The Heron Kings 2

The Heron Kings 2

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The Heron Kings II

(working title, obviously)

 

Prologue

 


 

Linet strode through the twilit halls of the Heron Kings’ Lodge, her lithe form clad in leather gear and her fingers flying through the long-remembered routines of lacing her worn leather jerkin and stringing her bow. It was a small treasure, that bow, made of fine yew with ramshorn nocks and stained to the same dark brown as the trees of the ancient forest she was preparing to prowl. There was comfort in the familiar acts, but only a distraction from the worry at the back of her mind.

Where are the others? It was just a skirmish, just a Marchman incursion to test the resolve of the Marcher Lords, no more. Their part, as always, was to block the forest paths while Lord Osbren’s men did the dirty work. But the twenty sent to do the job were late getting back. She was late herself, should’ve been on night patrol around the perimeter of the Lodge, though she itched to steal a horse and ride south to make sure nothing had happened. They were proficient fighters, of course, in any setting. But the Heron Kings were at their most dangerous among the trees and rocks in the dead of night. Tactics that avail one little on an open field. And they were already so few…

Linet finished donning her leather panoply and made her way toward 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 noonday sun, as good as invisible. The Lodge was just about empty tonight, and with everyone on patrol only a skeleton staff of young fledglings and old bosses remained. She entered the hall from the side tunnel, and the dead silence was almost too chilling to bear. Hardening her features in a mirror of the inner preparation she adopted before striking out into the night, she crept lightly across the stone floor so as not to disturb the perfect quiet.

The entrance hall was the only wide open space in the Lodge, with ornate double doors leading to an access tunnel that was concealed and fanatically guarded. The oval room’s domed ceiling curved down to a series of passages that connected to various parts of the complex system of subterranean chambers that were part natural cave and part cut from living rock. The Lodge was a minor engineering marvel, situated beneath a natural hot spring and a waterfall, suffused with connecting pipes and ventilation shafts that, regulated and maintained, could house a hundred in perfect secrecy. The waterfall dissolved outpouring smoke and concealed the glint from the panes of the few lucky windowed chambers, which appeared from a distance as patches of wet rock.

Though designed for defense, years of improvements had given the subterranean fortress a home-like quality far beyond the brutal, bare survival its original inhabitants had endured. The entrance hall’s single welcoming feature was the great fireplace at the far end of the room. The fire burned low tonight, casting eerie shadows to dance upon the curved walls, and in front of the hewn stone hearth were two wide, high-backed chairs sitting side by side like faithful old hounds. Padded and upholstered, they were a rare luxury, and worn deep in the seats with much use.

Passing by, Linet cast a casual 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 years of discipline would allow. A short, shrill yelp and then she recovered into the fighting stance, her shortsword halfway out of its scabbard and eyes trained on the figure sitting in one of the chairs, facing the fire and breathing heavily.

“Identify yourself!” Linet challenged, her senses slipping into that hyper-awareness that the finest fighters acquire before facing an unknown opponent; every sound and every movement fully registered and assessed for threat or advantage.

The figure started, rose and turned toward her, and Linet breathed a sigh of relief as she dropped the blade back into its scabbard. “Aerrus, you frightened m—”

“Lin!” Her old friend ran forward, clapped dirty hands hard on her shoulders. “Has anyone else made it back?”

“B-back? No, not yet. What’s happened?”

Aerrus’ bruised brow wavered. “No. That means I’m the only one. Dammit! Lin, it was a setup. The Marchmen knew we were going to be there. They ambushed us, had torches, set fire to the whole damn Marchwood seemed like. Went up like a thatched barn in autumn. We never had a chance. They cut us to pieces.”

Linet’s voice caught in her throat, and her eyes watered at the implication. “But…how?”

“Someone betrayed us,” Aerrus growled, looking like some forest wight out of legend, covered as he was in dirt and underbrush. “Told ‘em where were gonna be. Someone who in the near future is going to become a corpse. Very slowly.” Fury boiled in his eyes. “And I know just where to start. Is anyone else around?”

“No, everyone who’s not out on patrol is…was with you. They, they can’t all be—?”

“They are. I saw it myself. Was hoping I just miscounted, but…it’ll have to be just us two then. We can do it, they’re only six. Come on!”

“W-what? Where are we going?”

“No time, I’ll tell you on the way. Just come!”

They rode double on one of the big, sturdy horses the Marchmen favored through the hidden bridle paths and down the hill from the Lodge toward the road that followed the Carsa River. Linet struggled to hold on as well as process the news of the slaughter of nineteen of her family. In the dark she let tears fall without shame. “Tell me,” she said as they rode she knew not where to do she knew not what. “Tell me all of it, damn you.”

“Osbren’s men were doing their part, we ours. But Bolen reported six men riding into the Marchman camp just before they attacked. Don’t know who. Didn’t think much of it. Then they torched the woods, and came at us from the side. I got brained with a torch and 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.”

Linet couldn’t believe the words. No, it can’t be! “None? Bolen, Curswell, Gastere…Kanessa?”

“All dead. Those fucking savage cunts! They didn’t even press their attack, just rode off same as they always do. One of us must’ve killed one. I found this horse walking around. As I was riding back here I came up behind those same six men. I turned onto the high hill path, overtook ‘em and came into the Lodge by the south entrance. Figured we could return the favor, ambush them and get some answers. They were headed north in no kind of hurry, we’ll come down ahead and lay in wait. Only need one alive, so don’t feel inclined to mercy. I know they had something to do with this.”

“But how can you be sure? Just because—”

“I didn’t get a real good look in the dying light, but I’ll swear at least one of the cocksuckers 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 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! 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. The last managed to kick 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. One thrown rider stumbled to his feet, his dying 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 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 fuck it all! Any still alive?”

Linet looked down at the carnage they’d wrought. “None that’ll live long enough to tell you anything.”

Aerrus kicked a tree. “Shit. Shit!”

“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 still 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