DargonZine 27, Issue 3

Ol Tamboch Narhin, Thread 7: Far From Home

- Naia 3, 902


This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Ol Tamboch Narhin

Baranur and Beinison have long been enemies. Political differences, ideological divergences, territorial imperatives: all have had a part in their continued conflict. Both nations are strong now, and even despite the fact that Baranur does not exist in a constant state of war-readiness, the more northern kingdom was able to defeat the empire in their last clash in 1013 and 1014.

Some 120 years ago, though, when the two nations previously came to open war, it was a much different issue that led to the hostilities. Curiously enough, the instigator in the conflict was Baranur. Some said the Great Houses War was the fault of King Stefan Tallirhan II who, in a fit of pique, declared Aendasia Blortnikson, his niece, as his heir when his natural grandson Caeron and his wife had converted to the Stevenic religion.

Compounding the problem of diverting the rightful inheritance of the Tallirhan line to a cadet lineage was the fact that Aendasia had been married to the former Beinisonian Emperor, Alejandro VII. At the time of King Stefan’s death of natural causes in 897, Aendasia was only a dowager-empress, her son having taken over upon Alejandro’s death just a year before. She had also been remarried to Valeran, Duke of Northfield in Baranur. None of which changed the fact that she had lived in Beinison for most of her life and was thoroughly indoctrinated in their ways.

Others claimed that fault for the war rested solely on Caeron’s shoulders. Upon receiving news of King Stefan’s death, and knowing full well the inheritance the old king had intended, Caeron traveled to Magnus anyway and claimed the crown and the kingdom. Though he’d had many supporters at first — he was a Tallirhan, after all — he slowly turned many of his own nobles against him by trying to rule Baranur by Stevenic principles. Caeron’s grandfather wasn’t the only one to be troubled by the very new Stevenic religion, and favoring any one religion over another had never been the Baranurian way. Many otherwise loyal supporters of the Tallirhan line had used the excuse of King Stefan’s declaration of his heir to fall in beside Aendasia as she led Beinisonian troops to invade their kingdom, all because of Stevenism.

This thread follows Qawm’s participation in the Great Houses War.

***

Qawm sat at the bar drinking an ale as he usually did on any given Sarthin. He had long since stopped bothering to trade in his chits for money: the whore Loruni had cured him of the desire to go into the city with her monthly tales that had stripped him first of his coin, and then his compassion. There was nothing he needed that the military precinct’s bars, shops, and brothels couldn’t provide, and if he managed to get through his half-day off each Sarthin with any of the wooden markers that were his pay still in his possession, he was happy to help his fellow war-mages with their money problems.

Qawm did his best not to think about the Battle of Lonial in the Trovinok Campaign, and these days that wasn’t very hard. Once, though, he had spent his entire pay-day time off brooding over the battle that had destroyed the hamlet of Lonial, where he had grown up. He’d had to fight to forget the sight of the bodies of his best friend Tavin, and his father, Yarol, lying in the house that he had helped destroy that day more than seven years ago. There were other dead faces to forget as well; his squad-mates Fich, Slaan, and his mentor Herrin had died that same day, and Jific had died later in the campaign that had finally eliminated the Trovinok invasion, and then pressed on to conquer the rest of their territory, expanding Beinison’s borders once again.

Upon his return to Cabildo after that campaign, Qawm had spent a great deal of time drinking when off duty. Eventually, though, the memories had faded, becoming less painful. That dulling became part of the armor he wore inside to protect himself from getting too close to the next set of recruits that came to fill the holes in his squad. It also helped him accept the things that he and his fellow soldiers did to accomplish the empire’s aims. He learned to be proud of the final results, and to ignore the means that produced those ends.

These days, though, it was even easier than normal to ignore the past in favor of the excitement of the present. Rumors abounded at all times in the military precinct of Cabildo, but most of the current rumors concerned the empire’s northern neighbor, Baranur, and the strange details of the succession following the death of their king, Stefan II. Some said that their own new Emperor, Cherindal, eldest son of the recently deceased Emperor Alejandro VII and Empress Aendasia, was rightful ruler of Baranur due to the fact that King Stefan had made Aendasia his heir. Others thought it belonged to Aendasia if she wanted to claim the throne; still others insisted that some upstart Baranurian had claimed the crown. Carin, or Seebad, or something. Most hoped that Aendasia would press her claim, as there were few who didn’t want to test themselves against the might of Baranur. Qawm wasn’t one of those, but the rumors did make a pleasant diversion.

Qawm spent his time and his chits as he usually did of a Sarthin, and that evening he returned to his barracks to find that he was the last one to arrive. “What kept you, Qawm?” Krolad said peevishly. “So tell us now, Astorn. We’re all finally here!”

Qawm turned his attention to the squad leader seated at his desk at the back of the room that made up the whole barracks. Astorn said, “I received word today, and this is official, not rumor, that Beinison is mobilizing for war. The dowager-empress wants to assert her rights. Fully half of the military might of the empire will be brought to bear upon Baranur. What I don’t know is which half we will be in: orders will be delivered tomorrow. Either way, men, this is a glorious time for the empire!”

Qawm found himself joining in with the cheers, and really meaning it. He wasn’t eager to be among those to go to Baranur, but when Aendasia took her rightful place on the throne of that kingdom, Beinison would double in size. A glorious time, indeed!

***

Qawm was at target practice with his squad-mates, casting bolts of force on command at designated hay bales to increase both the accuracy and speed of their spells, a year and a half later when the news came. It was the end of the first month of a new year, so it was cold and windy, but drills had to go on in all weather. Even so, the chill in the air and the grey sky of the overcast day ended up being the perfect setting for what was to come.

Qawm first noticed the silence. The target range where spells were practiced was understandably somewhat isolated from the rest of the sector, but the normal sounds of daily business still penetrated. Only that day, there was less and less noise, until between Astorn’s commands and the sound of the targets being whacked, there was no other noise at all.

Astorn stopped the drill as a runner came dashing up, handed the squad leader a scroll, and hurried away. Astorn read the message, and Qawm could see him visibly pale at the news.

“Men,” Astorn said, looking up with haunted eyes. “The news this bears is both very good and very bad. You know that rumors have reported that magical contact between Cabildo and Aendasia’s forces was lost shortly after the first of the year. That has been true all along. Word has finally arrived on foot as to the outcome of the Battle for Magnus.

“King Caeron the Usurper is dead, but his wife and child are fled and there are still forces loyal to the old kings in Baranur who are resisting Aendasia’s claim. They have set Caeron’s wife, Dara, up as the new ruler of Baranur, albeit in exile of sorts. In addition, the citizenry have sealed Magnus, and look well set to withstand a siege. So, one hurdle in the way of Aendasia’s claiming of Baranur has been cleared, but several remain.

“However, news of a great tragedy also comes to us from that battlefield. Somehow the High Mage of Baranur, Milverri Rhihosh, managed to cast some kind of doom-spell that eliminated every single wizard among the Beinisonian forces, war-mage and magus alike. Aendasia has no wizardry support whatsoever. We are fortunate that the magical might of Baranur is almost non-existent, especially as this Milverri seems to have perished in her own casting.

“New orders will be given tomorrow. Reinforcements will be sent, though Emperor Cherindal insists on keeping as much of his mage forces at home as is feasible. I know that you were all disappointed not to be chosen to march north with Empress Aendasia, but the luck was ours, yes? And if luck remains with us, we will be among those chosen to reinforce the empress, and we will be participating in Beinison’s triumph over Baranur personally.

“I think that we can give over the drilling for the day. Let’s return to barracks and get some rest, yes? Dismissed!”

Qawm was unsurprised that no one cheered. Silence still held over the whole mage sector. He suspected that it would continue to do so until tomorrow morning’s muster and the reading of orders. And he wasn’t at all sure that if luck did include them in the reinforcements, that it would be of the good variety.

***

Qawm lay in his squad’s tent staring at the firelight’s glow against the canvas wall. He was exhausted from a long day of marching that had followed a long month and a half of traveling from Cabildo all the way into the southern reaches of Baranur. His tired state was compounded by the lousy sleeping arrangements; he hated sleeping on the ground! He was cold, too, and annoyed that he didn’t know a spell to heat the tent to a comfortable temperature. He had seldom had to spend long stretches of time in a tent in the cold, but he was coming to realize that the Baranur campaign wasn’t going to be anything like the previous campaigns he’d been on.

He was also afraid, despite the military forces ranged around him in the camp. Southern Baranur might be considered occupied by the military command in Cabildo, but there was constant resistance to their presence here. Not a day had gone by since crossing the border that they hadn’t been harassed by ambushes both small and large, and twice in the time they’d been in Baranur they had engaged a standing enemy. Qawm felt that the reinforcements he was part of weren’t nearly enough if these truly were conquered lands.

There were still many leagues to go until they reached the besieged Magnus, and word had reached them that Aendasia had already moved beyond that city. The decision had been made to send the war-mage troops to the empress where they could do the most good. Qawm wondered just how much use they were going to be in any case, since the new emperor had only allowed a third of the remaining war-mage forces to leave Cabildo for Baranur, and that just wasn’t a very large number.

That got Qawm thinking again about what Magus Rhihosh had done. The idea that one person could destroy so many with her magic was astonishing. If reliable messengers hadn’t delivered the news, Qawm would have believed the message to be a trick, some kind of demoralizing rumor sent by the Baranurians. But the message had been properly sealed and vetted, and had included eye-witness accounts of the spell. The bodies of the dead mages were hard to refute as well.

Qawm knew that he could never have accomplished such an act. Nothing in his schooling had revealed that such destruction on that kind of scale was possible, and his subsequent military training had never hinted at such either. The very idea frightened him to the core. He worried that there were more such mages at the beck and call of Baranur, because he would have to try to stand up to their might.

He often thought that the abilities of war mages were purposefully kept limited to prevent disastrous defections, but the empire had their own magi. Could his mother have created such a spell? Was she powerful enough to wipe out a legion of war mages with one casting? More importantly, would she have if it would’ve meant her life was forfeit? Qawm wondered whether the magi were loyal enough to the emperor to do it if commanded? From all of the stories he’d heard, and the example of the three bullies in his tier in the Trevrai School, he thought that they probably wouldn’t.

Every time he thought about the tragedy Rhihosh had caused, he also wondered how the Baranurian loyalists viewed her actions. He tried to imagine seeing the other side of the situation, and he could only believe that they had to think of her as a hero. A hero like Qawm had once wanted to be. A hero like he thought he could never be, because he was a mage.

Once again, just as he did every time he came to that conclusion, he rejected the possibility, pushed the thoughts from his mind, and went back to wishing he knew a spell for keeping himself warm.

***

Qawm stood with the rest of Aendasia’s troops before the breached Quinnat Keep in Port Sevlyn. Two days previously, the siege of the keep had ended thanks to the intervention of High Magus Isodoro Mon-Orthanier, who had not been slain by the magus Rhihosh’s terminal spell, but only driven somewhat out of his head. In yet another heroic feat of magic, Mon-Orthanier had crushed the walls of the keep and set some of the surrounding town on fire. Qawm had been astonished when word came of the final act of the high magus.

A day ago, Empress Aendasia had rendered judgment on the survivors of the battle. Today, the army had been mustered to watch justice carried out. Qawm still couldn’t believe that he was seeing a huge cauldron at the foot of the gallows, a fire burning under it.

Two of the empress’s guard led a bedraggled man, still draped in chains, up onto the gallows platform, but they positioned him in front of the steaming cauldron, not under one of the nooses. The judgment was read out, and with no more ceremony than that, Baron Arnulf Bankroft was given to Ascendere’s Justice in the cauldron.

The splash of the baron landing in the cauldron sounded curiously loud in the silence that had followed the reading of the judgment. Louder still were the agonizing screams that immediately followed. Qawm shuddered at the horrible sound that seemed to go on and on, penetrating his body and echoing in his bones.

As the baron’s cries grew more and more ragged as his throat was scraped raw by his pain, every single member of the garrison of Quinnat Keep was marched in ranks up onto the gallows platform. The hangings were performed quickly, with a few burly Beinisonian soldiers up there to help break necks if the noose and the drop didn’t do so quickly. Only about a quarter of the garrison had been disposed of by the time Baron Arnulf’s screams stopped.

Qawm couldn’t believe the savagery he was witnessing. This went well beyond the necessities of war. He knew the tenets of Ascendere, the Beinisonian god of justice, and how traitors to the rulers of the empire had traditionally been boiled in cauldrons. But no one had been subjected to that fate in a century or more. Qawm would have bet a full month’s pay that the cauldrons hadn’t been out of the palace’s storerooms in at least that long. That Empress Aendasia had even brought one with her was astonishing, and he thought she was taking the legends of her adopted country a little too far.

Hanging the garrison was just a waste of life. Even if they couldn’t have been trusted as soldiers, they could have toiled in the fields as slaves. Why kill them all? Qawm worried that these “examples”, as the judgment had said, would instead prove to be rallying points to the rebel Baranurians. Not that he had any say in the matter, of course.

He did have a mind of his own, though, and he thought that perhaps Empress Aendasia’s actions here in Port Sevlyn might have more of an effect on her own troops than whichever reaction, fear or anger, the enemy might exhibit. In his own case, at least, that effect wasn’t necessarily positive, either.

***

Qawm worked with what was left of his squad to keep up the pressure on the defenders of Dargon Keep. It was a lovely day in spring two and a half years after that horrible summer day in Quinnat, and Qawm was almost ready to believe that his pessimism in the face of Empress Aendasia’s justice there had been unwarranted.

It had been a long two and a half years, and he had traveled farther from his home in Cabildo than he had ever imagined he would. The city of Dargon was almost as far north as one could go on the continent, and he had traveled with the Beinisonian army all that way, pushing the loyalist Baranurians before them until finally, nearly all of the remnants of Baranur’s nobility were in the castle on top of the stone outcropping beside the mouth of the river that was called the Coldwell. Once Dargon Keep fell, and the usurper queen, Dara, was captured, the rest of the resistance would melt away, and Beinison would double in size. Qawm was proud to be standing there, casting his distracting magics of light, sound, and phantom motion at the men and women on the walls above him, helping in his own small way to bring that end about.

It had also been a hard two and a half years. Qawm had never been on campaign for so long, and neither had most anyone else. It was a long time to be in the field, away from home, away from good supplies, good sleep, good sanitation. The entire mage corps had been whittled away little by little, and Emperor Cherindal back in Cabildo had steadfastly refused to send reinforcing war-mages with the troops that were constantly moving north, away from the empire. Qawm’s squad had lasted for a year after Quinnat, but an ambush had killed Astorn one day and after that, their luck seemed to vanish. Krolad and Nirak were gone now, as were two of the four recruits that had rebuilt the unit after Trovinok. The other squads and units of the mage corps had been constantly shifting to maintain full compliments as their numbers dwindled, until the people gathered around Qawm inside the walls of the older section of Dargon were basically strangers.

Morale was high among the entire army, though, what with the end of the long war finally in sight. Qawm had survived battles that the empire had won, as well as lost, and he was here at the end, which was enough for him. He’d forgotten his misgivings about the lengths Empress Aendasia — and her husband Duke Northfield as well — had gone to at times, keeping the goal of a vastly expanded empire firmly in mind, along with his own survival, of course. He knew that he was purposefully ignoring all of the bad points of the war he had survived in the glory of these final days, but he didn’t care. No one told stories about bad food, and sleeping cold on hard ground, and the smell of the latrines at every camp. He had plenty of tales of glory to pass around in bars on his days off back in Cabildo.

His position at the back of the regular troops, and his duties casting confusion and distraction spells, so well drilled into him that he could practically do it in his sleep, enabled him to reflect on those stories he planned to tell. The din of battle was deafening, but he and his fellow war-mages were protected from the chaos of the soldiers fighting at the front. Suddenly, an even louder shout went up. It was natural to try to see what was causing such a commotion, and Qawm went from daydreaming to looking around. What he saw didn’t make any sense: the gates of the keep were open, and he could see troops flowing out of them.

The sallying defenders were soon lost to direct view among the attackers, but Qawm could still see their pennants waving above them, moving steadily outward from the keep. Their assault was so fierce that the attackers were slowly pushed back, and that pressure eventually rippled back through the ranks to affect Qawm and the other war-mage squads.

New orders came through, and Qawm redirected his efforts at the sallying rebels. He knew that there couldn’t possibly be enough troops within the keep to present a serious threat to his fellow attackers, but they were certainly doing some damage. Qawm was concentrating on his new targets so thoroughly that he was startled when he was bumped from the right. He looked, and found that another ripple was compressing the troops, this time from the banks of the river.

Before he could even begin to understand what that meant, another form of assault began. The unmistakable “thunk-whoosh-rattle” of a trebuchet firing sounded from the top of the keep, and Qawm saw a massive stone arc slowly toward the loyalist attackers. Shouts of fear and alarm rose from the soldiers away to his left as they tried to scramble out of its path. The huge missile that had looked so slow at a distance seemed to speed up just before it hit the ground with a resounding thud that Qawm could feel in his feet. The scrambling soldiers had been wrong: the stone’s impact had crushed half a dozen stationary infantrymen, and then rolled right through another six before it came to rest. Shattered, mangled bodies formed a trail behind the now stationary obstacle, those first hit looking like red smeared lumps.

Three more “thunk-whoosh-rattles” came from the keep, followed by three more huge stones, one from the top of each of the three towers. These projectiles landed at the same time with three thuds that Qawm was sure he could feel in his chest as well as his feet. More soldiers died messily, or were wounded horribly, crushed limbs dangling limply as a bounding boulder glanced off them. Soldiers running from the paths of destruction began to interfere with the front lines as they fled doom from above.

Qawm changed his own orders, feeling that this new attack couldn’t be dealt with by the mundane soldiers. He tried to stop a stone from dropping, but it was too heavy. He thought to deflect another, but realized that there was nowhere to send it that was safe. He yelled out to his squad to get them all to concentrate on one stone at the same time, sending waves of force together to stop the stone. It worked, just barely, though the strain was such that one war-mage collapsed from the effort. Then, before they had decided what to do with the stationary missile, another stone came hurling after the first, knocking into it and sending it right at Qawm’s squad. It missed, but not by very much, landing in the midst of the squad of war-mages standing next to them. The results weren’t quite so bloody and messy as the direct hits Qawm had seen, but the broken arms and legs and a neck were nothing that could just be shrugged off.

Before they could regroup, there was suddenly a handful of enemy soldiers among Qawm’s squad chopping wildly at the unarmed mages with lethal accuracy. He scrambled away from the enemy, frantically trying to call up enough magical sparks to send a killing bolt at one of them. His war-mage drills hadn’t included dealing death magic because there simply weren’t enough mages at the best of times to use them on the front line. Casting simple, non-damaging spells that distracted or confused the enemy could be maintained longer, and be more effective in the long run, than trying to muster enough energy to kill each combatant one by one. Qawm thought, not for the first time in that long war, that this was a grave oversight. Fortunately, friendly soldiers soon interposed themselves between the enemy and the mages, but two of Qawm’s squad had fallen to the surprise infiltration before their rescue.

Qawm fell back in order with the rest of the war-mage troops, drawing out of range of the stones and the enemy. He looked around as he did so, seeing and hearing the stones continue to fall, the sallying troops wedged deeply into the besieging attackers, and finally identifying another set of incursions from the direction of the river. Could rebel reinforcements possibly have come in from the sea?

The battle went on and on. Qawm blessed the calm moments when there were no enemies near or tasks at hand, when he could absorb every spark he could find to ready himself for the next push. He wasn’t physically in a position to know how the battle was doing, but surely the loyalists were winning, right?

Losing or not, the rebel forces, whether from the keep or the river, continued to cut their way through to the war-mages in the back ranks, or drove all the way through the loyalist forces to come at those back ranks from behind. Then all calm was forgotten amid the shouts and the blood and the excitement and the fear of trying to destroy the rebel sorties at first, and then just drive them back to their own lines. Dead bodies, reeking of blood and filth, were everywhere, from both sides of the conflict, rendering the calm moments just as horrible as the fighting.

Qawm feared for his life time and again, but he never feared for his cause. Surely the overwhelming number of the Empress’ forces would soon crush the last ditch efforts of the rebels. But slowly a different picture emerged as injured loyalists from the front lines filtered back toward the encampment and gave whispered reports as they passed. Somehow, the rebels were prevailing, whittling away at the besiegers, pushing them back, splitting forces up and diverting, then surrounding them. Slaughtering them!

The latest moment of inactivity had stretched for long enough that Qawm, magical reserves refreshed but still exhausted physically, found himself trying to get some rest on his feet. The sound of horns made his eyes snap open, and he realized that dusk had descended. The horns blew again, the four notes signaling retreat, and Qawm was sure that the rebels were intending to hole up again in their keep.

The notes came again, but from behind Qawm, from the loyalist’s camp. He couldn’t believe it: Duke Northfield was breaking off the siege!

The Empress’ forces obeyed the call, pulling back, trying to disengage. Qawm and the other war-mages prepared to support the retreat as trained, but the enemy were having none of it. They didn’t stand and allow their enemy to walk away. Qawm watched the attacks continue, watched their ferocity grow, even though they’d been fighting all day as well. The orderly retreat turned into a rout, and when he heard the fierce chanting of the rebels bearing down on him, Qawm had no qualms about running right along with everyone else.

By the time it was fully dark, Qawm was far from the fighting, but he hadn’t yet reached camp. He continued running, sure it was just over there, or just through those trees and around the bend, or somewhere close anyway. He wasn’t sure when he had become separated from his squad and the rest of the army, but he was sure he could find his way back to the camp on his own.

Qawm stopped running eventually, but kept searching. Exhaustion set in quickly after that, and he decided to rest just for a bit. He sank down by a tree, closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, sunlight was beaming down between the leaves.

He sat up and looked around, and saw nothing but trees. He listened carefully, but heard nothing but the silence of nature. He remembered how noisy any camp was, so he knew that he had to be leagues away from it at the moment.

Qawm stood up and tried to figure out what to do next. For all of his practice as a child in the forest around his home of Lonial, he realized at that moment that he really had no wilderness skills. He didn’t know which way was north, or how to find water, or even where he might find food among the strange trees and brush all around him. His rumbling stomach made that an important consideration.

He took several deep breaths and tried to quell his rising panic. There had to be something he could do now. He had to admit that he wasn’t a woodsman, so what was he? A war-mage, that’s what. He didn’t have any spells to find direction, or familiar people, or even water. But he could kill things. Spells that could slay a soldier could do the same to a rat or a bird, and he could certainly start a fire. So he probably wouldn’t starve.

As for where he was, well, he could find a clearing and watch the sun. When he knew where east and west were, he could start walking south. Surely the success that the Baranurians had enjoyed the day before couldn’t last for very long, and everything to the south was largely in the hands of his countrymen.

A loud rustling behind him made Qawm whirl around in surprise. A woman walked into view. She was short, older, with greying brown hair, sturdy clothing, and a satchel slung over her shoulder. She lifted her eyes from the forest floor and seemed to notice him. She was obviously startled, and she raised her hands and started to speak words that Qawm didn’t understand. Reacting from that panic that he hadn’t quite banished, Qawm hurled a small, fizzing ball full of as many sparks as he could draw out of himself right at her. It hit her in the chest, and the woman collapsed, a look of pain replacing the startlement on her face as she died.

Qawm bent over, bracing his hands against his knees, breathing as hard as if he’d run several laps around the parade ground. He was glad that the woman had been alone — if another enemy were to appear, he couldn’t have done a thing about it. He slowly recovered, and as he straightened up, breath quieting, he noticed the satchel the intruder had been carrying. He went over to her body cautiously, listening closely in case there were other stragglers. He grabbed the bag off of her body, slung it over his shoulder, and started running.

When he finally stopped, rather a longer time later than he had expected due to another wave of panic, it took even more time to get himself under control again. His stomach rumbling brought the idea of food back to mind, and he opened up the satchel hoping there was something to eat inside. The first thing his hand touched was a large, smooth ball of something. He grabbed it and pulled it out, then stared at the strange shimmering stone with the bands of colors swirling around inside. It was a sphere, but there was a wedge-shaped hole right through one edge of it. He had no idea of what kind of stone it was, or even if it was natural, but he found that he liked looking at the ribbons of flowing colors.

Qawm went through the rest of the satchel, but there wasn’t any food in it. Replacing the stone in the bag, he started walking again, looking for an opening in the trees where he could see the sun. He moved slowly through the forest, listening closely to the rustling leaves and the chirping birds, peering nervously around, trying to remain alert for danger.

As he walked, he continuously reviewed his situation. He was still lost, he was hungry, he was completely alone in a land where he didn’t understand the language, and he was hundreds, perhaps thousands of leagues from anything familiar. He realized that he had never really been alone before. Those solo excursions into the trees around Lonial hadn’t taken him more than a few paces from the hamlet, and thereafter in the Trevrai School and then in Cabildo, he had never been more than a room away from other people.

He knew that Baranur was nominally under the control of Beinison, but he couldn’t help but recall all of those ambushes that the army had suffered while marching north. There were still enemies all around, and Qawm couldn’t help but realize that once again his training and even experience hadn’t prepared him for this situation. He’d never been taught to take care of himself!

Having no better plan, Qawm continued walking and finally found the kind of clearing he’d been looking for. Standing just inside of the tree-line, he looked up at the sun and noted where it was in the sky, then prepared to wait.

Lack of movement left more time for frightening thoughts, and panic continued to try to claim Qawm’s mind, but he knew that was counter-productive, so he forced the fear away. He rummaged in the satchel, running his hands over the spherical stone, wondering what the tools he found there were for, realizing that he couldn’t understand the writing on the few scraps of parchment he discovered.

The mysteries of the bag were soon exhausted, and all Qawm could do while he waited for enough time to pass for the sun to move significantly was think. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything to think about except his situation, and he found himself getting more and more keyed up, more worried and anxious. He was straining his ears, trying to hear the stealthy footsteps of ambushers. He peered around at the trees, hoping to notice them sneaking up.

A squawk sounded, and Qawm whirled to face it and fired off another fizzing ball of power. There was a flash of coal black and a sound of wings, and the bolt smashed into a small rodent on the ground by the trees on the other side of the clearing. An immediate feeling of strangeness washed over him, a sense that something irreversible had happened. The feeling was somewhat familiar, and he realized that the scene itself was too, but he didn’t recall why.

Qawm walked over to his victim, and was surprised to see the big hind feet, the floppy ears, and the branching horns of a canopit. He looked up and saw the little black bird on a branch above the canopit’s body. He realized that he hadn’t seen his avian herald since that battle at Lonial.

He knelt by the body of the horned rodent and wondered how it would taste. It was big enough for a meal, if not one that would fill him up. Then he remembered that the canopit was the luck of Lonial, and he couldn’t possibly eat one even if Lonial didn’t exist any longer. He stood and turned away, and the tiny black bird gave another loud squawk that almost seemed satisfied somehow before it flew away.

When Qawm looked back from following the bird’s flight, there was something standing in the trees on the side of the clearing that he’d originally come from. He first noticed the sparks, which he almost never did any longer, but these weren’t just a background glow: they blazed from the center of the shape like stars shining on a dark, clear, moonless night. Next, he noticed the horns, and he feared that he was facing some kind of supernatural canopit come to avenge the death he had caused. But the shape was too much like a man’s, though much, much taller and broader. The shadows under the trees were deeper than they should have been, so he couldn’t see the features clearly, but he could make out the shaggy hair and long beard.

When it spoke, its voice filled the whole forest with the deep, resonant sound. “I am Herne, keeper of these forests.” The words Qawm heard didn’t match the meanings that came into his head, and by that he knew that he wasn’t being addressed by some noble-appointed warden. “You have killed the last canopit in my demesne. Did you not feel the weight of that event? Something has now gone forever from these lands, and you were the cause.”

Qawm trembled in fear both because he was truly repentant for what he had done, and because he had no choice before the power of the presence of Herne.

“I was willing to suspend judgment because of your circumstances. Then you turned away from your kill, disdaining to even make use of the body. If you had killed to feed yourself, I would have forgiven your transgression. Death for life is part of the balance of nature. Waste is an abomination, however, and it must be punished.”

Qawm felt the being under the trees advancing on him, even though Herne never moved out of the shadows. Qawm backed away, sidling across the clearing as he did so. He kept glancing over his shoulder, looking for somewhere to run, somewhere to hide, some way to get away from the overpowering presence that was pushing him away. He saw the huge, old oak tree at his side, and wondered if its ancient trunk was large enough to protect him from Herne.

There was a split in the trunk between two roots that looked huge and dark. Qawm found himself being pressured toward that split, and he realized that it was getting wider and darker. At the last moment, he began to struggle, but it was no use. Qawm was driven right into the crack that was now a chasm of darkness, and as he began to fall into the unknowable depths inside the tree, he heard the voice of Herne say, “It is done.”

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