Preview: The Law of the Heretic

After breaking away from traditional fantasy for just a bit I decided the time was right for this series. I made it to around 120 handwritten pages while I was in high school before picking it back up during my 2nd tour of duty in Korea back in the 90s. Do you know how hard it was to just throw away 120 handwritten pages and start over????? I did. It was. What you see is the final result- one I am more than pleased with. Hopefully you will be as well.

It has long been said that a day will come bringing the death of the world. A madman shall rise and plunge all into the abyss. The end of all lives will come when he obtains the Staff of Life and begins a great cleansing crusade. Woe be unto all when that sun rises.

Prophecy of Ils Kincannon

Lord of the Seven Manacles

            End of the First Era.



The sun peeked out from behind the thick veil of dark, troublesome clouds, delivering proud testament to the beauty of the world below. Summer was drawing to a close, but not without giving up the last of its yearly prizes. Flowers of every color blanketed fields like vast oceans. Songbirds arced through treetops, resplendent in their colors. Oh, what freedom to avoid being trapped by earthly constraints.

Far away, on the edge of the horizon, loomed lofty mountain crags where fledgling dragons spread their wings for the first time and left their lairs in search of food. Predators lurked among the reeds of the riverbanks, carefully watching herds of deer graze. Life and death continued at the same stable pace that it had since time immemorial. All seemed right.

But as with most things, looks were deceiving. Beneath the blanket of manipulating tranquility, a storm brewed. Thunder rumbled across the plains from sights unseen. Animals shifted nervously, suddenly anxious to find the source of their fear. The land went quiet as bird and beast alike hurried for sanctuary. Dust clouds littered the horizon, announcing the arrival of the minions of war. Horses, great steeds bred for a singular purpose, drove hard across the open plains, effortlessly spurred by warriors in sparkling gold armor.

Battle axes and bows bounced along with half-emptied saddle bags. The heavy clank-clank of steel clashing was intimidating. Proud white banners embroidered with a gloved fist of gold waved magnificently among the ranks. A hawk screeched from high above. A herald. The horse soldiers continued across the plains, pushing ever closer to their targets.

No smiles did their faces betray. No faint echo of a past happiness to detract from the mission. There was no room for emotion or sympathy when the Golden Warriors were unleashed. Only the cold reality of steel. Their numbers weren’t that of an invading army, but at fifty strong, they were more than a match for the challenges ahead.

Lord Aron Kryte led the charge. His hazel eyes squinted through the sunlight as he followed the trail left by the scouts. He kept his helm tied down to the saddle, allowing his shoulder length, dirty blond hair to flow freely. His jaw was stern, belying ruggedly handsome features. Scars from more than a dozen engagements decorated his body and matched his attitude. Kryte was a servant of the Hierarchy.

At thirty-five and with only seventeen years of service, he was well on the path to becoming one of the highest-ranking men to earn the title of Golden Warrior. His reputation as being a fiery leader who always placed himself in harm’s way, propelled him through the ranks faster than any in the last hundred years. Strongly built and bred for war, Aron Kryte was the consummate professional. Peace was his ultimate goal, but the minions of darkness had other designs on the future.

He slowed his company to a halt. Even though bred to run for days and charge straight into a fight, the horses were winded and needed rest. Aron dismounted, his eyes never leaving the distant mountains. Worse, he’d lost the trail. An ill omen. He felt the presence of his second in command behind him and smiled. The old man had practically raised him.

“I fear the scouts are dead. Their tracks are gone and there is sign of a struggle. Look at the grass here and here. The break in that sapling is not natural either. Dismount the men and have them search the immediate area for bodies or blood sign.”

Amean Repage turned and relayed the orders, taking the opportunity to remove his helmet and run a gloved hand through his sweat slickened hair.

“Which way would you go?” Aron asked.

Amean, the grizzled veteran, scratched his iron grey beard in thought. “The young dragons will no doubt be out hunting this time of year. He’s no fool. It’s the forest or nothing.”

“Reasonable,” Aron agreed. “But something about this mess doesn’t feel right.”

Amean gazed hard at his friend. “Aron, my boy, nothing is ever what is seems. Have you ever wondered why we’ve never been able to find the Rovers’ camp?”

Aron cocked his head, confused. “Why do you bring that up?”

“Amuse me. We’ve never found them because they don’t have a camp. Ever since the war with Aragoth, they’ve been skulking, moving about so as not to be caught, while plotting revenge. Plotting and waiting. They never strike unless numbers are in their favor and always disappear as quickly as they arrive. They’re not going to stop until revenge has been extracted.”

“Or they’re all dead,” Aron added.

“Some of the population is on their side. The drunks and degenerates serve as eyes and ears, while thugs and petty rebels keep alert. It’s a flawless system, almost. How easy is it to lead an insurrection than by looking like the everyman?”

Aron smiled at him. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were one of them.”

Amean laughed. “No. I simply like knowing who it is I’m supposed to kill.”

“Lord Kryte,” a young trooper called. “We have completed our search of the area and found nothing.”

Aron frowned. He edged the toe of a boot through the matted grass and into a small dribble of blood. Rage was building. His men were missing and every instinct screamed ambush. “Mount up. We move.”

The trooper saluted and hurried back to the others.

Aron clasped his hand on his mentor’s shoulder. “To the forest. I want to catch them before sundown.”

His company was already back in gear and mounted. Aron nodded satisfaction and did the same. Tapping his heel to his horse’s flank, he began what he hoped was the last leg of their hunt. The thunder of two hundred hooves rumbled again. They splashed across the large stream, spooking predator and prey. The displaced water showered down upon them, adding an almost god-like quality. As the minutes ticked away and the leagues rolled by, the Golden Warriors quickly stole upon the forest where a nest of trouble awaited.

The forest was alive with the buzz of insects and the chirp of birds. None were concerned with the rough looking man crouching silently beneath the boughs of a pine. He wore thick furs that made him look like a beast. Menacing streaks of grey and black paint lent savagery to his appearance. Weapons, hidden under his guise, lay waiting for the time when they would be used to kill again. He lifted his face to the winds and sniffed. Disappointment scrawled across his face. He detected nothing. Waiting was always taxing.

He’d been in this same position for over a day without changing results. Wild creatures came and went, never bothering to pay heed. He did, after all, reek with the compounded stench of sweat, fear, and blood. Even after countless hours of vigil, he maintained faith that would eventually be rewarded. Only when the enemy arrived was he satisfied.

He espied glimpses of them through the myriad trees and scrub brush. Gold shone with arrogance as they followed a deliberately set path through the forest. Nothing more he could do from here, he left his post. Any delay now and he would be run down mercilessly, tortured until he gave up all pertinent information. He’d served his purpose and now raced to join the other Rovers for the coming fight.

Darting through the underbrush with speed and lethality, the scout was almost successful in his departure. Almost. Two spears leveled in front of him, dangerously close to piercing his throat. He snarled, taking a step back that was abruptly halted by the unforgiving jab of a third. Speaking in guttural tones, they laughed before letting him pass. The scout snarled, angrily brushing the spears aside before continuing into the heart of the temporary camp.

Rovers moved about, all preparing for battle. The scout marched past with head high, shoulders back. He knew the information he carried was vital to their success. Warriors sharpened sword and spear. The grind and spark of steel being honed echoed around the camp. The scout knew he was already ahead of his peers for he had been sent on his mission expecting battle. Now, with the leader in sight and patiently waiting for his report.

Crouched upon a massive boulder half covered with moss and the detritus of ages, the Rover leader wasn’t looking forward to what the scout had to say. Perhaps it would be good news, but the Golden Warriors were never casual in their approach to war. He had only twenty fighters against a full troop of hardened cavalry. Not even their tenacity would be enough to blood the warriors enough to achieve victory. The coming fight was inevitable. His party had raided a nearby village — demanding response from the Hierarchy.

“What have you seen, Vryn?” he asked, folding his arms.

The scout bent slightly, placing his hands atop his knees to get his breath back. Through panting gasps, he managed to say, “They come. It shouldn’t take more than an hour to reach us.”

The clearing erupted in renewed activity as word instantly rippled through the camp. Ute Hai wasn’t much concerned. There was still plenty of time for final preparations, or a hasty escape.

“Good” Ute murmured. “Is our surprise in place?”

Vryn nodded.

“Take your position with your men and prepare. This is going to be an important day for the Rovers, young Vryn.”

Vryn left, giving Ute Hai ample opportunity to go over his ministrations for revenge. What he wanted was more than the simple conflict between the Rovers and Hierarchy. It was one man attempting to avenge the past against another. How sweet it will be. After all these years, Aron Kryte will get what he deserves.

The Golden Warriors slowed their approach to a walk as they entered the thickest part of the forest. Morningstars, lethal spiked balls dangling on chains, hung loose in anticipation. Every trooper felt it. Battle was about to be joined. The forest had grown deathly quiet. Even the wind stopped blowing. The Golden Warriors knew all too well the tactics of the former Aragothian army. They also knew that the advantage would remain theirs, so long as the troop remained mounted.

Patting his horse’s neck in reassurance, more for his own sanity than for the horse, Aron lifted the face piece on his helmet. He swore he spotted the glitter of gold dangling from distant trees. Perhaps he was tired, allowing fatigue to influence his mind. Mistakes were commonplace in military operations. He stopped his horse and gestured Amean forward. Together they stared into the deceiving forest. Pale rays of sunlight threw light where otherwise dark would be, while casting shadows into the visible world.

“I may be old, and a bit of a fool, but that looks like armor,” Amean said, without humor.

Aron closed his eyes. His worst fears were being realized and now collided with the quiet urges of sleep already taunting him. “I feared this. Get five men to come with me. I don’t want the rest of the troop seeing this.”

“The scouts?”

Aron nodded.

Five men, experienced beyond measure through war and countless other trials only a soldier would understand, balked at the sights and smells arrayed before them. They’d seen dead bodies before, but this enemy was different. It was easy, after a fashion, to look in disdain at the slain foe, or the nameless corpse lying on the battlefield. The atrocity swinging in the trees turned their stomachs.

The scouts had been brutally murdered by Rovers. Careless in their regard of human life, the Rovers left the dead hanging by spears through their chests with arms and legs piled neatly beneath. Their faces had been removed and discarded; torsos riddled with holes. The very act was outrageous and inspired hatred.

Aron ordered the spears removed and the bodies of his troopers laid to rest in hasty pits. The vehemence with which the act was committed was beyond his comprehension. It made no sense why any foe would become so barbaric. The Rovers were often ruthless but had never committed an atrocity of this magnitude. Aron suspected there was more than simple savagery involved. Possibilities shuffled sluggishly through his mind but without purpose or meaning.

“We’ve been through a great many trials,” Amean said, his voice passing judgment on the Rovers. “The only deed comparable to this was the goblin incursion twelve years ago.”

“No goblin committed this crime.” Aron held out a blood crusted spear in disgust. Spasms of rage twisted his face. “These are Rover spears. They’ve gone beyond reprieve. I can accept no surrender, especially for those who would dispose of prisoners in such a foul manner.”

“They were left as a warning. Almost as if the enemy was trying to entice you into acting foolishly. I know this is hard to accept, Aron, it’s hard on us all, but you must remain focused. The men look to you for guidance. How would it do for them to see their commander lose control on the battlefield? They need your leadership.”

Amean took the spear and stabbed it into the fresh earth to bury his emotions in the well of memory and buckle down for what must come next.

Aron, hands folded in front of him, watched his men finish with the ad hoc graves. He was desperate to find reasoning for this. Clearly, the Rovers intended to deliver a strong message. Whoever was responsible, intended on luring him into fury to abandon proper military tactics and doctrine. Yet one small tragedy was no excuse to jeopardize the lives of fifty others. Stepping forward, he gripped each of the spear hafts serving as grave markers.

Aron whispered so that only the dead could hear, “Not one man responsible will live. I swear it.”

The smell of forthcoming battle rode the telltale winds with bitter intent, going unnoticed by all save the combatants. Nerves and sinews tightened and relaxed as each man mentally prepared for death and the hard, cruel dance with the afterlife. These warriors were mostly veterans but only a fool turned his back on the gods before going into harm’s way. It was the righteous belief in their hearts that delivered them, willingly, into the maw of death and through the fires beyond.

Horses danced apprehensively. They were bred for war and nearly as giddy as their riders. Aron saw the grouping of enormous boulders directly ahead and instinctively knew his enemy was there. Drawing his sword, the metallic ring sweet to his ears, he slowed his horse so that his lieutenants could attend him. Aron was nervous, for he had no actionable intelligence to move on. Between that and his desire for immediate retribution over the loss of his scouts, he found it hard to concentrate.

“I don’t like it,” Amean said with finality. “There is bad blood in those rocks.”

The other two officers nodded agreement. One ventured, “They will surely be waiting for us, my Lord.”

“Dug in as well,” the other added. “I should think them well prepared for this engagement.”

Aron grunted. “Do you balk so easily at ragtag mercenaries, Colein? We’ve been through far worse.”

“My lord,” the seasoned veteran said, “We have no idea of their numbers. Our troop could be easily overwhelmed.”

Colein was a tired man who knew what it was like to suffer defeat and then endless nights as a prisoner of war. There was no joy in his heart, only a cautious approach to killing. He liked to think he’d find rest when the enemy was dead at long last. Until then, he viewed dead opponents as one less capable of killing him.

Aron regarded him. Ten years his subordinate, Colein had already been through twice as much. “You’re correct, of course. Add the fact that the enemy is clearly expecting us and will no doubt have the rocks prepared, we might easily be destroyed. But whoever leads the Rovers has only one thing on his mind. He thinks we will act with emotion instead of training. I’m willing to gamble on that miscalculation.”

“The lives of every one of us?” Maselit, the second lieutenant asked.

“To the man,” Aron ended the conversation.

They stared at each other, a slight daze on their faces. They were soldiers and knew what was expected of them. Neither had ever run from a fight. All the cowards and young had either been converted into a professional or fled home to their mothers with lies about their exploits long ago. What remained was the best.

Colein cracked a thin smile. “How do we do this?”

Ute Hai and his Rovers crouched behind their protective cover. They knew the enemy was out there but were forced to play the waiting game until the pretentious Golden Warriors attacked. The wait was unbearable, so long that Ute grew suspicious. The enemy should have struck already. Ute knew they’d spotted the bodies already but his hopes for Kryte to lose control of his emotions was now diminished.

He forced a laugh. No, Lord Kryte wouldn’t be so foolish as to rush headlong into an unknown situation. Ute Hai’s plan was disintegrating. He looked around his camp to the scant handful of men under his command. Each was rabid with dedication, pledged solely to him. Their positioning was good, spaced wide enough to allow for full range of motion when combat started. With a little faith, they might be able to hold out. Might, but deep in his heart, he knew they would most likely be slaughtered. He accepted that fate, so long as he managed to kill Aron Kryte. Nothing else mattered.

Muffled by the closeness of the forest, Ute caught the first sounds of what promised to be fast approaching death. He snarled, suspicious of a sudden. It didn’t sound right. Fifty horses carrying armored riders should have made twice the clamor. Ute jumped down from his perch and ran for the line. He leaned against one of his men for support and peered down into the trees. He could see the gold armor, almost blinding in the sunlight. Golden Warriors, but not the numbers his scout reported.

The wedge of horses steadily advanced, as if they knew the Rovers exact location. They would be on Ute in moments. It was too late to reposition his forces, knowing that to move them now would result in the majority getting caught in the open. Ute Hai was trapped.

“Vryn!” he shouted. “Wheel around and protect the flanks! They’re coming from the sides.”

Young Vryn obeyed but Ute knew it was already too late.

Aron halted the main assault force and brought them on line. The flanking elements had already dis-appeared in the murk of shadow and sun and were preparing to support the main attack. Falling leaves were the only sign of their passing. A flock of white doves burst from nearby holly bushes, causing several horses to start and men’s heart to flutter for that most brief of moments.

He shifted his gaze from the line of riders to his horse. Sweat steamed off the muscles. Nerves stood on end. Tension thickened in anticipation of conflict. It was an old game, the taking of lives. A game with only one winner: the man left standing. But even then, harm was done. Irreparable damage to the human mind, survivor’s guilt, it was called. Violence had a price.

Aron drew his sword and raised it high for all to see. The time had come. The suspected Rover camp was less than a hundred meters ahead. Aron dropped his arm and bellowed, “Attack!”

A horn signaled, the baleful sound vibrating deep in the ground as men roared ancient battle cries to inspire dread. The ground began to tremble as the Golden Warriors attacked.

Amean Repage halted his force and waited. The Rovers camp was still far enough away for neither side to pose an immediate threat. Trees and the natural slope of the ground provided camouflage. Amean judged their position adequate. He’d been a soldier all his life and acted upon orders without question. But there was an ill feeling with the way events were unfolding. He wished Aron would have taken more time to effectively assess the situation before committing to the fight. Without proof of his suspicions, Amean couldn’t countermand his orders without the warriors losing all confidence in his abilities.

He understood the Rovers well enough to know this wasn’t their typical tactic. They rarely stayed in one place long enough to be cornered, forced into a siege. Amean suddenly remembered the wanted posters issued by the last town raided. He’d taken one before the company departed. Now, Amean reached down into a saddlebag and gingerly unrolled the parchment, staring hard at the crudely etched representation the local constable had drawn. He couldn’t put an exact finger on it, but he faintly recognized the image. But from where? Memories were slow to return. Something, blurred from so long ago. He’d seen this man before and it left a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Like a spear in the back, it hit him. Pure shock jolted Amean upon his revelation, forcing him to act. The only thing awaiting Lord Kryte was certain doom. Amean seized the reins and barked, “Ready swords!”

“What is it?” his lieutenant asked, after hastily swallowing a mouthful of water and jamming the canteen back in his saddlebag.

“A trap,” Amean answered.

The unmistakable song of swords being drawn rang through the vale. Amean ordered the men forward, hoping they’d arrive in time.

Nineteen gleaming lances, each with barbed tips and honed to sharpness that threatened to slice flesh apart, lowered methodically, bouncing with each passing stride. The Rovers were close but had yet to show their faces. Years of experience told him they’d wait until the last possible moment. A worthy tactic against lesser opponents but ineffective against a company of Golden Warriors.

Aron’s group moved past the first cluster of boulders without hindrance. The thrill of the hunt overcame his men as they burst into the clearing at the center of the boulders. The Rovers struck. Lightning fast. Ten men with impossibly long spears rose up from cover and formed a blocking line capable of slaughtering the horses. Archers appeared from the rocks above and immediately began firing. Too committed to abort the charge, the Golden Warriors were impaled, both mounts and selves.

Aron swerved between two attackers spread too far apart and clove the nearest Rover’s head from his shoulders. The lifeless body dropped, providing an opening wide enough for other riders to infiltrate. The enemy line was broken and cut down mercilessly. Damage had been done however. Seven of Aron’s troop lay dead, either pierced by spear or arrow. Aron left the skirmish line and rushed towards the center of the resistance without reinforcement.

Confident his flankers would be entering the melee at any moment, he needed to locate and remove the enemy commander. Once dead, the surviving Rovers would flee back to their hidden camps. He was almost at the last knot of Rovers when a mountain of a man attacked. Too late to move, Aron narrowly shifted his leg as the Rover dropped to his knees and sliced into the horse’s flank. The beast screamed and fell. Aron was thrown, even as he heard the snap of his horse’s neck. The warrior landed heavily and was still. Darkness swarmed in.

The minor victory inspired the surviving Rovers, who renewed their ferocity by throwing themselves at the knights. A second wave of horsemen burst out of the forest in the Rover’s rear and initiated the final slaughter. Hierarchy warriors dropped from their saddles to fight on foot. The Rovers were hopelessly overmatched.

Maselit watched his commander fall and reluctantly, assumed the assault lead. “Left wheel, attack!”

The words barely left his mouth when an arrow pierced his chest. He was dead before hitting the ground. Blood painted tiny rivers across the width of his golden armor. The Golden Warrior charge faltered without a leader. A young knight, Jou Amn reacted and quite possibly, saved their lives. He sounded the retreat and the surviving twelve soldiers of the initial assault fought their way out of the Rover camp. Once safely back in the trees, they’d be able to fend off the Rovers and reconsolidate their power.

The first sights Amean witnessed of the battle appalled him deeply. His company was being defeated, swarmed by vicious combatants. Golden bodies littered the ground. Faces were already locked in bitter agony. He desperately searched for Aron and Maselit, failing to spot either. That same rage Aron had felt upon viewing the dismembered scouts built within him. Muscles tightened around the hilt of his sword. Amean ground his teeth and ignored the flutters in his stomach. For a moment, the brutal sounds of combat were drowned out by the pounding of blood in his head.

He stared at the bodies of friends. Men he’d known for years. Some young. Others not. All ruthlessly butchered. Even the strongest fighter knew limitations in how much he could endure. Amean’s senses returned just as fast and he started bellowing orders. The tide of battle was about to shift.

Ute Hai watched as his men seemed to fall with each blink of the eye. What had begun as an easy victory was slowly turning into bitter defeat that would end in absolute destruction. It pained him to watch friends fall, but he couldn’t get concerned. Not now. A spark of hope ignited when he watched Aron Kryte fall from his saddle. He prayed his foe yet lived. Ute threw down his bow and drew his sword. The time for vengeance was at last at hand.

Bodies were everywhere, making it difficult to step without losing his footing and falling. Ute took advantage of his cat-like reflexes and danced from corpse to corpse. He stopped to roll over the ones fallen face down onto their backs, snarling in disgust when they weren’t Kryte. The main fighting had moved on, allowing him the opportunity to move with caution and to a degree, impunity. This one moment that he’d been looking for, remained elusive. He saw Kryte fall, but where? Revenge had fueled him since the defeat at the battle of Krim Salat and now, so close, he was still being denied redemption.

“Where are you?” Ute growled under his breath.

A decade’s worth of anger was culminating, begging for release but getting only disappointment. The battle around Ute Hai slowed. He recognized that his men were dying, sacrificing their lives for his cause, but he couldn’t sound retreat. He couldn’t. There was too much unfinished business left to attend. He flipped another golden armored body and spat. Ute vowed to find Kryte’s body, if he had to kill every single one of the accursed Golden Warriors.

A crashing sound coming from the forest to his west pounded like thunder in his ears, taking him from his search and into hiding. Kryte’s reinforcements finally arrived, storming through the camp to fall upon the rear of the surviving Rovers. Ute snatched a fallen bow and slunk out of sight. Better to live than die foolishly.

Secure in the shadows, he watched and waited for the opportunity to exact his revenge. Ute recognized the grey bearded rider that Kryte continually wasted his affections on but couldn’t remember his name. He relaxed the bow string. Killing subordinates might make Ute feel good, but it was Kryte who demanded his attention.

Ute groaned when the second wave of horsemen left his line of sight and a third appeared. Again, Ute was forced to let them pass. Frustration forced through him. Less a quarter of the Rovers were still alive. Soon they’d be dead. Gone like so many from his past. He scurried to a better vantage. One where he could witness the gallantry of his friends as they were welcomed into death’s embrace. The bow and arrow lowered on its own accord. His quest was briefly forgotten.

A sword split one of his men down the middle. A spear punctured the jugular of another. Screams shattered the distant serenity as combatants lost limbs in the defense of their lives. It was all too surreal. It always was. Mist escaped the dead in thin clouds. Sharp pain tore through Ute’s left leg, burning up and down the limb. He cried out. The tip of the arrow sped straight, burrowing through his flesh to embed in the rock beneath.

Ute managed to think beyond the pain. Golden Warriors seldom used archery. They prided themselves on being among the best cavalry in the world. Swordsmen beyond compare. So where did the arrow come from? Ute searched, frantic to find the shooter before the next quarrel took him through the heart. Burning sensations threatened to steal his coherency. Steeling his reserve, Ute snapped the arrow and started to crawl. The brief glimpse of gold moving to his right caught his attention. His eyes narrowed. Ute Hai was not surprised to see who his would-be assassin was.

It was merely coincidence, Aron didn’t believe in luck, that he picked out the crawling mass of filthy flesh moving among the dead. Darkened images gradually brightened, taking on definition as consciousness returned. Aron ignored the trickle of blood coating the right side of his face and nocked an arrow from the fallen bow within grasp. His vision grew stronger. Enough for him to take aim and fire an accurate bolt into the Rover’s leg.

He escaped the horse’s death with only minor scrapes and a slight concussion. While most of the battle had moved well beyond his reach and there was no way for him to catch up to the slaughter before it ended, Aron focused on the one enemy he could do something about. He turned away from the battle, intent on picking off his final target but the man was gone.

Amean reigned in his horse and dismounted. He sheathed his sword in confidence, knowing that all enemy resistance was destroyed. Removing his helm, the old soldier wiped away the beaded sweat on his brow with the back of his gloved hand. Blood rolled down his cheek from a small cut made by a wicked branch as they raced through the forest. It dribbled into his beard and produced a grizzly sight. His body was sore and he could do with a long soak in a tub but he was alive. And so, too, was Aron. He’d spotted his commander moving, albeit slowly, back in the center of what had been the Rover camp. The pain and suffering combined with the loss of so many comrades could be forgiven for the time being.

Amean limped back to Aron, taking a seat next to him. He abhorred the eeriness of a battlefield once the fighting had stopped. So many dead. In a little under an hour, the two opposing forces succeeding in slaughtering nearly fifty men. This Rover band was effectively eliminated but the Hierarchy would consider the battle a defeat due to the high amount of friendly casualties. The garrison at Saverin, their home base, would spend a week in mourning, while waiting for replacements from Meisthelm. Summer’s End Festival was fast approaching and there would be need for added security.

“We paid a heavy toll,” Aron said in disgust. 

Survivors were sheathing weapons and seeing to the wounded. Walking wounded were helped to the triage area, the lesser wounded with those who couldn’t walk. No one noticed as the peacefulness returned to the area.

“What happened here?” Aron asked, part from confusion and part out of disbelief. “How could they have been so prepared?”

Two warriors walked by carrying Maselit’s corpse. Aron closed his eyes to fight back the wall of tears.

“How could I have been so wrong?”

“This wasn’t your fault, lad,” Amean snapped, as he looked to the approaching Colein. “They knew how we fought and knew who we were. The whole thing was a trap to get us, or rather to get you.”

“What do you mean?”

He handed the now crumbled parchment over to Aron. “Think back to the war with Aragoth. Remember when a lot of men returned to go fight for their own lands?”

“Yes, so?” He opened the scroll and immediately forgot all sorrow. He stared at the face of the man he’d just shot with an arrow. They had served in the same unit until the war began. “Ute Hai.”

“You killed his brother at Krim Salat and he hasn’t forgotten. I think we’re going to see more of him soon.”

Colein snatched the poster and scowled. “I thought he was killed as well?”

“I wish he was,” Aron said. “But I just shot him in the leg. Have the men check each body. He couldn’t have gotten far and I don’t want to take the chance of him escaping. He’ll hang for his crimes.”

Ute Hai screamed, nearly passing out as he pulled the arrow shaft from his thigh. He’d been on the run for hours, stopping only when he thought it was safe enough to perform self-aid. Through waves of pain, he burrowed beneath the branches of the sharp leaf holly bushes and centered his thoughts on his most hated foe. Aron Kryte. The name burned in his veins. He’d never cared for the man, even when they were allies. Now he hated him even more. Ute tied a ragged strip of cloth around his wound to stop the bleeding and relaxed.

Only two of his men were still with him. They were safe, for the moment. The Golden Warriors would be too concerned with the depletion of their own ranks and policing up the battlefield. This would give him enough time to return to the next camp and gather more followers. The leader wouldn’t be pleased with his losses suffered at the whim of one man’s revenge, but Ute was confident he could garner additional support. If not, well, what was one man’s life in the grand scheme of things? He and the other two survivors limped off, licking their wounds and winding their way home.

“Nothing yet, my lord,” a soldier reported.

Aron punched his fist into a rock but said nothing. Ute Hai needed to be found. If not, how many more would die?

“Keep searching,” he ordered.

The young soldier saluted and hurried back to his task.

“We have to find him,” Aron said to his commanders.

Colein shook his head. “We won’t.”

“He’s right,” Amean agreed. “You’re going to have to wait until he comes back to find you.”

Aron didn’t want to admit it. Foolish pride demanded so, but they were right. He nodded. “Let’s finish up here so we can get back to Saverin. I’ve had enough death to last a long while.”

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