Servant of the Serpent (Serpent's War Book 1)

 

Servant of the Serpent

By Jason Halstead

©2014

 

All rights reserved under the International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Cover art © 2014
Willsin Rowe

Proofread by Faith Williams

 

 

 

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Jason Halstead’s website:
http://www.booksbyjason.com

 

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Other Adventures in the world of Kroth:

Blades of Leander
:

Child of Fate

Victim of Fate

Silver Dragon

 

Order of the Dragon
:

Isle of the Ape

Chasing the Dragon

Sands of Betrayal

Dragonlady

 

And the Serpent's War trilogy:

Servant of the Serpent

 

 

Prologue

 

“That’s more than cooking fires,” said a man wearing brown leather with patches of chain mail sewn in for added protection. He sat atop a brown and tan horse suited for the scrub-covered hills that bordered the desert to the north.

“Depends on what you’re cooking,” replied the older man who rode beside him. “Best we ride late to put distance between us and whatever’s burning, though.”

“There’s a village that way. I’d bet my wages that’s where it came from. We should look into it.”

“And leave the wagons with only Ruffalo and Armand to guard them? Did I drop you on your head as a boy or should I have?”

The younger man smirked and shook his head. “I did a fine job of falling on my own head without your help.”

“Good, you know what’s wrong with you then. We’ll ride on.”

Both men turned as the master of the three-wagon train called to them. “Bucknar! What’s with the smoke?”

Bucknar glanced at his son and raised an eyebrow before turning back. “Gildor marks that as Assurion’s Crossing. Some houses look to be afire; might be a boy knocked a lantern over while tossing his maid in the hay behind the stables.”

“Or it might be a raid from the mountains or swamp. Elves or splisskin or trolls or saints know what,” Gildor added.

“Not elves,” Bucknar asserted.

“But it might be the others?” Everet, the driver of the lead wagon and master of the caravan, asked.

Bucknar shrugged. “Gildor thinks we should check it out.”

“Then he’s a damned fool! No sense looking for trouble when there’s none to be found,” Ruffalo said while spurring his horse to ride closer from the other side of the wagons.

“That’s right,” Everet agreed. “You’re paid for keeping the wagons and their goods safe. Us drivers too. There’s no bounty for bandits or troll hides. At least none I’ll sanction.”

Bucknar turned to Gildor. “There you have it.”

Gildor scowled and glanced at the smoke rising above the hills. It was black and thick, even if it was an hour’s ride away. He shook his head. “Ride on then. I’ll make sure it’s nothing coming our way.”

“And if it is?” Bucknar asked. “Then what?”

Gildor grinned. “Then I ride faster!”

Bucknar scowled and itched at his own aged leather cuirass. Unlike Gildor, his had bits of metal sewn into it to foil a blade from slicing long or deep in his hide. He turned to look at the others. “Ride on. We’ll catch you up.”

“What!” Everet cried. “What if it’s a ruse?”

“Really? A ruse? Your wagons are so valuable that someone will set fire to a village an hour away to distract us?”

The driver blustered for a moment and then shook his head. “No, you stay with me or you don’t get paid!”

Bucknar pressed his lips together and sighed through his nose. He turned back to his son and shrugged.

Gildor nodded. “I’ll meet you at the Silvertooth,” he said. “And I’ll be thirsty.”

Bucknar frowned. “You’ll be thirsty and broke.”

“Good thing you’ll be able to buy me an ale.”

“What!” Everet sputtered. “You can’t just leave! I’ll spread word and you’ll never get a job as a caravan guard again!”

Gildor nodded to Bucknar and offered a quick wave to Ruffalo88, Armand, and the two drivers of the other wagons. “Good luck,” he said before he turned his horse and rode off to the east.

Bucknar watched him ride away and sighed. “Damn that boy. He’s got too much of his mother in him.”

“Bucknar, your son’s a fool who won’t work again!” Everet shouted.

Bucknar sighed again and turned back to the red-faced driver. “Aye, he’s a fool sure enough, and what’s worse is that he might lead a pack of trolls back to us.”

“What?” Everet sputtered. “He’d better not!”

“Not to worry. I’ll make sure of it,” Bucknar said. He turned and put his heels to his mount’s sides to send him off at a run after his son. It was almost fast enough to get him away before Everet started shouting for him to come back.

Gildor slowed as his father crested a hill and rode up to join him. When father and son were together again, Gildor tilted his head. “Change of heart?”

“They were afraid you’d bring back a raiding party of swamp trolls.”

Gildor chuckled. “Well enough, but now who’s going to buy the ale?”

Bucknar’s laugh fell short as he looked to the east and saw the thick column of black smoke ahead of them. “I’m thinking this might not be the best idea you’ve had.”

“And still you’re here with me.”

Bucknar grinned. “Not much choice, none of your brothers or sisters would have me.”

Gildor stiffened and turned in his saddle. “I have brothers and sisters?”

Bucknar shrugged. “If you do, they’re not telling me about it.”

Gildor sighed and shook his head. “You need to find a wife.”

“Pah, I’m old and set in my ways. I’ll die on the trail someday. Better you find yourself a woman and give me some grandkids. I can tell them what a hellion you were and bring them treats from caravans that have been far and wide when I come home.”

“You’ve thought this out,” Gildor said.

“I’ve got to have something to take my mind off the way this saddle feels under my bony arse!”

Gildor chuckled and then rode on in silence, rounding hills without cresting them to avoid being spotted. The scrub began to thicken and turn from the coarse grasses to brush and copses of trees. The smoke darkened ahead and the stink of it grew stronger. Gildor’s nose wrinkled as he smelled the collection of everything from roasting meat to burning pitch and wood.

“Let’s leave the horses,” Gildor suggested.

“Did I mention my feet ache worse than my bottom on this saddle?”

Gildor snorted. “Then stay here.”

“You get more and more crotchety the older you get, and you had colic when you were a baby.”

Gildor rolled his eyes and slid off his horse. Bucknar joined him as he was tying his horse’s reins in a loose knot on a tree limb. Gildor watched his father do the same and then turned to continue on foot through the brush.

The smoke blocked the sun and added to the gloom that made both men fight the tickles in their throats. They pushed between short-needled pine trees and emerged to see the river that flowed down from the mountains and made its way south to the Silverfens Swamp. The waters flowed from there into Lake Silvermist. On the other side of the river was Assurion’s Crossing—and it was on fire.

“That’s no spilled over lantern,” Gildor muttered.

Bucknar nodded. His eyes narrowed and he pointed at the dark outlines of some figures rushing through the village. “And that’s not a couple of kids hiding from their folks.”

“Splisskin!” Gildor hissed.

“Well, you’ve seen it,” Bucknar said while picking out more and more of the reptilian men moving among the burning buildings. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Gildor hesitated. “Why so many of them?”

“To keep you from doing something stupid and trying to cross that river!”

Gildor sighed through his nose and nodded. “You’re right.”

“Damn right I am,” Bucknar growled. “Come on, before they see us.”

Gildor turned to follow his father. Both men winced as a building crashed to the ground behind them, the timbers burnt to the point of collapsing. As the rumble ended, another sound pierced the afternoon, that of a baby crying.

“Aw hell,” Bucknar hissed.

Gildor spun back around. He shook his head and then shrugged his father’s hand off his shoulder. “Get the horses ready.”

“You can’t do this!”

Gildor hesitated and then shook his head. He moved ahead, slipping through the brush and crouching as he made it to the edge of the river. He waded in, moving as quick as he could without splashing. As soon as the water reached his thighs, he dropped into the water and began to swim against the slow current. He felt the gritty bottom on the far side after what felt like a lifetime.

Gildor climbed onto the wreckage of a boat and crouched on the docks, checking for the raiders. Most of the town was on fire and the splisskin were gathered near the buildings that remained untouched. While he watched, another burst into flames as one of the snake men cast a spell that caused flames to burst from his hands and splatter against the side of the building.

Gildor’s eyes widened and he shrank down behind some broken crates. A dozen or more of the splisskin was bad enough; to have to deal with a wizard or priest was the last thing he wanted.

His fears were distracted when he heard the baby’s cry. He turned to his right and tried to guess where the sound came from. There were only two buildings left standing and not immersed in flames. Gildor glanced to the left where the lizard men were and then slipped back into the river. He pulled himself along the dock until he could hear consistent sobbing from the child. Gildor pulled himself under the dock and crawled up and out of the river and through the muddy bank.

The caravan guard turned would-be savior moved along the side of the building. The smoke was overpowering, forcing him to tuck his mouth into his shoulder to try to filter the smoke through his shirt. The baby’s cries were growing quieter and were broken up by coughing fits.

Gildor moved to a window and risked a glance inside. He saw a common room with flames writhing up the far wall, like living snakes made of fire. A wall with an opening was to the left. A blanket hung in the opening, serving as a door. The child’s cries were coming from the room behind the blanket.

Gildor studied the wall of the building and frowned. The frame was made of thick logs either taken from the swamp or the forests to the south but the walls were baked mud and clay up to his waist. He returned his attention to the window and reached for the sword at his side before stopping. Once he rescued the babe, he couldn’t climb back out through a window. His only chance would be the door.

He moved around the corner of the building and stumbled back as the heat from the flames on that side singed the hair on his left hand. Gildor grimaced and walked wide of it, his vision ruined by the smoke and bright fire consuming the side of the house and the wood and thatch roof. Over the crackling of the flames, he lost the sound of the child’s coughs and cries.

Gildor clenched his teeth and hurried around the eastern edge of the house. He focused on the door, a shallow depression in the swimming sea of flames. He shielded his face as best he could and kicked at it, striking it three times before the door crumpled and dropped flaming brands into the entrance and his boot.

Gildor stomped and danced, fearful that he’d catch fire in spite of his recent swim. Satisfied he wasn’t going to burn to death, he tucked his head in his hands and plunged through the dark hole in the wall. His legs were grabbed by something soft but heavy, pitching him forward and sending him rolling across the floor with a grunt.

He flopped a few times, trying to get his bearings and recover his breath. Black smoke obscured the ceiling and walls but he could see near the floor. Behind him, at the door, lay the body of a man who had been pierced by swords and spears. He’d pulled himself against the door before he died, protecting his family.

A feeble cough brought his head around. He spotted the other room and crawled across the floor as fast as he could. Sweat dripped into his eyes, forcing him to blink it away and shake his head. He dared to rub his brow on his arm. The leather was warm against him, the river water already evaporated by the fire’s heat.

Gildor pushed the blanket to the side and crawled through. Smoke followed him in, adding to the cloud already darkening the room. A sleeping pallet was against the wall and beside it, in a crib on the floor, lay the bundle that was wheezing and hacking. Gildor lurched forward, climbing to his knees and reaching in to grab the baby. Soot stained the child’s face and made it impossible for him to tell if it was a boy or a girl. The infant stared at him a moment, bright blue eyes shining up at him through the smoke, and then it started to cry and cough again.

Gildor turned and started back to the door. The blanket was moving from the breeze caused by the fire. He could see the flames through it and around its edges. With the outside door open, the flames were racing inside and eating the house like a ravenous living creature. He stopped and looked for another way out. Something that wouldn’t risk burning himself or the child. There was nothing but a clay bowl filled with water and some dirty rags.

“You won’t like this, but it might save you,” Gildor told the infant as he went and yanked the sheets from the pallet. He bundled them and then grabbed the bowl and dumped the warm water on top of it. He cast the bowl aside and wrapped the baby in the wet blanket. The baby struggled and protested with more sobs and coughs, but the blanket muffled the cries.

Gildor turned back to the blanket-covered doorway and staggered. He crouched low and blinked his eyes repeatedly, trying to clear the stinging smoke away. Tears ran down his cheeks, and his nose and chest burned from the smoke. He struggled to gasp in air and then nearly collapsed when the blanket in the doorway burst into flames.

The blanket fell to the ground in seconds. The heat slammed into him and rocked him back. His skin felt like he’d been lying naked in the Shazamiran Desert for days. He couldn’t breathe; the air was too hot and what little there was rushed past him towards the flames.

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