This is part one of an inprogress novella. A Man must avenge his death and Save the world
Fire Will Be Sown Before
The column group was small and dark. They numbered around one hundred, plus the followers. They moved like ants, scurrying around, preparing for the rising sun. One among them, the tall man called Tuck, stood still. He was looking to the sky. The man waited as the sun appeared as a blade on the horizon, watching the stars fade away. The sudden warmth was a miracle in the wintery wastes the men had camped in.
The men had left their homes under cover of night, congregating out of the city to escape the usual fanfare of military movement. They had left their families with only quick and silent embraces, some with not even that. A hunched, young figure approached the tall man and announced that the men were ready to move. The man held up a hand, a finger to silence him. The sun was rising, an eye which promised life in the white desert. If it was too hot, though, the snow may melt and they would be wet as well as cold.
The finger stayed up until the young man quietened and noticed that nobody else was talking. It was silent. They were only half way to the mountains, beyond which lay their destination. There was nothing for the wind to howl through, and last night’s snow had stopped falling. No animals would be active at this time in this environment. The horses snorted, but the sound didn’t go far. There were still sounds of the men loading their last bags, but nobody spoke. Tuck raised his face and closed his eyes.
His hand fell, and then he knelt. Whispering a quick prayer to the Gods, he picked up a glove full of snow and gave his face a scrub. Standing up, he looked at the young man. After a moment more, he broke the silence.
‘Alright, son,’ his usually deep voice was barely more than a whisper, ‘let the men know we ride.’
The young man nodded, and ran half hunched to spread the word. It took several minutes, by which time the sun had reached the height of the mountains. Tuck himself took his time finding his own grey mare. He rode out ahead of the men he led a few hundred paces, then turned back and stopped, waiting for the column of horses to pass. He closed his eyes once more, noticing with a dull joy that the snow muffled the hoof steps, and the desert was still mostly quiet. If they were to push the horses, he was sure that it would make more noise, but from the reports they received, they had no need for haste.
When half the men had passed, he re-joined them. He looked for his son, but could not see him. Looking back, he noticed that most of the camp followers had turned back. His men carried little money to buy things with, and most had wives and children which kept them from using the other services provided. Some of the merchants, though, persisted. Maybe they just wanted a safe journey to Or Vordur. The mountains were not the safest of places, and the garrison would have enough spenders to make the trip worth the danger.
‘Hail, ser Knight,’ a strong voice rang out from beside the man.
‘Hail, soldier.’ After another moment scanning the column for his son, he turned to give the man his full attention. He was a hulking man, his shoulders so broad that he seemed bigger than the horse he rode. He had an unkempt mop of dark hair and he smelled strongly of some new Giant draught. He fitted quite comfortably the description of a man known as Boar, though this was most likely not his real name and the man Tuck was unwilling to use it, so he asked.
‘Ah, ser, I am Barrat, son of Kerran.’ He spoke better than Tuck expected. He reprimanded himself for such thoughts, though many men in these times went uneducated, that didn’t mean they all did.
‘Barrat. And where do you come from?’
‘I, ser Knight, come from the mountains east of Lyrach.’
Tuck blinked. His wife came from those mountains, so he had been there several times. They were a relatively small people, and so Barrat’s size was highly extraordinary. This man was full of surprises.
‘What was it you called me for, Barrat Kerranson?’
‘It was my wish to meet the great man who leads us. Sure, I saw you when you addressed us the morning we left, but I have not had a chance to speak with you.’ Barrat dropped his eyes as if suddenly he felt quite out of place.
Tuck nodded silently. Though he held no ill will against Barrat, he remained formal, and slightly aloof. He was in no mood to mingle at the moment, and wished to find his son. The big man seemed a little intimidated by Tuck. He stayed with him, though, riding in an awkward silence that Tuck didn’t mind. But after a few moments more, Barrat saw another friend, and slipped back.
Tuck frowned. Though he didn’t like being known as an imposing war hero, the idea sometimes did help him out of bothersome situations. And Tuck didn’t particularly want to be reminded about his wife or her homeland at the moment.
When he left, Maria had been awake, much to his dismay, and she reacted the way she normally did when he was to leave. She threatened to leave him, promised that if Tuck went off to try and get himself killed, she would not be at home if he returned. She promised to go back to her mountain village and forget him. It certainly didn’t help his cause that Tuck was taking their son, too. She was packing when the two had left. Tuck was almost accustomed to the pain of it, but Dannis certainly was not. He was struggling not to let his father see tears well in his eyes. Despite acting tough, and joining the Lyrach militia probably just to impress his friends – or much to his dismay, his father – Dannis was a sensitive boy. Tuck was worried that he may not be able to cope with mortal combat, if their current duty called for that.
‘Ser?’ A strong voice came from behind him.
Tuck was pulled from his reverie. He looked up and blinked into the sun. It was almost noon. He shifted in his saddle as he looked around. Tuck didn’t smile when he saw his son. He wasn’t exactly comfortable with his son being in the militia, let alone under his command. If something happened, Tuck would be entirely responsible.
‘Dannis, ride with me.’ His son blinked as he looked at Tuck leaning over his horse, both silhouetted against the sun.
Tuck still rode without speaking. He was glad to be able to watch over his son, but he was happy just watching. When the man asked him questions, such as where it was they were going, he answered with as few words as possible. While many men might have been taken aback, Tuck was the man’s father, and so he accepted it. After a while, they both stopped talking and instead watched the men try to reach for food and drink without falling off their horses. Many of these men were not properly trained riders. It was amusing, but the tall man didn’t laugh
The sun was setting behind them as they reached the feet of the mountains. They rose ahead, lit by the fading light, but still an imposing presence. The men talked little that night, and unlike the day and night past, several opted to pay for some company. It helped also that a whistling wind from the abandoned pass had managed to reach the party.
The night was dark under the mountains. The frost from the heights clouded the night sky. When many of the other men had gone to bed, Tuck stood by his bedroll and, like every other night, he stared into the sky. He was disappointed, more so than usual. He still could not find it.
He kept looking for only a few moments longer, accepting that the cloud had diminished his chances this night, and went again to find his son. He had requested that each night Dannis set up his roll near his father. The tall man saw a few of his men moving about in the night – setting up their own watches and entertaining their bought companions – but soon saw his son wandering to the edge of the camp. He followed.
Tuck was not as stealthy as he wished he was. There were several rangers in his party who stalked the borders of the camp, and they could shift through the night like shadows; not seen or heard until a polite ‘Ser’ acknowledging Tuck’s presence.
The man sat alone staring over the desert towards their home. Tuck was actually surprised, expecting him to spend some of his money tonight. He was also proud.
‘Dannis.’ His voice was quiet. Tuck rarely raised his voice, since most men were intimidated enough by the cold surety of his soft tones.
His son turned then looked away again. Tuck took a few more steps and stood behind him. He didn’t know what to say. Tuck knew that the young man joined the party to try to be closer to his father. Tuck spent much of his life away from home, and as such had missed much of his life. Dannis rarely called his father by name, a sign of the rift between them. He had made the first move to bring them together, and Tuck didn’t know how to reply. His son wasn’t a soldier, but if he had refused Dannis’ part in the militia, Tuck would probably have lost all hope of a connection.
‘Ser.’ The young man didn’t look at his father when he spoke.
Tuck didn’t find this awkward silence as easy ignore. It took him a moment to gather his thoughts.
‘Dannis, go invite a few men to sit with me after dinner. I want to get a sense of what the men are thinking.’
His son stood and turned, but didn’t meet Tuck’s eyes. Tuck returned to his bedroll. The sun was but a needle on the horizon. Lyrach was far too distant to see, and the tall man found to his surprise that he was missing his home, his wife, his father, it all. He didn’t usually. He primarily held the idea that he would be home again soon enough that it didn’t really matter, but something was different this time. Whether it was his son with him, or just something strange about the reports they’d received, he wasn’t sure.
The tall man flinched, he dropped the stick he was holding onto his small campfire. It wasn’t his son who had spoken. He looked up and saw a small group approaching him. His son came in behind them, and Tuck noticed a few familiar faces. Barrat Kerranson, the hulk he had met earlier that day led the group, and one of the rangers, he realised, though he couldn’t place a name. One of the others also he recognised, but could it be?
‘Leof?’ Tuck leapt to his feet, staring at the man who had named him. ‘Judeson?’
The man Leof grinned broadly and jumped a bedroll to embrace Tuck. Before he could return the clasp, Leof released him. The man was of middle height with braided blonde hair and a thick beard. He was pale, but thickset with piercing grey eyes.
‘Had I known that you were here...’ Tuck was confused. He hadn’t seen Leof with the rest of the party. Leof’s grin faded.
‘I only just arrived, friend. The rangers remained silent at my request. I come from the Duke of Ostgard.’
‘Friend, now is not the time for such matters. If it is not of great urgency, we shall discuss it upon our arrival to Or Vordur.’
‘Of course.’ Leof sat next to Tuck. The others approached and sat around the camp fire. To his right crouched the ranger, and another man who looked similar – though cleaner shaven – sat by him. To his left, past Leof, Barrat sat himself beside a sharp nosed man with devious eyes. Opposite Tuck, a slim woman with short, light brown hair sat down and watched Dannis, the last to sit, as he made his way around next to her.
Tuck reached a stout stick into the fire and lifted out a bowl full of hot gruel.
‘You don’t mind, I haven’t eaten.’ The men motioned that they didn’t.
After a moment, the man next to the ranger decided to speak.
‘Well met, soldiers. I am called Galan, and I’m from the village south of Lyrach called Tchusk,’ the ranger pulled out a knife and began to whet it on the sole of his boot, ‘and this ranger here is my brother, Vander, also of Tchusk.’
The group’s eyes turned to Vander, who gave each a quick scan then returned to stare out into the night. He was tall, like his brother, but far leaner. He had rough goatee which he occasionally stroked, and a mop of blonde hair framing a thin face. Galan, on the other hand, had dark hair, unusual for this part of the world, and a strong brow. They shared wide, inquisitive green eyes.
Leof spoke next, looking at Galan.
‘And what is your story, soldier of Tchusk?’
‘You wish to hear my story, eh? Stories are what I am, ser Knight. To tell my story would be to – ’
He cried out as the ranger flicked the back of his head.
‘Don’t want a tome, brother.’
Galan’s brother’s voice was like the night itself; quiet, shadowy, barely more than a whisper. His incomplete sentences, though, pointed to a childhood spent in the wilds rather than in school. Galan looked like he wanted to fight back, but was able to restrain himself and force a smile.
Tuck finished his meal, and put his bowl down next to his bed. He spat out some grit and ash left from the burnt bowl with a mouthful of water. The gathered looked at him expectantly. He looked back at them.
‘Well, we’re off to a good start,’ he spoke slowly over the crackling flames. ‘Introduce yourselves. I’m just trying to get to know my men. I’m sure you all know that I am Ser Hlrothran Tuck, a Knight in the service of the Duke of Lyrach and of the Regent Council.’
He paused for a long moment, but nobody spoke, so continued.
‘And I was called upon by the Duke to lead this expedition.’
Tuck was beginning to get tired of these silences. He was trying to find something else to say when the shifty man stood up. Upright by the fire, he was much easier to see. He was not a tall man, though not short. His shaven hair was coarse, done quickly by himself. Tuck couldn’t tell what colour it was. His eyes were a very pale blue, which complemented his pasty white skin. This man was obviously not from around here.
‘Desmond. My name, that is, yer Knightship.’ The man called Desmond bowed poorly. ‘Yer men call me Knightsmith, though.’
‘And why is that, good man?’ Galan asked across the fire.
‘Cos I’m the Knight’s smith,’ He grinned wolfishly. ‘Well, I’m the only smith, but that ain’t much a moniker.’
‘And do you have a story for me to tell when we get back home?’
The Knight watched with amusement as Desmond sat down and the whole group began to loosen up a bit. He was content just to watch, knowing that the men he rode with each day were at ease, with each other, and the situation. He was not sure, however, if they had been properly briefed on the purpose of this journey.
Barrat broke Tuck’s train of thought when he asked who the pretty woman next to Dannis was. The look she gave him made him blush with such ferocity that the entire party quietened.
‘I am Tyra Venessen. No, I am not a rider, but this young man,’ she motioned to Tuck’s son, who glanced at his father before looking away, ‘was willing to pay good money for my company. And gold, a warm fire and intelligent conversation was far preferable to sitting with the other women and hearing their stories.’
The tall man smiled. He could imagine such stories where similar to those found around a military campfire.
‘Venessen?’ Leof asked. Galan, too, frowned at her, it was a strange name.
Now that she had his attention, Tuck noticed that she had incredibly striking features.
‘Yes. I am of a faerie bloodline.’
Barrat was still watching her, though she seemed not to notice, or not to care. Tuck noticed, however, and he was not surprised. The way the fire glimmered in her hair, and in her large, exotic blue and green eyes, her delicate nose and lips; she really was beautiful.
But Tuck didn’t believe in the Faeries.
A new lull spread through the group, but they seemed much more comfortable this time, and it was bearable. Tuck looked around the circle, his eyes resting on each of them for a moment before moving. Over the course of the night, he knew that they had come to know him a bit better, though he had spoken little. They did not fear him like they did earlier, though he hoped this trust would hold up in combat.
The wind blew all of a sudden, threatening to extinguish their fire. Tyra, clad in less than she should be, hunched over, shivering. Leof saw her, but before he could move, Dannis removed his cloak and threw it over her shoulders. He didn’t return her smile, though, as it seemed somehow insincere. Maybe her work had taken so much of her life that she did not even have real emotions.
The fire returned to its former state, but the gust reminded Tuck how cold it was. He looked up at the mountains, and he shivered. It was quiet again when at last he looked away and stood up. He thanked the men for coming, and dismissed them. One by one, they made their way back to their bedrolls, though Dannis didn’t go alone. Tuck noticed with strained amusement that he hadn’t only wanted her to join their party.
Looking around the camp, the tall man noticed that most of the fires had been put out. The mountains gave an eerie chill, and only the warmth of fire and friendship had held it away so far tonight. Now that Tuck had extinguished the fire and the others had gone, though, he suddenly felt very alone in the dark. He really didn’t feel good about this mission. The mountains north of Lyrach were not a good place to be.
The man sat down and pushed such thoughts from his mind. He looked into the stars. They were faded by the cloud, but he could make them out. He wasn’t tired, but he pulled his wolf-skin cloak around his shoulders to ward off the chill of the night. Judging by the location of the moon, it was past midnight. He removed his belt, and placed it with his sword next to his bed, then took off his leather tunic. He sat silently, listening to the wind and the sounds of the mountains. He heard a few howls, but they didn’t bother him.
He lay back on his bed, using his cloak as a blanket. He heard movement a few paces to his left and he opened his eyes, but then he remembered Dannis’ girl. He closed them again and rolled over. He waited, and the sound abated after only a moment. Tuck’s mind was empty. He didn’t feel like sleeping; he wasn’t tired, but he knew that the journey across the mountains would be tough, and it would be a long day. They couldn’t stay a night in them. He tried to think of all the tales he had heard of the mountains. By the time he’d finished the second, his eyelids were heavy, and the warmth of his cloak inviting. He pulled it a little bit tighter around his shoulders and shifted his head.
Tuck’s eyes flicked open, and he heard screams. Within a second, he was stumbling through his blanket to reach his sword. He reached the middle of the scabbard, but an unclad foot fell onto the hilt. His mind was reeling. He was moving without thinking, his mind hadn’t caught up. Tuck threw his other arm out and grabbed the ankle. He heard laughter coming from above him, and another foot slammed into the side of his head. He let go of both the ankle and the sword as his vision went black for a moment.
The tall man rolled and saw a man clad only in badly sewn wolf-skin. He was holding a crude spear ready above Tuck’s chest. Tuck rolled just in time to avoid the stab down. He tried to stand up, but his feet were tangled in his cloak, and he fell again. Kicking it away, he rolled away again, and was able to get his feet under him. He had taken his boots off, and the snow on his feet felt like it was burning him. He pushed hard against it and it slipped a little, but he was able to slam his shoulder into the savage’s gut. He thought he heard a rib snap, but he couldn’t be sure.
Both of the men fell to the floor, the savage still laughing, though there was blood on his lips. Tuck could now hear the thuds of steel against wood, and screams of pain, but he blocked it out. He had to. Bracing his elbows on the bitter snow, the tall man pushed as hard as he could, and managed to roll the savage under him. Tuck grabbed the spear from the ground next to them, and snapped it against the other man’s arm as he swung. Now holding little more than a sharp rock in his left hand, Tuck fought with his right to pin an arm down. After recovering from the savage’s swing at his head, he stabbed the rock down into the bottom man’s arm. His howl of pain returned quickly to laughter, and he sat up suddenly, pushing Tuck off him. Leaping to his feet, the savage stumbled a few paces backwards. With little more than a grimace, he pulled the rock from his shoulder. Tuck, still on the ground, reached out with his arms and managed to hook his sword with his fingers. He tried to roll to his feet, but fell over again. His mind still had not yet fully taken in the situation, and he was acting purely on instinct.
The savage threw the stone at his head, and it arced through the air like a dart. Tuck managed to push himself out of the way and on top of his sword. He heard a howl of glee, and he rolled, pulling the sword, scabbard and all, around with him. He had enough momentum to club the savage’s head and throw him off balance. Tearing the cover off his sword, Tuck scrambled in the snow and fell onto the other man. He felt his blade hit bone, and pushed harder. The savage screamed, but Tuck’s sword jerked deeper and the scream turned into a gurgle as he coughed blood into the tall man’s face. Clawed hands clobbered Tuck, but he held the sword. He held it for a few moments, but the savage just wouldn’t die.
Tuck released his right hand and started smashing the other man’s face. Pound after pound, the savage was still gurgling. Tuck just kept hitting him. He must have been punching blindly for over a minute before he realised that the man was already dead and the blood he drew was from his own knuckles. The crushed face stared up at him with glassy eyes and a grotesque grin. Tuck punched him again. He leapt to his feet, and still straddling the dead man, he looked around. His fading adrenaline was all that kept him standing. There must have been scores of them. His camp was completely surrounded. His hand fell to the horn at his hip, but it wasn’t there. He swore vehemently, then remembered his belt. He threw his cloak aside and found it lying on his bedroll. He fell to his knees, and noticed that his fingers were freezing. He fumbled with it, and eventually brought it up, but his cold lips couldn’t make enough sound. He tried again, to the same effect. He threw his cloak around his shoulders and stuffed the horn under his arm. He roared at the top of his lungs.
‘To me! Every man to me!’ He saw a few men look at him, then repeat the call. It was spreading. He couldn’t make out how many of his men were left, but he could see figures lying still in their beds. Naught could be done.
He lifted the horn to his mouth again, and holding his sword in one hand, horn in the other, he began to run to the mountain pass. He blew the horn with a prayer to the Gods, and a long, powerful note burst forth. He heard shouts coming from behind him, but he didn’t turn to find out who’s they were. He called out again, called for the men to fall back to the mountains.
The mountain pass had a rundown entrance; it had once been supported. The pass itself in years long past had even been patrolled. Now it was just a semblance of a gate and a crumbled tower warning men away. Unfortunately, Tuck realised too late that he and the other surviving soldiers had been herded through the gate, most likely into another ambush.
Once Tuck reached the gate, a few hundred metres from camp, he stopped. Fumbling with his mostly numb fingers, he managed to get his belt tied on again. He realised that he had also forgotten his leather shirt, though, and cursed himself. When he looked back, Tuck saw only maybe a score of his men left running towards him. He could not see what happened to the men and women who weren’t soldiers.
He ran a little further and found a space that at least the men would fit in, though he knew they would little be able to defend it. He turned again and called. They were tired, so tired and so cold. They didn’t have time to don much more than their wolf pelts. Some didn’t even have that. They would be dead within an hour or two. The pass he found formed a choke point. His men could hold out for a short while.
Vander, the ranger, was the first man to reach Tuck. The other rangers, too, were able to move faster, as they were at least dressed. Tuck stumbled over to Vander, who was helping other men keep moving.
‘Ranger, can you run?’
The man nodded.
‘You must reach Or Vordur. We will not survive, but I do not want these men forgotten. Run, man. Gods give you speed.’
The ranger didn’t smile, didn’t speak. At once he dropped the man he held into Tuck’s cold arms and leapt through the snow. Tuck watched his feet bounce across the surface of the snow, barely leaving a mark. The man certainly was fast. He also heard guttural shouts coming from that direction. Pulling the limp man through the snow, he began to chant. It was a simple prayer, but Tuck found it appropriate. It was usually spoken by damned men.
‘Enibrus remember me. Erebrus forgive me.’
If Vander didn’t get through, they were all damned.
Tuck repeated the prayer, his coarse voice rising and falling with the effort of pulling men out of the snow, of fighting the cold himself, of even just breathing. The other men heard him, though. He saw their faces fall as they realised there was no hope, but after a moment, the fear was replaced by a grim determination. They would fall, but they would not fall easily. The men formed a tight wall at either end of the pass, with Tuck and a few others in the middle. They began howling, matching even the savage’s cries.
Then they came, a hundred, more, from every direction. The men raised their swords and axes, maces and fists. Tuck began to scream.
‘Enibrus remember me. Erebrus forgive me!’
He took a step and a heard a dull, wet thud. He fell into darkness.
‘Ranger, can you run?’ The Knight asked him.
Vander nodded. His thoughts were frantic. He didn’t have time to sort them. He couldn’t vocalise them. The Knight didn’t give him a chance.
‘You must reach Or Vordur,’ the ranger knew why. ‘We will not survive, but I do not want these men forgotten.’
It was cold. So very cold.
‘Run, man. God’s give you speed.’
Vander’s numb face didn’t work. He couldn’t grin or grimace. Another nod, and he turned, and he ran. The ranger’s feet barely marked into the snow. Like his thoughts, they didn’t have time to sink in. The rising blizzard marred his vision, and whipped against his face. It wasn’t long before he had to wrap his scarf around it. He heard men shouting behind him, but he couldn’t work out what they were calling, nor did he turn to find out. The knight told him to run, and running is what the ranger did best. His feet hardly marked the snow.
Vander noticed a few other savages beginning to move in from his direction, but he just raced straight past them, only a dark smudge on the snow. They would never catch him even if they did try. When the shouts began to quieten, he pushed harder. His legs pumped back and forward, he propelled himself onward. He refused to believe he could not save the men.
He had been running for what must have been hours. He hadn’t seen anyone since before the sun had risen. His legs were beginning to stiffen, but he couldn’t slow. He knew it was not much further to the garrison. He could see the woods that surrounded it. He put his head down and concentrated on making his limbs work in unison.
As Vander reached the slope leading to the trees, he thought he heard something else through the wind, and looked back. His foot caught on a solid clump of snow, and with a savage yelp of pain, frustration and surprise, the ranger was thrown down hard face first into the snow. Lying stunned, cold crept into his joints and his mind. He struggled, but as his heart slowed and body heat fell, he began to realise that the snow was actually quite comfortable. His thoughts were sluggish, but he felt so calm. When he lifted his head and saw red pooling in his face print, he smiled. It looked nice seeing another colour in all the black and white. Something inside him called out, but it wasn’t important.
The calling got louder, though, when his almost frozen foot moved. He looked down, and through the haze and light, he saw a nice puppy dog. It was nuzzling his leg. Another had come down, but this one wasn’t so nice. He yelped out when jaws clamped over his elbow.
His did not use words, just his anger and his pain. Vander howled with such ferocity and hate that the wolves took a step back. He pulled his arms in, and with a feral snarl, he pushed himself to his feet. He stumbled back a few steps, feeling light headed after seeing a pool of his blood.
He reached to his belt and slowly drew his handaxe. He began to growl, low and vicious, almost daring the wolves to come. He knew that if they did, he did not have the strength to fight them both. He stared directly into their eyes. He was not one of them, but he was bigger and meaner. And he was lucky they were only young.
He grimaced and then howled. He flailed his axe a few times, and the wolves took a few more steps backwards, whimpering. He saw the only chance he’d ever get. His voice cracked as he yelled again and threw his axe. He didn’t wait to see if it had any effect, rather he began to run again. Through the clearing snowfall, he could see the Thane’s Tower rising from the centre of Or Vordur.
He struggled forward. Between his still bleeding temple and his savaged arm, he had lost a lot of blood. He couldn’t stop though. The damned knight had given him a mission, and while Vander may not be the fastest thinker, he was the fleetest of foot. His own Gods damned brother was fighting back there! He could not let them down – he could not let Galan down. He ran as fast as he could, almost toppling from just exhaustion many times. He had just made it to the forest when a chorus of ghastly howls came from all around him and he saw grey shadows flitting between the trees.