Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
When he reached the section examining various actual fights between an Island Lord armed with a Thinblade and others armed with steel, he saw in his mind such carnage and devastation he was left feeling slightly ill. He watched himself wield the Thinblade against a dozen other men and cleave them into pieces with quick, deadly strokes. He saw in his mind’s eye the raw power of the Thinblade and how unstoppable it was.
When Alexander reached the end of the skillbook, the sky outside his balcony doors was dark and his head was reeling. It felt full and throbbed with pain. He made his way to the washroom and filled the basin. He washed his face and went straight to his bed. He pulled off his boots but nothing else, fell into bed and wrapped a blanket around himself before slipping off into a deep and dreamless sleep.
No sooner had he put his head on the pillow than he heard loud knocking at his door. With a struggle he opened his eyes and saw the light of dawn just beginning to peek through the cracks of his curtains. He emerged from his bedchamber into the sitting room and found the fire had died out but the oil lamps were still burning brightly. He made his way to the door, removed the bar, and drew it open while stifling a yawn.
Renwold stood at the door holding a platter of food. Anatoly and Abigail stood behind him; both were dressed for a fight. Alexander motioned for them to enter and went into his bedchamber to put on his boots and gather his pack and weapons. He felt a strange sense of heightened familiarity with his sword, as though he’d fought countless battles with it. It felt like a natural extension of his mind and body.
He came from his room dressed and ready. “I take it you’re coming with me?” he asked as he sat down for a quick breakfast. He didn’t really want to eat but he knew he had to. The next few days would be hard and he would need strength and energy.
“Of course,” Abigail said as she sat down and took the lid off his breakfast tray. As expected, it was piled with more food than five people could eat. Abigail wasn’t bashful; she selected a pastry and sat back on the couch with her breakfast.
Alexander motioned for Anatoly to sit and eat while he slathered butter on a biscuit. They ate quickly. Alexander wanted to be off soon. It was two days to Flat Top Rock and he didn’t want to be late.
“Did you find the edge you were looking for?” Anatoly asked, motioning to the skillbook.
Alexander looked at the book for a moment before nodding slowly, “I believe I did. It’s a strange feeling. I can remember battles I’ve never fought. I know techniques with a blade that I’ve never even heard of before.”
“You sure you know how to make those techniques work? I mean it’s one thing to read about something and another to actually do it.” Abigail seemed skeptical.
“That’s just it. I remember countless hours of practice. I remember fighting battles and killing enemies with blades that I’ve never even held.” Alexander paused for a moment taking another look at the book.
“It taught me how to wield the Thinblade.”
Anatoly and Abigail both sat up a little straighter.
“It’s like I’ve actually held the thing, fought with it, killed with it. It’s a powerful weapon. I can understand why people fear it,” Alexander said.
When they emerged into the palace courtyard, Erik and his team were standing in a circle talking quietly near their picketed horses. They were all dressed in riding armor with swords strapped to their belts and bows with full quivers in riding cases on their horses.
Standing nearby were Hanlon, Jack, Mason, and Lucky. Alexander handed Anatoly his pack and walked over to the little group. “The skillbook is a thing of wonder. I believe that Truss and his master-at-arms will be surprised by my newfound ability with a blade.”
Jack looked torn. “Alexander, I’ll ride out with you if you wish but I believe I could better serve you by questioning those at Truss’s estate to learn if there is more to his treachery. I’ve had dealings with men like him and their machinations are rarely confined to one plot or scheme.”
“That sounds like a good idea. Just make sure you have an adequate force of Rangers to provide you with security,” Alexander said.
“I’ve only seen Truss’s master-at-arms once but I believe he is a battle wizard.” Mason paused to fix Alexander with a very direct look. “Alexander, if I’m correct, he will be extremely dangerous. He will be fast, his weapons will be sharper than they should be, and his attacks will be driven by greater force than any normal man can muster.”
Alexander didn’t like the sound of that but he was committed to his course, no matter the risk. His brow drew down as he considered this new information. “I understand. I think the skillbook was drawn from the expertise of a battle wizard. I hope it’ll give me the edge I need to win the day. I left it on the table in my room. I’d like you to take a look at it and see if you can figure out how it was made. If we could recreate such a thing it would give us a great advantage.”
“I was hoping you would give me the chance to study it.” Mason’s eyes lit up at the opportunity.
“I’ve made a few things for you,” Lucky said as he handed Alexander a leather belt pouch filled with four glass vials carefully packed inside.
He gave Lucky a questioning look.
“Owen arrived yesterday with my wagon so I was able to create a number of items for you during the night. The first vial is a healing draught. Drink it and you will succumb to sleep for half an hour and wake healed of most injuries. The second is a jar of healing salve. You already know from experience how that works. The third is a shatter vial of liquid fire. Throw it at your enemy and the contents will burst into flames on contact with the air. Be careful with that one, the fire burns very hot. The last vial is a potion of warding. Drink it before battle, and weapons will find it much harder to hit you. The potion creates a series of magical shields that will turn blades and arrows away. The weapon will not be stopped, just turned slightly so it will miss. The effects of the potion will last for about an hour.”
“Thank you, Lucky,” Alexander said and gave his old tutor a hug. He turned to Hanlon.
“The council ruled unanimously yesterday to recognize you as King of Ruatha.” Hanlon sounded tired. It didn’t look as though he’d slept at all since Isabel had been taken.
“Good. I’m appointing you Regent of Glen Morillian. Seize Truss’s estates and break up his holdings. Distribute his lands to the citizens who have been working them and his holdings to members of his family who are found to be innocent of treachery. The rest is to go to the Rangers. Finally, send out the call for soldiers and start building an army. I want cavalry, infantry, and archers.” He put his hand on Hanlon’s shoulder. “I’m going to bring Isabel back home to you and Emily, you have my word.”
Hanlon nodded with his eyes closed but didn’t try to speak.
Alexander strode to his horse and mounted up. The reins to his second horse were already tied to his saddle, and Anatoly had fastened Alexander’s pack to the horse’s rump. Everyone else was mounted and waiting.
They rode hard all morning, switching horses every couple of hours or so. It was another clear day but cold and dry. The air got progressively more frigid as they negotiated the switchbacks up the side of the barrier mountains on the road leading to the fortress gate. They reached the mountain stronghold by midday and made haste through to the other side, stopping only for a moment to explain the situation to the gatekeeper. He was angry that Truss had betrayed Glen Morillian, but he was furious that Truss had passed right under his nose with the Forest Warden’s daughter in a box. He offered a platoon of Rangers to ride with them, but Alexander didn’t want to be slowed or to give Truss any reason to kill Isabel so he politely declined the offer.
Once through the gate and on the road leading into the Great Forest, they again made good time. Alexander pushed on relentlessly until darkness simply made it too dangerous to continue. He was confident that they’d covered the majority of the distance to Flat Top Rock when they stopped to make camp.
There wasn’t much talk around the fire that night. The brothers were all clearly worried sick about their sister. They alternated between anger and despair as they stared silently into the little cook fire. Alexander knew just how they felt. Rage had been boiling in the pit of his stomach since he’d discovered Isabel was missing and he feared that the only thing that would quench that rage was blood.
He meant to kill Truss for this.
He thought about the art of the blade. He would have reason to use it tomorrow. He thought about Isabel and her piercing green eyes in the moments before he fell asleep.
They were up at dawn and on the move after a quick, cold breakfast. The sky was filled with broken clouds, all white and fluffy, floating past on the breeze and casting their shadows across the world. It was warmer lower in the forest and Alexander was again taken by the beauty of the life all around them. He tried to focus on it to keep the unthinkable from invading his idle mind. It was late afternoon when Erik called a halt.
“This is as far as we can go with you, Alexander. Flat Top Rock will come into view just over that ridge. From there it’s less than a quarter of an hour ride.” Erik pulled a strange-looking arrow from his quiver and handed it to Alexander. “This is a whistler. Shoot it into the air and we’ll come running.”
Alexander took the arrow and slipped it into his quiver, noting the distinctive yellow feathers that set it apart from the other arrows he carried.
“You’re walking into a trap, so be careful.” Abigail came alongside her brother and gave his arm a squeeze. “Remember, there are three of them, so keep your eyes open.”
He smiled his thanks and headed up the road. Sure enough he could see Flat Top Rock in the distance when he crested the rise. His heart started to beat a little faster. He checked his sword in its scabbard. At this range he couldn’t see anyone but he didn’t doubt they were there.
He rode on, but more slowly and cautiously. He expected an ambush, so he scanned the trees frequently with both normal vision and his second sight. When he reached the clearing where he’d stolen the Reishi’s horses, he saw a wagon and several horses picketed but no sign of anyone. He expected the third man to be lying in wait for him.
He pushed on until he came to the path leading up the side of Flat Top Rock. It was a treacherous footpath not suitable for a horse, so Alexander dismounted and tethered his horses to a nearby tree. He checked his sword, long knife, boot knives, and the throwing knife he had strapped to the back of his belt. Each was where he wanted it to be and free in its sheath or scabbard. He took his bow and three arrows. He put two along the length of the bow itself and nocked the third, holding it in place with just a little tension on the string. Finally, he took the potion of warding from the little pouch, popped off the stopper and downed the sweet-tasting, syrupy liquid. It was warm going down but otherwise he felt nothing.
Alexander scanned his surroundings with his second sight and started up the steep and winding path to the top of the rocky prominence. He took his time, looking and listening for any threat. He expected an ambush at every moment so he moved with extreme caution. When he reached the top and cautiously peeked over the stone edge, his breath caught at the sight of her.
She was alive.
She still wore the beautiful dark green gown she’d worn to the banquet, only now it was torn, tattered, and dirty.
Rexius Truss’s henchmen had felled a tree against the side of Flat Top Rock and then chopped off the top twenty feet to create a couple of logs to sit on and provide wood for a fire. Isabel was sitting on one of the logs with her hands tied behind her back. Truss was on the other log, poking at the little fire with a stick. Leaning on a spear was another man dressed in a polished steel breastplate, greaves, and bracers. Resting on the log near his feet was a large round shield and a helmet. He had a sword strapped to his waist and looked to be perfectly comfortable wearing heavy armor. Alexander presumed that he was the master-at-arms Erik had warned him about.
He ducked back down to think about how he wanted to approach the enemy, when he caught the movement of a crossbow bolt coming at him fast. He turned just in time to see the bolt only feet from him. It was a clean shot. It was going to drive right through his chest … except it didn’t. Only a couple of feet away it suddenly veered to the side as if it had glanced off a steel shield and shattered against the stone wall he was crouching near. Alexander silently thanked Lucky and his potion.
He scanned the forest with his second sight and found his attacker. A man on a platform high up in the trees was looking at Alexander with disbelief. He’d fired a perfect shot and missed. Alexander drew his bow up quickly and smoothly. He got a clean sight on his target and loosed his arrow. It drove hard into the center of the man’s chest and pinned him to the tree for a moment before he slumped forward off the platform, crashing through the trees to the ground below. One down.
He nocked a second arrow and quickly took the last few steps up to the top of Flat Top Rock. He sent his arrow at the master-at-arms but was a second too late. The man heard the crossbowman fall into the trees and had scooped up his shield just in time to bring it around and deflect the arrow. Alexander nocked his last arrow and sent it at Truss without a moment’s hesitation. This one flew true. It stabbed straight through his right shoulder. Truss screamed in pain and then screamed again. The master-at-arms strapped his shield in place while chuckling at Truss’s distress, then calmly pulled his helmet on and took up his spear.