Shadows of a Storm

Here is the first chapter from Shadows of a Storm, in its entirety:-

 

CHAPTER ONE

 Gathering Shadows

 

It was a familiar mischievous day for the small boy as he crouched, concealed, in the long grass that overlooked the wheat field in which his father and a dozen other men from the village gathered in this year’s meagre harvest. Kal watched them relentlessly, in awe as the men’s muscles rippled from exertion as they cleanly felled the golden wheat with powerful sweeping arcs from their scythes.

Kal was not allowed to help them yet, even though he had wanted to this season.

“Maybe in a few years, son,” his father had told him, waving away his incessant protests and finishing off the discussion with an impatient, growling plea to his wife.

“Keep the lad with you. I’ll not have him pestering me whilst I’m busy!”

And that had been that.

Kal had watched his father sullenly, from the doorway of their small home, as he met in the village square with several of the other farmers. He had sighed in despair as they greeted each other, sharing in some unheard banter and had watched them forlornly as they drifted away. With their long curving scythes resting loosely on broad shoulders, they disappeared up the northern trail to the fields at the crest of the valley, which cradled Eastbury in its protective wooded arms.

After his initial disappointment had faded, Kal busied himself for the morning by helping his mother to roll out dough and bake the bread that would help feed the men that afternoon. Before boredom could set in completely, he pleaded with his mother to let him go visit his friends Meredith and Elissen, at their home in the village. She had refused immediately.

It took about another hour of his customary huffing and puffing before his mother had finally relented, letting him go before she lost her temper with him completely. After shooing him off, she sent him away with a slap of her wooden spoon across his backside.

With the sound of the slap ringing in his ears and the sting of the spoon’s kiss still burning on one cheek, Kal had ran off towards the girls’ house at the east side of the village square, next to the blacksmith’s. Before he had reached it, he doubled-back and stole out through the west side of the village, behind the Great Oak Inn, using the nearby mayor’s home as cover for his escape. Picking his way up through the wooded slope and creeping over the ridge of the valley, he had used the remaining tree cover and long grass to crawl (not for the first time) to his usual vantage point.

And here he was, wistfully watching their toil and longing for the day when he would be counted old enough and strong enough to join the men in their trek up the trail to the fields above. Of course, like most children in town, he also wanted to be a knight and go on dangerous missions, driving the outlaws from their homes, deep within Greywood Forest and putting an end to their thieving activities.

One day Kal promised himself he would be that knight, at the head of the very force that drove the outlaws out of the forest and claimed the reward for the capture of Devlin Hawke. He would be the same knight he became when he had his pretend fights with Meredith and Elissen. Often, as a Knight of Carwell, he had rescued Elissen, the princess, from the dark tower (well, the woodshed) of the wicked Meredith the Black. Many a time, he had stood over the black knight, waving his wooden sword and shouting for her to yield. Naturally, she had relented, only to grapple him from behind, as he rushed to free his princess. The resulting chaos usually left them all collapsing to the floor in a writhing, giggling heap.

One day he would carry a scythe, then a sword. Elissen had promised to teach him. She was learning from her pa, who was harvesting in the fields with his own father at this very moment. She was really good, too! Kal had watched her practicing once, in much the same fashion and from the same vantage point as he watched his father now. Meredith was also learning the sword, but she was a couple of years younger and not quite as good as her sister yet.

Kal pinched back the sneeze that would have given him away and licked at his dry lips. The sun was beating down on him now and he was getting hungry and thirsty. The smell of the wheat field was also becoming overpowering and he felt his head beginning to spin. He sat back in the grass, flattened around him and stared curiously at the snaking rivers that criss-crossed the skin of his knees. After tracing the grassy imprints for a time, he looked back up for a final glimpse of his father before he took himself off home and to the scolding that would surely be waiting for him.

As Kal watched he noticed several riders on horses coming across the fields from the far side of him. His father and the others were forking wheat upon a cart and had not noticed the riders’ casual approach. A horse’s whinny broke across the field, stopping the gathered labourers abruptly in their task. The farmers turned to watch as the riders neared and shared glances, leaning upon the blunt upturned ends of their scythes. An unsettling hush fell upon the field and the only sound to be heard was that of distant bird calls and the loud buzzing of the flies, swarming hungrily about the crops.

Kal quietly began numbering the riders, but more appeared in the straggled column and he soon lost count as they came to a halt before his father and his friends. The lead rider stood up in his stirrups, raising a hand in peaceful greeting.

“Well met.”

Kal strained to hear and almost subconsciously stood up for a better listen.

“And to you,” Meredith’s father replied. “What brings you to our field, friend?”

The bearded man let his hand fall and began gently stroking the sleek neck of his steed.

“…told of a village…or about…would seek shelter this…could you point us…the…?”

Kal couldn’t properly hear what he was saying and he swatted, in annoyance, at the flies pestering noisily around him.

Meredith’s father nodded, pointing back towards the trail, near to where Kal was hiding, his loud, florid voice easily carrying to the concealed boy.

“Aye, it’s just down through yonder copse and in the valley beyond. You can find a tavern there, with good stabling and an equal number of supply stores.”

The man leaned forward in his saddle to shake his hand and swiftly, with the other hand, pulled free a long-bladed weapon as Meredith’s father reached out to him. Crying out to his men, the man hacked cleanly through the outstretched arm and then plunged the blade deep into his victim’s chest as the riders behind him let out a bloodthirsty roar and surged forward, their freed weapons flashing in the sunlight.

Rooted with fear to his hiding place, Kal’s scream died in his throat as he saw his father lash out at a rider’s horse, bringing the shrieking beast to the ground in a mist of bloody spray. The rider tumbled from his mount and, as his father leapt over the writhing animal, scythe swinging before him, another rider reined up behind him and plunged a breaking spear through his back. The barbed point of the weapon burst from his bloodstained chest and as the terrified boy found his screams, his father’s body toppled from view amongst the wheat and rising tumult of crop dust.

The shrieking seven-year-old fled, tears streaming down his face in sheets of terror, the clamour of battle chasing at his heels. He could now hear the screams of the dying echoing from behind him, as the riders frenziedly descended upon the surviving farmers like a ravenous pack of wolves. As he fled, he did not see the Reven tribesmen who also appeared on the edge of the bloody field, but he did hear their collective battle-cry as they raced into the fray to join their comrades.

 

“So are we heading straight to Eastbury, captain?” the burly sergeant asked. He patted the neck of his steed and ruffled the mare’s ears. The horse, a magnificent roan, tossed her head in delight at the attention, snickering her approval and raking a front hoof across the dusty road.

“Captain?” he pursued, when no answer was forthcoming from the rider sitting quietly on his mount ahead of him.

The man was staring thoughtfully out across the grassy plains to the south, which were bathed in a brilliant incandescence of golden midday sun.

“I heard you the first time, Ashe,” came the soft reply, as the man turned in his saddle to look back at him. “And how many times must I tell you, when we are out on patrol, we can drop the formalities of rank. We’re friends here, after all!”

The man was in his late twenties and he looked past his old friend at the ten riders halted in a silent column behind them on the road. It had been five years since they had lost anyone on patrol. Yes, there had been many wounds, some of them terrible. But the men and women under his command followed his lead without question and were loyal to him and to the crest proudly emblazoned on their shields and armour. A rearing eagle, with its wings spread wide, as if it was about to take flight; the crest of Lord Carwell, the steward of the East Vales.

He had joined the ranks of the patrol tasked with protecting travellers on the Great East Road seven years ago. Drafted from the ranks of the Carwell Guard after showing great promise, he had been placed under the command of Lord Carwell’s general, Karne. After several campaigns against Reven raiding parties and acts of selfless courage, he had gained his first promotion, having shown his leadership qualities and the possession of an uncanny sixth sense.

It was, however, the infamous assault at Raven’s Point that finally made his name, when he and seven other soldiers had held Storm Pass, in the north-easterly reaches of the Great Divide, against four times their number. They had been guarding a group of miners, who were working in the mountains, when Reven raiders had set upon them. The seven of them, who had survived the initial attack, held the western end of the pass for over two hours, repelling every wave of attack and allowing the workers to flee to safety. Finally, the Reven ranks broke and fled back across mountains and when the dust had settled and the blood finally slowed, only three of the soldiers remained alive.

A year after a border garrison had been established in the pass, all three survivors of the assault were given captaincies and their own commissions, as reward and recognition of their bravery. Kalis Farl had died only a month after his promotion and Seline Vale was killed after her horse fell and rolled upon her, just six months ago now. Of all those brave souls, only Elion Leigh remained, the youngest ever captain to be promoted by Lord Carwell.

“It’s been almost a month since we were last assigned to this patrol and I have a sneaking suspicion you will be keen to spend an evening in Eastbury, once again…sir?” Ashe concluded with a roughish grin.

Elion feigned annoyance. “I have no idea what you are talking about, sergeant! My only interest is in the continuing safety of our region and the protection of the merchants and travellers who brave the East Road from the Northern Crossways.”

As if to emphasize his words, he pulled on his riding gloves dramatically and did his best to maintain the mask of seriousness that was rapidly slipping from his boyish features.

“So, it wouldn’t be that you were hoping to catch another glimpse of that young filly we saw practicing with a blade on the outskirts of the village, the last time we were there, then?” Ashe pressed on, aware of the chuckles from those gathered within earshot.

Elion smiled briefly, resting one hand on the pommel of his cavalry sabre.

“I have no idea who you are talking about Ashe and, even if I did, there are more important matters at hand. Besides, we will only be there for one night.”

He turned away dismissively, gathering up his reins, as if ready to move off.

“Well, that’s plenty time enough to spend with that young lass,” Ashe observed, grinning.

A low ripple of laughter washed through the patrol and with a rueful shake of his head and a raised hand, Captain Elion Leigh led the column of riders off in unison, westwards along the Great East Road.

 

Elissen straightened, ruefully massaging the ache in her back as she set down the heavy pails of water she was carrying on the step outside her hut. Sunlight burned her sight momentarily as she looked to the heavens with the effort and shielding her eyes, she studied the myriad of sun-burnt blotches imprinted in her mind. Relaxing in mid-stretch, she opened her eyes and reached for both buckets once more, her long thick lustrous tresses falling about her face in a chestnut veil.

“If you don’t tie your hair back, you won’t have any need to bring the water in for a bath, Eliss!” Her sister chastised her from the doorway as she came forward to help her with the buckets, squinting in the bright sunshine. Elissen flicked a handful of the cold water she had drawn up from the well in the centre of the village square at her sister, delighting in her squeals of protest.

“And if you don’t take these in now, there’ll be no more water left in them to carry.” Elissen threatened, her face softening into a lovely smile.

Meredith, although the younger of the two sisters by almost three summers, had made up for her lack of age by developing a fervent and fiery personality, that usually saw her getting the better of her sister, one way or another, and for a moment Elissen wondered which sister had awoken today.

Meredith, however, must have received a fair fall from her bed that morning as she simply smiled sweetly at her, taking hold of her sister’s hands gently.

“I’ve fixed us both some lunch first, Eliss,” she told her and picking up one of the buckets, she began to move back inside.

“I expect Kal will be dropping by later! So I’ll store these until he has been and gone.” Elissen predicted, hauling up the last bucket.

Meredith glanced over one shoulder, smiling wickedly. “Isn’t it your turn to play the knight for a change?”

Elissen shook her head. “No Merri, I enjoy these meek and submissive moments of yours! I have to make the most of them.”

“Humph!” came the snorting, scowling response. “You can’t win all the time – or perhaps it’s the fact you don’t like to lose any of the time?” Meredith’s bottom lip trembled, her face threatening mock tears. “I could make a good princess too!” she sniffed meekly. “The only reason I have to play the knight all the time is because we always let Kal win.”

“True,” Elissen admitted. “But what would Kal do without Meredith the Black, scourge of the east and mistress of the dark tower to fight?”

“Do without!” snarled Meredith. “We -,”

A scream sounded, splitting through the quiet serenity of the early afternoon as it echoed about the village ominously. Both sisters started and dropped their buckets as one. Spinning around fearfully they moved outside into the sun once more. Other villagers were also appearing out into the sunshine, worried looks creasing their familiar faces. The miller’s wife Caris cried out, pointing to the north and most people followed her arm and the shaking finger that jabbed frantically towards the rise of the northern trail.

Suddenly Kal appeared between the cover and shade of the trees, tripping and falling the final few feet down the trail. Elissen winced as he came crashing down heavily; his screams still piercing the quiet in between his ragged, trembling breaths and wordless sobs. People began crying out worriedly, rushing from their homes, dropping tools and putting aside any thoughts of work as they hurried to his side. Wordlessly the sisters joined in the race of villagers as they rushed across the village square to his aid.

“Hush, Kal. What’s happened little one?” Linneth, the smith’s wife, was comforting him, cradling the hysterical boy in her arms as the sisters made their way through the gathered throng of people.

Meredith scanned the faces present, but could not see Kal’s mother anywhere. Linneth continued to soothe the boy’s fears, stroking his face and wiping away his tears. Kal was shaking with terror, his face drained by fear as he sucked in a breath to find the words to speak. But the only words to spill forth were choked by splutters and strangled by more sobs. Elissen had made it through the crowd now and knelt beside the smith’s wife, smiling her support.

“Kal?” she whispered, stroking his hair and picking the wheat from his chestnut mop. “It’s me, Elissen! What is the matter?”

At her voice Kal looked up, his wide eyes flashing hopefully. Struggling from Linneth’s relinquishing arms, he flew into her embrace.

“T-they killed papa and the others…I-I saw them do it,” he howled, crying into her shoulder.

Elissen looked up in horror at those gathered around and saw the same worry mirrored in the eyes of those looking back at her.

“Who did?” demanded one of the wives gathered close by.

“Nasty men on horses. I thought they were from Carwell, b-but they killed my pa, they-.” he broke down, unable to continue.

Meredith came close enough in time to hear the last few words and she stepped back, covering her mouth with shock.

“Father?” she moaned, her fears lost amongst the wails of those wives gathered close, many of whom had husbands, sons, or both working up in the fields.

The hairs on the back of Elissen’s neck rose as she shared a frightful look with Linneth and subconsciously she glanced behind her.

There, at the top of the winding trail, just visible through the leafy screen sat a rider, calmly and quietly surveying the scene below. As Elissen watched, slowly being consumed by her own fear, the rider waved behind him and then, twirling a blood red blade about his head, he pointed down the trail, letting out a battle-cry that was swiftly echoed by a chorus of bloodthirsty shouts.

Elissen screamed out a warning and her sister, having recovered from her own fright, hurried to her side as panic swept through the villagers staring in horror up the trail.

“Eliss? I’ll take Kal to his mother!” Meredith told her, almost pulling the struggling, terrified boy from her sister’s clutches.

“Grab the swords and I’ll meet you at home.”

The gathered crowd began scattering in all directions, their screams drowning out the rising thunder of distant hooves and cries. As Elissen struggled up, she lost sight of her sister as she was swallowed up in the rising tide of pandemonium and swept quickly away from her. Flicking a final, daring look up the trail she could see the ridge swarming with fleeting glimpses of riders and dark forms on foot, as they picked their way down the trail towards the village and the spoils that waited below.

Snatching up her wits Elissen turned and fled. The aches she had recently felt were gone now and as she ran past the two large buildings that belonged to the mayor and his staff, one of the heavily reinforced doors swung open and three men dressed in leather armour and carrying swords stepped out into the light.

“What’s going on here, Elissen?” Coroth enquired, dragging her from her flight as she rushed by him.

“Raiders!” was all she could splutter and then, pulling back from his grip, she sprinted away, covering the remaining ground to her home in moments and disappearing swiftly inside.

Kal’s mother appeared on her porch as Meredith rushed up to her home. The boy was limp in her arms now and she passed him into his mother’s trembling grasp.

“Flee, they’re raiding the village,” was all she could bring herself to say, and turning, she bounded away, back across the village square.

As Meredith passed the well, an unfortunate chicken kicked to one side in her wake, she could see three of the guards in charge of protecting the mayor, himself a cousin to the high duke, stepping out to meet the riders that suddenly came galloping into view and bore down into the village. Their bloodthirsty roars of battle rose up on the wave of violence that was about to smash down upon Eastbury and its peaceful inhabitants.

The three men bravely stood their ground as the lead riders swept past them in a clash of blades and spray of claret. As they spread into the village, Meredith could see two of the guards trampled and cut to death as more riders appeared down the trail.

Coroth, one of the younger guards employed by the mayor in the past few months was still standing and Meredith saw him stagger back, blood flowing freely from a deep cut to his forehead. A rider bore down on him and the wounded guard cut the man from his saddle with a wild slash. As the rider crashed to the floor Coroth followed it up by driving his blade into the raider’s throat. Wrenching his sword free, he stepped back in triumph and tried to wipe the blood from his eyes, unaware of another two riders bearing down upon him. Reluctantly Meredith turned from the sight and, as she ran home, she could hear a rider thundering across the square to intercept her.

Her heart was pounding above the screams of the dying and the lustful roars of the raiders and as she neared her home, she was painfully certain that she would never reach there in time…

 

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