Authors: John March
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Epic, #Myths & Legends, #Norse & Viking, #Sword & Sorcery, #Metaphysical & Visionary, #demons, #wizards and rogues, #magic casting with enchantment and sorcery, #Coming of Age, #action adventure story with no dungeons and dragons small with fire mage and assassin, #love interest, #Fantasy
Vergence Cycle, Volume 1
Published by John March, 2015.
Twelve Years Earlier
BEZ LED HIS RIDERS
directly out across open ground, following the scout swiftly over the white, frozen valley. A dark shadow, half concealed behind gusting icy veils, resolved into a line of trees, and there they saw the first outline of hulking pack animals nudging forward into the forest.
Fanning out into an extended line behind Ubez, his men pushed their trikawi into a ragged gallop, the breath of the three horned mounts streaming out, dragged away along with the whisper of their long legs cutting through drifts.
Stinging flakes struck his exposed skin like small darts. The sound of his harsh breathing masking the hiss of the wind, loud inside his helmet behind the mouth guard.
Snow plumes blown from the trees angled across their path as they closed, concealing them until they were on the heels of the fleeing men.
They caught stragglers from the merchant caravan at the edge of the forest. Their mounts crashed through the dense foliage at the edge of the tree-line, hooves slipping and scrambling for purchase on layers of loose snow and fallen waxy evergreen needles.
The force of the charge carried them forward into an open area under taller trees. Indistinct figures on foot scattered, abandoning their goods, and ran into the deeper gloom. Ubez recognised the distinctive long-haired pack beasts as burawi, favoured by travellers in the wintry northern land for their strength and steady invulnerability to cold. Now heavily burdened, they were an obstacle for his men.
In a moment the forest filled with echoing sounds of the fearful animals grunting loudly as they wheeled in circles, hoarse shouts of panicking merchants punctuated by the snap of bows and shrill calls of trikawi scenting fresh blood.
Ubez reigned his mount in, slowing to a ungainly trot. His hand-picked squad of skirmishers remained by his side. Now they needed to find the woman quickly and finish, before the settling darkness allowed her to slip away.
The skirmishers were usually lightly armed with missile weapons, their role to provide a screening force in battles, protecting the flanks and rear of friendly forces, and to harry those of the enemy. Ubez's had been selected for their ability to shoot accurately from the saddle, and for this reason he now held them back for the critical moment.
Equipped with barbed darts and arrows, they'd been tasked with neutering the abomination from a safe distance. The heads of their missiles were made of valuable sevyric iron, and such weapons were not to be wasted on slaughtering common sinners such as the wretched merchant.
Ubez stood up in his stirrups to make himself visible. “Mulluz on me, fall your men in.”
A loud bellow from one of the towering pack beasts overwhelmed his final instruction. It's hindquarters had collapsed, impaled by a short lance, forcing it to a seated position. It produced a series of panicky bawling sounds, eyes rolling, and froth flying from its lips as it struggled to regain its feet.
A brown-clad figure, wearing the flat topped hood of the northern merchant clans, dashed from behind the wounded animal, and scrambled for cover behind a tree. The two pursuing soldiers broke off their attack immediately, and wheeled back towards him.
With the rear of the merchant column dispersed, Ubez pressed forward, following the churned up snow and torn undergrowth produced by the main body of the caravan as it followed a winding path between the trees.
A few hundred paces on, where the path curved along the base of a slope to their left, they passed larger groups of heavily laden burawi, milling about without their owners.
He pulled back the flap of armour covering his mouth. His triple plait, worn much shorter than fashionable for his rank, had come loose during the charge, and now swung freely as he turned his head.
There was a growing exultation in his chest — no exile to the Kquitik swamps awaited him at the end of this journey. Twice the abominations had escaped, disgracing the troops sent to hunt them, condemning their officers to a lifetime posting in that disease infested outpost.
His orders came directly from the inner circle of the Triumvirate, the instructions very precise: the ones they hunted must be killed immediately, without hesitation. They were to hold no trial, to have no public execution.
The scout stopped and pointed. “Inquisitor, there are tracks.”
Ubez nudged his trikawi closer, wheeling his mount round to see in the closing light. Three sets of footprints in the snow led up the slope, one set closer together and smaller — a child's.
“These are the ones,” he said, a note of triumph in his voice. He gestured at his skirmishers, waving them forward. “Pull their claws.”
As he mounted the crest of the slope at the head of his main company, he heard the snap of bows firing. A thin line of trees at the top of the slope gave way to a wide clearing. In the centre of the clearing stood a single shoulder high tree-stump, and leaning against it a woman with hood pushed back to reveal unkempt long dark hair surrounding a face nearly as pale as the snow.
An arrow had taken her in the thigh, and another she clutched at with her hand had gone through her side. The body of a merchant, source of the third set of footprints, lay face down in front of her with two arrows in his back, and behind her the shadow of a smaller shape, a boy partially concealed behind the stump. All this Ubez's experienced eyes absorbed in a moment as he spurred forward raising his bow. The skirmishers had done their task well, and now galloped around the periphery of the clearing in pairs to cut off any escape.
As he rode close to the woman, drawing an arrow back to his cheek aiming for the throat, she raised her head, and met his eyes.
In his time he had seen many executions and recognised the expression on her face. She had already given up hope for herself.
“Please—” she said.
The arrow struck just above the point where her collar-bones met. It's broad razor-sharp head passed through and erupted between her shoulder blades.
She collapsed slowly, soundlessly, arms dropping and knees folding, slipping sideways to slide down the tree-stump until she lay turned away in the gently protesting snow, with her face barely a hand's breadth from the boy's feet.
The boy stepped backwards, away from her body, his hand brushing a fine spray of blood on his face into a smear. He shared her pale skin, and dark hair. His eyes, hollowed out and empty, watched her quivering legs as they performed faint kicking actions against the frozen ground.
A hurled javelin skipped off the surface of the stump, an arms-length from his face, yet his expression remained unchanged.
As a rider pushed past Ubez, drawing back an arrow, a tremor went through the boy's small body and something dark, and bitter settled silently over the clearing.
In an instant the air between them filled with a blizzard of tiny black shards. Sparkling with obsidian malevolence, they projected outwards across the clearing, travelling impossibly fast, like a deadly hail, and where the shards struck they pierced metal, and fabric, and flesh.
Scores of fragments penetrated deep into Ubez's body, scything through viscera and bone. Beneath him, his trikawi bucked once, and froze. The agonisingly cold splinters held him, unable to move, as if pinned to some vast invisible wall.
For a moment there was stillness, only trails of windswept snow moved across the clearing.
The man in front of Ubez dropped his arrow from nerveless fingers as each of the shards sprouted, and grew.
Orim sifted through the collection of small stones in his hand, sensing the resonance from each in turn, trying to find the one which most felt like this place. The journey to Kurbezh would undoubtedly be difficult and tiring, and his destination contained unknown dangers, so it would be wise to make the return as easy as possible.
Although time was precious he'd learned from experience that good preparation could often be the vital ingredient for success. In common with his Haeldran brethren, Orim absorbed the value of detailed attention with his mother’s milk. Even a simple fishing trip could prove fatal in the icy flows of his homeland, if one did not attend to equipment, and changes in the weather with a keen eye. In a land where the word for dead man in the language of his people was also the word commonly used for foolhardy, Orim had been considered capable before he was a teenager.
Identifying a satisfactory piece of flint, he wrapped it carefully in a small section of cloth, and eased it into a leather pouch hanging from a cord around his neck. Pushing the pouch back under his clothes Orim fastened the face flap of his hood before pulling his gloves back on.
He'd dressed from head to foot in bulky silver-grey furs and heavy leather, providing protection against the bitterly cold wind blowing off the ice to the north. An odd tuft of red hair escaped the confines of his hood, falling at an angle across his forehead. Despite his large build, he felt confident his furs would provide some concealment against distant eyes.
Daylight would be fading soon, the low sun now casting lengthening shadows from nearby trees and rocks. Orim had selected the location, in the extreme North of Fyrenar, to most closely match what he'd read about his destination in the library that morning.
He stood facing obliquely towards the setting sun. To his right, in the far distance, a thin grey line marked the beginning of the great northern glaciers, and a league away to his left the start of low foothills — climbing rapidly to a range of tall mountains.
In between lay a bleak and desolate snow-covered landscape. The nearest principality would be at least a score or more days good riding to the south, and he doubted even the hardiest of the native Furbeg would be found living in conditions as harsh as these. Orim bent to check the binding of his snow shoes, then slipped his snow pole loops around his wrists.
Time to go.
He took one last good look around to fix this place in his mind, reinforcing his mental image of the view – the position of rocks, trees and the shadows now extending outwards across the plains from the mountains — driven by the setting sun, noting the crisp breeze biting into the exposed part of his face, the smell of snow in his nostrils, and the insistent cold pushing its way through his heavy boots.
Confident he'd memorised an impression of this place as detailed as possible, he set off at a steady pace towards the west. As he walked, he began to feel outwards, stretching his awareness across the world skin, searching for points of contact, sifting for similarities.
He stepped cleanly beyond the bounds of Fyrenar, the snow thickening, and wind driving harder as elements of his destination replaced those he left behind. Gossamer hints of rainbow colours, twisting like ribbons through the air, marked his passage through the between.
When the last of the familiar aspects of Fyrenar had faded, Orim relaxed. The larger, redder sun and odd faint metallic taste in the air suggested he'd arrived at the right place. He stopped and looked around, finding himself in a broad plain similar to the one he had left in Fyrenar. He'd chosen his starting point well.