Authors: T C Southwell
Tags: #destiny, #kidnapping, #fate, #rescue, #blackmail, #weapon, #magic sword, #natural laws, #broken world, #sword of power
understood how his nights in the wilderness restored him, for she
was sure that her skin glowed and her hair glittered just as his
"This is Life,"
he whispered into the night's stillness and the forest's lingering
enchantment. "This is the joy Lowmen have lost. Only Nature holds
it in such abundance, yet it's free for all who wish to partake. No
other joy is so strong and pure. No other power can uplift as much
Mujar are, isn't it?" She gazed at him. "You are Life itself."
"Mujar are redemption, as the Hashon Jahar are retribution."
have the choosing. Life or Death."
chosen Death, little one. You alone had the wisdom to choose Life,
and in doing so you saved your race." He nodded at the distant
city. "But they have chosen Death by sowing it, and with the dawn,
at the horizon, where the first faint streaks of rosy glow heralded
the morning sun. "What about Kieran?"
"He'll find a
way, never fear. But now we must return to the chosen and lead them
away from here before the Black Riders come."
up, and she rose to her feet, staggering with sudden fatigue. He
put out a hand to steady her, smiling.
has drained you, that's all."
numb weariness, she followed him through the trees, pushing aside
needle-laden branches that showered her with snow. The tingling was
a strange sensation that drained her, even as it invigorated her.
She tramped after him on flaccid legs while her being oozed energy
and she thrummed with life. The exertion had warmed her, but soon
the slow pace allowed the chill back into her hands and feet.
By the time
they reached the campfire, Talsy shivered. The chosen huddled
around the wagon or lay under it, and Shern gave a glad cry when
they appeared, while the slaves stared at Chanter with wide eyes.
Talsy was glad to hold her hands to the fire and soak up its
warmth. The Mujar went to the injured slave, who lay amongst his
fellows, clutching a quarrel that protruded from the pad of muscle
on his side. The others scrambled away, and the wounded man stared
at Chanter with a mixture of fear and awe. The Mujar sank to one
knee, scooped up a handful of snow and trickled the water over the
wound, then laid a hand upon it. With a swift jerk, he yanked out
the bolt, unnoticed by the slave. The soft mist of Shissar filled
the air, and the wound healed.
up, leaving the man to examine the puckered red scar, and
approached Shern. "We must leave here now. It's not safe. The Black
Riders are coming."
"We'll need horses."
"No, you will
walk. There are enough here to carry all the provisions in the
wagon, or to pull it."
The seer went
to tell the new chosen, who rose and gathered up the baggage. They
stamped out the fire and followed Chanter up the road, the women
towing tired, weepy children and the men trudging with bent heads
under their burdens. Few had slept that night, and weariness added
to their load as dawn paled the sky and the stars winked out one by
up the road, Chanter called a halt, and the people slumped to the
ground. Most curled up in their blankets to sleep, huddled together
turned to Talsy. "Wait here. I'll be back soon."
"Where are you
"To see if
Kieran needs any help."
and cupped her cheek, then turned and ran a few steps before
leaping into the air. The gust of Ashmar swirled powder snow from
the road, and a barred daltar eagle rose on wide wings. He soared
above the trees with the effortless grace of the giant bird whose
form he had assumed.
Shern came to
stand beside her, his gaze following the Mujar until he vanished.
"I never thought to see a Mujar, you know. He's amazing."
"Yes, he is."
over the green carpet of trees, his wings twitching as he adjusted
his flight upon the varying air currents. Much of the snow had
melted in the morning sun, leaving only patches in deep shadow.
Gliding over the ragged line where the twisted trees joined the new
forest he had recreated, he headed for the city. The rough stone
square marked the centre of the black web, packed with dull roofs.
Turning away, he avoided flying over the dried earth blood and
glided along the edge of the forest. Many people stood on the walls
and gazed out at the new forest, probably wondering how it had come
into being overnight.
thought it was another facet of the land's fight against them, this
sudden regeneration of the trees they had killed. In a way it was,
for he was as much a part of the land as the trees. How could he
ever explain what he was to Talsy? To say that he was Life was but
a small part of it. How could she understand that he was a part of
everything, which was why he could command the elements? His
explanation had only confused her, he knew. Such an alien concept
was hard for one such as her, from a race that had lost the
ability, to understand. As Kuran were the forests' souls and Dargon
souls of the land, the Shanar souls of the wind and Quaral souls of
the sea, he was a soul of the world.
amongst the trees to the east drew his attention, and his sharp
eyes picked out the swift, flashing movement of the blackness that
advanced on the city. The column of Hashon Jahar stretched away
into the forest, moving at a trot, their lances set upright in
their stirrups. Pale morning light gilded the Riders' armour,
flashed on lances and sheened the sleek hides of their mounts. They
moved with the unswerving certainty of an unstoppable force, row
upon orderly row, four abreast. He swooped lower to glimpse their
blank stone countenances and the black eyes that stared sightlessly
ahead. Silent but for the steady thunder of hooves, they travelled
bannerless and unheralded through a land that neither welcomed nor
As they emerged
from the forest, the townsfolk scurried about in a frenzy of
activity. The purposeful movement of soldiers mixed with the
panicked flight of women and children seeking refuge. The first
four lines of Hashon Jahar stopped, and the next four rode around
to flank them, then the next peeled off to stop on the other side
of the first. Gradually they spread out, forming a line four deep
that almost surrounded the besieged city. Chanter tilted his wings
to soar over the Black Riders' heads, a witness to the coming
destruction. The line became still, their formation complete.
On the wall,
soldiers rolled barrels to the edge and beat wooden plugs from
them. Streams of pale liquid gushed into the moat, and Chanter
veered away from the terrible stench that arose. Strange equipment
was dragged into place atop the wall, and soldiers manned the odd
machinery, unarmed but for the handles and tubes they held. Chanter
swooped low to skim in front of the line and glimpse the Hashon
Jahar's stone faces as they became animated. The blank visages
transformed into the tortured faces of the Lowman souls trapped
within the stone warriors, condemned to witness their people's
destruction. These silently screaming faces had given rise to the
myth that the Black Riders were a tribe of savage Lowmen, when in
fact they wore the faces of those they had slain.
reared, pawing the air, their necks arched in eagerness as they
fought the bits that held them. The line of Hashon Jahar leapt
forward as one, spurred by an inaudible command. The thunder of
galloping hooves shuddered the air, a sound to put fear into the
bravest Lowman heart. The line of lances lowered, as if to impale
the wall before them, but Chanter knew this was not the case. Atop
the wall, fire ignited in the soldiers' hands and burning brands
were hurled down into the earth blood moat. With a great thump, the
moat burst into flames, a sheet of fire leaping from the flammable
liquid that had been poured down. It raced around the city, almost
as presentable as the fire walls he had created in the past.
Riders slowed, reining in their steeds before the bright flames,
and stopped. Clouds of thick black smoke rolled up to shroud the
city in a choking veil. Through it, streams of fire jetted from
atop the wall, the strange machinery revealing its purpose as the
Lowmen sent burning liquid over the Riders. Those that caught fire
staggered back from their lines, falling as their steeds went down
in silent, thrashing heaps.
Some Riders lay
burning where they fell, their horses as motionless as they, others
rolled on the ground to extinguish the flames. A triumphant cheer
went up from the city as the number of Hashon Jahar caught by the
fire grew, then the line wheeled as one and rode back to the edge
of the forest, where they turned to face their target once more.
The damaged Riders lay where they had fallen, some moving, others
As the Black
Riders settled into their rows once more, a ripple of Dolana swept
outward from them. Unhampered by the earth blood, the Hashon Jahar
wielded the Earthpower with their concerted wills. Behind the
blazing barrier, the stone wall slumped, crumbled and parted,
hurling those atop it to a fiery death in the burning moat. The
stone sank into the ground, pulling aside to open easy roads into
the city. The screams of dying Lowmen rent the air as they burnt,
mixed with the anguished cries of those left alive, as they tried
to save their doomed fellows.
Riders lowered their lances again and charged, thundering across
the black web to the burning moat. The steeds leapt the flames and
galloped into the city to begin the slaughter. Soldiers rushed to
block the gaps, their swords clashing with the weapons of the
Hashon Jahar, glancing off indestructible armour. Some steeds fell
as soldiers impaled them, their wounds oozing earth blood, their
riders engulfed by Lowmen. Those Lowmen still armed with crude
flamethrowers spurted fire at the enemy, bringing many down and
inflicting agony on the voiceless souls trapped within them.
raged into the city, carried by the momentum of the charge and
slowed by the soldiers' desperate fight. The roar of shouts and
screams mingled with the clashing of weapons. Bleating horns and
trumpets tried to bring order to the battle as captains commanded
their men. The tide of Hashon Jahar had washed away all discipline,
however, and their mighty mounts forged through the Lowmen
fighters. The horses' broad chests smashed aside barricades as they
invaded narrow streets after groups of people. An occasional man
with a flamethrower took vantage on a rooftop and sprayed the
Riders below with fire, others threw refined earth blood over their
enemies and set it alight with torches. Many Black Riders succumbed
to these attacks in heaving knots of ebon figures engulfed by
Jahar were too numerous to be defeated, however, more than the
population of the city they attacked. The pall of smoke hid most of
the battle from Chanter's view, and he settled on a treetop to wait
for Kieran to emerge. Unlike the city people who fought for their
lives within it, the warrior could flee the battle safely. The fire
in the moat had subsided, and desperate people ran onto the black
web, some of whom the Riders cut down swiftly, while others went
unnoticed and gathered in weeping groups.
his feathers and settled his wings more comfortably, scanning the
terrain below for Kieran.
Talsy stared at
the black smoke rising above the trees. Most of the chosen were
asleep, and only Shern stood beside her, shaking his head at the
dark pall with deep sadness and regret.
"Nastar was a
great city until they found the black oil," he muttered. "At first,
they could find no use for it, but then they discovered that it
made good roofing when dried, and soon they used it as paving as
"Was that when
the Dargon grew angry?"
"You mean the
nodded. "Was that when the land became hostile?"
"No. We found
that we could separate the oil and make a flammable liquid, which
we called fetram. This was used to burn back the forest, since it
was far easier than cutting it. With it, we cleared vast tracts of
land for crops, and the people prospered. We sold it to
neighbouring cities, and they did the same. About two years later,
twelve years ago now, the land turned on us."
"Why did you
need to use the oil to burn the forests? Surely they would burn
He nodded. "But
whenever we set fire to a forest, it rained. Some said that a Mujar
protected the land, and a year after the land became hostile, they
scuffing the road with a boot. "He was flung into a Pit."
fetram, the rain could not put out the forest fires, and once he
was gone, it no longer came."
Talsy gazed at
the rising smoke again. "And no one realised what was
"Some did, but
the majority did not heed our warnings. They wanted money. Once the
land became hostile, there was no turning back."
needed the earth blood to protect you."
"Yes. When we
found that we were safe from the land on the tar, we exported many
barrels to other cities, and more wells were dug elsewhere. Now
only those with tarred streets survive, and we were planning to tar
the roads between them too." He sighed. "Now the Hashon Jahar have
come to do what the land could not."
down from his perch atop a wall at the surging battle below. A
group of Hashon Jahar fought several hundred Trueman soldiers, and,
although heavily outnumbered, forced their way through with
slashing swords that sliced through Trueman armour and shattered
steel weapons. The soldiers swarmed around their enemies and hacked
at them with swords that broke against their armour. Others
attacked the horses with more success, bringing them down and their
riders with them. Even unhorsed, however, the Black Riders slew
Trueman soldiers with easy swings of their weapons.