Lord Celbex stood well back from the battle lines, tense with excitement. “My mages,” he pointed them out to his advisor. “Look at them. I told you recruiting them was a good idea.”
Behind a shield wall, fully protected from the advancing orcs, his warrior mages were firing wall after wall of spells splitting the advancing ranks. One was ripping orcs apart with whirling blades sending grey-green blood spurting from mortal wounds; the other was concentrating fists of stone on the orcs pushing them back into their oncoming ranks, toppling two sets of orcs with one thrown spell.
Above the shouts of the front line protecting the mages, Celbex could hear Harrolen’s screams of glee as blood flew everywhere.
“That’s my man,” Celbex pointed again. “That one there.” He licked his lips listening to him. “He glories in their blood, in ripping them apart.”
“And married to that fair wench, the one big with child?” Nelin, his adviser was an older man, keen eyed and well tested in battle. Mages, he had advised his lord, could be dangerous and needed to be controlled. Harrolen loved his wife dearly. Control her, Nelin had told his lord, and he would be easily managed.
“We’ll tie him to us with her and the child when it’s born, he’s ours.” Celbex stood and cheered encouragement.
On the field, the other mage was grim as he mowed down row after row of orcs, keeping them from the line of men in from of him. They were there to keep the orcs from reaching him with axe and club; he wanted them safe. He could sidestep the boulders orcs threw when they were close enough but if they broke the line he was vulnerable and he knew it. He battered them, keeping them from the men protecting him. Blood from Harrolen’s kills splattered his mouth and he spat it out.
At the rich tent above the field, there was wine as lord and his advisor watched the battle, enjoying the flow of orc blood. A man came up behind them. “My lord?”
Lord Celbex stood and turned, giving the man a slight bow. It was always appropriate to be courteous to a Master of the K’ish. He was robed and hooded but they could see his pale face and watery eyes as he turned to watch the battle.
“Ah, Master, please take a seat and enjoy some wine.” The K’ish shook his head.
“How soon? The blood must be fresh from a wound.” The voice was old and dry.
“The mages I recruited should be finished with them shortly. As soon as the rest turn, you can have your choice from the ones on the field and men to guard you.” The K’ish nodded and stepped away into the shadows.
Nelin shuddered as the man faded away
“I don’t like it, m’lord. Consorting with K’ish. Is it advisable?” He kept his voice low.
His concern was waved away. “The potions he promised will amaze you.” He jumped up and pointed. “Look, they’re driving them from the field!”
Harrolen was screaming as his shield barrier pushed forward. He was drenched in the blood of orcs and the red blood of some of his own wounded protectors. He didn’t seem to care about either as he pushed them forward over the dead and dying on the field.
Near him, the other mage was pressing forward as well, stopping to give a final stroke to the mortally wounded on the field, but concentrating his strikes on the retreating orcs. His bolts of stone and thunder decimated the enemy but drew no blood.
“My lord? That other mage? How do we hold him? A wench he fancies? Gold?”
“They both came for gold. It’s a strong enough tie. And his friend, Harrolen ties him. They are Brothers of the same Great House, together for years and pledged, on their honor, to defend each other when they agreed to join us here. No, he’ll never break his oath or leave his honored Brother. We have them both.” His smile was covetous. He stood and cheered as he watched the retreating orcs fall and die under the onslaught of the mages. He barely noticed when the K’ish began to move among the dying to collect their blood, their tongues, their eyes, but his advisor, Nelin, turned away sickened by the sight.
“Let my mages come forward!” Lord Celbex commanded at the feast after the battle. The tents were bright with lanterns, full of music; servants with wine and food made sure that cups and plates were always full. Harrolen had been sitting with his wife, enjoying the night and the honors that were being given him but his friend was lounging with two lovelies, stroking the neck and half-exposed breast of one, kissing her then turning to take wine from a cup held to his lips by another woman. Both stood at their lord’s command.
“My good men, my fine men, my warrior mages,” Celbex extoled them as they came forward, one a bit unsteady with drink, Harrolen’s arm under his, to kneel before their lord.
“The gold that was promised!” Celbex held the pouches high to cheers and then handed one to each of his warrior mages. “More wine for everyone,” he called. There was more cheering.
“Now, a private word with you,” he turned motioning his mages to follow, taking them into a private tent where advisors waited. Celbex lounged on a soft chair and set his glass on a table.
“I have another task for you and more gold to follow.”
“As our lord wills,” Harrolen answered with a greedy smile, dragging his drunken friend into a bow.
“That gold I gave you so freely comes from the taxes I collect from my tenants. Fine people, most of them, good farmers and herders who live under my protection. Now that the orcs have been driven back, with your fine aid, they will enjoy more of that protection and more land.” He waved to Nelin who spread a map on the table.
“Not all my lord’s tenants have been so quick to pay their taxes. These small settlements here?” he pointed on the map. “Three houses in one, five in the other. My lord wishes to send a message to the rest of the small holders that taxes are to be paid when due.”
“Tomorrow,” Celbex smiled and leaned forward, “you will give them a lesson in obedience. A lesson that will have the rest…biddable? I could send soldiers out to punish them but they could defend against soldiers and a lesson from you will be so much stronger.” He held out his arms, “You with your spells of fire; I think fire would be best and lightning to strike them if they try to run from you? Yes, when they have been punished I think it will ensure that the rest understand their duty to their liege lord.” He leaned back, waiting.
“To our liege lord,” Harrolen held up his goblet, laughing greedily, nudging his friend.
“Our liege lord,” the man joined in the laughter, then downed his drink and swayed. “If my liege lord wills,” he gave a drunken bow, “I left a wench or two alone and I think they need tending.” He made a crude gesture and even Nelin laughed.
Celbex waved a hand and he stumbled out hearing more laughter behind him as the rest leaned over the map. He took the arm of a drunken wench, tugging on her clothes, kissing her roughly his hand on her breast. Then he pulled her out toward his own tent, shouting, “Celebrations for everyone.” Course laughter and nudges followed him.
In private, he urged the woman to drink again, and spoke a brief spell to rid himself of the effects of the wine. When she was soundly asleep, he lifted the rear of the tent and crept out into the night to warn the local farmers. That done, he fled to a port and used gold to buy passage on a ship that was sailing at dawn. Safely away he tried to forget Harrolen, occupying himself with learning what sailors had to teach, but in private he wept for his Brother.
When he finally returned to the Great House, he wrapped himself in new studies and buried the past and his Brother. It would be more than a decade before he thought about him again.
*** 1 ***
Fourteen years later
A young woman came out of the forest track and stopped, still sheltered by the trees, to survey the land ahead. She had come several miles through the woods on the Riven Road that ran through them and had enjoyed the cool darkness under the trees. Now she gave a small sigh as she looked down the track to the crossroad. The area was wide and deep. From the grass and flowers, she could see that these fields had been fallowed for at least six months. A good sign. Game was scarce in the forests and it would be easier to find a meal in the open area ahead of her, perhaps even some tubers to roast in a small fire. Her mouth began to water.
She took a step into the open and stopped, remembering her training. Reaching out with far-sight, she looked for echoes of darkness and found none. “Move to near the limit of sight, then reach out again,” the Sisterhood had taught her. At the time, she had found the lessons tiresome but now, at two and twenty, her years of walk-about, even in the settled lands, had taught her their wisdom.
The crossroad was only a dozen paces beyond her but her path lay directly ahead. As there was no sign of current traffic, Brillar stepped into the open and continued on her way. She was dressed for the road. Sturdy wellisboots, soft leggings of poda hide, and a light tunic. Her aresh wood shortbow as always over her shoulder and quiver at her side. Her cloak and other necessities were in the foldbox at her belt. “No need for them yet,” she thought, running fingers along the braid of dark red-brown hair at her shoulder.
Amazingly, the sign at the crossroad was well-maintained. Eafel to the left, Ikenlo to the right, and Foringil ahead through the next woods and beyond. ‘A few carts and some horses,’ she thought as a breeze rippled the green grasses and flowers. An easy walk in the direction she needed to travel. She took a few steps toward Foringil and stopped to finger some droppings near a cart track. ‘Still a bit warm, perhaps two hours.’ Horsemen and carters stopped early to make camp and let the horses feed. ‘I may reach them tonight.’
She picked up her pace, easy to do on this wide road. Traffic among the three towns here and the further Denwis behind her must be as steady as the innkeeper had told her when he came out to the road to bid her goodbye and thank her for the healing she had performed in the village. “Was good of ye to stay a while as we have no healer of our own,” he had thanked her, then became cautious. “Nae bandits be oft’n on these roads,” he had said with his deep brogue. “We be a peaceful folk for the most, and the sheriff keeps good watch. Bad for business, bandits be.” He had looked at her with some concern. “Still, a woman alone. . .”
At his caution, Brillar had grinned and in a smooth movement plucked an arrow from her hip quiver, dropped to her knee and let fly. The fluid motion was over in the blink of an eye and the arrow lodged in a tree stump across from the inn.
Staring, the innkeeper looked to the arrow and back to its mistress and her bow. Brillar stood and clapped him on the shoulder as he stood dumbfounded, before she went to stump to retrieve her arrow. She had pulled lightly and the arrow was easy to remove.
“Forgi’ me lass. I think you equal to this road, or any.” He scratched his head. “A fine shot, there, a fine shot,” he added as she crossed back to him.
“Thank you good host,” she had returned, shaking his rough hand, “and a fine day to you.” The inn stood at the edge of the forest road and was soon behind her lost among the trees. ‘A fine day for a walk through the woods,’ she had thought as she entered the forest. Far-sight had shown her no danger there.
Now she stood at the crossroad and scanned the fields. In the distance, a cwel’s head popped up above the grasses. ‘Too long for my bow but where there’s one, there are others.’ Cwel, the flop-eared root grubbers were good eating and where cwel dined there could be roots and tubers for her as well, although some of their diet was inedible for her.
She had lingered long enough. The sun was warm and the sky held no hint of rain. The track was wide and dry. It was a good day for walking and her stride ate up the distance easily. A few paces later, an unwary cwel raised its head, tuber hanging from its jaw, an easy target. With the same ease and grace that had amazed the innkeeper, Brill had an arrow loosed and the cwel was downed.
As she picked up her kill, Brillar spotted some of the tubers she had been hoping for. Taking out her belt knife, she quickly extracted them from the rich soil. She sniffed them, admiring their deep earthy scent, and, shaking off some of the soil, stowed them in a belt pouch. Then she turned her attention to the cwel, deftly cleaning and skinning it, wrapping it in its pelt and tying it at her waist. She returned to the road.
‘I dine well tonight,’ she thought and lengthened her stride to make up some time thinking back to the inn. The innkeeper’s wife had made a fine savory stew rich and well-simmered last night and sent her off with a breakfast of eggs, fresh bread, and churned butter. Brillar often traveled on trail rations, today she had been lucky. While there was plenty of large game around, killing a deer for one person was a waste and might deprive a family of food. She preferred to hunt small game when alone. “Kill as you must for food,” was her father’s early lesson to her and her siblings. “There must be food on the table or your mother will howl at me.” They had all laughed at that. Theirs was a rich farm.”
Thoughts of those days took her to the forest edge and she reached out into the twilight. ‘Two men, horses, a cart, something else, something dark?’ she strained a bit. ‘Another animal?’ She knew that carters sometimes had strange animals with them using them to amuse and attract town folk so it was easier to sell their wares. ‘Seems safe enough.’
The air under the trees was a bit chilly, but she decided not to bring out her cloak until she had taken the measure of what lay ahead. Cwel over a fire with tubers was fine, but perhaps the men had a stew pot, carters often did, and they could add the meat. ‘If,’ she remembered, ‘I am welcome at their fire.’
About a half mile into the woods, she could smell their fire and the heavy scent of horses and kept on. At fifty paces, she could see the fire off to the right in what appeared to be as small clearing off the road. Thirty paces more and she called the standard greeting, “Ho, travelers,” and waited for a response.
There was some undefined movement near the fire, a rustling, then, “The traveler is welcome,” came the response.
Relaxing a bit, Brillar walked forward. A lone man, hatted and wrapped in a cloak, sat on a log near the fire. What appeared to be a cwel roasted on a spit over it. “Welcome,” he said again, and gestured to a second log. “Sit, sit, the night can be damp.”
Brillar’s senses tingled just as a hoarse croak came from the right. “B’ware.”
She leaped to the left, instantly fitting an arrow to her bow as a large man carrying knife and rope jumped from behind a tree near where she had stood. Missing his quarry, he stumbled and fell to one knee.
“Damn you, Trog,” shouted the first man, leaping to his feet and pulling the sword he had hidden under his cloak. The steel flashed in the firelight. He took a step toward Brillar.
“Drop the sword or die there,” came her steady voice, steadier than she felt. No bandits on the road? So much for that advice.
“Wot, a lass?” He raised the sword in threat and took another step, his last before he fell forward, her arrow lodged in his chest.
Another arrow was in her bow at once. “Your choice, Trog. Stand and let me see you.” The big man rose slowly, wary of her bow.
“Drop the rope and knife.” He did so. “Better drop the belt as well, just to be sure.” She gestured slightly with the bow.
“If I drops me belt, me pants will fall,” he whined. Although he had some size to him, he sounded like a child.
“Then they’ll fall. Or do you care to join your friend.” Now there was steel in Brillar’s voice. “One death here should be enough.”
Trog untied his belt slowly. His hide pants, that were indeed tied up by the belt around his shirt, slid to the ground leaving him in his longshirt.
“Now put out your hands, step to the log and kneel.”
Trog did as he was told and she moved to his belt. It was well worn with no buckle, just leather straps to tie it around the waist.
Brillar slung her bow and slid out her knife quickly warning, “Mind you, my knife is as fast as my bow,” as she knelt to examine the belt. He nodded warily. The pouches held a few coins and some trail rations. Evidently the knife was his only weapon and she tucked it into her belt then kicked the belt over to him, keeping the purse.
“We can’t have you standing there in such an undignified state. Tie up your belt then sit down.”
Brillar moved to the dead man. He was better dressed than Trog. A true belt with buckle, a belt knife, solid brown boots and his blue shirt was of good cloth, not homespun.
“My friend, he was,” said Trog. “Named Pilik.” He didn’t move from his place.
She nodded, keeping one eye on Trog and one on the dead man. She rolled him over, removed the broken part of her arrow with its distinctive fletching and threw it on the fire. She tugged his belt from him.
“A heavy purse, this,” she said, looking at Trog who hung his head. “So he was your friend but all you have is coppers while he has,” she dumped the contents on the man’s belly, “silver and, yes, some gold in with his coppers. Perhaps he was not the best of friends?”
Trog shook his head and seemed on the edge of tears. “Good enough.”
Brillar picked up the gold coins and some of the silver and set them aside, the rest she put back into Trog’s purse and tossed it to him. Pilik’s cloak she threw to one side of the fire; the sword and Pilik’s knife went into the woods.
“You’ll need a story. You were out gathering firewood. You heard your friend yell for help but when you got closer you saw three men and your friend was already dead. You were afraid to any further. You waited until the men rode off then you searched the camp but you were afraid the men would be back. You carried the body to the open ground – that is what you are going to do – and buried him with that broken shovel. You will do that too. It will be too dark to go on so you will go to sleep. In the morning, you will stumble toward Denwis. Do they know you in Denwis?”
“I’ve a cousin there.” He was fingering the heavy purse. He had never had silvers.
“Then that will give you good reason. So, do you understand what you’re to do?”
She had Trog repeat it although she had her suspicions that, with Pilik dead and silver in his pouch, Trog would say little to anyone. As he was told, he picked up Pilik’s body and a broken handled shovel the men had been using to soften the ground for sleeping and headed toward the fields. ‘Most likely,’ she thought, ‘he will stop several times. All should go well.’ Then she remembered the hoarse warning and turned toward the cart.
What she found made her wish she hadn’t been so lenient with Trog. There was a man, cut, bruised, half-clothed, and half-starved, tied to a post on the cart. The odor said he hadn’t seen water in some time. Flies settled on him, were twitched off and returned. Even in the dim light, she could see the worst of it, a dimlock collar partly sunk in his flesh.
She stood back, shuddering; there had been lessons on dimlock lore when she was a student. A dimlock collar, made in mocking imitation of a great chain of office, was used to keep a mage from casting a spell or reaching out for mana. Its medallions were raised disks connected by short links, each disk active with a dark spell. With its sinister power it made the wearer separate from mana and the world around him. A dimlock was used to bind, to punish, to transport a mage whose deeds were so horrible that only execution awaited him. Still, standing there, reaching out with all her power, Brillar found none of the evil that was said to radiate from such a mage even when trapped by a dimlock. Nothing came from the man but anguish, grief, pain and behind it….Behind it, Light? Dim, diffused, a weak shadow only. She made her decision.