The raidship fell like a black stone from a cloudless sky. In the Wasp’s hold, two dozen armored raiders sat packed shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee. They were big pale men, with braided beards and eyes the color of ice. Where their skin was exposed, Uther Lundsen could see tattoos, blue against white. Clad in a hodgepodge of armors, the raiders sat slung in the troop-seats, their boots flat against the Wasp’s scarred decking. Some raiders wore half-helms, painted with wings or horns. Others sported boiled leather caps, reinforced with steel plates. Most were armed with swords and axes, but hammers and bows were in evidence as well. In the compartment’s blood-colored light, a few untried blades glinted, but most were dark with use, stained by past skirmishes. The majority of his shipmates were grim-eyed killers, men who’d murdered often and kept no count.
The Wasp plunged earthward, its engines silent. Its frame creaked and grumbled as the wind plucked at its outer hull. Six miles below, a sleepy village named Avendale was waking. When the Wasp descended to a thousand feet, her engines would whine to life. The raidship would land in Avendale’s central commons and disgorge its cargo of marauders. Blood would follow.
Uther pushed back his helmet and wiped his forehead, trying to mop away the sweat that stung his eyes. It was his third raid, and this part of the descent still terrified him. The Wasp’s frame flexed and moaned, buffeted by the air blasting past its plating. It sounded as though she was on the verge of disintegration. An image flashed in his minds-eye: himself falling earthward in a cloud of broken metal.
The raidships were ancient, built by a science lost to the mists of time. Some of the priests claimed the craft might be a thousand years old. The Wasp’s crew, adepts of the Ordos Ferrum, labored to keep the ship airworthy, but failures were frequent—and that made Uther afraid. If the compartment’s sweat-stink and apprehensive silence were signs, he wasn’t alone.
Uther watched the unwinking crimson lamp above the cargo doors. When the ship’s landing pads touched down and the engines stopped, the light would change to green and the doors would swing open. He smiled grimly in the semi-darkness as it occurred to him these villagers were in for a shock, whatever happened next. He wondered idly which would kill more of them: a safe landing and unleashed raiders—or the fireball if the Wasp’s engines failed to break her descent.
He doubted there would be much resistance from Avendale’s farmers and merchants. He’d raided Alesian villages before and none had put up much of a fight. And based on the adepts’ reconnaissance briefing, there was nothing unusual about Avendale. It was just another sleepy Alesian backwater.
The adepts had briefed them on the hamlet’s layout. The village’s tallest building was its Chantry, a white steepled structure facing the village commons, a broad green square framed by shops and cottages. Avendale’s shops housed apothecaries, bakers, bookbinders, and tailors. More noisome businesses were in an outer ring, separated from the commons by pocket parks and gardens. This outer ring was where the tanners, sawyers, and smiths plied their trade, keeping their noise, smoke, and stink, away from the town’s center. Beyond the outer ring, great swaths of farmland and pasture, broken by small forests filled with oak, ironwood, and pine, surrounded the town. There was no fastness in Avendale, no barracks, and no fortifications. They had detected no defensive force of any kind. Uther suspected the best the town could muster would be an ill-trained constable. Avendale should fall quickly.
Whit Alder pushed a dark lock away from his eyes and tucked it behind his ear. His hair was wavy and unruly; it had gotten long enough to be a nuisance now, and kept getting in the way. His vision now unobstructed, he struck sparks with his flint, trying again to start the forge fire. The tinder smoked, and he blew on it between cupped hands until thin blue tendrils swirled and a yellow flame ate at its base. He fed the fire dried twigs, watching the flames lick the fuel as he dropped each piece into place. Once the flame was established, he left for the woodpile to fetch more fuel. He was filling his arms when he heard the whine.
It was faint and unfamiliar, above him and growing louder as he listened. He raised his eyes skyward, shading them with his hand, squinting against the morning sun. The sound neared, growing more ominous, its eerie pitch causing the small hairs on the back of his neck to stand erect. He swept the sky from east to west, stopping when he caught sight of a black speck flanked by four blue-white dots. The speck was descending, falling fast toward the village center.
As the object’s details became clearer, Whit saw the speck transform into a vaguely insect-shaped craft riding four pulsing globes of pale blue light. The thing’s skin was colored like ash, flat gray tinged with black. Based on its path, the machine aimed to land on the village commons. Its rate of fall decreased, and soon the intruder floated a hundred feet above the ground. Three blisters on the craft’s underside opened. Silvery metal struts, ending in flat pads, pivoted downward from each blister. The engine’s whine changed pitch and the craft crept earthward, easing toward landfall.
Light help us, it’s a raidship!
Around him, Whit’s neighbors were emerging from their homes, eyes turned to the sky. Some came through their doors buttoning trousers or pulling on tunics, but most still wore their nightclothes. A few men, thinking more clearly than the rest, had tried to arm themselves. Whit saw hatchets, axes, and hammers—farm tools that would be near-useless against armored raiders. If the invaders were as savage as their reputation, they’d cut through Avendale’s farmers and shopkeepers like a scythe. Whit snapped his eyes away from the green and back to his own home. Horrors were coming and he stood frozen, staring like a dullard. He pivoted and sprinted across the grass that separated the forge from his family’s cottage.
His mother and father stood on the rough stone stoop outside their front door, staring up at the raidship. Both were dressed. Whit’s mother Jenny held his baby brother Joff on one hip and shielded her eyes with her left hand. His father stood, fists balled on hips, looking upward in confusion. Whit stumbled to a stop, nearly crashing into his father.
Eldon Alder looked from the raidship to his son. Whit could see fear in his father’s face and he felt an icy band constrict around his heart. His father reached out with two scarred hands and clutched his son by the shoulders, dragging him around till they faced each other, eyes inches apart. Whit winced beneath his father’s grip; it was fierce and desperate.
"Whit, I need you to listen and I need you to listen hard! You understand boy?" Eldon Alder, eyes wild and lips trembling, shook his son as he asked the question.
Whit fought to control his fear, forcing himself to lock eyes with his father. The older man was waiting for a response. "Yes. I understand," he said.
His father loosened his grip but didn’t drop his hands. "Good lad. Whit, we’ve got to run. We must run far and fast—or we die." His father turned to steal a glance at the descending ship, then looked back to his son. "Take your mother and Joff to Warrick, to your uncle Harod's. Take the shortcut through Barrow Wood. You know the one?"
"Yes. But what about you? Aren’t you coming with us?"
"I’ll be right behind. I promise. But you can’t wait for me, Whit. Swear that you won’t wait for me?"
Whit hesitated but knew better than to argue. There was no time. "I swear," he said.
"Good lad. Now go. Go!" Eldon Alder gave his son a push then wrapped his strong arms around his wife and infant son. He squeezed them tight against his chest, burying his face in Jenny's hair. Whit heard his father whisper "I love you," and in a blink, Eldon Alder disappeared through the cottage’s front door. Whit grabbed his mother’s forearm and pointed toward the distant tree line that marked the edge of the Barrow Wood.
"Run. Take Joff to the woods. I’ll follow you, try to protect you if I can."
His mother hesitated, and it seemed she might protest but the moment passed. She nodded and set off at a run, cradling Joff in her arms. Whit watched her go and turned back toward the commons. The raidship was nearly down, hovering just a few feet above a circle of blasted turf. He waited until his mother opened a twenty pace gap before he followed, constantly checking behind them as he trailed her. He knew he was no match for an armored marauder if one pursued, but he could buy time. He could delay or distract him, and if worse came to worse, he could fight bare-handed.
Inside the raidship, Uther felt the troop seat’s padding slam against his backside as the engines screamed to life. His limbs turned to lead and an invisible, suffocating anvil planted itself on his chest. He shut his eyes and recited the first canto from the Song of Solis, trying to calm himself. The discomfort would ease when the Wasp set down; he just needed to endure it for a few moments more.
The engines whined as they struggled to bleed away the Wasp’s deadly velocity. As her motors flared and the raidship began to slow, the wind’s shriek faded with its speed. Uther was reciting the canto a third time when he heard hidden machinery whir to life. Beneath the Wasp, from its underside, three metallic blisters opened and landing legs rotated into position. The ship wobbled as the legs dragged in the air-stream but the helmsman adjusted and the descent smoothed. As the Wasp settled close to the ground, dirt and pebbles kicked up by the thrusters pinged against her bottom hull. Then her motors went silent and a tooth-cracking jolt erupted upward as the landing pads slammed against the turf. A final rattle and the compartment fell silent. Uther shook his head to clear the stars from his vision then slapped his palm against the release stud in his harness buckle. His restraint belt fell away.
The other raiders unsnapped and rose to form two lines facing the rear cargo doors. Weapons were drawn and bucklers made ready as the great clamshell doors crawled open. When the doors reached full extension and locked into position, a metal ramp extended from its housing in the ship's underbelly and jabbed into the blasted turf.
Uther's fear dissolved like smoke on a windy day. Blood coursed through his veins, its thrum so loud it banged against his eardrums. The world was sharp-edged now, the light brittle against his eyes and the air feathery against his skin. He inhaled and the acrid smell of burned grass and scorched soil filled his nostrils. Somewhere in the distance, agitated crows cawed, raucous and insistent, impatient for the feast to come. Every sense was razor-sharp, every nerve taut as a lute string and each second mired in honey. Uther, suffused with a visceral and animal joy, licked his lips, thirsty for the fight ahead.
He knew he should be afraid, for this was their moment of greatest peril. They were jammed into an enclosed space with only a single entry point. If the plow-drivers outside had managed to organize and arm themselves, they could attack as the raiders tried to exit. If they managed it, the effect would be devastating. But Uther knew it wouldn’t happen that way. It never did. Alesians were not warriors. They were an inferior race who bowed to weak kings and weaker gods. They would break and flee, as always, then be cut down as they fled—dying as cowards, condemned for eternity to Zydon’s pit.
The Wasp’s doors were open now, the ramp extended and the exit lamp above the cargo doors glowed a welcome green. Uther looked beyond the men queued to his front and saw a rectangle of brilliant blue sky hanging over a tidy greensward backed by neat woods and stucco buildings. The raiders shuffled down the ramp in good order, each man silent, ready and disciplined. There was no running and no jostling as they filed from the Wasp in two even columns. On the ground, they fanned out in a semicircle a dozen yards from the raidship’s tail.
The most experienced and battle-hardened exited first, followed by the unseasoned and unblooded who brought up the rear. Uther was among the final half-dozen warriors to move down the ramp and assume his position. Once in formation, he brought his weapons to the ready and squinted against the brightness, waiting for orders. Behind him, in the formation's center, Navus Wrethbek strode back and forth, scanning the landing area. It fell to Wrethbek, as the elected raid leader, to assess resistance and give the order to retreat or attack. If retreat was called, there would be an orderly withdrawal back into the Wasp, and they would lift off to search for a softer target. But if Wrethbek ordered an attack, each man was free to break formation and pick targets of opportunity. Uther chewed his lower lip, trembling with excitement, waiting for the order to attack.
He surveyed the commons and its surrounding buildings. The town was in chaos, filled with panicked inhabitants attempting to flee. There were no soldiers, and the only weapons in evidence were hand tools wielded by disorganized farmers, most of them still in their nightclothes. Uther turned. Behind him, Wrethbek, face wrapped in a wolf’s grin, raised his axe and roared the order—“Attack!” With an exultant howl, the raiders exploded outward, each man loosed to choose a target.
Uther didn’t charge blindly after his companions. Instead, he stole a few seconds to study the field for opportunities. Fighting had begun and it swirled around him. Twenty feet away, he saw a thin villager with sandy hair and a rusty knife go down, his head shattered by a steel maul. Another townsman, a big man with a bushy red beard and hair to match, charged bellowing toward the attacking raiders. Red-beard was fierce and fast and managed to open the throat of one raider before being beset by two others. The villager fought like a cornered mountain lion, screaming obscenities as he swung his bloody axe in wild sweeping arcs. But the two raiders used their experience and numbers to advantage, feinting and shifting, circling beyond reach as they maneuvered for an opening.
Red-beard swung his axe viciously at one raider’s head, but the man reacted, ducking under the axe to thrust at the villagers unprotected gut. Blood blossomed red against the ax-wielder’s white nightshirt but he seemed not to notice. He swung his axe again as the swordsman tried to withdraw. The villager’s axe whirled and sliced through the raider’s face, carving a hideous furrow from ear to his chin. Uther saw shattered teeth and splintered bone. The axed man dropped to the grass.
The villager swung around to face his second opponent, behind him now and poised for a killing blow. Light flashed on the raider’s blade as it whirled in a flat arc, striking red-beard above the right hip, opening him like a melon. Entrails fell through the man’s opened abdomen, spooling onto the ground. The gutted townsman stared at them, his face oddly fixed in an expression both curious and surprised. He knelt and laid his sword on the ground, then tried to gather up his spilled guts and push them back inside. His opponent’s sword chopped down again, striking the villager’s neck at the base, sinking through his collarbone and into his ribcage. Mortally wounded, the ax-wielder collapsed and vanished from view as the fighting shifted around him.
Uther slanted his eyes to the right and spied an isolated villager about sixty yards distant. The man carried a steel hammer and wore a soiled and rumpled nightshirt. His hair was thin and gray, his eyes wide and bewildered. Uther charged. The old man’s nerve broke like an over-stretched bowstring. He dropped his hammer and broke into a wobbling run. The hammer landed on its head in the thick summer grass, its handle upright. Uther leapt it with ease and closed on his target. Ahead of him, the fleeing villager caught his toe on loose turf and tumbled. His feet shot out and he landed with a thump on his back, emptying his lungs. Uther pounced, planting his knees on the downed man’s shoulders, pinning him to the ground.
Uther clasped his sword grip in both hands and raised the hilt above his head, his blade’s point quivering inches above the fallen man's throat. Beneath him, the oldster’s brown eyes were wide with terror as he stared up, helpless. Uther smelled urine; the old man had wet himself and Uther snorted with contempt. The townsman’s lips were moving now, forming words Uther could not hear, the man’s vocal cords apparently paralyzed with fright. Uther thought he might be repeating the word "Please".
He savored the moment, closing his eyes in ecstasy as an icy chill of elation spread through him. He opened his eyes after the wave passed and studied the gray-hair. Every pore, hair, and wrinkle on the old man’s face stood out in hard-edged detail, etching itself into Uther’s memory. The villager's face was boot-brown leather, cracked and wrinkled by decades under the hot Alesian sun. His weak chin hid behind a scraggly chin beard, a wisp the color of morning frost. Uther stared into the man’s brown, almost black, eyes and drank in their terror until it ebbed away, leaving behind only hopeless resignation. The Alesian closed his eyes and his lips moved rapidly once more, emitting a whispery thin stream that might have been a prayer. Uther spat, then leaned down hard on his sword, pushing the blade with slow and deliberate movement through the old townsman’s throat, an inch below his Adam’s apple.
The sword's razored tip passed through flesh and gristle before striking bone—a resisting vertebra in the dying man’s spine. Blood spurted, hot and salty, against Uther's face and armor. Eyes open now, the villager’s pupils were wide and unfocused. Uther rose from his knees and stood with one foot on either side of the villager’s chest. He clamped his hands around his sword hilt and leaned until his breastplate pressed against the sword’s pommel. Uther pushed with his arms and used his upper body weight to help drive the sword downward. He heard the crunch of splintering bone and felt his steel sink through into the earth below. The spurting blood stopped.
Uther’s soaring elation collapsed in a warm rush of pleasure. He closed his eyes and gasped as waves of sensation shuddered through him. When they passed, Uther opened his eyes and exhaled in satisfaction through clenched teeth. He pulled his blade from the corpse, savoring the faint sucking sound it made as it slipped free.
The old man had no valuables save for his marriage ring, a thin gold band that refused to budge. Uther sawed the ring finger off below the middle knuckle and the ring came off without resistance. He wiped it against the old man’s nightshirt, cleaning away the blood, before dropping it into a leather bag on his belt. His first loot taken, Uther sprinted back into the fight looking for his next target.
Frantic, Eldon Alder jammed his knife blade between two discolored stones in his hearth and pried upward. One stone dislodged and the smith removed it to expose a scooped-out void beneath. Reaching into the shallow hole, he retrieved a fist-sized leather bag. Its contents clinked as he lifted it free. Fumbling, he knotted the pouch‘s drawstring around his heavy belt with shaking hands. He glanced toward the door, then hurried to a rough-hewn cupboard.
He flung open the cupboard’s doors and swept the top row with his right hand, scattering folded clothing and blankets onto the floor. Reaching deep into the cleared shelf, his fingers encountered his objective: a heavy object wrapped in oilcloth. Trying to control the tremor in his hands, he tore away the wrapping to reveal a sword, fine steel with a short, curved blade. He jammed it into his belt alongside the leather pouch.
What else? It was hard to think now about anything except the raiders. Food? Blankets? The raidship engines had shut down and Eldon could hear screams from the village common. No more time to think. In a frenzy, he snatched a fallen blanket and flung it open on the kitchen floor. He ransacked the room for food. Indiscriminate, he hurled anything edible onto the bed covering.
Gasping now, eyes stinging with sweat, Eldon dropped to his knees and pulled the blanket’s corners together to create a makeshift sack. He fumbled, trying to knot the bag closed, cursing as the fabric resisted. Finally the knot closed. He snatched up the finished bundle, flung it onto his back and spun toward the front door, ready to flee.
Uther scanned the commons, looking for armed resistance, but none remained. Around the Wasp’s blackened landing circle, the dead were strewn like piles of discarded rags. Uther saw only two raiders among the scattered corpses. The remaining raiders, blood-spattered and exultant, hunted survivors. Uther watched as two raiders ran down a sobbing woman in a gray house dress and threw her onto the grass. One man held her down, pinning her hands above her head, while the other tore at her clothing. She writhed and screamed, but the raiders ignored her cries, intent on their purpose.
Stupid! Uther shook his head in scorn and turned away. While that pair played with their captive, the more disciplined raiders would be adding to their spoils. Uther watched as three of his party moved toward the chantry’s white tower. Chantries were known to be good hunting grounds. The Alesians adorned their worship halls with tapestries and silver candlesticks and, often as not, kept coin and relics there. He considered joining the trio but decided against it. The chantry would draw a crowd and he didn’t want competition. There was gold elsewhere in this village and all he needed to do was sniff it out. He looked beyond the nearest shops with their kicked-in doors toward the town’s outer ring. The smithy immediately drew his eye.
It was built with sturdy timbers on a stone foundation alongside a spacious cottage. The cottage was well maintained with walls covered in white plaster and a peaked roof layered in wooden shingles. The grounds surrounding the buildings were lush and green, and the grass and shrubs showed careful tending. Looters had not yet worked their way from the village center to the outer ring, so the forge was still unplundered. It looked promising.
Uther set off at a trot, his easy gait devouring the yards between him and the forge. In moments, he drew near the smith’s cottage. He slowed to a stop, then drew his sword. Crouching low, he continued forward, cautious and alert, his eyes fixed on the buildings open door. As he advanced, he saw movement inside the house. Someone was still at home.
Uther changed his approach angle and crept to the cottage’s front wall, left of the doorway. Pressing himself flat, he edged toward the doorframe and peeked past it, his sword ready. In the building’s interior shadows, a heavyset man Uther assumed to be the smith, knelt, knotting a blanket on the floor. The man faced away from the doorway, bent over and intent on his task. The smith looked strong and had a sword tucked under his belt, but Uther had the advantage of surprise. He gathered himself and prepared. Inside, the smith rose, shouldered his bundle and turned toward the door. Now! Uther raised his sword, roared a battle-cry and launched himself at his opponent.
As he turned, Eldon Alder saw the raider at the door, white-haired and blood-spattered. The marauder screamed and launched himself, a gore-covered sword raised to strike. In two strides, the man was on him. Instinctively, Eldon raised his sack to block the whistling blade. The blanket’s thin wool parted like water under the sword’s edge, scattering the bundle’s contents onto the floor between them. Eldon fell back, dropping the bag and reaching for the sword in his belt. As the smith reached, the raider recovered, dropped back a step then lunged, thrusting his sword’s point toward Eldon’s belly. If the blow had landed, it would have gutted him, but luck saved him. As the raider planted his foot for his thrust, his boot-sole rolled on a potato, spilled from the smith’s split sack. The Valkran’s foot shot forward and he stumbled sideways toward the kitchen table.
Instinctively, the raider reached out, finding the tabletop with his left hand. He caught himself, avoiding a fall but opening his guard and leaving himself off balance. Eldon swung his sword like an ax, hoping to split the Valkran’s skull. But the raider read his intent and countered. His blade flashed upward and blocked Eldon’s strike, catching the smith’s blade on his sword’s guard. The raider flicked his wrist at impact, deflecting the smith’s blow. There were sparks and Eldon’s sword bounced to the right, ricocheting toward the tabletop. The raider’s left hand, planted there palm down, took the brunt of the smith’s stroke. Two fingertips, one from the little finger and the other from the ring-finger, separated and skittered across the table, leaving red trails in their wake.
A searing bolt coursed from Uther’s hand to his brain, an explosion of sun-bright agony. He stared down at his damaged hand, watching in shock as bright blood sprayed from two amputations. Trying to stem the bleeding, he balled the injured hand into a tight fist, forcing the damaged fingers deep into the fleshy part of his palm to create pressure. Then he pressed the blood-oozing fist tight against his leather cuirass above his heart.
The smith was lunging at him now, trying to press his advantage. The Alesian drove forward, his sword tip extended toward Uther’s heart. Uther pivoted in time to avoid a fatal strike but not in time to dodge the blade completely. He felt burning as the smith’s blade entered his leather armor, nicked his ribcage then exited through the back of his breastplate. Then the smith made a mistake.
Inexperienced in battle, the smith twisted his blade to widen the wound rather than freeing it and striking again. Uther stole the advantage, capitalizing on his opponent’s blunder. He swung his own weapon in a high horizontal plane from left to right. The villager ducked, but not in time. Bloody steel whistled toward the smith's skull, striking him above the left ear. The blade pierced bone then slowed, coming to rest in the villager’s eye socket, momentum spent. The wounded Alesian spasmed once, then his legs buckled and he sank to his knees. For a moment, the stocky man’s body balanced there, kneeling, propped upright by the sword in Uther’s hand. Uther tugged to free it, but the blade was lodged. So he let go, allowing the smith’s body to topple backward onto the cottage floor, sword hilt skyward.
Uther looked down at the dead man’s weapon still embedded in his armor, wrapped both hands around its grip, then extended his arms fully in a pulling motion. The blade was sharp and shiny with oil and it withdrew easily without worsening his wound. He dropped the freed sword to clatter against the cottage’s floorboards. There was blood on the blade, but not a great deal; his wound wouldn’t kill him.
He was light-headed now. Uther raised and inspected his damaged left hand, assessing his injuries. They were ugly, but neither life-threatening nor crippling. His two outermost digits, the little finger and ring finger, were missing their tips—both cleanly amputated below the nail. The fingers streamed blood and needed to be staunched.
There were blankets and clothing scattered about the floor. Uther retrieved an undyed cotton shirt then tore two wide strips from it using his teeth and his good right hand. Once he had strips, he used his uninjured hand and his teeth to tie a stopgap bandage around the damaged fingers. Good enough for now. He’d get stitches and a proper bandage back on the Wasp.
Bleeding stemmed, Uther approached the corpse, braced his boot sole against its face, grabbed his sword and pulled. The blade slipped free, its bright steel smeared with gore. Uther dragged the filth-coated blade back and forth over the dead man’s shirt, then flipped it and repeated the process on the sword’s backside. When the weapon was clean, he replaced it in its scabbard and surveyed the cottage. Time to get paid.
He searched the smith’s body first and got lucky. A fat leather pouch was knotted to the man’s belt and when Uther cut it free, it clinked, heavy with coin. He opened it, saw the glint of gold amongst silver and smiled. Next, he removed a plain gold ring from the smith’s finger. He dropped this into the pouch along with the coins.
Uther picked up the fallen man's blade, the one that had pierced Uther’s armor, and examined its details. It was well made, the blade beneath the hilt engraved with twined serpents, its leather grip worked with silver filigree, and its pommel a polished silver sphere. It would fetch a good price. He used the torn shirt that had supplied his bandages to clean the blade then laid the sword on the hearth. He moved on to the cupboards and shelves, methodically ransacking them. There was little worth plundering: a few silver utensils and a pair of brass candlesticks. One item from the cupboards did have a practical use: a gunny sack half full of beans. Uther emptied the sack and used it to store what he’d so far collected.
When it was clear that there was little of value left in the cottage, Uther made his way to the forge. After seeing the smith’s sword, he had high hopes for the smithy. If there were pieces there of equal quality, it should be a very profitable raid.
The forge’s doors were open, but they faced west, away from the morning sun. Inside the smithy, the light was dim and shadows pooled in the corners. No fire burned in the forge although it looked as though someone had attempted to build one. Uther paused a moment to let his eyes adjust. A stone forge and a foot-powered bellows dominated the forge’s interior. A cooling-trough filled with clear water sat next to a heavy black anvil. Along the walls were wooden racks with carefully arranged tools. Uther saw barrels packed with nails, spikes, and iron stock. A few sturdy shelves contained pieces to be repaired: hoes, axes, spades and plow blades. In the forge’s deeper shadows squatted a heavy oak cabinet, reinforced with iron bands. It was tall as a man, half as wide, and a heavy lock secured its doors.
Uther picked the largest hammer from a rack and battered at the cabinet’s locked door until the wood split. Inside, polished steel caught the light. Uther picked through the inventory and retrieved the best pieces: a decorative dagger, spurs with silver rowels, and a supple mail shirt. Each piece was clearly the product of a skilled hand, the work of a master craftsman. The smith had been talented, no denying that. It bothered Uther now that he’d killed the man instead of taking him prisoner. Bad luck, he thought. A smith this talented would have commanded a small fortune on the auction block. But there was nothing to be done for it now. Next time, he’d remind himself to make a captive instead of a corpse.
Uther transferred the valuables from the broken cabinet to his sack then scoured the rest of the forge, adding a few more small pieces to his haul. By the time he left, his bag also held four engraved throwing knives, a silver-inlaid scabbard, and a palm-sized silver ingot. Were it not for his throbbing finger stubs, he would have left smiling.
From inside the shadowed tree line, Whit looked back toward his home. In the forest behind him, his mother breathed in ragged gasps, winded from the run across the fields. Baby Joff, unsettled, had begun to cry. Whit looked at his mother, the urgency of his expression clear in its meaning—Joff’s cries would draw the raider’s attention. His mother shook her head in understanding and began to rock Joff back and forth in her arms, cooing and whispering to reassure him. He settled almost instantly, his crying ended as abruptly as it had begun. Whit turned his attention back to their village.
He could see the raidships segmented, angular shape on its landing legs in the town commons. The raiders swarmed near their ship like termites around their queen. A sharp breeze blew from the village and Whit could hear screams but no sounds of combat. Bodies lay scattered across the village green and the faint aroma of burned vegetation drifted on the wind.
The raiders were hunting now, killing for sport. His heart jumped when he saw one raider moving at a jog toward their cottage. The man had snow colored hair and even from a distance, Whit could see his armor and hair were soaked with blood. Whit’s father was still inside, unaware. Whit’s instincts screamed for him to rush to his father’s aid, but his reason argued it was already too late. The Valkran would get there first. And if Whit dashed from the woods to draw his attention, he’d also draw attention to the spot where his mother hid with his baby brother. He could only watch in helpless rage as the raider loped toward their home, sword in hand.
The white-blond raider closed on the house and moved to crouch against it. Now, he was beside the front door with his shoulders pressed to the plaster wall. As Whit watched, the marauder twisted and leaned around the door jamb to peer inside. Three seconds later, he leapt up and exploded through the front door, screaming.
Whit listened, straining, and heard the ring of steel on steel. Reason roared he should go, get his mother and brother to safety—they’d lingered too long already. But he couldn’t leave. He waited, praying his father would sprint from the cottage’s open door and across the fields to join them. But the door stared back, an empty eye socket, dark and taunting. No one passed through it. The minutes crawled by and still Whit waited, knowing he should not.
Finally, when it was plain his father would not be coming with them, Whit turned to face his mother.
"Mum, we need to go". And with that, Whit led what remained of his family eastward into the Barrow Wood’s sheltering shadows.