Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Historical, #90 Minutes (44-64 Pages), #Literature & Fiction, #Arthurian
THE PALADIN'S TALE
ARANDAR OF TARLION is a man-at-arms in service to the High King of Andomhaim, determined to prove his skill at arms through deeds of valor.
He is also the High King’s bastard son, his parentage and blood kept secret.
When orcish raiders descend upon the borders of the realm, Arandar has a chance to display his courage.
Or to perish on a battlefield far from his home…
The Assassin's Tale
Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Moeller.
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.
Cover image copyright Andreicu88 | Dreamstime.com & Nejron | Dreamstime.com.
Ebook edition published October 2014.
All Rights Reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.
The Paladin’s Tale
In the Year of Our Lord 1468, smoke rose from the burning village in the foothills of Kothluusk.
Arandar reined up, his horse dancing beneath him, and stared at the village. This close to the mountains of Kothluusk and the tribes of the Mhorites, every village possessed a stout wall of stone and a keep.
The fortifications had done little good for this village. The gate had been smashed, and Arandar saw corpses in the leather and chain mail of militia lying scattered below the wall. The smell of burnt wood and spilled blood filled his nostrils, made his hand twitch to the hilt of the sword belted at his waist.
Arandar turned his head as his Optio, his second in command, approached. Like Arandar, Cassius wore the chain mail and plate of a man-at-arms of Tarlion beneath a blue tabard bearing the High King’s red dragon sigil. Arandar had served in the High King’s men-at-arms since the age of sixteen, but Cassius was twenty years his senior, had seen a score of campaigns and fighting from Durandis in the west to Caertigris in the east. The man was a capable soldier, but preferred to follow the orders of another.
Which mean it was up to Arandar to decide what to do.
“You know this place?” said Arandar.
“I do, sir,” said Cassius, squinting at the smoldering ruins. “Village called Novindum. Good inn. Served decent beer.”
“Send in men to scout,” said Arandar. “The village burned last night, I deem. Likely it was attacked just after dark. I want to know who did it.”
“Sir,” said Cassius.
“What is the meaning of this delay?”
Arandar turned his horse. Behind him waited his command, one hundred men-at-arms in the colors of the High King of Andomhaim, sword and spear at the ready. A doughy young man in a white robe with a black sash rode towards him, his face spread in a thunderous scowl.
“Magistrius Orlan,” said Arandar.
“Your orders were to take me to Castra Durius at once, Decurion,” snapped Orlan, his stout face reddening. He looked at the smoking village, flinched, and looked away again. “Not to gawk at every…every rural brawl.”
“Our orders, Magistrius,” said Arandar, forcing patience into his voice. “Our orders were to report to Kors Durius, Dux of Durandis, at Castra Durius in order to help him defend his lands from the Mhorite orcs.” He gestured at the ruins of Novindum. “Clearly, his lands are in need of defense. Optio, check the village. See if there are any survivors.”
Cassius went to work, and a group of men-at-arms rode for the gates of the village, while another squad circled around Novindum’s hill, scouting for any trace of the attackers. Orlan glowered at them, as if expecting the men would quail under his gaze, but the High King’s men-at-arms were too well-disciplined to obey anyone but their commander.
“Dux Kors shall hear of this,” hissed Orlan.
“One would hope so,” said Arandar, a pleasant fantasy of driving a mailed fist into Orlan’s face flickering through his mind. He dismissed the thought. They might have need of the Magistrius’s magic soon enough. “The High King sent us to help the Dux defend his lands. I am sure the Dux would be glad to hear of it.”
Orlan’s scowl turned to a contemptuous sneer. “Do not think to rise above yourself, bastard. Your blood will not save you.”
Arandar’s hand twitched into a fist before he could stop it, but fourteen years of discipline in the High King’s men-at-arms stopped him from doing anything rash. “You are quite correct, Magistrius. Neither your blood or mine shall impress the orcs of Kothluusk if they come for us.”
He had the satisfaction of seeing the sneer turn to a flicker of fear.
“Rather different out here, isn’t it?” said Arandar. “Not quite like Tarlion.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Orlan, and after that, thank God and the saints, the Magistrius shut up.
Arandar waited as his men searched the village. The patrol came back from the far side of Novindum and reported a trail heading west, towards the higher foothills and mountains of Kothluusk. Arandar had expected nothing else. Shortly after that, a pair of his men-at-arms rode from the village, carrying a corpse between them.
“What have you found?” said Arandar.
“No one left alive in there, sir,” said one of the men-at-arms. “Checked the cellars and the wells, anywhere someone might hide. Some dead bodies. Looked like village militia. Put up a devil of a fight. Didn’t seen any dead women or children. My guess is that the raiders carried them off as prisoners.”
“Is this one of the raiders?” said Arandar.
The man-at-arms nodded and dumped his burden upon the ground. It was an orcish man, killed by an arrow through the heart. He wore leather armor and a ragged fur cloak, and to judge from the loop upon his belt, had gone into battle with an axe. His head had been shaved save for a warrior’s black topknot, and his face had been marked with ritualized scars around the eyes and mouth. The scars themselves had been tattooed the color of blood, making it look as if the orcish warrior’s face had been covered with a stylized skull.
“An orcish warrior of Kothluusk,” said Arandar, “a follower of Mhor, the old blood god of death and war.”
“Likely they raided the village for slaves,” said Cassius, squinting at the mountains of Kothluusk in the distance. “Or for sacrifices. Mhor is a thirsty god, and demands his tribute in blood.”
“Well, Decurion, you have your answer,” said Orlan. “Mhorite orcs raided Novindum and carried off its people into captivity. We can report this to Dux Kors when we arrive at Castra Dorius.”
“Your orders, sir?” said Cassius.
“How long ago would you say this attack happened, Optio?” said Arandar.
“No earlier than dusk yesterday, sir,” said Cassius, rubbing a thumb over his jaw. “Knowing the Mhorites, they likely attacked in the dead of the night.”
“It’s a little past noon now,” said Arandar. “Rounding up captives would have taken time, perhaps even until dawn. We might be no more than six or seven hours behind them.”
“I concur, sir,” said Cassius.
“You cannot possibly be considering this!” said Orlan. “The High King commanded us to ride to Castra Durius and Dux Kors, not to gallivant off into the foothills of Kothluusk! We cannot save these villagers. If we do this, we shall be killed. We shall be worse than killed. We’ll be overwhelmed and surrounded, and taken captive ourselves.”
“Optio,” said Arandar, “prepare the men. We pursue.”
Orlan started to rant some more, but the men-at-arms formed into a column. Soon the horsemen rode around the base of the hill, and Orlan had no choice but to follow unless he wanted to remain behind.
Given the dangers of the foothills, no sane man wanted to remain alone this close to Kothluusk. For that matter, perhaps Orlan was right. Perhaps Arandar was leading his men to their doom. Certainly no one would blame him if he rode to Castra Durius to report the raid to the Dux.
The High King had sent them to help defend the people of Durandis. It was Arandar’s duty to defend the people of Novindum, and he would not turn back from that task.
He would not act as people expected a man of his birth to act.
They rode further into the foothills.
“There’s someone up ahead, sir,” said Cassius.
For the last three hours they had followed the trail of the Mhorites. The scouts suspected that around two hundred orcish warriors and two hundred captive villagers had left that trail behind, and Arandar agreed with their assessment. The growing roughness of the terrain troubled him. On an open field, his horsemen would have no trouble sweeping away the Mhorites. On rocky hills and ravines, though, the Mhorites could easily set a trap. For that matter, if the Mhorites found reinforcements, they might turn and attack. Orlan might have been a coward, but his counsels were not baseless.
Yet they had encountered no one else. Arandar kept scouts ranging around the column, and so far they had found neither friends nor foes.
“Where?” said Arandar, looking over the wooded hills. The raiders had headed towards the mountains, the path winding its way through a broad, wooded valley.
“There, sir,” said Cassius. “Lying at the base of the tree.”
Arandar called for a halt and then steered his horse off the path, Cassius, Orlan, and a few other men following him. A crumpled shape in brown fabric lay at the base of the tree. It was an old woman, thin and gaunt, her dress stained with blood, a bruise marring the right side of her face. Arandar dropped from his horse and knelt by her side, Cassius following suit, while Orlan scowled down at them.
“Likely too old to keep up,” said Cassius. “Mhorites killed her and left her to rot, sir.”
“They haven’t killed her yet,” said Arandar, resting a finger upon her neck. “She’s still breathing. Magistrius! Heal her, please.”
“What?” said Orlan. “Do not be absurd.”
“She yet lives,” said Arandar. “Heal her.”
“You expect me to take that old woman’s pain into myself?” said Orlan.
“I know you have to take a person’s pain in order to heal them,” said Arandar, “but that pain lasts but a moment, while she could suffer for days before she dies.”
“It is not worth the effort,” said Orlan.
“The famed compassion of the Magistri,” said Arandar, trying to keep his temper under control. “Consider this, then. The woman can tell us about our foes and their composition. Without her knowledge, we might walk into an ambush. We might even be defeated and taken captive. I wonder what the Mhorites might do to a Magistrius.”
“Fine!” Orlan let go of his reins, slid out of the saddle, and managed to land without injuring himself. He knelt next to the old woman, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. White fire, the magic of the Well at Tarlion’s heart, blazed around his hands, and the men-at-arms backed away in fear. Orlan put his hands to the old woman’s temples and whispered under his breath, and the light sank into her head. The Magistrius flinched, gritting his teeth. A Magistrius had to take on the pain of a victim in order to heal wounds, though Arandar suspected some pain would do Orlan good.
The old woman’s eyes, gray and bloodshot, opened wide, and she sat up with a gasp, looking around in panic. Orlan heaved himself to his feet, rubbing his head.
“God and the saints,” he muttered, “that hurt. She had a skull fracture. Some broken ribs and bruising. Her right hip’s a mess, but that’s just old age, I am afraid.” Likely that was why the Mhorites had discarded her. She’ll live.” He heaved himself back into the saddle with a sigh, crossed his arms, and glared at them in sullen silence.
“Thank you,” said Arandar.
Orlan only grunted.
“What has happened?” said the old woman, clutching at Arandar’s arm. “You…you have the badge of the High King. They took the others.” She shook her head. “How did I get here?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” said Arandar. “My name is Arandar, and my men and I are in service to the High King. We were coming to reinforce the Dux’s men and saw the smoke rising from Novindum. What is your name?”
“Cora, my lord,” said the woman.
“I am not a lord,” said Arandar. “I am not even a knight, but that is not important. Tell me what happened.”
“This is Qazamhor’s bloody work,” said Cora.
“Qazamhor?” said Orlan. “Who is this Qazamhor?”
“I know the name,” said Arandar. “When I last served at Castra Durius, the tribes of Kothluusk spoke of a powerful shaman who dwelled among the high places of Mhor, a shaman who was growing stronger than the shamans of the other tribes.”
“He came to our gates,” said Cora. “There were hundreds of warriors with him. He demanded that we surrender, that we offer ourselves up to Mhor. Well, we refused, of course. The men of Novindum are as fierce as men anywhere in the realm, so we closed the gates and lit the signal fires. Then Qazamhor cast a spell. The gates crumbled as if they had been made of rotten wood instead of stout oak. And then…then the Mhorite devils stormed into the village.” She was weeping now, shaking with silent sobs. “They killed my husband Stephen, killed anyone who tried to stop them. They put the rest of us in chains and drove us from our homes like beasts. I couldn’t keep up, not with my hip, and I thought…I thought they killed me…”