by Matthew Morde
Tell us the story of the Enthralled? That is the tale you wish to hear? For a wandering bard, it is not a tale often requested. Hardly at all, to be sure. Its conclusion soaks one in a brine of melancholy and makes the beer taste bitter. For my sort, we who earn our bread and wine with prose and whose robustness reflects the appreciation of how our words and epics are received, could be excused for refusing to tell such a grim tale. They say the memory of the bard is neatly laid out like scrollwork, yet I know more than one traveling poet who will feign forgetfulness when asked to recite the founding of the Necron warriors. Others more honest, if not more bold, simply refuse to tell such a depressing tale. Minstrels say surly ears make for tight fists. It is true. But as I look around this hall and see fresh young faces soon to take on the first creases of wear, and those of us here far more crinkled and wary, concerned for these young folk, yearning for them to find wisdom, I know I must bow to the request. For while my telling might not reap a gratuity, a tale such as this, heeded with a heavy heart, makes for more peaceful lands. Not to mention safer roads for worldly travelers such as myself.
The women and men of Orell’s army were mortal once, just as the timbers of a warship were once trees. The purer the shipwright’s materials, the greater strength of his designs. Such is how it is with the dark sorcerers. When bewitching women and men, the more virtuous and pure of heart, the more powerful and devastating their enthrallment. The story of the Enthralled follows its most powerful warrior, the Necron commander who was once a kind and thoughtful youth named Heathel. Let us turn our mind’s eye to an era nearly two-hundred years ago, to a kingdom now lost, a realm once called Baudlin.
So fetch a wineskin and fill your flagon. Relax. Amidst you is a bard who stacks words like the ancient masons of Palapol raising their mourning walls of obsidian brick, erecting their glistening black steles that still captivate mortals with their lustrous history to this day. With these words, a monument will be raised, magnificent and dreadful, and all the more remarkable for the truth it conveys. This is how the necromancer of Derethol, an evil wizard known as Orell, created his faithful and unquestioning legion of deathless warriors.
Enough prelude. See the visions in my voice. Hear my telling of this little history and doubt not its truth.
The Kingdom of Baudlin was unsettled by tragedy. Its prince had perished in a fire and the young man’s father, King Densun, ordered a royal funeral to honor his beloved son. Baudlin was not a large kingdom and many of its peasants journeyed the modest distances from the towns and villages surrounding the capital to pay respect to the dead prince. Many more came to witness the pageantry of the grand procession.
Among the mourners and the curious from the countryside was Heathel, a youth of seventeen years, tall and thin like a birch tree, with a tangled nest of brown hair and a long hawkish nose perched between a pair of sharp intelligent eyes. He lived in Pale Meadows, a prosperous village high in the mountain valleys known as the High Dales. There, in the pine-coated foothills of the Mother Mountains, Heathel’s parents supported their many children by breeding and selling horses.
Heathel was accompanied by his best friend, a bold and lively youth of similar years, named Bon. The son of a wealthy silversmith, Bon carried himself like a nobleman. Tall, broad-shouldered, with long auburn hair and eyes that sparkled with blue-tinted gaiety, his handsome presence and boisterous nature drew the attention of all nearby. While Heathel was soft-spoken and humble, Bon was boastful and arrogant. The young men seemed perfect to despise one another, especially as they competed in Pale Meadows’ three most popular entertainments; hunting, archery, and horse racing. They were equally matched when hunting the elk and deer of the Mother Mountains. The young silversmith’s aim with the bow was a bit keener, while the son of the horse breeder won out most contests involving a saddle. Competition forged their friendship and made the pair inseparable.
Eager to witness the regal spectacle and escape their dull village for a day or two, Heathel and Bon borrowed horses from Heathel’s parents and rode to the capital. Neither youth had ever seen the prince alive, nor shed any tears upon hearing of his death. While Heathel felt a stranger’s sorrow for the King’s loss, Bon wondered who would inherit the prince’s private castle.
They arrived in the city of Baudlin the afternoon of the funeral and found the streets of the capital flooded with people. Only one small stretch of road was kept clear by the city garrison; the common avenue that ran half a mile from Baudlin castle to the city’s grieving yard.
Stabling their horses at an inn, Heathel and Bon wedged their way through the expectant crowds congregating in the public grazing grounds, pushing toward the cobblestone road that divided the common. When Heathel’s politeness and Bon’s determined nudging failed to make their way any deeper into the throng, the young men abandoned their goal of reaching the row of polished soldiers lining the road and turned toward a gnarled oak tree on the edge of the common. The upper branches were filled with small children, while larger gawkers nested on the thicker limbs below. Neither too proud nor too mature for tree climbing, Heathel and Bon leapt up and snatched the lowest branches, then deftly pulled themselves into the canopy. City folk sniffed disdainfully below while smaller children in the tree marveled at the athletic pair as Heathel and Bon climbed higher and higher, reaching the uppermost branches. Like a pair of idle vultures, they popped their heads above the leaves. Below them stretched a clear view of the entire avenue guarded by the King’s soldiers.
“Can you imagine living in that?” Bon asked with a glint of envy, nodding his head at the castle.
“Castles are cold and damp,” replied Heathel. “I’ll take a warm cottage.”
“Warm cottages do not come with feasts and serving girls,” Bon winked lasciviously.
They both chuckled. Bon turned from the castle to the grieving yard, not far below the oak tree.
“How long do we have to wait?” he asked as he looked at the stone shrines to the dead.
Before Heathel could respond, a noise from the castle gate seized their attention.
The drawbridge was lowered, the clink of its chains silencing the crowd with a long, metallic shush. As heads turned to the castle, the drawbridge settled and a portcullis beyond began to rise. The slow, rhythmic pulse of funeral drums echoed from within the castle, accompanied by the melancholic whine of brass horns. The procession had begun.
As was the custom of nobles and peasants alike in the old kingdoms of Derethol, a small anonymous child led the mourners. Dressed in a gray tunic and cowl that hid all but her mouth and chin, she walked slowly ahead of the procession. Cradled in her hands at her waist was a dark green gourd with a carved face lit from within by a candle. Behind the simple presence of the child, the funeral procession lost its humble proceedings. A royal parade followed, led by banner men bearing the sigils of the noble houses invited by the King to join the procession. These banners were decorated with the animals, some real, some fantastical, that represented the ancient and powerful families who walked somberly behind. A brown silhouette of twin coyotes peering out from behind a tree against a green field represented the House Fenrell. A purple peacock clutching golden shafts of wheat on a white plain stood for the Croys. House Thornwood, the most powerful family in Baudlin apart from the King’s royal line, maintained a plain black banner with a red rose crossed with a silver mace. King Densun’s House Peakrell was represented by a golden silhouette of a pegasus against a blue sky speckled with stars made of riveted gold coins.
Heathel recognized but a few of the standards, yet he was enthralled by each. The artful blend of colors, the proud and silent beasts, dazzled the peasant youth. Bon eagerly pointed out each banner that he recognized. The son of a prosperous tradesman and merchant, Bon could identity twice as many noble houses as his friend.
Behind the sigils came the drummers dressed in the same funereal gray as the small child leading the procession. They beat a slow cadence that seemed to rein in the marcher’s pace. Heathel noticed that the horn players had remained in the castle.
A lavish but quiet mob followed behind the orderly drummers’ ranks. Heathel turned his attention to Baudlin’s most powerful families who made up the royal court. The kingdom elite wore the muted garb reserved for lamentation, although their funereal dress was still of the finest fabrics. Any two nobleman wore more silver than Bon could ever hope to find in his father’s shop. Some members of the court, Heathel noted, somehow managed to appear solemn and haughty at the same time. It was almost as though they relished mourning before the kingdom.
After the cream of Baudlin society passed by, the might of Baudlin’s military followed. The royal legion emerged from the castle, marching four abreast, each legionnaire armed as though the grieving yard ahead was an enemy castle that had to be captured before the prince could be laid to rest. Three-hundred men wore black leather armor stamped with saucers of iron, broad rimmed iron helms, and dark blue cloaks. A short sword was sheathed in each man’s belt, in every right hand was clutched a spear and every left, a shield. These were round, lacquered black and covered in a mesh of thin copper bands.
Heathel and Bon were captivated. Remember, this was the time before the sorcerers’ empires, a feudal time of petty kingdoms that could muster small armies. A standing army of three hundred soldiers, a modest band today, was a force to be reckoned with two-hundred years ago. King Densun’s royal legion was glamorous and astounding to both the more worldly folk of the capital, as well as the bucolic peasants.
After all this spectacle came at last the body of the prince. As the cart bearing his remains rolled across the drawbridge, Heathel felt the quiet of the crowd steep into silence. His own heart grew sad for the King, who had yet to appear. The prince’s conveyance to the Eternal Realm was pulled by a single white ox and escorted by a dozen gray-clothed priests of the Church of the Stars. Laying on the raised wagon bed was the shrouded prince’s remains. Heathel knew little about the deceased other than it was said that the prince was twenty-three when he died. Stories claimed he was an athletic and sturdy young man. Yet as Heathel gazed at the bundle jostling on the cart bed, he thought it too small to have ever been a grown man. The glorified wrappings resembled a parcel delivery.
Behind the cart surrounded by priests, the King brought up the rear of the procession. The King was escorted between two pairs of armored knights, a small honor guard composed of his most trusted champions. Heathel let his eyes linger on the warriors encrusted with gilt-edged armor trailing fine cloaks, and was reminded of fluorescent seashells glinting in the sun. He looked from the resplendent knights back to the king. Heathel had never seen the man to whom he and everyone he knew pledged their loyalty. He was astonished to discover King Densun was a pale and brittle man, a wizened creature who sat hunched forward atop his massive horse like a desiccated beetle. As the King rode by the tree in which Heathel and Bon stood, Heathel saw in Densun’s wrinkled visage, neither sorrow nor anger. Simply blankness. Emotion seemed to have been drained from the ruler’s face like the juices sucked from a yellow grape.
Heathel witnessed most of the procession in awe, but the King’s detached stare struck a dissonant tone. It made him question the relationship of such a grand ceremony to the prince’s tragic death. The prince had died in a manner that seemed horrible and sad to Heathel. Were it not for the somber faces of those marching by, the peasant from Pale Meadows would have thought this parade through the capital to be some sort of show or celebration. He wondered if others were as confused.
Heathel leaned through the leaves toward his companion.
“Does it not seem too much?” he whispered.
“What do you mean?” asked Bon, his gaze transfixed on the gathering in the grieving yard below. The banner men had spread among the crypts while the nobles formed a crowd around a central dais. The drummers had parted to form a short gauntlet between the elevated platform and the road, through which the head of the legion now passed.
“It’s a lot of flash and pomp, don’t you think?”
Bon shot his friend an incredulous sneer.
“Have a little respect,” he hissed. “Your prince is dead.”
Blushing, Heathel clenched his lips and returned his attention to the ceremony.
The soldiers formed tidy rows behind the drummers while the ox and wagon were guided alongside the dais. The priests collected the remains of the prince and gently placed the body atop a ceremonial altar while several dignitaries made their way to the platform. They were joined by the King and his champions. Densun and his four knights were met below the dais by four pages who had emerged from the grieving yard. Servants of the King and not disciples of the Church, Heathel noted that the stable boys had been waiting discretely in the yard. The peasant youth wondered how much planning had gone into this ceremony.
The King struggled up the stairs to the dais, leaning heavily on one of his knights. He stopped behind the altar and stared blankly at the small gray bundle before him. The drummers stopped and the city was quiet.
For a long while, no one stirred. All eyes were on King Densun, who continued to pour his vision onto the altar, perhaps searching for some hope that his heir might yet live, that this funeral was all a mistake. As the delay stretched on, a figure parted itself from the elite gathering just behind the King on the dais. Heathel’s eyes were drawn to the movement, watching as a slender man with long corn-colored hair dressed in dark green robes glided smoothly up to the King and leaned in to whisper in Densun’s ear. Behind him, Heathel’s keen eyes noted, several men and women shifted uncomfortably. The King’s champions in particular watched the interaction with stony eyes, yet did not move to interfere. The King nodded and the man in the green robes motioned to the head priest.
“Who is that?” whispered Heathel. Bon shook his head.
The blond haired man lay a hand on the King’s shoulder and together they stepped back from the dais. A priest took their place and addressed the crowd, though his voice carried little beyond the grieving yard. Heathel found himself leaning forward, straining to hear the holy man’s words.
“…son of Densun Peakrell, warden of Onion Pass, prince and heir to the throne of Baudlin…”
“Put a little heart into it,” he grumbled.
Heathel did not reply. He admitted that the priest’s voice was pinched and quiet, but as he described the virtues of the deceased, the holy man’s tone was sincere.
“…charitable and kind, cherished for his sharp wit and kind-natured jests. A clever prince destined to be a wise king. Tonight, under our sacred constellations, we shall offer up his essence into the ether…”
The priest raised his hand to the sky and uttered a blessing in the language of the ancients. Heathel understood not a word of it, although he had heard it spoken by the priest in his village. It signaled to the young man that the end of the ceremony was drawing near.
As expected, the priest concluded before melting back into the dignitaries on the dais. The fair-haired man whispered into the King’s ear once more and the King nodded. Densun hobbled forward, leaving his advisor behind. As the former stood over the altar once more, the latter pulled up the sleeves of his robe and clasped his arms together, so that each palm cozied on the opposite forearm. The knights and noblemen nearby inched away from the man’s peculiar stance, their faces apprehensive as the green-robed man closed his eyes and silently moved his lips.
“He’s a sorcerer!” Heathel exclaimed, his voice louder than he had intended. Murmurs spread through the peasantry below. Bon shook his head.
Before Heathel could argue, a girl in the branches below spoke in a hushed but hurried tone.
“He is the sorcerer Orell,” she said haughtily, brandishing her knowledge over the country commoners. “He came to the city last fall to serve the King.”
“A wizard?! Were it true, the whole kingdom would know of it. He must be a charlatan.”
The little girl grew indignant.
“You country folk don’t know a fountainhead from a sewer,” she sneered. “He’s a true sorcerer, you’ll see.”
“Uh-huh.” Bon waved off the little girl.
“We see his powers all the time. We’re used to such feats here in the city. Orell…”
The girl squeaked in fright as a green cloud exploded above the dais and a blast of air shook the tree. Just as startled, Heathel and Bon shrank into the leaves as they clenched the swaying branches.
“By the stars!” Bon exclaimed as the cloud spun into a spire not much larger than a windmill, before molding itself into a green figure some thirty feet tall, hovering just as much distance above the ground. While the peasants from the country cringed and cried out in fright, their city brethren let out a collective “ooh” that halted the flight of their bucolic neighbors.
Heathel was too astonished to be frightened. He had never seen a sorcerer nor had he witnessed one’s powers. Orell maintained his pose, holding his own arms and twitching his lips silently while invisible forces shaped and refined the specter above. In a few moments, a sharply defined figure stood in the sky. An ivy colored, broad-shouldered, handsome king sporting an emerald-hued crown hovered imperiously over the grieving yard. Heathel gazed into the phantasm’s stern countenance as the creature surveyed the mob below. The giant king’s features seemed familiar. Heathel tried to recall where he had seen such a face before, when his eyes shifted to the shrunken form standing by the altar, directly below the giant king’s feet.
“King Densun,” Heathel whispered to himself. The specter was indeed a representation of the King. A younger, healthier, vastly larger and green-tinted version of the grizzled man below.
The specter opened its mouth and a deep, melodious voice roiled across Baudlin like thunder.
“Vengeance!” the specter cried, his eyes twinkling with green rage. “Vengeance for my son!”
Confused murmurs rippled through the crowd. The giant responded, as though hearing the collective thoughts below.
“You have all heard the same lies,” he said. “It is true, a fire swept through my son’s castle in the Onion Pass. The prince burned, but not because of a grease fire in the kitchen or an overturned candle in the steward’s offices. The smithy was not left unattended, the forge’s embers did not escape and wreak havoc.”
The giant paused, his cloudy cheeks filing with wind.
“Assassins!” burst out the green King. “Assassins set my boy ablaze.”
Shouts rang from the crowd, cries of disbelief and fury. As the cacophony rose, Heathel perceived the floating giant swell slightly in size, its cloudy textures hardening, its ethereal qualities becoming more tangible.
“Assassins turned his skin to ash and scoured his bones with flame.”
The giant’s voice rose until Heathel’s ears rang. Covering them with his hands, he could not bear to stare at the terrible monster above. Instead, his eyes found the motionless source of the rage; the pale, wrinkled little man on the dais below, and the blond sorcerer channeling the spectacle above.
“And do you know from where these assassins spawned? What nefarious kingdom dispatched these merciless fiends?”
Baffled, the crowd cried out that they did not.
“WHO?!” they demanded.
“None other than our peaceful neighbors to the north. Traitors sent through the Frostmouth. Murderers dispatched through the Onion Pass, across my son’s lands. Their orders signed by Queen Celia herself, ruler of that den of butchers and thieves, the kingdom Theria.”
Madness took the crowd. The king’s calls for vengeance were echoed below, followed by declarations of war. In Heathel’s tree, beside the astonished youth, his friend Bon took up the call.
“To war! To war, my King!” he screeched, emptying his lungs at the ghost.
The giant raised a fist the size of an ox head.
“Theria shall pay for their treachery. After winter has passed…”
The crowd groaned. Winter was long in the mountainous realm of Baudlin. Fall had only just begun and the people were anxious to avenge their ruler and their murdered prince.
“We will march on the Frostmouth. That dreaded fortress will fall and the realm of Theria will be ours. In the meantime, my loyal subjects, we prepare. My legion is not enough to take the Frostmouth. I want all that are loyal and able to prepare for war. The four corners of the kingdom will muster. The Frontlands, the High Dales, the Cod Coast, and the Aspen Hills! Their militias will be raised. When the spring melt arrives, an army the likes of which has never been seen shall march north against our enemies.”
A cheer erupted from the crowd. In the foliage beside Heathel, Bon threw up his arms and shouted with pride. He caught himself just before plummeting from the oak. Heathel watched, excitement pulsing inside his chest, even as he puzzled over the feverish display below.
“Return home, my people!” the charming specter rumbled. “Return to your villages and ready yourselves for avenging my son. Prepare yourselves to exact justice from the villains to the north. Ready yourselves for war!”
It was a cold autumn night when Bon and Heathel rode back to their village, yet the fire stoked in the young Silversmith’s heart was enough to keep both riders warm. They endlessly recounted the magically infused display they had witnessed. Bon especially, spoke of the wrongs done to their King by the evil Queen of Theria. He described the gallant feats he would achieve in the spring, fighting off the Therian army and taking the Frostmouth himself. Bon would be the first over the wall, he promised, and he would gloat over fallen foes. Bon was so fervent and eager for battle that his apprehensive friend began longing for the adventure of war. Yet Heathel was still intrigued by the sorcerer’s projection of the King. That the true Densun barely stirred while the ghostly version of himself hovered overhead, disturbed Heathel, He could not express how. Orell’s powers were disconcerting. In his own clumsy words, Heathel tried to voice his doubts of the sorcerer to his friend.
Bon replied with a shrug.
“What does it matter?” he asked. “I just hope he is of more use when the fighting begins. Cloud statues are impressive and all, but clouds cannot wield swords.”
“Does it not seem dishonest,” Heathel began cautiously, “to show the King to be younger and stronger than he is truly?”
“What are you saying?”
“The king looks to be at death’s door. The cloud king was as spry as a colt.”
“Vanity, I suppose.” Bon was not concerned. “Who can blame him for wanting to look his best. The cloud was certainly more inspiring.”
Heathel admitted as much with a nod.
That evening outside his parent’s cottage, seated around a large cook fire, Heathel related to his small army of kin all that he had witnessed in the capital. They listened with rapt attention, as though the young man was Orell himself, shaping his tale from the smoke rising above the fire. Aware of the forty some pairs of glinting eyes fixed on his face, Heathel did his best not to stammer or act the part of the bard. He included every detail and did his best to conceal his own opinions, for he desired the unswayed conclusions of the elders in attendance. Secretly, he hoped they would condone his intention to join the High Dales militia, a decision he had left out from his telling.
His mother was the first to speak once his tale was over.
“That poor man,” she said, shaking her head.
Heathel’s father was furious.
“Therian pigs!” he snapped. “The legion will set them straight.”
Angry murmuring circulated through the clan.
“What is this kingdom coming to?” decried an aunt. “Assassins?! It’s more than I can bear.”
“The King never should have taken on a wizard,” explained one of the elders. “Orell brought this upon Densun. Kings and Queens grow uneasy when their rivals employ magical folk.”
Heathel’s father stood up, his anger surprising his own son.
“The King has the right to hire a sorcerer if he chooses. It doesn’t excuse murder. Queen Celia must be deposed for her crime.”
The same wary aunt was working her own children into tears.
“How can we protect our babes from skulking murderers. If they can burn down a castle, imagine what they could do to my cottage. They’ll come in during the night… Don’t cry my little yams!”
“The army cannot march until spring. Who will keep us safe during the winter.”
“The Onion Pass is snowed in during the winter.”
“But the assassins may be here.”
“In the capital, most likely. That’s where the outsiders mill about.”
“Stop your wailing, my little babes!”
You laugh at my funny voices, but is not the sound of hysterical men and women absurd? Heathel thought so and was disappointed as he watched his family argue and rail against one another. He had hoped for wisdom but was rewarded with fear.
Across the village of Pale Meadows, Bon’s far more impassioned and indignant retelling worked an even greater storm. Other villagers that had attended the funeral likewise spread word of Theria’s crimes, the sorcerer’s powers, and the call to muster. Enough people were convinced of the necessity for war, that their loyal fervor overwhelmed their more reticent neighbors.
Heathel’s own apprehensions were rooted in a discerning mind passed down from his clever mother. Her line of the family had always been the more cautious and thoughtful of the clan.
The next morning, when Heathel told his parents that he would join the militia, his father clapped his shoulder and told his eldest son how proud he was making his parents. Heathel’s mother was less ebullient.
“Why?” she asked, then waited for her answer with the same dusty countenance of Rulbar the Wise, seated on his famous mountaintop, having just laid the first of his seven riddles for the jester-knight of Penlope.
Heathel hesitated. He had dreaded such a question, for he could not really answer.
“To stop Queen Celia from murdering our people,” he replied.
“Queen Celia lives on the other side of the Mother Mountains,” his mother spoke as though not to her adult son, but one of Heathel’s younger siblings. “She did not slay the prince.”
“Someone did,” said Heathel’s father before being shushed by his wife.
“I’m not speaking to you,” she said. She turned her stern gaze back on her son. Heathel suspected that battle was less harrowing than the conversation he was now having.
“The King has called on his loyal subjects,” he said, hammering some iron into his meek tone.
His mother raised an eyebrow.
“Are you a subject?” she asked. “An apple for the mash. An ant marching for the hive?”
“We may be commoners, but we are not slaves,” his mother said proudly. “If you are going to kill on your King’s behalf, you are still responsible for your actions. If you are too young to understand that then you will remain here in the spring and muck stables.”
“If Heath wants to serve his King in a just cause,” his father broke in, “then we cannot stop him.”
“I think I can,” his mother said, in a sly tone that all but convinced Heathel she could.
“You must tell me why you want to do this,” she pressed.
“I don’t know,” Heathel threw up his arms. “I just know that this feels important. Something big is coming. I can sense it, like just before a howl-storm blows in from the north, when the sky turns hollow and the air smells of metal. Only this is not a deadly blizzard. It is something we can do something about. I want to be a part of it. Indeed, I know I will hate myself for missing it. I want to feel bigger than I do.”
His parents listened thoughtfully. His mother’s sternness softened, although she was still upset.
“You cannot see it,” she said. “But I’m glad you are not blind.”
Her answer only puzzled Heathel more.
“I understand your decision,” she said. “I do not agree with it. But I cannot stop you. I hope, by the stars, you return home safely.”
“Of course I will,” Heathel hugged his mother. Her embrace was resigned.
“Of course he will,” echoed his father. “He will return home a hero.”
The official muster was called four days after the prince’s funeral. As Pale Meadows was the largest settlement of the High Dales, the village was chosen as the rally point for the region’s militia. Heathel woke early on the appointed day, ate a hasty meal of hard bread and apple jam, and raced to the village center. He arrived at the cobblestone flats to find many familiar faces already gathered around the fountain bubbling in the midst of the plaza.
There congregated loyal women and men ranging in years from Heathel’s age to those old enough to be his grandparents. Some wore their best ceremonial garb while others were dressed for hunting. Many commoners arrived clad in bits of armor passed down through their family. Heathel spotted spears and sharpened stakes, swords both rusty and polished, smithy hammers and wooden clubs, pitch forks, hoes, shovels, slings and bows. Bon arrived, proudly sporting a dagger with a gem encrusted hilt and a crossbow his father had purchased long ago in the capital and given to his son as a birthday present.
Bon spotted Heathel and strutted across the square to his friend, holding his weapon in one arm like a king wielding a scepter.
“Good morning, Heath!” he crowed. “A fine day for slaying Therians.”
“Morning, Bon. What a lovely dagger you have there. I mean, the gems are slippery and the hilt thin and brittle, but you’ll look fantastic in battle!”
“Indeed I will.” His smile faded as he surveyed the crowd. “Who’s in charge here? Perhaps I should be.”
They stood surveying the crowd until they realized there was not a noble in sight. The crowd continued to grow as commoners from the north and south valleys of Pale Meadows streamed into the village. As morning wore on, a carnival air settled over the village center as folk milled about and chatted in idle groups. Card and dice games broke out, as well as an impromptu archer contest. Locals began handing out bread and more than a few beer casks were opened. The atmosphere of excitement continued to build until some two-hundred volunteers were gathered, many of them lounging on the cobblestones or leaning against the walls of the surrounding cottages and halls.
No one seemed concerned with the delay. It felt as though someone would take charge, although no one knew for sure who would be that person.
Seated by the fountain, Heathel asked his friend how his family received Bon’s joining of the militia.
“They are all for it,” he said glancing out the ground. His long golden locks swung into his face, hiding a frown. “Except Pa. He thinks it is a mistake.”
“He says war is bad for trade,” Bon sounded embarrassed as he relayed his father’s opinion. “His in particular. I did not know, but Pa says most of the silver on the continent comes from Therian mines.”
“I did not know that.”
“Who does, save miners and silversmiths. How about your parents?”
Before Heathel could relate his mother’s vexing response, a call from the center of the village plaza cracked the air. Everyone turned to the leader of the High Dales militia, a man well known throughout the kingdom.
His name was Herndol. A commoner from the central valley, Herndol had served as a Baudlin legionnaire for the better part of his life. He was renowned for his tenacity, courage, and strategic mind in battle. Although Baudlin was a peaceful kingdom with no consistent enemies, whatever conflicts of large-scale bloodshed it did incur over the last forty years, Herndol was there. He had served in half a dozen border skirmishes, two wars, and eight sieges. The peasant warrior distinguished himself as even-keeled and lethally cunning, particularly when defeat seemed imminent. He rose to rank of second commander, the highest rank a commoner could hold, and while many a nobleman took credit for the legion’s exploits, every legionnaire, and more importantly their patron, King Densun, knew Herndol had been the crux of victory. It was rumored that in the old days the King and Herndol were great friends, that when Herndol reached the age of retirement, the King awarded the legionnaire the ceremonial role of Assembler and its generous annual stipend of five gold coins. There were four Assemblers in Baudlin, one for each region of the kingdom. In the fifty-two years of King Densun’s reign, and the thirty years of rule under his father, an Assembler had never been summoned to muster a militia. Herndol had been retired for the better part of a decade, living in the higher elevations of the central valley where he raised goats and sheep. When a messenger arrived at his farmstead with the royal decree in hand, Herndol was surprised but not hesitant. If any person was equipped to turn a ceremonial rank into a pragmatic position, Herndol was that person.
If Herndol was upset to discover the King’s largesse had pulled him out of retirement, he did not show it other than that he surveyed his recruits with a dour expression. The grizzled veteran had a tombstone jaw coated in a mossy white beard. Streaks of white hair blazoned the side of his head around each ear while his naked crown was a taut stretch of spotted leather. He wore a patched and mended tunic of gray wool that left exposed his tan, brawny arms. Hands as broad as shovels clenched his waist while his muscular calves threatened to split the cuffs of his leather boots.
“We old soldiers have a lot of sayings,” he croaked in a voice that would give a bullfrog pause. “There are two I would like to share with you lot right now.”
The Assembler paused and crossed his prodigious arms while the recruits waited expectantly.
“War waits on winter’s whim!” he stated gravely.
Heathel and Bon shared a confused glance. Herndol continued.
“Winter is upon us, which is lucky for each and every one of you, for it means you might get to see the next one. The King has found an unusual craving for blood…”
Herndol’s face was disapproving as he spoke.
“But armies cannot march, much less fight in these mountains, not during our winters. We certainly cannot capture the Frostmouth. Which means we have four or five months to train. Militias generally are not afforded such luxuries as training or skills. That I shall give you both bodes well for all of you. But it brings me to my next soldier’s saying. Granaries win wars!”
Bon snorted quietly.
“Armies are most often defeated by hunger,” continued the Assembler. “Training is hungry work. I will not have this land empty its stores trying to feed bumbling recruits, then bring about a famine to the High Dales when, come spring, you are too dead to help with the planting.”
There were some chuckles. Heathel smiled, appreciating the good sense in the veteran’s words. He was already glad Herndol was his Assembler.
“Which is why, when you are not training, you will be hunting, fishing, foraging, and preserving every last apple, berry, and beet you find. You will be well fed this winter and come spring, we will march with enough food to last us the spring. Like I said, granaries win wars!”
“What is he on about?” whispered Bon. The young silversmith was not interested in unglamorous logistics.
Heathel shushed his friend. Herndol continued.
“Now, we may be a militia, and I certainly do not expect to whip you all into legionnaires, but I will not have a reckless, barbarian horde, neither. A lot can be accomplished in four months. Discipline is key.”
An exclamation of surprise rippled around the Assembler as Herndol drew a sword from his belt. Swinging the blade over his head, he motioned for the crowd to move.
After some awkward shuffling and a few unkind words from the weathered veteran, the two-hundred plus recruits formed three sloppy rows before their new commander. Herndol shook his head in feigned disgust.
“Just as they do in the legion, I’m dividing you into tensomes. Groups of ten. The tensome is your new family. You will eat, sleep, bathe, train, and fight with your tensome. In due time you will elect a leader of your tensome. Now, count off to ten.”
Herndol stepped up to the nearest recruit and jabbed a meaty finger at the woman’s chest.
“One!” she called out nervously.
Herndol pointed at the next closest, wide-eyed commoner.
“Two,” he squeaked.
Such was how Herndol began dividing the recruits. Realizing he was not to be placed in the same tensome as Bon, Heathel turned to his friend to lament. Bon was gone, having slipped about ten or so places away from Heathel. The wealthy commoner waved cheerfully at his pal.
“You there. Pay attention!”
Startled, Heathel turned to find himself face to face with his dour commander.
“Seven!” the young man shouted, looking into Herndol’s fierce, pine-bark colored eyes. Flecks of yellow and gray dappled each iris, like the eyes of an old cat. The Assembler paused for a moment, silently appraising the youth, before moving to the next recruit.
By the end of the count, there were twenty-two tensomes with six recruits remaining. Herndol assigned the leftovers to his personal staff, with the foreboding promise that they would taste battle along with every other man and woman in the militia.
“I’m no general and I do not lead from behind,” he snapped. “You go where I go, and I jump straight into the thick of it. Try not to wet yourselves.”
Bon’s discrete shuffle had secured his place with Heathel in the Seventh Tensome. They were not the only villagers from Pale Meadows in their unit. There was a tall, fair-haired candle-maker named Kayla Spear who wore a wax-stained apron and was more surly and full of opinions than the Assembler. Bon likened Kayla to his overbearing mother, although the candle maker was only ten years his senior. The two both had ambitions to be elected tensome leader. Grendon Dallson, or Gren as he cheerfully urged everyone to address his ever smiling face, was a farrier in his early forties. In a village known for its horse trade, Gren was one of its most vital tradesmen. The broad-shouldered, curly haired smith shoed horses faster than any other two farriers working together, and was a trusted expert on equine ailments and their cures. Horses and people alike found his tireless good cheer infectious. Heathel was glad to have the farrier in his tensome.
Also from Pale Meadows were Lea and Tully Shone, a rascally pair of sisters that bore no more resemblance to one another than a raccoon did a porcupine. The older, Lea, was stocky as a wine barrel, with olive colored skin and hair like raven plumage. Tully was spindly and bright, with skin that radiated like moonlight. The only fat on her body was the last traces of childhood fading from her round face. The Shone sisters split their time working their parents’ tomato farm and racing horses. They had a playful habit of pelting their opponents with the family crop. Heathel had raced the sisters four times and had won each race. Lea and Tully both respected his ridership and admired his horse, but would throw tomatoes at him anyway.
The last four recruits to make up the Seventh Tensome were not from Pale Meadows. Strangers to Heathel, he would come to know each of them well over the winter months.
Shaylin Drubb was a hulking goat herder from the south valley, who spoke as though every word required great effort to retrieve from his giant, thick skull, yet the final message was always witty and dry as archived parchments. Shaylin was also by far the oldest recruit. When Bon demanded to know the man’s age, Shaylin paused for a long while before his reply rolled from his lips like cold sap from a maple.
“Older than my beard,” he said, then sighed. “About the same age as my nose.”
Just as reticent was a man of similar years to Heathel and Bon, a carpenter’s apprentice from the village of Pinedock in the south valley. He went simply by Mat, was always nervous, particularly in the matters of warfare, and generally did not seem to want to be in the militia. His obvious desire to be elsewhere led to questions which Mat from Pinedock tenaciously avoided answering. The most that anyone could learn about the youth was that he doted upon a shepherd whom he was betrothed to marry in the spring. To which Bon, who took an instant dislike to anyone not enthusiastic about the coming war, replied,
“If you survive ‘til spring.”
Sara Tibold, a handsome woman in her late twenties, was a falconer and master hunter from somewhere up north. She did not speak of home, yet her congenial nature and willingness to chat about anything else made her one of the most popular warriors of the Seventh. That and her ability to track deer and bring home fresh venison from almost every hunt, endeared Sara to her hungry cohorts more than any story of her upbringing. By the end of the four months, Sara had personally trained the Seventh tensome in the use of the bow and taught Heathel and Bon to be competent trackers. From the beginning, Heathel thought her the best candidate to lead their tensome, although Sara harbored no such design.
The final member of the Seventh called himself Abbol. A merchant guard from the capital who happened to be in Pinedock when word of the muster arrived, he was the only experienced warrior in Heathel’s tensome. He kept his own mace which he retained after the Assembler distributed standard spears and swords of the Baudlin legion. While Bon was forced to abandon his cumbersome crossbow, Herndol allowed Abbol to keep his steel cudgel. Abbol seemed comfortable with every weapon he came across, and while he was not a particularly friendly or generous individual, the hired brute was quick to assist in the training of his peers. Abbol was also a devious brawler, and he imparted some of his most effective hand-to-hand maneuvers to any willing to learn. Heathel and Bon drank it all up. As winter drew to a close, the Seventh began to distinguish itself for its martial skills, with Heathel, Bon, and the Shone sisters among its most vigorous recruits. The Assembler took notice.
“You lot would give a legion tensome pause,” Herndol said to them once, during sword instruction. Bon and Heathel swelled with pride, and at once, the Assembler’s cat-like eyes sparkled with menace.
“Pluck those feathers, you little peacocks,” he snapped. “You’ve been slaying scarecrows and storming barns. The Frostmouth is no feast day dance.”
Bon’s confidence did not waver.
“We will take the Frostmouth!” he said, slaying an imaginary villain with his blade. “I know it in my heart. The battle will be glorious.”
“Glory is for the dead,” Herndol spat. “Don not go seeking it while you are alive, especially while fighting under my command. I will not tolerate it.”
Heathel watched as Bon shifted uncomfortably beside him. Heathel suppressed a smirk.
The Assembler turned his calculating gaze on the other peasant.
“You better hide that smile, Heathel of Pale Meadows. You keep a more level head than young Silversmith here, but you are still a fool if you have high hopes for this war. Glory is a pall that clouds vision. Be attentive, the both of you. We head to the capital in less than a fortnight, but that does not mean your training is at an end. Sharpen your blades and your wits.”
Herndol strode off, setting his sights on some other militiamen in need of correction, leaving Heathel and Bon standing sheepishly behind. After a moment of reflection Heathel turned to his friend.
“This is not what you expected, is it?”
“You jest! This is what I hoped for. To be trained by a salty old warrior, himself forged in the fires of war, tough as rawhide, all that sort of thing. Just like the tale of Sir Caulder.”
“This is no bard’s tale,” he said.
“Of course, of course. This is serious.”
Bon tried to put on a grave expression but his excitement bubbled underneath.
“Isn’t he grand?” he asked through his pale teeth.
Heathel watched the Assembler snatch a sword from a soldier of the Third, then twirl the blade deftly in his hand.
“He is,” Heathel admitted. “But you are no Caulder the Magnificent.”
“Come home as soon as you can!”
Tears glistened on his mother’s cheeks as she held Heathel in her arms outside their cottage. His siblings looked on with mournful faces while Heathel’s father remained inside, bedridden with an ague. The winter had been hard on the clan, especially with Heathel not able to help with the horses. While saying farewell to his father, Heathel had managed to hold back his own tears, but his face was now as dewy as his mother’s.
“Come home safe,” his mother added, squeezing him tightly. “This is all wrong.”
“Mother, please do not say that. You know it is not true.”
His mother did not say another word. She kissed her son on the cheek.
“We will be here, my love,” she said, letting go with her arms.
The militia of the High Dales broke camp outside of Pale Meadows and began the march to Baudlin. Several inches of snow lay on the countryside and the road was crusty and hard. With extra straw packed into their boots and rope spun around their soles and heels for grip, the Assembler’s band set a quick pace. The cold coupled with an anxious air hanging about the untried warriors made for a quick, quiet march. They did not stay in rank and file, yet tensomes tended to walk together on the road, allowing for easy conversation. Talk was sparse as the soldiers considered the possible fates ahead.
Descending from the foothills of the Mother Mountains, the legionnaires found the capital region muddy and free of snow. After two days of marching, they arrived at the city walls in the dark. Orders came for the militia to camp north of the city in some fallow fields on the road leading to Onion Pass, the Frostmouth, and Theria beyond.
It was well past a reasonable hour for supper as the Seventh set up their tent. Heathel and Kayla Spear drew lots for seeking out firewood and preparing the evening meal. Heathel was busy trying to light some kindling while Kayla harnessed a cauldron to a spit over the woodpile he had raised. The blackened pot swung and glanced off the young man’s head, eliciting a curse.
“Watch it!” he added as the candle-maker steadied the cauldron as though it had been the one hurt.
“I cannot feel my hands! It is freezing,” she replied, exhaling a misty breath.
“I assure you, I can still feel my head. Please mind it.”
Heathel bent back down to the kindling and struck some sparks with a flint and piece of iron.
A shadow moved nearby, and Heathel glanced up at Sara the falconer as she carried blankets toward the tent. Sara winked at the young man before calling over to the candle-maker.
“The Onion Pass is colder,” she stated, making Kayla grimace.
“How would you know?”
“Thanks for the weather prediction,” sneered Kayla. “Go about yourself.”
The falconer disappeared through the canvas flaps. Heathel considered Kayla’s foul mood. Always stern, the woman was particularly thorny today. As Heathel fanned the smoking kindling, he asked Kayla if he could be of any aid.
“Not unless you can run back to the village and fetch me my son,” she said snidely.
Heathel paused, recalling that Kayla did indeed have a boy, seemingly the only source of joy in the morose woman’s life. Heathel had rarely seen the child, especially not while the militia was training.
“I forgot you had a son,” Heathel replied. “What is his name?”
“Robbel,” Kayla replied. Saying his name seemed to break something loose inside the candle-maker. She continued, her voice softening as she considered her precious child.
“He is staying with my mother,” she spoke as though hashing out a tired argument. “It will not do.”
Heathel did not know Kayla’s mother but knew that the villagers of Pale Meadows looked out for each other.
“I’m sure they are safe,” he said, but was silenced by the dismissive glance from the candle-maker.
“I am not worried about Robbel’s safety,” she said curtly. “I worry about his studies. He is training to be a scribe under Lord Pluoteen. As my mother cannot read or write, she cannot help him with his studies.”
“I understand…” Heathel did not really. The concerns of a parent were largely foreign to him.
Kayla saw the vacuous expression on the young man’s face and, to Heathel’s surprise, chuckled.
“You will understand someday when you have your own,” she said. “When you want the best for your child and you do all you can to keep them safe.”
Heathel watched as orange light flickered between the spaces of the split logs, like lanterns held by tiny gnomes. He looked to the mother.
“Is that why you are here?” he asked.
“Assassins creeping through our lands?! Murdering our prince and attacking the throne!”
A fierce light completely separate from the reflection of the growing flames at her feet, flickered in the eyes of Kayla Spear.
“We all have a duty to put a stop to such terror,” she stated bluntly.
Heathel nodded, impressed. Before, he had dismissed the threat of roving assassins, although it seemed to worry a great many folk. To see that the possibility upset the ever stern and pragmatic Kayla Spear, made him reassess the rumors. The candle-maker seemed to think that any person might be murdered by agents of Theria. It was a chilling thought.
Heathel leapt to his feet as Kayla spun around to the summons of their tensome. Shivering at the entrance of their tent stood one of Herndol’s stewards, an old farmer from the north valley, named Farrel. Draped in dark bear furs the color of a moonless night, Farrel was all but invisible. Only his naked hands and quivering face could be seen in the darkness.
“The Assembler has been summoned to the castle,” Farrel stated as the rest of tensome filed out of the tent. “Herndol wants the Seventh to arm and assemble at his tent immediately.”
Curious glances were shared by all, yet Farrel disappeared before anyone could venture a question.
“What’s this about?” Tully Shone asked, looking down at her older sister. Lea shrugged and the Shones slipped back into the tent.
“What about dinner?” Bon demanded, looking at the empty cook-pot. “Kayla! Quick, make some stew.”
The candle-maker shoved the youth aside as she joined the train into the tent. In a moment, only Bon and Heathel remained standing by the growing fire.
“Do you have any bread?” Bon asked desperately.
“These logs are about ready.”
“Har, har. Come on and grab your sword.”
In moments, the tensome was arranged in a semi-circle outside the entrance to the Assembler’s tent. They were dressed in what bits of leather armor they had gleaned over the last four months, while each soldier held a spear and sported a short-sword on their belt. Abbol kept his mace slung over his shoulder while the brute wore the only complete set of armor in the tensome.
Herndol the Assembler emerged from his tent not long after, dressed in a faded legionnaire uniform and a wool cloak lined with squirrel fur, but otherwise unarmed. Upon sight of the loose gathering around him, the Assembler frowned.
“Form rank,” he barked. The Seventh quickly formed into two rows of five warriors, facing their commander. Herndol nodded approvingly.
“The King wants a report on the strength of our militia,” he said. “What better way to show him than by being escorted by my most promising tensome.”
Smiles rippled across the Seventh.
“Now, now,” Herndol protested, though his rough voice was not unkind. “We’ll see who the best tensome is when we take the Frostmouth.”
The smiles faded somewhat, save for Bon’s, who grinned like a player basking before a standing ovation. Herndol sighed.
“I am an old soldier,” he said wearily. “And I got to be an old soldier by learning to navigate the snags and whirlpools you call the King’s court. Let me give you all a quick lesson on politics.”
Herndol leaned in a bit closer, as though embarrassed by what he had to say.
“A little dazzle and gloss goes a long way. Lords and peasants alike, they are easily impressed by a little discipline and showmanship. If marching like ducklings and clutching weapons like statues earns us a bit of leeway, than I am willing to get a little dirty by getting polished.”
“That said, I am proud of this whole militia.” The spry veteran spoke plainly. “The Seventh will represent every tensome tonight. Do your cohorts proud.”
Marching at the head of their small column, and accompanied by his steward, Farrel, Assembler Herndol guided the Seventh from camp into the heart of the city. They marched under the same castle gatehouse through which, not half a year before, Heathel and Bon had watched pass the prince’s remains. Inside the gatehouse was a surprisingly small and cramped courtyard beyond which stood another open portcullis that led into the main keep. Herndol and his guard crossed beneath the metal teeth of the raised gate, through a large vestibule and into the main hall of the castle.
Heathel expected the royal hall to be bright and full of color, lavishly decorated with a magnificent throne at its core. Instead, he found a dismal, smokey cavern with damp archways holding up soot-coated stones and grout slick with mold. The chamber was heated by large braziers filled with burning peat. The iron baskets glowed dimly around the hall, while torches and candles ensconced in the walls provided most of the light. There was no proper throne. At the far end of the hall, the King sat upon a simple three-legged stool.
The hour was late and few attended King Densun. Some noblemen stood in a tight cluster just off to his left, while guards and servants waited in shadowed recesses along the walls. All eyes turned to the entryway as a herald announced the arrival of Assembler Herndol. The Seventh marched in until the Assembler stopped in the center of the hall and bowed to the king.
Heathel looked at the frail creature resting on the stool and saw the king’s chest rise and fall as though every breath was a labor. Pale wrinkles fanned out from the corners of the king’s sleepy eyes. A gossamer stubble covered his sagging jowls and limp door-knob of a chin. Heathel tried to weigh this deflated ruler before him against the emerald cloud that had rallied the kingdom a few months ago. As he struggled in his mind to reconcile the two, he tried to spy out the sorcerer while still maintaining a rigid pose behind his commander.
“My King,” Herndol’s gravelly voice broke off Heathel’s search.
King Densun’s face brightened as he recognized the old legionnaire. He spoke, his voice like a dry breeze, as a smile played across his jaundiced teeth.
“If it is not my old friend,” he said. “I am glad you received my summons. How are your goats?”
If Heathel was surprised to hear such a playful, familiar tone from the King, he was flabbergasted by his commander’s reply.
“They’re a bunch of filthy little skull-crackers,” groaned the Assembler as he rubbed a palm over his bald crown. “I brought you some cheese.”
The King smiled wryly as Herndol reached into his robes and pulled out a massive brick of cheese wrapped in cloth.
“I do not care for goat cheese.”
“It was your idea I herd goats, you old fool. I will be damned if you do not eat my cheese.”
There was a gasp from one of the nobles as the Assembler lunged forward and planted the bundle in the King’s lap. Heathel shot Bon a worried look but his friend was too wide-eyed to pay Heathel any mind.
Herndol backed away from the stool as the King tilted his head down at the present. Densun chortled.
“I have missed you,” the King grinned.
Herndol ever so slightly inclined his head.
One of the nobles, most of whom eyed the Assembler with an air of mild disdain, separated himself from the tight little cluster. Orell walked over to the king’s side, dressed in a long blue coat with silver buttons, black silk leggings and fine leather shoes. His long hair hung like a gold curtain, framing his angular face. This close, Heathel could see that the sorcerer’s eyes were a pale green hue, like a shallow sea under a cloudy sky.
The King’s sorcerer placed his hand on Densun’s shoulder. The King’s grin evaporated, leaving behind a scowl.
“You forget yourself, wizard,” croaked the King. Orell’s hand shot away as though the king’s shoulder was on fire, yet the sorcerer did not move from his liege’s side. King Densun shifted on the stool and looked wearily at the ground.
“Assembler Herndol,” the sorcerer nodded his head. He was younger than Heathel recalled, perhaps twenty-four or twenty-five years old, yet his voice was deep and confident.
“We have not met. I am the royal sorcerer, Orell.”
“My lord,” the old warrior replied flatly.
“Yours is the first militia to arrive. Well done!”
Orell smiled, revealing a gleaming white plane of perfect teeth.
“How many men have you mustered?”
“I have two-hundred, twenty-six women and men, trained and ready for the King’s command.”
“Good, good,” Orell looked past the Assembler and inspected the soldiers under Herndol’s command. As his gaze passed over Heathel, the peasant was reminded of a horse trader eyeing his family’s prized stock. The sorcerer was impressed by Herndol’s recruits.
“They all appear worthy of the legion,” Orell stated. A noble nearby sniffed his nose.
“We have had the armorers working night and day,” the sorcerer continued. “New armor will be sent to your camp in the morning.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Is there anything else your soldiers require?” the sorcerer asked.
“No, my lord. As you can see, we received the arms caravan some time ago.”
Herndol hesitated before continuing.
“What is the word from Theria, my King?”
Densun shook his head, but before he could speak, Orell stepped forward.
“There is no news from the north,” he said. “As they have employed subterfuge and murder to try to usurp the King, we have responded by concealing our own intentions.”
“There has been no formal declaration?” he asked with dismay.
“I believe burning down a royal castle with the prince inside is declaration enough from Queen Celia’s end. If they do not expect an armed response to such an insidious act, than they have no one but themselves to blame.”
The ire in Herndol’s tone made Heathel’s pulse quicken.
“May I ask, my lord,” he asked sardonically, “what the royal sorcerer’s role shall be during the campaign?”
Heathel could feel the strain of everyone in the room; noble, servant, and soldier alike, waiting for Orell’s response to the commoner’s impudence. The sorcerer flashed his pristine teeth.
“I will aid in what manner I can,” he said. “I am a humble practitioner of a strain of magic that… amplifies the power of those I serve. I augment the forces at hand.”
“I just want to know if you will frighten the horses,” Herndol said dryly.
“I will try not to,” Orell said. “The outcome of this war will be the result of human deeds, not sorcery.”
From Herndol’s dissatisfied grunt, Heathel suspected his commander shared his own consternation regarding the sorcerer’s ambiguous explanations. Yet the old legionnaire did not protest or delve any deeper. The loyal soldier bowed to the King, who appeared ready to fall asleep.
“I will serve the King’s will,” he said. “When do we march?”
“As soon as the other militias arrive,” said Orell. “Scouts report that the Onion Pass is all but clear. Hopefully by week’s end.”
Heathel would have been relieved that the tense exchange was apparently ended, yet the promise to march in but a few days replaced one anxiety for another. To witness his superiors discuss their march to war, made the dire implications seem increasingly inexorable.
The sorcerer had downplayed his powers, stating that human deeds would conquer Theria, yet Orell’s magical display at the funeral certainly provided many of the doers of those deeds. Over the next few days the other militias arrived, flush with men and women set on avenging the wrongs brought to light by the sorcerer’s green giant. If Orell’s sorcery did nothing more, Heathel concluded, the wizard had already done more than his share to win the war.
Each militia brought with it people as distinct as the four regions of the kingdom. After the High Dales came the Aspen Militia, people from the northern woods of Baudlin, stout and tenacious, with tremendous pride regarding their hard-wrought existence in the hilly forests of their land. If any of Densun’s people were to revolt, these bold and oft resentful folk would be the most likely, yet the threat of roving assassins had stirred these woodsmen and tin miners into fervent loyalists to the crown.
The Frontlands was the name for the borderlands along the Brinemouth River. Its militia consisted mostly of wheat farmers who fed the capital in exchange for well-maintained fortresses and detachments from the royal legion. Practical people by nature, they answered the muster of the Assembler calmly and dutifully. They valued safety behind arms, and if their continued security meant marching across the kingdom against a strange enemy to the north, so be it.
Arriving three days after the other three militias was the army from the Baudlin coast. The Cod Militia was the smallest of the four, and had been the hardest to assemble. The recruits had come from the tiny fishing villages, scattered like the rare unmarked seashell, along the lengthy coast. Sun-drenched, salty folk who thought land good for little more than timber for their boats and growing the means for their ale and wine, they tied their fates to the inland city, which bought their fish and promised soldiers to combat pirates. Piratical activity had been slow as of late, and the younger Cod folk were restless for adventure. With fishing season limited by the winter storms, the youth from the coast elected to spend the season training in Port Carron and fighting the brief war to follow. Most Cod recruits assumed they would take a ship all the way up the Great Melt, from the coast to the Frostmouth itself. The notion of marching that distance instead did not really occur until the fishermen disembarked in the capital and their barges made ready to head back south.
The High Dales militia, Heathel was proud to observe, was the most robust and dynamic of the King’s mustered bands. The High Dales itself constituted three valleys that ran from the Baudlin plains up to the Mother Mountains. Its people were as tough as the Aspen folk, but less bristly and cruel. They tended to their labors with the same methodical dedication as the Frontlands people, but work was not the end-all of the High Dales existence. Like the coastal folk, Heathel’s people cherished good drink and festivals, but unlike their briny neighbors, Heathel’s folk did not celebrate with utter abandon nor shirk hard work in favor of quick satisfactions. The High Dales supported almost every trade including farming, mining, timber work, fishing, herding, and hunting. Its militia was a conglomeration of craftsmen and merchants, peasants and wealthy commoners, young and old. They answered their King’s summons, believing his word that a dire threat was infiltrating the kingdom and must be repelled.
The sorcerer had downplayed his powers, stating that human deeds would conquer Theria, yet Orell’s magical display at the funeral certainly provided many of the doers of those deeds. Over the next few days the militias arrived, flush with men and women set on avenging the wrongs brought to light by the sorcerer’s green giant. If Orell’s sorcery did nothing more, Heathel concluded, the wizard had already done more than his share to win the war.
Each militia brought with it people as distinct as the four regions of the kingdom. After the High Dales came the Aspen Militia; people from the northern woods of Baudlin, stout and tenacious, with tremendous pride regarding their hard-wrought existence in the hilly forests of their land. If any of Densun’s people were to revolt, these bold and oft resentful folk would be the most likely, yet the threat of roving assassins had stirred these woodsmen and tin miners into fervent loyalists to the crown.
The Frontlands was the name for the borderlands along the Brinemouth River. Its militia consisted mostly of wheat farmers who fed the capital in exchange for well-maintained fortresses and detachments from the royal legion. Practical people by nature, they answered the muster of the Assembler calmly and dutifully. They valued safety behind arms, and if their continued security meant marching across the kingdom against a strange enemy to the north, so be it.
Arriving three days after the other three militias was the army from the Baudlin’s coast. The Cod Militia was the smallest of the four, and had been the hardest to assemble. The recruits had come from the tiny fishing villages scattered along the coast like the rare unscathed seashell. Sun-drenched, salty folk who thought land good for little more than timber and growing the means for their ale and wine, they tied their fates to the inland city, which bought their fish and promised soldiers to combat pirates. Piratical activity had been slow as of late, and the younger Cod folk were restless for adventure. With fishing season limited by the winter storms, the youth from the coast elected to spend the season training in Port Carron and fighting the brief war to follow. Most Cod recruits assumed they would take a ship all the way up the Great Melt, from the coast to the Frostmouth itself. The notion of marching that distance instead did not really occur until the fishermen disembarked in the capital and their barges made ready to head back south.
The High Dales militia, Heathel was proud to observe, was the most robust and dynamic of the King’s mustered bands. The High Dales itself constituted three valleys that ran from the Baudlin plains up to the Mother Mountains. Its people were as tough as the Aspen folk, but less bristly and cruel. They tended to their labors with the same methodical dedication as the Frontlands people, but work was not the end-all of the High Dales existence. Like the coastal fishing folk, Heathel’s people cherished good drink and festivals, but unlike their briny neighbors, Heathel’s folk did not celebrate with utter abandon nor shirk hard work in favor of quick satisfactions. The High Dales supported almost every trade including farming, mining, timber work, fishing, herding, and hunting. Its militia was a conglomeration of craftsmen and merchants, peasants and wealthy commoners, young and old. They answered their King’s summons, believing his word that a dire threat was infiltrating the kingdom and must be repelled. Of all the militias that marched, Heathel was convinced his was the best.
The same drums that played for the dead prince accompanied the march of King Densun’s army from the capital. Under a rhythmic dirge, two-thousand warriors tromped along the frozen road from the plains surrounding the castle, north along the Great Melt River, rising into the foothills of the Mother Mountains. Some eighty mounted knights, pages, and men-at-arms led the snaking column, followed by the royal legion. The remaining foot soldiers followed, five-hundred auxiliary troops raised in the capital, two-hundred mercenaries, and the great mass of the kingdom militias. The militia of the High Dales brought up the rear of the foot soldiers, preceding the King’s honor guard and fifty cavalry archers. Supply wagons followed, stretching for miles back toward the castle walls.
Bon and Heathel paused in their march atop the first hill above the plains. They stared in wonderment at the shimmering ranks ahead then turned to marvel at the banners of the King’s champions riding behind. Surrounded by his greatest knights, the royal carriage carried the infirm ruler out of sight, although his presence on the perilous campaign stirred the pride of his subjects.
To Heathel it was as though all the world was writ larger in his eye. The empty farmlands below, fringed to the north and east by snow capped foothills, overshadowed by glaciated peaks, felt uncannily vast and full of possibilities. Surrounded by the mortal instruments of war, he could not have felt more removed from bloodshed.
“You there. Back in formation.”
The Assembler’s rasping shout cut through the pounding of the drums, sending the young men scrambling back to their tensome. As they fell back into the ranks, Bon turned to his friend with a look of pure elation on his face.
“Look at us!” he exclaimed, pounding his spear against his new shield. “Proper soldiers, we are.”
Heathel chuckled. He had to admit, now that every member of the militia had been issued leather jerkins with matching bracers, and crude iron helms, they more than ever resembled the battle-hardened legionnaires at the head of the infantry.
“What a host!” he declared. “Queen Celia’s ruling days are few.”
The Assembler’s voice made the young warriors jump.
“This is no host, young Silversmith,” Herndol was walking beside them, his face fixed grimly ahead. While the other militia commanders were mounted, the veteran legionnaire relied on his own feet.
Heathel gestured at the teeming soldiers filling the road ahead, thinking that the King had kept his promise from the funeral; that of gathering an army the likes have which have never been seen. It surprised Heathel that the army did not impress his commander
“Assembler,” he said. “Is this not a great army?”
“Are you confusing size with power, young man?” Herndol asked with a guileful look.
“What I mean,” Heathel reconsidered his words. “Is this a large army?”
“For a kingdom like Baudlin, perhaps,” the old warrior conceded before raising an eyebrow at Bon. “Perhaps the largest I have marched in. But this is no host. Our army, as it stands, would fill out a single legion in the old empires.”
Bon scoffed while Heathel voiced his own bemusement.
“The entire kingdom is here,” he said, gesturing at the overflowing road. “Is this not what the King expected? He said we would march with a giant army.”
Herndol shrugged, before leaning in close for only Bon and Heathel to hear.
“I am not sure the King knows what he is saying anymore. This is as large an army as Baudlin can hope to field, short of pressing children and the invalid into service. I suppose the King is full of bluster these days.”
The craggy old warrior lowered his voice further.
“He never used to be.”
Three days march from the capital brought King Densun’s army high into the Onion Pass to the ruins of Onion Motte. The former home of the prince, the derelict fortress lay atop a hill overlooking a road in the midst of a narrow valley. Heathel had heard of the Motte but expected the prince’s residence to be grander. It appeared that before the fire, the fortress had been little more than a wooden palisade encircling a great hall, a barracks, some stables and workshops. A pathetic village sat against the southern rim of the wall, flanking the lone gatehouse, its structures huddled like tiny children seeking entry into the closed embrace of their distracted father. As the Seventh passed by the Motte, Heathel saw that the assassins’ deadly machinations had left a black scar on the hillside, extending from the northern edge of the village, through a charred rupture in the wooden wall, across the top of the hill. There, the flames had evidently engorged themselves on the interior of the castle. Peering through the breach in the palisade, Heathel could see that ash was all that remained of the great hall.
He imagined the prince during the night of the fire, asleep cozily in his bed, unsuspecting of the fiends setting his home ablaze. Heathel hoped that it was the smoke and not the flames that sealed the ruler’s demise. The youth suspected that between asphyxiation and burning to death, the former was less horrific than the latter. He hoped to never find out for himself.
That evening, the Seventh gathered around a fire in their camp just below the wounded fortress. The snowy peaks bordering the pass were tinted pink by the sun already hidden in view from the valley floor, while in the sky, violet hues from the east overcame the retreating blue that held the day. The army’s campfires sparkled like orange gemstones up and down the valley.
Dining on stale bread used to sop up rabbit stew from their bowls, the soldiers sat shoulder to shoulder, leaning toward the fire, funneling the heat through their tight circle. Their breath almost crackled as the frigid air froze each exhalation. The cold was sapping their strength and it would be another two days before they reached the Frostmouth.
While eating, the farrier Gren stared through the ominous breach in the palisade at the blackened timbers of the great hall.
“What a tragedy,” he said, his tone a mix of wonder and sadness.
“It is a crime,” Bon shot back. “The Therians must suffer for it.”
Sitting beside the son of the silversmith, Sara Tibold frowned as she looked Bon in the eye.
“Do not blame a people for the crimes of their ruler,” she said. “I’m sure very few Therians had anything to do with that.”
Stunned, Bon opened his mouth but found he had no reply. Heathel had never witnessed his friend lose his tongue before. The sentiment caught both of them off guard.
Kayla Spear was less impressed.
“The Frostmouth garrison did not light the flames that did that” she said, pointing a bread heel at the fortress, “but they protect those that did.”
“I am talking about the common folk of Theria,” Sara replied.
“Therian commoners or soldiers, they are both responsible,” Kayla shot back. “If they allow themselves to be ruled by a conniving queen and employ honorless assassins, then I have no pity for those that get in our way.”
Sara exchanged cold stares with her intractable peer. She decided her meal was more worth her effort and occupied her mouth with her stew. Kayla sniffed disapprovingly before swallowing down a bread heel.
Occupying twice the width around the fire as any other two warriors combined, Shaylin Drubb tried to ease the tension.
“Too bad the rest of the village wasn’t razed to the ground,” the goat herder began, gathering some sidelong glances. “It smells like piss around here.”
There was an uneasy chuckle, much to Shaylin’s dissatisfaction.
“No, really. Like these mountain folk have nothing else but their own urine to keep warm.”
“You are from the mountains!” accused one of the Shone sisters.
“Not these mountains.”
“What’s the difference?” demanded the other sibling.
“The difference is where I live, we do not wet ourselves to keep warm.”
The chuckle verged into light laughter. Sara smiled while Kayla rolled her eyes. Heathel laughed the hardest, and Shaylin gave him a sly, knowing look. The young man adored the weird, selfless humor of the goat herder.
“They are tanners,” Gren said, nodding at the village. “You cannot grow a weed this high up. The people here pasture cattle and make leather.”
Gren’s eyes lit up as he looked at the ruined portions of the village as though seeing them for the first time.
“That could have started the fire,” he said, “Tanneries have a nasty habit of burning to the ground.”
Kayla snorted in disbelief while Heathel found himself blurting out.
“Assassins started the fire.”
“So they say,” he admitted. “But the scorch marks cover the northern edge of the village. Look! The fire could have just as well started there.”
Shaylin Drubb, rarely so loquacious, added.
“The wind comes up from the pass to the south,” he said. “If the great hall was set on fire first, the blaze would not have spread against the wind into the village.”
“So the fire was set in the village,” explained Kayla. “The assassins probably could not scale the walls.”
“Were assassins ever found?” asked Gren.
“The King said it was assassins,” Heathel replied, feeling distressed.
“Are you doubting our King?” Kayla demanded.
“Not at all,” Gren said.
“He is not saying that,” chimed in Sara.
“It might just be a mistake,” the farrier continued. “The blame for the fire, I mean. Theria is fewer than twenty miles from here. I could see how the loss of our border fortress and the death of the prince’s only heir could be misunderstood.”
“The King is far wiser than you or me,” Kayla replied. “We should trust in his judgment.”
Heathel nodded weakly, while even Gren seemed mollified by such a statement. Sara saw that her possible ally was done speaking and once again kept her own tongue still. The rest of the Seventh minded their food, save for Shaylin Drubb, who kept his thoughtful gaze on the edge of the village. Beside him, the always reserved, former mercenary Abbol snorted loudly.
Heathel looked to his friend Bon, hoping for reassurance from the young silversmith’s steadfast loyalty to the king. An anxious expression creased Bon’s face, making him look years older. Heathel saw his own confusion reflected in those furrowed brows and rigid jaw.
The next day did little to allay Heathel’s apprehensions. In the morning a rider bearing a white flag rode to the motte from the north. She was quickly surrounded and escorted by legionnaires to the King’s encampment as word spread that a messenger from Theria had arrived. Hours passed, and no sign of the rider or word of her tidings reached Heathel and his tensome. Instead, orders were issued to break camp and prepare for the march.
Assembler Herndol received the orders within earshot of Heathel, who eavesdropped while loading and unloading the same sack of oats into a nearby wagon.
“What news from the messenger?” the veteran demanded of the young noblewoman sent to issue the royal orders.
“Nothing you need to know,” she said, sniffing her nose and spurring her horse toward the next militia.
Herndol’s gaze sparkled with wrath as he watched the tail end of the rider canter off.
“Damn nobles!” he said before jabbing his finger at the young man.
“Heathel! Follow me. You can puzzle out how to load a sack into a wagon later.”
“I was just loading…”
“Stow it,” the prickly legionnaire spun away, leaving the blushing youth to scramble after him.
“Should I fetch your steward?” he asked, wondering why he was being brought along.
“No time,” Herndol grumbled, throwing up his hands. “I must speak with the King and that wizard is sure to be there.”
The Assembler paused, seizing Heathel’s shoulder with a grip so strong it nearly made the young soldier wince.
“Never face a wizard alone,” Herndol explained grimly. “Remember that.”
They followed the road from the village, up the side of the motte, to the gatehouse. The King and most of the nobles had made their camp in the old ruins of the prince’s fortress. The fire had left a vast breach in the south rim of the palisade and razed most of the interior, yet the majority of the wooden battlements were still intact. A partial ring of defenses for the King’s camp was deemed better than none.
As they marched across the snow covered yard toward the King’s tent, Heathel was struck by the lingering smell of ash and the blackened ruins of the barracks jutting up through the snow. He wondered for the first time, how many others had perished in the conflagration. Surely, if the prince had been caught unawares, others had as well. Why did no one speak of the other dead?
As he considered this, his eyes fell upon a grisly sight that stopped his tracks. No longer hearing the crunch of his subordinate’s boots in the snow, Herndol scowled as he spun on his heel. He followed Heathel’s horrified gaze to the inner wall of the wooden palisade, where the messenger from Theria hung.
The woman’s tongue and eyes were engorged in their orifices while her neck was swollen around the chord cinching her neck. Her hands were bound in front of her waist. Gleaming scuff marks in the wood just behind her boot heels showed where the woman had struggled vainly to hold her body up against the wall.
“Disgusting!” spat Herndol, before shouting at Heathel to keep up.
Badly shaken, the youth tore his attention from the corpse and hurried after the Assembler. He could not comprehend why a dead woman was bound to the battlements with no more fanfare or concern than one might show for a throttled chicken dangling in a pantry.
The King’s campaign domicile was a large canvas pavilion loftier than the barns of most peasants, and with more chambers and divisions than most common inns. Herndol and his makeshift attendant entered the tent into a cloth foyer warmed by an iron brazier and guarded by two legionnaires and a steward. The soldiers, recognizing the legendary Assembler, nodded their heads with respect. The steward was less cordial.
“Assembler Herndol,” he bowed. “The King is busy at the moment…”
“You tell him I am here, you snotty possum, then tell him I am not leaving until I have a word, then you see how busy he is.”
Herndol’s temporary steward shifted uneasily behind him, although it was not the Assembler’s ill manners that upset Heathel. Thoughts of the dead messenger continued to torment the young soldier. His stomach was turning over like a barrel caught at the bottom of a waterfall. The legionnaires’ grins vexed him further. The steward’s clenched jaw and furious stare was equally puzzling. The man departed the foyer and returned soon after. Heathel struggled to keep his stomach from squeezing up his throat.
“The King will see…”
Herndol swept by the steward with Heathel, swallowing down his bile, keeping at his commander’s heels. They passed through a temporary war chamber, crowded with noblemen and officers pouring over maps spread across a table as broad as a wagon bed. Some cautious glances took in the Assembler’s stony demeanor while an older knight wished Herndol a good morning. Herndol grunted in reply before tossing aside the flaps leading to the King’s antechamber.
“What is that business on the wall?” he demanded of his ruler.
The King, seated on the same three-legged stool from his court, looked up sleepily at the Assembler. His mouth opened but the ruler said nothing, instead shaking his head, as though the effort to argue was too much. With the slightest lift of his finger, he summoned the man at his side to reply for him.
Orell the sorcerer insinuated his body between the Assembler and the King, dressed in heavy fur robes that made him appear as though he had misplaced the mask to match his bear suit. Orell’s blond hair was tucked under his furry collar, so that his head looked like a smooth yellow orb. His eyes flickered with amusement.
“The messenger could not be allowed to return to Theria and betray the size and composition of our forces.”
“So you murdered her!”
“She could not be permitted to wander behind us, either. She could be an assassin as well.”
“Ridiculous. She was no assassin. You do not kill messengers. You are breaking the laws of warfare.”
The sorcerer’s mirth seemed to grow as his interlocutor slid toward apoplexy.
“Placing laws on warfare is as productive as placing laws on a landslide.”
“You have broken a sacred trust between all warriors,”
Herndol quivered with rage as he spoke.
“Besides the terrible crime you have committed, now Queen Celia will have no cause to negotiate with us. Slaying messengers spells out our intentions.”
“Ah, but the Queen of Theria does not know our intentions. This messenger came from the Frostmouth. Apparently, the garrison commander knows of our coming, but the rumors of war are just that to the Queen. She has sent no reinforcements to the pass.”
“How do you know all this?” Herndol’s expression turned aghast. “You tortured that woman?”
“Not at all,” Orell replied. “I am a sorcerer, after all. I have my ways for extracting information without harming the flesh.”
“I’m sure! And what did the messenger have to say by her own will? Why was she sent?”
“It is of little importance,” said Orell, batting his hand in the air as though chasing away a fly.
“The Frostmouth commander, Lord Traygul, orders us to desist, promises our destruction, blah, blah, blah. Empty threats from a villain. He obviously does not intend to surrender, so there was no need to listen to his minion’s little message.”
Assembler Herndol stared incredulously at the sorcerer. He spat on the ground before turning to the King. He knelt before his ruler, yet he did so, recognized Heathel, not as a subject, but as a friend.
“Densun,” he said, his tone beseeching. “This wizard cannot be trusted. He clouds your wits and brings shame to your army. Send him away, and we’ll fight this war with honor. Perhaps we avoid bloodshed altogether and fetch more honor still.”
Heathel watched, seeing a hint of longing in the King as his timorous body struggled with some internal strife. A movement caught Heathel’s eye. Orell, out of sight behind the Assembler, took the glove off his right hand and slid his fingers up his sleeve. Orell’s lips moved quietly and the King’s body grew rigid.
“Remember your son, my King,” prompted the sorcerer. “Theria must pay for the murder they have committed.”
Densun nodded his head vigorously as a blob of spittle appeared on his lips and uncoiled like a rope down his chin.
“We march,” croaked the King. “See to your warriors.”
Herndol remained on his knee, sadly considering his old friend. Without further word, he stood up and departed the chamber. Heathel’s eye shot from the angry monarch to the victorious smile on Orell’s face. The sorcerer watched the soldier with a curious gleam before Heathel, feeling very much out of sorts, fled after the Assembler.
He caught up to him outside the King’s tent, carefully avoiding the grisly view to his left.
“The King is bewitched!” Heathel stated in a hushed voice.
“He is indeed,” said Herndol. “But not by magic.”
The words seemed to catch at Heathel’s feet at the astonished soldier stumbled.
“No, I saw it,” he declared. “Orell is a sorcerer.”
The Assembler snorted.
“Sorcerers are not what you think they are,” he replied. “They cannot make a man dance on strings, not without the man first tying the knots to his own back. Even then, that man can choose to free himself. King Densun is blinded by grief for his dead son. His age-addled wits have left him as impressionable as an moldy peach.”
Heathel considered the sorcerer’s silent utterances while touching his arm, as well as the green specter floating above the city and knew that Herndol had not been at the funeral to witness the magical display. Orell was very much a sorcerer. Surely he could control people’s minds if he so chose.
“What about the messenger?” asked Heathel. “Orell used magic to pull information from her.”
“I doubt it. Orell’s true power are in his lies and manipulations. A true interrogator has no need for magic to extract information.”
They had almost reached the militia’s camp when Herndol stopped them in their tracks. He turned to Heathel.
“Keep an eye on that wizard,” he said. Sorcerers disliked being called wizards, and Herndol relished every opportunity to drop the moniker when referring to Orell.
“Just like any wizard I’ve ever met, this one is madly ambitious and without honor. All wizards have a vice, and they will do anything to feed it.”
Heathel had heard such notions regarding wizards before.
“What is Orell’s vice?” he asked.
Herndol shook his head.
“Power, most likely. Perhaps treasure. Gold. But who knows, save the wizard, and he will never reveal his true desires. Such knowledge makes him vulnerable. He has his hold over the King, it’s true, but the King is making this war happen. As his loyal subjects, we must obey. Now leave me and make ready.”
The Assembler departed, leaving the dazed soldier alone in the road. For some time, Heathel puzzled over what to do. He had trusted in Herndol’s wisdom since the first day he met the old legionnaire, yet the Assembler’s explanations did not satisfy the young soldier. Orell’s acts were troubling. The sorcerer’s intentions seemed aligned with Heathel’s king, which led Heathel to obey. Yet the means employed by the sorcerer in the name of the King, seemed vicious and wrong. Herndol was determined to continue on the King’s behalf while maintaining some unwritten code of honor. Standing there in the snow, on the eve of battle, Heathel decided he would do the same. He would fight this war with honor and dignity, and most importantly, he would look out for the members of his militia. Not just his friends in the Seventh, but every soul of every tensome. Good people fighting together. Truly, that was enough to make their fallible leader’s cause great, and negate the sinister means of the sorcerer.
The Frostmouth was situated on the lofty heights at the top of Onion Pass in the Mother Mountains, separating the kingdoms of Baudlin and Theria. Built and occupied eight centuries ago, it had never been taken in battle. The borders of kingdoms and empires had shifted around it, so that over time half a dozen realms had laid claim to the mountaintop hold. While political fortunes had forced the castle to change hands, siege craft and armies had never once wrested control of the Frostmouth from its various garrisons.
Wedged like a brick between insurmountable cliffs, the castle was a simple design. It was primarily a wall, fifty-foot tall and twice as wide, constructed of granite quarried from the surrounding rock, with a square keep rising half again as high from its eastern end. A single portcullis guarded a gate in the main wall, while a mountain stream siphoned through an ice-caked tunnel at the base of the battlement afforded the fortress its name. An alpine lake north of the castle formed the source of the river known as the Great Melt, the headwaters of which poured through the iron grate beneath the castle before cutting a jagged path down the Onion Pass.
The castle’s power lay in its frozen heights, where constant storms and icy winds made lengthy sieges impossible for the exposed invaders. To attempt a year-round siege was insanity. The other unique defense of the Frostmouth was a string of apertures spaced along the main wall, each about a foot square and positioned two feet apart, lining the battlement fifteen feet off the ground. With a few quick mechanical manipulations from the garrison, a head race leading from the lake to the castle could be opened, forcing a frothy jet from each hole. A curtain of water would create a second, moving wall against which invaders would have to strive, if they were not washed away by the flood.
The road from the southern gateway ran down a narrow valley floor not more than fifty yards across, lined with scree and boulders the size of small cottages. The road followed the Great Melt for four-hundred yards before cutting across the narrow river over an ancient stone bridge. Here the pass tripled in width as the river cut to the western edge of the valley while the road followed the eastern cliffs. This widening of the Onion Pass gradually curved to the southeast, beyond the vistas commanded by the fortress.
King Densun’s army made camp half a mile below the Frostmouth, behind the last bend in the pass before the approach to the keep. Not a single soldier was given leave to sleep that evening. The assault would begin just before dawn, which meant the night was to be spent cutting down trees and fashioning siege equipment. Ladders were unloaded from wagons, battering rams cut and archer-blinds assembled. Siege towers were impractical on the jagged terrain, while trebuchets were too time consuming to erect. A few catapults were assembled but they too were unlikely to be of much aid. The Frostmouth was expected to fall under a swarm of soldiers.
To this purpose, the militias were charged with storming the walls while the royal legion took rams up the road to the portcullis gate. The narrow approach to the battlements were such that only one militia at a time could assail the wall. Losses were expected to be harsh for the lead militia, so to give a sense of fairness, the sorcerer prepared a lottery to determine the order of the charge. The Aspen militia drew the dubious honor. The High Dales would attack next, followed by the Cod, then the militia of the Frontlands. The auxiliary troops from the capital and the mercenaries from the coast were to be held in reserve, while the knights and cavalry were likewise kept in the rear, as horsemen were all but useless at charging walls. The small band of mounted archers would leave their horses behind and make their way to what heights along the pass that could be scaled.
Assembler Herndol made his own preparations for the assault, one of which was pulling his best archers from the militia and positioning them at the rear of their formation. When the assault was launched, the archers would hold back and use their bows to snipe defenders. Sara Tibold, who had improved most of the Seventh’s skills with the bow, was pulled from the tensome along with her most adept pupil, Tully Shone. Heathel envied them both.
In the gloom before the dawn, Heathel listened to the Shone sisters say their tearful goodbyes in each others embrace as the militia assembled in the road.
“Come now,” Sara urged Tully. “You’ll see her after.”
“You will,” sniffed Lea.
Kayla Spear paused nearby, resting her hands on each of the sisters shoulders. Heathel watched the candle-maker’s shadow reach out and do the same to Sara Tibold’s form.
“Take care,” said Sara, and the little gathering broke apart.
Something jostled Heathel’s side. Bon was busily adjusting the straps to his helm and kept bumping his friend with his shield.
“Alright, young Silversmith?” asked Heathel. He felt the reassuring heft of his own shield. His spear, its butt resting on the ground, was not as comforting in the peasant’s grip.
“This is it,” Bon replied, his voice quavering with excitement. “Let us come out of this champions!”
Shaylin Drubb spoke up behind them.
“Let us come out of it, period,” he said.
“Too right,” echoed another man.
Heathel glanced behind him and recognized in the predawn light, the outline of the mace carried in lieu of a spear. It surprised Heathel to hear such concern in Abbol’s voice. It occurred to the youth that Abbol was hired to guard merchant trains. Perhaps he had never been in battle. Heathel asked the brute as much.
“Thrice,” was the man’s response. “Doesn’t mean it becomes a comfy old time.”
Heathel turned back around. The sky was clear and brightening to the east, and a cold, funereal light revealed the detachments ahead. The royal legion was locked into formation at the front of the column, while the Aspen folk stood in a disorderly mass just behind. The High Dales militia was almost ready, standing at attention in rows of five. The Seventh tensome was about twelve rows deep into the militia’s formation. Somewhere out of sight ahead, Assembler Herndol led his band.
To Heathel’s right, he overheard Gren whisper a prayer to his gods to reunite the farrier with his lover back home. Beyond Gren, filling out their row, Mat from Pinedock issued his own promise to see his betrothed back in Pinedock. Kayla and Lea joined the row behind, and the Seventh stood ready for battle.
A seemingly endless wait tormented the anxious soldiers while the rest of the column filled the road to the south. Birds began to chirp in the snow-shrouded shrubs, accompanied by the eerie drumming of some peculiar ground fowl, perhaps trying to goad the human drummers to signal the march.
Two riders made their way along the road, noblemen charged with commanding the front in the King’s stead. A murmur of surprise rippled along the column, preceding the sight of a third rider.
Heathel turned to see what the muted uproar was about and was shocked to see Orell riding the back of a massive warhorse as black as a funeral stele. The sorcerer’s vexing physical appearance was just as much a call for surprise as was his very presence. Instead of his usual fine robes, Orell was clad in steel breastplate and mail leggings. Yet he carried no weapon and his arms were as bare as newborn babes. His yellow hair was pulled back into a tight bun cinched with a pale white ribbon. His face was a mask of fearless resolve. Although his breath frosted in the air, the sorcerer with his naked arms did not appear to mind the cold.
Orell reined in his mount not far from Heathel and the Seventh. As the sorcerer lingered on his horse, Heathel noticed peculiar lumps covering Orell’s arms. At first they resembled boils, yet their was no discoloration or irritation of the flesh. Each boil was a different size and shape, although most protrusions appeared as though ball bearings had been slid beneath the sorcerer’s skin.
Ignoring the curious warriors eyeing him from the road, Orell dropped his reins and held his left forearm to the sky. His right hand hovered over one of the odd bumps occupying the flesh beneath his left wrist, then clamped down on the unnatural boil.
Speaking words aloud in a language none but the sorcerer knew, Orell tilted his chin to the clear sky. A cloud began to form above, much like the one conjured at the prince’s funeral. Instead of forming into a giant, however, the cloud diffused its green-tinted mists across the pass, filling the air above the soldiers‘ heads.
“He means to fight alongside us,” Bon declared. A few approving cheers rose in the ranks nearby. Heathel looked at the armor-clad sorcerer and was pleased that at the very least, Orell was making it harder for the enemy archers to spot the invaders.
Once the cloud had hidden the peaks above and blotted out the sky, Orell released the grip on his own arm and spurred his horse ahead. Hushed orders rippled from the front of the column toward the back, and soon the army began to march.
Perhaps it was the blanketing fog, or the silent ranks of shuffling soldiers, or the way snow seems to muffle the sounds and radiations of life, but the world around Heathel seemed to shrink. More likely it was the anxiety and fear hanging like a pall all around the peasant and his friends, that made him retreat into himself. He grew fixated on his boots, locked in step with the warrior’s heels just ahead, swinging in and out of his perception, skimming snow off the stones covering the road. The cadence of his footsteps was hypnotic, so much so that Heathel barely heeded a frantic shout echoing ahead. Words were uttered nearby, but the meaning did not permeate the young man’s wits for a few seconds.
“The cloud is breaking up.”
Following Bon’s words, Heathel looked up and saw that the green mists above had thinned. The pass was narrower here so that cliffs loomed nearby. An undulating bristling of the spears just ahead showed where soldiers crossed the small bridge ahead. The royal legion had crossed the Great Melt and continued on the road north, while the militias avoided the bridge and made their way along the opposite bank of the icy stream. Heathel stepped of the road, then jogged down a small ridge, following the freshly beaten path through thigh-deep snow. The army began to climb. The footing was steep and rocky and the tidy ranks broke apart as the infantry struggled up the pass. Sweat formed on Heathel’s neck and back.
“I can see it,” Bon said in awe, as the ghostly silhouette of the main keep appeared in the green mists ahead. A banner, steeped in shadow, rippled violently from its wooden pole atop the castle, while small shapes moved furtively between the toothy crenelations.
More shouts ahead, followed by a drum in the castle rallying the garrison. Orell’s mists evaporated like steam into the cold sky.
A war cry rose from the royal legion while the Baudlin drums picked up somewhere behind Heathel’s militia. The battle had begun.
Herndol’s shouts ran roughshod through the tumult ahead as Bon and Heathel scrambled forward, side by side.
“Shields up,” the Assembler barked.
Heathel did as he was told as something whined through the air. There were cries ahead, foreboding screams that any sane person would turn away from, yet the peasant from Pale Meadows pressed on. More whistles in the air and Heathel’s shield bucked and struck his head. An arrow had glanced off one of the copper bands wrapping his shield.
“Watch it,” he shouted aloud. Energy surged through his arms and legs yet he never felt so heavy and slow. The snow sucked at his boots even as they slid on the steep terrain. Heathel kept his head low, minding the footing across icy rocks. Occasionally, he would spot red dots on the ground or pass a discarded shield. When he came across his first body, an Aspen soldier, lying still in the snow, Heathel jumped and nearly knocked over his friend.
Bon cried out, while a firm hand seized Heathel’s shoulder.
“Steady now,” Abbol said.
Heathel glanced back and blanched as he saw blood on the man’s face.
“Are you alright?” he said. “Where’s Shaylin?”
“Never mind that,” Abbol gave the youth a light shove. “Keep going.”
More bodies were passed, taken down by Therian arrows. The crash of a battering ram against the portcullis rang through the pass, while the hideous chorus of the wounded grew more terrible still. The royal legion was already at the gate, yet why was the Seventh still groping their way up the pass?
Heathel peered over the rim of his shield and saw that the Aspen Militia had reached the main battlement. Ladders and ropes were being thrown against the wall while defenders above dropped rocks and fired arrows. Black mists faster than diving falcons arched over ahead before raining down on the castle wall. Heathel thought of Sara and Tully somewhere behind, adding their own arrows to each volley. He hoped each shot found its mark.
A blur to Heathel’s right, and the soldier instinctually leaned away. A deafening crack filled his ears as the ground beside him burst into a cloud of snow and broken rock. Heathel toppled over under a hail of granite shrapnel that ricocheted off his shield and armor. Snow flushed into his face and down his collar, stinging with cold. Stunned, he rose to his knees, searching for his shield and spear, the latter of which had slid down into the stream bed below.
Heathel began to crawl down the bank to retrieve his weapon, when he noticed that there was no water flowing in the creek. He looked up at the castle, surprised to see that the flow of the Great Melt through the iron grate in the wall had ceased. As he contemplated why, water exploded from the string of portals in the wall. Men and women on ladders were whisked off the battlements by the jets of water, like grime washed off a plate. The legionnaires working the battering ram were little better off as the openings above the portcullis billowed white cataracts upon them. They fell back from the rush, tumbling down the road in the churning stream. The tide dissipated quickly, so that legionnaires some twenty feet from the wall had but to lean into the flow to maintain their footing. Yet the curtain of water threw the front of Baudlin’s assault into disarray.
Grabbing his spear from the slippery stream bed, Heathel took advantage of the diverted stream and made his way up the empty waterway. Others followed, leaping across puddles from rock to slippery rock, trying in vain to navigate around the frigid carnage inflicted ahead.
The curtain of water began to subside as Heathel reached the mess below the battlements. Dead and wounded were strewn about the base of the wall, the latter shivering as they were not only injured but soaked on a winter’s day. Warriors of the High Dales took up the ladders of the scattered Aspens, many of whom had turned and fled. The rumble of the legion’s work continued across the stream bed, as fresh soldiers took the place of their fallen comrades at the ram.
Arrows and rocks fell from above, and Heathel realized he had left his shield behind. He grabbed one from the ground and held it overhead as he considered what to do next. None of his tensome was at hand, and the lone member of the Seventh, frightened but dutiful, fell in line with some familiar warriors of the Third. In the chaos, this tensome somehow held together as they seized a pair of damp ladders and raised them against the wall. Scaling the slippery rungs with one hand while holding his spear and shield with the other, Heathel hoped he could draw his sword when he reached the top, for he certainly could not balance on the ladder with a weapon and a shield occupying both his hands.
The soldier above him grunted as blunt stone relieved her of her life. As her body plummeted to the ground, Heathel looked into the face of the Therian peering over the battlements, his gaze murderous as he raised another stone above his head. Before he could crush Heathel’s skull, the young man was washed off the ladder by a second wave of water, like a leaf riding a stream. He gasped in shock from the icy wave as he landed in a pool of slush. His ears rang from the cold sinking into his head like icy daggers.
“Pull back!” Herndol’s voice cried, sending a strange wave of relief through the young soldier. Heathel leapt up from the icy froth, abandoning his shield as he raced like a hare away from the wall. Across the riverbed, legionnaires fled along the road in droves, their discipline discarded alongside the battering ram left at the gate.
The retreat carried King Densun’s battered forces beyond the range of the Frostmouth archers, just past the bridge. The survivors from the royal legion and the Aspen and High Dales militias pooled together in a bloodied, downtrodden mass. Heathel stumbled into the crowd, striving to find his friends. On the road to the south, the fresh militias of the Frontlands and the coast, as well as the auxiliary troops from the castle poised to launch a second wave.
Heathel found himself wrapped tightly in Bon’s arms. He pulled away as the friends examined each other.
“Are you hurt?” Heathel asked. Besides wet hair and a missing spear, the young silversmith appeared untouched.
“Freezing is all,” Bon replied. “I had just reached the wall when the first… what would you call it? Waterfall… fell. Swept half a dozen Aspen folk over me. You?”
“I’m well as can be,” he said weakly. Heathel was unscathed yet he felt anything but well.
“Come. The Assembler is gathering us over here.”
To Heathel’s dismay, Bon towed him toward the castle but fortunately did not pull him far. Herndol stood on a small rise, barking at his troops to reform ranks while dispatching others to carry the wounded back to camp. Amongst the injured being dragged to the rear, were both Gren and Mat. The farrier had lost his helm, his dark hair was matted with blood, but he gave Heathel a reassuring smile as he passed. Mat was almost as white as the snow. He stumbled by with an arrow sticking through his forearm.
Herndol had trained his recruits well. The Tensomes reformed save for the wounded and those in the archer detail. As Bon and Heathel fell back into line, Heathel felt sheepishly aware that he no longer carried his spear or shield. He asked after Bon’s weapon, hoping a similar story of negligence would be told.
“I sent my spear over the wall,” he said, without his usual swagger.
Heathel’s embarrassment deepened but he did speak. Instead he noticed that while Abbol and Kayla Spear had returned from the assault, Lea and Shaylin were nowhere to be seen. A sickening dread filled the young man’s stomach. The Seventh had been brutalized in their first engagement and the battle had only just begun.
“Keep those heads up,” Herndol’s rasp snapped the militia to attention. “You did the best you could out there. They won’t be able to hold us back again.”
Heathel stared incredulously at the Assembler. The Frostmouth barely had a chip in its exterior, while its banner waved as vigorously as ever. The portcullis was gnarled and bent but still intact. At the foot of the battlements lay a hundred dead or dying warriors. Heathel was convinced another assault was just as certain to fail.
As though sensing his despair, the sorcerer Orell rode his horse to the front of the army, reining in beside the Assembler Herndol. His face beamed confidence like the sun shone light. The sorcerer extended his fist and lumpy arm high over his head.
“Warriors of Baudlin,” his voice echoed supernaturally through the air. “Your King needs you. We must not let these fiends hide behind their castle, secure in their guilt from justice.”
Every soldier listened, transfixed on the sorcerer as his words poured like rich mead into their ears. Heathel felt his own heart stir, his resolve fortified with the nourishment from Orell’s speech.
“This castle is all that stands between us and the evil Queen who murdered your prince. The Frostmouth has never been taken by force. Well, I say, the Frostmouth has never been taken because no army to lay siege here has fought for a righteous cause. When we charge this pass, scale those walls, slay its defenders, and raise our flag, it will be because our cause is exceptional. It is righteous and true. It is what renders our resolve undying, our vengeance irresistible.”
Cheers rose, single shouts that multiplied into a chorus of wrath.
“We will charge, again and again, sledge against stone, our breath the hot bellows of revenge, blasting our war cry. Remember the Prince! Remember THE PRINCE!”
“REMEMBER THE PRINCE!” The call was seized and nurtured by every soldier, Heathel included, who felt the passion permeate his bones and make him feel as light and powerful as a gale. He dismissed the nagging thought the cry made little sense, he would not dwell upon logic now, not when blood burned in his veins and death waited with a cold, insatiable thirst. Instead he echoed the rallying cry, feeling the army’s shout resonate through him, filling the pass.
As the loyalist cacophony reached its feverish apex, the sorcerer unfolded the fingers of his raised fist, revealing a large gemstone the shade of blood. A crimson aura appeared around the sorcerer’s hand as thin hazy tendrils formed in the air and coursed into the stone. It was as though the sorcerer harnessed the passion of every soldier vented through their shouts, into the atmosphere where they were extracted by the stone itself.
The gemstone threw off a devilish glow before a guttural shout from the sorcerer unleashed a blast from his open palm. A great ball of fire coursed through the air and smashed against the Frostmouth. The ground shook as the fortress ruptured and the face of the wall fell, leaving a steep chasm in the battlement some twenty feet wide.
Cheers erupted while the militia of the High Dales surged forward. Heathel and Bon sprinted side by side, swords drawn, ignoring the arrows skimming past them. Their fear was gone, replaced by a righteous courage. Loyalty took away their hesitation, camaraderie vanquished their doubts. The insidious crime implicated in their battle cry, the attack on their king, the affront to their kingdom and threat to every noblemen, merchant, priest, warrior, commoner, and peasant, fueled their charge up the ruins of the castle wall.
Heathel and Bon were the first to reach the collapsed battlement. As they stumbled and scrambled up the broken mortar and stone, losing their momentum, fear flowed back into Heathel’s heart. The climb stretched into a lifetime, as the fear of armed soldiers appearing on the ruins ahead filled Heathel with dread. Would they be ambushed on the top of the wall? Would the garrison muster and plug the breach? Heathel’s heart skipped as his foot caught in the stone. He lurched forward, landing painfully on his knee. Bon did not notice his comrade stumble and continued up the scree. Others began to pass as well. Watching his friend disappear over the lip of the breach filled Heathel with shame so profound, his fear was subdued. Heathel regained his footing and bounded up the broken wall, pain shooting through his knee with every step.
He leapt onto a small plaza with his sword poised to strike. Wounded Therians were huddled behind the crenellations, while bodies lay exposed on the cobblestones, the corpses either maimed by the explosion or slain by Baudlin archers. There were no enemies left to fight atop the wall.
Stunned, Heathel froze in dismay as his cohorts poured into the castle around him. Some charged hastily into the keep while others made for the gatehouse. Bon was nowhere to be seen.
The Assembler’s call whipped Heathel around. Herndol stood, his face as red as a beet, huffing at the lip of the breach.
“See to the far wall!” he shouted.
Heathel obeyed, crossing the plaza to the crenellations facing the north. A fine layer of snow lay undisturbed on this side of the wall where the haggard warrior peered curiously over the battlement.
To the north was a series of valleys descending like massive steps, each with their own tiny, frozen alpine lake. Several valleys downs, the steps disappeared into a dense, snowcapped apron of forest stretched between the mountains. A winding gray road unravelled its way from the Frostmouth down the terraced pass, into distant valleys.
Heathel turned away before his eye caught movement some two-hundred yards down the road. A dozen or so Therian soldiers ran frantically away from their castle, while just ahead, a knight on horseback fled with abandon.
As though in response to his own observation, a wild cheer erupted through the castle. The remaining garrison had fled and the battle was over. The Frostmouth was taken.
Bon’s appearance by Heathel’s shoulder startled him. His voice was strangely quiet.
“Are you hurt?” Heathel asked, inspecting his friend. Bon’s helmet was gone and there was a streak of blood like a brushstroke, stretching from his jawline across his nose, to the hair near his temple.
“No,” he stated flatly. More blood streaked his blade.
Heathel did not have to ask. He could see that his friend had killed someone. It was Bon’s first time taking a human life.
He took his friend’s sword. Bon let go of it without protest, almost as though he had forgotten it was his. Heathel scooped up a fistful of snow and cleaned the blade.
“Here you are,” he said, watching as Bon sheathed his weapon. As the cheering continued, Heathel placed his arm around Bon’s shoulder. They walked back to camp together.
With the wounded tended to and the dead gathered and buried, numbers were tallied. The results surprised young Heathel.
The Frostmouth garrison had seemed tremendous in size. So many archers, Heathel thought, whenever he recalled the hail of arrows claiming his people’s lives. In truth, fewer than a hundred Therian soldiers had defended the castle. Half of them were slain, mostly by the sorcerer’s spell, a quarter captured and the rest fled. Heathel had been one of the few to witness the garrison commander make his escape. When the sorcerer’s fireball collapsed the wall like it was made of sand, the knight in charge of leading the Therians to the bitter end, decided a hasty retreat was bitter enough.
The garrison had been outnumbered, twenty to one, but their archers did a bloody job in trying to even the odds. The headstrong folk of the Aspen militia took the brunt of the damage. Fifty-three dead and wounded from the initial assault, almost a quarter of their numbers. The royal legion likewise took considerable losses, as did the High Dales militia, which nevertheless fought with distinction.
Out of the Seventh, Gren and Mat from Pinedock were both wounded. The goat-herder Shaylin Drubb was slain by an arrow, while Lea Shone succumbed to wounds from a stone dropped from the enemy walls.
The camp was split in two that evening, with half of the army celebrating their victory while those detachments that fought the battle mourned in their tents or congregated morosely by their camp fires.
Heathel, Kayla Spear, the brute Abbol, Mat Pinedock, and Gren ate their supper quietly together, ignoring the drunken celebrations farther up the valley. Most of the auxiliary soldiers from the capital had taken refuge in the castle. Their bonfires made shadows dance across the gray planes of the keep while music echoed from the battlements.
“You won’t be hearing music from the Aspen folk,” Abbol declared. “Their lot took the worst of it.”
“They fought bravely,” Kayla Spear said, a hint of piety in her tone.
“They fought,” Abbol admitted. “You have to when you are thrown in first.”
Heathel and Kayla both gazed curiously at the mercenary, trying to detect the meaning in his flat tone.
Heathel could sense Kayla’s temper rising and did his best to head it off.
“Do you think we will head home now?” he asked.
The tension eased from Kayla’s shoulders, but she did not reply. Gren, his head wrapped in bandages, spoke up. His usual good cheer seemed muddled by his wound.
“I doubt it,” he said gloomily. “Not unless Queen Celia surrenders.”
“She will raise an army first,” said Abbol. “The Frostmouth is one castle. She has others.”
“We will take them all,” declared Kayla.
No one argued with her. Instead, the ever quiet youth from Pinedock blurted out.
“I want my Aggie!”
There were tears in the young man’s eyes as he pined for his distant love. The sight saddened them all, even Kayla, who placed a hand on Mat’s knee.
“I miss my son,” she said. “I miss helping him with his studies. We will see our loved ones again soon.”
Mat sniffled as he stared into the flames.
“I miss my Brien’s smell,” said Gren. “He smells like woodsmoke, sweat, and iron. By my gods, I miss that smell.”
Heathel smiled, then felt pangs of sadness as he thought of his own kin. He longed for his father’s smiling presence, his siblings’ bustling good cheer. When he considered his mother, he could only picture her wearing a frown, yet he wished that stern countenance was with him now. Heathel turned in surprise as the reticent Abbol threw out his own desire.
“There’s a maiden at a tavern in Ferry Flats,” he stated wistfully. “A real plum!”
Abbol hesitated, his eyes searching his eyebrows.
“Can’t remember her name,” he said with a sigh. “A real good time, though.”
Gren chuckled while even Kayla hid a furtive smile.
There was a crunch in the snow towards the castle. The Seventh turned, expecting to see the Assembler.
The sorcerer Orell flashed his immaculate smile as he meandered up to the fire.
“Warriors from the High Dales,” he spoke, his voice tinged with reverence. “May I share the warmth of your fire for a moment?”
Unsure how to react, Heathel turned to his comrades. The tensome was just as conflicted. Abbol nodded warily, while his eyes glistened like a cautious fox. Gren stood and beckoned the sorcerer like an old friend to a place on the log beside the farrier. Mat was as dumb as a post while Kayla leapt to her feet and bowed.
“We would be honored, my lord,” she said, brimming with pride.
Orell modestly inclined his head before crossing to the proffered seat. The sorcerer was no longer dressed for battle but was draped in a thick, fur lined cloak. His blond hair was tucked into a bear-skin cap. On closer inspection, Heathel could make out the flattened, eyeless face of the poor creature perched on the magic man’s head.
“Your militia fought valiantly this morning,” the sorcerer said once he was seated. “The King thanks you. As do I.”
“We thank you,” said Kayla. “I am sure the King does as well. If not for your spell…”
“My spell was but a harnessing of your strength,” explained the sorcerer. “I could not have breached the wall without brave warriors such as yourselves.”
The warriors sat stunned, unsure how to reply. For Heathel’s part, the thought that he had some hand in the magic witnessed today, stirred his pride. If the sorcerer’s power was derived from the good intentions of Heathel and his cohorts, then it made their cause seem righteous indeed. Yet the bloated visage of the dead messenger back at the motte still made him question Orell’s intentions.
Orell looked boldly at the soldiers gathered around the fire.
“You have had losses,” he said. “I understand your clever Assembler divided his forces into… tensomes. I see only half of yours is here.”
“We lost two good folk today,” Gren replied. “Shaylin Drubb and Lea Shone.”
“The King mourns their loss,” the sorcerer quickly replied.
Kayla nodded like a priestess hearing a prayer, while Heathel wondered how the King could possibly mourn a farmer and shepherd Densun had never met.
“A few others have retired for the night,” Gren continued. “Not wounded. Just… melancholy. Lea’s sister, Tully… you understand.”
“Those that died, died for their King and their country,” said Orell. “It is right to mourn them.”
“Are we marching into Theria, my lord?” asked Mat.
“Take heart, young man,” Orell said. “We must press on, yes. To defend our kingdom and see that those that perished today, did not die in vain.”
Mat shrank into his clothing but did not reply. Embarrassed by her comrade’s selfish behavior, Kayla addressed the sorcerer.
“We will do what is necessary,” she stated firmly. “As our cause is just, no one can defeat us.”
Heathel had yet to say a word, but he could not contain his apprehensions any longer. Two of his friends were dead, with dozens of other familiar faces likewise gone. Hundreds had been wounded today. His best friend, once an ebullient champion for this war, lay depressed in their tent. Herndol’s doubts and complaints gnawed away at his own support for this war, like mice chewing on the rope suspending his resolve. The battle had been won, and yet nothing seemed accomplished. Heathel even felt pity for the Therians who had tried to take his life. Most of them were now dead and all of them, Heathel was certain, posed little threat to his village in the High Dales.
“Is our cause just?” he asked.
“Heathel!” Kayla cried out while Gren shot him an incredulous stare. Abbol lowered his head, warming his hands by the fire yet his cautious gaze measured the sorcerer’s blank expression.
Orell considered Heathel for a moment, but saw nothing that displeased him.
“You have doubts,” he stated, unperturbed. “Allow me to put them to rest.”
Orell raised his arms. His unwavering confidence made Heathel doubt himself. He was unprepared for what happened next.
The sorcerer rolled up his sleeve, revealing a pale arm the color of smoked ivory. He was unabashed concerning the strange bumps marring his skin. Up close, the soldiers saw that the protrusions were of different sizes and rounded shapes. Heathel counted at least a dozen.
Orell placed a finger on one of the smaller depravities, frowned, then moved to another.
“Ah ha,” he said, clenching his fist. From his fist he extended his little finger. The pinky was slender with a long polished nail. Orell ran the side of his nail like a blade along the top of the bump. Either the nail was magically sharpened, or the sorcerer’s flesh was pathetically weak, for the nail effortlessly made a bloodless slit, revealing a small white stone the size of a large pearl. There was a gasp. Heathel could not tell from who, he was too mesmerized, as the sorcerer squeezed the pebble from his arm and held it in his open palm.
An apparition appeared above the pebble, flickering and small. The gathering around the fire leaned forward, watching as the apparition turned into the smokey visage of a man with a cruel, hideous face and a venemous gaze.
“This is Queen Celia’s chief assassin,” Orell explained gravely. “He has no name that we know, but his work speaks more to his identity than any name.”
The assassin’s face dissolved as the apparition rearranged itself into the shape of a small timber palisade with a hall at its center. The image of the fortification shrank, as though viewed by a bird rising into the sky, until the hill beneath it could be seen. Along the fortress, at its southern edge crowded a little village. Heathel watched, transfixed.
“It is the prince’s castle,” cried Kayla. “Before the fire.”
As soon as she spoke, the view plummeted back down to the timber wall. Heathel saw that they were looking up from the base at the top of the sharpened palisade, as a rope was thrown overhead. Climbing the chord, the assassin appeared deftly scaling the wall before slipping out of view into the fort. He was followed by two minions, each carrying unlit torches in their belts.
The view shifted again, revealing the buildings of the inner yard. Little white flames danced across the rooftop of the prince’s great hall. A piercing scream filled the air, hanging over their campfire and forcing the warriors from the High Dales to cover their ears.
Orell clenched his fist, hiding the pebble. The apparition disappeared and the prince’s death cry was silenced.
“The poor boy,” Gren stated sadly.
“Those fiends,” Kayla shouted.
Heathel considered the animations conjured by the sorcerer and was likewise infuriated. The visions disgusted him while validating the day’s battle, and anymore to come. The sorcerer watched the anger play across Heathel’s face and nodded with satisfaction.
“We will have our justice,” Orell stated grimly. “Which is why I am here.”
The sorcerer paused as he slid the stone back into his arm. Heathel watched with morbid fascination until the sorcerer lowered his sleeve.
“Your people distinguished themselves today,” he said. “The High Dales fought as well as the royal legion. With a little help, you could be greater still.”
“How?” asked Heathel.
“I have imbued a number of stones with a spell,” the sorcerer said. “When matched with a virtuous warrior, someone who is dedicated to their kingdom and wants only what’s best for their people, this spell… fortifies, so to speak, the wearer of the stone. You become more resilient, less fearful, stronger. Your energies expand while your passions are less distracting.”
“How can a stone do all that?” asked Gren.
“To be sure,” he confided, “I have possessed the stones with my own power. At no small cost, I might add. But the real power comes from within the wearer. They become a little magical themselves.”
The sorcerer’s tone was almost playful as he continued, framing his explanation as though appealing to a child.
“To reach their full potential, the wearer must utter a little spell. An oath, if you will. It goes like this.”
“For the infallible King, the one true Kingdom, I wear this talisman. Loyalty is strength. Strength is power. Doubt is a disease. I pledge my loyalty to the ruler of Derethol.”
As the sorcerer finished reciting the oath, Kayla frowned.
“Derethol?” she asked.
“It is the ancient name for these lands,” Orell shrugged. “You know how it is with sorcery. We are slaves to all those archaic words. Forgotten names. That sort of thing.”
“Ahh.” Kayla nodded, but even Heathel could see her falter. As for the young man, he thought of the sickening fear and vulnerability he felt in battle. The idea of wearing an enchanted stone that might mitigate those weaknesses was more than appealing.
Perhaps Orell sensed as much, for he turned to the youth that had been the foremost doubter amongst the tensome.
“What do you say, Heath?” he asked, surprising the young man by knowing his name. “You have already proven yourself loyal to the kingdom. Why not say a pledge and wear a little bauble. I promise, the results will astound you.”
Before he could reply, Heathel considered his Assembler’s warning, that it was not a sorcerer’s magic, but his words, that could control someone. Heathel could sense himself being manipulated, but could not envision the pitfalls to such an agreement. Still, he hesitated.
“I will do it,” Mat spoke out. “If it helps make the kingdom safer for my Aggie, and gets me home to her safe as well, why not?”
“For the kingdom!” exclaimed Kayla.
Gren shrugged while Abbol maintained his stony silence. Orell ignored the mercenary as though he was already a lost cause. The sorcerer kept his eyes trained on Heathel.
“Wonderful,” he said, responding to the other Sevenths. “I will tell you what. The stone contains some measure of power even without the oath. If you volunteer to wear it, any of you, I think you will be pleased. You may decide to take the pledge later, when you are ready.”
The sorcerer stepped away from the fire, making his way toward the road.
“Rest tomorrow,” he said. “I will bring by the stones the day after, when we march.”
Before the invasion of Theria continued, two changes took a mixed toll on the morale of King Densun’s army. The first was the sorcerer’s announcement that the mountain weather had weakened the King’s health. King Densun would be forced to return to the capital. The next development was of a positive nature, yet it further dampened the spirits of the High Dales folk. Assembler Herndol was to take command of the royal army while the sorcerer Orell would lead the Assembler’s militia in battle. It was a peculiar and unexpected change, which General Herndol, as he was now called, had no power to counteract. He was eager to guide the army but despised the notion that the sorcerer was to have any sway over his former militia. Both appointments were by royal decree, and although the veteran legionnaire longed to rid of the wizard, Orell would have to first prove himself incompetent in the next battle. That, or die.
Theria covered an area less than half that of the kingdom assailing it, and the road from the Frostmouth to the city of Theria was roughly forty miles. Baudlin scouts were dispatched but none had yet returned with news of Queen Celia’s reaction to losing her border keep. Surrender was unlikely. Herndol expected a final battle, either to be met at Queen Celia’s capital, or a small fortification halfway between the Frostmouth and the city of Theria, known as Oxbow Castle.
Oxbow Castle was a crumbling stone keep next to a stagnant pond that the scissor blades of time and erosion had snipped off a nearby river. An earthen palisade shaped like a horseshoe enclosed the castle on three sides while lily-pads, tadpoles and fetid waters provided dubious protection to the castle’s western approach. The Oxbow guarded the road from the Mother Mountains to Theria City, but the general disrepair of the fortifications and the tiny village on the opposite side of the road, indicated to the invaders from the south, that the road was neither well travelled nor particularly threatened. At least, not until the Frostmouth had fallen, and Queen Celia ordered her forces to rally on the empty fields south of the Oxbow.
The army raised by the Queen was a motley gathering, mostly from the capital. Assembled for battle on the plain were roughly a hundred archers and crossbowmen, three-hundred swordsmen from the capital garrison, and sixty mounted knights. Another two-hundred soldiers armed with pike formed a thin line before the core of the army. The bulk of the Therian defense was the peasant horde pressed into service. They numbered no fewer than two-thousand, bloating the Therian forces to well over double the size of the Baudlin contingent. The peasant horde was divided in half and placed to either side of the ranks of professional soldiers.
Heathel knew little of the enemy arrayed against him. He stood on a fallow field with his tensome amidst their militia, his view obstructed by the heads and spears of the Frontlands militia assembled before him on the plain. Heathel’s own spear rose from his grip over his head, one branch lost in a vast, neatly arranged thicket. There was no more snow on the ground, which was a mixed blessing, for the grass and weeds covering the field were slowly being churned to mud by the hundreds of lingering soldiers shifting their boots as they waited for the battle to commence. Heathel peered over the heads of the untested warriors ahead, at the enemy pikes and spears bristling in the distance. He swallowed away the lump tormenting the back of his throat, while trying to focus on another knot pressed between his tunic and armor; Orell’s enchanted stone.
The evening before, the sorcerer had dispensed his gifts to the High Dales militia. Explaining that each stone had to be held close to the chest, Heathel took the oblong orb, no bigger than a robin’s egg, and sewed it beneath a patch onto his tunic, just over his sternum. Wearing it now, the young warrior did not feel any stronger. His fear was as potent as that before the eve of his first battle. Heathel wondered if perhaps the sorcerer had given him a faulty amulet.
He glanced at the soldiers he knew to have accepted the sorcerer’s offer. Orell brought enough stones for the entire militia, although many refused. Kayla Spear had been the most eager to take the sorcerer’s gift. Looking at her now, Heathel could not see where the candle-maker secured her stone. Kayla wore a fierce glare as she searched gor the enemy ahead, but gave no other indication of enhanced, magical abilities. Beside her, Mat from Pinedock drooped like a wet flower, as though the amulet strung with twine around his neck had only further weighted down his body and his spirits. Bon, who had accepted the sorcerer’s story from Heathel’s lips without a word, had taken a stone but did not appear to profit from it. He stood melancholy and detached next to his friend, having yet to recover his cavalier attitude from before the Frostmouth. Tully Shone, still stricken with grief over her sister’s death, poured tears on the small green rock in her palm, making Heathel wonder if suffering might perhaps enhance a stone’s power. There was no sign that it did.
Those that refused the sorcerer’s stones appeared no better or worse off. The brute Abbol had silently abstained from partaking of Orell’s bag of gifts as they were passed about the militia. Sara Tibold was disgusted by the offer. She warned everyone that enchanted stones always carried a price not worth paying. Sara convinced a few warriors, but most paid the archer little mind.
As the militia waited to throw their lives into battle, Heathel could not help but imagine and catalogue new fears. Would the stones work as Orell professed? Were bonds being broken between those who took the enchantments and those that did not? If the sorcerer fell in battle, would the stones cease to work?
Heathel searched for the sorcerer but could not find him. The Assembler had always fought alongside his warriors. It appeared that Orell would lead as most other militia commanders did from behind.
As the drums began, Heathel pushed the thoughts of the sorcerer and the magical amulet aside. He tightened his grip on his new spear and lifted his shield off the ground. Heathel would have to survive this battle by his own innate powers. A horn blew and the drum beat quickened. The army advanced.
The young soldier fixed his gaze over the heads of the Frontlands folk, at the distant line of Therian pikes marking the enemy frontline. Each sharpened pole loomed twice as high as any man or woman in the army. Heathel’s mouth went dry as the line moved forward to meet the Baudlin army. When this sparse fence of sharpened stakes tilted toward him, dipping out of sight, a chill coursed down Heathel’s back. Not a religious person, the young man from the High Dales muttered a quick prayer for the Frontlands folk just ahead.
Black flocks of arrows crossed blurry paths above, their landing signaled by broken cries ahead and amongst his own ranks. Heathel’s heartbeat quickened, while his own feet seemed to drag. The drums were hammered more fiercely and the rhythm increased, sending a flush of warmth through his chest. As the thicket of enemy spears glided forward to meet his army, Heathel realized the rising heat did not spread from within him.
“Do you feel that?” he asked aloud.
“What?” Sara asked, shooting him a nervous glance. Between them, Bon’s dead stare remained fixed ahead.
“I do!” Kayla’s tone was almost exultant. “I feel stronger.”
The candle-maker’s confirmation made the heat in Heathel’s chest spread farther, suffusing his core. Heathel’s confidence grew. Visceral shouts rose amongst the other tensomes, while just to the right, a warrior in the Sixth held his stone aloft. Rays of emerald light lanced out between his closed fingers. There were cries of vengeance for the prince.
Another horn sounded and the front lines lurched forward. The Frontlands militia charged, then broke in a bloodied wave on the enemy pikemen. The militia churned itself in a horrible, shrieking eddy against the unbreakable front. Heathel watched the horrifying spectacle, but felt no fear. The grisly spectacle fueled his anger. Heathel sprinted hungrily at the carnage, furious with those that might hinder his people’s righteous path and inflict harm upon them. He was not alone.
Kayla Spear and Mat Pinedock were at his sides as they scaled the pile of dead Frontlanders and leapt over the giant spears sawing in and out of the Baudlin ranks. A pike struck Mat’s shield as he held it squarely before him. It was a stroke that should have pinned the wooden panel to the man’s rib cage, but the enchanted soldier and his shield were deflected out of sight. Kayla launched her own spear into the enemy ranks. It hurtled like ballista shot, cruising through a pikeman and the soldier behind him. Astonished, Heathel tossed his own spear and found that it too sailed as though launched from a giant crossbow. He drew his sword and hurtled the buckling line of pikemen. As he landed, a mob of Therian warriors fell upon him with their swords. Like a frenzied madman, he swung and battered with his blade, knocking away his assailants’ weapons. His enemies toppled and shrank, although from injuries or terror, Heathel could not tell.
There was a great roar of women and men behind him, followed by tide of Therian peasants. Queen Celia’s forces had swept the left Baudlin flank, flooding the Cod militia and filling the breach in the Therian pikemen. Heathel toppled and fell beneath a press of bodies, not sure who was friend or foe. The power of his stone was not enough and the enchanted warrior was pinned beneath a writhing pile of soldiers. Out of cunning, Heathel lay still, waiting for the tumult and roar to ease before rising again. With sword drawn, he leapt to his feet, searching for new enemies. He found himself stranded on a small island of bodies amidst the raging battle. Heathel peered like a ravenous beast at the the swirling ranks and currents of soldiers, hesitant as to where to leap back into the fray.
A hand seized his ankle. Heathel raised his sword, ready to strike, when he discovered Bon Silversmith reaching up to him.
“I’m buried,” he shouted, furious with his predicament. Together, they dragged away the bodies holding them down. As Bon climbed to his feet, green light shone under his collar and the sleeves of his tunic. Heathel was heartened to see that a look of vengeful determination was fixed to his friend’s face. The stones were working their fear-draining wonders, their mysterious powers increasing even more as the enchanted warriors stood together.
The onslaught of the peasant flank had shifted the battle east, leaving small clusters of combat behind on a plain of slaughter. Amidst these roving bands, Heathel and Bon were left unengaged.
“Where?” demanded Bon as he watched a hail of arrows fall indiscriminately into the battle.
Heathel turned to the north, where a small band of knights flying Therian banners hunted down stragglers of the Cod militia. Armed with lances in one hand and swords in the other, six shining nobles mercilessly cut down the remains of Baudlin’s left flank.
Heathel sheathed his sword before gathering a shield and a spear from the ground. He pointed his weapon at the knights. Bon nodded, collected his own projectile and a battered Therian shield. As light as deer, they bounded across the field.
In the enemy band ahead, a small knight with elegant, gold-trimmed armor and a bloodied lance spotted their approach. The sight of two foot soldiers charging six mounted knights clad in heavy plate and mail gave the knight pause. She shouted to her fellow warriors then watched from behind as the other knights turned their horses toward the fearless pair of infantry.
Together, Bon and Heathel threw their spears, each knocking a knight dead off their saddles. Astonished, their remaining opponents reined in their charge. Glancing through their visors at one another, the three riders spread out, cautiously flanking their opponents. Heathel lost sight of his friend as he focused on the central knight, a massive warrior in black lacquered armor wielding a mace atop a horse coated in a curtain of linked iron discs. Leaving his sword at his belt, Heathel held his shield up and leapt as high as he could, sailing into the air and crashing into his astonished opponent. The knight fell backwards, bouncing off his horse’s rump while his stirrups kept him from falling to the ground. The knight weakly swung his mace as Heathel clawed his way atop the flailing knight and struck him with the butt of his shield. With his other hand Heathel seized the horse’s reins and jerked them away from his opponent. The horse’s head snapped right, and the beast toppled, sending its riders grinding through the muddy field.
Mangled beneath his own mount, the knight could not rise. Heathel scrambled to his feet, yearning for his next foe. He was vaguely aware of Bon’s own triumph in his periphery.
The third knight had retreated to the side of the small rider who had remained behind. It dawned on Heathel that the knight with the gold-trimmed armor was someone of importance. A general perhaps, the possibility of which only fueled his lust for blood.
With his friend once again beside him, Heathel and Bon closed in as their final two opponents reeled their horses about, searching for an escape. Battle raged on three sides, while Baudlin’s own knights approached from a fourth. The subordinate knight gave up on escape and charged Heathel. His sword drawn, Heathel feinted to the left then swung his blade at the passing horse’s knees. The creature and its rider collapsed, with Bon leaping upon the latter. Heathel pressed on, throwing himself behind his shield again.
The small knight was knocked clear of her horse beneath the human projectile. Together they crashed to the earth, the knight losing her weapons in the air as she landed with a cry beneath Heathel’s shield. Unfazed by the jarring landing, Heathel rose to his knees and tossed away the battered wood. His opponent was quick, flashing a dagger from her belt and plunging the steel into Heathel’s chest. As the blade punctured his armor, the young man knocked away the knight’s arms, dimly aware that he had been stabbed. Before slaying this knight, the warrior of the High Dales wished to see the fiend’s face and witness the reaction to her comeuppance. An officer in Queen Celia’s regime, surely this woman knew of her ruler’s treachery, how the Queen dispatched assassins and murdered a dying King’s sole heir.
As Bon stood over his shoulder, Heathel tore the helmet from the knight’s head, revealing a young woman covered with tangled brown hair matted with sweat. A golden necklace with a medallion carved with the royal coat-of-arms lay tangled in the hollow of the woman’s throat. Wrath and indignity radiated from the regal woman’s brown eyes. She snarled.
“What sorcery is this?” she demanded. “Get off me.”
Heathel hesitated as he recognized his captive.
“You are the Queen!”
“It cannot…” said Bon.
“It most certainly can,” Queen Celia twisted futilely beneath her opponent. “I see I have no choice but to yield. Take me to your King.”
Heathel glanced nervously at his friend.
“The King’s not here,” he admitted to the Queen. The woman rolled her eyes.
“Then take me to your commander. Someone will answer for your kingdom’s crimes.”
“Our crimes!” Heathel’s voice rose. “You are the one who murdered the prince.”
“What?” Queen Celia paused. “What are you on about? Densun’s son is dead? I know nothing about it.”
“Your assassins burned him to death.”
“My assassins! Off of me, simpleton. I do not care what propaganda you have been fed. Your King has wrought destruction on my people. You serve a covetous fiend, manipulated by an evil wizard.”
Heathel’s frustration grew until he quite forgot that it was a queen trapped beneath his knees.
“NO!” he shouted, pressing his hands onto his prisoner’s shoulders. The Queen grimaced under his enchanted grip.
“I saw it,” Heathel continued, recalling the images revealed by the sorcerer. It was accompanied by the memories of his lost friends, Shaylin the goat-herder and Lea Shone. He thought of Tully’s grief for her sister, the piles of dead below the Frostmouth walls, the men and women he had just killed. All of it filled the young man with a sickening sensation, like a tainted swill flowing beneath his skin.
“This is your war,” he cried, his hands crumpling the metal on the woman’s shoulders like it was paper. Queen Celia screamed with pain.
“All this death,” Heathel glanced at the bloodied fields around him. “Murder from your hands.”
The Queen’s eyes rolled toward the back of her head as the agony in her shoulders throttled her senses. Heathel did not notice his captive’s loss of consciousness, not until after Bon dragged him off the woman’s motionless body.
“We are good people,” Heathel turned to his friend. He was surprised to feel tears on his own cheeks. The strength and courage from the stone were gone.
Bon’s face was melancholy as he looked at his friend. Blood and dirt covered his once handsome features.
“Are we not?” Heathel pleaded.
Bon gestured to the horror seething around them. The Baudlin knights rode past, crashing into the battle.
“How can we be?” he asked.
The vileness inside Heathel replaced the effervescent invincibility provided by the enchanted stone. He wanted that sickening taint to be gone. He could not imagine carrying it from the field, to the camp where it might infect his fellow warriors. A vision of his parents, standing ashamed of their son, filled him with a dread far greater than any fear Heathel had endured during the war. He saw his mother’s knowing frown and felt queasy. Heathel violently shook the thoughts from his head. Green light flared beneath his armor.
“We are!” Heathel cried. “What we have done, we’ve done for our families. For our kingdom. For the Seventh.”
Heathel felt his reassurance grow, even as Bon sneered. The cries of warriors and battered steel grew louder, pulling both soldiers about. A detachment of Therian swordsmen had rallied and pushed the fighting toward the Baudlins lingering over the fallen Queen. Whether or not they recognized their ruler’s armor, two dozen swordsmen set their bloodthirsty gazes on Heathel and Baudlin. They charged.
Bon blanched, raising his sword as he faltered backwards. The power of the stone had left him.
Heathel saw the force arrayed against them and knew the latent powers of the enchantment were not enough to survive. Words popped into his head. For the infallible King, the one true Kingdom, I wear this talisman. Loyalty is strength…
Heathel recited the oath. He faced his friend as he spoke, pleading with his eyes for Bon to make the same pledge.
“…Strength is power. Doubt is a disease. I pledge my loyalty to the ruler of Derethol. Say it!”
His friend blinked as his shoulders slumped.
“It is not right,” Bon said with a strange tranquility. He reached into his vestments and pulled out the amulet. Its green light went dim as it fell to the ground.
Glancing back and forth between his friend and the soldiers just paces away. Bon dropped his sword. He meant to surrender, but one look at the Therian faces and Heathel knew no quarter would be given.
Heathel set his jaw and sprang forward. As he did so, the oath unleashed the stone’s full power. As Heathel’s first assailant raised his blade toward the first of the Necron, the Therian’s eyes bulged with terror at the emerald glow flaring like a funeral pyre around the enchanted warrior’s body.
Such was the day, during the fall of Theria, when Heathel of the High Dales was corrupted into the first of the Necron. Two months later, the heirless King Densun died and the sorcerer Orell installed himself as Baudlin’s new ruler, declaring himself the king of the united realms of Derethol. The militias were dissolved while the surviving ranks of the royal legion expanded tenfold. Yet the true might of Orell’s military was in his near-invincible personal guard, his enchanted warriors, led by a young man from the High Dales, the wizard dubbed the Necron. Unquestionably loyal, they were bound by their pledge to protect Derethol from any threat. And their king had an uncanny gift for discovering threats. After ridding the world of Therian assassins, Orell ordered his Necron commander to lead the sorcerer’s army against the Kingdom of Yunall, from where bandits raided the Frontlands. After the fall of Yunall, a trade embargo was placed by the coastal cities, Bennall and Whalebone. Both fell quickly, with the Necron obliterating the city of Whalebone and the Bennall council surrendering the next day. The dangers facing the old kingdom turned within as the Necron were used to gather and execute suspected rebels. Orell’s suspicions appeared validated when the retired general Herndol mustered a thousand men and women and marched on Baudlin city. Orell’s Necron triumphed over the uprising, and granted no mercy. They say Heathel himself, enraged by his old commander’s treason, beheaded the captured general.
The guileful necromancer secured an empire spanning a continent. Orell’s lies sewed fear and doubt among the Baudlin people, and his powers exploited those fears for the sorcerer’s gain. He rules to this day, backed by twenty legions and escorted by an enchanted guard whose blind loyalty allows them to commit the most ruthless of deeds. Those that oppose Orell and his deathless warriors must either flee or perish.
There! Though I do not profit by it, I have given you the tale of the first Necron. In exchange, perhaps the youth in this hall will someday return me the tale of the enchanted warrior’s fall. That would be a story all desire to hear, and won’t the coppers rain when I tell it!