“We place our monsters in the dark;
evil, ugly, wretched things that pull at our darkest fears.
But what we find instead in that lonely expanse of nothingness is a single, solitary mirror
casting our own pallid expressions back upon us.”
Antory was slow in waking, holding on to the dream like a frost protesting the morning sun. Her face lingered for a moment, overwhelming his senses. He could see her smile, and the gap between her front teeth. The sweet scent of her hair filled his nostrils, complete with the feel of it running through his fingers like a river of woven silver. Blue eyes, so deep a man could lose himself in them, shared a secret gaze with his own. It felt real…
‘Captain? Are you awake?’
At first, Antory half expected to see her looking down on him, so vivid had the dream been. When he opened his eyes, it was Danner who hovered over him, rough and gaunt and far from comely. Antory clung to the dream for another moment, straining to recall it, to savour it… and felt it slip through his fingers like water. It has been far too long, he thought.
‘Captain?’ Danner repeated. The smell of dried beef was obvious on the ever-punctual steward’s breath.
‘Danner,’ Antory replied calmly, sitting up in his bedroll. ‘Yes, I am awake. Have you woken the others?’
Danner grinned, showing yellowed teeth. ‘Tayte and Branyon had the last watch for the night, Captain, so they’re awake enough. Therric and Mavran are out scouting. The rest are getting there. It’s been a rough couple of days – Gods know they need a break.’
Antory smiled grimly. ‘Indeed.’ As do we all. ‘Soon enough, Danner.’ He rose, the last vestiges of the dream disappearing into the night. ‘We can all last for however long this takes.’
Danner shrugged. ‘Aye, Captain. That we can.’
Antory reached out and touched his friend on the shoulder. ‘Danner.’ The older man met his eyes; Antory could read the weariness plain on his friend’s face. ‘This will be over in a few more days, you’ll see. After that, I’ll personally take it up with the Captain Commander that we all get some time away from our duties. I promise.’
Danner released a deep breath, as if he had been holding it for some time. He nodded. ‘Aye, Captain. It’s just the darkness that’s getting to me – nought more.’ His grin returned. ‘Anyhow, I’d best see to breakfast! Don’t be expecting no culinary delights, though, you hear? We all have to make do with what we got.’
Antory laughed. ‘Is that a threat?’ The steward went to it, leaving Antory to pack away the few possessions he carried with him. His waterskin, chainmail and shortsword were the most exciting of these; the waterskin he crammed hastily into his pack with his bedroll, the chainmail he threw on over his dusty clothes. Last of all was his swordbelt, which he buckled deftly around his waist.
His eye was caught by a glint in the dust. It must have fallen out of my pocket while I slept, Antory thought. He picked it up carefully, examining it for a moment. The seashell was dull and colourless as stone, no bigger than the joint of his thumb, yet the thought of losing it was almost unbearable. It was a tie, a link, one small yet powerful connection to another place, another time… to her. She held its twin, whose likeness to it was so uncanny she had instantly exclaimed that the two had to be special. Gods, we were young then… Antory tucked it away tenderly in his pocket, as deep as it would go, and double-checked that it was secure.
The sky was as black as sin, alien to the touch of the sun. Already the land through which they passed was growing darker, leaner, crueller, and the retreating hours of daylight would soon vanish into perpetual night. Then, he knew, they would truly be in the Black Lands – a world of eternal darkness, where evil creatures roamed and humanity feared to tread. A man can lose himself here, they said. Once he ventures too far into the dark, he cannot find his way back. He is changed forever. Antory placed little stock in such fairy tales – as a ranger of Frontier province he had seen little emerge from these wastes except lawless brigands, pale-skinned tribesmen, and deranged prophets – yet now, having ventured further in than any unit had done in a hundred years, he was beginning to wonder.
His men were stirring around the camp; irritable and sleep deprived, but otherwise none the worse for wear. ‘Morning, lads,’ Antory said cheerfully.
Michor was grumbling himself awake. ‘Gods… how can you be so bloody cheerful at this time ‘o the morning, Captain?’ He rolled over, and squinted. ‘Assuming it is morning, that is. Can’t hardly tell no more.’
Tayte was hovering by the glowing remains of the fire with Branyon and Endry, his mouth half full of food. ‘Well, it certainly aint due to Danner’s cooking, that’s for sure.’ He laughed.
Danner, hovering nearby, seemed mildly wounded. ‘My mother taught me how to cook, you ungrateful bugger.’ He tossed a second strip of dried beef at Tayte.
Endry laughed now. ‘Sure explains a lot, doesn’t it lads?’
Danner raised his hands. ‘Hey now, if you know of any fancy way to dress up dried beef and oats, you let me know!’ He gave Endry a clout over the head as he passed, and offered a few strips of dried beef and carrots to Antory. ‘Food, Captain?’
Antory waved them away. ‘Not just yet, Danner.’ He motioned to the others; Peter, pretending to listen to Michor’s complaints, and Callen, who sat by himself, methodically sharpening his sword as he stared outwards at the plains. ‘See to it that the men are fed. I want to tend to the horses first.’ He snatched a carrot from Danner’s hand and stuffed it into his pocket.
There were few enough of them, and they travelled light. Ten rangers to the unit was all they were, yet ten was all they really needed. There were literally dozens of ranger units much like their own scattered across the border with the Black Lands; together with the large garrisons maintained by the Duke, they protected the lands of men from the darkness. A darkness unexplored, a receptacle for our deepest fears, Antory thought wryly. How ironic that the real danger should come from the world of light, only to seek refuge in the darkness. His face was flush with fresh anger. They can’t be far now.
Antory strode down the horse line, strapping on the animal’s feedbags. Two of the ten horses were already gone, along with their riders; Therric and Mavran would have woken at least an hour earlier, and were most likely miles away by now, off scouting through the dirt and the dark for any sign of approaching danger. The poor chaps have it the toughest of all of us, Antory reflected ruefully. He remembered the popular motto that the scouts in the rangers’ barracks back home were fond of reciting – ‘the stewards prepare the food. The trackers and the fighters eat the food. The scouts do everything else.’ It was far from true, of course, and was matched by a few choice catchphrases from the fighters, stewards and trackers alike, but nobody could rightfully deny the physical toughness, the endurance, that it took to be a scout.
The horses glanced at him impassively as he passed. They were well behaved animals, bred specifically for fast-paced pursuits. They were as lean and tough as their riders, having been paired off with a particular ranger since the day of his swearing of service and duty. Over time Antory had come to recognise and respect their own distinct personalities, closely mirrored in those of their owners.
At last he came to Nimmad. ‘Hey, boy,’ Antory said with a smile, stroking the animal’s muzzle. Nimmad nodded his head and gave an enthusiastic whicker, his nose seeking for the treat in Antory’s pocket. Antory laughed. ‘Cheeky bugger. How do you always know?’ He removed the carrot from his pocket and offered it to Nimmad, who took it gently from his fingers and chewed it rather thoughtfully. Grinning, Antory strapped on his feedbag, and placed his saddle on the animal’s back. Nimmad was loyal, dutiful, and stubborn to a fault. The two of them got along perfectly.
Antory walked over to Callen next, who seemed focused on some point in the distance seen only by him. ‘Callen,’ Antory said by way of greeting, taking a seat on a rock beside the habitually silent tracker.
Callen continued polishing his sword, his hands not missing a beat of their silent rhythm. ‘Captain,’ he responded quietly. Callen was silent for a long time, bar the steady scrape of metal on oiled whetstone. Finally, he said, ‘clouds.’ He pointed into the distance. ‘Rolling in off the sea.’ The faded old scar on his cheek stood out like a crack in the earth. ‘Looks to be a dark day.’
In response, Antory found he could only nod. Aye, he thought, a dark day indeed, in more ways that one. He turned to study the rest of his men, trying to see them as the Captain Commander had taught him to see men. Three days’ ride with barely a moment spared for rest had left all of them as shadows, drawn in sharp detail by the relentless fire of the pursuit. Wishful thinking on Antory’s part would have it all be for the duty they bore to the Duke and his family; one look, however, was all he needed to reaffirm what it really was that pushed them on, driving this thing to a close with a ferocity that had a life of its own. The vendetta is as powerful to them as their duty, Antory thought. He felt the anger swelling in himself as he remembered. To us.
The thought made him sad – some years ago this kind of anger would have been as foreign to him as the sword by his side. Every step I take, I move further away from home, he pondered sadly. By now the grass in his paddocks would be as high as his shoulder, for want of someone to tend it. The apple trees would be sagging with fruit, their branches hanging lazily low to the ground. Some of the neighbour boys would no doubt have stolen into his fields numerous times, filling their shirts with fruit, not leaving until their arms were fully laden and their getaway was slowed to a crawl. Antory had done the same to old man Naytan as a boy… aye, and so had she, his partner in crime, teasing him as he tried unsuccessfully to match her pace, stride for stride, as they ran through the grass. They would take refuge in the thicket amongst the trees and swap experimental kisses with each other; her giggling, he deadly serious, his heart pounding in his chest like rain on a thatch roof. Later he would have to explain to his Uncle why his arms were swathed in rashes from his hours spent in the thicket – he never mastered the art of the bogus account, despite dozens of chances to perfect it.
Antory jerked himself out of his half-slumber; his eyes had slid closed with stealth worthy of any predator. There’s no time for that now, he told himself. You’ve a job to finish.
‘… could go for a warm bed and a hot meal,’ Endry was saying as he packed. ‘What say you, Captain? We could be back in Miner’s Town in just a few short days, with a roaring fire and a woman or two. I’ll even let you have first pick!’ He laughed.
Antory smiled in return. ‘Generous man.’ He patted Endry reassuringly on the shoulder.
‘Tayte here was just regaling us with the tale of how you saved the Duke’s grandson!’ Branyon said, grinning. ‘Way he tells it, you were a right plucky hero in your early days as a ranger. What was the lad’s name again? Elliard?’
Antory grinned. ‘The way he tells it surprises even me, and I’ve heard him retell it dozens of times.’ Tayte has served with him longer than any save for Danner, and was as loyal a man as any Antory had served with.
Peter washed down a mouthful of food with a swig of water, wiped his lips, and said, ‘Tayte here says you fought off twenty brigands single-handedly to save the young lad.’
‘Nah, more like it was thirty, eh Captain?’ Endry chimed in.
Antory smiled. ‘Actually, I think it was forty,’ he said, playing along. ‘Tayte here, now, he took on fifty of the buggers. Aye, and with one hand tied behind his back, too!’ They laughed together as one, but the hollow centre of their banter was unmistakeable. They are superstitious men, he knew, and their duty clashes with their fear. Looking at the landscape that surrounded him, it was small wonder. Just so long as duty wins out in the end.
It was at this time that Therric came riding in from the south, his lanky frame emerging from the pre-dawn gloom in time with a cold gust of wind. He dismounted and withdrew his skin of water from his pack. ‘We are clear to the south, Captain,’ he said between swigs. ‘Mavran’s taking the north today, cleaning up our passage. I did a sweep of the south circle. Found a pretty set of tracks a few leagues south of here that Callen will want to take a peek at. Very fresh.’ He shot Antory a knowing glance. ‘Looks like our murdering friends to me.’
There was no sound, yet Antory felt the ripple that passed through his men. Branyon coughed, turned and spat. Endry paused momentarily in his packing, his head turned towards Therric, before he aggressively returned to stuffing his bedroll into his pack. Even Callen paused in his rhythmic motion of sword sharpening.
Antory nodded. ‘Lead us there, Therric. Rangers, break camp and get moving. The ride awaits.’
His men moved with well-practised speed and precision, and within moments they were ready to go. Antory helped Danner break camp, masking their tracks and burying their campfire beneath a layer of dust. Fixing his mind on the familiar motions kept the deep well of anger at bay in his stomach. Yet it was still there, throbbing away like the raw, untreated wound that it was. A small wisp of smoke escaped the mound where the fire had been as he scattered the last handful of dust over the embers. Every step I take, he thought again. And then it was time to ride.
The sun was lazily protruding above the horizon when Therric began to slow. He came to a halt beside a rough outcrop of stone that jutted like an animal’s tooth from the landscape. Antory called a halt, and rode up beside Therric. He dismounted, and motioned for Callen to do the same.
‘There,’ Therric pointed. ‘Wind’s done a fancy job on hiding their tracks, but I’d say from the look of it we’ve found their trail again.’
Callen crouched down beside the mixed trail of faint hoofprints, which stretched off unbroken in either direction. He prodded the dust with a finger, his eyes distant and thoughtful.
‘What do you make of them, Callen?’ Antory asked the tracker.
Callen dusted off his palms, and turned to face the rangers. ‘Recent,’ he said simply. ‘Wind’s been strong here, but it’s done them no favours. They’re moving slow – my guess is, they rode a few horses to death, so now they ride double.’ He vaulted back into the saddle, taking he reins firmly in hand. ‘We’ll be on them before the day is out.’
‘About time, too!’ Endry said. A few of the others laughed, although there was little enthusiasm in their mirth.
Antory turned to face them all. ‘Rangers,’ he began, ‘they were our countrymen that were murdered in Miner’s Town. To most of us, they were also our friends.’ He looked at each of them in turn. ‘Remember our orders. Duty, honour, and steel.’
‘Duty, honour, and steel,’ they all repeated back. They were strong words, rooted deep in all of their minds, as they were in Antory’s. They meant service, and unwavering duty, to the defence of Frontier province, and of the Duke and his family. Realising that his hand had strayed to the hilt of his sword, Antory pulled it away. He climbed back into the saddle, and motioned for Callen to lead the way.
The sun had barely reared its head above the decaying terrain when it began to slowly fall back towards it. Dusk soon came, and brought with it the obscurity of nightfall. It rolled over the landscape like a thick murky blanket, turning the terrain into a shadowy, monotonous haze. Within the hour, Antory was calling for torches to be lit at the front and rear of their column. Soon, the darkness was lapping eagerly at the edge of their small circle of light, waiting for the opportunity to snuff out this strange, foreign intruder. If there were stars in the Black Lands, they were obscured by the promised bank of clouds that came rolling across the sky. They rode past stunted trees and clumps of blue-grey moss, and bug-eyed lizards that shrank away from the light. Every now and then, he would glimpse a pair of yellow eyes just beyond the edge of their circle, watching intently as they passed. Are these the monsters the storytellers speak of? The eyes seemed too shy, too curious to be evil.
With nothing but time on his hands, Antory found his mind replaying the events of the last few days over and over in his head. The face of Lord Grenfell, Commander of the garrison of Miner’s Town, was clear in his mind. ‘Come quickly,’ he had ordered, rushing Antory and his rangers through the early morning darkness to the villa of the Town Administrators. Antory was no stranger to death – he had seen it and dealt it alike on numerous occasions – but the scene of slaughter that awaited them still swum beneath his eyes every time he chanced to close them. Most of all, he saw the children, silenced in their slumber by hideous wounds that seemed out of place against their peaceful, sleeping faces. I owed Kerin a fist of coppers, Antory remembered suddenly, thinking of the jovial head Administrator and the games of rickets they had gambled over on numerous occasions. Now I won’t ever be able to give him his money. Afterwards, and without a moment to gather their composure, Lord Grenfell had told them how it was. ‘I warned the Duke – that fresh band of conscripts from the North were never worth their weight in gold. Now, it seems, they proved it by stealing ours.’ He had sighed then, so heavy, so burdened. ‘You must understand… I have three hundred loyal Frontiersmen here, and a similar number of Northmen. By sunrise I will have to break the news of this atrocity to the town, and pray to the Gods I can hold back the storm of blood that will follow.’ Politics, he said, refrained him from taking action until the day broke. Justice, however, compelled him to, in whatever way he could.
Now, days later, they were deep inside the Black Lands, following the trail of the band of conscripts that had fled Miner’s Town after the murders. The last signposts of civilisation were days behind them, save for the occasional slogan of religious hysteria imploring those that passed it to turn back and save their souls. Looking around him, Antory wondered if perhaps the hysterics had the right of it. This land is a tomb.
Sensing that it was close to dusk back home, he slowed their pace to a trot. He had been expecting Therric to swing back past the rest of them and report, as was his practise throughout a days’ ride; the lanky scout’s methods had been perfected to a fine art, something which he rarely deviated from. However, the darkness continued to deepen, and still Therric had not returned. The roiling pit of Antory’s stomach began to grow tense with unease. He moved one hand to his pocket. The seashell was still there, safe and sound, where he had left it. It reassured him. So long as I have it, I will always have a way back from wherever I may go, he thought.
He was relieved, but unsurprised, when Therric emerged from the gloom. Antory motioned for the rangers to stop, as the scout pulled up in front of him. ‘They’ve made camp less than a league from here,’ Therric breathed. ‘I counted fifteen, although there may have been more out of view of the fire. Big fire it was, too – they’re cooking meat and carrying on like nothing else. But they don’t look all that relaxed to me. Swords buckled, shields handy, horses saddled and ready.’
Antory grimaced. ‘So they’re waiting for us.’
Therric nodded. ‘Looks like. They’ve chosen their ground well, a hill of sorts considering how bloody flat it is around these parts. Closest thing to the upper ground for a dozen leagues.’
It was then that Antory noticed the dark stains on the scout’s overcoat. ‘You’re bleeding, Therric,’ he observed with concern.
Therric shook his head dismissively. ‘Not mine, Captain. They had eyes out – two guards, watching from the north. Sheer luck that I didn’t give away my presence, seeing how well they were hidden. It was either kill them or do just that. I did my best to hide the bodies, but it won’t be long before the rest of them realise that their guards haven’t returned to rotate shift.’
‘At least there are two less of the buggers to worry about now,’ Tayte said with a dry chuckle.
Antory turned to address his men. ‘Seems they are expecting us,’ he said. ‘They probably figure we’ll be drawn in by their apparent lack of caution.’ He turned back to Therric and clapped him on the shoulder. ‘You did well, Therric. Now, I want you to go and find Mavran for me, and bring him back to join us. I’ve a feeling we’re going to need every man for this one.’ Therric nodded solemnly, and rode off to the north to fetch his fellow scout.
Endry shivered. ‘Gods-be-damned cold,’ he cursed. ‘It’s not right for a place to have no sun. It’s not right.’ A few of the others grunted their agreement, though none quite so forceful as Endry had been.
‘Just keep your eyes open,’ Antory advised them all. ‘For some of you, this may be your first real skirmish with anyone other than bandits and thieves, but that doesn’t mean you’re any less prepared for it. Follow my lead, keep your wits about you, and you’ll all be fine.’ Secretly, though, Antory had doubts. They were ten against fifteen, odds which would make any man have doubts. Each and every ranger could fight, whether fighter, steward, scout or tracker, but Antory had learnt through blood and sweat that no battle came without a price. He had lost three men over the course of his year spent as a Captain, and had known others before then who had shared their fate. Their names were all written on his heart; as lessons, as reminders, each a footstep taking him further away from home. He cast a sad glance over his men. Who will it be? He wondered. Endry? Tayte? My dear Danner?
Swift as ever, Therric soon returned with Mavran. Antory led the rangers cautiously forward, following Therric’s lead. Before long, the tell-tale flicker of a distant campfire came into view, one small beacon of light in the encroaching darkness. Antory edged his men as close to the Northmen’s campsite as he dared before dismounting. He motioned for Therric and Callen to join him on the ground.
‘We need to get a closer look at their campsite,’ Antory said to them. ‘If the three of us approach on foot, and crawl in as close as we can get, we should be able to make out their positions and their armaments whilst they sit around night-blind from the fire.’ Handing Nimmad’s reins to Danner, he added, ‘if anything goes awry, charge the camp.’ Danner gave him a nod and a small smile; without words, both of them knew what it would mean for Antory if something went wrong.
The three of them approached the campsite on foot under the cover of darkness. Antory’s senses were polished as sharp as Callen’s sword, grasping keenly at the sounds of the enemy and the night. Beside him, Therric and Callen moved like ghosts. As they neared the camp, Antory’s heart began to beat wildly in his chest. He flattened himself down on the ground, motioning for Callen and Therric to do the same. They began to slink forward on their bellies, up the gradual rise in the terrain as they reached the base of the hill. The camp gradually became clearer; Antory could see the hypnotizing ripple of the campfire clearly, and the dancing shadows it cast across the dusty plains. Closer, and he could mark their horses, eleven of them in total. The carcass of another lay on the ground, well harvested. Antory shook his head in disgust, thinking of Nimmad and the horses of the other rangers. I hope they enjoyed their last meal.
From outside the circle of fire-light, he could just spot the Northmen themselves. They were seated about the fire, laughing and talking, the deep clattering tongue of the north wafting faint in the wind. Antory counted fifteen in all – Therric had been right. Most wore boiled leather or chainmail, and carried the small, circular shields common throughout the north. All had their swords buckled about their waist. If there were ever such a thing as easy pickings, these lads sure don’t count.
‘What do you make of them?’ Antory whispered to the rangers.
Therric shifted. ‘Won’t be an easy one, Captain. I say we rain arrows down on them, take as many of them out as we can before they charge us, then pick off the survivors.’
Antory nodded. ‘My thoughts exactly. If we start firing arrows at them, they will saddle up and ride down the hill to meet us. If we position ourselves to the left and right of the hill, we can then ride at them from two sides and crush them.’ It was not brilliant, but it would do.
‘From the west,’ Callen added evenly. ‘Slope’s less obvious that way.’
‘Aye,’ Antory agreed. ‘Therric, where did you come across the two guards?’
Therric propped himself up on one elbow, and turned to the left, motioning with his head. ‘To our left, but back a ways. If we’d come in from more of a northerly direction, we would have crawled right over them.’
Antory shuddered. ‘In that case, I believe I owe you thanks. Crawling into an enemy encampment is one thing; crawling right over the top of a fresh corpse is another.’
Therric shrugged. ‘Buy me an ale at the next alehouse we come across and we’ll call it even.’
‘Captain!’ Callen hissed.
Antory looked up, and silenced a curse. Two of the Northmen had left the safety of the campfire, walking purposefully towards what Antory was sickeningly sure was the location of the two dead guards. Watch change, he thought with dread. Would’ve been much more convenient for us if they’d decided to let their friends’ watch drag on for a while longer. ‘We’ve got to take them out before they raise the alarm,’ Antory said emphatically. As one, the three of them began to move, whispering their way around the hill like restless spirits until they were coming up right behind the two Northmen. Don’t turn around now, Antory prayed, drawing his sword. That’s it, don’t turn around, just a little bit closer and we’re on them… he raised his hand to wipe the thin layer of sweat from his forehead, and brought it back down to his side. He could feel the seashell in his pocket, and it made him think once again of her. Illaina… that, too, was a prayer in a way, a hope for something yet to come. Have I changed too much since I left you? Would you still recognise me?
His heart stopped for a moment; the Northmen had found their dead friends. He could see it in the way they recoiled mid-step, as if a sand viper had reared up at them. Antory covered the last few strides to meet them in a run, as the two men began to shout warnings to their comrades atop the hill. The world seemed to slow to a crawl; the two men before him, taking up his entire vision, his entire focus; the sounds of the camp coming to life off to his right; Therric and Callen, launching themselves forward beside him, blurs of shadow and steel.
The two Northmen turned at the last moment, and reeled back from the unexpected attack. Without hesitating Antory thrust his sword at the taller of the two, felt the momentum carry him onwards as his opponent parried the blade, and brought his sword up again just in time to catch the bone-jarring impact of the man’s heavy reply. Antory grunted at the force of the blow, and pivoted to the left to avoid the second quick strike lashed out at him. Immediately, Antory struck at the man’s undefended side, missing by mere inches as his sword met with his foe’s hastily raised shield. Antory ducked low and came up from underneath, closer this time as his blade grazed against the rings of the man’s chainmail. His foe suddenly attacked with wild abandon, a growl of rage and defiance escaping form his mouth between ragged breaths. Antory deflected the blows that began raining down on him, but found himself slowly being pushed back by the weight of his attacker.
And then Callen and Therric were there, attacking him from either side as the second Northman they had made short work of died noisily in the background. An opportunity presented itself, and Antory struck at the man’s exposed chest. Mail and flesh parted alike, and the man’s sword arm dropped to his side. He crumpled to the ground, ripping Antory’s sword from his hands, and died.
Antory reached down and wrenched his sword from the man’s lifeless body. Dead flesh clings to the blade so stubbornly, he thought absently. Behind the three of them, the Northmen had moved with disciplined speed, and were even now preparing their charge down the hill. A voice rung clear over their shouting as their leader barked a series of orders. ‘Single line… eyes out’, Antory made out with his unreliable understanding of the northern tongue.
‘To our horses,’ Antory told Callen and Therric. ‘Now!’ They ran back the way they had come as the Northmen charged down the hill. Within moments he heard the unmistakeable cries of recognition as the Northman charge spotted them in their getaway. The thunderous beat of their approach grew louder in his ears, like the beat of a thousand drums. Above it all, Antory could hear his own breath, tearing through his chest and exploding from his mouth as he ran with everything he had left across the dusty plains of the Black Lands. All else faded but for this simple task – to keep moving, to stay alive.
The night stirred in front of them, and suddenly Danner was charging out of the gloom with the six other rangers beside him. Tayte and the other fighters drew arrows from quivers and notched them to their bows as they balanced in their saddles. Antory threw himself to the side of the charge as the thrum and hiss of arrows met his ears, followed by deep mortal thuds and cries of pain as they met their targets. He rolled as he hit the ground, and heard Callen and Therric land likewise beside him. He was on his feet in a heartbeat, turning just as the two charges met with a deadly rhythm of clashes and shouts. Swords met with swords, shields or flesh as formations crumbled and the skirmish became a confused mixture of isolated battles. Bodies lined the melee, riddled with arrows like gruesome hedgehogs – some still moved, others did not. Callen immediately threw himself into the fray, vaulting into the saddle of a riderless Northman horse. Antory found himself following suit, running to the nearest horse and grabbing at its reins before it could bolt, and charged into the chaos.
Moments passed by, devoid of all sense of time by the roar of blood in Antory’s ears. The world shrunk, taking him along with it, leaving only that which lay immediately before him. He slashed, and thrust, and parried, and cursed, and around him his rangers fought, and killed. Antory felt drunk on invincibility; his foes fought bravely, and desperately, but none so well as he. Their now diminished numbers left them without the advantage, yet still they fought on, each face that rose before him determined and resolute to the last.
Until finally, the enemy lay defeated and dying on the ground, and there was no one left to fight. The slain Northmen had fallen at angles, their limbs skewed, their faces still alive with the moment that death had taken them. Horses devoid of riders galloped away from the scene in panic, the scent of blood and death sending them into a frenzy.
‘Anyone hurt?’ Antory yelled, surveying his men. They were all there, every last one of them. Antory breathed a sigh of relief.
Danner was already seeing to the wounded. ‘Nothing serious, Captain,’ he replied as he tended to a cut across Tayte’s forehead. ‘A few wounds that need dressing, maybe a stitch or two and a strong drink when we get home.’
‘Aye, I’ll take a few of those,’ Tayte said, grimacing at Danner’s probing finger.
‘Captain!’ Callen called out. He was kneeling beside the body of one of the Northmen. ‘Got a live one.’
Antory lowered himself from the saddle, and almost fell form the sudden weariness that washed over him. Shaking his head clear, he moved over to where Callen crouched, and looked down into the eyes of a young man. No, he corrected himself sadly, young boy, hardly old enough for a razor to have graced his chin. The lad was whimpering quietly to himself, oblivious to his surroundings, one hand draped limply across his stomach. Blood pumped slowly but surely between his fingers, trickling down into the red soil turned black by the night.
Therric and Mavran had fetched torches from the Northman campsite, and brought them in close. ‘Good as dead, that one,’ Therric said drily. ‘Should be a while in dying though.’
‘Leave him, I say,’ Endry spat. ‘His bloody friends almost got me a few times. I ‘aint got no mercy for murderers and cowards, no way.’
‘Might do to question him some, Captain,’ Therric suggested. ‘Would help us to understand what they thought they could accomplish by killing those families in Miner’s Town.’
‘This is all the understanding I have for these buggers,’ Michor muttered, patting the hilt of his sword.
‘That’s right!’ Endry said. ‘That’s right!’ He leaned over the boy, and brought his face in close. ‘Think you can just attack us and kill us in our sleep, do you? Well, I’m not a coward like you. I’m not!’ He was shaking with rage.
Antory put his hand on Endry’s shoulder. ‘Enough,’ he said quietly. ‘He can’t hear you.’ The boy had been trying to grow a beard, Antory saw. His cheeks and jaw were covered with the finest layer of thin red fuzz, filmed in a gauzy sheen of cold sweat. He was probably proud of it, too, boasting to his comrades every morning as they laughed at him and scruffed his hair. Antory had been that young not so long ago. He wondered if it had been he that had wounded the boy – he honestly could not remember. Somehow, that made him even sadder.
‘Captain?’ Danner asked.
Antory stood. ‘He can tell us nothing.’
‘He can tell us nothing,’ Antory repeated, firmer this time. ‘Look at him, for Gods sake. He is only a boy, and barely even aware of his surroundings.’
They were all quiet, yet Antory could sense they knew he was right. ‘We… we can’t take him with us, Captain,’ Danner said finally. ‘He wouldn’t even last… and with what I have with me, there’s nothing I could…’ he lowered his eyes, and shook his head.
‘I know, Danner,’ Antory said calmly. ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ He sighed, and reached for the sword at his side, drawing it from its sheath in one fluid motion. The blood from the battle had not yet dried on the steel. The boy continued to whimper, his words clearer now in the unbroken quiet. He seemed to be speaking of a woman; of a mother, or a friend, or a lover, Antory would never know. He spared a brief glance for his surroundings – the Black Lands, they called it – and wondered where the darkness of this world truly lay. Every step I take, he thought sadly.
Turning his heart to stone, Antory drove his sword through the boy’s chest.