Captain Aerion Swordbreaker
“Captain Swordbreaker, should we pursue?”
Aerion looked over at Sergeant Miller, his second section leader. “No,” he said in reply, even as his single eye went back to the withdrawing enemy. Ghost Company had clashed with several of Hector’s mercenary raiders since the first snows began in the fall. As the fighting had grown more and more desperate, Aerion had learned better than to pursue an organized enemy. Some of Lady Katarina Emberhill’s forces had not been so cautious and their bodies lay cold in the shadows of the forests, scattered where they had fallen.
“Form them up,” he called out to Jasen, the company’s First Sergeant, who snapped out commands to the section sergeants. When Jasen turned back, Aerion spoke in a lower voice, “Who did we lose?”
“Donat and Eryk,” Jasen answered. “Gaja is down with an arrow to the leg, but he should pull through. The rest are minor wounds.”
“Be sure of that,” Aerion said with a grave voice. Just the past week they had lost two men to wounds that should have received attention. Neither man had thought to seek help, or at least, not until it was too late. He rubbed one hand across his face. “A few more seconds and we would have had the bastard.”
Rumor had it that Covle Darkbit led this particular band of ravagers. While most of the Usurper’s mercenary raiding bands had grown smaller over the past couple months from casualties and desertion, this one had grown larger, the ranks swelled by bandits and mercenaries who knew that Darkbit would keep them alive and better fed. Darkbit’s men had slaughtered men, women, and children, burned food, and killed far too many of Lady Katarina’s smaller patrols. The man had become a revenant, hitting where Lady Katarina’s forces were weakest and then disappearing.
Aerion had hoped to get the bastard to engage his company in a real fight, which was why he had set up the surprise ambush. “Any enemy wounded?” Aerion asked as he saw the appointed squad return from their sweep of the fallen.
“Two,” Jasen said. “One won’t survive, the other can’t walk, probably why they left him.”
Aerion grimaced at that. The mercenaries tended to leave their wounded behind. They knew that Lady Katarina’s forces would tend to them. The ones they could convict of crimes were punished, but there were few enough survivors from most of the worst atrocities. Lady Katarina had a small prisoner of war camp located near Zielona Gora. To date, Aerion knew that there were another two hundred mouths to feed there… along with a company of troops to guard them.
Hector’s mercenaries didn’t take prisoners. They killed the wounded and anyone tried to surrender.
Aerion just nodded, though part of him wanted to leave both of the mercenaries to die. Yet he had to set a better example than that for his men. He knew that more than a few of them wouldn’t hesitate to kill the enemy wounded. Too many of his company had lost family and friends, either in the past two months or in the previous cycles of Lord Hector’s occupation.
Bad enough to strip the dead, he thought, yet the enemy weapons, armor, and most importantly, their warm clothing, would save lives.
He tried not to think to hard about leaving the bodies where they lay, but the truth was that with the ground frozen so hard, it would be impossible to bury them. If he and his men remained in place long enough to construct pyres, they would spend the night in the open and the lengthening night and growing cold would sap their energy and leave them less prepared for the next fight.
Besides, he thought as his eye picked out movement in the shadows of the trees off the road, the scavengers will pick the bones clean before sunset.
He just hoped that the scavengers were all animals… what with some of the darker rumors.
Xavien Tarken, Herald of Andoral Elhonas
Fortress of Armak Zhul, Noriel
13th of Ravin, Cycle 1000 Post Sundering
The winter winds howled at the sides of Armak Zhul like a mad, living thing bent on destroying the mountain fortress and undoing the labor of thousands of cycles. The winds might well have that intent, Xavien thought, certainly it wouldn’t be alone in that regard if it was.
The raised voice of an angry Armen brought him back to the matter at hand.
“I will not kowtow to your demands, woman,” Warlord Sakan Alk snarled. The big Armen chieftain clearly misunderstood his position in the world, Xavien noted.
Andoral Elhonas’s consort moved so quickly that even Xavien barely kept up. She spun and drew her blade in a single, smooth motion. The blade’s long reach allowed her to rake it across Sakan Alk’s belly without having to take even a single step closer.
As the Armen chieftain let out a sharp scream and pawed at his spilling intestines, she whipped the blade back around to remove his head.
The other Armen gathered before her were spattered with hot, sticky blood. They didn’t show fear, but Xavien did see shock on their faces. They were not used to women who would strike a man, much less one who could take down a fighting man of Sakan Alk’s caliber. The more fools they, Xavien thought, the women are the more dangerous of the species.
“Rentak Khobis,” Seraphai said as she flicked the blood off of her sword. The red metal of its blade seemed to pulse in an odd fashion. Xavien wished he could study it, but he knew better than to ask. This was Makhvili Dzala, Andoral’s Blade of Power. Even as Herald, he would not be allowed to touch it, much less to study it.
The Armen called stepped over the twitching body of Aratak Sul. He bowed his head slightly, “Yes, my queen?” Xavien felt no surprise that Rentak Khobis remembered to use the honorific. Whatever their other limitations, the Armen were capable of learning when the consequences for failure were rubbed in their faces.
“You are now the Warlord of the Sepak Armen. Follow the commands I gave to your predecessor or meet the same fate,” Seraphai snapped. As the Armen warrior nomad nodded, she sat back in her throne. “You are dismissed.”
She waited as the Armen withdrew, dragging the corpse of their former Warlord with them, all but the severed head which had come to rest in the corner. Xavien wondered if that would be kept as a trophy and displayed on the walls of Armak Zhul or thrown off the side as garbage.
That is the fun part about the new Consort, Xavien thought, I never know exactly what she has planned. A meticulous planner himself, Xavien viewed her actions with a mix of amusement and fear. Just in her arrival to court, she had thrown so many of his plans into disarray.
Not that he viewed her as a threat. Xavien had no desire to rise above his position under Andoral Elhonas. The powerful spirit rewarded such ambition with death, after all. It wasn’t as if Xavien could be the Consort, and that only left challenging the ten thousand cycle old spirit himself. Herald is quite sufficient, especially when I’ll rule over the five duchies in his name, Xavien thought.
The confidence born of knowing his place allowed Xavien to work with his new Queen quite effectively.
Not so with some of Andoral’s other supporters. Some had challenged Seraphai almost as directly as the late Sakan Alk. Others had attempted more indirect methods of her removal. All of them had died. Xavien suspected that was to his master’s intent, a way to challenge them all, to thin out those who might be slower, less intelligent, or disloyal.
Certainly there could be no doubt that their master had chosen Seraphai. She carried Makhvili Dzala, which would be impossible without his will behind it. Besides that, there was the irony of having her as his consort, the one with the combined blood of the line of High Kings and Maghali Mede, the Ancient King, as his consort… the spirits of his enemies must writhe at their inability to prevent it.
“Are you certain of this plan, Herald?” Seraphai asked.
Xavien looked up and met her eyes. Their violet color intrigued him, apparently a natural coloration. “I am certain,” Xavien said. The new plan was merely a refined version of his original plan. The chaos he had sown in the Five Duchies had left them ripe for conquest. While he had met some setbacks along the way, he knew he could pull off the invasion of Masov with little opposition. With the Lonely Isle isolated, it would only take a few months to wear them down and regain the foothold. After that, he could link up with his Noric allies in fallen Taral and invade the Grand Duchy of Boir, followed by the Duchy of Asador. In all likelihood, the Vendakar would invade and conquer Marovingia, yet four out of five of the duchies under the rule of his master would be enough, initially.
With his master’s servants among the Wold and the Noric’s masters, the Five Duchies would fall quickly. And I, he thought, will be free to act more openly. Xavien had enjoyed his game of shadows, but he longed for the chance to use his powers to their full extent. His sorcerous abilities would improve capabilities of his shock troops and he knew that cycles of study and preparation at Armak Zhul had given him enough wizardly power to crush any number of southern wizards.
“What if they unite against you?” Seraphai asked, her voice intent and her violet eyes calm. Xavien, though, thought he caught the barest flicker of crimson in those eyes. Was this a question from his Queen… or his Master?
“It will not happen,” Xavien said. He had planted a letter which revealed his own ties to the Armen for Duke Hector to find. Given that he was Grand Duke Christoffer’s son, the letter had poisoned the alliance between them. Xavien had gloated a bit when he heard of the casualties that his father’s forces took after Hector betrayed him.
No, they would not work together. And after his servants, Covle Darkbit and Grel, had slaughtered so many innocent people in Hector’s name, the uprising in the Duchy of Masov would not end any time soon. Indeed, they would have the entire winter to think upon Hector’s many crimes and let their hatred fester, egged on by Covle Darkbit’s continued raids.
“My army will be ready in the spring, well before Hector’s forces will expect us,” Xavien said. “I will shatter his army with my first strike.” He smiled a bit, “I may even let Hector live, he has been a fine, if unwitting, servant.”
Seraphai did not match his smile, but in Xavien’s opinion, she didn’t take enough pleasure in their work. Everything she did was calculated, drawn to a plan that only she seemed to know and understand. “Hector must die,” she said in an intent voice. “If you succeed in only one thing, be certain of that.”
Xavien nodded, “Of course, my Queen. Anything else?”
“Beware your father, Xavien, he knows of you, now, he’ll not forgive you for what you’ve done,” Seraphai said the words with no emotion or emphasis, yet Xavien couldn’t help the slightest thrill of nervousness.
“I don’t plan to let him live long enough to be of concern,” Xavien said. His father’s continued survival was a matter of irritation. Xavien could admit to himself that his plans involving his surviving family had been overly complicated. He should have waited to spring his ambush until his father rejoined the Northern Fleet, just as he should have cut his sister’s throat after he used her for the ritual.
“If you fail in this, it will leave the Five Duchies in a stronger position,” Seraphai said as she took her seat. It was a clear dismissal and Xavien gave her a gracious bow and turned away.
In the corridor, Xavien paused to consider his next action. Tarjak Rusk awaited him at his quarters, but Xavien was willing to let the Armen Warlord wait.
The bellowing roar of the wind was muffled by dozens of feed of solid rock, yet even so, the snarl of it sounded like some barely muzzled beast. There was one other thing he could do to sow chaos over the winter. Xavien smiled a bit at that thought and he turned his mind’s focus to a distance, to the creations of his mother’s grandfather.
Awaken, he commanded, awaken and hunt.
Fate of the Tyrant comes out on June 30th.