The Heron Kings’ Flight

The Heron Kings’ Flight

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The Heron Kings Flight

 

Chapter One

 

Linet strode through the twilit halls of the Lodge of the Heron Kings, gathering bits of gear, moving from one chamber to the next and through the long-remembered routines of lacing her leather jerkin, hooking a quiver of arrows to her belt and stringing her bow. There was 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 routine skirmish, another Marchman tribal incursion meant to test Lord Osbren’s resolve, no more. What had begun a century ago with a desperate band of peasant guerrillas lived on in the deadly rangers, a forest refuge for those born with no place in the civilized world and who exchanged freedom from it for service from the shadows. The task of the Heron Kings had been to block the woodland paths while 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 in any setting of course, but they were 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 already have been out on her nightly patrol around the perimeter of the Lodge. But she itched to steal a horse and ride out into the night to make sure nothing had gone wrong. 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 opening to the underground complex, difficult to find even in the noonday sun, 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 double doors opening to a concealed access tunnel. A domed ceiling curved down to corridors connecting the system of subterranean chambers that were part natural cave, part carved from the rock. It was a minor marvel of engineering that could house a hundred in perfect secrecy, situated beneath both a natural hot spring and waterfall and suffused with pipes and ventilation shafts. 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 before she recovered into a fighting stance, her short recurved sword halfway out of its scabbard and eyes trained on the odd figure sitting in one of the chairs. It was covered in dirt and leaves, its wild and tousled hair prickly with twigs.

“Identify yourself!” Linet demanded. 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,” the young man croaked hoarsely, running forward and clapping dirty hands hard on her shoulders. “Has anyone else made it back yet? Tell me they have!”

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

Aerrus’s brow wavered. “No. So I’m the only one. Lin, it was a trap. Somehow the Marchmen, they knew we were gonna be there. They ambushed us with torches, set fire to the whole godsdamned 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 right where we were going to 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 about?”

“No, everyone’s either 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?”

They rode double through the hidden bridle paths on one of the sturdy, shaggy horses the Marchmen favored, downhill from the Lodge and toward the road that followed the Carsa River. Linet held on to Aerrus from behind, the stench of earth and smoke from his clothes strong in her nostrils. She fought 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 demanded 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 fired the woods and came at us from the side. Knew exactly where we were. 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, but….”

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

“All dead. Savages! The Marchmen didn’t even press their attack, just ran off before sundown like always. Found one of their horses wandering around. I was on my way back to the Lodge when I came up behind those same six 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.

 

 

A silvery moon shone down on the forest road, marking out the well-worn path. Six riders nudged their skittish palfreys on two by two. Quietly enough now, though they’d wrought pandemonium only hours ago. With that business 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 whinnied every few yards.

Linet crouched in the brush three paces off the road, her bowstring taut. The bow was a small treasure as well as a weapon, crafted out of fine yew from the forest around her, carved to fit her own hand and tipped with polished ramshorn nocks. The fletches of a broadheaded arrow tickled her finger as she held it half-drawn, waiting for the agreed-upon signal.

One of the lead riders halted. Or rather his horse did, though at no command. With annoyance 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, what’s the 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. A soft sound, but it echoed loud in the all-consuming dark. The horse stilled again. A pause. “Oh, shite….”

Linet raised her weapon, drew and loosed. An acid thwung rang out from the string until it was drowned by the hard slap of the shaft hitting flesh. Both lead riders screamed and fell, as though struck by two unseen blows. The horses neighed in terror as the other riders shouted curses. Another arrow already drawn, she turned in the other direction. Thwungslap! A rear rider went down, clutching his chest.

Two horses bucked in panic and threw the remaining riders 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. An arrow lanced out from across the road, but it missed the fleeing target.

The other thrown rider stumbled to his feet, dying comrades groaning in agony about him. A movement. Dark and obscured by the cover of the forest growth, but there nonetheless. Fury overcame fear, and the rider drew a long war sword and rushed toward the movement, shouting bloody murder. He swung wildly but the long blade bounced off the thick branches, useless. A gleaming short blade leaped out of the gloom like a serpent, and he jumped back just in time to avoid a killing thrust.

“Gyah!” Dropping the longsword, he drew a dagger and charged ahead. The shape before resolved out of the dark: 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 his midsection. He flew back and down, a great blow of outward breath proving his enemy mortal.

The rider glowered over his attacker to deliver the killing blow, raising the dagger high. The man on the ground suddenly 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.

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

“One got away,” said Linet.

“Gods fuckitall! Any others still alive?”

She 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 us anything.”

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

“Search the bodies,” Linet suggested. “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.

The two figures flitted through the forest like ghosts. The moon now hung low in the sky, but if one happened to look at just the right moment, a shaft of light down through the trees might reveal a hint of movement, but that’s all. In a blink it’d be gone, leaving any spy not really sure they’d seen anything. Neither spoke, thanks not only to a lifetime of training but simply because nothing needed be said. Linet and Aerrus came at last to a place where the trickle of water over rock whispered a soft welcome home. They hunkered into a crouch and disappeared into what at first glance would seem a solid stone outcropping. The forest left no trace of their passing.

They trudged into the Lodge’s entrance hall, followed by a few others now returned from night patrol and demanding to know where the pair had been, where the rest were. They ignored all this to collapse into the chairs before the hearth, except to allow fledglings to take their weapons and gear away to be cleaned and mended. “There are horses stashed in the usual place,” Linet said wearily, “and…some bodies that’ll need to be cleaned from the road.” Even in disaster, secrecy and security had to be maintained. Especially in disaster. “And—”

“There you are!” The Lodge came to life now at the news of their return, and a tall redheaded man entered the hall from one of the side passages, then nodded to one of the fledglings. “Tell Perrim they’ve returned. She’ll want to see them straight away.”

“I’ll tell her myself, Vander,” Aerrus said, standing again slowly.

“We both will,” Linet answered.

They crossed the hall to another passage, down and around toward a council room that contained the Lodge’s single waterfall-shrouded window, and lanterns set into the walls. A tired-looking woman, made older than her sixty or more years by worry, and a man of similar age sat at one end of a long oak table worn smooth by a century of pounding fists.

The young pair waited while their older counterparts regarded them. There was grief in that waiting, no less palpable for its being silent.

“I have been sitting in this chair,” said the woman at last, “for far too long to have to guess what you’re about to tell me. Something terrible has happened.”

Aerrus told the story as he knew it, and when Linet entered it she took over. Perrim’s frown grew deep and deeper, yet no tears fell.

“So,” said the man next to her angrily, “it was a bit of revenge you were after, then?”

“No! Lom, you know us better than that.” Linet glanced briefly at Aerrus, his face a mask. “Well, you know me better than that.”

“Yet you failed to take any of these mysterious men alive! And one escaped to tell the tale. Would you care to enlighten me as to what you did accomplish to salve this bloody catastrophe?”

Aerrus held up something he’d been clutching tightly like a magic talisman. “They had these on ’em.” He dropped a folded package onto the table. “Letters of friendship and alliance in a couple different languages. From the adventurer-despot Phynagoras to Ordovax, our not so friendly local Marchman chieftain.”

“Alliance?” Perrim’s mouth hung half open. “Phynagoras is busy conquering the corpse of the Bhasan empire. What business has he with Marchmen?”

“It looks like he might aim to invade Argovan next. The letters offer Ordovax a petty kingdom in exchange for their help. Along with what would seem to be, erm, a bribe.” He held out a handful of jewels and coins.

“That doesn’t make sense,” said the older man.

Perrim turned to her trusted adviser. “Lomuel?”

“The Marchmen are savages. They neither read nor use money. What value a bribe? Or letters, for that matter?”

“Well…” Linet began, swallowed hard. “We think those riders were just middlemen, and the bribe was to keep them quiet. What they did made it justice enough to cut ’em down, but….” She glanced at Aerrus, not wanting to be the one to say it.

“We’ve reason to believe that it’s not just tribesmen involved with Phynagoras. That there’s a third party acting as mediator.”

Perrim frowned. “What reason?”

Aerrus reached into a haversack slung over his shoulder and pulled out something else, long and soft. It was a black sable neck wrap, splashed with mud and a thin bloodied slice running down its middle. He tossed the unmistakable badge of office onto the table and it slid to a stop in front of Perrim.

She quivered with barely suppressed rage. “Marcher lords.”

 

 

If you enjoyed this chapter, please check out the novel that comes before it, out now:

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