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Prologue

 


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

Silent now, though the pandemonium they’d wrought in Plisten village only hours ago no doubt echoed in more than a few ears of those still living there. They’d enjoyed no more than their rights as officers of a nobleman: some fun, some drink and some girls of various states of dress and willingness. How it’d ended in the bloody conflagration they now fled, well, who could say? With that behind them and their official 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 the rich fur around his neck and dug his 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, shit…”

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! The two rear riders went down, clutching their chests. No doubt now—arrows, whether shot by man or demon made no matter. One of the horses threw its remaining rider hard to the ground. The other, managing to communicate his panic to the mount, kicked hard enough to spur the animal on, tearing over the writhing bodies and down the forest road with branches whipping his face into bloodied bits. The thrown rider stumbled to his feet, his wounded comrades groaning in gut-pierced 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 low 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, a new blade erupted from his belly, thrust from behind. 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.

The man rose, breathing heavily but still silent. Where the rider had been now stood another, more shapely figure outlined in moonlight. “One got away.”

The man shrugged. “Not the leader. I think we’ve got what we need.”

A few riders still alive moaned on the hoof-torn road. “I’ll take care of those.”

Rising, the man nodded toward the doubly-unfortunate rider. “That kill counts as mine.”

“Oh, dream on…”