Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
Alexander dropped his bow. The master-at-arms was looking at him like a wolf eyes a calf. Alexander drew his sword and his long knife and advanced.
Truss was whimpering on the ground. He took a deep breath, reached over his shoulder, took hold of the bloody shaft and pulled it through with one mighty heave. He screamed again and squirmed around on the ground mewling in pain. Isabel laughed out loud with absolutely no humor.
Alexander and the master-at-arms engaged. The first clash happened much faster than Alexander had expected. The man seemed to move in a time all his own. One moment he was moving with the normal speed of a trained warrior, then, in the moment of the strike, he seemed to move in a blur with a kind of speed that no normal person could muster. His first strike would have killed Alexander had it not been turned aside by the potion of warding.
Alexander moved around the thrust in an effort to position himself between the enemy and Isabel. He remembered the technique from the skillbook but it was as if he’d learned it in theory and never actually practiced it. For a moment he worried that the skillbook hadn’t actually imparted the skills he so desperately needed.
The master-at-arms paused and regarded Alexander for a moment. Alexander took that opportunity to slip his long knife back into his sheath, pull a boot knife and throw it into the log next to Isabel. A moment later the master-at-arms drove into him again, leading with an impossibly fast spear strike that again went just wide of running Alexander through. Instead, it sliced shallowly but painfully into his side. Alexander just barely spun out of the way when the enemy’s shield came whipping past his head in a broad arc. He lashed out with his sword and felt the familiarity of a stroke that he’d never used before. It just missed. The master-at-arms spun full circle and whipped his spear around in a great arc using the broad-bladed weapon more like a sword than a spear.
In that moment of combat, thought faded and instinct assumed command. Alexander felt like something snapped into place. He knew where the spear would be a moment from now and where the enemy would move next. Everything about the dance of battle became clear. Alexander brought his blade up and parried the spear slash and counterattacked.
What followed was a blur of blade and steel. They fought for several minutes in a blinding cadence of attack and counter, thrust and parry. Alexander couldn’t overcome his opponent’s armor and the master-at-arms couldn’t overcome Alexander’s potion of warding. Each took several minor gashes from the other, but neither was able to deliver a kill strike. Alexander felt like he understood the intentions of the master-at-arms before they were formed in his enemy’s mind but he simply could not match the man’s inhuman speed. Had it not been for the potion of warding he would have fallen long ago. Had he not studied the skillbook he wouldn’t have stood a chance against this man.
When they broke and separated to catch their breath, Alexander saw Truss laboring to climb down the tree and Isabel working with the knife to cut her bonds and free herself.
The master-at-arms stood a good fifteen feet from Alexander, casually leaning on his spear and looking at him now more in the way a wolf eyes another wolf from a different pack.
“You all right, Isabel?” Alexander called out over his shoulder without taking his eyes off his opponent.
“I am now,” she said as she succeeded in cutting the leather bindings that held her hands behind her back.
The master-at-arms tilted his head. “You’re not a battle wizard but you use techniques that I’ve never even seen before. I must say this has been a pleasure. I’ve learned more in the last five minutes than in the last five years. Shall we continue?”
He started to advance on Alexander, raising his shield and spear.
“I don’t think so,” Alexander said.
The master-at-arms gave him a disappointed look and replied with a deadly smile, “I’m afraid you don’t really have a choice.”
Alexander smiled back and hurled the shatter vial of liquid fire at his enemy. The battle wizard raised his shield and the vial exploded against it, bursting into flame. The liquid fire splattered over the top and all around the shield. Everywhere a drop fell, it stuck and burned brightly. In just moments the man was engulfed in flames. He screamed once in surprise and then again in terror before running madly right off the edge of Flat Top Rock, plummeting to his death on the road below.
A moment later Isabel raced into Alexander’s arms and wept with relief. He held her tightly and let her cry on his shoulder. When she looked up into his eyes, all of his worry and fear melted away. She was battered and dirty, her hair was a mess, her face was streaked with tears, and she was beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful sight that Alexander had ever seen. She was alive and she was in his arms. Truss had escaped but Alexander didn’t even care. He was filled with joy just standing there holding her.
They made their way down slowly and carefully. Once they reached their horses, Alexander sent the whistler arrow into the air. It streaked high overhead screaming with a high-pitched whistle that could be heard for miles around. Isabel sat on a rock looking tired and completely out of place in her torn and dirty gown.
“I thought you might want these,” he said, handing her a set of her riding clothes and her boots all rolled up in a neat little ball.
She smiled up at him like the sunrise. “You’re my hero,” she whispered. “Now turn around,” she added with a smile.
Once she was dressed, they mounted their horses and rode to the clearing where the wagon was still parked. Isabel dismounted in a hurry, went to the little wagon and started searching through its contents. A moment later she came up with a covered cage.
“They took Slyder before they kidnapped me so I couldn’t use him to lead you to me.” She popped open the cage, took her forest hawk out and gently tossed him into the air. He took to wing with enthusiasm. Isabel laughed with delight at seeing Slyder fly up into the trees.
Alexander and Isabel were sitting on the wagon applying healing salve to each other’s injuries when Alexander’s escort charged into the clearing. When Isabel saw her brothers, she rushed to them, hugging each in turn. Anatoly and Abigail came to Alexander and listened to him recount the events of the fight and Truss’s escape.
“Sound’s like Lucky’s magic decided the day,” Anatoly offered with a slightly reproving look.
“You’ll get no argument from me on that count. His potions saved my life and killed Truss’s master-at-arms, no doubt about it. But, I did learn a bit about fighting with a blade. Once the magic of the skillbook actually sank in, I fought pretty well, just not as well as that battle wizard.” Alexander shook his head. “That guy could move so fast it was scary. One moment he was fighting like a skilled warrior and the next he was driving his spear at me with blinding speed. I hope I never have to face another one of those.”
Two days later they were back at the palace and having dinner in the private residence with the Alaric family.
Isabel told the entire story of her ordeal. Truss was indeed in league with Phane. His master-at-arms was a member of the Reishi Protectorate and he’d promised Truss quite a lot to lure Alexander out into the open. Truss’s plan was sound given the prowess of his master-at-arms, but, thankfully, it played out quite differently than they anticipated. Hanlon and Emily were overwhelmed with relief at the safe return of their daughter.
As the evening wound down, Alexander maneuvered Hanlon out onto the balcony for a moment of private conversation. “Hanlon, I have a request of a personal nature.”
“Name it.” Hanlon didn’t hesitate. He’d expressed his gratitude to Alexander when they returned and several more times during the evening but Alexander’s request was quite a lot to ask.
Alexander took a deep breath and steadied his nerves. “I would like your permission and blessing to court Isabel.” He held his breath.
Hanlon looked stunned for just a moment before grinning broadly and taking Alexander up in a giant bear hug. He set him back down and looked him square in the eye. “You have it. You’ve already risked the world for her and I’ve seen the way she looks at you. You have my permission and my heartfelt blessing, Alexander.”
When he lay down to sleep that night he was exhausted but simply couldn’t quiet his mind. There were too many possibilities swirling around inside his head. The threat was still out there but it seemed farther away and the reasons for fighting that threat seemed closer and more real. Alexander finally drifted off to sleep, feeling a sense of hope and optimism that he hadn’t felt for a long time.
Jataan P’Tal stepped off the gangplank onto the solid, unmoving boards of the Southport dock and breathed a sigh of relief. He hated the ocean. He believed that men should have firm ground underfoot. The solidity of it was reliable and predictable. When the very ground beneath your feet shifted and moved, you couldn’t find firm footing and firm footing was the first part of being effective in battle.
Jataan P’Tal was a battle mage.
He was quite possibly the most deadly man alive in all the Seven Isles in any contest of blade or steel. He wasn’t invincible, a fact he was all too aware of. He was just that good in a fight, another fact he was well aware of.
Battle wizards were rare. They had a unique connection to the firmament. Their power didn’t flow from active visualization and concentrated will like most other wizards but instead was guided at a more basic, instinctual, and intrinsic level. A battle wizard’s magic manifested in the moment of the fight. In that moment he moved with otherworldly speed and struck with inhuman force. In the moment of the fight a battle wizard saw time differently. His surroundings appeared to slow down. His perception and senses accelerated.
He had a different relationship with weapons as well. A battle wizard could hold a weapon and discern its strengths and weaknesses. He could know with a touch if an arrow would fly straight or if the haft of a spear was imperceptibly cracked or if a blade was made true. A powerful battle wizard could use his magic to repair a weapon or even make a flawed weapon straight. And in the moment of the fight, a battle wizard’s magic flowed into his weapon and lent it a strength and sharpness uncommon to other blades.
In the last thousand years, Jataan P’Tal was the only battle wizard to rise to the level of mage. Jataan P’Tal was a very dangerous man. He had a calling and he was devoted to it with all his heart and soul. He was the General Commander of the Reishi Protectorate. His duty in life was to preserve the Reishi line. He had been raised from childhood to fulfill his duty to the Reishi. Now that he actually had a charge to protect, he felt a sense of exhilaration at his purpose taking on substance, mixed with a bit of apprehension at exactly the form his purpose had chosen to take.
He’d been taught every day of his life that the Reishi were responsible for creating the Old Law. They had brought the Seven Isles together and presided over a period of nearly two thousand years of peace, prosperity, and security. They had ushered in the greatest civilization ever known in the recorded history of the Seven Isles. And then they had been betrayed. Their secret had been stolen and released on an unsuspecting world. A world that had been ravaged by war and netherworld horrors until all was lost except for the sole surviving member of the Reishi Line: Prince Phane.
Jataan P’Tal had imagined living through this time since he was a child. He had stood guard over Phane’s obelisk for hours hoping for a sign, hoping for the opportunity to help the Reishi rise again to tame a now broken and corrupt world. He wanted to be a part of that. He wanted to serve the noble cause of bringing the Old Law and the rightful and benevolent rule of the Reishi back to the world.
What he hadn’t imagined was Phane. The man was not quite right. He had unseemly appetites. He called on creatures from the netherworld to do his bidding. Jataan P’Tal told himself that he was a soldier and Phane was a prince and the rightful heir to the Sovereign’s throne, but still, he was troubled.
He took a deep breath of the ocean air that mingled with the smell of fish and livestock. The docks were busy. Jataan P’Tal stepped up on a crate to see over the crowd. He was a little man, standing only five and a half feet tall but stocky with just a slight paunch. His skin was swarthy, his close-cropped hair was jet black, and the irises of his eyes were black as night. He wore black pants and a black shirt of coarse cloth. His belt was cinched tight under his belly and he wore a black, fur-lined cloak over his shoulders. He didn’t appear to be armed and he carried only a sack over his shoulder.
After just a moment on the crate, he saw his Second and marked his position in the crowd. Boaberous Grudge was a hard man to miss. As much as Jataan looked deceptively nonthreatening, Grudge looked dangerous and menacing. Men of courage gave him a wide berth and averted their eyes to avoid any hint of a challenge.
Boaberous Grudge stood over seven feet tall, weighed almost four hundred pounds, and was completely bald. By all accounts he was a giant. Jataan often wondered about the man’s lineage. Despite his size, he was quick on his feet and agile as well. He was as strong as any three men together and had absolutely no fear of any man alive with the sole exception of Jataan P’Tal. He wore a large pack on his back, a huge breastplate, bracers and greaves. On his back, beside his pack, was an oversized quiver filled with a dozen javelins. Resting on his shoulder was a huge war hammer with a haft that was easily six feet long.