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I haven’t posted anything from this novel in a while. I got a little caught up in my Flash Fiction challenge and with NaNoWriMo. I made a lot of progress on my Fleet book that I posted last month, and with that and the challenge and everything else I’ve learned I came back today to look at my first novel and thought “I can do so much better.”

Don’t get me wrong. These are my first books. They are and always will be my first loves. They are near and dear to my heart, but I am just such a better writer now than I was when I wrote these. I’m even better than I was when I last edited these. I still think the story is good, and most of the wording is good too, but I am much more familiar with the technical aspects of writing. The rules and the art.

I’ll have to revise these again. But each revision goes faster, because each time I am focusing on smaller and smaller areas. For now though, please keep enjoying them. (and if you do spot any of the little flaws, be kind. I’m working on it. 😉 )


10.

The thing you have to understand first, Cary, is that there are only five of us.” Tara’s voice was quiet and calm as she stared at me over the fire the following evening. The night following our fight had been tense but no attack had come. Today we had made what distance we could with Serena and Jason injured and tonight was almost as tense. Friss had slipped into the gathering darkness and disappeared on watch immediately after dinner and Thomas had finished the dishes and was checking on the injured. “We have three Landsmen, one King’s Messenger and an Elven rifleman as acting protector. If we include you it brings us to six, with the addition of a homeless tavern wench.”

I winced a little at the accuracy of her description, but I was definitely the odd duck in the group. “Somewhere ahead of us,” Tara continued, “is an army of unknown strength and size. They are responsible for the destruction of at least six villages or small towns like yours that we know of. In each case about half of the townspeople are brutally murdered in some fashion, different every time, and the rest of the townspeople simply disappear. We assume they’ve been taken as slaves, but there’s a problem with that idea. Can you guess what it is?”

I nodded and swallowed. “The more people they take, the more people they would need to guard them. So they either started out in very high numbers or they’ve been gaining in people as they go.”

That’s the main part of it yes, but there’s more. All of the people they’ve taken as slaves, we estimate several hundred at the least, have been kidnapped and forced on the march. They’re townspeople, not seasoned travelers. You know what shape you’re in. Can you honestly tell me that most of the people in your town would be any better off? My guess is they’d be in far worse shape than a strong young woman who is used to being on her feet all day.

As near as we can tell, all of the attacks have been from surprise and at night, many of these people are barefoot and poorly dressed. So the question becomes, where are they? Forced to move at the speed the army is going, many of them should have died from exhaustion a long time ago. Yet we’ve found no bodies. If the army had brought enough food to feed all of the slaves that may explain some of it, but food for several hundred takes trains of wagons and supplies. This army doesn’t have them. They have wagons and horses stolen from the same places the people were taken, but not enough.

There’s also a certain lack to the trail, no fallen shoes, no dropped items, not even scraps of torn cloth from the places where we know they’ve raped the kidnapped, we have found nothing. Only the endless trail of a well-disciplined army and the scattered footsteps of a large group of people being forced to march. In fact, the only thing they’ve left behind,” she said, her eyes meeting mine, “is you.”

I swallowed again, my throat suddenly dry. “That’s why you keep testing me.”

Yes. I’ve memorized every aspect of your being that I can sense. Thomas has had a constant eye toward any powers you might use, and Jason and Friss have kept you under constant surveillance the entire time. Half of your sword training has been a test to see how much you already knew. Oddly enough the only person who has completely trusted you from the beginning is Serena and she doesn’t trust anyone, or at least no one human.”

I snorted softly and shook my head. “I’m honestly a little sorry to disappoint you. I’m no spy trying to sneak along with you to learn the power of the realm. I’m exactly what I say I am. Which effectively ruins any chance we have of knowing anything, doesn’t it?”

Tara smiled. “It certainly does. But it also gives us some hope. If a tavern wench can beat them, with or without the help of ghosts, then maybe we can too. That’s why we’re here. We’re chasing an invading army that we know nothing about. We don’t even know where it came from. This is a pretty sparsely populated section of the kingdom because it’s so near the mountains, but we’re at least two hundred and fifty miles from the sea, and at least five hundred miles from any inland border. So they must’ve come from within the kingdom or we’d have heard about them long ago. And to top it all off, now they know we’re here, and they know we’re dangerous.”

What happens now?” I asked.

One of three things. They ignore us completely and move on, which they can’t actually afford to do. They run from us because they’re uncertain of our strength and numbers, which again they can’t do because of their slaves. Or, and this is the most likely option, they attack us in force. Probably at night when they can get close.”

My jaw dropped and I looked at her, my eyes wide as endless possibilities ran through my head. “I… If that’s the most likely case, then isn’t it really dumb for the two of us to be sitting here chatting in front of an exposed campfire?”

Tara sucked air in deep between clenched teeth. She held the breath for a moment before letting it go, relaxing as she exhaled. “Well, sort of.” She nodded. “Like I said, there are only five of us; six, sorry. Now, since there are only six of us, that means we have to use all the resources we can find, and it also means that the unpleasant jobs get passed around to the least useful at the time. You see… We’re the bait.”

I stared at her wide-eyed, my mouth working like a beached fish. I stood up, my hand going to my sword. I threw my gaze around, not really seeing anything in my panic. I sat back down. I glanced over to where Thomas, Jason, and Serena should have been and saw only empty spaces. I stood back up, turned left, stopped, turned back to the right, stopped, let go of my sword, and sat down again.

I stared back at the fire, my mind racing for the right response, for an action, an emotion, a thought, anything. Each pop of the burning wood, every noise from the hills and forest around us, each and every sound fed my panic. My head began to swim and I knew I was breathing too fast because I was terrified.

Dimly, I realized I was holding my pouch in my hand. I must have pulled it from my belt. I looked at it, rolling the time worn leather between my fingers. It calmed me and I looked up. Tara was watching my reactions, judging if they were real. This was just one more test. Fight, and maybe die with them, run, or help the enemy. I hated her for it. I dropped my gaze to the pouch. The contents had helped me out of the impossible before. I opened the bag and upended it on the ground, conscious of Tara’s eyes on me. The array of bones splayed out before me like spokes to a wheel. The longer, thicker, bones all gathered on one side, making it off balance.

I looked up and met Tara’s gaze, suddenly calm. “We’re surrounded. Men on horseback are coming from behind me to the south. They’ve been holding to wait for the men on foot to arrive from the north, but they’ll be here soon.”

Tara gazed at me, her eyes blazing with an inner light. “How soon?”

I looked back briefly at the bones, drawing my sword, my face tightening. “Now.”

Thunder struck nearby as Whisper took a charging rider from his saddle. I stood, spinning to face the charge. A pair of riders galloped toward us and I knew there would be at least four more. The twisted rage on the rider’s faces stole my courage and I took a step backward, my shoulders touching Tara’s. A split second glance over my shoulder met her eyes as she also glanced backward. Her face was grim and set, ready for battle. I turned back to face the horses, my courage renewed. If I die tonight, I thought, at least I won’t be alone.

I raised my blade and stepped forward to give Tara room to maneuver as Whisper spoke again, sending both horse and rider tumbling to the ground. The horse’s cry split open the night more than the rifle had. The second horse reacted to the pain filled scream, rearing against his rider’s control. I ran forward, reaching the rider’s off hand side as the hooves came down. He struggled for control of the screaming horse and my blade slid across his arm guards into chest. I could see Tara fighting in the corner of my vision, two men on foot had closed with her near the fire.

The fire gave me an idea and I turned swiftly, running to the fallen horse. Her legs kicked out the last of her life, the rider struggling to free himself from beneath her. Without thought I pinned him to the ground with my sword through his throat, yanking the long knife from my belt. I cut the horse’s tail a few inches from the base with a few sawing jerks and turned, falling to a knee as one of the horse’s flailing kicks caught me in the stomach, doubling me over, the long knife falling from my hand. The air above my head whistled as another horse hammered by, the rider’s sword missing me by inches. I could hear more horses coming.

I pulled my sword free and ran to the fire, tossing the severed horse tail into the flames. The long oily hair caught instantly and began to burn, filling the air with thick, acrid smelling smoke. I spun to see a charging rider bearing down at me and tensed, the thick smoke engulfing me. Seconds before I was run down I lunged forward, screaming with all the terror I could muster and flinging my arms high into the air. The charging horse panicked, whinnying in fear. The terrified beast tried to turn too swiftly and fell. I could hear the rider’s neck snap as he and the horse tumbled to the ground at my feet.

The horse struggled to its feet and a swift smack with my sword sent it running tailless into the night and added another pile of hair to the fire. Through the thick smoke I stepped to Tara’s side, my range clear for the moment thanks to the thunderous Whisper. I could see almost a dozen men gathered in combat, a single dark figure moving among them, the sound of clashing steel echoing above the cries of dying men. Even with Tara panting at my side, my stomach aching, the acrid smell filling my nose, and the sound of men dying filling my ears, I still stood in awe. Friss moved like a ghost, his body almost shimmering from place to place. Paired silver gray swords wove gleaming arcs through the night as men around him died.

I sensed a presence behind me and spun around, catching a glimmer of firelight along an exposed blade as the sword stabbed through the night. I lunged sideways, pushing Tara out of the way, the blade burying itself in my shoulder. I cried out and the blade was yanked free, the pain coursing through me as I looked up at the man who had stabbed me. Confusion replaced pain as I looked into the long familiar face, half hidden by the raised round shield. I fell to one knee, automatically switching my sword to my uninjured off hand, ready to defend myself. “Mas… Master Owen???”

His face was a mask of rage below his raised sword, but I simply sat in shock. The night no longer even seemed real. Tara’s long light blade slid under his guard, plunging deep into his chest while he stared raw hatred, the bloodlust in his eyes intensifying as he died. Suddenly, it was gone, his eyes dull and cold as the light fled them.

Tara screamed my name and hauled me to my feet, the harsh movement wrenching my injured arm and filling my world with clarifying pain. I snapped my sword to the side, warding away another strike as someone struck me bodily from behind, knocking me to the ground. My sword fell from my hand and I landed face down, my attacker’s weight on top of me. His fingers dug deep into the wound in my shoulder, sending waves of agony through me, his other hand forcing my head into the dirt.

I coughed and choked, flailing madly as I tried to breathe crushed grass and mud. I slapped my hand to my belt, prying the small skinning knife free and swinging backward with desperate strength. The knife strike bone and the man on top of me howled in pain, his weight shifting, ripping the knife from my hand. I bucked my hips and rolled, throwing him off as I twisted free.

My right arm hung useless. I scrambled to a squat, glaring at my attacker in shock as he gained his feet. The caravan’s lead merchant grinned wildly at me from beneath an iron helm. He leered at me, ignoring the knife in his side. “You’re still a feisty whore.”

I screamed as he came toward me, shock and confusion freezing me in place. I sat back, weaponless, willing him dead from some place deep within my soul. Color vanished from the world, leaving behind only impressions of light and shadow. The air was ripped from my lungs and a brilliant flash of lightning split the night from sky to earth. It cleaved through the center of my attacker, leaving only a charred corpse and an image burnt into my eyes. Thank you, Thomas. I thought as thunder cracked.

I sat on the ground, the scent of charred flesh and burning horse hair filling my nostrils. Nothing moved on the hilltop around me except Tara. She bled from several cuts along her arms and torso but her face glowed. I crawled to my feet, moving to pick up my sword. The surviving horses had vanished into the night and none of the fallen enemy had survived. Blood ran freely down my arm and my shoulder throbbed.

I leveled a dizzy smile at Tara. “How’s that for bait?”

Whisper spoke one final time in the distance and everything fell silent. Only the sound of heavy breathing broke the quiet of the night. Tara returned my morbid smile. “Not bad at all.”

I staggered toward my pack and the fire, hoping to find a bandage to stop the flow of blood from my shoulder. I neared the place I’d been sitting and something on the ground caught my eye. The spoked wheel of bones had been disturbed in the fight. Now two of the smaller bones stood together in the center and the others were scattered. Had I hurt less, I would have been tempted to laugh. Instead I found a spare cloth and pressed it deeply into my wound, holding it until Tara’s light, quick, fingers tied it there. The last thing I saw was stars when she jerked the knot tight.

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