Robert deals with a threat, and gets word of war.
A Warden Alone
The drawbridge remained closed. Robert scowled as he watched the high stone wall. A dry moat two dozen feet across lay between him and the gate. His horse stamped and nickered, and he steadied her.
Behind him stood two companies of soldiers, each with three ranks, swords out and bows nocked. Ahead, no man stood upon the ramparts, though Robert expected arrows to fly through the crenellations.
Wind pulled on his gray cloak as it flew along the open hills. He shivered, but kept his eye on the town.
Robert cleared his throat, then called out. “Vrad, come out! You told me you were fine, yet you hide!”
Robert’s brother was not in his right mind. Vrad had gathered his armsman and sealed them behind the wall. Most men believed the townspeople around Castle Taroy had been killed. The silence beyond the wall gave the rumors credence.
Robert cursed and gripped his sword. He ran his thumb along the silver bear’s-head pommel and spun his horse around, looking to his men. They watched him with wide eyes, and the one man bearing naught but a knife strode forward as the lord’s gaze fell on him.
“You need my services, mi’Lord?” asked Elver.
Robert scowled, brushing graying hair from his eyes. “Tear down the gate.”
He rode past Elver and dismounted, giving his horse to a servant, who ran the steed to the treeline far behind his force.
Only one-hundred and fifty men, Robert thought. That’s all my brother hasn’t payed off. How did the soldiers under his command justify killing a whole town. And how could he kill Father?
Robert swallowed past the lump in his throat, baring teeth. Elver stepped toward the edge of the moat, lifting a hand. A jolt hit the air, as if the air could be smacked with a hammer, and the drawbridge shattered. Splintered wood crashed forward, smashing into buildings and embedding in the dirt street beyond.
Robert’s soldiers rushed forward, the first rank lifting their shields, the second rank baring bows. The third rank were swordsman, and they carried a wide structure of wood forward, grunting and cursing. They passed between the split ranks of shieldmen and archers, bridging the moat with the wood.
“Good,” Robert muttered. Then louder, “Men, enter.”
The swordsmen rushed across the wood, flanked by archers. Robert followed, clapping Elver on the back.
He slung his shield off his back and passed through the gate, his men ten paces ahead.
“Keep an eye out, Elver,” Robert said.
The buildings of stone and wood passed by as they headed down the one street, toward the castle. The street was the width of ten men. Ahead, soldiers cursed. The corpses of townspeople filled the alleys. They looked to have died only yesterday, though reports were five days old.
What are you doing, Vrad?
This was not like his brother. Vrad had been kind, and had watched the town when Robert left. But Robert had seen Vrad with his own eyes, killing their father.
His jaw clenched, and he quickened his pace, mail cowl jingling. Elver kept close to his side, looking about. Behind them moved the second company of men, cursing when they reached the foul alleys.
The men ahead halted. Further, gates creaked open, and thunder sounded.
“Cavalry!” one man cried.
Robert cursed and roared, “Archers, front!”
The bowmen rushed to the front, shieldmen hurrying to protect them.
“Elver, get up there and stop that cavalry,” Robert barked. Archers from the rear company ran past Robert, growling curses and fumbling arrows to string.
“Yes, mi’Lord.” The stocky wizard sped to the archers’ side, hand out. The front company halted as men fit arrows and aimed, though they didn’t draw string. Robert came to their rear, peering between them. Soldiers rushed up from behind to fit round shields in front their lord.
One-hundred yards ahead, a thick wall of cavalry thundered near, lances lowered.
Robert raised an eyebrow. A risky move on their part. Foolish, even. “Elver, halt them,” he said. “Archers, kill what’s left.”
A chorus of “Yes mi’Lord”s rang out. Elver lifted a hand, aiming his palm at the wall of horses and lances. Those men wore the Taroy surcoat; a black bear standing on hind legs against a field of brown, the same surcoat Robert wore.
With a jolt to the air, the horses smashed against an unseen wall. The first line of horses crashed against the wall of solid air as they would stone. Their bodies crunched and snapped, their riders thrown forward as they fell. Men screamed in fright, but cried out in pain as the second rank of cavalry tumbled over the first. Horses screamed and crashed against the men of the first rank. One man from the on the ground visibly snapped at the spine as a horse fell on him.
Robert winced as the third rank fell. Men and horses screamed and squealed and crashed against one another. The weighty thumps filled the street, and the stench of blood filled the small town.
Within a minute, all momentum stopped and the street was still but for men attempting to drag their broken bodies away from the thrashing horses. Robert’s archers advanced a dozen yards before loosing arrows into the injured. After three volleys, all was still.
Robert smoothed his face, abandoning his disgust. “Forward!”
They passed the spot of death slowly, picking their paths through the bloody broken corpses while maintaining ranks. More alleys held murdered townspeople.
Slow minutes later, they came to Taroy Castle. Robert looked up at the towers, the rampart, the banners. The Taroy Bear flapped in the wind. A lump formed in Robert’s throat. After this, I will be the final Taroy.
He looked to the broad door behind a thick portcullis. “Elver, break it down.”
The wizard stepped forward, lifting an arm. The air jolted, and the door splintered. The pieces flew out, and the portcullis before it dented. Elver raised his hand, and the portcullis lifted. The gears creaked and the ropes groaned.
“Infantry, front and forward,” Robert said. The swordsmen took front rank, shields raised. They filed through the door, the rear company passing Robert.
“Mi’Lord,” Elver nodded toward the gate. Robert stepped past the portcullis, then Elver hurried under the hanging iron. He clenched his fist and the portcullis slammed shut. The soldiers halted.
“He will most likely be in Father’s study,” Robert muttered. “Keep a sharp eye and ready arm, I doubt we’re alone here.”
Beside him, Elver sweated and huffed.
“Keep close, Elver,” Robert said, “If you think you’ll faint, speak up.”
The old wizard nodded, patting his bald head with a handkerchief. Sweat dripped off his hooked nose.
Robert turned to his men’s backs and raised his shield. “Forward!”
Tall windows above the door let in pale light.
They moved out to an open chamber. To their left, a well-carved table stood, backed by three tall chairs; the receiving chamber. To their right, a staircase led up, curling the length of the tower. The winding way was dark.
“He’s cut the lanterns,” one man said.
“Up the stairs, men,” Robert said. “Keep shields up and swords ready to strike.”
They hesitated before obeying. Robert held in a curse as he followed the men up the stairs. Two shieldmen flanked him, and Elver crept at the rear with shieldmen protecting him.
“Slowly,” Robert whispered as they moved higher into the darkness. All was pitch, and men stepped cautiously. Mail coats jingled, and shields bumped walls as they curled up the tower.
Robert held his shield up, sword pointed to the ceiling.
His jaw clenched; this was disorienting. He feared a knife in his side at any moment.
“Door,” a man whispered ahead. Others carried back the report.
Robert nodded. This was Father’s study. “Will it open?”
Robert turned around, speaking only in a direction. “Elver, get the door open.”
“Will do,” Elver said through the pitch.
Robert flinched as Elver bumped into him, and the man’s steps tapped slowly upward. “Pardon me,” he muttered as he pushed past men. Some flinched and cursed, others cried out. “Sorry. Make way, people. Make way.” Near the top, his words bounced off the walls. “Step back, please.”
Robert moved slowly backwards down the steps as men retreated.
“Front rank,” Robert called up, “be ready to protect Elver once the door is open.”
The air jolted, and Robert flinched. Ahead, wood smashed apart and scattered across distant stone. “Forward!”
He bound up the steps as light spilled down the staircase. His men rushed forward, and the twang of bowstrings touched his ears, along with the familiar sound of arrows embedding in wooden shields.
His men poured through the study in a tight wall of shields. Robert kept his up, and men flanking him drew close, their shields overlapping. The arrows persisted, and his own men let loose a few shafts.
“Hold, brother, hold!” came a cry up ahead.
“Stop your archers, Vrad!” Robert snarled.
“Hold your arrows,” came Vrad’s deep call. His men obeyed.
Robert looked past his men, at his brother. Vrad stood behind Father’s massive desk. He wore a mail coat under the Taroy Bear surcoat. He stood with hand on sword, and he met Robert’s eyes. Robert stood bent at the knees, taller than most as he was. An arrow could find his eye, otherwise.
“Why have you come here, Robert?” Vrad asked. The windows behind Vrad let in a ghostly pale light, which lit the stones of the wide chamber. Before the desk, four ranks of swordsman stood with weapons out. Before them, archers hid behind a rank of shieldmen.
Robert scowled. “You killed Father! Why have I come here? To see your head leave your body. You killed the townsfolk. Why?”
“They were evil, Robert,” Vrad growled. “As was Father. They were taken by the corruption you Wardens hunt.”
Robert’s scowl deepened. “No, Vras. You are corrupted. I feel it now.” In his mind, in the senses given to Wardens, Robert felt his younger brother’s corruption. Like an infected wound it stuck out in his mind. His stomach roiled, and his eyes teared.
“I am chosen by the gods, Robert. I–”
“No,” Robert spat. “I am the Warden. I have the Sense. And you are corrupted.” But Vrad’s soldiers were not. They did not sicken his mind. Their brows were drawn down.
To Vrad’s soldiers, Robert said “Those who follow Vrad, know that he is evil. He is taken by the Dreadforce, and is an agent. Leave him, and you will live.” The men looked doubtful. Stubborn, even.
Robert cursed and sheathed his sword. He strode from the ranks, presenting himself before Vrad and his men. Shieldmen rushed to protect him, placing two shields in front his chest, and one over his head. With his teeth, Robert pulled a leather glove from his right hand and spat it on the floor, lifting his arm. His palm bared the mark of the Breach Warden, a ten-pointed star of overlapping lines. Blocky runes ran through the gaps. Vrad’s men gasped.
Robert willed the mark to glow, and a stream of white light poured from his palm and fell on his brother. “Look,” Robert said. “Look and see your leader is evil!”
The soldiers turned and cried out. Where Robert’s light fell on Vrad, his skin was blacker than shadow and shimmered like water. His left eye grew red as if lit from within.
“A trick!” Vrad roared. “Kill him before he can deceive you further!”
His men hesitated, looking to Robert.
“I am the Warden,” Robert announced. “I work for the gods. He works for an evil force. If you do not join me, you will side with evil. You will die.”
Vrad’s men turned to their leader. Then, the archers pulled arrow and string, and Vrad spat a curse before his neck and head gave home to a dozen shafts.
Robert winced as his brother fell forward, catching himself on the table. He sputtered, blood pouring from his mouth. Robert ceased his light, looking upon the ruined face of his brother. Arrows stuck through his skull, through an eye. His neck bled, spilling on the table. He groaned, and his mouth moved as if trying to speak.
Robert looked away, tears blurring his vision. The evil would not let his brother die. Vrad sputtered and spoke nonsense words. Two arrows had found his brain.
“Let him go,” Robert growled, eyes on the floor. “Let him die!”
The archers loosed another volley, and Vrad grunted. He took another step and groaned. Robert’s eyes squeezed shut; he dare not look at what might remain of his brother.
Finally, Vrad fell. Arrows snapped on stone, and blood flowed across the floor.
Elver came to Robert’s side, placing a hand on his back. “I’m sorry it came to this.”
Robert spoke through shaky breath. “He’s dead?”
“Yes, he is dead.”
Robert wept quietly. He was alone, the last of his family.
“Robert,” came a voice in his head. Another Warden.
Robert sent a mental response. “What?”
“All Wardens have been summoned to Godsstone. Faldashir believes war will come.”
Yes, Robert thought to himself. He couldn’t put it off any longer. He could feel the Dreadforce pressing against the Divide. It would come, and so would war. “I’ll be there.”
END OF CHAPTER ONE