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Shadowblade: (A Dance of Fire and Shadow Book 1) – Chapter 6

THE ANGLE OF SHADOWS tells me the light will fade in just over an hour as I approach the battlefield once more. I have almost reached the road when I hear a strange-sounding birdcall. I stop and listen, but there is no repeat. I heard once that bandits sometimes use these calls as warning signals. Unfortunately our lack of encounters with the bandit gangs has left the Sylvani––and me in particular––sadly ignorant of their ways.

I tether Sahan and move towards the road using the forest shadows to conceal my approach. Nothing has changed except for the worsening stench of death, no movement anywhere apart from buzzing flies. For the second time today I survey the scene, troubled by what it should be telling me that I simply cannot see.

I shrug off the feeling of discomfort, walk towards the nearest pile of bodies and stoop to pick up a sword dropped in the dirt.

Before my fingers have touched the weapon the corpse beside me suddenly moves with lightning speed and grabs my arm. I hear a scream in the instant before it dawns on me that it is me screaming, as the nightmare of the day instantly becomes a hundred times worse––

Taken by the dead…

Another corpse leaps into action and grasps my neck. As they drag me towards the nearest tree I catch the stink of strong alcohol and stale chewing tobacco on the breath of these apparent corpses.

Time for a reappraisal. If the risen dead do actually exist outside of the old stories, I think they would probably reek of graveyards or mildew or something rather more appropriate. I’m not sure why I feel a flood of relief at being captured by real living bandits because the look in their eyes promises that nothing good lies in store for me in the next few hours.

If I even last that long.

They don’t speak as they tie my hands above my head to a low-hanging branch and then leave me there while they continue foraging. As I first suspected, that birdcall must have been a warning signal. The bandits had simply thrown themselves to the ground and played dead until they could be sure I had no backup.

With so much dirt and blood everywhere I had not noticed the lack of livery. A mistake I won’t make again. Now I just have to work out a way to stay alive long enough to put this learning into action. Otherwise I’ll simply be too dead to do anything.

I make myself focus away from the panic and fear of being a helpless captive and concentrate on searching every detail around me in hope of learning something to aid my escape. There are six in the gang, picking over the bodies. As Marin warned me, they are collecting weapons, but also searching for anything of value, sometimes rings, small bags of coin, the usual currency coveted by thieves. But there is a pattern playing out here.

They are very quickly learning to only search the Rapathians.

That’s odd. Our soldiers always carry enough coin to pay their way and even buy a few luxuries as well when the fancy takes them. Now it appears that even their weapons are deemed worthless compared to those of the invaders…

And at last the other thing that has been scratching away at my mind, the part of all this that doesn’t fit, finally drops into place. I didn’t see it at first because I have only previously seen live soldiers. The sort of healthy, strong, sword-wielding athletes you expect to see defending the realm.

So on my first encounter with the aftermath of a savage battle I might have been excused for not noticing that our dead heroes were in a far worse condition than could be explained by their sudden and violent deaths. Now I can see clearly that those nearest to me are poorly-nourished and either too thin or too fat, many with sores, blackened or missing teeth. Not so dissimilar from the grimy bandits who are still ransacking corpses in search of loot.

Except that Marin is nothing like them. Once I managed to get all the blood and dirt cleaned off him, he was just as I expected––tall, fit, muscular, healthy, and although my surgeon’s work and the pressing of time precluded much conversation I could tell he has a sharp intelligence and an eye for strategy.

Although… now I think about it, he doesn’t seem to have more than a couple of years on me. He is young to be in overall command of so many men. When I asked him directly he deflected the question, not knowing that the rank insignia on his shoulder is as familiar to me as the herbs stacked on my mother’s shelf.

I know all the ranks and sigils of the king’s military, legacy of a long conversation a few months ago with a sergeant who had been eyeing my very attractive little sister in a manner sure to lead to trouble. So I had been careful to spend an interesting evening plying him with many questions and generous quantities of home-distilled brandy until he passed out. Awkward situation avoided, a considerable amount of military information learned.

Unfortunately I still have not managed to pull all these strands together in a formulation that tells me how to get out of being tied to a tree by a gang of ruthless thugs. Then the bandit leader comes back. His breath still stinks and his eyes roam down my body in a way that leaves little to the imagination. I try to resign myself to a few weeks of horrible slavery while I work out how to escape from wherever they take me.

Then a flicker of hope sparks though me as one of his companions emerges from the trees leading Sahan. The robbers immediately start loading their booty onto her back. As the third bound-together bundle of weapons is thrown on top of the first two, she starts rolling her eyes and pawing the ground in body-language I know only too well. This is her usual warning of an imminent fight-back.

I wait, hoping desperately that the weight of the load won’t reach the point where she sets off her habitual biting and kicking before the bandits have untied me from the tree and I can use the distraction to snatch the knife from the leader’s belt and turn it back on him.

He steps towards me, a scavenged dagger in his hand. His filthy fingernails dig into my skin as he grasps my arm…

And then gives a choking cough before sinking to the ground with an arrow neatly spliced through his neck. I look up to see the others collapsing around me like spiked scarecrows. The thug loading Sahan drops her reins and runs for the shelter of the forest but gets barely six paces before a shaft sprouts between his shoulder blades and he pitches forward into the brambles.

Now what?

Is this rescue––or a takeover by something even worse?

I hold my breath.

Three figures in grey and silver livery emerge warily from the trees, bows still in their hands, eyes roaming the open space. The tallest and broadest of them moves away towards the village and starts searching through the bodies on the leading edge of the battlefield.

The other two approach. One of them is a woman. She is short of stature, reaching only a few inches past my shoulder, but she moves with the grace of an athlete and her bare arms ripple with muscle under her glossy dark skin. I can tell that she has done a lot of training with that bow and no doubt even more with the rest of the fearsome display of weapons strapped to her person.

Annubian. I met a few merchants from the hot deserts of the southern continent plying their caravans from the coast to Corinium, but this is the first time I have seen someone from there serving as part of our military. I wonder what drove her so far from her home. Maybe the Rapathians invaded their western border as well as crossing the sea to attack us.

The Annubian fighter stands and stares at me for a moment while the slender, dark-haired archer accompanying her steps back a little, deferring to her to interrogate me.

“Name?” She doesn’t smile. I thought I would get a bit more sympathy than this but I suppose these are dangerous times and it pays to be suspicious of everyone, even helpless captives tied to trees. I try to be polite. After all, she has just saved my life.

“Ariel. Healer of tribe Sylvani. More recently a prisoner of those deceased bandits. Thank you for your timely arrival.”

“Hmph.” She looks around suspiciously, presumably trying to work out if I have been deliberately put here as some kind of human bait. I wriggle my wrists against the cords binding them. The discomfort is rapidly turning to a sharp pain.

“Nem, I think she’s telling the truth.” The tall dark-haired archer is finally starting to feel sorry for me. Nem gives a snort of impatience.

“Go ahead. But keep a sharp eye for another attack.”

He steps forward and cuts me loose. I almost cry out as the blood rushes back into my hands in an exquisite agony. He grasps my wrists and lays his cool water-skin over them.

“Might ease it a bit.” He forces a weary smile. “I’m Deris. Have you seen anyone else around here?”

I shake my head, still somewhat overwhelmed by the painful bite of returning circulation. Deris looks round as the bulky third archer returns from his search.

“Brac? Any luck?”

The red-haired Northerner shakes his head, his fingers raking through his close-cropped beard as if it might help him think.

“Not where he told us t’ look. Even with three of us, it’ll take too long if we have t’ search the whole field.”

“Might be good news and he has already gone.”

Brac doesn’t look hopeful. He leans against a tree trunk, exhaustion etched on his broad features. He is even bigger and probably stronger than Gendel when he was alive, but right now he seems to be at the end of his resilience. I’m guessing that they are looking for Marin. I don’t think they intend him any harm. Unless they are trying to deceive me––

“Nem! Stop!” I call out just in time for her to leap out of range of the mare’s savage kick. I had already spotted the familiar signs that Sahan had reached the very edge of load tolerance. I shrug apologetically to the grumpy warrior whose dark eyes are now turned accusingly in my direction.

“They had overloaded her,” I explain. “She doesn’t like it.”

“Hmph. She made that pretty clear.”

I wonder if Nem is always like this or if her mood is the inevitable result of being on the losing side of a battle.

Point. Where have they been all this time? I really should be as suspicious as they are.

“Why did you three run away instead of staying to help your friends?”

Maybe I should learn diplomacy to go with the suspicion. That was totally the wrong thing to say. My rescuers now look extremely angry and offended. Nem gets control of her temper with difficulty.

“We were obeying orders. If it’s any of your business. Which it’s not.”

I have to get this conversation back into something a little more constructive. The sooner I can reunite these unhappy archers with their leader, the sooner I can head for the city and leave them to get on with whatever they have ‘orders’ to do next.

“Brac, are you looking for Marin?”

The sudden hope in his blue eyes makes me want to weep. How could I have ever thought these people might be planning to harm their captain? Even Nem looks more cheerful.

Well, maybe.

“You know where he is?”

“I can show you. He’s wounded, but he will recover.” I grip Sahan’s bridle and stroke her neck, soothing her. “She’ll be a bit calmer now. Can someone take one of these bundles off?”

Brac steps forward and heaves the last bundle onto his broad back without a word.

Interesting. Seems they are already following the same course of action Marin wanted. As if the whole thing was planned in advance. Deris brings the horses they must have already hidden among the trees and they load them with as much as they can tolerate. The other two archers gather up bundles to carry themselves.

Nem signals me to walk ahead. “Anywhere to hide this stuff?”

I think for a moment. The charcoal burner had built his hut near the large cave he used for storing his product.

“Does it matter if it all gets covered in charcoal dust?”

“Probably help disguise it.” She almost sounds civil now. I try to imagine how well I would cope with what she has likely been through today and decide that she is probably doing far better than I would.

“Am I allowed to know what is going on here?”

Nem and Deris exchange an awkward glance and she looks studiously at her feet.

“Probably best if you know nothing. Any of us could be captured and have everything they know forced out of them.”

It sounds like my worst nightmare but I’m aware that I already know too much. And I am finding it disturbing that I can’t make sense of it.

“If I show you where to hide the weapons, I am going to know where they are and if that means you’ll have to kill me to maintain your security I would prefer it if you tell me now. So that I can refuse to help you.”

I’m not sure if that was the best approach. There is too much I don’t know about these people and saying the wrong thing could easily persuade them I would be less trouble dead.

She doesn’t reply. I pull Sahan to a halt and face her. Might as well get all of it out in the open while we are here and I still have some leverage in knowing where Marin is.

“And I’ve noticed that you three and Marin were the only real soldiers that the king sent out to defend Corinium, plus you had orders to kill a few invaders and then run away––then come back and look for your captain, hoping desperately that he wasn’t dead. And before you ask, Marin didn’t tell me any of that. He just sent me here to collect weapons.”

Nem looks over her shoulder. I can tell how anxious she is to get moving again.

“All right. I’ll fill in those gaps for you. Just don’t expect me to tell you everything. We’re Eldrin, King Tandarion’s personal guard and special forces.”

I nod sagely, hoping to give the impression I know what she’s talking about, but I have only vaguely heard of the Eldrin and have no real idea of who they are and what they do. I think my ignorance shows but she doesn’t comment on it.

“Our only surviving spy in the Rapathian court warned us of the invasion but it was at the last minute, too late to fully prepare. Our orders were to divide our numbers. Half were to escort the king and his nephew to safety while the other half were to lead the army to meet the invaders on their way to the capital.” She looks at me as if this should be explanation enough.

It isn’t.

“Go on.” I start walking again, hoping to show my willingness to fulfil my part of the bargain. She sighs.

“We were betrayed. Seems that Lord Farang, our venerable Chancellor, has been in league with the Rapathian Emperor for some time. No doubt why so many of the spies we sent to Rapathia didn’t last very long.

“Farang hand-picked five of us to lead this mission to fight the invaders before they reached the capital. When we were about to leave we discovered that he had already sent all the military divisions away with the king and put the wretched unfortunates you found on the battlefield under our command to try to defend the city. We received last-minute orders from our own commander to leave the conscripts before they were overrun and spy on the enemy in hope of learning enough to inform a counter-attack that might save the country.”

I have heard of Lord Farang, unofficially known as the Fang and not generally well liked, although I had never taken the trouble to find out why. Games of strategy have never interested me and if the devious nature of this plot is typical of how things are done in the capital, I’m glad I grew up in a village where squabbles over whose pig dug up whose turnips were about as bad as it would get.

I work out the implications as best I can.

“So Farang selected your small team, the best of the Eldrin, the biggest threat to his evil plans, and set you up with an army of prisoners, beggars and invalids to defend the city, hoping you would all be killed and the invaders could sweep into the city unopposed.”

I almost stop in my tracks. This isn’t me. It may not be the most complex of plots but Ariel the village healer and hunter would not have worked it out. The tingling around my eyes reminds me that this sharpening awareness from the Blade’s gift has been there in the background all along, growing stronger every time I push my ability a little further.

“Thanks for the back-handed compliment.” Nem doesn’t sound flattered though. Her shoulders are hunched as if bearing the weight of the kingdom as she walks beside me. Which, metaphorically speaking I suppose she does. I search for something to raise her spirits. To raise all of our spirits.

“You had been betrayed by someone who held such high office you had no chance of stopping him or even discovering his treachery before it was too late. You suddenly found out that he had set you up to die and let the enemy walk unhindered into Corinium. And then within a day’s ride to march out and meet an army that outnumbered you five to one, you worked out a way to slow them down, harass them all the way to the city, spy on their movements, and set things up ready for a rebellion as soon as you can gather enough support.” I glance across at her and try out my most encouraging smile. “And so far, you’ve succeeded.”

Nem doesn’t reply but Deris claps a hand on my shoulder.

“Spoken like a true healer. Appreciated.” He meets Nem’s gloomy look as if he knows she is about to say something that will dampen my efforts. She does.

“Except that we knowingly led more than seven hundred conscripted unfortunates to their deaths.” She goes back to staring at her feet. We walk in silence for a while until Nem drops behind a little to have a private conversation with Brac. Deris falls into step beside me, slowing the pace of his long stride to match mine.

“Don’t mind Nem. She’ll get over it. She has to. It’s just that Marin put her in command of our little group of archers whose role it was to do the harassing and spying and surviving. So she feels responsible for the conscripts we left behind in the enemy’s path.”

“What about Marin? If he was in overall command surely their deaths are his responsibility?”

Deris looks away. “Except that he wouldn’t leave them. He warned them they were about to die whether they fought or ran, and he swore he would stay with them. He hid his horse in the forest so he could lead the charge with them on foot––and they followed him. Every last one of them. While we stayed in the shelter of the trees, picking off the enemy from a place of safety. Watching what happened.”

That would explain why Brac was searching for Marin where the front line would have been…

“But your arrows would have drawn the Rapathians away in pursuit, giving him a better chance of surviving than if they had time to go around checking that everyone was dead.”

This time Deris really does smile. “Ariel the healer. Another day and you’ll have us believing this horrible disaster is actually the start of a new hope.”

I consider telling Deris that his recognition of the healer still in me has done more for my own hope of surviving the Blade’s deadly gift than he can possibly know. Then I say nothing, wanting the comfort of believing that his reassurances are more genuine than the words I just offered him.


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