The Falcons Saga, Book 2 (Spoiler Warning)
The eager young scout swiped tendrils of rain and sweat from his face. “The river, my lord, it’s flooded deep. We’d be crazy to cross here.”
Emerging from the dark green pavilion amid the Fieran camp, the Warlord Goryth reminded himself that he’d not hoped for better news. But, Goddess! he hated to be disappointed. It made him surly. “When I want your opinion on how we’re to proceed, boy, you’ll know it.”
The scout hammered a fist to his chest and ducked his gaze.
“Is Ferry Isle submerged?” Goryth eyed the weeping sky with deep disdain. The autumn rains had begun two weeks before and showed no sign of letting up. His host had only a few weeks to accomplish its objectives before the snows drove them south again. They couldn’t afford delays. Goryth had assured King Shadryk that his invasion force could beat the rising waters, but this quivering whelp of a scout threatened to make a liar of him.
“She’s buried about halfway, sir. The dock’s gone, but the fisher’s hut appears to be sound. It won’t be for long.”
From inside the Warlord’s pavilion intruded a voice that caused Goryth to grind his teeth: “Sons of the White Falcon fear great waters? The fourth son of Osaya fears nothing. He sailed the Great Fire Sea to come to this cold wet country, and no puny river will stop him. Glory will be his!”
Prince Saj’nal may not fear the ocean, a hurricane, or a flood, but he remained under the tent awning for fear his red silk turban with its golden plume might droop in the rain. Since setting out from Brynduvh, Goryth had decided that the young prince’s endless boasting was more than he could stand. He longed to strangle the painted Zhiani with his own turban cloth, but Goryth reined in his temper, affording his ally the deference that his title said he deserved. “Of course, Highness. Glory and much blood besides, as soon as we determine what’s to be done.”
What was Goryth if not a disciplined man? Made a ward of the Crown after his parents left him orphaned, he was raised in the barracks among Brynduvh’s garrison and the elite ranks of the White Mantles. The old commander of the royal guard had developed a liking for the fatherless Lord of Machara and seen to Goryth’s early instruction. Discipline, obedience, survival were the virtues taught in the barracks, and Goryth swallowed these lessons along with mouthfuls of his own blood. If beatings had not been enough to instill the importance of these values in him, being thrown onto a battlefield had. Every Aralorri on the end of his blade was as effective an instructor as the old commander.
It was the Zhiani prince’s lack of discipline that irked Goryth so. Queen Osaya clearly hadn’t taught her fourth son when his thoughtless boasting was welcome and when it was not. Unfortunately, Goryth’s position forbade him from undertaking the task of shutting the prince’s mouth.
“Bothersome rain did not stop Osaya’s greatest son from proving his valor during the water dragon hunt. My older brothers, they are weak as newborn goats. They take only one water dragon apiece. I take three! Two with spears, one with a net and sword. Glorious!”
Goryth closed his ears to further prattle and summoned one of his squires. “Gather the commanders. We will see the Bryna for ourselves.” A second squire brought Goryth his warhorse, a large red beast with a temper to match his hide. From the saddle, the Warlord taunted, “Does His Highness wish to ride along? Or does he fear to risk his health in the rain?”
Saj’nal aimed a petulant glare at the low, swift-sailing clouds and replied, “A cruel country is your Fiera. Cruel with all this water and no sun. I like it not at all. But … but I will come. No man reaps the glory that belongs to me.” His bejeweled fingers unwound the red silk piled atop his head. Underneath, the prince’s head was shaved and oiled.
Goryth had learned soon after the Zhianese arrived that early starts would not be possible. Every morning as the sun rose, the prince and his men gathered in the drilling yard to perform their cleansing ritual. While dousing themselves in olive oil, they chanted hymns to Forana, their masculine version of the Mother-Father. Then they shaved every hair from their bodies, invoking the lion for ferocity, the jekkyl for speed, the flood for strength, and the sandstorm for the skill to kill with the pain of a thousand knives. On the march from Brynduvh, their distinctive oil-and-sweat odor had unsettled the horses. Goryth hoped they would have a similar effect on Aralorr’s cavalry, but he also worried that these chanting fools might stop and shave when victory demanded speed.
A eunuch assumed care of Saj’nal’s turban and the golden feather. He tucked them inside a silver chest, then brought a heavy wolf-skin cloak that King Shadryk had given to the prince, and wrapped it snugly about Saj’nal’s shoulders. Besides his native headdress, the prince had taken to layering himself in heavy woolens that any Fieran would reserve for deepest winter, but still he found cause to complain about the bloody cold. The five hundred warriors who shivered in the Zhiani camp were hardly more stoic. They groused of fingers too numb to grip weapons properly. Goryth understood their discomfort well enough, for unlike their prince, the warriors had not accepted King Shadryk’s gift of warmer garments. Insisting on their reptilian breechclouts and black quilted vests, they remained determined to win warmer clothes from the foes they slew. If cold fingers were incentive enough to take a mighty toll among the Aralorris, well, that was fine by Goryth.
By the time Saj’nal was dressed and mounted upon a slender golden stallion, the two commanders had arrived. Lord Jast of Galdahyll led Goryth’s regiment of cavalry. Bowlegged from spending his life in the saddle, Jast had grown old since the last war, but he had kept his battlefield voice in shape and his sword arm, too, by conducting frequent raids on Mahkah-pi villages in the wide grasslands south of the Galda River. Jast claimed he was fond of the sturdy Mahkahan pony—he rode one himself—but Goryth suspected he enjoyed far more the sight of the primitive people fleeing before him like chickens.
Captain Wess commanded the infantry. A commoner out of Brynduvh’s slums, Wess had worked up through the ranks with startling rapidity, earning along the way a reputation for motivating his men with threats of brutal punishment. Rumor had it that Wess had personally beaten to death two recruits who had been written up for lax performance, and crippled a handful of others. Though Wess was young and untested on an actual field of battle, Goryth liked the steel in his eye, and his razor-sharp, no-nonsense manner.
The commanders and the princeling, along with half of Saj’nal’s guard, followed Goryth north through sodden pastureland. Gray mud sucked at the horses’ hooves, making progress slow and tedious, and somehow, specks of mud found their way onto Goryth’s polished armor and into the thicket of his beard. Mud clung to Saj’nal’s oiled face as well, but to his credit, he paid it no mind. Only a mile from camp, Goryth knew his operation was in jeopardy. A low surging roar, like the exhale of a great beast, sighed through the ground, making the warhorses uneasy.
Goryth put spurs to his mount, and the animal cantered up the last hill. The Bryna, usually a couple hundred yards of clear stone-bottomed water, was swollen to twice her width. The waters churned, brown with the mud of the rich farmland along her banks, and thick as cream. Whole trees drifted past, planks of traders’ docks and fishermen’s houses, and the water-bloated carcasses of sheep and kine.
Halfway across the floodwater, Ferry Isle appeared to be foundering, barely keeping its rocky, tree-hooded summit above the deluge. The scout had spoken true: the dock was gone and water lapped at the derelict stoop of the old hut. Generations ago, Fieran cattle raiders had set up a system of ropes that joined Fiera to the island and the island to Aralorr, enabling stout timber rafts to silently dispatch the raiders onto Aralorri soil. Raiders elsewhere along the Bryna were forced to wade and risk losing their prize to the current.
Only now, the ropes and pulleys were submerged with half the Isle, impossible to find and relocate to higher ground. Goryth dreaded sending a dispatch to King Shadryk informing him that the invasion would have to wait till spring. Give the Aralorris another season and they would deepen their hold in Fiera, like a tumor.
Goryth planned to wield his greatsword, Contention, as a surgeon wields a scalpel, drawing the Aralorri infection from his country. King Shadryk was counting on him to send up such stink of blood and smoke that the Black Falcon couldn’t afford to ignore it. And he had a private vendetta to pay. But first, Goryth had to get one thousand men, their horses, squires, slaves, medics, and seventeen supply wagons, most carting barrels of reeking Dragon bile, across this roiling stretch of water.
“This is nothing,” declared Prince Saj’nal, drawing up alongside. “Once a year, the River Badruu floods my mother’s beautiful city. He brings great wealth to our people, not like this angry, evil little river—”
“Shut up and let me think,” snapped Goryth.
Saj’nal puffed out his chest. “You cannot talk to me in this manner! Is not to be borne. I am the fourth son of Osaya!”
Goryth glared two feet down at the princeling. “And I am the first son of Glaer! responsible for my men and yours, so you will be silent—Highness—while I weigh our options.”
The men of the guard squeezed in closer about their prince. Though Goryth couldn’t see their eyes through the snake-faced visors, he was sure they glared a warning at him. Stick a dagger through those eye slits and they would stop glaring quick enough. Arrogant Zhianese.
Emboldened, Saj’nal suggested, “If crossing this river is so important, do as we do. Send a slave across with a rope and it is done.” The golden stallion snorted through flaring nostrils as if in wild agreement. “Always we cross the Badruu in this way. The Mahkah-pi do not expect us to cross the flood. We take many slaves.”
Goryth’s fists put a stranglehold on the reins. He imagined holding that smug, hairless face under the brown water until the bubbles stopped rising. Instead, he clenched his teeth and said, “Choose your men. Or whatever you call them.”
Saj’nal and his guard turned their mounts south for camp. When the prince was out of hearing, Lord Jast protested, “Foolishness! Madness! We’ll be lucky if we don’t lose half our men to the river.”
Captain Wess eyed the tumbling current in impassive silence.
Goryth’s lip curled in a snarl. “Then I’ll request that Shadryk send you, Jast, to dislodge the Aralorris from Ulmarr.”
Jast swallowed the rest of his inane observations.
Late in the morning, Saj’nal returned. Four slaves followed closely on his stallion’s flanks. “These sons of dogs will work well for you,” he announced. Eunuchs all, two of the slaves appeared to be of Zhiani stock, tall and slender and almond-eyed; the other two were shorter in the limbs and of a darker red-brown complexion: Mahkah-pi.
Goryth scrutinized the eunuchs’ round feminine arms. “These are the best you could find?”
“What do you care?” Saj’nal replied, leaping off his horse and landing ankle-deep in mud. “These dogs belong to me. One drowns, three more will swim for you.”
Slaves were cheap, Goryth surmised, if the prince was willing to risk so many. “Get them moving. We don’t have time to waste.”
A hundred yards upriver from Ferry Isle, one of the Mahkahan boys was given the end of a rope and sent out into the floodwaters. However hard he swam, the force of the river swept him too far below the island. He tried to swim upstream, but the current surged in a white froth over his head, and he made no headway. The other three eunuchs hauled him back to shore.
Saj’nal advanced on the youth. The slave began to plead in broken Zhianese.
Instead of witnessing the beating he expected, Goryth heard steal unsheathed and blood spouted from the slave’s throat. “Worthless dog!” Saj’nal exclaimed as the slave collapsed.
Captain Wess’s eyebrows jumped for his hairline. “Thorough,” he remarked.
Lord Jast tsked. “Uncalled for, really. Makhah-pi are no smarter than slugs, but the boy might’ve succeeded given a second chance.”
Goryth voiced no objection. He wasn’t happy to be hauling around five hundred eunuchs. They disturbed him, and one less hardly troubled him. More, Saj’nal was well on his way to looking the fool.
Lithe and angry as the whirlwind, the prince rounded on the nearest slave. “You go! Sons of whores and lice! A slave will not cheat Osaya’s fiercest son of his glory.”
The second slave, one of the tall, paler Zhiani youths, bowed frantically, seized the rope, and edged away from the hysteric prince. When the river swept him, too, past the Isle, the two remaining eunuchs began to haul him back, but the slave released the rope. He preferred to drown rather than face his prince’s wrath. An eddy bubbling with muddy pink foam sucked him down, and he did not resurface.
“Coward!” Saj’nal shouted. “Son of the roach! Forana curse your eyes to eternal darkness!” He broke a thorny branch from a briar and whacked wildly at the last two slaves. Legs bleeding, they scattered for the river. They had better luck battling the current together. After a tedious struggle, they pulled themselves from the water and onto the rocks of Ferry Isle. They tied the fat rope about a tree trunk, and understanding what still had to be done, one of the slaves came shimmying back. “We have done it, my prince!” he cried, plopping down into the mud at Saj’nal’s feet.
“You have done nothing, worm.” Saj’nal jabbed a finger at another rope coiled on the bank. “You must still cross the other half of the flood!”
The slave slung the last rope over his shoulder and started back along the first, hand over hand, ankle after ankle. Saj’nal called after him, “That rope is worth more than your worthless hide, boy! Do not fall and lose it. Forana curses all who fail!” Casting Goryth a smug grin, the prince added, “You see? They work well for you. I work well for you. These dogs fear Osaya’s son.”
Goryth refrained from rolling his eyes while the prince was looking. He ordered his commanders, “Have the ferries brought forward. And summon the men, one company at a time.”
“My men, they cross the boundless sea,” Saj’nal exclaimed. “They fear nothing, not even this cold angry water.”
“Good,” Goryth said, grinning. “Your men can go first.”
* * *
Once the two slave boys had crawled back and reported that both ropes were secured, Goryth ordered the first Zhiani squad to push their ferry into the floodwater. Rain came again with the dusk, and the twenty half-naked men shivered in the drizzle and glowered dubiously at the roaring river. They dared not complain but filed onto the ferry and fixed the wooden rails to the rope with hefty chains.
“When you are safe on Ferry Isle,” Goryth ordered them, “detach this ferry and carry it across to the second rope. Your comrades will follow on these ferries here. Once you get to the Aralorri bank, be patient, sit tight, do not build a campfire.”
The Zhiani warriors had no qualm in obeying Goryth. Given his scars, battle-broken teeth, sheer mountainous size, and the greatsword he wielded, he was apparently the Zhiani ideal. Unlike King Shadryk, Goryth hadn’t been forced to fight for their allegiance.
Using long poles, the first twenty men navigated through the snare of brambles and trees. At last, they shoved past the calm floodwater, and the current of the Bryna proper grabbed the ferry in mighty fingers and threatened to flip it over. The warriors crowded to the upriver side and, hand over hand, dragged the ferry along the rope.
“Pull, you motherless goats!” cried Saj’nal. “Forana grant you strength of many rivers!”
Goryth decided the original plan might succeed after all, and ordered the next ferry pushed into the mire. The second squad of Zhianese were hastily securing their ferry to the rope when Saj’nal shrieked and Goryth’s commanders cried out in dismay.
The fat yellow rope had vanished in the surge, broken perhaps, or slipped from its knot. The loaded ferry rolled onto its side and shattered. Planks, men, and long poles tumbled in a helpless heap, and the thundering Bryna swallowed them all.
* * *
Night sounds stretched out around the Warlord’s pavilion. Beyond the patter of rain on canvas and the skreek of furred crickets, men’s voices couriered rumors about what had happened at the river. Laughter and song floated among the campfires, too, however, and somewhere a band of camp-followers squealed and giggled. Spirits remained high. But within the pavilion, the commanders argued over better ways of securing the ferries, strengthening the ferries, loading the ferries. Goryth’s ears were beginning to ring with their incessant bickering. All the while, Prince Saj’nal was pleased to take his leisure upon a pile of silk pillows. His fingers delicately picked apart the breast of a roast duck.
“Ach, this is a bad beginning,” Lord Jast said, shaking his silver head.
“Crock of shit,” Wess retorted. “It’s like I said—my lord—if we angle the ferries, there will be less strain on—”
“No ferries!” Goryth shouted, starling the three men. They could not possibly miss the disgust distorting his face.
“If not the ferries, then what?” asked Jast.
Wess chortled, “Maybe the Black Falcon will let us use the bridge he built at Nathrachan.”
“Don’t be a complete fool, Wess,” said Jast.
The infantry captain puffed up and knotted his fingers. If he had a brain at all behind that sharp hawk’s face, he’d not raise a hand to his betters. Lord Jast appeared unperturbed by the insolent young man’s doubled fist. “The only other option, sir,” Jast said, “is the Galantryn.”
Wess crowed derisive laughter. “Now who sounds the fool, Jast? The Galantryn is off limits—”
Goryth’s question dumbfounded Wess. He might be brutal and eager for blood, but Wess’s lack of imagination might yet prove a disappointment.
Saj’nal discarded the duck and leapt to his feet, agile as a toad. “What is this?”
Goryth obliged the prince. “The Galantryn. The Great Ford, at Stonebrydge.”
“A ford! Why do you not say this before? I have lost twenty men to your cruel river!”
“Because, Highness,” Jast explained, “the Great Ford crosses into Leania, a neutral realm.”
“Aye,” Wess added, “and King Bano’en has no love for us. My lords, think of the time we would lose. Both in getting to the Ford and in backtracking across Leania—not to mention the delay we’re sure to suffer in treating with Bano’en for passage.”
“Why, Wess,” mocked Jast. “I had you figured for the fearless, disrespectful type. Stepping on a king’s toes suddenly bothers you?”
“And who said anything about treating?” said Goryth. “We’ll not overstay our welcome on Leanian soil. Cross in and get out, that fast.”
“And we waste no more mighty warriors,” Saj’nal put in. “I, the fiercest son of Osaya, have no fear of this ford or its little king. My men and I will cross this ford. We will hunt down this golden crown for your White Falcon. We will do this, while you go into your cruel river and drown like witless dogs!”
What choice had Jast and Wess now to refuse? For the first time, Goryth felt a thin gratitude toward the arrogant prince.
“Get out, all of you,” he ordered. “We deploy for Stonebrydge in the morning.”
Resigned, Captain Wess struck a fist upon his chest and about-faced for the flaps. Prince Saj’nal left for his own pavilion; his guard went ahead to clear a path through the Fieran camp, and four slaves carried an awning on bronze poles to protect him from the rain. Lord Jast, however, lingered. “He won’t like it,” he said.
“Bano’en will get used to the idea,” Goryth said, “or I’ll plant Contention between his eyes.” The greatsword glittered darkly on its stand in the corner. A gift from King Daeryk the Fifth, Contention’s cross-hilts were a fantastical monster’s muscled arms and hooked claws. The fist-sized moonstone was carved into a snarling face. When it peered over Goryth’s shoulder, it gave the impression of a ghostly creature hunting for prey.
“Not Bano’en. I mean the White Falcon.”
Goryth grunted. He was well aware of Shadryk’s long and expensive efforts to ensure Leanian neutrality. On the other hand, Shadryk trusted Goryth’s judgment, and what choice had he but to go to Stonebrydge? “Leave His Majesty to me.”
Lord Jast bowed out, and Goryth’s three squires arrived to help him out of his armor. With thirty pounds of metal plate and mail removed, the Warlord stretched his muscles; they ached more than he’d anticipated. He wasn’t about to admit to himself that he, too, had grown old during the miserable long years of peacetime. Nor that he had been defeated by a river. His early training had forged him into a practical man: if he could not bash his way through an obstacle, he went around it. Simple, direct, effective. The king would understand.
Goryth dismissed the squires and sat at a trestle table to scratch out a dispatch for Shadryk. Upon the armor stand, the wide-mouthed gargoyle molded into his breastplate grinned mockingly. The monstrous face was shaped to unsettle a foe. At present, the ugly smile unsettled Goryth. The light from the oil lamp flickered over the subtle curves of the relief, making the imp’s face come alive. The mouth appeared to move, but made no sound.
Goryth turned up the lamp. The face was just a metal face, cold and still. Dottard! he chided, whipped out a sheet of parchment, and scribbled a detailed report explaining the state of the Bryna and the loss of twenty expensive mercenaries. By the time he reached his conclusion, outlining the change in plans, Goryth felt as if he’d been reduced to begging: “… please His Majesty to understand … risking Leanian hostility is worth crushing Aralorri morale….”
Goryth scowled at the obsequious dither, laid aside the quill and held the parchment over the lamp. The sheet blackened and curled. Tossing aside the ashes, Goryth took out another sheet. This time the dispatch read merely, Sire, Bryna flooded. Crossing will take more time than expected.
Never before had Goryth been less than brutally honest with Shadryk. He waited for a pang of regret, but felt none. Once Aralorr lay in ashes and Shadryk wore the Falcon Crown, the little half-lie would matter not at all.
* * * * *
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copyright 2012 by Court Ellyn
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