Scourge officers knew that their swordsmen alone wouldn’t be enough to bring down Eastcliff’s militia.
“Fire on the ram,” bellowed the same watch captain.
Bowstrings twanged and arrows hissed through the air toward the ram’s drivers. The men ducked much of the fire, though two of them caught arrows through the visors of their helmets. They were slowed by the attack but not stopped.
“Mages, use fire,” the captain snapped, his rage-filled voice tinged with panic as the ram crawled nearer.
As a fresh volley of shafts flew, the militia’s handful of spell-casters drew on their reserve of energy culled from the Weave and set the projectiles ablaze. The ram trundled to a halt, its crew struggling to extinguish the fires started by those arrows that struck their mark. The militiamen sent up a cheer of victory, which ended abruptly when a green bolt of energy lanced upward from the attackers and knocked the watch captain from the wall. The superheated beam of raw magic cooked the man alive in his armor before he even struck the ground.
“Spell-casters!” Arik shouted.
“Oh really?” Raek snarled sardonically as he sent an arrow in the general direction from which the spell had come.
More spells tore through the space between the attackers and defenders: energy bolts, clouds of shadow, defensive shields, and balls of fire flowed from both forces. The militia was lacking in mages, but those they had held their own admirably. They strove at once to beat back the magic assault yet to hold in reserve at least a portion of their Weave energy, lest they run dry their stored power. There was hardly time for meditation on the battlefield.
Raek marveled at the ferocity of this attack. The other attacks–the ones they’d repelled–must have been mere tests of the strength of the Eastcliff Militia. The Scourge had underestimated their foe twice and were now accounting for it with a full on assault.
The ram started up its approach once again, picking up speed as it neared the gate. Surely they expected Eastcliff to send its army out to meet the ram and stop its advance, to protect the gate so it could be sealed again rather than letting it be ruined. Raek, assuming leadership of the watchmen, called to his fellow rebels, “Do not open the gate. Keep firing on them.”
His last words were drowned out by the sound of horns calling from the watchtowers to the north and south. The other company was making its presence known.
Raek sprinted to the south wall to reinforce the militiamen while the battle-mages continued to fire on the advancing ram at the west gate. Arik–his supply of arrows spent–descended from his watchtower and joined Raek. Swords ready, they arrived at the wall just as a siege ladder slammed into place. A man Raek recognized as having been the shopkeeper of a small trade store by the east gate–now drafted into the Eastcliff Militia–strove to knock the ladder off the wall with the head of his pike. He was rewarded for his efforts with a quarrel that split his head, punching cleanly into his skull in a spray of blood and fragmented bone. The Scourge’s marksmen continued to cover the ladder teams, firing bolts with striking precision. Raek and Arik kept low while they moved closer. Raek winced as a bolt whizzed past, so close that he felt the air it disturbed.
“Stop her,” exclaimed one of their comrades atop the wall.
Raek spared a glance over the wall and saw a group of Scourge warriors, led by a female clad in spike-studded leather armor, ascending the nearest ladder. Raek took a deep breath–he knew full well that he might die here–and hurried to the point where siege ladder met wall.
“Raek!” cried Arik in alarm as his brother-in-arms drew back his right foot to savagely kick the ladder loose.
The woman leading this ladder team demonstrated startling agility; it all happened so fast that Arik could hardly believe it. She leapt up the final portion of the ladder and seized Raek’s left leg. With a single jerking motion, she sent the off-balanced warrior tumbling over the edge of the wall. A Scourge soldier at the base of the ladder drove his battle-axe through Raek’s skull with a double-handed blow that showered the axe-wielder’s hands and armor with gore.
“I’ll kill you!” roared Arik, charging the woman who’d thrown his friend over the wall.
* * *
Zuna easily had time to unsheathe one of her beloved shortswords before the charging rebel was upon her. The poor fool wasn’t even properly armored, and likely had little in the way of training. He swept his blade in a horizontal slash so overreaching that it had to be a feint. Sure enough, he drew his sword back mid-swing and stabbed at Zuna. She dropped low and twisted sideways, simultaneously driving her blade’s tip toward his torso, just below his ribs. The blade went in and up smoothly, burying itself in her attacker’s ribs. Zuna stepped in, struck him hard with the palm of her free hand, and pulled on her blade. Her victim’s body slid easily off the length of her sword and fell heavily upon the wall.
The sound of a bow being drawn caught Zuna’s attention, and the quick-moving warrior went prone moments before a nearby archer fired, avoiding the arrow and then springing upon the man before he could notch a new shaft. In a fit of desperation, the rebel hurled his bow at Zuna and fumbled for his knife. A swift slash of her razor-sharp blade parted him from his right arm. He fell to the ground, clutching at the bleeding stump and screaming to the gods.
When the rest of her squad joined her on the wall, Zuna directed them in keeping the rebels away from the siege ladders. Garyn stuck close to her, wild-eyed with nervous excitement. His broadsword had not yet been bloodied this day.
Militiamen began to amass in the street below, some loosing arrows at the Scourge upon the south wall. Once a sufficient number of her allies were atop the wall, Zuna barked an order and her squad followed her as she descended into the city.
“Lock down this street,” she commanded, her voice carrying over the clatter of steel on steel. “Kill any who resist!”
“For Cairndale!” her squad replied, surging forth in a maelstrom of blades and death.
Four of Garyn’s squad mates fell into a close formation, cutting through the gathered rebels. This militia–few if any having ever served the Scourge or any proper army–was a rabble. Decent weapons and a fine wall did not make for worthy foes. Had the Witch-Queen not reined in their wizards–for what reason Garyn could not begin to guess–the Bladed Scourge would have mopped up this rag-tag revolt in mere hours.
“On your right!” Zuna warned.
Garyn whirled to face a rebel wearing a shirt of chainmail and hefting a war-hammer. Time seemed to slow for Garyn as he watched the hammer’s shaft rise through the air and descend toward him. The hammer’s head was a heavy chunk of iron, flat on one side and tapered to an armor piercing spike on its opposite side. Its wielder drew back the weapon, swinging it toward Garyn’s right shoulder. The shaft was made of a length of pine, sanded perfectly smooth. Garyn smiled at that: a perfectly smooth hammer-shaft, not a langet in sight.
Garyn met the hammer on its downward course with an upward slice from his double-edged broadsword. The blade sliced cleanly through the hammer’s wooden shaft, sending the iron head spinning harmlessly away. The rebel gawked at his cloven weapon for a moment before unsheathing a dagger. But that moment’s hesitation cost him dearly. Garyn’s sword returned from its upward swing in a fluid downward motion. The rebel stepped back, but not quickly enough. The blade’s edge violently gashed his face, blinding his left eye and eliciting a cry of pain. Garyn drove him to the ground with another hard sweep of the blade that crunched through his opponent’s chainmail and shattered his collarbone.
“Not so hard now, is it?” Zuna said as she parried away an attacking blade with one shortsword and eviscerated her adversary with a horizontal slash of her other sword.
“Killing for the Witch-Queen? It comes as easy as breathing!” boasted Garyn, forgetting his fears in the euphoria of bloodlust.
“Cairndale!” roared a familiar voice.
Sergeant Tahlin descended from the wall and charged into the thick of battle. Garyn was more captivated than ever by his platoon sergeant’s prowess. He watched, momentarily awed, as Tahlin’s thin blade whipped about with such swiftness that it was hard to track, parting armor and shields before its keen edge. In no time Tahlin carved out a bloody swathe amongst the Eastcliff Militia. His platoon, drawn by their sergeant’s battle fervor, fell into several tight V-shaped formations behind him and hacked their way through the last of the armed forces near the south wall.
* * *
The fox crept toward the unsuspecting rabbit. The oblivious creature was sitting out in the open, munching on some clover and twitching its nose in the fragrant forest air. The fox barely suppressed a growl of delight as it moved within striking distance of its oblivious prey. The creature would die and the fox would feast well this night. He tensed his hind limbs, lowering down amidst the tall grass and flattening back his ears. Though he was ready to spring upon the rabbit, he never managed to complete the action. A green flash was the last thing he saw before a moment of agony and then darkness overtook his mind.
“An excellent shot, my lady.” Van exclaimed, hurrying to collect the felled fox. A raven, startled by the burst of magic, let out an angry caw and took flight from the branches of a tall oak tree.
Azyriana stepped from behind the very same tree and dispelled the conjured rabbit with a quick motion of her left hand. The realistic magical construct exploded into motes of light which dissipated as they drifted apart, their energy fading back into the invisible veins of the Weave.
“Your idea to bait him with the bunny was brilliant.” Van hurried back to his mistress’ side with the fox safely tucked into a sack.
“Van, your praise is kind and heartfelt, but you needn’t heap such compliments upon me at every turn.” Azyriana laughed and patted her servant’s head.
“Yes, Azyriana. My apologies.” Van cast his eyes downward.
“Don’t sulk, my pet,” Azyriana unfurled her wings and wrapped one affectionately around him, “I just don’t want you constantly praising me. Kind words lose their meaning if spoken too often.”
Van nodded his understanding, but was entirely absorbed in the queen’s loving gesture. Azyriana had to smile at that. She welcomed the distraction of hunting with her beloved servant after her troubling dream last night. She’d dreamt, yet again, of a great duel atop the highest tower of Cairndale castle. Her father–once again a being a of flesh and blood–battled in his plate armor against a wizard wielding a staff and incredible arcane power. Though her father’s own magic was potent, he struggled against this wizard. Azyriana felt confusion as she beheld the scene, for she could not sense wherein her loyalties lay, and that distressed her. Her father fought for his life yet she cared not for either of the two men who battled before her eyes. How could that be?
She’d had woken from the dream with a start, jostling poor Van awake with the suddenness of her movement. She told him of her dream, but not the troubling apathy for her father’s well-being. Some things were best left silent. She cared for her father now, as his still-sentient soul resided indefinitely within that suit of mail, yet in this dream she felt nothing. No, that wasn’t it, not a total lack of emotion. There was fear for her own well-being, and something else, something hard to name. Hope?
“My Queen, a messenger approaches.” Van’s voice roused her from her troubled musing.
Sure enough, a circular vortex of swirling blackness shot through with silver wisps coalesced between two trees in front of the Witch-Queen and her Anointed Subject.
“My Queen,” came a man’s voice from within the portal, “our magically conjured ram and siege ladders have bested Eastcliff. Our forces engage the rebels in the city as we speak.”
“Excellent. Keep me apprised of the battle’s progress,” ordered the queen in a crisp tone.
The portal winked out of existence, leaving Azyriana and Van alone in the forest once again.
“We’d best be returning to the castle,” Azyriana said, “my father will want to be told of this fortuitous turn of events.”
“Will you tell him of that odd dream of yours as well?”
The snarl in Azyriana’s reply and the fiery blaze in her eyes startled Van. He stepped back, raising his hands as if to ward off an imminent blow to the face. It took Azyriana a moment to calm herself from the unexpected flare of emotion.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “the dream was just upsetting to me. I can’t explain why, but I feel as though my father need not know of it.”
Van nodded an affirmative, but kept his distance, his head bowed and eyes averted sheepishly. Azyriana stepped closer and cupped his face in her hands, tilting his head up to hold his gaze with her glowing red eyes.
“You did nothing wrong,” she did her best to adopt a soothing tone, “you are in no danger from me, my dear, you know that. Now come, let us return home.”
* * *
Tahlin turned to address his soldiers once the area was cleared of rebels. The Scourge platoon had suffered a few casualties, and everyone sported at least one new laceration, but they were overall intact. The street was choked with the bodies of dead and dying Eastcliff Militiamen.
“Zuna, I want you to keep two squads here to hold down this area. The rest of you are with me, we’re going to reinforce Second Company at the west gate.”
Garyn watched Tahlin fixedly, hanging on the sergeant’s every word. He was ready to help keep this zone secure. He’d make Tahlin proud. When Tahlin gave a sharp jerk forward and fell to his knees, it took Garyn a moment to realize what had happened.
One of the militiamen further down the road–mortally wounded and left for dead–had heaved himself up to his knees and clumsily leveled his short bow at Tahlin. The arrow pierced Tahlin’s side through a gash sliced in his armor, and the sergeant clutched the profusely bleeding wound, grimacing in anguish. One of Garyn’s squad mates, a nymphling named Esme, darted to the rebel and deftly carved out his throat with a dagger. The militiaman let out a gurgle and toppled forward.
The platoon gathered around Tahlin, though Zuna forced them back when they pressed too close. She and Garyn knelt by the fallen sergeant. His breath came rapidly, his eyes shut tight against the pain. Zuna lightly touched the protruding shaft and Tahlin hissed through clenched teeth.
“It’s stuck in there good,” Zuna murmured, her voice heavy with dismay.
“Sergeant Tahlin, what do we do?” Garyn asked, trying to keep his voice from quavering.
Tahlin tried to speak, but the pain was too intense. They needed a healer. Tahlin let out a strained cry, his muscles tensing against a wave of fresh agony. Zuna looked more closely at the wound and swore under her breath. The skin around the puncture was beginning to darken unnaturally.
“A poisoned arrow,” Tahlin gasped. “Just my luck. Zuna, send two squads to the gate…”
The effort of giving the order seemed to tire Tahlin considerably. He laid back on the ground and drew in a ragged breath that turned into a fresh spasm of pain. The poison was spreading. Zuna reluctantly rose and addressed the platoon, “Squads three and four, to the west gate, now! We need a healer over here.”
Esme the nymphling–a being of slender frame, with pointed ears and noticeably sharp teeth–came forward and knelt by Zuna and Garyn. She eyed the shaft unhappily.
“I can’t stop the bleeding until the arrow comes out, and it seems to be deep in there,” she observed.
“Pull it out,” Tahlin said weakly. “Hurry.”
Esme sighed and wrapped one of her small hands around the arrow. She tugged, Tahlin screamed, and the shaft shifted but didn’t come loose. Zuna gently brushed Esme’s hand aside and tried to tug the projectile free. Though she was stronger than the half-nymph, Zuna had no more luck.
“It’s stuck on something,” Garyn gravely pronounced.
“Can you drive the poison out?” Zuna demanded of Esme.
The nymphling’s hands fluttered anxiously. She opened her mouth to speak, but uncertainty overwhelmed her. It was Tahlin who next broke the silence.
“I’m done,” he said at a near whisper, his eyes shifting to hold Garyn’s gaze. “Garyn, will you do me the honor?”
Garyn sat frozen for a long moment until Zuna pressed a dagger into his hand. He stared at the blade as if he didn’t understand what it was. Finally he returned his gaze to Tahlin.
“Sir, I can’t,” he stammered.
“Be strong, Garyn,” Tahlin urged. “You’re a soldier, now prove it. Don’t fail me.”
Garyn understood why Tahlin was doing this, why he was asking this favor of Garyn specifically. It was another brutal bit of training devised by the stern sergeant, the last he would ever conceive, but one which would enforce upon Garyn the resolve he so lacked. He’d slain several men on the battlefield today, but none of them were the man he’d come to idolize.
“Here,” Tahlin rasped, his voice growing weaker and harder to hear, “use this. I don’t need it anymore.”
His left hand fumbled at a pouch at his waist. His strength was deserting him, as was his control. He fiddled with the pouch’s drawstring for a short while before Garyn intervened and pulled open the pouch. He reached in and withdrew a single item: a round stone, washed smooth by the current of a river. The sun glistened on its surface, and on that glimmering stone Garyn beheld his own reflection. Tahlin’s tale from the night before came rushing back to him and the stone felt warm in his outstretched hand. He shifted the stone to his left hand and readied the dagger in his right.
“Thank you, sir,” he said firmly.
“I will see you all in the Warrior’s Paradise,” Tahlin responded, holding Garyn’s gaze while Esme extended her natural claws and tore away a section of Tahlin’s chainmail, exposing his chest.
Zuna clasped Garyn’s left hand, both of them holding tight to the stone from the mountain. Garyn drew back the dagger and thrust it forward, angling it between Tahlin’s ribs and puncturing his heart. The sergeant let out a final grunt of pain and then lay silent on the bloody street. Garyn’s eyes stayed locked on Tahlin’s until Zuna gently closed the sergeant’s eyelids.
“A horn sounds and a warrior journeys home,” she recited the old war blessing.
“And brothers greet him with open arms,” those gathered around responded in unison. “Hail the fallen.”
They rose, leaving Tahlin’s body where it lay for now. He’d be buried later, but there was still work to be done. Zuna ordered guards stationed at the connecting roads and set patrols along the street and the south wall. Garyn stood still by Tahlin’s corpse, heedless of the activity around him and not disturbed by Zuna. His bleary-eyed gaze alternated between his fallen sergeant and his own reflection on the surface of the mountain stone. As he stared more fixedly at the stone, his vision cleared, his resolve hardened. Strength came from within; if his heart was clouded by mourning, sorrow, uncertainty, and other such emotions, could he still be strong? He wasn’t sure, but shutting out those confusing, painful emotions felt far easier than dealing with them. Garyn pocketed the stone and hefted his broadsword. There were rebels still to slay…
This adventure continues in the full-length novel “Blades of Cairndale”, out September 1st. Buy your copy today!