Rise and Fall: Book One of the Blood and Tears Trilogy

An ill-prepared queen, a soft-hearted mercenary, and a crippled warrior struggle as a kingdom falls and an empire rises.



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Rise and Fall: Book One of the Blood and Tears Trilogy
For years the High Mages of Cadonia have maintained an uneasy peace among the nobles disgruntled with the rule of the king. In the aftermath of a tragic event, Elyse, the king’s daughter, is thrust into a role she is not ready for. As queen, she must now determine who to trust while struggling to keep the kingdom from collapsing around her.

The Hell Patrol, a legendary mercenary outfit commanded by Jonrell, finds itself disenfranchised with their current employer. Recalling a promise he made over a decade ago, Jonrell breaks his contract in order to right the wrongs of his past.

On the continent of Hesh, the Blue Island Clan has long been ignored by its neighbors. Tobin, a warrior and son of the Clan’s ruler, struggles as an outcast as he watches his brother Kaz lead his father’s army to glory. Emboldened by a new friendship with a mysterious shaman, Tobin finds himself gaining the respect he always wanted.

Chapter 1

A deafening silence filled the inner courtyard. Massacred bodies with faces frozen in fear and despair covered the space once home to beautiful gardens. Nothing stirred except for the five High Mages fanning out amongst the motionless forms, each searching for a sign of life. The smell of burnt flesh enveloped Amcaro and worked its way into his nostrils and robes. More than two dozen royal guards lay dead, joined by half as many servants—charred husks against the white stone floor.

Standing amid the devastation, Amcaro’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “One Above, how did this happen?” he whispered.

After feeling the immense wave of sorcery, he and the only other mages powerful enough to teleport had arrived from afar. He wanted to help search for survivors but he couldn’t turn his attention away from the woman before him. Her beautiful face unrecognizable, her body blackened, there was no denying that the dark red remnants of her robes belonged to one of their order, a High Mage. She was one of only seven in Cadonia. Amcaro felt his gut tighten at the realization that his former pupil, Fei, was dead.

His thoughts wandered back to the time she first approached him at the age of eight, wanting to be his apprentice. Many thought I was wasting my time when I accepted a student so young. But they didn’t see the passion in her eyes, the eagerness, and the yearning to make something of her life. Now those eyes that were once so full of life are empty. Would she still be alive if I denied her request all those years ago?

“Master!” Acus shouted from across the courtyard. “Come quick.”

Amcaro jumped at the voice, and like the other High Mages interspersed throughout the open area, scrambled toward Acus who held a body in his arms. Closing in, he saw the figure was that of a boy, no more than fourteen. The boy grasped at Acus’s robe, pulling the High Mage down to his face. His body convulsed between whispers and then relaxed. His hands fell away. Acus’s paled face told Amcaro that whatever he had learned, it was not good.

Edali, the most gifted healer among them, fell to his knees and checked the boy over but Amcaro knew the effort would be wasted. The boy was dead. Edali confirmed Amcaro’s thoughts with a slight nod, eyes sullen, distant.

“Well? Spit it out, Acus. Did you get anything?” asked an impatient voice.

Amcaro turned to his left and scowled. Rhindora was tall, homely, and stout. By appearance alone, she was the most intimidating mage of the group. She did little to intimidate Amcaro who gritted his teeth. “Show a little compassion.”

“We’ll have plenty of time for compassion after we learn what happened here, Master. We have yet to move past the inner courtyard,” said Rhindora.

“Although I don’t agree with her tone, she’s right. One Above knows what awaits us within the castle itself.” Essan ran fingers through his thick blond hair as he looked over the lifeless form that Acus still cradled.

Amcaro opened his mouth to respond but was cut off.

“It was Nareash,” said Acus.

“I knew it!” said Rhindora pacing about. “I never did trust that snake.”

Amcaro looked down to Acus, whose bald head was still bowed over the boy’s body. “Is that what the boy told you?”

Acus finally set the boy down and slowly rose to his feet. “Yes.”

“Well, there were rumors among the peasants about the King being manipulated,” said Edali, standing in turn and wiping the dirt from the bottom of his robes.

“And do we just take the gossip of peasants as fact now?” asked Essan, throwing his short pudgy arms into the air.

“The boy saw Nareash,” said Acus.

“Was he sure? How do we know it wasn’t someone or something else he mistook for Nareash?” said Essan.

“Look at this place,” said Rhindora, picking up speed as she paced. “Look at Fei. Who else but Nareash could do this? Don’t let your friendship with the man cloud your vision.”

“My friendship with Nareash has nothing to do with it. I just find it hard to believe that the man we grew up with could do all of this.” Essan spread his hands wide. “He’s never shown this kind of power before. It doesn’t make sense.”

“The boy told me a few things before he died. Together with other bits and pieces we’ve pulled together I think I have an idea of what happened,” said Acus. “Over the last couple of days, several suspicious deaths among the staff left many uneasy in the castle. Those who died were all near an open flame that seemed to take on a life of its own. They were all vehemently outspoken against Nareash, spreading discord among the rest of the staff. After their deaths, most others who were dissatisfied with Nareash stayed silent except the mother of Captain Marc of the Royal Guard. When she died under similar circumstances, the captain went to the king who acted as if nothing was the matter. In secret, Marc convinced many of the guards and staff to work with him to overtake Nareash.”

“And there it is,” said Essan. “Nareash was falsely accused and then attacked. He acted in self-defense.”

Edali shook his head. “Wake up, Essan. Look at the path of each sorcerous attack. Most of these people, especially the servants, were running away.”

Amcaro rested a hand on Essan’s shoulder. “This is not easy on any of us but I know you see the truth here.”

Essan started to argue again but shook his head. Shoulders coming forward, he seemed to lose any desire to put up a fight. “No sense in putting it off then. We must rein in Nareash. Rhindora...” His voice trailed off as he faced where the woman was pacing only moments ago. Seething and red-faced, he added, “That brainless woman.”

Amcaro turned to the sound of great double doors closing on the opposite end of the square. Essan was stalking toward the doors when Amcaro called out, “Essan, wait!”

Essan halted. “Wait for what, Master?” He pointed toward the doors. “You know those two have always hated each other. This is exactly the justification she needs for settling her own vendetta. We need to catch her before she does something stupid.”

“She’s already accomplished that. We will not make the same mistake as her or Fei by doing this alone. We will stay together and go after Nareash with caution. He knows we’re here and he will be ready for us. Let’s not give him another advantage by having our emotions get the best of us.”

“But Master, Nareash is not a match for you. Together, we have nothing to worry about.” said Edali.

“Think, Edali. Look at this devastation. Nareash fought and killed dozens of armed guardsmen while also battling Fei. She may have been the least experienced among us, but she was still a High Mage.” He paused. “And we still have yet to see the rest of the castle. Something is not right.”

“All the more reason to hurry after Rhindora,” said Essan.

“No. I will not risk our lives and the safety of the kingdom to run off recklessly after one so careless. She is on her own. Now isn’t the time for emotion to get in the way of judgment.”

Amcaro noticed a few looks of displeasure from the others but none said a word. The mages readied themselves, preparing sorcery that could be unleashed at a moment’s notice. Once finished, Amcaro led the way to the massive oak doors. Although grand in dimension, the craftsmanship was more impressive. On the face of each, carvings showed key events from Aurnon the First’s conquering of Thurum, and the settling of Cadonia. And there at Aurnon’s side throughout all his accomplishments stood Sacrynon. Not just allies, but friends as well. A great king and a great high mage stood side by side, working together, earning the adoration of the people. Amcaro shook his head as he compared the carvings to the present day. Nareash, what happened between you and Aurnon the Eighth?

Amcaro and the others entered the vast common hall of the castle. Large wooden rafters supported the ceiling and from them hung dozens of singed banners. Five banners dominated the ceiling, greater than all others, emblazoned with the seals of Cadonia’s dukes. Smaller hangings surrounded each of the five with their own unique seals representing the lords within each Duke’s province. Aurnon the First had designed the ceiling himself, believing that a king should always be mindful of those who serve him. “The needs of the people should be above the wants of the king,” he often said. A great man. Too bad the meaning of your design was lost on many of your namesakes.

Amcaro’s eyes drifted past the bare walls, focusing instead on the four long tables at the room’s center where servants of the castle would have their meals. Benches were overturned. To the left and right were the round tables used for members of the Royal Guard or the rare guest. Wisps of smoke drifted up from the broken and splintered remains of the chairs that would normally encircle them.

Just as before, smoldering bodies covered the scene. Contorted into misshapen forms, their number more than tripled those littering the courtyard. If not for the armor or the blackened swords in their hands, it would be impossible to discern that the figures were once members of the Royal Guard. As it was, many of the bodies were barely recognizable as human. One body in particular caught Amcaro’s eye. Belonging to a servant, the lifeless form crouched, frozen, under one of the center tables. There was no mercy for even one as defenseless as you. Nareash what has happened to you?

Essan took a step forward, eyes still taking in the carnage. He spoke so quietly, Amcaro had to listen hard to catch his words. “There must be over a hundred guardsmen in this room.” Turning to Amcaro with a look of disbelief he continued, his voice rising. “Just between here and the courtyard alone, half of the royal guard is dead. Nareash has lost his mind. There is no other explanation. Has anyone been left alive?”

Somber, Amcaro answered, “We should assume the worst.”

Both mages turned as Edali dashed through the hall. Edali maneuvered toward the table on the far end of the room, opposite the doors. Unless the king extended a special invitation, only the royal family and its closest advisors gathered in the back of the hall. Acus was a step behind, weaving in and out of the wreckage.

“What do you see?” Amcaro called out.

“It’s the king! He’s somehow unscathed by the devastation around him,” said Edali as he reached the opposite side of the room.

Essan and Amcaro made their way toward Edali and Acus. Amcaro, last in line, saw what the others had noticed; a plump man lay on his side in light blue robes. His back was to the advancing mage, but there was no mistaking the round shape and the salt-and-pepper hair visible through the top of the man’s clothing. A gaudy crown still sat crooked on his head. Amcaro came to a sudden halt. This isn’t right.

Edali bent down to examine the king. Acus kneeled on the ruler’s other side.

One Above!

“Don’t touch him!” Amcaro called out, realizing the danger. His words echoed throughout the hall but were a moment too late.

As Edali turned the king over to check his condition and perform the healing arts, a ball of fire engulfed the mage. He flew back, landing on the remains of a guardsman. The fire burned with such ferocity, the air in the room thinned.

Amcaro watched Acus repel the exploding fire. However, the sorcerous attack distracted him from noticing the jeweled dagger in the king’s pale right hand. The king’s chubby arm arced across his bulky frame with surprising speed and the dagger opened Acus’s throat. Blood pulsed onto the floor.

Amcaro reached out with an invisible hand, and pinned the king’s arms at his sides. The overweight ruler struggled to break free, but the king was no match for the mage’s power. After a moment he relaxed in the unseen bindings, an emotionless expression on his face.

Essan rushed over to Acus’s side to assess the damage caused by the king’s attack. There was no sense in checking on Edali. As the fire slowly subsided, Amcaro could see the mage was no more. The crackle of burnt flesh made Amcaro flinch. “Is Acus alive?”

Essan closed his eyes and his hand clutched Acus’s throat. Blood oozed from between his fingers. “No.”

That one word expressed so many meanings. Sorrow for losing a friend, frustration for not acting sooner, desire to change places, emptiness that will never be filled—but of all things it spoke of hate.

Amcaro took a deep breath, steadying himself. “I know what you’re thinking. But now isn’t the time to allow our feelings to cloud our judgment. Edali and Acus did just that and so did Rhindora by running on ahead of us. One Above knows what has happened to her as it seems she continued without even checking the hall. Such carelessness will lead to our death too, Essan.”

“I am well aware of the situation,” said Essan in a tight voice, his chin resting on his chest.

Amcaro sighed and shook his head. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

Essan looked up and turned to the king. “Is this truly the king?”

Amcaro stared at Cadonia’s ruler, sorrowful. “It is his body, but his mind is no longer his own.”

“How is that possible? I thought mind control was just a myth from old.”

“No, it’s possible. It is a dark path with many dangers—which is why I never taught it to you or anyone else. Mind control carries many risks since each person’s mind is unique. Over time it will turn the victim into what you see before you.”

“Then who would have taught Nareash?”

“I don’t know.” Amcaro paused, studying the blank face of the king. “This man will never be more than a risk to everyone he comes in contact with.”

“Then we have no choice.”

Amcaro looked over to Essan and nodded. His eyes returned to the king and then a moment later the man collapsed to the ground next to Acus, as lifeless as the bloody High Mage.

Amcaro stood for a moment, thinking. I was here only a couple of months ago when the castle was bustling with life. Now only an eerie stillness remains. How could I have missed the signs? How could Nareash come into such power and keep it hidden from me? Amcaro straightened, mouth tightening as he composed himself. “Come, we mustn’t tarry here any longer.”

Amcaro headed toward a lone staircase in the hall, near the arched doorway to the kitchen. Essan followed close behind, matching his master’s stride.

* * *

Nothing passed between the High Mages as they ascended the stairs to Nareash’s personal quarters. They climbed slowly, pausing at the top of each flight to step over another group of felled guardsmen; many still held unfired crossbows in their hands. Neither of the High Mages bothered checking the rooms on each floor. Amcaro knew they would be filled with more horror, but empty of the man they sought.

During the last two flights of stairs, Amcaro checked over several spells he prepared after leaving the common hall. He felt Essan do the same as they approached an open doorway. Amcaro glanced back at his friend and saw worry and dread beneath his seething anger. We share the same thoughts, don’t we? I feel the power emanating from the room and I’ve not felt its like for some time.

They exchanged nods. Amcaro was ready to climb the last step before the doorway when a voice came from inside.

“Can we get on with this already? I swear you two move as slow as a couple of old crones.”

The two mages leaped through the door. Bursts of light shot from their hands toward their target, but the attacks seemed to have no effect as Nareash stood opposite them wearing a smug grin. When they realized Nareash had no intention of attacking them, they ceased their attacks, remaining wary of their situation.

“Come now, I hope that wasn’t the best you two had,” said Nareash. “Even Rhindora made a stronger show.” He nodded to the floor.

Amcaro’s gut tightened again at the loss of another of his former students.

Essan bent over to examine the woman’s body after an approving nod from Amcaro. No longer intimidating, she looked small and fragile. “She’s dead,” stated Essan in an emotionless tone.

“Of course,” said Nareash. “She tried to kill me.”

“Then why not attack us?” asked Essan.

As Essan probed Nareash, Amcaro took in his surroundings. Nareash stood at the room’s center, tall and slim with dark hair, his skin tanned bronze. His stance was one of confidence, hands tucked into the sleeves of his robe. The princess stood several steps behind Nareash. Elyse’s wavy auburn hair framed the fair skin of her face. Hands clasped at her waist, she wore a simple emerald dress that accentuated her light green eyes. I can feel your bonds, my dear. Nareash, is this your true advantage?

The room was deep but otherwise empty with very little in the way of furniture. Other than a small bed and a simple desk near the window, there was nothing. Various books and papers lay scattered over the floor in uneven stacks and piles.

Nareash shook his head. “Our relationship is far different than the one I shared with that foul woman. I hoped we could come to an understanding.” Nareash flicked his eyes toward Amcaro. “And, Master, without you all of this wouldn’t be possible. The last thing I want is to continue this senseless killing.” His eyes turned dark for a moment. “However, I will do what I must.”

Nareash’s grin broadened. “You have yet to speak, Master.”

“Let the princess go so we can speak in private.”

Nareash laughed. “Elyse will stay.”

“Is she what all this is about?” asked Amcaro.

Nareash chuckled. “What do you take me for, some teenage boy with a crush? She is easy on the eyes, but the only thing I care about is the power she’ll bring. Besides, you and I both know there is not enough sorcery in the world that can make a woman love.” He sighed. “Women are just too stubborn.” Nareash turned to the princess. “Isn’t that right?”

Elyse stood motionless as if unaware what had been said. But her eyes… she is still cognizant of her surroundings, thought Amcaro.

Turning back to the two mages, Nareash continued. “No, as you can see I have to settle for what she is. A beautiful woman trapped in her own mind, unable to let her mouth ruin her appeal.” He paused before chuckling again, “Some would say the perfect woman, no?”

“I don’t know what you’ve become Nareash but you are not the friend I knew,” said Essan.

“Please, self righteousness doesn’t suit you. I would have tried to work something out with you at the very least, but like the others it seems your lips are too firmly pressed against our Master’s rear to do anything other than what he defines as moral.” Nareash then turned to Amcaro. “Isn’t that right, Master?”

Amcaro didn’t answer, too busy searching for a solution to the situation.

“One Above, I will not be ignored by you.” The sleeves of Nareash’s robes separated revealing his long spindly fingers. In his right hand, he held a short ivory colored scepter.

In a soft whisper, Amcaro spoke, “Sacrynon’s Scepter.”

“They called Sacrynon the Mad Mage in his later years, right?” Nareash’s eyes drifted down absently at the hollow cylinder in his hand.

While Nareash was distracted by the scepter, Amcaro quickly looked to Elyse. If I could just get some sort of recognition from her that she understands. There. Was that it? Yes dear, you do understand, unfortunately all too well. I hope that you’ll know what to do when the time comes.

Amcaro’s eyes returned to Nareash just as the mage looked up. “You don’t sound surprised that I have it, Master.”

“I had my suspicions after witnessing the destruction you caused. Still, I never imagined you would be such a fool! Don’t you understand that the implement turned Sacrynon into a lunatic?” He paused, “it affects you already, doesn’t it? Where did you find it? Aurnon the First took the scepter to Quoron four hundred years ago, never to return. He was to destroy the abomination.”

“It affects only my power. And obviously, Aurnon the First failed. Imagine my surprise when I discovered one of the most powerful weapons in the world used as a candle holder by a na├»ve king.” Nareash grinned. “I laughed for days. To have something so powerful and not know it, that is truly madness. Who cares how it got there? I have it now.”

Without warning, Essan lashed out at Nareash with blue tendrils of sorcery flowing from his hands. At such close range, the power would send most to the ground in agony. However, Nareash used the scepter to absorb and nullify Essan’s attack. Amcaro joined in and together they sought to overwhelm the deranged man they had once called a friend.

* * *

Elyse’s world was void of sound. In the small room with her were three others and yet she felt completely alone. Since discovering her father’s manipulation weeks ago, Nareash had kept her in a state where she was unable to communicate with anyone. She could not move, speak, nor even hear unless he chose to allow it. Mostly, the High Mage gave her only sight, generous he had said in giving her anything at all. The only proof I have of existence is watching life go by around me.

Today she realized that the shred of mercy Nareash had granted her was the cruelest thing of all. She had watched the High Mage burn and murder all she held dear. Anyone and everyone fell under his wrath and she was the sole living witness to it. At first, she was thankful she could not hear the cries of despair, but without that distraction she was more attuned to the expressed anguish in each victim’s face as it twisted in pain.

And she was unable to look away.

The silent screams still echoed in her deaf ears, the images forever etched into her memories. During the ordeal she prayed ceaselessly to the One Above. She prayed for just one moment free of constraint to help them. Maybe I could have used that moment to shout a word of warning or even whisper one of comfort. No doubt I would be dead as well, but isn’t death better than this?

Now the same scene repeated itself before her eyes, only the actors were different. Elyse watched in bitter anguish, helpless again as the last two people able to stop her nightmare lived their last moments. She knew they would die just as all the others had today. Even Amcaro, a man she thought of as more of a father than her own looked doubtful about the task before him. If the resolve of one as powerful as he falters, then what hope do I have?

Elyse watched the interaction between the High Mages with fascination. Nareash opened his sleeves, revealing the hollow cylinder in his hand. Essan’s reaction was one of confusion, coupled with fright. But Amcaro seems as if he expected it. Whatever it was, she understood its importance to Nareash. I haven’t seen it out of his hand since he first started carrying it, back when the whisperings of my father’s manipulation started.

Elyse focused on Essan who seemed to regain his nerve. She watched the High Mage’s face tighten. He is ready to attack. One Above, help them please. She looked back to Amcaro. He’s looking at me! He must know that I can’t respond. Elyse’s eyes locked on Amcaro’s for a moment, his eyes flicked to the white object in Nareash’s hand and then a moment later met her eyes once again. I…I know what you want. The High Mage’s jaw clenched for a second, nodding his head ever so slightly, the movement so small anyone other than the intended person would miss it. He knows…that I know. He wants me to help, but I can’t do anything like this…

Essan lashed out at Nareash, the power vibrating through Elyse’s body. But Nareash didn’t even flinch. The wand glowed and the flames hoping to engulf the mage dissipated without any ill effect. Undeterred, Essan attacked again and again, now alternating with Amcaro. From what Elyse could tell, their attempts were little more than a bother to Nareash. With the slightest of gestures, Nareash struck both High Mages at once, knocking them off of their feet. The deranged mage threw his head back and although she was deaf, Elyse knew he was laughing as he approached the fallen men. Not again. One Above, please don’t leave me so helpless.

Nareash lifted the wand and pointed it at Essan who began to writhe in pain. Amcaro attempted to stop the attack, but a wave of Nareash’s other hand blocked the effort. Amcaro tried once again, but this time Elyse saw that his eyes looked at her and not at Nareash. Elyse’s body tingled, starting in her limbs and then moving to her torso and head. To her surprise, she felt the weight of her body after being unable to do so for weeks. She heard Nareash laugh. Amcaro’s eyes returned to Nareash and Elyse understood what happened.

“Master, I never expected it to be this easy,” said Nareash. “I didn’t even feel your last pathetic attempt to stop me. And to think I once admired you.” He paused. “Master.” He said disgusted. “I have no Master.” The scepter hovered over Amcaro now that Essan’s body lay still.

Elyse’s eyes darted about the space looking for something that she could use to stop the mad man. Her gaze finally rested on the simple desk in the room where a thin knife lay. I’m to attack a High Mage with a weapon more suited to clean one’s nails. No matter, I’d rather die than live as before. She reached, her body almost forgetting how to respond.

Elyse crept across the room, moving as fast as she dared. Her body screamed with every step and her heart pounded in her chest as she moved her stiff limbs. She was certain he would hear her clumsy movements, and any second Nareash would turn to her, trapping her once again in an invisible cell, this time not even with sight to keep her company. Amcaro feebly attacked in two consecutive bursts of fire but Nareash brushed them off as if they were no more than dust on his robes.

“You are done,” said Nareash in a solemn tone.

The scepter began to shimmer and the air thinned. Recognizing the urgency, Elyse leaped and sank the thin blade deep into Nareash’s shoulder. The High Mage screamed as the wand flew from his hand, just as Amcaro released a concussive blast of his own, filling the room with blue light. Nareash tumbled backward, sent sprawling across the room and Elyse was thrown into a corner.

After a moment she slowly opened her eyes, realizing as she sat up, groggy, that she was the only person moving. She scurried over to Amcaro who was face down on the floor. She turned him over. “Master Amcaro, please. You must wake up! Master?”

“I’m here, dear,” said Amcaro through shallowed breaths.

“Oh, thank the One Above, you’re alright.”

A thin smile formed on his face as he tried to speak, interrupted by a coughing fit, blood spraying from his mouth. “Hardly. I’m dying.”

“No, you can’t. You saved me. You stopped Nareash. My father’s dead. Everyone is dead. I need you. I don’t know what to do.”

“What do you mean? You will rule your kingdom.”

“But I can’t. I…”

“You needn’t worry,” said Nareash.

Elyse whipped her head around. On the far side of the room, Nareash staggered to his feet.

“I am more than capable of ruling without you.” He turned his eyes to Amcaro. “And Master, I spoke too hastily of you. Even now you teach me a valuable lesson in acting. Quite convincing. Still, you left yourself in a less than ideal position in doing so.” The High Mage limped across the room, arm hanging at his side.

Watching his crooked path, Elyse realized that he was not walking toward her and Amcaro but instead to a stack of fallen papers. Barely visible underneath laid an ivory scepter.

Elyse dove across the floor an instant before the hobbled mage had time to react. She crawled back as Nareash came forward and slapped the cylinder into Amcaro’s outstretched arm.

Elyse saw Nareash begin to glow as he readied an attack. He screamed. “No!”

A burst of self contained energy shot from the Scepter and struck Nareash. When the energy dissipated, Elyse's mouth dropped open, eyes welling in relief. Nareash, her tormentor, was gone. Obliterated.

Elyse returned to Amcaro’s side. He gasped for air.

“Rest, Master. You’ll be ok.”

With a worried look and eyes wide, he tried to speak, “He…He…” and another coughing fit seized him, taking control of his body.

“Please, rest. He’s gone, but you’ve weakened yourself further, you need to stay calm.”

Amcaro tried to speak again, this time between breaths, his chest rising with each word. “No…too weak…listen…to me...the Scepter…tell no one…show no one…Nareash…” A sharp intake of breath and then his chest relaxed.

“No. I need you. Please.” Elyse’s words trailed off. She knew her pleas were worthless. One Above, help me. She sat on the floor, head in her hands as tears held in for weeks flowed. She wept for everyone, the servants, the guardsmen, the High Mages, Amcaro, and even her father. But most of all she wept for herself. She was alone again.



Chapter 2

Waves crashed against a weathered shore and masked the sounds of Kifzo warriors slipping into the water. Tobin cringed as the cold water lapped against the exposed black skin of his torso. He tensed his muscles, shook off a chill, and breathed in a chest full of the cool night air to still his racing heart. He ignored another shiver as he guided his craft inland behind the warriors preceding him.

The full moon provided enough light for him to make out the lead warrior edging his boat onto land. Their Warleader crouched low and, gesturing, sent scouts off in several directions. Tobin was last out of the water and sand crunched softly beneath his feet as he made his way up shore.

The voyage from Juanoq had gone better than he had anticipated. Only one Kifzo died during the long trip that began weeks ago, a freak accident that ended with a broken neck. Although one man, the loss was great as even the lowliest Kifzo was equal to three ordinary warriors. However, they could not be delayed with a proper burial, for the man had not fallen in combat. Their Warleader chose to push on instead, so the fallen warrior lay rotting where he fell. “We have no time for the dead,” was the only explanation given for the decision. More than Tobin had expected.

“I’m surprised to see you so far behind, Brother,” said Kaz, his mocking voice cutting through the night.

Tobin paused and glanced to either side. He saw that the first of the scouts had returned and reported. Coupled with his brother’s raised voice, Tobin concluded there was no immediate threat nearby. “First or last makes no difference to me.” He came up to Kaz.

“I’m glad that you feel so comfortable in the rear, Brother.” The word brother rolled off Kaz’s tongue as if a foul curse. It was no secret that Kaz hated Tobin. Yet the Warleader was always quick to remind him.

“Where would you have me next, Warleader?” asked Tobin, ignoring the jibe.

“Go to Walor,” Kaz growled, “Stay with him until the last of his scouts have returned. Come back when you have all the details. We move within the hour.”

“Such a short rest?”

“Nubinya’s capture is dependent upon our success. That means for tonight we must push on.” He spat. “Besides, you remember what Uncle Cef taught us about rest?”

Tobin made a face. How could I forget? “Aye, rest is for women and the weak.”

Kaz looked down at Tobin’s left ankle. “So, do you need rest?”

You wonder if the ankle bothers me. The ankle you broke ten years ago. Of course it does, but I dare not admit it. “No. I was only thinking of the others after the long journey.”

“It isn’t your place to think on such things, Brother, not unless I tell you to do so,” said Kaz, taking a step forward, closing the distance between them. Tobin could see the hate in his brother’s eyes, their whites a contrast to his black skin.

Tobin never knew when Kaz’s temper would get the best of him nor the reason for it. No doubt deciding whether or not it would be worth it to kill me. But you still need me, don’t you?

Only inches apart, he could feel the heated breath from Kaz’s flared nostrils. So much anger and yet I don’t even know why you hate me.

The two men were near matches in size and physical appearance, hardened from years of training under their father’s watchful eyes, pushed to their physical limits by their uncle. At one time a fight between the two would have been too close to call, but now, with a poorly mended ankle, Tobin knew he could not match his brother physically. Certainly not his ruthlessness.

Despite these things, Tobin did not fear Kaz, nor did he fear death. Shame deterred him from engaging his brother. The shame he knew he would bring to their father by dying at his own brother’s hands calmed his temper. Besides, I put my ambitions aside long ago. I won’t walk down Kaz’s path to have a better life.

Tobin conceded and turned his eyes away. “As you say, Warleader.”

As he walked away, Tobin noticed several of the Kifzo readying their weapons for the work ahead of them. Many regarded him, hate in their eyes, having witnessed what passed between him and Kaz.

Just like Kaz, they tolerate me because they must.

* * *

Tobin found Walor further up shore, atop a sandbank covered in loose gravel, near an outcropping of windswept rocks with edges smoothed away. Walor’s odd stance and short stature singled him out from the others. The Kifzo had a leg propped up on one of the battered rocks and his body leaned forward while he listened intently to a steady stream of reports from returning scouts. Tobin stood off to the side and waited until the last warrior left.

“What’s the word?” asked Tobin.

“Sore from the trip. Thankful to be on land for awhile,” said Walor, dropping his leg down and stretching. “Itching to do something other than wait.” Then with a sharp twist and jerk to the side, there was a pop. “Ah, there it is.” Flashing a grin, he continued, “I’m guessing that isn’t what you wanted to know though, is it?”

Tobin had always enjoyed talking to Walor. A lighthearted man was a rare thing among the Kifzo, and the head scout was one of the few men to engage Tobin in real conversation. “Kaz is looking for a layout of the villages in the area.”

Walor gestured with his head in Kaz’s direction. “I figured as much when I saw the show between you two had ended. It amazes me you put up with so much, even from him.”

Tobin started to respond but thought better of it, choosing to ignore the remark. “The layout?”

Walor let out a heavy sigh and shook his head. Pulling a dagger from his belt, he squatted down, and began to draw in the sand. A crude map took shape. “Based on the reports, we are close to where we wanted to be, only a few miles east of the trail used by those along the coast to bring their catches into Nubinya. If we keep heading east, we should run into small villages every couple of miles before reaching some of the larger settlements. I’m guessing we’ll use one of those villages to draw Nubinya’s forces away from the city.”

“That’s up to Kaz. Is there anything to the west, near the trail?”

“You would think so, but no. From what I can tell, the resources near there aren’t as plentiful. The trail is simply used because the terrain is more favorable for travel even if it is out of their way. It appears the more direct route is a harder journey.”

“And how far is the first village to the east?”

Walor stood up and stretched again. “A little over a mile.”

Tobin nodded. “I’ll let Kaz know.”

* * *

Propped up on his elbows, Tobin lay face down atop a small sand dune. As always, he had taken point after the initial scouting, a role he enjoyed. All Kifzo endured years of training to hone their bodies, but no other warrior boasted senses as heightened as his.

Not even Kaz, and he knows it.

Below, three huts of poor condition sat in a small circle. Their walls of uneven stone looked ready to topple over with the next gust of wind. Dried grass served as their roofs. Barely enough to keep out the elements.

Behind the three huts, two llamas and a goat slept. Is this truly a village? It’s almost laughable.

Tobin’s eyes moved to his left, unsurprised to see a makeshift landing near the water’s edge in similar condition to the dwellings. Five small fishing boats floated nearby, tied to the dilapidated structure. To his surprise, the vessels were unspoiled and well cared for. One would assume this place abandoned if not for the animals and boats. At least they show some pride in their trade.

Tobin slid down the slope to where the Kifzo waited a hundred feet or so behind the sand dune. Barely audible, he whispered to Kaz, “All are asleep. Two llamas and a goat on the far side.”

Kaz nodded and signaled assignments to the others with stabbing hand gestures. It seemed unfair for a dozen or so sleeping fishermen to face ninety-nine of the best Kifzo warriors the Blue Island Clan had to offer. Tobin shook his head. If I’ve learned nothing else about life, it is that death comes to everyone, and rarely do we decide when.

The Kifzo approached the small camp downwind so as not to alarm the animals. In silence, thirty of the warriors surrounded the huts. Twenty more went to the boats, while another group silenced the animals. The remaining warriors stayed hidden, forming a wide circle, outlining the small area, ready for any that might escape. Despite the precaution, Tobin knew that none would break through the battle hardened men.

Tobin was assigned to the remaining group held back. He did not mind the task, even if others considered it a slight to be away from the assault. He had no taste for killing men in their sleep. It was one thing to kill a man in battle, but another to simply butcher men as defenseless as these, and even another to kill a woman or child. Of course, that line of thinking did not echo the Kifzo mentality. The trouble his feelings had caused him in the past taught him to be discrete about such things.

“Any idiot with a weapon can kill, but few can do so without making a sound,” as Uncle used to say. Less than a second after the last animal went down, the others made their move, creeping inside each hut and searching the boats.

No sooner had it started than it was over. Several Kifzo left the huts, cleaning the blood off their daggers and swords before carefully placing them back into their wooden scabbards.

The last of the warriors exited moments later, severed heads in hand. They skewered the trophies on the poles once used by the fishermen to dry their catch.

Now the poles are used to dry ours. He sucked in a mouthful of the cool air and let it out slowly. Kaz, it’s just like you to go to the extreme to send a message to anyone later stumbling across the area. Are the bodies not enough?

The warriors gathered in the center of the huts, near a dung filled fire pit. Upon approaching, Tobin saw that the heads of men adorned the poles, not those of women or children. I guess I can find some consolation in that.

Then Kaz spoke. “Tonight was easy, as it should have been. But this is only the beginning, for we still have much to do if we are to draw the Orange Desert Clan’s main army away from Nubinya.” He paused for a second, his rigid face meeting the eyes of each warrior. “However, we’ll make camp here for the rest of the night and into tomorrow.” The surprise was evident among the Kifzo and each nodded their heads in agreement.

Perhaps he heeded my advice after all?

“Now,” said Kaz turning toward the dead animals, “let’s get this meat ready. I’d rather not have another meal of stale bread and dried fish.” The warriors grunted in agreement, eager to have a warm meal after traveling for weeks on the same bland diet.

Willing to do his part, Tobin set off toward the closest llama, when a hand clasped his shoulder. “Organize the watch, Brother. There are more important things to do than fill your belly.”

Tobin bit his tongue. “As you say, Warleader.”

* * *

Life had become a blur of monotony. The welcome rest of each day was interrupted by merciless killing that filled the night. The gloom provided a natural cover to the dark skinned warriors as well as relief from the arid daytime climate. If there was perfect weather for killing, Tobin was sure the desert nights provided it.

Since coming upon those first three huts four days ago, a dozen more fishing villages suffered similar fates. No two villages they came upon were the same, each varying in size and setup. Only one common element stood out to Tobin as the Kifzo moved between settlements—they found only men. Although he had no appetite for it, killing men in their sleep at least made sense. Fewer to face in battle. Kill them now or kill them later. Still, he found it odd there were no signs of women or children. Maybe the families reside in Nubinya while the men work along the coast? I hope that continues to hold true.

Tobin’s hope ended when one of Walor’s scouts returned with new information on their next target. An estimated five hundred inhabitants, including families – the largest settlement by far and only a short distance away.

The scout described the village in great detail and included the surrounding terrain and landmarks. Standing with his brow furrowed, Kaz said not a word the entire time Walor spoke. His right hand stroked the neatly trimmed goatee that wrapped his chin, a habit picked up as a teenager when his beard began to grow in.

Walor finished, took a step back, and waited with the rest of the Kifzo for his orders. The moments began to pass by, yet Kaz stood motionless. Tobin glanced around and saw agitation on the faces of others.

Finally, Kaz spoke. “Your scout missed something.”

A confused look. “Missed something? He gave us a detailed layout of the entire settlement.”

“And that’s the problem. Your report didn’t mention anything about the people living there. It’s still early enough that they wouldn’t all be sleeping. Who is still awake? Why? What were they doing? What was their behavior like?”

Walor turned to his scout for an answer but the blank look on the man’s face said enough. Obviously embarrassed, he had no answers to Kaz’s questions.

A voice to the right cut in, saving the head scout from any further humiliation. “What nonsense is this? What the people are cooking makes little difference. Does fear cause you to hesitate, Warleader? Surely you aren’t afraid of a village filled with fishermen and their families.” The warrior chuckled and several others joined in.

Tobin’s gaze went to the large Kifzo as he spoke. Durahn stood a head above even the tallest of men. In size, the behemoth dwarfed even he and Kaz who were both well over six feet in height. Like many of the other Kifzo, Durahn chose to wear his long black hair in thick braids down to his shoulders. His long beard came to a braided point. Hair and beard framed a massive head with a flat nose and wide-set eyes.

As the deep but quiet laughter faded from the large warrior, Kaz swung his broad shoulders around to face him. Tobin watched as Durahn readied himself. Like everyone else, Durahn expected a confrontation and it looked like he wanted it. Kaz tilted his head up, eyeing the man with an inquisitive expression. “Do you wish to carelessly throw away the lives of your clan tonight?”

The response was not what Durahn expected and it took him a moment to collect himself. “Any Kifzo who dies by the hand of a weak fisherman is better off dead to me,” he said at last, satisfied with himself.

Disgusted, Kaz spat to the side. “And yet you desire to lead in my place, don’t you? Let’s hope your brethren show more regard for your life than you do for theirs.” Not allowing Durahn to respond, Kaz turned his back on the large man, showing his contempt. He looked at Tobin. “Brother, take Walor with you and do not return until you discover what was missed.”

* * *

They made their way toward the settlement, meandering between several rock-covered hills. Tobin surveyed the terrain upon their approach, searching for the ideal vantage point. His eyes swung to the left where a rock formation protruded from the top of the nearest rise. Tobin gestured toward the stone configuration, and the two men climbed to the selected spot. Walor was the first to crest the hill. Tobin trailed several steps behind, his ankle slowing him.

Several hours past dusk, the two men finally settled. The location allowed for an unobstructed view of the village. Tobin took a moment to confirm the scout’s information before looking more closely at his surroundings.

Just as reported, the town consisted of five clusters of huts. In the center of each tight cluster sat a shared fire pit. The five groups surrounded a small oasis which included several date trees and other simple vegetation.

Tobin turned his attention back to the fire pits. Tobin saw what he dreaded, what he hoped to avoid. Entire families sat around doing what looked to be nothing more than trying to stay warm on the cool night.

He turned his attention to an animal pen outside the clusters, to the left. The pen consisted of several small sections, each one housing a different breed of animal. Goats and llamas dominated the population, but for the first time since arriving along the coast, Tobin also saw half a dozen camels, and almost double that number of horses.

A perk of having fresh water nearby.

A glint caught his eye. Tobin leaned in to Walor and whispered, “I need to get closer.”

“There isn’t enough cover to get any closer.”

Tobin inclined his head to the right toward the village. “There. That boulder should be fine.”

“That’s over fifty yards away and I’d hardly call that a boulder. I’ve skipped rocks bigger than that.”

“From this angle there isn’t anything else between here and the village I can use.”

“What are you hoping to get a better look at?”

“Call it a hunch.”

“A hunch, huh?” Walor paused. “Well, I’m faster and smaller. Tell me what your hunch is and I’ll go.”

“No. I can see better at night. It might not be anything, but I need to be certain. Besides, standing that close to the flames, the villagers aren’t likely to see me anyway.”

Not waiting for Walor to argue, Tobin set off down the opposite side of the hill, staying low to the ground. He paused once near the bottom then darted to the cover he had pointed out, ducking behind the boulder. Grimacing, Tobin took his time to position himself before peering out.

I hate to admit it, but Walor was right about the stone’s size.

Tobin stared into the night, eyes flickering between the huts and animal pens, confirming his suspicions. Rather than returning to Walor immediately, he lay motionless for another half hour until the last fire died out and the villagers returned to their huts for the night.

Finally satisfied, Tobin made his way back to Walor, careful not to pry loose any gravel. He rested a hand on Walor’s shoulder at the top of the rise, signaling it was time to leave.

When they rejoined their fellow Kifzo, Kaz stood waiting, arms crossed. Tobin noted the restlessness in the others as he approached.

“We expected you back some time ago. I trust you have some news, Brother?”

“Yes. They know we’re coming and they’re ready for us.” Tobin paused. “As ready as they can be anyway.”

“What?” said Walor.

“I told you I followed a hunch.” He paused. “Structurally, the village is exactly as reported. The huts, the oasis, the animal pen, the fire pits are all laid out as described.” He paused. “But if you look closer, there’s more. They wanted us to see families around the fire pits oblivious to what was going on, an easy prey. However, those families are incomplete. There weren’t any men around the fires.”

Walor interjected, “Are you telling me you saw the faces of those people from that distance?”

“Of course not. I didn’t need to see their faces. I watched them move. It was a clever thing to disguise their women in men’s clothing but they couldn’t disguise their mannerisms or their gait. I can’t be sure, but I think only two pits were lit simply because there weren’t enough women to light all the pits and still convince us of the deception. So instead, they hoped we would reason the other pits were out because those clusters were already asleep.”

“Do you know where the men are?” asked Kaz.

“Hiding. Waiting for us to take the bait. I’m sure that many of them are dispersed throughout the village, but from what I could tell, the animal pen is the primary location. They probably hope to take advantage of the few mounts they have.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“They made the mistake of lighting the fires nearest the pen. After watching the horses long enough I saw several glints near their heads from the flames bouncing off the bridles still in their mouths. There were also several shadows moving about nearby that did not belong to any animal.”

“And the oasis?”

“I would guess several stationed there as well, given the location. However, the huts were blocking my line of sight.”

Kaz grunted, a disgusted look on his face. He turned his back on Tobin. “We leave in ten minutes and will make do with the incomplete information.”

Never enough is it, Kaz? Without my warning it is likely we’d lose more men. My report also made your point against Durahn as well. Yet, you give me nothing. Tobin sighed and looked over to Walor who gave a small shrug.

* * *

A short while later the Kifzo split into three groups. The first group would approach the settlement along the coast. They would search the fishing vessels docked ashore before making their way up the beach.

The second group waited near the rock formation Tobin and Walor used earlier for scouting. When the time came, they would veer to the right of the village, capturing the hut clusters presumed to be least occupied. Afterward, they would push forward toward the oasis, gaining control of the village’s central position. Once the first group charged, the second group would attack and signal the third group into action.

The third group sat above the village on a series of ragged hills, overlooking the animal pens. Jutting rocks and dark shadows provided more than adequate cover for the group. Their task was to release a volley of arrows at the animal pen where Tobin suspected many of the male villagers hid. After the initial volley, most of the warriors from the third position would charge down the rock-strewn terrain toward the pens while the villagers were distracted. Tobin and several other handpicked warriors of his choosing would continue the arrow fire until the second and third groups engaged. Only then would they move down into the fray. If all went as planned, the three groups would strike as one in three different areas of the settlement, causing confusion and chaos.

Tobin directed the third company into position, not satisfied until he found the optimal formation for the warriors. He ignored the aggravated looks on their faces as he shuffled them about. He was used to such disdain after all these years. But they have no choice but to take orders from me on this matter.

Even Kaz, who rarely relinquished command, especially to him, deferred to Tobin when it came to the bow. Since injuring his ankle, the long range weapons of the Kifzo had become the focus of his training. Tobin could still fight hand to hand better than most but with unsure footing it only made sense to cater to his strengths.

Tonight Kaz opted to lead the second group from the coast. With little cover, they easily faced the highest risk. Tobin caught the significance of Kaz’s choice for his group; taking Durahn as well as several others caught chuckling earlier at his brother’s expense.

Always thinking, eh Kaz? Punish the ones confident enough to challenge you by giving them the most dangerous position. And if they should fall tonight, you’ve cleansed the infection before it spreads.

Tobin took a moment to review the positioning of his warriors one last time. Including himself, the most skilled archers waited in back and occupied the best vantage point. They would hold their position the longest. In front of the lead archers, Tobin organized the Kifzo according to experience.

Satisfied with the formation, he made one final check over his equipment, examining his bow for any cracks, though he already knew none existed. He notched an arrow, crept into position, and locked his sight on the animal pen. Walor came up behind him. The two exchanged a nod.

Tobin waited for what seemed like hours when, in fact, he knew only minutes had passed. Anticipation had always been his least favorite part of an attack. During the time when all one could do was wait, his mind drifted off to images that so often haunted his dreams. Corpses of all ages, shapes, and sizes—men, women and children alike. Each of them stabbed, slashed, gored, or mutilated. Their eyes seemed to hold just enough life to pierce his soul deeper than any sword thrust could.

The images didn’t frighten him like they once had though. He had grown accustomed to their company years ago. Yet it never made his nights any more restful, or the moments before a battle any less unnerving.

His head turned at a sudden movement and he saw the second group far closer than he would have expected them to be, still unnoticed. Their lookouts are useless. We’ll be lucky to get more than a couple shots off before they’re engaged at this rate.

A war cry filled the night and Tobin concluded that Kaz had reached a similar decision as the once creeping warriors rushed the village at a full sprint. Loud clanging erupted from the animal pens and Tobin saw villagers scrambling to ready themselves. He aimed his bow, shouting “Now!” without looking back. A hail of arrows rained down, striking man and animal alike. Screams echoed across the landscape. The archers fired their second volley as men charged down the uneven slope, crying out in unison. Between the second and third flight of arrows, Tobin spared a glance and saw the first group of Kifzo fast approaching the hut clusters on the opposite side of the village.

The remainder of Tobin’s group released four rounds of arrows before the charging Kifzo engaged the villagers. Tobin signaled his men to fan out as they made their way down to the action, pausing here and there to pick off anyone escaping. Despite their numbers, the outmatched villagers died in droves. Tobin found little joy in slaughtering fishermen, but it was his task, and a life of blood was all Tobin knew.

Moving in close, he saw Kifzo already searching huts, a sign that the worst was over. As if the bloodied bodies were not evidence enough. So many dead in so little time.

Soon after entering the clusters, piercing screams reverberated in his ears, women and children crying out, some for help, others for mercy. Tobin knew neither would come.

Unable to turn away from the scenes of entire families being murdered, raped, or both, his stomach lurched and he swallowed back bile. Devilish grins filled the faces of those warriors already satiating their lusts, men he’d known and trained with most of his life.

How can you allow such brutality, Kaz? What would Lucia say if she knew such things existed?

A flash of light filled the night sky. Tobin stepped back and shielded his eyes from the sudden glare. Blinking, he set off toward the village center near the oasis.

Has to be sorcery. But here?

He arrived a few moments later with other Kifzo close behind. The ground around the oasis resembled the rest of the village. Dead littered the orange sand, oozing dark fluids from fresh wounds. Tobin’s eyes widened in shock. As many Kifzo warriors lay dead and dying as villagers.

Looking up from the bloody mess, several Kifzo caught his eye. Struggling to stand, they fought to defend themselves, pressed and battered by fishermen carrying little else but crude weapons more suited to their trade than for battle.

Tobin called out to those who had followed him, “Quick, help them.”

The warriors ran off to join the fray, putting the fishermen on the defensive. Tobin scanned the area, crouched at the ready. Sudden movement drew his attention to the shadows of a date tree. His hand snatched the throwing ax at his belt and whipped it toward the lurking figure hiding in the gloom. Tobin watched his throw sail through the air, confident he’d found his mark. However the ax came to a halt mid-air, hovering for a moment before falling to the ground. The figure stepped forward and another wave of light assaulted his senses. He found himself beset with sudden weakness, unable to focus. Stumbling to one knee, he saw Kifzo staggering and falling all around him, straining to keep their weapons up as the villagers surged forward.

The figure by the trees approached Tobin. He saw bones of both animal and human hanging from the shaman’s robes. Raising a hand, the shaman extended his index finger at Tobin as he tried to rise from his knees.

Tobin inhaled a deep breath, ready for whatever fate brought him. But the shaman burst into flames and convulsed to the ground. Tobin shook his head in denial as he watched the shaman’s body grow still, the remains of his clothing crackling under the intense heat.

How did that happen? But he had no time to consider such things. With the grogginess clearing and strength returning to his limbs, he picked up his bow and began firing shots at villagers eager to escape now that the Kifzo were unhindered by sorcery. His eyes widened as a fleeing villager burst into flames only a moment before his arrow caught the man.

Tobin twisted to his right where a tall man dressed in tattered red garb stood bent and out of breath. Tobin’s hand immediately went for his other throwing ax but the man stood up first, one arm raised in submission, the other hung at his side. “Wait. Please.”

Ax in hand, Tobin closed in on the man. “Did you kill the shaman? And that man?” he asked gesturing with the weapon.

Still panting, the man responded. “Yes. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more but I am still weak from my journey.”

“Journey? What are you doing here?”

Breathing heavy, the man shook his head. “Too much to explain. For now, just know that your enemy is mine.” Swallowing hard, he gestured toward several wounded Kifzo. “I’ve never been a strong healer but I have enough strength that if you’ll allow me, I may be able to help the worst of your men now that the battle appears over.”

Tobin saw it was true. The last few villagers fell under Kifzo blades. “Who are you? And why would you help us?”

“My name is Nachun. And as I said, your enemy is mine.” Nachun inclined his head in the direction of a fallen Kifzo whose hand staunched the flow of blood at his side. “May I?”

Reluctant at first, Tobin lowered his weapon and nodded.

Nachun moved with caution toward the fallen Kifzo. Tobin followed, scanning the area and taking in the damages. Close to twenty Kifzo lay dead, mostly those tasked to gain control of the oasis. An additional half dozen teetered on the edge of death themselves. The losses were much greater than expected.

Tobin looked down thoughtfully at Nachun. Our losses would have been much worse without this stranger. Nachun bent over the fallen Kifzo, hand resting over the large gash in his side.

“Will he live?” asked Tobin.

“For now. Unfortunately, all I can do at the moment is slow the bleeding. If he survives the night, I should be able to help more, once I’ve rested and regained some strength.”

“Very well. Do what you can and, if you’re able, treat any others in similar shape.”

Nachun nodded.

“What’s going on here?” said Kaz, anger in his voice.

Tobin looked up and met his brother’s glare as he and several other warriors approached. “This man saved many lives. The villagers had a shaman,” he said, gesturing to the smoldering remains. “He cast a spell that made us unable to fight the fishermen.” Tobin looked down “Nachun came to our aid and killed him.”

Kaz spat. “And you trust this shaman?”

“Yes. Even while weak he tries to help our fallen.” Tobin paused and looked at the other wounded warriors near the oasis who, without Nachun’s help, would have died. “Do I speak false? Do we not owe this man?”

Hesitant at first, several of the men nodded and mumbled in agreement.

Kaz grunted. “He’ll live. For now. When he’s done here, make sure he’s put in one of the huts under guard.”

“This man…” Tobin began to argue.

“This man is still a stranger, Brother.” Kaz cut in. “I will speak no more on the matter until we know his story.”

The two men shared an intense stare before Tobin once again broke the gaze. “Where would you have me then?” he asked.

“The village is ours and the huts are being searched. Go help the others with the search.”

Tobin pushed his way past Kaz, feeling helpless and frustrated by his brother’s reaction. No doubt Kaz will kill the man. He spared a glance back and saw Nachun working on another wounded Kifzo under his brother’s watchful eye. Tobin shook his head. Too bad.

* * *

In the battle’s aftermath, Tobin maneuvered through the twisted carnage that littered the ground. He noted that the huts were better constructed here, the stone walls carefully formed and secured with mortar. Roofs even held a basic framework on which the dried grass could rest. Unlike the squalor he’d seen before, this place actually resembled a real village, where one could settle down and raise a family. But not anymore, he thought, as he stepped over a corpse with its mouth hanging open and eyes wide with terror.

The first several huts he came upon stood empty, already ransacked of valuables. The next was a wreck and smeared with blood. Draped over a small table lay a man with his throat slashed, his lifeless hand gripping a knife more suited for filleting fish than fighting. Against the back wall, a dog lapped up the blood of another victim as it oozed onto the gritty floor. Tobin walked away as the dog tugged at the wound in an effort to pull loose the man’s entrails.

The next hut was worse still. Tobin walked in on a Kifzo raping a gray haired woman who thrashed under the grunting warrior until a fist came down to silence her. Shamed, Tobin left the hut in a hurry before the image could etch itself into his mind. But he knew it was too late.

Another one I’ll never be rid of.

Tobin reached the last hut in the cluster. He peered inside as light crept in from the relit fire pits. A small sound, barely above a whisper, caught his attention and he unsheathed the dagger at his thigh. Scanning the dim room, he spotted the tiniest movement in the back, near broken pottery and overturned linen. Stepping further inside, his eyes focused. A little girl, no more than four sat huddled into a ball, gently rocking back and forth, mumbling to herself. Maybe there is a chance to do some good. He looked over his shoulder then back. He crouched down and whispered. “Do you think you can stay quiet and remain hidden here?”

The girl looked up, eyes filled only with tears.

“I know you are frightened but I can help you. You must promise not to let anyone else see you. Okay?”

The child just stared at him—through him—scared and unable to move. Why would she trust me after what she’s seen and heard? “Please, I…”

A booming voice came from the doorway, cutting him off. “Who is that I hear talking?”

On instinct, Tobin whipped around at the sound and faced the man in the entranceway, exposing the child.

“Well, what do we have here?” A wide grin broke out across the warrior’s face as he leaned to look at the young girl still trembling in terror. “Hmmm, and young too. I was just looking for someone to warm my bed tonight,” said Durahn.

The massive warrior ducked low as he stepped into the hut. In response, Tobin’s fingers tightened around the grip of the dagger, more out of reflex than courage. He looked back at the girl, meeting those hollow eyes.

Already dead.

Durahn stopped cold and leaned back, noticing the dagger in Tobin’s hand. “Ah, now I see.” His thick hands opened and closed as if inviting a fight. “Don’t worry, cripple, you can have her when I’m done.” The demon of a man turned to the girl and smiled wider. “Well, whatever’s left of her.”

Tobin crouched. Cripple. A reminder. What can I expect to do against him? His hand lashed out, drawing a line across the child’s throat. He stood there watching as her body went limp and fell. Blood poured out from the young girl. “Looks like there’s already nothing left.”

Tobin stared back at Durahn, unsure what to expect. The Kifzo smiled, and then laughed. It was a sadistic cackle. “After all these years, cripple, you never fail to surprise me.” He turned and walked back to the doorway, swinging around at the last moment. “Killing puts me in a good mood, so I’ll give you that one. Stop me again though, and next time it’ll be you I use for my pleasure.” Durahn snorted in mirth, leaving Tobin alone once again.

Hanging his head, Tobin watched the lifeless girl, a pool of crimson enveloping her tiny frame. I really meant to help you. But this was all I could offer. He clenched the dagger in his hand even harder in frustration. This is your fault, Kaz. You don’t participate and think that makes you different than the others, but you still let it happen. You’re no better than they are. He looked down at the blade in his hand, covered in the innocent blood of a child and sighed.



Chapter 3

“…This is the one that will break their back for sure, Commander. We’ll smash them to pieces. They will be talking about tomorrow for years to come…”

Aye, for years to come they’ll talk about tomorrow as one of the worst bloodbaths this continent has ever seen.

Jonrell stared across the open landscape below. The cliff gave him a full view of an expansive plain, littered with rows upon rows of tents from the opposing army’s encampment, more than double the size of their own forces. Two years after taking this job and I’ve regretted every minute of it. Shorting us on pay, ignoring advice, putting us in dangerous positions…why am I here again?

“...I won’t be able to sleep tonight in anticipation…”

Anticipation of what? Stuffing your face while others fix your mess? I haven’t seen you do anything besides that since I’ve known you. “I think the men are a little too eager,” said Jonrell.

Melchizan continued. “…Oh, yes. Naturally. They feel the significance of tomorrow as well…”

Jonrell cleared his throat and cut in, “I think we should withdraw to more favorable ground.”

“…yes, we will slaughter them, we will…” The would-be conqueror almost choked on his last words as he turned in the saddle of his mount. The short man’s demeanor suddenly turned from one of excitement to confusion, and then anger. “What do you mean withdraw? We have them right where we want them. This is what we’ve been waiting for…”

The setting sun bled across the land, reflecting dark purples and reds off the white canvases of the enemy’s camp. Reminiscent of a bruise. A bleak reminder of what awaits us tomorrow. No Melchizan, I haven’t waited for that.

“Commander! I’m speaking to you,” said Melchizan, his great jowls swaying.

“I hear you. And unlike you, I actually listen to the person I’m talking to.”

Melchizan’s face reddened. “It’s bad enough you and the rest of your tattered outfit of mercenaries fail to address me as your lord, but I will not be spoken to like some common soldier. Is that understood?”

“No. You are not our lord and definitely not a soldier, just an employer. The Hell Patrol will not bend a knee to you. If you want someone to kiss your rear, you’ll have to look to the rest of that motley army of yours.”

“Have you forgotten that motley army has conquered over a dozen cities and hundreds of miles of land? An army you command?”

Jonrell snorted a laugh. “Cities? Most of that land was filled with nothing more than small tribes and villages. Your army is not ready for this,” said Jonrell, pointing toward the encampment. “The men are going to face more than two to one odds against a better armed and better trained force.”

“If they fail, then you have failed as a commander.”

“No. I’ve told you we needed to spend money on better weapons, rather than your lavish indulgences. We need to push the men to work on actual skill sets rather than allow them to function as a badly organized mob. But you’re too greedy to see that, so you keep pushing for more and undermining what I’m trying to do. Then you decide to engage an opposing army on a wide open plain without cavalry to match theirs.”

Melchizan ignored Jonrell’s remarks, his voice low and even. “I’ve waited too long for a kingdom to call my own. We will attack tomorrow and we will win. Otherwise, you and your outfit won’t see the rest of your contract.”

Jonrell stared at Melchizan, ready to reply, when the sound of approaching hooves and a shout from behind caught his attention. He held his employer’s glare for a moment longer, then turned toward the approaching rider. He refused to continue the conversation and instead kicked his mount forward.

“I’m glad you’ve seen it my way, Commander,” Melchizan called out.

Jonrell heard the amusement in his employer’s voice as if the man had won some victory over him. Idiot. There will be no victory tomorrow. I hope you slice your own throat when you try to draw your sword in terror.

The advancing rider bobbed in his saddle as he pulled beside Jonrell. The two mercenaries descended the rocky trail in silence, interrupted by Jonrell’s heavy sigh and the grinding of teeth.

“Keep it up and you’re liable to crack another tooth.”

Jonrell turned to the man in faded black robes. “Are you my mother now?”

“That’s right, take it out on me,” the mage muttered.

“That man is an absolute imbecile and he’s going to get us all killed,” said Jonrell.

“Probably,” said Krytien. “But let me remind you who signed the contract…”

“I know who signed the contract. If I wanted to take this abuse, I would have stayed with… what does Raker call him? Lord Roundness?” said Jonrell coming to a halt. He drew a breath and calmed himself. “Now what do you want?”

“Well, remember that item I bought off a trader last time we were in Slum Isle? You know, to keep track of that particular situation of interest to you?” whispered Krytien.

Jonrell straightened in his saddle. “Yes?”

“Well, it worked. I mean, the king,” he paused, “passed away.” Krytien ran his fingers over his head, wiping the sweat from his brow and pushed back his thin white hair.

“How?”

“I don’t know. The device wasn’t designed to tell us how, just when.”

“You sound surprised.” said Jonrell.

“Well, there was always some question on whether it would work or not. The workings of such magical tools are not my expertise, you know.”

“Don’t give me that. That’s not what you told me before. If I recall, you assured me that the moment something happened, the device would brighten and you‘d be made aware of it. That was years ago.” Jonrell scowled, growing agitated. “Now, you’re saying this was all in question?”

Krytien cleared his throat. “The uncertainty came when trying to confirm the tool’s effectiveness at the time of purchase. Only the one who created the item could figure that out. However, I do know the device worked as intended.”

“Would you swear on it?”

“I’d swear on my honor as a mage.”

Jonrell snorted. “Honor? Isn’t that the same pledge you make when Raker accuses you of cheating at dice?”

“Well, that’s different,” he smirked. “My fingers are crossed then.” The mage raised his hands and wiggled his fingers as the smile vanished. “It’s true. I’m sorry for your loss.”

A breeze from the north blew Jonrell’s long auburn hair into his face. “You have nothing to be sorry for, I’m not.” He turned and kicked his horse into a quick trot and the mage did the same. “When we get to camp, gather the crew together and bring them back to my tent. Hell Patrol only.”

“I brought the device with me in case you wanted to see it for yourself.” Krytien reached into his robes and pulled out a round stone similar in appearance to a pearl, only larger.

Jonrell reached out and grabbed the device without examining it, sticking it in his pocket.

“I’ll ride ahead then.” The short mage gave his horse a kick and galloped toward camp, bobbing in his saddle.

* * *

When Jonrell entered camp, the sun had dropped below the horizon. A clear sky allowed the moon and stars to cast an eerie light on their sorry excuse for a camp, illuminating the soldiers’ questionable activities. Jonrell didn’t like what he saw. Men joked, drank, and did just about everything but ready themselves for the next day. The fools have grown just as overconfident as Melchizan.

Jonrell shook his head in disgust as he harkened back to the days when he and Cassus had first left home and joined the Hell Patrol. They were led then by a man named Ronav, a hard but fair man who had taught Jonrell what it meant to truly lead an army. Jonrell was forced into command after Ronav died and kept the group’s survivors together while rebuilding what Ronav had started.

But now? He would bash my teeth in if he saw us working for Melchizan. What was I thinking these past couple of years? I should have cut our losses long ago.

As he made his way through camp, Jonrell stopped to speak with a few of the men at several fires. The soldiers had the sense to appear as if they cared about his advice regarding the impending battle, but Jonrell saw the truth of things behind their eyes. Melchizan called this my army? It doesn’t matter what I say or do because he will come in behind me and undermine my authority. This has never been my army.

A man with short black hair waited outside the command tent. “I take it you tried to talk some sense into them again?” asked Cassus.

Jonrell gave the man a frustrated look but ignored the comment. “Is everyone here?”

“Almost. What’s going on?”

Jonrell clasped Cassus on the shoulder. “You’ll have to wait like everyone else. Who are we missing?”

“Just Hag. She said not to wait for her. She…uh…well, let’s just say she and one of the Byzernians are a little busy right now.” Cassus let out a shudder after finishing the comment.

“You’re joking. I didn’t think there was anyone here old enough or desperate enough?”

“Apparently, she was quite convincing.”

The remainder of Jonrell’s scowl vanished, replaced by a grin. “Well, maybe it will improve her disposition.”

“Ha. It couldn’t hurt it,” said Cassus as he opened the tent flap. Jonrell entered first and Cassus followed after, securing the flap behind him.

The command tent was packed. Never meant to comfortably hold more than twenty men, fifty soldiers now filled the space. Jonrell made his way through the press, heading toward the back of the noisy tent, interrupting conversations along the way. He did no more to greet those he passed than offer a nod or a quick clasp of the arm. He wasted no time with small talk. Cassus remained by the tent entrance, ensuring no one uninvited snuck in.

At the back of the tent, Krytien waited next to a stool. “I figured you might want to use this.”

Jonrell took a step up and looked down at Krytien. “Are we good?”

“Yeah. People outside the tent can still hear our voices but no longer clear enough to understand what’s being said.”

Jonrell raised his hands to get everyone’s attention. “Alright, that’s enough.” He paused until everyone settled. “We’re moving out tonight. We’ll leave after everyone is passed out or asleep. There’s a more pressing job ahead for us.”

Conversations erupted amidst a press of questions. Jonrell raised his hands again for silence, “I know you have questions so let’s make this quick and I’ll answer what I can for now. The rest will have to wait.”

A man leaning against one of the tent poles was the first to speak. He held a small dagger in one hand, cleaning his fingernails. The man didn’t look up when he spoke but his words were clear and to the point. “I know things are looking pretty bleak out there but it’s not like us to renege on a contract, Boss. Doesn’t help our rep, you know,” said Kroke.

“Aye and some contract it is. We’ve been moving around this continent for over two years now with Melchizan and haven’t been paid half what he owes us. The way I look at it, he broke our contract a long time ago. I take the blame for letting things get this bad. But trust me, thanks to his spending habits the man is penniless. He’s counting on tomorrow’s battle to bring in the cash he sorely needs. That’s not a situation I want to be a part of. As far as our rep goes, I think staying and getting crushed along with him would do more harm than leaving now, don’t you?” He paused and then glared at everyone around the tent.

“It’s about time you came around, Boss,” said Kroke, cold eyes flashing. “We were starting to wonder about you. Its one thing to die if you’re leading us, but another thing entirely to fight under Melchizan. I’d rather cut my own throat and be done with it.”

Jonrell looked around the room. “Does he speak for everyone?” Heads nodded and a few grunted in agreement. “Good. What else?”

Usually too shy to speak up in front of others, the young woman surprised Jonrell. “I know that army out there isn’t much, Commander, but there are a few we could use that’d be willing to come with us. Some might even be Hell Patrol material after a couple of real battles.” The deep color of her tight red ponytail contrasted against pale skin and blue eyes.

“Is there something specific you’re asking?” said Jonrell.

Yanasi shifted the black long bow from her right hand to her left, whispering. “Can we take those who are interested in coming with us, Sir?”

“If you’re looking for someone to warm your bed at night, I’d be more than happy to oblige. We don’t need to bring another squad aboard for that, do we?” said the man next to her as he flashed a dirty grin.

Yanasi turned and jabbed him in the groin with her bow. The ragged man fell to the ground, hands between his legs, groaning in pain. “Raker, if you open your mouth one more time, I’ll cut off what little you got, do you hear me!”

The commander had witnessed the scene far too many times. The comments toward Yanasi used to bother him since he took her in as a young girl, treating her like the sister he left behind. But over the years, she had proven more than once that when pushed, she could take care of herself. So he learned to let those comments go, knowing no ill was meant by them.

Just the way Raker is anyway, always knowing how to get under people’s skin.

Her voice quieted again as she turned back to Jonrell. “It’s not like that, Sir. Rygar is one of them and he’s one of the best scouts we’ve ever had. I just think it’d be a waste to leave anyone behind if they could help us on the next job is all.”

Ah, now I see. I’ll have to talk to her in private then, and perhaps Rygar for that matter. Jonrell answered her question by addressing everyone. “If you can actually find someone out there that is worth taking along then so be it. I’ll trust your judgment. But don’t bring it up until we are about to leave. I don’t want our plans to reach Melchizan. If anyone looks like they’ll be trouble, end it quick. I don’t want someone flapping off the second we turn our backs.” He paused. “Anything else? We need to wrap this up before the camp starts to get suspicious.”

“One more,” said Cassus, still standing in the back of the tent. “What’s the job?”

Jonrell smiled, eyeing the man who had been his best friend since they were both boys. “We’re going home, Cassus.” There were several questioning looks and grunts at that. Jonrell paused to let them die down before continuing. “We’re going to Cadonia. The princess, soon to be queen, is hiring us, only she doesn’t know it yet,” said Jonrell, watching as his friend’s face went white.

* * *

“Where are Cassus and Krytien? They should be here by now.”

“You got me, Boss,” said Kroke, again cleaning his nails.

“We’ll give them ten more minutes and then we head out. They can catch up later.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“Is what necessary?”

“That,” said Jonrell pointing at the dagger. “How can they be dirty if you’re constantly cleaning them?”

“They aren’t. Just habit I guess. Like the way a blade feels in my hand is all.” Kroke sheathed the knife and looked up. “Don’t sweat it, Boss. They’ll be here.”

Jonrell sighed. They better.

“See, that’s them coming out the camp now,” said Kroke with a nod. He pulled out a different knife, picking at the nails on his other hand.

Jonrell shook his head and turned toward the encampment. He squinted and saw some movement but couldn’t make out more than a few shapes in the night. The distance was too great. “How can you tell it’s them?”

“I can’t.” Kroke shrugged his shoulders. “Just trying to be positive is all.”

“You’re unbelievable, you know that.”

“Thanks.”

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

Kroke sheathed his blade and pulled out another that he started spinning in his hand, a small grin crawled across his face and he watched the blade dance in the moonlight.

“How about you do something useful and grab Yanasi? Something’s up and I need her eyes. That’s definitely Cassus in front but there is no way that many soldiers were worth bringing with us.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

Jonrell watched the line continue to creep along, ending with several wagons in tow. One Above, there must be over two hundred horses in that group. That’s near half the cavalry. Jonrell twisted his head around as he heard a soft voice. “Kroke said you needed me, Sir?”

“I thought you said only a few men were worth bringing along?”

“Well Sir, the number was probably closer to fifteen.”

“Then I need you to get up that hill and tell me what’s going on because there are a lot more than fifteen soldiers coming this way.”

“Yes Sir,” said Yanasi.

Jonrell watched her scamper up the hill. She took a moment to position herself.

Jonrell gave her a few moments then asked, “Well, do we have trouble?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I need something more than that.”

“Well, that’s definitely Cassus in front and you can tell that’s Krytien way in back by the way he can barely stay on his horse. So if it was a trap, I don’t understand why Melchizan would let them ride unguarded. The real issue is what’s going on with everyone else.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they look more uncomfortable than Krytien on those horses, almost like they never rode one before. They’re all pretty small too and don’t carry themselves like a bunch of soldiers.”

Jonrell squinted into the night, thankful for the clear sky. His eyes weren’t nearly as good as Yanasi’s but now he knew what to look for and what she said made sense. He realized what was going on.

“Sir, is everything all right? Do I need to ready the rest of the men?”

“No, everything isn’t all right. But we aren’t in any trouble just yet,” snapped Jonrell. He sighed as Yanasi flinched from his tone and he realized he was taking his anger out on the wrong person. “Good job.”

Even in the dark, he saw the young woman blush. “Thank you, Sir. But I don’t understand what’s wrong.”

He muttered a curse. “Those aren’t soldiers in that train. Those are Melchizan’s slaves.”

Jonrell waited at the bottom of the small rise, watching in silence. With each step the horses took, he saw how awkward the riders were. Cassus came up to Jonrell. Neither said a word.

The commander watched each brown skinned slave make their way past, noticing not only men, but women and children, tucked away in the covered wagons. Jonrell waited until Krytien neared before speaking. “You two. Come with me.”

The three men rode off and stopped just out of earshot of the others. Jonrell’s eyes went back to the slaves trying to keep control of their animals. His men were in the midst of the chaos, doing their best to manage the situation. The commotion could wake the dead. Jonrell’s face hardened. He spoke, ice lining his voice. “Start explaining.”

The plump mage cleared his throat and started to reply, “Well, you see…”

But Jonrell cut him off, scowling at the two men. “I wasn’t asking you.” He glared at Cassus. “I know this was your idea.”

“Well, you said we could take anyone who was interested in coming with us,” said Cassus.

Jonrell cut in again. “Don’t give me that. These people aren’t soldiers. What were you thinking? They belong to Melchizan and so do the horses and wagons.”

“Well, I figured he still owes us quite a bit on our contract. We could sell the horses and wagons when we make it to port. That should cover most of it.”

“And leave the cavalry even weaker than before? Very compassionate. What about the slaves?” said Jonrell.

Cassus spat, growing agitated. “That’s what I think about Melchizan, his cavalry, and his army. He was going to send the Byzernians to their deaths tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?”

“I overheard him talking to one of his captains. They were planning to have the slaves in front of the infantry. They were going to give them some crude weapons, and use them as human shields. He said it was becoming too costly to keep them alive.”

“And so you thought to take them with us?”

“Seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Maybe. But it definitely wasn’t the smartest. This continent has kept Byzernians as slaves for decades. No one would find fault with Melchizan for doing what he liked with his property.”

“That doesn’t make it right, Jonrell.”

Jonrell shook his head. “He may have overlooked the Hell Patrol and a few deserters leaving, but almost three hundred slaves besides? Not likely.”

“I wasn’t going to leave them to their deaths,” said Cassus.

Jonrell sighed. He looked up into the night sky, speaking to no one in particular. “Why do you keep testing me?” He met Cassus’s eyes. “Then they’re your responsibility. You’re in charge of their organization, their needs, and their final destination because they aren’t coming with us to Cadonia and I won’t have them place us in any unnecessary danger.”

Cassus nodded. “I expected as much.”

Jonrell turned to Krytien, jabbing a finger at him. “You’re going to help him the entire way to port.”

“What? I just happened to be leaving camp at the same time as they did,” said Krytien.

“Don’t take me for a fool. You did something to the camp; otherwise they’d already be after us.”

“Well, I may have added some of my own special brew to their mugs. It’s designed to ensure a man sleeps soundly the night before a big day, you know. But I really don’t see what that has to do with anything.” The mage ran his fingers through the few wisps of long hair remaining on his head, trying to repress a grin.

“Of course you don’t. But they are just as much your responsibility as Cassus’s.” Jonrell glared at both men waiting for an argument, surprised there was none. He added, “When will your special brew wear off?”

“In a few hours, not long after dawn,” said Krytien with a sullen huff.

“Plenty enough time to prepare for their deaths then? You’re getting soft from hanging around Cassus so much.”

The sound of hooves approaching caught their attention and the three men looked back toward the disorder. Sitting astride a white mount rode one of the slaves. Like most slaves from the Byzernian Islands, the man was very thin, and average in height. As the rider pulled up, Jonrell could make out his age by the bright moonlight, late fifties by his estimate. The man had a spryness about him though, evident by the confident way he sat upon the horse.

The slave gave a bow, showing far more control at the reins then the others of his race. “Wiqua, good to see you,” said Cassus with a smile. “Your skills with a horse are impressive.”

“My previous master had me care for his animals. I am a bit more familiar with the beasts than most of my people.” He bowed again, addressing Jonrell. “Commander, I came to thank you on behalf of my people. Your kindness is unmatched for a man in your profession.”

“Keep your thanks, Wiqua, and give it to Cassus. This was his idea, not mine.”

“Even so, the final decision is yours as commander.” The old man’s eyes glanced to each of the three mercenaries. “And pardon my assumption, but it appears you will allow us to travel with you and for that I am grateful. We promise not to be too much of a burden on you or your men during our journey.”

A loud crash ripped through the night and they looked up to the shuffling mounts of the Byzernians. The mercenaries pointed and cursed at an overturned wagon, Glacar the most vocal of all. The bear of a man threw people around left and right for not moving quickly to rectify the situation. Jonrell snorted, “Well Wiqua, here is your chance to keep your promise.”

“Yes, Commander. I must return to my people. Very few speak anything other than their native tongue.” He bowed again before riding away.

“That bowing is going to get annoying,” said Jonrell.

“Well be prepared to see a lot of him. That’s uh, the one Hag latched onto,” said Cassus.

“What?” said Krytien, gagging.

Jonrell decided against saying anything as he watched the commotion of slaves fumbling with righting the overturned wagon. He nodded at the two men. “Your responsibility, remember?”

The two men looked at each other and mumbled something as they rode. Jonrell shook his head. One Above, what did I get myself into?

* * *

For two weeks, the Hell Patrol struggled across broken terrain that hindered them at every move, and the coast still lay another week ahead. The journey should have taken ten days at most but with so many slaves and their families, they struggled each day just breaking camp, let alone traversing through the expansive plain and now into the rocky hills. Cassus had sworn to Jonrell that the slaves would not hinder his progress when they left Melchizan’s army, but that is exactly what happened. I should leave them behind. Each day here is one less in Cadonia and one I can’t afford to lose. Jonrell glanced back to Cassus who talked with Wiqua as they rode. He knows I won’t leave them behind now.

Orange and red lines seeped across the horizon as the sun fell behind low lying clouds that lay over distant hills. Jonrell halted, and ran fingers through his long hair before scratching the stubble at his neck. His hand went to his breast pocket, feeling for the stone Krytien had given him.

Another day gone and yet I feel no closer.

Kroke came up beside him, spinning a knife in his hand, the eagle shaped hilt shimmering in the fading sunlight. He looked up, blade turning as he spoke. “I think those slaves are done for the day, Boss.”

“It seems we’re stopping earlier each day.” He sighed. “Make camp and have Yanasi set up the watch.”

Kroke shifted the knife from one hand to the other.

Jonrell looked over at him, his gray eyes weary. “Why don’t you grab a dozen men to go hunting. I’m getting sick of salted beef.”

Kroke nodded and rode off.

* * *

Night came quick and they finished camp by firelight.

Kroke had come across a small herd of wild buffalo, almost getting himself killed while taking one down with only a pair of throwing knives he had sunk into each of the charging beast’s eye sockets. The men who accompanied Kroke told the tale to all who would listen, saying it was one of the most amazing things they’d ever seen.

Stupidity can often be confused for amazing.

Larger pieces of the massive beast roasted over spits while cooks sawed off smaller chunks to throw into soup pots. Soon after, Jonrell sat near one of the cook fires, spooning the rich stew from a trencher. Staring into the flames, his hand subconsciously reached for his breast pocket again.

“Good stew,” said Krytien, sitting down beside him.

Jonrell blinked away the glaze from his eyes, scratching his chest with the hand he had reached with. He took another bite and nodded. “A perk of dragging this group around with us. I’m surprised Hag has stayed out of the Byzernian women’s way. She can ruin a dish just by looking at it.”

The mage chuckled and set a pair of cups down on the ground between them. “Oh, she’s tried a few times but with only a half-hearted effort. Too anxious to do some cooking of her own under the sheets with that old-timer.”

“Old-timer? Last I checked Wiqua wasn’t much older than you.”

“That’s uncalled for. I may be old but I’ve got enough of my wits not to go messing around with her.”

“I’ll give you that.” Jonrell looked down at the tin cups. He picked one up and held it to his nose, smelling the contents. “I hope it isn’t your special brew?”

“Insults and now, accusations.” The mage shook his head and clutched his faded cloak. “I am truly hurt.”

“I’m waiting.”

“Don’t worry. It’s some tea that Wiqua made. I know better than to give you anything with alcohol in it.”

Jonrell inhaled the contents again before taking a sip. He nodded in satisfaction. “I like it. Thanks.”

The two men grew silent, watching the flames dance around a roasting leg, crackling as fat dripped into them. Men sat in smaller groups around the various campfires, some playing dice, others checking their weapons. The smartest slept while time permitted.

“You need to talk to him, you know,” said Krytien.

Jonrell inclined his head. “Talk to who?”

“Cassus. The man has been a wreck ever since you mentioned Cadonia.”

Jonrell snorted. “And that’s my fault? I’ve tried to approach him several times. I’ve known the man since we were boys. He’ll talk to me when he’s ready.”

“He’s scared. Mentioned something about his father,” said Krytien.

“The man has fought in more battles than I can remember and he fears seeing disappointment in the face of a feeble old man?” Jonrell shook his head. “Cassus has to face his fears one day.”

“And this return home doesn’t bother you?”

Jonrell opened his mouth, but a shout from behind cut him off. “Commander!”

He stood up, seeing the young man running toward him. The youth was tall and lean with blond hair and blue eyes, face without even a day’s worth of growth. The boy looked more like some dashing knight or fabled prince than a scout for a group of mercenaries. Still, Rygar’s skills as a scout exceeded anything Jonrell had seen in years.

“Three hundred and twenty horses are camped just a couple leagues away. Melchizan is leading them.”

“The fool survived?”

“Yes Sir. He’s looking pretty beat up, right arm in a sling, but it’s him alright.”

“What about the rest? What shape are they in?”

“They’ve been pushed hard. Most of their horses are ready to drop and some of the soldiers aren’t far behind. Still, they’re well armed and from the looks of it pretty determined.”

“Looking to take their failings out on us it would seem,” said Jonrell.

“Well, we did skip out on them,” said Krytien.

“Take half a dozen men. Find a place we can make our stand.” Jonrell jerked his head back to his left. “Those hills we spotted earlier could be a likely spot. Start there and be quick about it.” Then he turned to Krytien. “Pass the word to break camp. We leave in half an hour. No exceptions. You and Yanasi have rear guard. Tell Cassus to arm as many of those slaves as he can. Melchizan has more than four times our number so we’ll need all the help we can get come tomorrow.” The men nodded and set off to their tasks, Rygar sprinting with all the vigor of youth and Krytien plodding along as fast as his frame would allow.

* * *

Jonrell overlooked a deep valley as the first light crept in from the eastern sky. The floor of the valley descended in a gradual slope, covered in rocks. From his vantage point, he could see the rocks rested in a dry riverbed, likely to flood again with the next hard rain. Other hills overlooked similar views but no other valley was quite so deep or filled with such hazardous terrain. From the floor, the landscape did not seem as treacherous with small outcroppings of vegetation covering holes and rocks half hidden beneath the plant life. Such terrain would twist a leg at best, cripple or kill at worst.

Last night men, women, and children alike worked in the dusky gloom, first traversing the harsh valley, pushing and prodding animals and wagons. All got by with only minor injuries. The focus then turned to preparing for Melchizan. Jonrell assumed his former employer had no clue how close his outfit camped to them. If he had, last night would have been the time for an attack while we were scrambling around in the dark, hindered by the Byzernians. But Jonrell knew he could rely on Melchizan’s lack of experience.

Sunlight crawled across the hilly land and spread into the valley just as the last of Jonrell’s men moved into position. The sound of soft footsteps approached from behind, but Jonrell kept his gaze set on the western entrance to the basin. If all went well, Melchizan’s outfit would enter there, riding into the sunlight. “Are we ready?” he asked.

“Yep,” said Cassus.

Jonrell turned to face his friend. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“I thought it best to bring you the news.”

Jonrell grunted as he caught his friend’s meaning. “They haven’t changed their minds then?”

“No. Wiqua said that his people will not fight. They can help in other ways but it is against their beliefs to physically harm another.”

“And they wonder why they were slaves,” Jonrell muttered under his breath.

“I’m just the messenger. You do have to admire their resolve though.”

“The One Above can have their resolve. I’d rather have fighters. Will their men still participate as decoys at least?”

“Yes.”

Jonrell shook his head. “Hypocrites. I ought to leave them here for Melchizan. That would buy us enough time to get ahead of his company.”

“Many in your position would,” said Cassus. “But you won’t.”

The commander paused, breaking his stare with Cassus. “No. I won’t. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t given it thought.”

“Of course you gave it thought.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you always consider every scenario. But in the end, your decision tends to be the right one.”

Jonrell considered his friend’s words, thoughts drifting back to a time in their youth. “Twelve years ago, Cassus. Did I make the right decision then?”

Cassus frowned. “I…I don’t know.” He paused. “But I know you’re making the right one now by going back home.” He bit his lip. “I just hope that when the time comes, I make the right decision as well.”

Jonrell opened his mouth, wanting to ask what he meant but couldn’t find the words in time. An arrow struck the ground no more than two feet from him, shaft vibrating to and fro. Red fletching told him the arrow belonged to one of his men. He looked up and spotted the archer waving from a nearby hill. He waved back and the archer let fly two more arrows. One landed near a group of men stationed around wagons on the eastern side of the valley. The second struck near a group of archers stationed on Jonrell’s hill, just below his position. In both cases men jumped, nearly falling over as the shaft struck within a hair’s length of them. The archer waved again before ducking out of sight.

“Yanasi sure is getting bold, showing off like that.”

Cassus grunted. “Bold as long as she has a bow in her hand, without it she’s still as shy as ever and will barely meet your eyes.”

“I wish I knew why.”

“You can’t be serious, Jonrell. As much as you notice everything else in this group, it seems you’d realize she wants your approval and can’t stand to let you down. Why else do you think she is so obsessive about that bow? She wants to be the best—probably for your sake more than her own.”

Jonrell shook his head. “She knows how I feel.”

“I don’t think she…” started Cassus.

“Melchizan’s earlier than I thought he would be,” cut in Jonrell. Now isn’t the time for this, Cassus. “He isn’t known as an early riser.”

Cassus let it drop. “Well, you always found a way to get him up before. Why should that change now?”

At the base of the hill, men positioned behind wagons waited for the enemy to appear, staring into the dawn. The archers on the ridges stood in orderly ranks, waiting for the command to fire. Jonrell felt the tension rising from his men.

“C’mon, we need to get ready ourselves.”

* * *

The sound of pounding hooves reached Jonrell’s ears as Melchizan’s men entered the mouth of the valley. The ground near the western entrance did little to reveal the treacherous slope that followed deeper after a small bend in the path. Jonrell suspected Melchizan would ignore the glaring sun and push on over the rough terrain, bent on reclaiming his slaves. Still, to encourage the poor decision from his former employer, Jonrell sent many of the Byzernians to fill in holes and clear away stone near the entrance of the gorge during the night before.

Byzernians moved about on the opposite side of the valley, acting as if caught unaware by the sight of Melchizan rounding the turn on the other end. Some of the former slaves even fled and Jonrell saw Melchizan shout back orders to his men, signaling a charge and spurring his horse forward.

Jonrell chuckled to himself as the plump man took the bait, nearly falling from his saddle at the sudden increase in speed. His men poured ahead of their would-be lord, impatient to wait for their leader to regain his seat. The wave of cavalry advanced, seeing what they wanted to see, easy prey fleeing on foot, a chance to seek retribution.

But no sooner did the charge seem to come together, than it fell apart. Camouflaged holes snapped horses’ legs from the cavalry traps set the night before by Hell Patrol members while the Byzernians worked on clearing the valley entrance.

Jonrell stood up, waving both hands above his head, signaling men on another ridge. Krytien stood, lifting one palm to the sky and aiming the other at what remained of Melchizan’s army. A flash of light shot from his outstretched hand, blinding man and beast alike. Then with a shout, the Hell Patrol fired their bows.

Those still saddled wheeled their mounts and those unhorsed still able to walk, fled on foot. Among the later group Melchizan hobbled along, using his sword to support himself. Jonrell allowed himself a smile as he watched the man raise a fist in anger at every rider who passed him.

Arrows continued to drop during the retreat as men perched on either side of the valley descended the slopes. A quick thrust from sword or knife silenced screams of agony from the dozens of riders. Man and beast alike had shattered their bones on the stone covered ground, nearly a third of those who entered the valley.

Raker was among those on the ground, grinning ear to ear. He looked up as Jonrell neared, his left cheek puffed out with a mouth full of chew. “Woo, we got’em good,” he said, running another man through. “I can’t wait to find Lord Roundness down here. Think I’ll give him a stab whether he needs one or not for ol’ time’s sake.” He laughed.

“Sorry but I saw him stumbling away with the others.”

The mercenary’s eyes widened as he let out a string of curses. “We gotta get after him then.”

Jonrell just shook his head. “He’s done. No sense in wasting more time. Those on horse that got away still outnumber us and we already know we can’t rely on the Byzernians to fight. We need to get moving in case they decide to attack again once we’re on open land.”

Raker spat. “Ain’t that more of a reason to go after’em?”

“No. Those who came into the valley looked pretty beat up from the battle we skipped out on, but we don’t know if others still loyal to Melchizan survived the fight.”

Slaves hurried about near the wagons, getting ready to move when the order came.

Raker shook his head in disgust and stabbed another groaning soldier in the gut, twisting the blade until the man heaved his last breath. The mercenary spat on the man’s face when he was done.

“Is that really necessary?”

“Is what?”

Jonrell gestured toward the body.

“Oh that? That was personal. I remember this one calling me a cheater when we were playing cards once.”

“Were you cheating?”

“Of course. But that don’t give him the right to call me one,” said Raker.

Jonrell shook his head.

“Commander! Commander, wait. Please,” said Wiqua, sprinting across the valley with the grace of a man half his age. However old that is. Jonrell barely noticed the desperation in his voice, too busy watching the man negotiate the rough ground far better than he could.

“What is it Wiqua?”

“Commander, please. I beg you to stop these men from what they are doing.” He held a look of horror as Raker slit a man’s throat. “I can help those who have fallen as well as the horses.”

“Why? Are you some kind of healer? We don’t have time for that,” said Jonrell agitated at the thought.

“Yes. Many of my people are. It is our way to heal, not harm. I promise you it will not take long.”

Jonrell considered what he said for a moment. “Then work on the horses, but leave the men.”

“But, Commander, these men…”

Jonrell cut in, his voice turning to ice in the warm morning air. “These men tried to kill you, your people, and mine. Before that, they treated you like scum. If we allow them to live, expect more of the same. Now, if you want to do something to feel better about yourself, heal the horses. We could use them.”

Wiqua bowed his head, but the expression on his face said he was not pleased with the answer. “Very well. You have kept my people safe again and I am grateful. I will do as you command.”

* * *

The Hell Patrol made camp a day and half’s ride from Pontysor, the largest port on the continent, Mytarcis. The extra half day in distance pushed everyone far from the busy road to avoid undue attention. A mercenary group coupled with several hundred Byzernians would raise questions.

Digging trenches and setting up palisades with the midday sun high overhead, men and women worked in a silent rhythm. The silence did not last long.

“I’m too old for this, you know. Liable to catch a stroke or something,” mumbled Hag in a raspy voice. The squat woman paused for a moment, waiting for acknowledgement. With no response, she spoke again, this time louder. “I said I’m liable to catch a stroke with all this work.” The old woman threw a spade of dirt on Jonrell’s leg, punctuating the remark.

The commander stopped and knocked the soil away, though he didn’t know why. I haven’t seen a bath in weeks. He met her eye. “Funny how you’ve got the energy for that young stud of yours, but when it comes to actually doing your job you start to gripe about being old.” He motioned to Wiqua, a man young enough to be Hag’s son, but old enough to be Jonrell’s father. The Byzernian was busy sharpening stakes. “You don’t hear him complaining.”

“Yeah well, that’s why I like him. He doesn’t say much. If I wanted a bunch of useless conversation, I’d come looking for you.”

“You ever thought he doesn’t say much because he can’t get a word in edgewise?” Jonrell looked to Wiqua and swore he saw the smallest of grins creep across his face.

The short woman threw another spade of dirt on Jonrell’s leg. “Keep it up. I’ve never seen such ungratefulness after all I’ve done, taking care of them animals for all these years now.”

“Aye, you know your way around a mule when the urge strikes you. Speaking of that, you’ve been growing lax on those duties as well.”

“I’m doing nothing of the sort. Just doesn’t make sense to waste my time on all the ones we picked up from Melchizan if we’re going to turn around and sell them. I still mind your mount and the others I know that’ll be coming with us.”

“Good. Since you are up on your other duties, then you have plenty enough time to help here like everyone else.”

The old woman just grunted and grumbled again, flicking one last spade of dirt before returning to her task. Jonrell knew digging a third trench was over-doing it, but he wasn’t taking any chances as he expected Cassus back some time yesterday. Besides, it always helps to keep a soldier busy.

Upon arrival, he sent Cassus and a small group of men into the city. They were to secure passage across the ocean based on what Melchizan’s goods fetched on the open market. Jonrell sent Krytien with the group for added protection, but he was also glad to have him out of his hair. The old mage had been acting strange since finding out Cadonia’s king had died, and stranger still since the skirmish in the valley. Krytien had said that he had never seen anyone heal with greater ease or knowledge as Wiqua had.

Impressed over a bunch of horses. He shook his head.

Hag remained quiet far longer than Jonrell would have thought possible before she started back up again. This time she directed her wrath elsewhere, taking her aggression out on the Byzernian women who cooked. She didn’t seem to care that most of them couldn’t understand a word she said. It only enticed her further. Before long, she began flinging dirt into the path of women as they carried firewood for the cook fires. Eventually, even those peaceful women showed irritation and sent icy stares in Hag’s direction.

She hasn’t lost that magic touch. Jonrell grinned.

A shout from Yanasi, signaling that Cassus and the others were returning, put an end to the strife. It’s about time. Jonrell jumped at the chance to send Hag to care for their animals and climbed out of the trench. He told Yanasi to have Cassus and Krytien join him in the command tent.

* * *

Glacar had been cursing under his breath for almost an hour. Kroke knew that was a record somewhere. He sure couldn’t imagine spending that much time talking, especially repeating the same four or five words. After an hour of hearing Glacar go on and on, he reckoned it was about time he at least asked what bothered him.

Kroke threw his spade into the dirt and pulled out a dirk. He began picking at his nails, noticing a few specks of grime that had accumulated. “You gonna keep that up the whole day, Glacar?”

The wild man from Thurum turned around, sweat soaked hair and beard. He spat, most of it dribbling down into the thick tangled mess on his chin. “What are you jawing about?”

“You ain’t shut up since we moved to this part of camp. What’s got you all worked up?”

“Not what. Who.”

“Huh?”

“Jonrell’s lost it, Kroke. Sticking our necks out for these brown devils ain’t what the Hell Patrol’s about. And yet, we’ve been dragging them around for weeks. On top of that we’re going to buy them passage home. That’s money that could be in our pocket.”

“You ain’t seemed to mind them Byzernians when they were Melchizan’s. I believe you visited a few of their women pretty regularly?”

“Yeah, that’s about all they’re good for, too. But now, they act like they’re suddenly too good for that.”

“And there it is,” said Kroke, clicking his tongue. “Since they ain’t slaves any longer, they won’t let you have your fun anymore.”

Glacar spat. “Ain’t no woman gonna tell me what I can or can’t do, Kroke. Especially not any of them brown-skinned dogs.”

“But Jonrell did, didn’t he?”

Glacar nodded. “You know he’s always been too soft. That background of his and his high and mighty standards.”

“Ain’t nothing soft about showing some respect to women.”

Glacar laughed. “That’s funny coming from a killer like you.”

Kroke shrugged. “Killing and raping ain’t really the same thing.”

Glacar laughed again. “Sure they are. They both get your heart racing and when I’m done, I’m the only one who’s happy.”

Glacar went back to shoveling. Kroke sheathed the blade and followed suit. And that’s why you ain’t the one leading us.

* * *

Jonrell had just enough time to splash some cool water on his face and neck, washing off the day’s grime, when the two men strolled into his tent, looking ragged. Jonrell took a sip of tea and gestured for them to have a seat. “I was beginning to grow worried.”

“No doubt,” said Krytien easing into a chair. “You’ve got a stronger camp here than I’ve seen in some time.”

Jonrell shrugged. “Better safe than sorry. Was there any trouble? I expected you a day ago.”

Krytien nodded. “Some, but nothing major. We scared off a few men looking to rob us as we left the city. Cassus thought it best to take a different route back. We covered our tracks in case they returned with more.”

“Good. Do we have ships secured?”

“Two. One for us and one for the Byzernians. The ships are owned by the same man. The price is reasonable and best of all he’ll organize the sale to pay for the ships after inspecting the goods we hauled with us.”

Jonrell looked over at Cassus who had yet to sit down. “What kind of shape are the ships in?”

Krytien answered though Jonrell had directed the question at Cassus. “Although they’re traders, both ships are strong and in fair enough shape.” The old mage glanced nervously about. “Given that we may have to improvise in open water if pirates attack, we spoke with the captains as well. Both are well-seasoned men.”

“Can we trust them?” asked Jonrell, as he watched Cassus pace the room.

The old mage gave a tense chuckle and fidgeted in his seat. “I learned a long time ago not to trust anyone, Jonrell. You know that.”

Cassus’s face held a far-away stare. The commander set his cup down. “Cassus, you haven’t said a word. What’s bugging you? Do we need to be wary about the captains?”

“The captains are fine.” He looked up and cleared his throat after a long pause. “I’ve decided to go on with the Byzernians.”

Jonrell felt like the chair was taken from under him. He looked to Krytien. “Is he serious?” Silence. Jonrell turned back to Cassus. “I don’t believe this.”

“They’ll need help,” said Cassus. “The ships we procured are going in opposite directions. You’ll be heading north while the other is entering a southern port near one of their islands. They won’t have any protection on their journey home.”

“Protection? You’re one man,” said Jonrell.

“One is better than none.”

“This is crazy. Do you have any idea how long it will take you to secure a ship from there back to Cadonia to meet up with us.”

“I’m not going to Cadonia.”

Jonrell’s mouth hung open. I’ve lost my mind. That’s the only thing that could explain what I’m hearing. I’ve gone mad.

Cassus cut in. “Look, I know this is a surprise.”

“A surprise?! I’d call it more of a slap in the face. We’re going home. I need you with me.”

Cassus laughed, shaking his head. “You’ve never needed me. I was the one who needed you. And you made sure to look out for me. Now I have the chance to do the same thing for these people as well as others.”

“What do you mean others?”

“There are slaves all over Mytarcis, most are from the Byzernia Islands. I want to stay and help them.”

Jonrell looked up and mumbled to himself. “One Above, what have I done to deserve this?” He snorted. “Cassus, Hero of Slaves. What about your parents?”

“What about them? Don’t pretend that they ever cared for me. I doubt they even remember they had a son.”

“I can command you to stay,” said Jonrell, trying a different approach.

“Not if I quit.”

“I can command to have you restrained and loaded on the ship to Cadonia.”

Cassus smiled and stepped forward, placing a hand on Jonrell’s shoulder. “You can. But you won’t.”

Jonrell felt the fight leave him. He knew his friend well enough to know there was no changing his mind this time.




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