Yesterday’s weather was a spotless blue sky. Today, black clouds turned mid-day into night. Freezing rain pelted the ground like stones. My boots slipped and slid in the scree as I climbed toward the peak of Raven’s View, a rare grassy patch amongst an otherwise rock-strewn landscape. I looked up toward the crest of the hill and saw the huddle of figures standing there, waiting for me. It took 50 more paces to cover 20. My captain addressed me as soon as I reached the top.
“Corporal,” Captain Fellin said in greeting. She blinked her perfect lashes, and blue-tinged droplets of rain reflected her eyes as they fell away. Her shined chain armor glinted, even in the rain. Or perhaps that was ice building up. I wondered why it was not snowing.
“Captain,” I replied. I turned to the baron’s son. “Your lordship.”
“You may call me Arlan,” he said. “I am the adopted son of Baron Winthrop, not of his flesh, though he treats me as such.”
“Is there a title you would prefer?” I asked out of courtesy.
“In Beinison, you would refer to me as Mon-Arlan. Alas, Baranurian custom provides no honorific to identify the magus.”
Magus. Despite his height and the rain-soaked hood he pulled over his head, I could tell the boy was barely sixteen summers. If his father, the baron, had not summoned him he would be chasing after barmaids and farmers’ daughters.
“I see,” I said. “And the lady next to you?”
“My apprentice, Mona.” He waved his arm in her general direction, but gave no other notice of her presence. She was a mousy woman with wide, brown eyes. She stared at him fervently and paid rapt attention to his every word.
“Report please, Corporal,” Captain Fellin said. I responded immediately. She had allowed me my courtesies, and now it was time to work.
“Scouts report approximately 40 of the enemy, ma’am. That’s over twice our own number, and four times our initial reports.”
“40?” Arlan asked. “There was just a handful a sennight past. That they are even here is unfathomable. These mountains are treacherous, barren rocks.” He swept his hands across the view we held from our small peak. It was true. This section of the Darst Range was ill treated by winds and a general lack of rain, today’s downfall not withstanding. “They can’t live on the land,” he continued. “Where could they have come from?”
“A sennight?” my captain asked. “Arlan, why did your father not report this sooner? We just received word yesterday.”
Arlan dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. “I have no insight to my father’s decision. He simply wishes for his men to return to work.”
“When did your miners start digging?” Captain Fellin asked. I could tell she was thinking something, I just didn’t know what it was.
“About a fornight past,” Arlan replied hesitantly. His green eyes avoided hers when he answred. He may well be a magus, but his sixteen summers had not yet taught him to deceive.
“There’s something else,” I said. My captain looked at me and nodded. “Our scout … isn’t sure what we’re facing. He’s an impressionable young man, prone to myth and fancy.” I paused here and waited for my captain’s approval. She nodded again. “But he doesn’t think we’re facing men. He said they were different. Perhaps even sinister.”
My captain turned to Arlan. “And our 15 men,” she said, “are comprised of only six soldiers and nine conscripts: farmers with hoes, and a few of your miners. Now we are facing a superior number.” I could see that she was judging the boy. She wanted to know what kind of metal his bones were made of. Was it the hardened steel of a warrior, or the soft gold of a pampered lord?
Arlan’s eyes widened and his voice cracked when he said, “Surely you don’t think there’s any danger?” Soft gold, then.
“What can your lordship — what can your magic do for us, Arlan?” I corrected myself. “There are 40. We are outnumbered, and will require your assistance. Can you use these storms to call lightning from the sky, or sweep ice through their ranks, magus?”
I was testing him as well. He was still hiding something, and I wanted to know what it was. His eyes flared at that implication, recalling the foul weather around us. I saw a bit of anger hidden behind them, which I thought was good. But I also saw fear.
His apprentice spoke for him. “He could!” Her words came out like strong breath. She was a believer, and she saw Arlan as her religion. “If he deemed it necessary, he could call fire from the skies!” Arlan looked away as she said this. I could not tell if he was embarrassed or proud. She stood closer to him and grasped his arm.
“It’s necessary,” I said.
“Corporal,” My captain’s tone scolded me. She had been giving me freedom in conversation, but I had reached the limit.
Arlan attempted to dry his face with the sleeve of his burgundy robe. He took a deep breath, then looked at my captain. “How do we know they have 40 men? I mean, why would there suddenly be so many? The initial reports only less than ten.”
“Those reports could have been wrong,” she answered. “Not everyone knows how to count. Also …” She paused at this point and sighed. “They may have scouts of their own. When they saw us coming, they gathered more troops.”
“But from where?” asked Arlan. “My father and I had this entire area searched for villages before we started this mining camp. We needed to know where food and water would be available; what kind of natural resources are in the area. There were no inhabitants.”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “under ground is where they live.” I finally understood what Captain Fellin was getting at when she had asked about the miners’ digging. “If 40 come against us here, there could be more beneath these mountains. Many more.”
“My lord,” Captain Fellin said, “perhaps it is time to pull our troops back. A force this size should be reported to the duke. Let Dargon’s men –”
“No!” Again, there was that fear in his eyes. Now I believed I understood what he was hiding.
“Arlan,” I said quietly, “Duke Dargon doesn’t know about this new mining camp of your father’s, does he?”
“We saw no reason to tell him of it,” Arlan replied. His robes clung against him as the rain continued to pelt us. He attempted to wear the guise of a man of unquestionable morals. He failed. “If the mine had proven unprofitable, then what is the point of alerting the duke?”
“And if your father saw a few month’s unreported profits, what harm would come of it, straight?” My Dargon accent was showing.
“The duke doesn’t assume the risk.” Arlan stood straight up, his height exaggerated now. “Are you denying my family’s right to this land?” Was this some mage’s trick to intimidate me? It worked, a bit. Fortunately, my captain stepped between us and placed one of her hands on each of our chests. Fire nearly spouted from Mona’s eyes.
“Gentlemen,” my captain said. “We are about to go to battle. Against what, we are uncertain.” She looked us both in the eyes, each in turn, to ensure we listened to her words. Smitten as I was, she could have been reading from the Basic Manual of Arms, and I would have thought it was poetry. “If 40 of them are there now, after this short a period of time, who knows how many more there could be.
“Arlan, you need to tell us where the enemy is, when they will be here, and from which direction they will be approaching.”
In the darkness of the storm, it was hard to tell that Arlan’s skin had turned pale, but I saw it happen.
“That’s a bit of a problem,” he said.
“Why?” my captain asked.
“I’ve scried for the information. All I know is that they will be arriving soon, but where they are and from what direction, I could not discern.”
“Lot of good that does us,” I said.
“Magic is not simple!”
“Is there anything you have been able to do?” I asked.
“I summoned this rain,” he said haughtily. Mona stood taller next to him.
I spat on the ground. “There’s some more. What good is it?”
“It’s difficult to fight in,” he insisted. “The strength of a smaller force is in it’s agility. They will be weakened.”
“We are now the smaller force!” I yelled at him.
“Corporal!” Captain Fellin shouted. I reined in my anger. This fool was going to get us all killed. My captain started talking to him again, but I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I walked to the edge of Raven’s View, a precipice that provided a perfect view of the valley below.
There was our encampment, making ready for battle. Already, some lines were being mustered. Our six-man patrol was mixing in with the conscripts to provide courage and give them some basic training. And ensure they didn’t run. The fires was low and smoking, and Captain Fellin’s tent was being dismantled. Her horse was feeding in another rare patch of grass to the south. The rain made everything look hazy from up here, but I could tell the troops were miserable. Men were slipping in the mud and rivulets made by the storm. I could hear cursing. Morale was low.
At the edge of the encampment, I saw the jagged rise of sharp rocks form into hills. With the rain and runoff, the rocks appeared to be moving. Foolish mage. I looked back at him and listened again.
“I tell you, I’ve tried,” he said. “There is no single, discernible direction. We could be walking right into them if we go back the way we came.” I wondered when Arlan was going to give us good news.
I heard Fellin’s mare whinny. I glanced down to the patch of grass, but the horse was gone. Where could the men have taken it? I scanned the encampment again. The men were still gathering, trying to get into a line. I could not see the horse, though. I looked around the edges of the camp, into the jagged slopes. A gust flew rain up into my eyes and I blinked violently. In that moment, I thought I saw something crawling along the rocks.
“Arlan,” I heard Mona’s whispery voice clearly, somehow, despite the increasing downpour. “They’re coming.” I glanced at her for just a moment. Her eyes were wide, and her head was tilted all the way back, being pelted by the rain. She was in some sort of trance. I looked back at the encampment. There was no one rushing or fighting. No urgency or calls to battle.
“Where?” Arlan asked. I stole a quick look at my captain. I saw Arlan reaching out to grasp Mona by the shoulders. “What direction?” he asked. I looked back at the camp. Still no urgency from my men. No enemy could be seen on the road in front of them or behind. Then I looked at the jagged, rocky hillsides. Small lumps of fur and rock seemed to be descending toward the camp. Five? Fifteen? It was difficult to be sure in the rain. They could be all around the camp, and my men had no idea.
“Everywhere,” Mona said breathlessly. I heard something hit the ground. I turned and saw Mona laying prone. Arlan huddled over her. My captain ran to my side, looking to the camp. When I glanced back down, I saw those things of rock and fur making their way through my men.
Beasts swarmed down the rocky mountain sides into the small valley that held my men. A score of them were already amongst the soldiers, growling, swiping with long, clawed limbs and leaping at them from the rocks. I saw flashes of white teeth before they sank into the necks of the screaming soldiers and conscripts below. Blood gushed from their injuries and mixed with the downpour. A cry of “Regroup! Come together!” shouted as the trained soldiers among them tried to form a defensive unit. The beasts picked off the stragglers who were succumbing to fear.
All this happened in moments. I could hear someone screaming at them, telling them to stick together, urging them on, telling them to kill and hack those bloody devils. I looked over at my captain, who was looking at me in shock. Then I realized that I was the one screaming.
I drew my sword, and prepared to leap down the scree and slide my way, cut and bruised, into battle. My captain grabbed my shoulder and said, “There’s nothing you can do.” I watched as one conscript made a dash to the western road out of the valley, and a hail of rock and mud fell down upon him. Five men stood together in the center and formed a small, tenuous circle while the beasts slowly gathered around them. My men were vastly outnumbered. I recognized them. They had served with me for years. I was about to watch them die.
“Perhaps I can do nothing to save them,” I said. “But he can.” I pointed my sword at our so-called magus, Arlan. He was kneeling over his acolyte, holding her hand as she lay in the grass. His face was a mask of fear. Through clenched teeth I commanded him. “If you can bring down the fire, then do it now.”
Despite all the cries of battle, dying men, and the downpour of rain, I was struck by a single image. Arlan’s face transformed. What was fear became resolve. He stood up and walked slowly to the edge of the precipice, where Fellin — my beautiful captain — and I stood. At once he thrust his arms out and upward, his fingers stretching to the sky. His soaked robes whipped around him in the storm, his head tilted back. The cowl of his cloak fell backward, revealing his bare, shaved skull. It was decorated with intricate tattoos. Then he began chanting.
I looked down. My soldiers were still standing, held together in a small circle. Behind a flimsy shield wall, they thrust and jabbed their spears, holding the beasts at bay. But for how much longer? Within moments, those dozen or so of beasts would be joined by twice as many, and my men’s spears would be meaningless against a mass of rushing beasts pouring over them.
All the while, Arlan’s chant was picking up pace, growing louder and louder. His voice became a frenzied cacophony of unintelligible syllables. Suddenly, he emitted a short scream. The air tingled with energy. A bright flash erupted from the sky, and hailed downward into the midst of the massing beasts. Before I could witness the results, a deafening boom shook the ground and Fellin and I were thrown backward, onto the grassy top of the hill.
I stood up slowly. Arlan was kneeling now, but I could see him moving, starting to chant again. Mona stirred from her stupor, awakened perhaps by the sound of thunder so close to us. My captain also began to rise. “Ol’s balls!” she gasped. “That kid is powerful. Not some self-important lordling after all.”
“Oh, he’s still a self-important lordling,” I replied. “But he is powerful. Perhaps we should stay over here for the next round.”
“Good idea,” she said. There was a slight grin on her face. “I’ll stay here. You go recon.” I smiled in return. Gods, I loved her. “We still need to know what’s happening.” She was right. I crawled to the edge of Raven’s View. Arlan’s chanting was increasing again, getting louder. I would only take a moment to look before retreating back to Fellin’s spot.
The blast of lightning that struck the massing beasts had scattered them, but they were regrouping. Three or four of their bodies were charred and smoking on the ground. I imagined I could hear the hiss as the rain pelted their corpses. But three or four deaths among ten times that number was little to cheer about. There was another group massing, perhaps a score, preparing to overrun the remaining soldiers. “There!” I shouted and pointed my sword. “Strike there!” Then I ran back as Arlan’s voice erupted.
Another brilliant flash, followed by a deafening boom. Why did lightning make so much noise? When I ran back to the edge again, the beasts were no longer massing. Perhaps half a dozen had been charred this time, but the remaining beasts were thinning out, encircling the soldiers. A few more looked to the top of Raven’s View, and I could swear they were pointing at us.
Mona was with us at the edge, now. “There’s so many of them,” she said.
“Can he do this faster? Can he direct the strikes better?” I asked her. I didn’t know if he could hear me while he was chanting. I had no idea if he was even conscious of me. When would he know to stop?
“Give me your sword,” Mona said. She held out her hand. I hesitated. A soldier does not willingly relinquish his weapon in battle. “Give it to me! It’s metal. He can use that to direct the lightning!” I handed her the weapon. Mona approached Arlan from the side, slowly. As he stretched out his arms, she placed the blade against his chest. He reached for it, dragging his hand along its sharpened edge. Blood welled from his palms as he clasped it, found the handle, and pointed it toward the scattered enemy.
This time there was no warning, no build-up of chanting. He was no longer calling the lightning from the sky, but from within himself. He screamed once, and a flash of light blinded me while a thunderclap hurled me backward onto the rocky slope. I fought to stop my descent, even while I fought for my sight. Gravel scraped the helmet from my head. Rocks tore at my hands and clawed my legs as I slid down toward the bloodied white teeth of the enemy. My descent stopped suddenly when my feet slammed into a boulder and crushed my legs into me.
I heard another thunderclap and closed my eyes … too late, of course. But I was already blind. I struggled to hear my surroundings rather than see them. The slide of rock and stone around me, the constant fall of rain, the screams of the men below me — some beast-like, but mostly human — gave me my position. Somehow I could tell that the unstable slipping and sliding of rock just below me was something climbing upward, toward me. I reached to my side and was thrilled to find my dagger still there.
Something stood over me. My eyes were still recovering from the flash of lightning. It breathed hard, and let out an animalistic roar. I saw its black sillouette against a bright background. It’s dog-shaped head, its maw opened and howling. I noticed brown teeth, wolfish eyes, and what looked like rock embedded in its skin. Then I saw flesh, and knew it was my only chance. As it howled, I struck out with my dagger. I sank the blade to the hilt into that beast’s body. It emitted another roar, but this was the death knell of an animal. Sticky blood gushed over my hands as the creature fell backward. The now slippery handle of my blade yanked away from me. I heard the beast fall to the rock and slide down the slope, taking my weapon with it. Another thunderclap, and I was rocked sideways. I turned toward the slope of the hill, kept my eyes down, and scrambled up. Sharp rocks lacerated my hands and knees, but desperation drove me onward. I had no weapon and no amount of luck would save me from another beast. M y only chance for survival was at the peak, among allies, weapons, and magic.
Another thunderclap. My ears were ringing. Were the lightning strikes coming faster? They would have to, there were so many of the enemy. Someone was calling out. “Op! Ove!” I had no idea what they were saying. My vision became more clear as I ascended. I could only see Arlan, holding out my sword and pointing it toward the valley. The weapon glowed yellow, but whether from heat or magic I had no idea. I closed my eyes before another flash could blind me. But I couldn’t close my ears — the noise of yet another thunderclap pounded my skull. I would be deaf before this day was out. I chanced a glimpse at the valley and my remaining men.
The beasts were retreating back up the other slope, dragging their dead with them. I saw two of my men still standing. They slowly lowered their shields. It was over. We had won, but at such a price. Then another bolt flashed through the air, and those two men exploded off the ground, blackened and charred. I didn’t hear the thunderclap. I looked back up toward the peak, and there was Arlan, still chanting, still pointing my weapon. It was aimed at me, now.
“Gods!” I screamed and leaped sideways. The charged air passed near enough to numb my feet, but missed me. I skidded on the rocky slide, ripping flesh from my hands and arms. I looked up and saw Arlan still standing there, now pointing my blade down into the valley again. I scrambled faster up the slope, keeping my eyes on him as much as possible. Mona tried to grab him, but another bolt shot from the sword and struck into the valley. I saw Mona fly backward, her wet robes suddenly dried and sizzling. I was almost to the top. I could no longer feel the sharp rocks cutting into my hands and knees. Arlan was poising for another bolt, aiming the sword at me again.
Then my captain launched herself against his shoulders. She tried to tackle him, knock the sword out of his hands. “Stop!” I heard her cry. “It’s over!” Another blast erupted from Arlan, but this time the sword did not direct the lightning; there was another, larger metal surface for it to work with. My beautiful captain. Her chain mail burst apart as the lightning sizzled through it, through her. She fell to the ground a blackened husk. I could smell burnt hair and skin. My captain. I had loved her.
I was at the top now, and Arlan stood facing away from me. He was still chanting. Another bolt burst from the sword and arched into the sky. Then another hit a tree. There was no telling when or if he would stop. Mona stirred and looked at me. I picked up a heavy rock from the ground.
“No, don’t!” she cried out. But it was the best feeling I’d had all day, the thrill of that rock crashing down on his tattooed skull. His body crumbled instantly. Then I felt my legs give way. I saw a clear blue sky, somewhere in the distance. Then I was unconscious.
“When I woke up,” I told the man sitting across from me. “I was imprisoned. That was a fortnight past. So why am I here?” I was surrounded by a lavish hall. There were several guards at the doors and windows, but it was suspiciously barren of the usual nobles and gentry that latch onto the duke. One of the duke’s personal bodyguard, Bren kel Tomis, remained by his side. The one-armed duke looked much older than his 31 years. Upon a time, he would have looked younger. The war had done at least that much to him, in addition to costing him his arm.
He nodded. “Given your experience, you may well wonder that.” His eyes did not meet mine while he began his explanation. He was either about to lie, or did not like the truth he was going to speak. I’m not sure which I would have preferred. “But the fact is, you attacked a nobleman’s son. You, a common soldier, struck a noble with a rock. You are fortunate he did not die.”
“I see no fortune in that, my lord,” I said. I had intended to kill him.
“Perhaps not for you. Perhaps not.” He kept nodding. I could not fathom why. “There is a problem with your story, however.” He sat back in his oaken throne. His head leaned forward, his eyes were tired. His ducal crown seemed to press down upon brow.
“Truly?” I asked. “I watched every one of my men, and my … my captain, get slaughtered. I could do nothing about it. And now I’m a prisoner.” I lifted my hands to indicate the iron shackles that bound me. “What other problems do I have, your lordship?”
“You do realize you’re speaking to Duke Dargon, do you not?” Bren kel Tomas spoke from his duke’s side. The duke waived at the man dismissively.
“Yes, a bigger problem.” Suddenly I realized that no matter how low I felt at this time, I was about to plunge deeper. “You see, the baron tells a different story. In his version, there was no secret mining camp. It’s existence would implicate him in disloyal activities, you see. And without that camp …” He waited for my thoughts to catch up to his. After two sennights in my condition, it was a longer wait than he should have expected.
“Without that camp,” I said, “there were no beasts from under the ground. And his son did not lose control of his magic.” There was that nodding motion of his again. “Then how does he explain the loss of an entire patrol? Or the bodies of those things we left strewn about the valley?”
“Your scouting expedition ran across raiders from barony Connall. Searching for food, that sort of thing. Raids between baronies are common enough, and much easier to believe. His son, Arlan, was in the area investigating complaints from the local citizens in his father’s name. Somehow, a battle with the raiders ensued — he offers no explanation there — and at the end, after his son had driven them off, you were so caught up in a battle rage that you tried to murder Arlan.”
“That’s not true!” I was suddenly more energized than I had been since the battle. “How can he get away with that?”
“He’s a lord, isn’t he? His word carries more weight, and his story is far more believable. Also, he knows that I am in a dififcult situation. If I take sides and claim that beasts with stones embedded in their skin are attacking the ducal lands, that might implicate our Doravin visitors, and relations there are already difficult. The last thing I need is for the Dargon populace to hear a story like this.”
“So I’m to die, then?” I asked. Dargon looked at me with pursed lips, as if considering the option. I tried to ease his guilt, if he was having such thoughts. “To be honest, I do not much care. It only bothers me that my death will be supporting the lies of a dishonest lord.”
“That bothers me as well.” He stared over my head into some distant place. “I do not wish for my other vassals to believe they can create secret mining camps and cover up their mistakes by having my soldiers killed. That weakens me significantly. There must be retribution, and yet, I have no proof that Lord Winthrop has actually committed a crime. Only your word.”
“What about the encampment? The bodies of the dead soldiers? I saw those men get slaughtered. No raiders from Connall would have sunk their teeth into the necks of my men. My captain’s body was a blackened mass, charred by Arlan’s lightning. Does the presence of raiders explain that?” I believe I kept my voice from sounding desperate to save my life.
“There was no sign of a mining camp. And the bodies of your soldiers and Captain Fellin were burned in pyres, so there is no evidence of the wounds or manners of death.”
My head hung low. I was doomed. My men were dead. My beautiful captain was killed by a damned magus would couldn’t control his magic. And the person whose greed started this mess — Baron Winthrop — was going unpunished. I raised my eyes back to the duke’s.
“Set the date, then, my lord duke. I understood when I entered your service that I might die for Dargon. So let it be.”
Dargon smiled. “I’m glad to hear such loyalty does exist in my subjects. It is a rare thing, and should not be wasted frivolously. Additionally, I do have concerns about these beasts. I do not trust Winthrop, that much is true. And while I might forgive his greed, I cannot abide his hiding a possible threat to my duchy in the form of subterranean beasts that openly attach my lands. I believe we should hold a ducal investigation into the matter. For the good of the dukedom, you understand?”
“Of course, my lord,” I replied.
“What is your name, corporal?”
“Archer, my lord,” I replied. “First name, Justin.”
“You are an accomplished archer, then?” kel Tomis asked. I understood his confusion: trained archers rarely lead small patrols. They are reserved for distance attacks and larger battles.
“No, my lord. My father was a royal archer. He took the title as his surname, and now it is mine.”
“Ah,” said the duke, as if he had asked the question himself. He turned a bit on his throne and faced kel Tomis. “Well, Bren, we shall create this ducal investigation. And for the sake of thoroughness, I believe we should include our soldier here, just in case.”
My brows furrowed in confusion. Had I not just told them my name? “It’s Archer, my lord,” I said. “Justin Archer.”