THUNDER ROLLED ACROSS A DEEP VELVET SKY as distant as the grumbling of the gods, and to the young man hidden within the sticky needles of fir and spruce, just as irrelevant. When a sheet of scattered raindrops peppered the forest floor, he knew that the time had come. For several hours now, against orders and beyond help, Askon had lain silent and still as death, the scent of conifer swirling all about him. In the darkness and driving rain, his eyes—one green and one brilliant blue—burned with reflected firelight.
Ghastly shadows danced around the bonfires some fifty yards from his hiding place. He breathed deeply. His stillness was not that of peace or calm; it was a volatile cocktail of deep-seated rage mingled with raw adolescence. Excitement, bloodlust and a hunger for control simmered below the surface. Much training, daydreaming, and ridicule had led him here, to the rain-soaked perfume of the thicket.
Two days earlier, King Codard’s son, Edward, had been captured. A boy new to manhood—like Askon himself—the prince had chosen the role of scout in his father’s army. He could have elected a life of luxury in the castle, but instead had enlisted like a commoner and thus arrived at the northwestern border-fort of Vestgæta. There, the army fought a protracted battle with creatures known as the Norill. When Askon had asked if the military unit would send a rescue party for Edward, the commanders had laughed.
“He’s as good as gone.”
“That’s what he gets for leavin’ the castle walls.”
“Fine, Askon, throw your life away trying to rescue him. See who notices.”
The jeering voices of memory made Askon’s decision for him. Honor was never easy to come by, and respect even more difficult to earn; but for someone like Askon it was near impossible. In the land of Vladvir those with even the slightest trace of elven heritage were given the title ‘Half-elf’. Askon had more trace than most. By rescuing a captured prince, Askon stood to gain glory for himself, if not his people, and he could satisfy his sense of duty. The prince had chosen to enlist, and that deserved respect.
“See who notices,” Askon muttered as the droplets rattled a drum-cadence against his deep green cloak. Beneath the hood, a tangle of brown hair dripped onto pointed ears. His face, in some ways angular and cold like those of his father’s people, had also a roundness about the cheeks and chin that more closely resembled his mother and the humans of Vladvir.
A flash of lightning tore through the clouds. Askon rocked forward anxiously, his first movement for many minutes. His breathing accelerated. A sharp crack of thunder split the monotony of the rain. On and on it boomed as though someone had murdered the sky. All around the bonfire the sinuous shadows continued their dance.
“Filth,” Askon spat as the thunder rolled away and the rain hissed in its place.
At the firelight’s furthest edges, he could see the rough-hewn cages where they kept the prisoners. A day’s worth of reconnaissance had taught him that the guards were few and distracted, the cages shoddily built, and the gates wound with twine. But the Norill were many. Like a writhing insect hive they squirmed from place to place, arms dangling low, knuckles nearly touching the ground. Shriveled animal skins and bleach-white bones served them for armor. Underneath, their gray, mottled bodies had shone with sweat. That had been while the sun still lit the blue-green valley; before the dark; before the rain; before the dance.
On it went until one by one the Norill slithered away from the dying flames. A chill wind swirled through the thicket, rattling the branches like bones, whispering through the trees like the last breath of a dying man. The once lurid flames cowered weakly in the wind, burning low; gasping tongues of fire licked out greedily.
Askon smiled. Two guards at the entrance. Those he thought he could slip past on the way in, but not on the way out. Two more straggled by the fire pit, probably drunk on whatever vile concoction they had consumed during the dance. And then the cage-guards, hopefully asleep or dozing. It didn’t matter. His chance was singular and desperate. His two-colored eyes flickered once again; this time with a wild inner light. Without so much as the snap of a broken twig, he rose from concealment and sprinted across the darkened clearing.
As he slipped through the gap several feet from the entrance gate, Askon drew his sword with his left hand. A long, curved hunting knife glimmered in his right. Somewhere in the camp there was a clatter: brief, not a threat. Then once more the rain drizzled down, pinging against a cooking pot nearby. He rounded the flimsy lean-to that abutted the spiked wall. There, sleeping heavily, its crooked mouth dangling wide, sat a Norill fighter, five feet in stature. A snort and gurgle issued from the gaping mouth, and Askon made his first mistake.
Without a thought, Askon cocked back his right arm and drove the hunting knife deep into the creature’s neck. Large moony eyes rolled in their sockets; flat, papery nostrils flared. He twisted the blade with a nauseated snarl, sickened by the Norill stench.
But the creature did not die. It shuddered violently then screeched, choked, and fell barking into the mud. Askon dove on the body, stabbing quickly: heart twice, neck once more. He stamped on the throat, and the Norill lay still, its mischief complete.
Quickly, shocked by his own ruthlessness, Askon dragged the corpse back behind the building where he had entered. He did not intend to return this way. By the time he reached Edward, the camp would be swarming like a dislodged wasp’s nest. They would have to fight their way out through the gate. Askon had not accounted for alerting the Norill so soon. Cautiously, he crept along the wall past two more buildings then back toward the smoldering fire. As he peered out from his hiding place, he saw that one of the Norill had slogged its way from the fire pit to the shack where Askon had so sloppily dispatched his first target.
Time would soon be running out; Askon bolted across the open space between the row of buildings and the embers of the bonfire. There, a reeling Norill stared stupidly into the glowing coals as the rain popped and hissed on contact. When Askon collided with the fire-watcher, he made his second mistake.
The creature was small, almost a full foot shorter than Askon, but its wobbling posture belied a sturdy balance and sure-footedness. It did not go down with the ease Askon had anticipated. They crashed into the mud together and slid half a yard before grinding to a stop. The creature was already back on its feet. A foam of spittle and mud bubbled through its pointed yellow teeth. Bewildered by darkness, surprise and likely drunkenness, it twisted and flailed, searching for its attacker.
This time, Askon did not make a mistake, nor did he relish the Norill’s death. Methodically, he fell upon the creature: a lunge, puncturing the lungs; a slash to the base of the neck; and two percussive stabs to the heart, whereupon it fell. Again, Askon dragged the body into the shadows. When he emerged, the creature that had followed the sounds of the first kill had returned. It inspected the area, appearing to look for its drinking-mate, but finding none. Stumbling slightly, it lumbered off to the south, deeper into the encampment.
Askon breathed a sigh of relief. Twice he had been lucky. Twice he had failed to follow the teachings of his childhood; the lessons of his military training. To expect survival of a third would be asking for death. Another peal of thunder boomed over the camp; the same tortured, wailing cry. Askon ran for the prisoners’ cages, capitalizing on the noise, his boots slapping over the growing slop of mud below. He pulled up short, sliding a little, but stayed on his feet.
Before him lay a long row of wooden cages. In one, Askon saw the prince’s scouting team. They were dead, probably long since, but in the darkness and rain Askon could not be sure. Piled over their corpses were their cloaks, King Codard’s bright blue stag visible on the black cloth even in the darkness. In the next two cages Askon saw something he could not later bring himself to describe. The remains had been human, but only the most gruesome details revealed them as such. He flinched and turned away. At the end of the row, a huddled form breathed slowly. It looked asleep, but something wasn’t right about the movement. It was the only cage with a living prisoner, and boasted the only guards. Circling behind, Askon approached the cell. To his surprise, the guards slept soundly, and he resisted the urge to kill them. Quietly he stepped to the rear edge of the cage.
“Edward?” he whispered.
“Prince of Vladvir? It’s Askon of Tolarenz.”
A wild-eyed face peered out from beneath the folds of its cloak. It was Edward. His dark features, in combination with the rain and the damp and the pallor of fear made him look as though he had gone mad.
“Is it so?” he gibbered.
“It is s—”
But Askon did not have time to finish. The guards had not been sleeping at all. Cold, clammy hands twisted his arm and shoulder. It seemed though that the Norill made mistakes as well, and Askon thanked the gods for it. He dropped the sword and stabbed up into the Norill’s arm, nearly driving the hunting knife into his own shoulder. Then he deftly spun the blade and stabbed the second guard in the bottom of the jaw, slicing through the windpipe on the return. Askon turned again and retrieved his fallen sword, thrusting it deep into the first guard who writhed frantically on the ground. The second was already dead, its blood mixing with the mud and rainwater.
When Askon looked up, Edward seemed to have come to his senses. He stood now, still pale but upright in the cell. Askon made several strategic cuts in the twine wrappings that secured the wooden poles. Then he gripped the rear wall.
“Take a run at it,” he ordered.
Edward backed toward the door, then gestured with his fingers: one, two…
He slammed into the backside of the cage while at the same time Askon pulled against it with all his strength. The creaking poles bent visibly and Askon heard several pieces of twine pop loose, but the cage held. Again Askon sliced at the twine in the hope that he wouldn’t be forced to saw through every strand, and again Edward sprinted, shoulder first, into the back wall of his prison. This time the poles cracked at their base while the twine twisted loose. Askon cast the remains of the cage wall aside. Edward stepped forward.
“Thank you,” he said, looking from side to side at the wreck.
Askon scowled. “I did only what I had to.”
Edward made a rasping choke of a sound; Askon wondered if it was a laugh. “I hardly think anyone ordered you down here. If I had to guess, I’d say you grew tired of them taunting you.”
Askon said nothing.
“I know of only one company in the king’s service that has both a prince and a half-elf among their ranks. I have heard their talk. However, now is hardly the time for it. May I use one of your weapons? We will need them if we are to get out alive.”
Askon looked first to his sword. Given to him by his father at his coming of age ceremony, he was sworn to honor it as an extension of himself. An elvish tradition, he could no more give the sword to Edward than he could shear off his own arm and lend it to the prince. So he flipped the hunting knife in the same effortless motion he had used when fighting the guards, this time with the hilt facing outward.
“If you lose this, you’ll wish I hadn’t saved you,” he said with a grin.