The Heron Kings 2

The Heron Kings 2

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The Heron Kings II

(working title, obviously)

 

Draft Chapter One

 

Linet crept through the twilit halls of the Heron Kings’ Lodge, gathering bits of gear, moving from one chamber to the next and through the long-remembered routines of lacing her worn leather jerkin, hooking a full quiver of arrows to her waist and stringing her bow. The bow was a small treasure, crafted with ramshorn tips and limbs of fine yew cut from the same ancient forest she now prepared to prowl. She took some small comfort in these familiar acts, but she knew they were only a distraction from the worry gnawing at the back of her mind.

Where are they? she thought.

It was just a skirmish, another Marchman tribe’s incursion meant to test the resolve of the border lords, no more. The task of the secretive band of rangers had been to block the forest paths while Lord Osbren’s men did the dirty work of driving the barbarians back into the mountains. But the twenty sent to do the job were late in returning. They were proficient fighters of course, but the Heron Kings were at their most dangerous among the rocks and trees in the dead of night. Tactics that availed one little on an open field.

Linet was late herself, should be already out on patrol around the perimeter of the Lodge. But she itched to steal a horse and ride out into the night to make sure nothing terrible had happened. She came to the entrance hall just as the last drops of sunlight fell into shadow, casting a dimness over the valley and leaving the Lodge, difficult to find even in the day, as good as invisible. It was almost empty tonight, with everyone of fighting age out on patrol and only a staff of fledglings and elders remaining.

The hall was the only open space in the Lodge, with ornate carved doors separating it from an exterior access tunnel, and domed ceiling curving down to a ring of corridors leading to the system of subterranean chambers that were part natural cave, part cut from living rock. It was a minor marvel of engineering, situated beneath both a natural hot spring and waterfall, suffused with pipes and ventilation that could house a hundred in perfect secrecy. Years of improvements had given the underground fortress a little home-like quality at least, including a stone hearth at one end of the entrance hall. Two high-backed chairs sat side by side before it like faithful old hounds, padded and upholstered and worn deep in the seats with much use. Passing by on her way to the exit, Linet cast a glance in their direction, a last look at a piece of civilization before the wildness of the night forest, and then screamed.

Or rather, she screamed as much as her lifelong training would allow. A short, shrill yelp of surprise and she recovered into the fighting stance, her short recurved sword half out of its scabbard and eyes trained on the odd figure sitting in one of the chairs and breathing heavily. It was covered in dirt and leaves, with wild and tousled hair prickly with twigs. This was no staff member.

“Identify yourself!” Linet challenged. The figure started, rose and turned toward her. A face flickered in the low hearthlight. Linet breathed a sigh of relief as she dropped her blade back into its scabbard. “Aerrus! You ass, you frightened m—”

“Lin,” her oldest friend croaked hoarsely, running forward and clapping dirty hands hard on her shoulders. “Has anyone else made it back yet? Tell me they have.”

“M-made it back? No, not yet. What do you mean, what’s happened?”

Aerrus’ bruised brow wavered. “No. So I’m the only one. Lin, it was a godsdamned setup. Somehow the Marchmen knew we were gonna be there. They ambushed us with torches, set fire to the whole forest it seemed. Went up like a thatch barn in autumn. We never had a chance. They…they cut us to pieces.”

Linet’s voice caught in her throat, her knees suddenly weak. “What? But how?”

“Someone betrayed us,” Aerrus growled, looking like some forest wight out of legend, filthy as he was. “Told ’em where we were going to be. Someone who in the near future is going to become a corpse. Very slowly.” Fury boiled in the young man’s eyes. “And I know just where to start. Is anyone else around?”

“No, we’re all out on patrol or…with you.”

“It’ll have to be just us two then,” he said urgently. “We can do it, they’re only six. Come on!”

“Wait, where are we going?”

“Tell you on the way!”

They rode double through the hidden bridle paths, downhill from the Lodge on one of the sturdy, shaggy horses the Marchmen favored. Linet held on to Aerrus from behind, the stench of earth and smoke from his clothes strong in her nostrils. As they came nearer to the road that followed the Carsa River, she struggled to process this news of the slaughter of nineteen of her fellows, and in the dark she let tears fall without shame. “Tell me,” she said as they rode, “tell me all of it.”

“Osbren’s troops were doing their part, we ours. Just before the battle, Bolen spotted six men riding into the Marchman camp, but we didn’t think much on it. Then they torched the woods and came at us from the side. I got brained with a torch and I guess knocked out.” He ran a hand down the back of his head where the hairs were singed. “When I woke up our dead were all over the place. No survivors. I was hoping I’d miscounted in the smoke…”

Linet still couldn’t believe it. “None? Bolen, Curswell, Gastere, Ellandi?”

“All dead. Savages! They didn’t even press their attack, just ran off before sundown like always. Found one of their horses wandering around. I was coming back here and I came up behind those same riders from before, headed north in no kind of hurry. I turned onto the high hill path and came home, just sat down to catch my breath a bit when I spooked you. Figured we could return the favor, ambush them and maybe get some answers. Six against two and we only need one wagging tongue, so I ain’t too inclined to mercy. I know they had something to do with this.”

“How can you be sure? Just because—”

“Didn’t get a real good look, but I’d swear at least one of ’em was wearing sable ’round his neck.”

Linet knew very well what that meant, and it changed everything. They rode in silence the rest of the way.

 

 

A silvery moon shone down on the forest road, barely marking out the overgrown path. The six nudged their skittish palfreys on two by two.

Silent now, though the pandemonium they’d wrought only hours ago no doubt echoed in their ears. With that behind them and their mission fulfilled, they now rode in silence. But the old rumors of this forest, of what happened to the unwelcome here…the nervousness weighed so heavily that even the horses neighed in protest every few yards.

One of the lead riders halted. Or rather his horse did, though at no command. Annoyed, the rider adjusted his rich furs and dug spurs into the animal’s hide. Once, again harder, again. It just stamped and snorted.

A raspy whisper from behind. “Oi, wassa holdup?”

“Ssh, listen! D’you hear…?”

“I ain’t heard nothing ‘cept that yer horse is fracted in the noggin. Kick it on!”

The lead rider tried again, and the horse began to buck.

Snap. A twig breaking. It came from somewhere in the trees, off the road. A soft sound, but it echoed loud in the mawing dark. The horse stilled again. Silence beyond silent. A heartbeat. “Oh, shite…”

Thwungslap! Both lead riders screamed as they fell, struck by some invisible blow. The horses screamed in terror as the other riders shouted curses. A heartbeat.

Thwungslap! A rear rider went down, clutching his chest. No doubt now—arrows, whether shot by man or demon made no matter. Two of the horses bucked in panic and threw the remaining riders hard to the ground, breaking the neck of one. The last managed to kick hard enough to spur the animal on, trampling writhing bodies and down the forest road with low branches whipping his face into bloodied bits. The other thrown rider stumbled to his feet, his dying comrades groaning in agony about him.

A movement. Dark and obscured by the cover of the forest growth, but there. Fucking there! Fury overcame fear, and he drew a ridiculously long war sword and rushed toward the movement, screaming bloody murder. He swung wildly but the long blade bounced off the branches, useless. A gleaming short blade leaped out of the gloom like a serpent, and he jumped back just in time to turn a killing thrust into only a wounding one.

“Gyah!” Dropping the longsword, he drew a dagger and charged ahead. The shape before him resolved: no demon after all, but a man. A short one, at that. He swiped left and right, but the wiry frame jumped away each time. With a cry he drove a kick into the fellow’s midsection. He flew back and down, a great blow of outward breath proving his enemy mortal.

He glowered over the figure to deliver the killing blow, raising the dagger high. But at just that moment the man on the ground turned, spun in an arc with his own short sword in hand and with a sweep opened the rider’s throat.

A groan, a gurgling spray, and he fell to the side, his last sensation the cool wet earth against his face, and a curiously bubbling breath.

Silence. A heartbeat.

Aerrus rose, breathing heavily but still silent. Where the rider had been now stood another, more shapely figure outlined in moonlight.

“One got away.”

“Gods fuckitall! Any still alive?”

Linet looked down at the carnage they’d wrought. Not all of their shots had been killing ones, but the bucking and stamping mounts had added to the score. “None that’ll live long enough to tell you anything.”

Aerrus kicked a tree. “Shit! I was too hasty.”

“Search the bodies,” Linet suggested tiredly. “Maybe…we can still learn something.”

“Yeah,” Aerrus answered, broken by fresh weariness and a grief that hit them both all of a sudden. “Yeah…”

As the blood flowed at their feet, the pair fell into a mournful embrace and wept.

 

 

heron kings logo The Heron Kings by Eric Lewis dark grimdark fantasy novel

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