Authors: Christian Warren Freed
Tags: #Sci Fi & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic Fantasy
Book V of the Northern Crusade
By: Christian Warren Freed
Edited, Produced, and Published by Writer’s Edge Publishing 2014
All rights reserved.
© 2014 by Christian Warren Freed.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
The Northern Crusade Series
A History of Malweir Series
Beyond the Edge of Dawn
For my wife, Annie. Who would have thought that we’d come this far so soon?
Black smoke mingled with dust as the handful of horses sprinkled through the battling infantrymen thundered across the tiny farmstead. A pair of dappled geldings already lay dead in the snow-covered fields, their riders having bled out shortly after. Spent arrows and broken spear hafts were jut up at random, turning the fallow potato field into a macabre scene. The old barn, rickety and half broken down, was blazing away. Flames licked high into the late winter sky as the sound of cold steel clashing sang its grizzly song across the tundra.
An arrow whistled past Ingrid’s head, too close for her liking. The reluctant warrior knew she had nothing to prove by being caught in the middle of another battle but she’d vowed, not only to herself but to the others in the rebellion, not to stagnate like the previous council. Perhaps if they’d had more nerve to be seen on the front with their people the rebellion wouldn’t have almost been destroyed by Harnin One Eye’s forces. Her earlier crisis of faith abated after many long nights of deliberation with her shadows Orlek and Harlan. Their insights had thus far proven invaluable in keeping as many of her fighters alive as possible while Harnin continually spread his own Wolfsreik reserve forces thin across the breadth of Delranan in a vain attempt at stopping her. Ingrid felt momentum rebuilding with each passing dawn.
None of that would matter if she got herself killed out on this lonely farm. She accompanied a platoon-sized element out from their mobile bivouac site thirty leagues northwest of the capital city with the intent on seizing the farm to lay an ambush. The vast majority of the rebellion was peasants and farmers, not like the trained professionals they were facing. She knew they couldn’t go toe to toe in a pitched fight, leaving little alternative but to strike through guerilla tactics. A thick network of spies and local informants stretched from the far western coast to the base of the Murdes Mountains in the east. Every movement Harnin made was observed and reported back to the central command structure of the rebellion. Sometimes that meant delays of days, bordering on weeks. They were delays Ingrid was forced to tolerate as she struggled to keep one move ahead of the One Eye tyrant occupying the throne.
They’d arrived at the farm in the predawn hours only to find a Wolfsreik supply train reinforced with heavy infantry already camped out. Both the farmer and his elderly wife had been killed long before Ingrid arrived, under suspicion of treason. The lieutenant in command found the couple’s winter stockpile and wrongfully assumed it was for the rebellion. Ingrid spied their bodies hanging from the barren branches of an old oak tree just in front of the farmhouse.
Faced with the tough choices of fleeing back to their camp without making contact or fighting an essentially losing battle, Ingrid reformulated the plans and struck just as fast as she could get her people into position. They fired the barn with flaming arrows as other archers targeted the wagon horses. Wagons couldn’t move without horses. The Wolfsreik was either going to have to abandon their supplies or, after fighting a long battle, carry them on their backs. Neither prospect suited the wolf soldiers.
Ingrid gave their lieutenant credit for how quickly he roused his soldiers and formed a defense. She’d barely had time to send her meager cavalry, more akin to light raiders, around behind the farm while her archers continued an occasionally punishing barrage. A handful of wounded meant little in the enemy’s capabilities, however. The Wolfsreik locked their heavy shields in a wall and effectively reduced any aerial assault to mere nuisance.
Any initiative the rebels once held dissolved like so much spring snow as Harnin’s soldiers organized and defended. They made no move to go on the assault, content to wait for Ingrid to counter and make the next move. Any notion of a stalemate ended abruptly when Ingrid sent her cavalry in from the rear and infantry from the front under cover of archers. The battle remained stagnant for the first few minutes before the enemy lines cracked. Ingrid sent the largest men first. Their combined weight bowed the enemy line, distracting them enough for her cavalry to strike from behind. The Wolfsreik square broke and it quickly became a melee.
Hand-to-hand combat was fierce. Men, and an occasional woman, fell dead or wounded. Their rich blood painted the melting snow. Ever the opportunists, Ingrid’s rebels snatched up the better-quality weapons from fallen Wolfsreik and surged ahead with renewed confidence. Ingrid was able to stay behind, barely, as her forces steadily overwhelmed the surviving enemy. She didn’t offer quarter. Neither would they. This type of war didn’t allow for prisoners. Each side bore that burden into battle every time. It was a sad fact that countrymen killed countrymen with ruthless abandon in the name of causes they didn’t truly understand.
Ingrid didn’t pretend to understand them. An officer’s wife, she’d been around the army for as long as she could remember. Many of the men fighting her now seemed familiar, invoking fond memories turned painful by the war at the very least. She often wondered if any were once friends. Thinking of killing former friends didn’t sit well. None of her previous emotions meant anything in the ongoing struggle for the soul of Delranan. She fought just as harshly as her enemy and expected the same from them.
She looked up, trying to find the archer that had come within a breath of killing her, spotting him just in time to catch Orlek plunge his short blade down between the neck and shoulder. The archer died with a grimace locked on his bearded face. Orlek’s scowl prevented Ingrid from smiling. His displeasure with having her on the battlefield was well known to everyone in the command cell.
The archer’s death signified the end of the real fighting. Ingrid’s rebels hunted down the surviving Wolfsreik, mercifully ending the suffering of the wounded with a quick swipe across their throats. She couldn’t watch. Death was her boon companion but she viewed their relationship in a foul atmosphere. Even after nearly a full winter she still couldn’t stomach watching a man die, much less killing one herself.
All the more reason to return to the village and lead from behind the scenes. Getting yourself killed will only make matters worse for everyone. The rebellion’s been through so much I don’t think they could stand going through another restructuring.
She saw that sentiment echoed in Orlek’s dark eyes as he stalked across the distance separating them.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he fumed.
She held up her hands in protest while letting him vent. There wasn’t much point in trying to stop him, not when his emotions were amped up. He was a man, after all.
Of course it doesn’t help that we have feelings for each other
. She sighed. Romantic entanglements never worked out in these sorts of situations. One of them was bound to end up face down in a field, leaving the other a broken husk of a survivor. She almost prayed it was her dead in the fields, that way she wouldn’t have to bear the heartache of seeing a second man she loved killed.
He paused momentarily after noticing her reluctance to engage. “Don’t give me that silent treatment, Ingrid! I’m serious. War isn’t a game. Men die, horribly. You’re the leader of….”
“Of the rebellion. I know this, Orlek, but that doesn’t negate my responsibilities in being a leader. These men and women need to see me out doing what leaders are supposed to do. We’ve had this argument a hundred times since fleeing Chadra. Inaella and the others were more politician than leader. How can I inspire anyone when they never see my face?” she fired back.
Ingrid placed her hands on her hips, daring him to give her further fuel for her to attack with. She had just as much passion for Delranan as her rebellion and would argue like a badger until her opponent saw her point of view.
“Ingrid, we’re slowly turning the tide back against Harnin,” he said, much of the earlier conviction bled from his voice. “But we can’t maintain momentum if you get killed by a stray arrow.”
“Only that wasn’t a stray and you know it. He meant to kill me. I’m a recognizable figure now. Harnin has my description plastered in every village he has the tiniest grip on. I’m a target now, Orlek. Hiding me away won’t change that,” she told him. “He’ll stop at nothing to get at me and cut the head off the rebellion for good.”
Orlek’s shoulders sagged. “We should have made sure Inaella was dead before leaving.”
“She’s only a small part of the problem.”
He barked a bitter laugh. “Women scorned are seldom small parts. I have a feeling she’s one of the main driving forces in Harnin’s new offensive.”
“Of course she is,” Ingrid replied. There’d been rumors of a pockmarked, dark-haired woman at the front of Harnin’s formations as the campaign waged across the western part of the kingdom. Until Ingrid had confirmation, there was little point in pursuing them. She wanted Inaella dead more than any other save perhaps Harnin himself. Once, she pitied Inaella. The woman had lost everything and been stricken with the plague. Whatever remained was a shallow representation of the woman she’d been. Hatred fueled her thoughts, hatred for Ingrid. There was a reckoning coming and Ingrid could only hope something foul happened before it arrived.
“Inaella knows all of your secrets. She’ll stop at nothing to see you hanging from the gibbets over Chadra Keep,” Orlek needlessly said.
Ingrid finally allowed some of her ire to calm. Living with Inaella’s wrath was a burden only she could bear. Anyone else caught in the path would either be swept aside or driven under. Their fire threatened to consume the northern kingdom all lost amidst the growing conflagration between good and bad. No one in Delranan knew anything about the coming storm between the gods and their minions here on Malweir.
Flashing a soft smile, Ingrid pushed a lock of blond curls from her face. “I can’t let her stop our progress. She’s only one woman and lacks any knowledge of where we’ve come since leaving the city. Her information is outdated. Harnin will see her for that and, from what I can guess, will have her strung up or sent to one of the labor camps in the east for wasting his time.”
The camps were equally rumor. Ones she tended to believe. Even before the rebellion fractured and abandoned the major cities, Ingrid had heard mention of Harnin’s troops fortifying the east against the eventual return of King Badron and his much larger, more professional army. No doubt Harnin felt trapped between two raging conflagrations. Dealing with the rebellion in a swift, efficient manner was his best option, especially with the ten-thousand-strong Wolfsreik returning from campaign in Rogscroft. Ingrid still had a chance, albeit a slight one with a closing window of opportunity.
“All I’m asking is that you bear with me until we can force this ordeal to a conclusion,” she told him with all sincerity. “We can break Harnin. Leave him ineffective and bloodied when Badron returns.”
“Where does that leave us, though? We’ve all heard dark things about the king. How can we trust him to treat us or the kingdom any better? For all we know he’ll come after us the moment he’s done crushing Harnin.” Orlek frowned. Deep creases lined his weather-beaten forehead. A soldier, he’d chosen to keep his past hidden from Ingrid. There were some things she just didn’t need to worry about. “Right now we need to focus on mopping this mess up. We can’t afford to let any of Harnin’s men escape.”
She felt the weight dragging her heart down get heavier. Killing was never easy, nor should it be. It took a different kind of man to take a life. Those rare few finding perverse pleasure in the deed left stains on all of humanity. Ingrid ordered men killed because she had to. Because there was no other viable solution to ending the rebellion in Delranan without letting Harnin win. Too much had happened already. Too many depravities. Too few people standing up for what was right. The imbalance of social justice spurred her decisions. Her conscience would have to wait to be dealt with once the fighting ended.
“Order the cavalry to hunt down the survivors. As much as I’d like to take prisoners we can’t afford the manpower necessary to guard them,” she instructed.
Orlek sheathed his short sword. “The men know what to do. I’ll see to it. I suggest you get inside the farmhouse and try to get warm. It’s a long ride back to camp and we need you with all of your fingers and toes, if you take my meaning.”
She forced a smile. Frostbite was a very real concern plaguing the rebels as they struggled through the deep snows previously untouched by anything larger than a bull moose. “Leave me a few to take care of the farmer and his wife. They didn’t deserve to die, especially not at the hands of the same army sworn to defend them.”
“Of course,” was all Orlek said. The rebellion had seen its share of civilian casualties. A sad fact of war was that more civilians wound up getting killed than soldiers. This farming couple was merely the latest in a long line of victims.
Ingrid watched him walk away with mild interest. She couldn’t help but wonder if they’d ever find the path back to normalcy or would Delranan suffer under the cloud of madness until the great fire went out of the world? Unwanted answers assailed her as she stalked inside with heavy heart.