There will come a dark time...
Ravenwild Part One Chapter 1 Rolan Fairman sat admiring the beauty of the predawn sky. In the distance, out beyond the trees, stood the Great Wall. Behind him were snowcapped mountains that soared to dizzying heights. The new day was about to break wide open and the three moons, all full, cast a light nearly as bright as that of day, but softer in a way that gave everything an almost velvety appearance. He loved this time of day. It was the only time when the world seemed truly at peace with itself. Still, he knew it wouldn’t last, for this was a world at war, torn in many directions. He was weary of war. He had known no other life, neither as a boy, nor as a young man. He was weary even more of being the Commander-inChief of his small country. As the night slowly surrendered to the force of daylight, he sighed. One might have thought the sigh was due to the fact that within minutes he would have to meet with his field commanders and get the obligatory battle reports, troop and supply location updates, and all of the remaining military information specifications of the night just past. But no, the sigh represented nothing more than a tiny sliver of sadness that he would not be able to look upon the three Inam'Ra moons simultaneously full for yet another year, for this phenomenon was precisely that, a yearly one. “Like so many small pleasures in life,” he thought, “they come and go so quickly.” Just as quickly, he was forced away from this fleeting moment as his lifelong friend and longtime second in command approached. As usual he was holding a flask of bittersweet that he held out to his King. “Thargen,” Rolan offered, forcing his gaze away from the beauty in front of him, “I thank you for this. I hope this morning finds you rested and up to the challenges in front of us.” He knew there was no chance that Thargen was rested. He might have gotten a few hours of interrupted sleep, but it had certainly been years since he had greeted the break of any given day fully rested. Thargen was a giant of a man, a full head taller than his King and half again as wide. “My Lord,” Thargen returned. “I must say right off that it troubles me that I would find you here outside the castle gate alone and unprotected. 9
Ravenwild I know that most of the fighting is days away, and the Great Wall is still intact, but surely there might be Slovan or Vulturan spies about who would like nothing better than to report to their superiors that they had managed to put an arrow into our King. Where is the guard?” At this, Luke Bowman, Minister of Conquest, Dorin Esselt, Minister of Strategic Unit Deployment, and Borok Dodson, Minister of Planning and Escapes, materialized out of nowhere, along with the remaining twenty or so of the King’s personal guards. All were battle ready. All were battle hardened. Most carried scars from years of service in their King’s army. All were armed with weapons of every sort, the clicking and rattling of which were the predominant sounds as they surrounded Rolan, Thargen, and the three captains. “We must go,” said Thargen, who began moving towards the castle. “Paulimas awaits inside at the great table. I’m afraid he brings grim news from Minot. The Trolls have broken through at Devil’s Lake. We cannot possibly halt their advance before they make Lexington. But Paulimas will speak to all of these things in greater detail.” The massive stone gate closed behind them as they entered the castle, the grinding and squealing of the huge gears temporarily obliterating all other sounds. “Thargen.” “My Lord?” “You will begin the debriefing with Paulimas, and the captains of course. I will join you soon. But for now, I will see my son.” Thargen nodded. “My Lord.” At the entrance to the Great Hall, Rolan and six of the King’s Guard kept walking down the hallway, three in front of him and three behind. Thargen and the three captains entered the Hall itself, passing through the doorway shoulder to shoulder. Half of the remaining Guard took up defensive positions right outside the entryway. The other half broke away and headed toward responsibilities that needed no discussion or guidance. This was a group that had been together for many years. Well they knew what to do to protect their King. Some went to check passageways in the immediate vicinity, always wary of the possibility of threatening intruders. Others climbed the inner stairways to get reports of anything unusual spotted by the sentries on the wall. Three went straight away to a door that was the entrance to the stairway leading to the dungeons. One of the night patrols had captured a Troll the night before, within a few miles of the Great Wall. Barber, the dungeon master, would be questioning him, and the King would want a report. As Rolan entered the Prince’s nursery, he caught a view of himself in the mirror on the far wall. He was shy of six feet tall, slight of build, and 11
Ravenwild years of war, with missed meals and never enough sleep, had done nothing to bulk his frame. He was handsome, if thin. His blonde hair was shoulder length, and while clean enough, could have used a good brushing. His jaw was square, and his face, which usually bore a look of kindness, was absolutely beaming with the thought that within moments he would gaze upon his three-day old son. The royal nursery was quite large, and it took him several strides to cross it. He looked down upon his newborn baby boy. It was a moment frozen in time, and he was so taken by it that he noticed he was holding his breath. As if on cue, the wet nurse, Rachel Sweetbriar, entered by an adjoining doorway. “My Lord,” she offered. She looked him straight in the eye. This was significant because the same behavior in the kingdom of Slova, principal enemy of Ravenwild, would have cost her dearly, perhaps her life, or her tongue at least, for it would be unthinkable for a mere servant to look upon the leadership of that barbarous land with the gaze of an equal, and certainly not if the servant was a woman. “I am so pleased for you and the Good Lady Isabella.” He returned his look towards his son. Again his face shone like the light of dawn. “Have you and your betrothed decided upon a name yet?” She gave him a playful look, mischievous even. “If I may be so bold, all of us in the castle have been talking about this for weeks and weeks and we have …” And then she died. The distinctive twang of a crossbow drew the King’s eye to the motion behind the curtain of a nearby wall, and before poor Rachel had hit the floor, Rolan had unsheathed his dagger and buried it in the chest of the assailant hidden behind the drapery. The intruder collapsed in a heap. He bent to see if there was anything he could do for her, but her eyes alone, wide, vacant, and staring, told it all. As soon as he had determined that Rachel was indeed in the next world, Rolan snatched his son from his crib, simultaneously drawing his sword. Mere moments later he regretted his decision to remove him from his bed, for it was shrouded by some of the most protective magic in the kingdom, and no force, from that of an evil-intentioned hand to that of a veritable inferno, could have harmed him. But once he picked him up, the power of the layer-upon-layer of spells was null and void. Now he had done it; exactly what they had hoped he would do. It was then that the invaders, Gnomes all, emerged in unison from 12
Ravenwild hiding places in the large room, numbering more than twenty strong. Rolan knew right away that without help, his cause was lost. He also knew that there was a formidable wizard involved with this surreptitious assault, for there was no way that this many spies could have breached the security of the castle unnoticed without the help of very powerful sorcery. This was not just the Great Wall. This was the castle itself. Nonetheless, he maintained his battle ready posture, turning slowly to size up his position and decide if there was any reasonable possibility of cutting his way to an escape. “My good King,” the voice came from somewhere behind him. “Put down your sword, and you have my word that neither you, nor your son, nor your Queen will be harmed. You have no chance. Look around. There are too many of us. It is over. Do not jeopardize your family by playing the fool. Surrender, or die. Surrender and live.” The voice had a sickening, almost effeminate, quality though the timbre was that of a man. Continuing his turn, Rolan came face to face with the speaker. He was a Gnome as well and appeared to be half a head taller than the rest of his company. A large scar ran from above his right eye, down across his nose and onto his left cheek, extending all the way to the base of his skull. A devastating wound, it had not gotten the medical attention it clearly needed when it was inflicted, so his face was now literally twisted upon itself. His appearance was, in a word, gruesome. “Who are you?” asked Rolan, pausing only slightly in his turn to glance at the spokesman for the Gnome attack party. The Gnome didn’t answer his question, saying instead, “I will only ask you one more time, King. Lay down your sword and surrender, or you and your son will both be dead before you have taken another breath.” A horrific howl screamed its way into the room from the doorway through which Rolan had entered, and there was a blinding flash as the wall he was facing erupted in red flame. Ten of the Gnomes were instantly incinerated and reduced to piles of ash on the floor. There was clattering as their weapons hit the stone. Rolan took immediate advantage of the confusion by diving forward and to the right, rolling slightly so as not to crush his son, all the while maintaining his grip on his sword. By doing so, he placed a large bench in between himself and the remaining Gnomes. And it’s a good thing that he did, for several crossbow darts buried themselves in the wall in front of which he had stood a moment before. Several Gnomes now charged forward, brandishing their short swords. Rolan was forced to put his son all the way down, pushing him under the bench. The Gnomes pressed the attack, but quickly discovered that there were too many of them 13
Ravenwild to effectively operate in this small space. Two died on Rolan’s first strokes, one whose chest was cleaved wide open, the other suddenly absent of his head. Again the red firestorm erupted, and three more were transmuted to ash. Their number was now reduced to four who shared quick glances of pure panic but continued to attack. Now, however, Thargen and several of the King’s Guard charged in from the doorway Rachel had used and reduced the Gnomes to bloody carcasses in a matter of seconds. “Where is the Queen?” shouted Rolan as the last of the Gnomes was dispatched. “She is in the Great Hall, My Lord,” Thargen called out. “She is unharmed.” “Lead us there!” he commanded. His voice was pure ice. “My Lord,” said Thargen. He motioned, and guardsmen surrounded their monarch. With the King holding his baby Prince, they made their way to the Great Hall with all due haste. Rolan was sickened by the death all around him. Guardsmen and regulars lay butchered everywhere he looked. The smell of fresh blood was overwhelming. Several maids and serving women appeared to have shared their fate. This was beyond reason. This was beyond war. This was insanity. Slamming the doors to the Great Hall behind them, Rolan and his guardsmen bought themselves several minutes of guaranteed safety, for the Great Hall was shielded with the same magic that had been conjured to shroud the Prince’s layette, only this was even more impenetrable because it had been conjured by five different wizards, including the Great Wizard Taber, the only surviving wizard-of-the-first-school. He was standing on the far side of the Great Hall, hovering in front of Queen Isabella with his arms extended in case any threat needed a taste of the red death. “My love,” Rolan said to the Queen, the relief at her well-being obvious on his face. “My King,” she returned. She was clearly overjoyed at the sight of her husband and son alive and unhurt. “Wizard Taber,” Rolan said to the great wizard, handing the Prince off to the Queen, “I did not see you come with us from the nursery.” Taber gave a wry smile. “Short cut.” “Wizard, are we secure?” asked Rolan. “We are.” “Are you certain?” “I am.” 14
Ravenwild “Good. How long?” “As long as you wish, My Lord. There is no magic on Inam'Ra that could possibly unravel the spells that shroud this hall. But having said that, the longer we stay, the greater the danger of being trapped here. My guess would have to be that there are wizards lurking about outside that are doing everything they can to ensnare us. We must use the tunnels. And we must use them now.” “Thargen, your thoughts.” “My Lord, I agree with the good wizard Taber, at least for the Queen and the Prince. They must use the tunnels, and they must use them without delay. They will be safe under his charge. We, however, must fight our way out of this the same way we came in. They are Gnomes. Gnomes.” He spat the word out as though the very presence of it on his tongue was distasteful. “No amount of Gnomes can prevail upon us in our own castle. I say we take the fight straight at them. When all of their blood is spilt, we will regroup and make safe our home once again.” “And what of their wizards? Is it possible they even have wizards? I was unaware that either Gnomes or Trolls even had wizards. Surely doing battle with sword and mace, the Gnomes stand no chance against us, but in the face of magic, which it looks to me that they must have, how great is the risk?” “My Lord,” said Taber, “There is nothing here that leads me to the inescapable conclusion that they have discovered the use of magic, although it certainly begs the question. For now I think we must assume that they have, but, again, it is not a conclusion I am willing to draw. It would certainly be the first we have ever heard of it. But if they have, their wizards will want to leave as quickly as possible to try and thwart an escape attempt. This was surely planned for a long time, and they have undoubtedly anticipated that we will attempt an escape by the tunnels, with me as the escort. Assuming they have magic, they would have to know that they would need it all against a wizard-of-the-first-school were they to have any chance of success, and even that chance would be pitifully small. Their attempt in the nursery was doomed the moment I arrived. “I am also sure that they have underestimated our fighting abilities, and when they see they have no chance, man on Gnome, any with a command of magic are going to want to go at once.” “Anyone else?” asked Rolan. It was his way to petition all present. It was his belief that a good leader always solicits and considers carefully the opinions of trusted subordinates in critical situations as long as there is time. No one spoke. 15
Ravenwild He decided. “Good Wizard, I entrust you with the safe conduct of the Queen and my son. You will take them via the tunnels to Duck Lake. You know where the boats are hidden. From there you will go to Mount Gothic. There should be a sizable force of our men there who can provide protection for you once you have arrived. We will either meet you there or send for you as soon as we can. Right now, we have Gnomes to kill.” “Indeed,” said Luke with a nasty smile. He had been sharpening his broadsword during this entire exchange. He wiped it softly over the back of his arm and was rewarded with a showing of hair on the flat of the blade. It was now fit for battle, razor sharp and polished. “Let the games begin.” As the King was saying a hasty goodbye to Isabella and their as-yet unnamed Prince, he was approached by Borok who was covered in blood from a large gash over his left ear. Cradling her baby protectively in her arms, the Queen then left hurriedly with the wizard Taber through the back entrance of the Great Hall. “My Lord, we must speak.” Rolan tore his gaze from his fleeing wife and looked squarely at his commander. “Speak then. But first, you’re bleeding, man. Dorin, wrap his wound while we speak!” He turned back to Borok. “You’re going to need your strength. I can’t have your sword arm weak while we rid the castle of this vermin.” Dorin ripped apart some cloth from one of the tables and proceeded to wrap the wound. “My King, as you know, we captured a Troll spy last night, and although we have been unable to get any information out of him despite Barber’s persuasive methods, among his effects we found something unusual. I can’t think of what to call it, or even how to describe it, but I feel you must see it as soon as possible. There was also a very strange map of lands that do not appear to be of our world.” “Where are these things, then?” “In the dungeons, My Lord. Barber summoned third-school wizard Reginald to look at them on my order, and I was going to inform you of them at this morning’s debriefing when this mess broke loose.” Rolan acknowledged him with a curt nod, saying, “We’ll have a look at them as soon as the castle is secure.” “Very good, My King. But now, should something happen to me, you know about them. You must see them. I know they are important, although on my life I cannot figure out the why of it.” Rolan motioned to his men. Battle positions were assumed. Luke and Dorin threw open the massive doors to the Great Hall and they charged 16
Ravenwild out. It was a pitched battle to be sure. The Gnomes had managed to breach the main entrance, having eliminated the four guards in charge of the operating mechanism, all of whom lay dead with multiple arrows protruding from each. The intruders were all about the courtyard and looked to outnumber the castle regiment by about three to one. Nevertheless, the Gnomes, being of much smaller stature and with inferior weapons, stood no chance against the Ravenwild troops. The air was filled with the clashing of weapons and the screams of the Gnomes as they were skillfully worn down and eliminated by the Ravenwild soldiers. Soon, the few who were left standing threw down their weapons and begged for mercy. They were rounded up and put in irons. One of the castle soldiers took the chain that bound them together and began leading them towards the dungeon entrance. Thargen and Rolan, along with Luke, Dorin, and Borok, met in a group as they were being led away. “It appears the good Taber was correct,” mused Luke. “So it does,” returned Thargen. “How many did we lose?” asked Rolan. All glanced about the courtyard. Now that the battle was over, it was easy to see that most of the Ravenwild troops who had met their fate had done so while asleep. None of these were in battle positions. It was apparent to all that they had been somehow spelled into some sort of slumber and then hacked to death by the invading Gnomes. “There is bad magic about. Very bad, very powerful magic,” said Luke. Thargen grimaced and stepped side-to-side nervously. He was a soldier. No more, no less. Magic, even the discussion of same, made him uncomfortable. He knew it existed and yet had absolutely no comprehension as to its nature. Although keenly aware of its power in the right or wrong hands, the mere mention of it made him anxious. Soldiers fought. The stronger ones, those with superior weapons, the ones better trained, won the encounter. Magic wiped that all out. Give him a good sharp sword, a wellbalanced bow with a straight arrow, a properly tooled dagger, and an enemy he could face man-to-man, and he was fine. But show him magic, and he became an unsettled warrior, a warrior who might hesitate when he should be charging ahead. “I will have the night captain prepare a battle damage report,” he said, “but from the looks of it I would say three to four hundred.” “What could they hope to accomplish with such an attack?” asked Luke, “Except to lose their entire battalion …” Rolan caught sight of one of the Gnomes being led away towards 17
Ravenwild the dungeons, towards certain suffering and, surely, some form of torture at the hands of Barber, although the methods used by the dungeon master of Ravenwild were tame compared with those used in Slova. He always attempted to get the information he needed with the most humane methods possible. With the Slovans, torture was the method employed first. It was well known in all three lands that they enjoyed it, as though obtaining intelligence information was almost secondary to the pleasure they got from hearing the screams. But Barber had come to realize very early on in his career that information obtained with brutal methods was, by and large, useless. You could, after all, get a prisoner to say pretty much anything if you tortured him enough. He noticed a furtive smile on the face of one of the Gnomes. He glanced at another, and another. Whereas he should have seen looks of fear, all seemed quite matter of fact. Something was not as it should be. He leaned close to Thargen. â€œTake note of the faces of the Gnomes.â€? Immediately, Thargen thought what his King had already deduced. The open attack on the castle by way of the main gate, and in all likelihood the failed attempt at kidnapping the King and his son in the nursery, were probably diversionary tactics that had something to do with the dungeons. He knew what to do. He ordered his three captains to take three squads down to the levels below the dungeons. On his command, they would feign an attack from the front and bring the strongest assault from behind. So sixty Men, Elves, and Dwarves left on a dead run via three separate routes. It was as Rolan had thought. With the advantage of surprise, and being outflanked on three sides, the enemy troops were vanquished in a matter of minutes. The bad news was that Barber and his covey of deputy wardens were all dead, and the Trollâ€™s belongings were nowhere to be found. With the castle now secure, Rolan and his officers were in the Great Hall. The damage report was far worse than Thargen had estimated. Well over a thousand troops, including fifty-four of the Castle Guard, had fallen, twenty-eight of them officers. This left a bare bones defense team to hold the castle in the event of an all-out assault. This was dire. Messengers were promptly dispatched to alert commanders in the field to send reinforcements without delay. Bad enough that the field campaigns were not going well, but to lose the castle would be a blow with the worst possible consequences imaginable to Ravenwild. Still, the Great Wall stood, so losing the castle was almost surely not going to happen, but Rolan and his remaining officers had to figure out how this assault team had 18
Ravenwild managed to breach the Great Wall in the first place. “My Lord, they have overextended themselves on this assault,” said Thargen. “I believe it was a suicide mission from the beginning. I’m sure of it. There is no way they could have an attack force of any substantial numbers even remotely close to us. We would know of it. Messengers from last night have told us of the Troll’s advance to Lexington, but we still have the Wall in between us and any enemy troops that might be out there, not to mention the Silver River and the Belcourt Plains, and our scouts report nothing in the way of any significant enemy forces anywhere near us. You can’t hide an army out in the open. Any army. No, they were here to reclaim the effects that we found on that one captured Troll. Of that there is no question. And they were willing to sacrifice a lot of Gnomes, not surprising, in order to do it.” Rolan listened without interruption with his chin in his hand. “I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “And Borok said there were two things on the captured Troll that were out of the ordinary: A map that did not appear to be of our world, very strange, and something else. What did he call it? ‘Unusual.’ Do we know anything more about it? Where is Borok?” “He left with a squad to commandeer reinforcements, Sire. To answer your first question, unfortunately no, My King. The entire contingent of Barber’s men was wiped out in the encounter, as was the captured Troll. Interestingly, it looks like he was killed by Gnome blades, meaning he was killed by his own allies. That would seem to say that protecting the knowledge of what it is, is of the utmost importance to them.” “And whatever it is, it appears to have vanished?” “Correct, My Lord. We have searched high and low for both the map and this other article and have found neither.” “Well, whatever they are, I’m sure they are things of powerful magic,” said the King. Thargen’s blood ran cold.
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