Recommended reading by fans.
Kaplyn faces a dilemma. In a heart-
Their journey is fraught with danger and there are indications that demons are crossing the Divide, but are these random events or more worryingly an indication that Drachar’s might is once more on the rise?
Vastra reveals devastating news. He claims to understand the cryptic lines of an ancient prophecy, shocking Kaplyn in an attempt to sway his allegiance. A cataclysm of power will disrupt the very foundation of the worlds and a rent in the fabric of space will allow the spirit of a dead emperor, Shastlan, to cross the Divide. Not content with destroying one world his ghostly gaze now alights on another.
An epic fantasy set in a unique world as dragons, demons and guardian angels are set to clash.
“I highly recommend this novel to any fan of fantasy fiction.” SFBooks.com
By David Burrows
“Lay the body there,” Chanathan said pointing. The three men carrying Drachar’s corpse dropped their burden. It landed with a heavy thud on the woodland carpet. By now there was barely enough light to see.
The men looked disgusted by their task. An owl hooted and one of the men looked around, fear glinting in his eyes, as he scanned the hidden recesses between the trees.
“It’s an owl,” one of his companions said quietly. Chanathan could hear the gentleness in his voice. Only months ago, the sight of another man’s fear would have elicited sarcasm — or even bullying. However, after the recent horrors, there was a greater bond between these men. Battle brothers was a common enough expression, but only men who had stood shoulder to shoulder in the darkest moments of combat truly understood what that meant. Together, these men had felt blood splash their hands and blades. They had experienced the pervading stench of blood, sweat, and steel in their nostrils. That was how such close bonds were forged.
Chanathan stepped up to the corpse and spat in its eyes. Then he turned on his heels. Coming between the trees in single file were others who had fought demons only hours before. It had been close, but Drachar’s death had all but finished the bloody conflict. Even now, men of the alliance were hunting down the enemy as they sought to escape.
Many of the approaching men were sorcerers. All were clearly bone tired, stumbling as they came into the clearing. Even though they were exhausted, Chanathan knew that one final act was required to guarantee an end to the bloody war.
Ashona approached Chanathan. She looked close to tears and Chanathan felt pity overwhelm him. His own tears threatened. He choked down his emotions, but could not stop himself from taking her hand. Victory felt so very hollow — not at all how he had imagined it would be so many months ago. Death still befouled his mind like a toxin.
“Swiftly, we must bind his spirit!” he urged. “It must not be allowed to escape or the demons will crown him their king!” Chanathan said.
“Surely not!” Ashona protested. “How can the demons still follow him after what has happened? He failed them. He is dead. We have killed enemy sorcerers by the score. They cannot summon demons — not for a hundred years, at least.”
Chanathan shook his head. “You are wrong, I fear. He made a pact with the demons, a pact that even death cannot undo. He has given them everything they wanted: countless souls sent screaming to their world for eternal damnation. If they get his soul too, they will bow to him and call him lord. For a while at least his soul is in limbo. We must be the first to summon it.”
Ashona sobbed. “Then we have failed!”
“No. Not if we can banish his soul,” Chanathan encouraged her.
“And how can we do that?” Ashona pleaded, her eyes brimming. Chanathan looked past the grime of battle and stared gently into her eyes. With more affection than he had ever felt before, he tenderly lifted a strand of hair from her face.
Without replying, he turned to the other sorcerers who, by now, had spread themselves around the clearing. They were a sorry looking bunch, blood-
Some distance away, he could hear the army celebrating. Men called out to each other, glad to find friends and relatives alive, drinking away the cold fear instilled by demons only hours before. Abruptly, singing filled the air. Only troops fresh from the horrors of war could show such emotion. By comparison, the men around Chanathan were silent, spattered with blood, and barely able to stand.
“We must act swiftly. Until this night is done, his shade will be confined to his earthly body. You there, Carlan, Aswall, and Harecht! Draw a rune of binding around the corpse. Tarlam and Herest! Summon elementals at each corner of the rune. Air, fire, and water will do for what we need.”
The men hurried to complete their tasks, while the others fell back to watch. As they worked, the din from the army became background noise. Woodland creatures occasionally called out, distracting Chanathan from his musing. What he planned had never been tried before. He had to think! If this went wrong, he would doom his men, and himself.
Finally, the others were ready. He looked down at the corpse now lying at the centre of a rune, diligently drawn in the dirt. At each of the rune’s corners, tiny elementals glowed; their small voices clear above the other sounds around them.
The sorcerers gathered while the three soldiers hovered to one side, knowing that they were witnessing a truly significant moment in history. This was a solemn time.
Chanathan raised his eyes skyward. Casting a rune in the air with his hand, he called out loudly, “Drachar, I summon you!”
For a moment, nothing stirred. Then, a breeze caused the trees to sway, and for an instant, the rustle of leaves drowned out the distant celebration.
“Drachar!” Chanathan called more urgently. “You are summoned to pay for your crimes.”
A pungent smell filled the clearing. Unable to help themselves, some men stepped back, fear pounding in their hearts like poison coursing through their veins. A silver shape appeared and hovered eerily above the corpse.
“Bind them, both body and soul!” Chanathan ordered. Others immediately spoke, casting runes to strengthen their earlier spell.
The glow grew in intensity. The indistinct form of a man appeared. Hollow eyes stared deep into Chanathan’s soul. For a moment he wavered, but then, by his side, Ashona squeezed his hand, and he was glad of her presence.
“Foul creature! Abomination!” Chanathan roared.
The spectre laughed. “But I am one of you,” a ghostly voice whispered, grinding the nerves of everyone there. “I am one of the Eldric.”
“How dare you!” Chanathan shouted, suppressing a shudder. “You forsook us the moment you looked upon the demon world. Your twisted craving for power has destroyed you. You were banished. You were unmade and unnamed, the sands of your soul stained forever by the blood of betrayal. How dare you compare yourself to us?”
“You forget,” answered the now mirthless voice. “We were all banished. We left our homeland hundreds of years ago because our ancestors dared to look upon the demon world. I am more like you than you care to admit.”
Chanathan was stunned into silence. The spectre faded briefly and for a moment, Chanathan thought it was gone.
“Bind it!” Prince Ellard said, stepping forward, looking up at the spectre. “You are a traitor! You killed the king!”
“He killed me first,” the spectre said in a peevish tone.
“Damn you! You betrayed your people! We will not let you find your way to the demon world,” said Ellard. To Chanathan, it seemed that Ellard’s eyes flamed with passion.
“But you cannot stop me! I am Drachar! I do as I wish,” he bragged, “and it is my wish to damn you all!”
For a moment, no one made a sound. They stood in stunned disbelief. Even the revelry seemed to have paused. It was as though the world was holding its collective breath.
“But you are wrong,” Ashona said softly. At the start of the war, she had been such a gentle soul, but looking at her now, Chanathan held his breath at what he saw. Her eyes bored into Drachar’s and her shoulders were set in utter defiance. “We will banish you but not to where you expect to go!” she said. “Prince Ellard, give me your sword. Only one of the seven will help with this spell casting.”
Ellard stepped forward and handed her his weapon.
“What are you going to do?” Fear now tainted Drachar’s bravado. He appeared to shrink.
Ashona chanted as she drew a rune over the blade. Chanathan then realised her intent. The sword amplified the power of the person holding it. The rune was intended to open a gateway to another world. For a moment, Chanathan feared Ashona was opening a gateway to Hell. At first, he did not recognise the rune. Then, comprehension dawned.
Prince Ellard must also have realised for he rushed over to take back his sword. Chanathan laid a restraining hand on his shoulder. “It is alright. She knows what she is doing. She is opening a gateway not to another world, but between two worlds.”
Behind them, Drachar wailed. His form glowed brighter and the surrounding sorcerers’ voices became more urgent. At that moment, an elemental expired, its scream echoing into the night air.
“Help them!” Chanathan ordered. Others joined the sorcerers about the rune, summoning elementals to bind Drachar in place. Furiously, he struggled but too late. The gateway was complete, purple and green streaming from it.
“Go!” Prince Ellard commanded, laying his hand on his sword. The ghostly shape drifted towards the gaping rent in space. An icy wind gusted. It was but a prelude to the nothingness beyond.
“You shall not stop me!” he screamed. “I will return and then I will destroy you, your children, and their children!” The light from his ethereal form was being slowly sliced thinner and thinner, as it progressed through the gaping wound. Then, with a cry of abject terror, it was gone.
Ashona stopped casting the rune and the rent slammed shut. Drachar’s final scream faded away.
Night noises about the wood returned as though the banishment ritual had forbidden sound. Chanathan sensed that it had been too much for Ashona. She slumped to the ground, as though her legs would no longer support her. Others had been leaving but at her collapse, they paused.
Ashona cried out, “I see it! I see the future. Drachar will return! I see the fires! I see death!”
Chanathan knelt by her side. “Calm yourself. That is not possible.” Three soldiers came over, wanting to help but hesitating, too afraid to come closer.
Chanathan gently took Ashona’s face and made her turn to look at him. “We have won. We have banished his shade. This land is safe now.”
Ashona stared past Chanathan. He sensed she was seeing into another world.
Her voice was so low that he had to strain to hear her. By his side, one of the soldiers gasped. “It is a prophecy,” he murmured in awe.
When Tallin’s crown once more does shine,
Drachar’s shade will rise sublime.
Three royal princes, through time, will sleep.
An appointment with destiny, three kings will keep.
Trosgarth’s arm across the land will reach.
Of war and famine, his army will preach.
And one will stand to oppose his throne,
A king resurrected from within his mountain home.
Of air, fire, and water, he will be born
To aid the people when all else is forlorn.
“Ashona”” Chanathan wailed, shaking her shoulders, “Ashona!” he sobbed.
The light in her eyes dimmed. She was too close to her shaol, her guardian spirit, and that had always worried Chanathan.
“Ashona,” he cried.
Slowly she shook herself as though waking from a dream. “Thank the Kalanth!” Chanathan sighed, grinning with relief.
He helped her to her feet. Beside them, a soldier made a warding sign against evil, his mouth agape. Chanathan turned to the soldier. “Forget what you just heard. Do not mention it to anyone,” he told him. Chanathan doubted the soldier would listen though. When Ashona had spoken, Chanathan had felt the compulsion in her tone as well.
The man stared back blankly, angering Chanathan. “All of you!” Chanathan commanded. “Forget what has taken place, under pain of death.”
Ashona looked at him bewildered. “Why? What has happened?”
Chanathan looked at her, he was truly glad she was back. “Nothing. We have won a great battle and darkness has been banished from the world.”
Taking her hand, he guided her from the trees, towards hope and an uncertain future.
Behind them, the three soldiers remained for a short while. Suddenly, sensing the evil of the departed soul, they took to their heels, seeking the company of the living, eager to tell the tale of what they had just heard.
“Please, Emma,” Kaplyn said, giving her his most charming smile and using his softest tones normally reserved for special occasions, and this rated very high on his list of special occasions.
Emma pouted and Kaplyn knew he had won and she would do as he wanted, but for the sake of the game he continued the flattery. “You are very special to me and when I return…”
“And what will happen when you return? I am a serving maid. That is all…,” Emma flashed and Kaplyn knew he had made a mistake.
“But you are special to me, regardless of your position. You know that,” Kaplyn wheedled, coming closer and putting his hands on her shoulders, looking deep into her eyes, the way he knew she liked. He smiled again, raising his eyebrows in a questioning manner.
Emma returned the smile and beneath his hands he felt her melt.
“How long will you be gone?” she asked.
“Three weeks, perhaps four at the most,” he replied. In truth he had no idea. His plans were half formulated. Emma looked downcast all at once.
“I need to go, Em,” he said softly, using her pet name. “I am stifling here; I hate it.”
Emma looked up and he could see the confusion in her eyes. “Most people can only dream of being in your position. How can you hate it so much?” she questioned.
“I just do,” he replied. “I have no freedom. I am followed everywhere I go. That’s not a life.”
“But you are a prince…”
“Some prince!” he interrupted. “I’m ninth in line to the throne and some of my own brothers don’t even know me. Please,” he continued, “I am not asking a lot. Just distract the guard so that I can leave.”
“Not asking a lot? I know Sanfred. He’ll have his hands all over me before I can say how the Kalanth are you?”
That’s exactly what Kaplyn was hoping for. He too knew Sanfred and he also knew Sanfred fancied Emma. In his mind it was tonight or never and, to escape, sacrifices were needed.
“Look, here’s some gold,” Kaplyn said taking out a purse he had earlier put a couple of sovereigns in for just this occasion.
Emma’s eyes widened as she felt the coins within. “I would help you even without a bribe,” she said. “You know that.”
“Of course I do,” Kaplyn said taking her in his arms. The warmth of her body and scent of her hair almost made him reconsider the folly of his leaving, but then he hardened his resolve. His mind was made up.
“And when are you leaving?” Emma asked.
“Tonight,” he replied, huskily.
Emma pulled back, staring at his face as though trying to commit every line to memory. “You will come back?” she asked.
“I will return with tales to make my brothers green with envy,” Kaplyn grinned.
He went over to the bed and took up his sword, buckling it about his waist. A saddlebag was next, filled with provisions for the road, and then four cloth sacks with lengths of twine followed. “I’m going to get Star,” he said. Go down to Sanfred shortly. Make sure he is inside the guardhouse. That way he’ll not see me leave.
Kaplyn pulled on a woollen cloak, not particularly suited for an Allund prince, but one that he hoped would help him to blend in with a crowd. Looking at himself in a mirror, he saw a young man in his early twenties, long dark hair partly obscuring a handsome face that often won the heart of a young lady. His leather jerkin he had secretly acquired at the market a few weeks ago. Again is it was practical rather than flashy, as was his norm. His riding boots were expensive and, besides his sword, was the only item that might give away his privileged upbringing.
Kaplyn kissed Emma and, without a backward glance, left the plush rooms of his childhood, sweeping swiftly along the deserted corridors. Thick carpet covered his footfalls. The hour was late and lanterns lit the brightly decorated corridor.
Kaplyn’s heart was hammering but even still he grinned broadly. He was actually doing it. He was escaping. Through silent corridors, he traced his way to an exit, and all the while fortune remained with him. After descending a tight spiral stair, he made it to the palace back door without meeting anyone. Pausing by the heavy oak door, he listened before opening it a crack. As the door swung silently inwards, the smell of the stables greeted him. He couldn’t believe it was going so easily. The sounds of voices came to his ears, but the speakers were a long way off judging by the muffled tones.
Kaplyn stepped out into the night. The air was cool, not surprisingly so for early spring. Quickening his pace he hurried to the stables, not pausing to step into the deep shadow of the open door. Horses fidgeted and, ignoring these, Kaplyn went to Star’s stable, swinging open the wooden gate confining her. Star nodded her head in welcome. On a peg Kaplyn kept his bow and a ful quiver. He took them down for later.
He took the cloth sacks and tied one about each of Star’s hooves. She nickered and, knowing her as he did, he sensed that she didn’t understand what was happening.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered stroking her warm flank. “Just a night ride. That’s all.”
He went to fetch a saddle and a blanket and then set about preparing Star for their journey, talking to her softly all the while. Once he had completed his preparations, he took her rein and led her from the stable. This was going to be the difficult part, he realised, leading Star across the cobbled roads to the gate linking the palace to the town. Once through that he was confident he would escape.
As they went he was surprised how effective the sack cloths were proving in dampening the sounds of their passage and, before long, he came in sight of the gate. He blessed Emma for there was no sign of Sanfred. Hurriedly he led Star towards his goal, the pounding of his heart in his ears sounding loud enough to alert anyone in the vicinity. A few yards away, behind a door leading to the palace gardens, a dog started to bark. Kaplyn quickened his pace and then he was alongside the gate. He felt his skin prickle with excitement and, at any moment, he expected to be discovered. And then, all at once, he was through. Before him a narrow road, flanked with tall, rickety looking buildings, led to the city gates. The shops to either side were closed; although even this late there were already sounds of activity and a few lights within.
A little farther on and he encountered the first people. They were probably staff going to bakeries or other employment requiring fires to be stoked. A few cast Kaplyn enquiring looks and, for a moment, he feared that his clothes blended less well with the common folk than he thought. It then dawned on him what the problem was. Star still had the sackcloths over her hooves. He stopped to remove them before continuing, but the din of her iron shod hooves was too much to dare going much farther. Kaplyn walked her deeper into shadow in the lee of a large building. He had to wait for the dawn before the town gates were opened and reasoned that this location was as good as anywhere.
Gradually, as the sky lightened, more people started to appear and with them the occasional cart pulled by tired, dispirited looking horses. Kaplyn joined one as it passed, keeping a short distance behind it. With his heart seemingly in his throat, he followed the cart and driver to the gates. They were being opened and the guards were waving traffic out. There was no attempt to stop anyone leaving, and Kaplyn simply rode through the gate as though he had every right to do so.
A short way from the city walls, he kicked Star into a trot. A smile broke out over his face and he punched the air. “Yes!” he exalted. He had escaped, but what future lay before him he did not know.
The cracking of dry branches snapped Lars from his melancholy. Daydreaming was dangerous in a wood, especially with night approaching. Lars’ staff came up automatically and he turned to face the potential threat. A man crashed through the thick undergrowth, a cudgel raised in his right fist. His wild eyes screamed silent hatred as he bore down on the big man. Lars was a fighter and instinct took over. Other men might have blocked the cudgel’s downward stroke, but Lars knew that, in a fight, time was crucial. Without thinking, he lashed out with a straight arm blow, aiming the staff’s end at the man’s throat.
The combination of the man’s momentum and Lars’ blow snapped his assailant’s head back, jarring Lars’ arm in the process. His assailant’s legs buckled and he fell to the woodland floor, a scream impossible through his damaged throat. His eyes bulged and his hands went to his windpipe as he thrashed for air, grunting with the effort to breathe. Turning, Lars sought new enemies and, to his chagrin, several men advanced, forming a ring around him. Seeing their comrade disabled so quickly, they were cautious, but greed and poverty drove them on.
“Surround him,” one of the men shouted. Again Lars cursed his earlier lapse of concentration. A foolish mistake he should never had made. Slowly he turned, assessing the men before him, his staff held out, ready to counter an attack. They were a mixed bunch. All were filthy and covered in months of accumulated grime. Their clothes were torn and, where they had bothered, badly repaired. Most carried knives or cudgels and only two held swords.
“Move in together,” the man who had spoken earlier demanded. He seemed to be their leader. He pointed his sword towards Lars, but didn’t go forward himself. Lars kept turning but no one moved. His eyes kept straying to the leader’s sword, speckled with rust, the edge chipped and blunt. If the blade did not kill him, blood poisoning would. Focus; watch their shoulders and eyes, not their weapons, he thought.
The wounded man’s thrashing became wilder. Others glanced down at him. His face had turned blue and his tongue protruded as though seeking to absorb the air he so desperately needed. A few final kicks and then he was still, his body contorted in the final spasm.
“He’s killed Ballan,” one of the shorter men said unnecessarily. The others grumbled and then one man shouted a curse, leaping forward, his knife raised. Lars’ back was to him, but hearing the shout and cracking of twigs, he span around, sweeping the staff in an arc. The man ducked back as the staff whistled by his head, his eyes instantly turning from anger to fear. Lars stabbed down at him but he was already scuttling back out of range.
“He’s one man! Everyone attack him,” their leader shouted.
“You’ve got a sword. You attack him,” a man sneered.
Lars stared into the leader’s eyes, daring him. He was as tall as Lars, but lean. His nose must have been broken many times and so odd was the shape that it was barely recognisable. The leader waved at Lars with the sword’s tip. “After three,” he said. “One, two … three! he shouted, lunging forward.
Lars threw the staff forward, allowing it to slip through his fingers until he judged the length right. He grabbed the staff before the end left his hand and punched at the leader’s face. He felt the staff connect, but he was already turning, using all his strength to swing the staff in a wide circle. If anyone else was going to move, his action stopped them in their tracks as they rocked back on their heels to avoid the blow. Lars was strong and he put all his effort into the blow. The wood whooshed through the air, leaving no doubt as to his strength.
The leader fell back, cursing and clutching his head in his free hand. When he removed his hand to inspect it for blood, there was a neat red circle on his brow where Lars’ blow had connected.
“Anyone else who moves, dies,” Lars declared. He was afraid, but knew that he daren’t show that. These men were bullies and, no doubt, cowards, but their numbers might overcome their fear.
He started turning again so he could see them all. “Kill him,” a man wearing a fleece urged. He spat at Lars but made no move himself.
“He isn’t worth it,” another man said. He was fat and bald. One eye looked infected and was weeping, making it look like he was crying.
“He looks as poor as we do,” the man with the fleece commented.
“We are not quitting now!” the leader said. “He killed Ballan!”
“What do you care? You hated him,” the man with the weeping eye growled.
The leader smiled. Black gaps made his teeth seem all the more uneven. “Not until this fat pig is dead,” he spat.
“We need a bow,” one man said.
“Then go back to the camp and get one,” the leader raged. The man didn’t need further urging, and ran off between the trees, disappearing in an instant in the growing gloom.
Lars muttered a prayer, “Slathor, give me strength!”
“What did he say?” one of his tormenters asked.
“How the Kalanth do I know!” the leader roared.
Lars realised he had to do something before the other man returned with a bow. Turning, he tried to determine which man might break if he charged him. He assessed each man in turn, but one seemed more likely to break than the rest. He was a short man, with wild dancing eyes and an ugly, uncaring face. He held a sword awkwardly but if Lars had judged correctly, the sword would not matter. The man was also closest to the tree line, and if Lars could make it there then he could escape into the darkness.
His mind made up, Lars roared, leaping at the man and swinging his staff. He had selected his target well, but, instead of fleeing, the man stood his ground, petrified by the suddenness of the larger man’s attack. Lars swung his staff, its length keeping him from the other man’s sword. The staff cracked against the other man’s temple sending him flying. The blow was well timed and its shock raced along Lars’ arm.
Not stopping, Lars leapt over the body as two men sought to cut off his escape. Now that the action had started, adrenalin conquered the other men’s fear. With shouts they were all converging in on the big man. Lars flicked the staff out at the man on his right, missing his opponent who dodged to one side. It slowed him, but already the man to Lars’ left was closing the gap.
“He’s killed Arland,” Lars heard from behind him. “Take him alive!”
Someone threw their cudgel at Lars’ back, catching him between the shoulder blades and knocking the breath from his body. Lars stumbled forward, his attack on the man to his left failing as his loss of balance threw off his aim. Lars gasped for air as the man to his left grabbed his staff but, rather than slow down, Lars let go, abandoning the weapon. The other man, not expecting to take the weapon so easily lost his balance, falling to the ground.
Someone from behind Lars tumbled into his legs, throwing him to the woodland carpet. Another man lashed out with his cudgel, striking Lars across the shoulders. He gritted his teeth and grabbed a handful of dirt in agony.
“I want him alive,” the leader roared.
Twisting, Lars threw one man off him but the others had caught up. Fear of their leader stopped their blows. Lars lashed out with his fist, catching one man under the chin and throwing him backward. Someone grabbed his arm and a man threw himself across his legs. Roaring his defiance Lars threw out another punch. Lars yelled as his hair was grabbed from behind, forcing his head back. A knife pricked his flesh and a thin trickle of blood ran down his neck. Lars stilled.
“Don’t move,” the man with the knife said. His breath was foul and combined with the stink of his clothing was almost overpowering.
Cursing, the leader ran at Lars and booted him in the face. Lars rocked back on the ground while the men struggled to hold him down.
“You killed my brother,” the leader screamed, kicking Lars in the ribs. “Tie his hands and feet. I will make you suffer,” the leader continued, breathless with rage, his eyes bulging and spittle running down his chin.
The men did as they were asked and shortly Lars could not move. “Pick him up and carry him to the camp,” the leader ordered.
It took three men to lift Lars, whilst two more picked up the body of the short man Lars had killed. Lars could see the bruise on his temple where he had crushed his skull.
Lars tried to escape and his efforts caused the men carrying him to let go. He made it to his knees before the leader stood over him, his sword aimed at Lars’ heart. “Tonight you will die,” he said. “Slowly. And before you die you will beg me for mercy, but do not expect to receive any.”
Lars summoned all of his strength, trying to break his bonds. He must not die. He had to find his wife and son. With a roar of rage he threw every bit of his strength against his bonds. His muscles bunched and for the briefest moment he felt his bonds give.
The pommel of the leader’s sword crashed against his temple, blackness engulfed him and he knew no more.
A Chance Encounter
Kaplyn reined in his mount. The distant scream echoed in his mind. What sort of animal could make such a noise? Breathlessly he waited for another sound but none came. Even the woodland birds and animals fell silent at the inhuman cry.
Silently he cursed himself for being a fool. He should not have entered the wood. The path he was following had long since petered out and to make matters worse, he was lost. That was not quite true; he knew where he was, in a wood somewhere between Dundalk, his home, and Pendrat, his destination. His earlier excitement had waned. Now he was cold, hungry and afraid, the latter being a new and unwelcome experience for him.
Never before had he been so alone. Always, there were people close by. Now his neighbours might be outlaws, krell or worse. He glanced around, assessing the light; judging it too dark to ride safely. Sighing, he dismounted before patting Star’s flank.
“Good girl,” he said, more to hear a voice rather than to calm her.
Wearily he took her rein and led her on, looking for somewhere safe to camp. The scream had unnerved him and, more than anything, he craved the company of people. He couldn’t keep the tales from his childhood from his mind, of krell and other fell creatures. He tried to dismiss them by reminding himself that these were fairytales and nothing more, but a fear of the unknown kept returning to haunt him. The Krell Wars were real enough, but they were many years ago. Krell, if they still existed, roamed only the wildest regions such as the mountains and forests of the world. The wood he was in was far too small and too near the Allund capital to conceal krell. The king’s troops regularly patrolled between the cities, the way was safe, or at least it ought to be…
At that moment Kaplyn stopped. Since the scream, he had walked for quite some time or at least felt he had. The trees were merciless, growing close together, making him force a passage. His hands and face were scratched and sweat now made these sting. What had made him stop though was not the trees, but a faint glow ahead. He squinted, trying to reassure himself that there was indeed a light. He continued forward when he heard voices. Perhaps there was a clearing and charcoal workers, he thought. He smelled the air but could only scent damp and decaying wood.
Loosely looping Star’s rein over a branch he unhooked his bow from the saddle and threw his quiver over his shoulder. He bent the bow to string it and once armed felt marginally better. Taking stock of his surroundings, he inched forward trying to make no noise. All around him was the faint rustling of branches and old leaves as the wind blew softly. Before too long he saw a line of trees and just beyond these, a small rise crowned with thick bushes. He became convinced that between the trees there was indeed a glow. Dropping to all fours, he crawled towards the bushes, parting branches to see through.
Before him, the ground dipped into a glade where a large fire cast enough light to see by. A man was pacing around the fire and four men were astride a fallen tree trunk whilst three others slouched on the ground. They gave the impression of men used to living rough, hardened by nights spent in the wild and, now he had seen them, there was no doubting that they were outlaws. Some wore leather tunics torn and stained with wear, while others had thick woollen cloaks whose colour had long since faded. Their weapons were crude, mainly cudgels or knives, although one wore a sword tucked through his belt. Only the pacing man wore both a sword and scabbard, probably taken as plunder.
The pacing man abruptly stood still and threw an arm out, indicating beyond the circle of light to the rear of the camp.
“Bring him here,” he growled ominously. His voice carried easily to Kaplyn. “It’s time to deal with the man who killed my brother.”
Two men arose from the log and walked away from Kaplyn, disappearing amongst the trees. Kaplyn ducked lower, thinking that he must return to Star. Just as he was about to leave, the men returned, pushing another man roughly before them. He stumbled forward a few steps in a manner suggesting his hands were bound behind his back.
He was a big man, broad across the chest, with powerful shoulders. His hair and beard were blond, which was a surprise to Kaplyn for Allunds were brown-
At that moment, his captives were forcing him to his knees, kicking the back of his legs and pushing down on his shoulders. The prisoner resisted but their efforts were too much for him and he collapsed to his knees.
Striding towards the prisoner the leader raised his foot and slammed his heel into the prisoner’s face. Toppling backwards, the big man managed to stop himself from falling. When he looked up his beard was flecked with blood.
“You will not have an easy death,” the outlaw spat with undisguised hatred. “You killed two of my men. One was my brother—for that, you’ll pay.” He circled the prisoner before coming to a halt behind him. “The only thing is … I haven’t decided how to kill you—yet.”
“Let me finish him,” one of the men sitting on the trunk offered, holding a long knife in his hand, his eyes shining with anticipation.
The leader shook his head. “He’s mine. I want to see him squirm. Make sure that you hold him firmly,” he waved his hand in the direction of two of his men. He then crossed to the fire as his men leapt to their feet to stand either side of the kneeling prisoner, each gripping a shoulder. The leader’s dagger reflected the firelight as he drew it before plunging it into the fire.
“Let's see how strong he is without his eyes,” he said through gritted teeth.
In his hiding place, Kaplyn tensed and he felt the colour drain from his face. Part of him wanted to leave and yet another part of him wanted to aid the prisoner—but what could he do? If the outlaws caught him, they would kill him. It was a dreadful dilemma, to stay and help or to leave, knowing that an innocent man might die because of that decision. Watching the outlaws torment the prisoner, anger blossomed in his chest and suddenly he knew what he had to do.
Crawling backwards, he sought deeper shadows before rubbing soil on his face to mask its whiteness, spitting on his fingers to soften the soil. Rising slowly he stood braced against the trunk of a tree. His hunting bow, while not meant for battle, was a stout weapon. He placed two arrows point first into the ground by his side before nocking a third. Taking aim he prayed to the Kalanth for an alternative.
The men either side of the prisoner struggled to hold him down as he fought against them. Removing the now glowing knife from the fire their leader advanced, clearly enjoying himself as he brought his knife deliberately towards the other man’s eyes.
Kaplyn struggled with his conscience until he could not afford to wait any longer. Drawing his bow a fraction more, he released the arrow. A scream of agony rang through the trees as the arrow hammered into the outlaw’s shoulder. With a mingled wail of pain and rage, he dropped his knife.
In quick succession, Kaplyn loosed the other two arrows. He was good with a bow and could put ten arrows in flight in a count of sixty heartbeats. His aim, after the first arrow would not be good, but the effect was what he wanted.
One arrow hit the trunk the men were sitting on and the other flashed between two others. All eyes turned towards the trees, looking in Kaplyn's general direction but not at him. He kept still and it was soon clear from their bewildered looks that the outlaws could not see him. Silently he drew another arrow from his sheath and nocked it.
As though released from a spell, the men sitting on the fallen trunk flung themselves backward, behind the improvised barricade. The two men holding the prisoner let go as they, too, dived for cover behind the trunk.
“Who’s out there?” one man cried out to his companions.
“Town guard?” came a muffled reply.
“Can’t be,” said another. “We’re too far from the town. The guard would never come this far.”
“King’s troops then?” came back a timid reply.
“Quiet!” snapped the leader. “Cease wagging your tongues and use your bloody ears!” He alone was standing, clutching his wound; his face twisted in pain. After a moment, he seemed satisfied. “Get up,” he ordered. When no one responded, he went over to the log and delivered a hefty kick to some poor unfortunate. A grunt followed.
“There’s only one man, otherwise they would have attacked by now. Get out there and find whoever shot me!”
An outlaw timidly climbed to his feet. Kaplyn aimed and loosed another arrow that thudded into the trunk sufficiently close to send him scurrying back for cover.
“He’s a good shot,” Kaplyn heard.
“I don’t care,” the outlaw chief screamed. “Get out there and bring me his head!” He delivered another kick and Kaplyn heard a further grunt of pain.
Finally, one man dared to rise, either out of bravado or because of his leader’s brutality. The man sprinted for the line of trees to Kaplyn's left. Kaplyn let fly an arrow but his aim was poor and the man escaped. Time was against him now with an outlaw amongst the trees. Again he feared capture, but he could not leave the other man—not now.
Seeing their colleague’s success and fearful of their leader’s anger, two more men ran after the first. Events were now so out of control that Kaplyn had to shoot more accurately. The arrow hit one of the running men in the lower back, spilling him to the ground with a cry of pain. Briefly, the man struggled to crawl forward, but his strength left him and he collapsed. The other man managed to reach the tree line where he disappeared from view.
Behind the log no one dared move, even their leader dropped behind cover, still berating the others for their cowardice. Forgotten and recognising an opportunity to escape, the prisoner climbed with difficulty to his feet and started to run towards the trees in the opposite direction taken by the two outlaws.
The outlaw leader, seeing his prisoner escaping, shouted out in rage. He stood up. A well-
Kaplyn shot two more shafts at the tree trunk in quick succession before scooping up his quiver of dwindling arrows. He ran through the thick vegetation, aiming in the general direction the prisoner had taken. He had little difficulty in finding him, following the sound of cracking twigs and the louder snap of branches.
Before Kaplyn could reach him the large blond man stopped and turned to face him; his feet firmly planted and defiance in his eyes even though his hands were bound.
“I’m a friend,” Kaplyn said, skidding to a halt.
The big man relaxed. “Untie me,” he replied, turning his back and offering his bound wrists.
Kaplyn wanted to continue running and the delay made his heart hammer even faster. However, he slung his bow across his back and drew a dagger. As quickly as he could he cut the bonds.
The big man rubbed at his chafed wrists. “Thanks,” he whispered.
“Go!” Kaplyn urged. “They’ll be after us.”
They jogged deeper into the wood, but branches lashed their flesh, forcing them to walk. In the confusion, Kaplyn had no idea where Star was. He was considering whether he could find her when something caught his attention. He grabbed the other man’s shoulder, forcing him to crouch. Not far away he heard someone crashing through the vegetation.
“They’re over here,” someone shouted.
Kaplyn kept a firm grip on the other man’s shoulder.
“Stay still,” Kaplyn whispered. At first, he thought the outlaws had discovered them, but the sound of their passage through the vegetation was fading. “Come on,” Kaplyn whispered and led them away from the direction the outlaws had gone, taking care to keep noise to a minimum.
After a while, Kaplyn said softly, “That was close. We nearly stumbled into an outlaw. Something must have distracted him.”
“Probably an animal,” the other man suggested softly.
Kaplyn nodded, thinking about Star. “We need to keep walking. They’ll still be looking for us.”
In silence, they continued for the better part of the night, stopping occasionally to listen for signs of pursuit. After several stops Kaplyn decided they were finally safe; he collapsed where he stood, breathing a sigh of relief.
“I’m shattered,” the big man said, sitting down across from Kaplyn with his back against a trunk. Dark rings circled his eyes and he looked barely able to stand. “My name’s Lars,” he said, holding out his hand. Kaplyn shook it.
“Kaplyn,” he returned.
“I’m grateful you came along when you did.”
“What happened?” Kaplyn whispered.
Lars shook his head. “I was foolish enough to enter the wood, that’s what happened! They must have seen me as an easy target, armed only with a walking staff. I put up a fight, but when the second man fell, their leader went wild, ordering me to be taken alive. Their numbers overwhelmed me.”
The two men fell silent for a moment, each listening to the night noises, trying to discern if the outlaws were still following them. Above, an owl hooted and then there was silence.
“I’ve never seen anyone with blond hair before. Where are you from?”
“Gorlanth. It’s far across the sea.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
Lars nodded. “Not many people have. Few Allunders even know land exists across the sea. A storm keeps all but the bravest captains close to the shore. Every day I pray to return home, to my wife and son.”
Kaplyn saw the hurt reflected deep within his eyes. In respect for the other man’s need for silence, he turned his thoughts to their predicament, estimating that about half the night remained. “We need to leave,” he announced at last.
“Can’t we rest here, for a while at least? After all it would be safer continuing in the morning, when it’s light.”
Kaplyn was not so sure. The wood made him nervous and he was keen to leave. He conceded, however, that it was more dangerous travelling in the dark.
“Very well, we’ll stay here, but we need to take turns on guard.”
Lars nodded and Kaplyn offered to stand the first watch. For a while he sat awake, listening to Lars’ snoring which seemed loud enough to attract a host of outlaws let alone whatever creatures lurked in the wood. Kaplyn thought about his brothers and how they would handle this situation. Their memory made him smile. Karlan, the eldest, was pompous in the extreme. He would have ordered Lars to stand watch while he slept soundly. For a moment, Kaplyn felt a pang of jealousy towards Lars. Why should he sleep while Kaplyn was awake? Then he considered the experience Lars had just suffered and decided to let him rest.
His thoughts turned to Emma and he felt a twinge of guilt. She and Sanfred might be in trouble by now. He would make amends upon his return he decided, but the guilt remained.
He regretted the loss of his belongings and especially Star, nevertheless he realised there was no going back. He had his purse and a few gold coins secreted into the lining of his leather jerkin so he could afford to replace his losses. Then his mind turned to the man he had shot. Even though he was an outlaw, he hoped he had not killed him. It was an uncomfortable thought and one that would prey on his mind for some time.
After a while, when Kaplyn felt that he could not stay awake any longer, he shook Lars’ shoulder. The big man stirred and looked up blearily. “Your turn to keep guard,” Kaplyn said.
Lars grumbled, sat up and looked out into the darkness. Kaplyn waited to make sure his companion was taking his duty seriously, then laid down and instantly was asleep.