Authors: Connie Suttle
Commander Cephas watched both the upstart and the warlock with hooded eyes and a grim expression. If truth be known, he hated both of them. He tolerated them, however. Iver brought money and ideas, Bordok brought the means to defeat the enemy. He could spell any man to follow his or Cephas' lead, and they'd made their way through the bordering countries the past year and a half, gathering up as many as they could.
Women and children were left behind to fend for themselves; Bordok's spells convinced the men and older boys to follow without question. Bordok altered their minds somehow, Cephas knew, and he surmised that the troops might have to be killed once the campaign to take Falchan succeeded.
The minds couldn't be set back to rights, for some reason; either Bordok wasn't skilled enough, or once they'd been tampered with, there was no going back. Cephas didn't care. Falchan would be his and the Warlord and his petty General would be dead, their heads stuck on a pike outside the Falchani palace as a warning.
Cephas intended to live the life of luxury, as soon as his goals were accomplished. He'd have women, wealth and the armies at his command. Oh, he'd kill Iver, somewhere along the way, and he smiled at the prospect. Iver wasn't yet twenty and a whining, spoiled brat on top of that. Cephas turned back to the conversation between Iver and Bordok.
"What difference does that make," Cephas growled, as once again Iver whined about the loss of more than fifty men. "We knew there'd be losses."
"But Bordok says that the Warlord's men weren't even close when they were killed."
"So, some of the farmers have banded together. Did you expect them to just keep rolling over without doing something? We're taking those farms for supplies, and as you so correctly pointed out after the first few where we left survivors, we don't need those farmers carrying tales back to the Warlord, so we're killing them all, now. We can spare a few men."
Iver grumbled and stalked away, his anger clear in his stiff posture and swift steps.
"That one will create his own downfall," Bordok grunted. Cephas studied the warlock carefully before agreeing and walking away.
* * *
Pheran and Gray were once again holding a private conference when his company came across the bodies of the next raiding party, all neatly decapitated, just like the first. Pheran shook his head, kneeling to examine this body or that. The heads looked as if they'd been sheared off the bodies by giant claws.
Pheran knew of the myths and legends that came down from of the mountains, but even those couldn't account for this. He hoped his troops wouldn't fall victim to whatever this was. Leaving the bodies where they lay, he left them for the scavengers before ordering the company to march another two miles after night fell.
* * *
I'd been on Falchan for more than two moon-turns. Much of that time we spent traipsing across the mountain range, stopping often to hunt and finding more burned out farmsteads, more bodies, more dead raiders. The raiders were responsible for the dead at the farmsteads; I was responsible for the raider's deaths.
* * *
Pheran kept a mental count of the dead raiders, and that number had risen to nearly two hundred. He wondered just what kind of force they'd started with, if they were still raiding instead of hightailing it over the border after such significant losses.
He wondered, too, at the fact that he and his troops still hadn't met any of them to do battle. He was beginning to worry about Devin; they were running low on non-meat staples. They'd found a bit of rice, some beans and a few other things that the raiders had left behind at a farmstead, taking mostly the flour and the animals for meat before setting fire to it.
Devin, however, seemed unconcerned about where her next meal might be coming from. She hardly spoke, especially after coming across another devastated farm, as they had the day before. She would be upset if children had been killed, but she held herself well, as a warrior should. She bore it better than many of the men.
* * *
Ice lay at the edges of the stream where we camped. Pheran informed us that we could stay an extra day to bathe and wash clothing. I could have hugged him for that—I cleaned myself with power, but those around me smelled more than ripe.
"What are those?" Pheran pointed to the socks I washed in the freezing stream water.
"My feet get cold," I complained.
"So those are foot covers?"
"Yes. Before I stick my feet in my boots."
"If we ever get off this mountain, I'll get some for you."
"Sounds like a fine idea."
"The socks or getting off the mountain?"
"I have no idea where the name came from. Don't ask," I held up a hand. He laughed.
"When we get back," he added with a smile, "You can stick your cold feet on the Warlord."
"He'll love that," I muttered, wringing water out of the socks and laying them on a rock to dry. "I told him I wanted to kick your ass for sending the message," I pointed out.
"What did he say?" Pheran was clearly enjoying our conversation.
"He said that threatening a superior can result in punishment. I had to explain that I only wanted to kick your ass—I didn't intend to follow through."
"And then what?" Pheran chuckled.
"He handed out punishment anyway."
"Definitely stick your cold feet on him," Pheran laughed and patted my shoulder. "The colder the better." He rose and walked away.
* * *
"They are spending another day in the same place," Bordok grinned maliciously at Iver, revealing sharpened front teeth. He often ate his meat raw, or killed small animals with them, before skinning and devouring them. The teeth were stained, whether with blood or something else, Iver couldn't say and wished the warlock would stop grinning and get to the point.
"What does that mean?" Iver asked the obvious question.
"I can send the snows their way," Bordok's grin became wider, revealing even more sharpened teeth.
"Then do it. Can you arrange to have it isolated, trapping them there until we can get men in to kill them?" Iver began to see the possibilities.
"I think I can do that, but it will require more sacrifices."
"I don't care if you sacrifice half of what we have if we wipe all of them out at once," Iver replied. "Take whatever you need."
Bordok took what he needed—twenty strong men whose minds had become his, and they only screamed at the last when he eviscerated them, one by one, and licked the blood from his fingers afterward.
* * *
The snow that fell wasn't natural. I felt it in the winds that screamed around us, forcing us to huddle into our coats as we attempted to march through it. Snow had already fallen on the higher peaks, but we were far enough down the mountain, traveling laterally, that it shouldn't reach us for another three eight-days.
I should have
much earlier, but I hadn't—for an underlying cause. I found it, and what I found turned my stomach. I went immediately to Gray and asked to speak with Pheran privately. The snow fell harder about us and Pheran called a halt as soon as Gray led me to his side.
"Set up camp," Pheran nodded at Gray. "Try to keep everybody warm."
Gray nodded curtly and walked away.
"What's this about?" Pheran steered me toward a thick evergreen so we could block some of the wind as we talked.
"Pheran, they have a blood warlock," I sighed. I watched as his face lost most of its color. Blood warlocks were extremely rare, and the last one had died centuries earlier. A new one had made his presence known on Falchan. Pheran was chasing what he couldn't fight—a power wielder.
"How do you know this?" Pheran demanded when his common sense returned.
"Pheran, when was the last time the Warlord had a mage working with him?" I answered his question with one of my own.
"This Warlord, never," Pheran shook his head, his dark eyes narrowing as he studied me. "There haven't been any. Dragon has offered money for information and several have come forward, but there was little or no talent present. Those with little talent he sent away. Those with no talent he gave strokes and then sent away. It was to discourage those who only sought fame and fortune through trickery and false claims."
"Pheran, what would you say if I told you that our raiding parties aren't parties?"
"What do you mean, little pirgat?" he asked.
"They could afford to lose those men," I kicked at the snow piling up at our feet. If the snow continued to fall at this rate, we'd be buried in it before the day was out. "They have an army, Pheran. About fifteen thousand, I think, and they're taking the flocks and herds to feed them. It wouldn't be necessary, now would it, for them to have taken so many animals otherwise. Did you notice there were no animals anywhere near those dead raiders? There should have been."
"Why didn't I notice that?" he mumbled, rubbing his forehead.
"I think it's because something else has been interfering with our normal reasoning," I said. "For me, that's a major oversight. It has now been corrected. Their warlock is somehow capable of this, and nearly every man in that army is under his mind control. Not only that, he's damaged them in the process. They won't ever be normal again."
Pheran took a deep breath and looked about him. "Are you sure? How are you sure? Devin, this would explain what worries me, but I have no idea how you might know it. Tell me how I am supposed to believe you?"
"The absence of the flocks and herds, for one thing," I pointed out. "If he can control men's minds, how much easier might it be to control those of animals? He's been pulling those poor beasts straight to his waiting army, no herding required. I suppose I might be what you'd call a mage, for lack of a better term. Yes, I can prove it and no, I didn't use anything except my physical ability to win the Trials last year. The ones who taught me would have had my head if I'd done otherwise."
"I may have to meet them, someday," Pheran crossed his arms over his chest. "What else can you tell me?"
"That this snow isn't natural; it'll pile up over our heads before nightfall. We need to be gone before then. How would you like proof of what I can do, and spend the night in front of a fire in a comfortable room at the same time?"
"If you could do that, we'd all be grateful," Pheran said. "Stunned and grateful. Are your loyalties with the Warlord?"
"In more ways than you know," I nodded. "My kind cannot lie, Pheran. We may choose our words carefully at times, but we do not lie."
"Then tell me what you intend to do."
Pheran spent the rest of the afternoon following me around the campsite. I laid a false signature for the warlock, making it appear that Pheran's company was still there. I then asked all of them to gather their things and stand in as small a circle as they could.
"We will be appearing just outside Heatherfield. We'll have about a click's walk to get into town," I explained. "We don't need to appear from nothing in the middle of town—that would raise too many questions. Is everybody ready?"
All of them, Evret and Athar included, were puzzled at what I was doing. Pheran made an announcement that I was a mage, but even he shook his head, expecting my words to blow up in his face and all of us to freeze to death.
Many of Pheran's troops muttered their disbelief—I would have as well if I were in their place. All of them expressed a healthy amount of pessimism as they'd seen no evidence as yet that I could do anything at all.
When they all were in place, however, I created a brief rush of air before folding them to a field east of Heatherfield. They found themselves standing in a meadow, where sheep bleated in a field nearby. A bell hung around a cow's neck clanked as the cow nipped at the dry grass close to us.
"Pheran, I believe their warlock is responsible for the drought," I sighed. For the past two years, most of Falchan had received little rain. A blood Warlock, with a pile of bodies beneath his boot, could be responsible.
"What can we do about that?" Pheran found his voice. The others were still staring about them in disbelief.
"Can we talk about that after we get to Heatherfield and I have a hot bath?" I asked.
"And food," Pheran agreed. "We can talk over food. Move out," Pheran shouted. Our company surged forward. Good food and a soft bed were waiting, and a mage's talents could be considered later.
As we made our way toward Heatherfield, I shut out the astonished rumblings of our company. After a while, however, I watched as Gray thumped Pheran on the back and grinned, saying, "We have a mage."
"It's probably a good thing the Warlord didn't know about this before he left," Pheran informed me quietly as we walked toward the same inn we'd used before.
"Raiders all gone?" the innkeeper asked as we made our way inside.
"Not all, no," Pheran said, thumping his boots on the threshold to remove the dust. "We'll be going back in the next day or so, to track the others."
The innkeeper didn't mind that we'd returned; the Warlord's money was good, so his and the two other inns made room for all of us.