I know now what it is, that which seems so familiar. He moves like a Saliswater. He could be my brother. More than the ones I have.
Forgive me, Mar. It is sacrilege to speak such ill against my brothers, princes of Marland.
Still . . .
The handful of skirmishes he and his Right Captain had fought together flashed through his mind. Most were minor, mere confrontations with gangs of bandits or rogue merchants who refused to pay duties to the Crown. Only the Battle of Chesa could be considered a proper engagement, with trained soldiers on both sides. Still, with sword in hand, Everitt could always be counted on to stand by his side.
From afar, Symon stood atop his horse on a wooded hillock. The vantage point presented him with sweeping views of Marlish birch, ash and alder, with pockets of morning fog struggling to stay put against the growing presence of the rising sun. The forests were thick, allowing few meadows and gaps, which made traversing this part of the countryside cumbersome. The only road through the area was little wider than a game trail and meandered in curves and bends like a snake aimlessly biding its time.
In any other campaign, such a route would have proven of little consequence. In such current circumstances, it hindered the small army Everitt had pieced together from Castle Arcporte, Saliswater Manor and his own family’s men from Har-Kin Furde. The rest of the country’s men were either too far flung or too hesitant to act without the blessing of the Conclave.
The serpentine force paused at its head upon coming across a downed tree. Its exposed roots suggested that it had fallen during a storm, though Symon did not rule out more manual efforts to account for its current position of obstruction. Several squad leaders and knights came close to the horizontal trunk, pointing and conversing amongst themselves. Two even went so far as to remove their battleaxes from their saddle sheathes.
From the rear, Everitt rode to the vanguard, his free arm motioning to the men before the tree. Even from Symon’s seat, the commander’s voice resonated. Those with the axes withdrew from the trunk as a few soldiers readied grappling hooks and ropes while others positioned the largest mounts close by. Within minutes, the horses dragged the hulking woodland mass from the trail, allowing the army to resume its march.
Symon’s mount stirred, shaking its head. He patted the stallion on its side. “Yes, I know.” Symon recognized the ground he watched from was coveted. Everitt would no doubt have scouts surveying the highest points as the fog lifted, of which the hillock was one. Best not to tempt the fate of Mar, Symon knew.
He clipped his heels, sending his horse down a steady slope at an easy pace. Once on level earth, he pushed northwest on a route adjacent to Everitt’s forces yet far enough away to avoid detection. He was lightly fitted, bearing only an arming sword, a small wooden shield and a shirt of mail. That meant his tracks would be light, much like that of a Marlish woodsman or hunter, and hardly cause to arouse any suspicion among Everitt’s scouts who may chance upon his path.
A slight breeze bent the lush branches overhead, allowing speckled sunlight to warm patches of his face. The rustling of the leaves further put Symon at ease. This is as grand as a solitary hunt. Hardly the forbearance of a battle. Perhaps Mar has spared us.
The uneventful ride went on with Symon nearly putting out of his consciousness the Marlish army that marched to the east. His shoulders sagged. His legs dangled from the saddle. His grip on the reins loosened as his hands rested on the horn of the saddle.
What is that?
Neither sight nor sound arrested his focus. Rather, a smell. Nay, a stench. Unlike one he had ever sensed before. The only scent that came close to resembling it reminded him of the castle dungeon, of the filth and decay that wafted from the unwashed prisoners whenever he chanced upon there for a surprise inspection of the guards and grounds.
Unwashed. Grime crusted by dried sweat. The mark of a captured enemy.
The stallion he rode noticed it too. The horse paused, snorting as it hesitated to trot forward.
Symon leaned back, his hands now firm on the reins. His stallion twisted as he snapped his head in all directions to discover that the forest had betrayed him. The casual benevolence of the woodlands had transformed into a labyrinth of crowded trees, winding branches, and towering hedges that all but choked the forest floor of light. Trunks of ashen gray and dingy brown walled all around him, overlapped with dense green curtains of stems and leaves. The visages of nature obstructed his view as the foulness strengthened, alerting Symon to an impending presence.
“Errr! He’s mine!”
Symon froze. His stallion, sensing his rider’s unease, came to a standstill.
Though his knack for languages was wanting, in this instance he recognized the words. Lewmarian.
With his sword sheathed, unadorned by a shield and bearing a lone shirt of mail, Symon awaited the inevitable. My Lord, is this truly my end?
“No, wait! He’s alone.”
“He’s watering his horse. We can sneak up on him. Before he has a chance to mount.”
“Errr, if you want. But I get to do the deed. And keep his horse.”
“His horse. Why you?”
“Tis white. I’ve never had a white horse.”
Symon blinked. I can hear them. They cannot see me.
He placed one hand on the neck of his horse, to steady and calm it, while he set the other on the saddle horn. In an act of deft precision, he dismounted, his mail clanking so mildly that his garb attracted no attention from the two unseen speakers.
He crouched, inching along from gnarled root to squat bush, toward the creek.
Though still hidden from him, the two who had spoken parted from their position, ruffling foliage and tramping over twigs. Such sounds were slight, nonetheless, Symon mirrored them with his own movements, so as to remain undetected.
Symon came to the broad base of an ancient oak. He braced himself against its moss-covered trunk and, craning his neck, peeked around its edge.
Clad in a patchwork of furs and stiff leather, a Lewmarian lurked away. His armor, together with his hunched back and broad shoulders, gave him the semblance of a bear. Rather than teeth or claws, though, he brandished a double-sided axe.
Beyond the Lewmarian, a Marlish scout stood with his back to him, as the white mare by his side drank from a brook.
Look behind you, you fool . . .
The scout raised his arms to stretch. The hulking Lewmarian inched forward.
He’s right there!
The Marlishman arched his back and yawned. Spotting his chance, the Lewmarian quickened his pace.
Symon leapt over the exposed roots of the oak and shot forward. He drew his sword as he bellowed a deep-throated war cry.
The Lewmarian swung around, as did the Marlish scout. Symon’s element of surprise was spoiled. Yet so was the Lewmarian’s. Symon stood between the two men, with the scout nearest to the attacker. Choosing the easiest of his prey, the Lewmarian closed the short gap between himself and the scout, swinging his axe.
Caught unawares, the scout had barely a moment to evade the curved blade. Somehow, he managed to unbuckle his knees and duck just as the axe cut the air a mere finger’s length above his head. He collapsed, then rolled from his spot as the axe blade sliced the earth, having barely missed him once again.
The scout, on his back, drew his dagger. It was all for naught. His assailant stomped on his hand, pinning both scout and weapon down. He raised his axe head, the sharpened edge catching the dappled sunlight that flowed above.
Too many steps laid between Symon and the Lewmarian axeman. He had but the blink of an eye to make a decision.
With precision and strength – and desperate, blind hope – he let fly his sword. It careened toward the Lewmarian, spinning furiously, before it found its target. The tip wedged into his back, the momentum knocking him over on top of the scout.
Symon raced to the enemy, knowing that the wound alone would not keep him down for long. Indeed, the Lewmarian scrambled off of the scout, whose breath had been knocked out of him, to rise to one knee. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Symon approaching. He swung his axe head up in an arc aimed straight for his head.
The uppermost tip nearly caught Symon upon his brow as he slide between the Lewmarian and the Marlish scout. It was a foolish move that planted him right beside his enemy. Yet it also put him within reach of the scout’s knife.
In one full motion, Symon seized the knife and stabbed the Lewmarian in the pit of his arm, where he remained unarmored. The warrior shrieked as Symon withdrew the blade and, pulling the bear of a man towards him, thrust the tip of the knife into his jugular.
The Lewmarian, who had been all rage and fury moments before, stared back at Symon, overtaken by a sudden sense of calm. The knee he leaned on buckled as Symon allowed him to slink to the ground.
Symon looked down upon his hands to find them enveloped in a splatter of crimson. He touched his face to find it covered in blood as well. He nearly began to remove his shirt of mail when a voice cried out in Marlish.
Symon glanced over his shoulder to find the second Lewmarian dart from the wood line, intent on surprising the two of them. The scout, having spotted the warrior first, scrambled to Symon’s sword, raising it just in time to block the Lewmarian’s own. The two slashed and parried as Symon rose to his feet with the fallen axeman’s weapon in his hand. He circled the two men engaged in swords, waiting for a gap. Within moments, the scout fell back just enough . . .
The axe in his hands felt light and comfortable. He raised it above his head, signaling to the second Lewmarian an intent to come down with the blade. The Lewmarian instinctively brought up his sword to block the assault. Then, at the last moment, Symon bent and swung the axe horizontally, cleaving into the man’s left side.
The whole engagement was a blur, the sum of a few breaths. The second Lewmarian collapsed and it was over.
Symon heaved as the savagery of the fight left his heart and soul empowered. He turned to the scout, and for a flash, regarded him with hostility. The scout, perhaps having seen the effects of combat before or maybe just out of fear, laid down his sword and backed away.
“My Lord,” the scout offered. “I am Marlish.”
Control, and reason, returned to Symon. He eyed his blood-soaked appendages, then the two fallen, before replying. “Yes, soldier. You are.”
The scout’s expression turned from one of fear to that of reverence upon hearing his voice. He knelt and bowed his head. “Your Highness.”
Symon hung his head. So much for staying concealed until Dawkin finished with the Conclave.
“I will in your debt for eternity for saving my life,” the scout continued.
“Yes, yes. Rise. To your duties.”
The scout complied and moved to collect his things, which in the heat of battle had been strewn amongst the creek bed and bordering meadow. Abruptly, he paused his gathering. “My Prince, why are you not with Sir Everitt and the rest of the convoy?”
Why indeed. “I have rushed in from Highmorr and felt the need to scout the area for myself.”
That excuse seemed plausible enough for the scout, who went on to retrieve his horse that had scurried up along the creek. “Well, I am fortunate to have you chance upon me. A minute later and you would have found those two upon my corpse, not the other way around.”
“Aye. Have you seen signs of any others?”
“Not at all.”
Two random Lewmarians strayed this far out by themselves? The thought did not sit well with Symon, who doubted that the enemy would be so bold as to thin its resources.
“Marlishman, can you ride?”
The scout responded with a firm nod of his head.
“Then try to keep up.”
The surrounding forest remained an intimidating maze. But a passable one. Symon led the scout over every creek bed and dip, past sleeping woodland giants and their smaller leafed brethren. Somehow, their horses avoided the gnarled roots and soft divots that would have tripped any other mounts. For all their speed and progress, though, signs of the enemy stayed shrouded.
We must be riding in circles. We must be.
As he slowed his horse to consider their next course the sound of galloping persisted.
Is that . . .
“The Chesa, Sire,” the scout confirmed.
“Indeed.” Symon eased up further on the reins to allow his stallion to trot. The scout fell in beside him as the tree line thinned and the river opened up before them.
The river roared as whitewater crested and plunged, creating a series of crystal blue and stark white peaks and valleys, all ever-flowing and alive. The water flowed without end, all the while screaming its own song, one reminiscent of trumpets coupled with a war cry from thousands.
Symon urged his mount as close to the river’s edge as it would go before it hesitated. He dismounted and handed the reins to the scout.
“It flows from ice,” Symon mused as he raked his fingertips through the water, the chill greeting him.
“Aye. I have kin not far from here, in the northern range of the Highmorr Peaks. They say the summer has been warmer than most, so the snowcaps are less than in years past.”
No boat can travel this far up the Chesa, Symon thought, his eyes drifting down the length of the river. “Sir Everitt will see this and head east, towards the coast, there he will expect to find –”
Symon quieted. The glimpse of something slight, yet not insignificant, captured his sole focus. On the other side of the Chesa, nearly out of his view. He motioned to his partner.
The scout withdrew back to the tree line at his Prince’s command. Symon hurried on after him and the horses. The scout dismounted and made to tie the reins to a nearby tree.
“No,” Symon insisted. “Lay them down.”
The scout paused. Symon, unnerved by whatever he had noticed, came to his horse’s side and, with reins and head in hand, guided his stallion to rest on its side. The scout, now knowing fully Symon’s intentions, did likewise.
Symon leaned across his lying mount, his gaze having never left the far side of the Chesa. He scanned the expanse of the thick woodlands, wondering if the image was truly there, lurking, or if his instincts had led him astray.
Then, again, it appeared. And not alone.
A Lewmarian fighter, clad much like the first one Symon had struck down, zipped through the trees, around bushes and over ferns. In his wake, several followed, moving as quickly as a herd of elk. Beyond that grouping, other Lewmarians bound, with heavy-handed weapons in their grips that threatened to splinter every shield and crack every skull in the Marlish ranks.
Leading them all, far ahead of his herd, was one that Symon had heard tales of before yet had never seen until now.
Even from a distance Symon could tell he was wild. His hair, long and unkempt, flowed in horizontal strands as the result of his speed. His garb was a blend of furs from every Afarian predator imaginable – from bear to badger to wolf to wolverine – all unwashed and bearing the crusted blood of their animals. His arm of choice was a multi-headed halberd that seemed more mace than bladed weapon. It swung forward with each stride of the commander, its momentum in tandem with his, set to unleash a savage assault much like its owner.
And then there were the eyes. From even afar they stood out. Just like those of his half-brother. Orbs of the darkest blue that the hue itself must have been gifted by some leviathan from the sea depths.
“They . . .” the scout stuttered in a whisper. “They move. Like horses. They move like cavalry.”
“They do, indeed.”
“The Chesa is the only thing standing between them and Greater Marland.”
The Chesa. The river. They head north. “Dear Mar.”
Symon leapt to his feet. He tugged at the reins of his horse so that the stallion sprang up in a fit, disturbed by Symon’s sudden panic.
“My Lord.” The scout scrambled to guide his horse up, albeit while still eying the enemy on the other side of the Chesa. “What is the matter?”
“The Chesa’s headwaters are in the north, aren’t they?”
“From melted snow the waters start as creeks, then turn to tributaries that merge to create the Chesa. The Warlord means to bypass the Chesa by heading towards the smaller rivers, where he and his forces can ford across.”
“If that were to happen –”
“Yes. No doubt those scouts found safe passage over the shallow parts of the tributaries. And I bet there were others. You can count on that.”
“What is your command, Sire?”
Symon paused, affording himself a moment he knew he did not have. For the past two decades he had familiarized himself with all the major areas of Marland, yet the delta to the north that birthed the Chesa was least known to him. “We ride to Everitt’s vanguard. While Hunold and his army travels up river and then cuts west, we will lead our fastest knights on horse north and east, cutting diagonally through the woodlands to the westernmost tributary of the Chesa. Mar willing, we will get there before the Lewmarians. There, with the last river between us, we will make our stand.”
Symon snapped his reins and yelped, not waiting to see if his words had registered with the scout. His horse erupted into a charge through the forest, one that warped the woodlands around them into a blur, save for the line of sight directly before them. That artery was nothing more than amassed trees and shrubs, goliaths of bark and trolls of fronds that all managed to step out of the way just in time to avoid being run down by Symon and his mount. For what seemed like hours though, it was all for naught, as the steady unease Symon had carried since the morning conflict enlarged to become a nagging beast that gnawed at his soul.
We are being invaded.
Ahead, the dappled spots of day became pockets of sunlight. The forest, with all those figures that had nearly obstructed his way, began to open.
The enemy . . .
He chanced upon another Marlishman. The soldier, shifting in his saddle, hardly had a breath to spot His Highness before Symon darted past.
. . . is nearly . . .
The head of the Marlish line – with Sir Everitt in the lead – came into view. Symon shot into a clearing to head towards the dirt road where his troops marched. He lifted a hand to wave. Everitt, noting it immediately, broke from the column into a full gallop.
. . . upon us.
“James! You’re here! The Conclave. What happened?”
“Forget the Conclave. Gather your fastest riders and follow me!”
Symon’s haste persisted as he swung his mount around, not waiting even for his Right Captain. The meadow grass soon returned beneath his stallion’s hooves, as the ominous forest - which Symon had just put behind - beckoned again, its wild goliaths, trolls and beasts of plant and earth taunting him.Your threat is nothing. You host a different kind of monster. One here to ruin us all.