Renown of the Raithlin: Book One of the Raithlindrath Series

BOOK: Renown of the Raithlin: Book One of the Raithlindrath Series
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RENOWN OF THE RAITHLIN

BOOK ONE OF THE RAITHLINDRATH SERIES

 

Robert Ryan

 

Copyright 2013 Robert Ryan

 

Cover Design by www.ebooklaunch.com

 

 
1. Dawn of Change

 

 

Lanrik endured hunger, and the humiliation of the
situation, with patience. He could not allow Mecklar to break him.

First light colored the grasslands, and he sensed
change in the air. The world he knew was slipping away. He studied his
companion and saw the embodiment of that force at work: a man lacking the
desire to strive for anything except self-gratification, yet with the power to
destroy the achievements of others.

They sat on the ground, separated by a small and
smokeless fire. Mecklar ate with slow relish, his sausage-like fingers slick
with grease. His lips and chin were smeared too, but he ignored that and
continued to chew methodically. His stubbled jowl rolled with each movement,
and his heavy-lidded eyes glazed with pleasure.

He casually wiped his hands on dirty trousers and
spared Lanrik a glance. Whenever he spoke, it was only to probe for a reaction
like a
nudaluk
bird that relentlessly hammered its beak against a tree
in search of insects.

“You’d have something to eat as well – if you were any
good at hunting.”

Lanrik shrugged and looked away. This was another
attempt to provoke him. His hollow stomach tightened in anger, but he resisted
pointing out that Mecklar only had food because it had been brought from the
city. Lanrik had carried it, along with Mecklar’s tent and heavy sleeping rug,
though he made do without such comforts himself. He slept under the nighttime
sky, his head resting on mounded dirt and his body wrapped in his Raithlin
cloak. Yet he liked it that way, and the cloak of the scouts of Esgallien
City offered more than warmth: it symbolized all that was good in his life.

The silence did not discourage Mecklar.

“I’d share some food with you, but it would defeat
the purpose of the exercise. I’m supposed to see how good the Raithlin are.” He
sipped watered wine from a silver goblet, his gaze fixed on Lanrik. “And I
haven’t been impressed so far.”

Lanrik tensed but sat perfectly still.
Nothing I
do would ever impress you.
The taunting was difficult to ignore, but Lanrik
was not going to retaliate and provide an excuse for an unfavorable report to
King Murhain.

The king, trying to reduce expenditure, had sent
Mecklar to evaluate the Raithlin. He had gained his position in Murhain’s
retinue by cutting costs in the past, and likely sought advancement by doing it
again, placing the Raithlin in jeopardy.
I'm not going to let you goad me.

He relaxed and answered in an even tone. “It’s my
part to show the skills of the scouts – yours to judge their usefulness.”

There were a hundred Raithlin, but their leader, the
Lindrath, had chosen him to demonstrate their capabilities.

Constantly tested by Mecklar, he had represented the
Raithlin over the last week. They had set out from Esgallien, crossed the
white-watered ford of the Careth Nien, and headed south onto the plains. He had
run for miles with a heavy pack, climbed trees, and despite Mecklar’s surly
watchfulness, crept unseen through grass and shrubbery to within feet of him.
He had also found water, built shelters against the weather, concealed his
tracks and laid false trails.

These were the basic skills of the Raithlin, but he
was proud to be more than just a scout. In times of war, though not part of
Esgallien’s army, he might have to spy out enemy positions and sow confusion.
In times of peace, he and others watched Galenthern, the plains beyond the
ford.

Nothing moved over the grasslands within a week’s
march that the Raithlin did not see: not a hare that cautiously fed or a hawk
that wheeled in the sky. That, Lanrik admitted to himself, was the problem. Not
a single enemy warrior, much less an army, had been seen for decades and the
king felt secure. He might think it safe to disband the Raithlin; but they knew
otherwise. Not for nothing did Esgallien’s enemies swear an oath during tribal
ceremonies to conquer the north. The desire had infused their blood since
antiquity, and their leaders often fanned it to life. If they sacked the city
it would yield untold wealth.

Mecklar belched and renewed his verbal assault.

“If you hadn’t missed your shot you wouldn’t be in
this predicament.”

In an attempt to diffuse the constant taunting
Lanrik changed tactics.
He'll find it difficult to fault someone agreeing
with him.

“I’ve only got myself to blame,” he said.

This was more truthful than Mecklar knew. Yesterday
afternoon, they stalked a herd of aurochs in one of the wooded swamps scattered
across the plains. They closed on a young bull. Its blackish coat was glossy
with health and the pale stripe along the length of its spine shimmered in the
waning light. It stood man high, though it still had growing to do, and was in
range of Lanrik’s bow.

The beast sensed danger and lifted its head. The
black snout quivered and tested the air. They were downwind though, and their
scent had not reached it. Its lyre shaped horns swept from side to side; the
long ears flicked with uncertainty. Angrily, it stamped a hoof to chase
persistent flies.

Mecklar tapped Lanrik on the shoulder and urged him
to shoot, but the bull was a magnificent creature and it was not the Raithlin
way to kill such an animal when the majority of its meat, tough and strongly
flavored anyway, would be wasted. Yet Mecklar was not the kind who understood
such things, and Lanrik, knowing he had shown the Raithlin skills to good
effect all week, deliberately loosed the arrow wide. It struck a willow trunk
with a crack. The bull and his herd crashed away through the thick scrub.

Lanrik’s thoughts returned to the present. Eastward,
an unbroken column of smoke was rising in the still air.

Mecklar had seen it too. “What’s that?”

Lanrik stood and strained his eyes over the
grasslands. He did not know what it signified, but a gnawing worry gripped his
stomach.

“A finger of smoke pointing to calamity,” he said at
last, and there was a catch in his voice. “Over there the flat ground rises
into a tor covered by rock and overgrown with scrub. The Raithlin use it as an
outlook.”

“So one of the scouts lit the fire?”

Lanrik nodded. “Yes, but
why?

“Then when we return to Esgallien I’ll have them
punished. Only an incompetent would reveal their location.”

Lanrik dragged his gaze from the horizon. His eyes
narrowed with suppressed anger.

“You don’t understand. None of the Raithlin is
incompetent. We light fires such as the one I used to cook your breakfast:
small and smokeless. This is a deliberate signal – the sort made by someone in
desperate trouble.”

“Well, we’re due to head back to Esgallien soon. No
doubt we‘ll find out the truth then.”

Lanrik shook his head. “We can’t go back to
Esgallien. We have to find out what's going on.”

Mecklar came smoothly to his feet. His bulk and
slovenly manner gave the impression of lethargy, but the opposite was true: he
was strong, fast and nimble.

“You Raithlin think you run the world, don’t you?
But you’re not in charge of this expedition. You’ll go where I say.”

Lanrik pointed to the east. “Someone over there
needs help, and the next lookout is further away than us. Events have overtaken
the demonstration, and the Raithlin skills are needed in earnest. You can come
with me and observe what I do, or you can return to the king, but I bet he’d
like to see how we perform in a real emergency.”

There was a cold silence while Mecklar thought.

Lanrik waited patiently.
Snake-hearted bastard.
You're not weighing up what's right and wrong – you're deciding how to make the
Raithlin look bad.

“Very well," Mecklar said. "We’ll see why
the fire was lit, but my report to Murhain will surely emphasize the arrogance
of the Raithlin.”

Lanrik did not answer. He kicked in dirt from the
rim of the fire-pit to put out the flames without smoke. Shouldering his heavy
pack he set off, and Mecklar strode angrily beside him.

He could have wished for things to be different, but
wishing was in vain. He must make the most of the situation and knew that none
of the other scouts, and certainly not his uncle who had instilled Raithlin
values in him since childhood, would ignore someone in trouble. Besides, it was
his
job
to find out what had happened, and he could not see a way for
Mecklar to twist that into a fault.

The two men moved swiftly across the grasslands.
Profuse flowers of purple vetch and lush whorls of red-flowered clover stood
out against the green of the plains. The column of smoke bent in the rising
morning breeze until it looked like a half-fallen tree. Neither man spoke, but
Lanrik sensed Mecklar’s irritation.

He thought about his companion as they walked.
Mecklar was overweight, sloppy and difficult to get on with, but his mind was
rapier sharp. Lanrik did not know anybody else of such contrasts. He sensed a
ruthless intellect weigh and judge him every time the heavy-lidded gaze turned
in his direction. It was no surprise that he was adept at saving the king
money.

His ability as a swordsman was a shock, though. He
was too big to move fast yet shifted rapidly between retreat and attack with
seamless grace anyway. His size lent strength to his blows, and beneath layers
of soft flesh was a framework of iron-hard muscles.

They first met a few weeks ago in the sword
tournament of Esgallien’s Spring Games. They each won through the early rounds,
facing and beating a series of increasingly skilled opponents, before the king
judged their clash in the final bout.

The sword was Lanrik’s specialty weapon. His uncle,
a former Raithlin of renowned sword craft, had trained him. But his uncle could
not have prepared him for what happened.

Most bouts lasted about six rounds, but the final
had gone twice that without a blow landing. The crack of the oaken practice
swords reverberated through Conhain Court, the square in the city named after
Esgallien’s first king. The crowd, rowdy at first, grew quiet as they watched,
and though time did not stand still, it barely shuffled past.

Finally, Mecklar broke through. He thrust forward
and Lanrik twisted to avoid what would have been a lethal stroke with a real
weapon. Instead, the wooden blade merely skidded across his ribs.

To Lanrik’s astonishment, King Murhain did not call
an end to the round. Instead, he awarded Mecklar the Red Cloth of Victory.
Uproar broke out in the square.

The Lindrath spoke to Murhain but eventually turned
away and called for quiet.

“The king has invoked the ancient right of the
judge,” he said.

There was more shouting, and the Lindrath waited for
it to subside.

“There’s a rule that if a bout continues an
unreasonable time, the judge can award victory to the competitor he thinks is
likely to win.”

There was renewed mayhem in the crowd, but a single
voice rose above the din.

“Maybe for the early rounds. Not the final!”

The Lindrath’s gaze shifted to the king, and he
spoke with thinly veiled sarcasm. “It’s true that in the nine hundred and fifty
three years since the first games in Esgallien, the rule has never been invoked
in a final. But it still exists.”

The crowd eventually dispersed, and the Lindrath
came over to Lanrik.

“There’ll always be next time, son. You know better
than most that the king dislikes the Raithlin – as well as your family. It’s no
surprise that he’s favored someone from his retinue.”

Lanrik wondered, as he often had since then, if
Mecklar really was better. He had a feeling that they would find out one day.
For the moment, his main concern was the column of smoke, and he noticed that
it was thinning.

Mecklar glanced at him. “It seems that your
incompetent friend has realized their stupidity.”

Lanrik clenched his hands into fists, and then breathed
out slowly and relaxed.

“Perhaps the person is injured and only had the
strength to build a small fire.”

“Then they’re weak as well as stupid.
Characteristics that don’t go well with the primary Raithlin trait of
arrogance. All these faults must cause your people lots of problems.”

Lanrik could sense Mecklar’s anticipation for his
response. It was like a vast pit before him, and his antagonist was
willing
him to stumble into it. He refused to allow the man to break him though.
Instead of saying what he really thought, he just laughed. It was no time for
humor, but there were worse reactions to the absurd.

Mecklar went rigid, and Lanrik felt that he had won
a kind of victory. Irrespective of what happened, Mecklar’s report would be
bad; it was what the king wanted, but he would not get it easily.

Lanrik wondered what he would do if the scouts were
disbanded. Could he learn other skills? He would have to, but his heart would
never be in it. The Raithlin were his life and identity. His uncle had made it
so.

Other concerns crowded his mind. Why would one of
the Raithlin, for whom stealth and caution were second nature, light a fire to
deliberately make smoke but only feed it for a short time? Whatever it signaled,
it was not an enemy attack. No army could approach the lookouts without being
seen, and at first sight, the outlying scouts would return to Esgallien and
give warning. The inner ring of scouts would monitor the enemy and assess its
strength, intention and morale.

The tor was in plain view now, and Lanrik studied it
as they continued to close the gap from its southwestern side. It was a time to
be cautious, for something must have happened, but without knowing its nature,
he did not know what to be wary of.

Underneath his boots, the lushness of the plains changed.
The fertile earth dried and turned into shallow and rocky soil. The grass was
now wiry and yellowish; the vetch ceased to scramble over grass stems and
became sickly, while the delicate red clover disappeared altogether.

BOOK: Renown of the Raithlin: Book One of the Raithlindrath Series
2.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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