Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
Author Notes: This is a draft of the beginning of a new book I'm writing. Unfortunately copying it onto YWS removed a tonne of formatting, mainly missing spaces between words and after periods. I've gone over it and fixed any issues I found but I'm sure there is a few still lurking somewhere.
Reviews would be greatly appreciated. Let me know if you enjoyed it, if you didn't and anything that read weirdly too you for any reason.
It's been a long time since I've written or posted anything and I don't believe I've fully recovered any writing ability I may have had but with help, I hope to. I've got another chapter or two written and a general plot brief for this story as well. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoy.
The steady thump of marching and clinking mail filled the silence as the convoy made its way towards the capital. The captain of the royal guard, Jaron Iren's strong features were tight and grim. His vibrant blue eyes swept the trees to either side of the dirt road. The forest was quiet. No birds sang. No crickets chirped. He was on edge and picking up on his anxiousness the men were on edge too, their purple and gold livery unmoving in the absence of wind. His gaze slid to the man in the center of the square formation. Crown Prince Gene, swathed in finery even during travel was less an upstart than the finery might suggest, but only slightly so. In times of peace even the crown prince didn't usually have such an escort as forty royal guardsmen, but although there was technically still peace between the neighboring kingdoms of Learsthrone and Caprithi, skirmishes and raids were frequent. Of course each kingdom maintained plausible deniability for neither wanted to be the one to start the inevitable war. So it was a game of sorts where the stakes was a little dubious moral high ground in the coming war. It made for good recruiting if the war could be pitched as defending their homelands.With a shout from the trees whistling filled the air as arrows fell upon the men at arms and three of the mounted retinue around the prince fell from their horses bristling with arrows. The orderly sound of marching was quickly drowned out by screams of pain and rage. Jaron standing just outside the princes retinue in the squares center burst into action.
"Stay in formation! Get the prince down off that damn horse!"
The royal guardsmen on the outside of the square turned their shields to face outward while the inner of the two rows prepared their spears to repel any charge as they had been trained. Before his retinue could help the prince himself rolled off horseback to land on his hands and knees in the mud. With the prince no longer an easy target Jaron focused on the battle.
Can't be many this close to the capital. But is it few enough that we could take them in the trees with our numbers? His gaze slid back to the prince. No we can't leave the prince. Even if it is only a dozen.
"Second. Crossbows up!"
Placing their spears inside the square behind them the second row unstrapped the crossbows from their backs and loaded bolts."Place your shots. Keep an eye on the trees. Any bowmen high enough could get a shot on the prince."
Shield-bearers and spearmen went down with arrows in necks or even in their backs from archers on the other side of the road. Why hadn't the scouts sounded a horn? Almost every arrow was well placed, finding the tiniest of gaps at the neck between helm and mail. Hitting the leather seam at the back of the knee. Barely scraping the top of a shield to enter an eye just below the edge of a guardsmen's helm. Very few other than the Caprithi rangers had such skill. A howl broke the silence, followed by another and another until a chorus of howls sounded from the forest. Sudden screams came from among the trees and the rain of arrows stopped. Men in mottled brown and green tunics rushed from the undergrowth headlong into the guardsmen only to be cut down or get a bolt to the chest and fall into the ditch at the side of the road. Eerie silence reigned again for a moment and Jaron went to speak and steady his men.
"Brace yourself. You need only look to the man on your left to-"
Bestial roars broke out just before large seven foot tall bipedal wolves leaped out from among the trees at the front line. The sheer force of their impacts splintered the shield wall and the wolf-things set to tearing apart the nearest guardsman.
What manner of demon are those!
As only a battle hardened captain can Jaron read the situation in moments. Turning to the prince who miraculously still had hold of his mount he yelled,"On the horse!"The plate clad knights around the prince gave him room as Jaron gave prince Gene a boost. Staring at the clearly terrified young prince Jaron spoke quickly,"You must flee. Up the road. Tell your father that Caprithi has invaded. These demons can't be mere coincidence, I'm certain they're to ensure your death."Giving a quick glance to the plate clad retinue he slapped the horse's flank and it took off as fast as it was able without any other prompting. Jaron, looking back to the few of his men that remained knew there was nothing else he could do. With a prayer for his wife and son he drew his longsword, pommel engraved with the sigil of the Learsthrone royal guard,and charged a monster about to disembowel one of his men.
"Keep your back foot grounded! If you're going to thrust you've got to put enough into it to do some damage but if your back foot comes off the ground you lose control and one quick grab-", Old Joe demonstrated grabbing the end of my wooden spear just behind the point and gave it a yank. I tumbled forward desperately trying to keep hold of the spear and regain my balance but it was futile and I ended up with a mouth full of grass."-and your either dead, or you've lost your spear and then you're dead."He tapped me on the head with a calloused hand to emphasize his point.June and Pieter sniggered from where they were supposed to be sparring nearby. They'd been training longer and had clearly already had this lesson. I looked up to find his grizzled weather beaten face smirking down at me as I spat dirt and grass back where it belonged, glaring over at June and Pieter they broke out into full on laughter. Taking his hand Joe pulled me to my feet, my shoulder length dark blonde hair plastered to my neck with sweat from training. At nineteen I was a bit of a late bloomer and only just had my final growth spurt shooting up to 5'7. Just a bit taller than the average women but by no means an amazon. What it really meant was spear and quarterstaff training from Old Joe now that I was tall enough to do it properly. We're a small village with only about sixty people. Fortunately we were a bit better off than a lot of small villages as we had Old Joe and Mayor Thompson. Joe, a retired adventurer, gave us all a little training in simple weapons while Mayor Thompson taught us our numbers and as many letters as we showed aptitude for.
"Joe! Get to Brady's. The elders need you for somethin.", Finn yelled from the roadside to where we were training in a clearing among the apple trees. An uncharacteristically worried look marred his usually carefree demeanor.
Joe frowned and nodded, "Alright you lot, lets walk back to Brady's. Don't forget your apples."
It was harvest week so we, meaning June, Pieter and I were out picking apples all day before a little training with Old Joe among the trees just out of town. We each had a large grain sack filled with apples piled nearby. Unlike most villages we grew apples almost exclusively. Cider was our main money maker. Joe's training and stories of his days as an adventurer with battles and the occasional monster are often the highlight of my day.
"So Ali how was the grass? Looked like you were enjoying it from where I was standing!" Pieter grinned as June laughed.Hoisting my sack full of apples into a shoulder carry I replied, "You forget Pieter, I've watched you eat grass from the sidelines over and over again. Now I'm tall enough I look forward to feeding it to you myself."
"Ho-ho, fighting words. May the best man win" His grin grew even wider.
"I may be a woman but I'm both a better man, and woman, than you'll ever be."
Normally Joe would laugh along with us but today he was subdued and fondled the hilt of his short sword as our banter died down. Old Joe was the warden of our village and on the town council as an adviser. He was a big man with a grizzled face and graying hair, intimidating until you got to know him.There was only one reason the village elders would call for Old Joe urgently. Something must've happened and someone was attacked or threatened.I glanced at June and our eyes met,she looked worried as well.Joe left us to enter Brady's house one of only two double story buildings in the village, a benefit of being the town carpenter who builds the houses I suppose. June, Pieter and I went to the village hall, the other two story building, since it was about time to eat. Slowly others filtered into the hall and sat at the long wooden tables spaced around the center of the main room. Smells wafted in from the kitchen. Some kind of meat, pork I think and of course the ever present applesauce and probably some kind of apple desert as usual. We weren't exactly wealthy here but food was one thing we always had in abundance. I scanned the hall as steaming hot platters were brought in, I don't think most people knew anything was going on.Although the absence of the village elders was a telling sign. Digging into my food I hoped that despite whatever's going on Old Joe would be up to a story tonight. Some of the adults thought listening to his stories at my age was undignified. As if stories of battle and adventure were reserved for the little ones. Our meal was interrupted by all four village elders entering through the large main door followed closely by Old Joe.
Brady the carpenter, a big blonde clean shaven man bellowed, "Quiet! Mayor Thompson has something to say."Mayor Thompson, a tall gangly man with a patchy beard stepped up,"Thank you Brady. Most of you know that Patrick Heronsson passed through with his caravan today. You may have noticed they barely stopped to chat, let alone do any trading." Thompson paused a moment and grimaced before gathering himself to speak again, "Pat had some disturbing news. He and his caravan had just come from Jacksonville three days down road of us. He says it was empty. Not a soul to be found."
"Empty? What like everyone just up and left?" Rin, my father, said incredulous.
"No..."Thompson replied quietly, "Like they'd been taken. Or at least their bodies had been. Left plenty of blood behind. Blood, torn clothing, shattered tools, smashed window shutters, broken down doors. Apparently there were drag marks in the blood."
Silence reigned for what seemed like a long time before everyone began yelling at once.
"Quiet!" Yelled Thompson, "Stay calm.We elders have discussed the matter and decided that Old Joe will take a small group consisting of himself and his current trainee's to the dukes city to ask for aid. This and the roads is why we pay taxes after all. Duke Lorrin can't refuse us in this. I have written a letter requesting his protection and an investigation into the whereabouts of the people of Jacksonville."
Old Joe stepped forward to the left of the mayor looking more serious than I'd ever seen him. His eyes seemed hooded, full of dark memories. Nodding towards Joe, mayor Thompson continued"Joe and his group will leave at first light and we expect a response will take up to a tenday but likely less. While we wait for the duke's men to arrive we will be posting a watch each night at the northern and southern edges of the village next to the road. Brady will sort that out before we return to our homes for the night.", Brady nodded, standing opposite Old Joe to the mayor's right, "As you can see we have are taking action and everything is under control." He looked around at each of us, "Pat also mentioned hearing howls at night so we've almost certainly got some wolves around. As such-"
Finn interrupted from further down the table, "No pack of wolves would attack a whole village. You can't seriously think wolves did that!"
Clearly irritated at Finn's interruption Mayor Thompson scowled and faced him, "No Finn, we don't believe the wolves attacked the town. It must've been some bandit's or slavers.Probably deserters from the army. We all know war between Learsthrone and Caprithi is likely round the corner."Thompson turned back to look at the rest of us, " As I was saying,no one should go far from the village and although no one should be picking the harvest alone anyway, now would be a particularly stupid time to do so."Thompson glared at us as though he thought we were particularly stupid and likely to go alone just because he said not to.Thank you for your attention."
Dismissed, I turned in my seat to face Pieter across the table. His expression probably mirrored my own. A strange mix of fearful, excited and anxious. Neither Pieter or June had ever seen to dukes city with its rough stone walls and towers. Double story and higher buildings crowded before the keep itself transitioning back to more common single story houses as you got closer to the wall. I'd been once with my father when he went to get a wagon full of new kegs for the cider. We were all excited at the prospect of going to the city. Jacksonville though...
"I can't believe it. I hope Raz and Molly are alright."June's expression was much more grim. Raz and Molly were her aunt and uncle from Jacksonville. Being just a few days south of us Jacksonville was much like our village except they grew grain and all manner of vegetables. We actually bought most of our food from them when they passed through with their produce to sell on at the city. A number of people in our village had relatives there.Fortunately in this case, I wasn't one of them.
"Ali", a large rough hand landed on my shoulder.
"Hey dad." I looked up into his stormy grey eyes, different from my own. He liked to say my eyes held the storm from his eyes but got their green from my mothers.
"You be careful going with Joe alright. Stick close to him at all times. Especially in the city!" I nodded, "City-folk aren't as easy going us. I've been asked to take watch now with Finn", he rolled his eyes, "so I probably won't see you awake again 'till you get back. Assuming I survive Finn of course."
Knowing Finn he wouldn't shut up for a moment all night. I chuckled. His eyes softened and his weather beaten face crinkled around the edges, "I love you Alison.Be safe." Bending down he pulled me into a tight hug."You too." I replied with a grin hugging him back.With a smile for my friends he released me.Walking over to collect Finn he left as old Joe sat heavily next to Pieter on the other side of the table.
"Right. You three might as well stay at my place tonight so I won't have to collect you come dawn. I'll have packs prepared so no need to worry about that. Rush home after you're done here and get clothes enough for three days then meet at my house."
We nodded as he looked at each of us in turn before standing and making his way to the kitchens.Giving June a quick hug in an effort to comfort her about her aunt and uncle I finished up and did as Joe said rushing home. Fires were lit at each end of the village near the road and those on watch stood nearby looking out into the fading light. Our house wasn't anything special,a little squat wooden thing with a stone chimney poking above the simple sloped roof. Many similar houses lined the road as it stretched away from the village center where all the important buildings were.Opening the door directly into the main room, I wove around the wooden table set and entered the cramped hall that linked the main room to the master bedroom and my own. With no siblings I got a room all to myself. It was just me and dad like always. I'd never met my mother. Dad said she was part of a travelling mercenary company and although I was a happy accident to him, for her it was a different story. Caring for a daughter would have meant having to settle down and accept the simple life with my father. Apparently brewing cider and picking apples wasn't exciting enough for her and as soon as she had recovered from my birth she left us to rejoin her friends in the mercenary company.I quickly grabbed everything I'd need from my worn dresser. Two more shirts, a few pairs of underwear and my only other pair of woolen trousers. They were looking a little threadbare but would have to do as dresses and hard travel didn't seem to go together well.Giving my room another quick glance I turned and left, snatching my brown cloak from where it hung on the door. Once outside I made my way over to Joe's place on the northern end of town. I knocked as I entered into a room near identical to my own houses main room. June, Pieter and Joe were sitting at the table as Joe looked over four large backpacks. They looked up as I entered.
Joe spoke, "Good. Now you're all here I'll tell you the plan. We'll be up just before dawn tomorrow to get some travel clothes on and make our way to the village hall to get something to eat before we leave. Best get as much sleep as you can now. We've a hard few days ahead. June and Alison, you'll be sleeping in my spare room. Sorry Pieter you'll have to make do in front of the hearth here." Joe said and grabbed him some blankets and a pillow."Right then, I'll see you lot in the morning."
As Joe closed the door to his room I turned to June, "Well, let's leave Pieter to his rightful place on the floor and turn in."
June put her nose in the air and spoke haughtily, "Why of course Lady Alison", looking at Pieter she continued with a huff, "Peasant! I bid thee good night."
Miming grabbing a long dress and lifting the hem from the floor she shuffled out of the main room into the spare bedroom. I couldn't help laughing at Pieter's offended expression before following June to the bedroom. Curling up on the bed next to my best friend I fell asleep quickly despite my anxiousness about what tomorrow would bring.
The next morning came quickly. I woke to Joe yelling through the door to get up. Clearly he didn't care much about waking the neighbors. June groaned and rolled away from me, taking the blankets with her. With an irritated sigh I yawned my way out of bed and put on a pair of trousers and a simple tunic. I was about to leave the room with June still cocooned in blankets so I decided to return the favor and steal them, ripping them away from her and throwing them into a corner. In the main room Pieter and Joe sat at the table waiting. Our packs were stacked next to the door. Pieter looked a little stiff from sleeping on the floor and scowled at me as I entered. I gave him a half apologetic smile as greeting and join them at the table.
"June's just getting dressed, she'll be out in a minute." I made sure to speak loud enough that I was certain she would hear me.
Joe nodded and stood to buckle on his sword belt. "We want to be gone just before the sun comes up so we'd better leave June to catch up. Let's go." Joe likewise spoke loudly to be sure June would hear but without his customary smile. Clearly Jacksonville was still on his mind. Scooping up our packs and cloaks on the way out the door we stepped into the predawn light. Damn it was freezing this early.
"You'll be warmer after eating and once we get on the road. Probably be too hot after walking a few hours."Joe noticed my shivers.
Banging sounded from behind us before we were more than twenty feet down the road. Looking back June was running towards us pack over one shoulder with her cloak trailing behind."I'm coming! I'm coming." She called as she ran towards us.
Once inside the village hall June and I sat as Joe and Pieter went to get food from the kitchens. They must have a night shift running as well for the watchmen to get food as lanterns still burned in the kitchen, light spilling from the doorway. Joe returned placing bowls and a large pot of steaming oatmeal with apple slices in the center of the table.Pieter following his example with mugs and a pitcher of water before sitting.
"Eat up. We're leaving in fifteen minutes and mark my words you'll regret it if you don't eat heartily now. We won't be stopping until midday for lunch and a short rest.Then on 'till nightfall."
"Will we get to meet the duke?" asked Pieter.
"Probably. But I'll be doing the talking" replied Joe.
Eating quickly we didn't have much opportunity to talk until we thanked the kitchen staff which turned out to be none other than Mayor Thompson and prepared to leave. He and Joe had a few quiet words and we each grabbed a wooden spear from the back of the hall as we walked out the door.With the sun just barely breaking the horizon it was still dark and cold enough that I pulled my cloak tighter around my shoulders. Upon reaching the edge of the village I looked to the watchmen to say a final goodbye to dad but he must've been posted on the other side of the village.After a half hour of steady walking we passed the final trees of the orchards and were about the crest a hill when Joe spoke up.
"We're leaving sight of the village now so I want you to keep your eyes alert for anything strange. Don't usually get trouble this close to the dukes place but then again I would've though the same all the way out to Jacksonville."
"What do you think it is? Bandits? Slavers?" I asked as we continued to walk.
"Not bandits. They wouldn't take the bodies. Maybe slavers though. I hate to say it but I hope it's slavers. At least then some might still be alive when the duke's men catches up to the scum." Joe growled.As we walked over thecrown of the hill I took a last look back towards the village before we began our decent and it passed from of sight. I could see the whole village from where I stood. Sudden movement drew my eye in the orchards near town. No one picked apples this early. Perhaps the watchmen had started patrolling? I caught more flashes of movement, large shapes creeping among the trees. Closer to us this time.
"Joe. Someone's in the orchards." My voice betrayed my sudden anxiety. He was beside me instantly, deep brown eyes searching. Opening a pouch at his waist he withdrew a small horn, raising it to his lips.
A single sudden howl split the silence, quickly joined by others until a chorus echoed through the trees.As the howls faded the trees nearest the village shook violently.Fear shot through me and my heart was suddenly battering at my ribs. Joe's face was the far paler than usual as he replaced the horn at his waist unused. His eyes darted across the orchards once more, .There was a rush of movement behind me and I turned just as Pieter brushed passed me in a sprint towards the village, spear held tightly to his side.
"Pieter wait!" Joe grabbed at his cloak as he flew passed and dragged him to a stop.
"We've got to go back Joe! They need our help!"
"Wolves' don't attack villages unless they're starving! There's plenty of game around here. We need to..."
Behind Pieter a couple hundred metres away something bounded onto the road and started loping towards us.
"Helm watch over us." Joe prayed even as June screamed.
It was a wolf...I think. Some kind of huge black wolf that ran on two legs like a man and stood over seven feet tall. It closed the distance between us at an impossible speed. It's so fast! We'd never out run it.While I was focused on the thing another one had sprung from the roadside further behind it and begun towards us."Form a line! Spears front!" Joe bellowed as he took charge, clearly coming to the same conclusion I had.
Scrambling close to Joe I emulated his stance taking a half crouch with a two handed grip on my spear pointing towards the wolf-thing. Pieter stepped back towards us and took up the same stance on my right while June, a little slow to respond, did the same shakily on Joe's left. My heart pounded with fear and I broke out in a cold sweat as the first wolf-thing closed on us only to be amplified by a distant scream.The wolf-thing didn't seem the least concerned about our spears as it kept coming at it's impossible speed. Amusement seemed to dance in it's glowing amber eyes as it closed to the edge of our spears. Just before it would have impaled itself the wolf-thing crouched and leaped. It sailed through the air above us, turning mid-air to face us. It landed on all fours on the hard dirt of the road. Skidding across the ground it left gouges in the road's surface at least three metres long. Faster than I thought him capable of Joe spun and threw his spear. The wolf-thing danced almost effortlessly to the side. With a 'shing' Joe drew his short sword and stepped forward, his face grim.
"Damn." He exclaimed at how easily it avoided his throw.
"June, Ali, keep the other one away with your spears while we deal with this. Use your reach and keep your feet on the ground! Pieter give me a hand with this thing." Joe's voice sounded steady, confident even. Only his eyes betrayed his fear. Pieter stepped back to help Joe while June and I resumed our stance against the other one. This one was smaller, maybe only six and a half feet tall and not as broad. I could hear Joe tell Pieter to keep his back to us before I focused intensely on the smaller wolf-thing. Unlike the larger one this one slowed as it neared, stopping a few feet away. Now I could get a good look it was definitely a humanoid wolf. Standing hunched slightly forward drooling from its long muzzle it narrowed its bright amber eyes and licked it's lips in a slow, deliberate manner, revealing a mouth full of razor sharp fangs.This one's fur was lighter, more of a muddy grey than the dark, almost black colour of the larger one.I heard June hyperventilating beside me and realized I was as well. A snarl sounded behind followed by a thud and coughing. The wolf in front of us chose that moment to attack. Dashing in towards June she thrust out at it. With a swift sidestep it dodged her thrust while also moving away from me. June began retracting her spear but it threw itself at her knocking her to the ground. I stabbed out, desperate to help June. My spear point glanced off its head as it lay on top of her and embedded itself in the wolf-thing's shoulder. With a roar it scrambled backwards and June shrieked as it raked her sides with inch long claws as it did. The move backwards threatened to pull my spear with it. Joe's recent lesson fresh in my mind I'd kept both feet fully grounded for my thrust and managed to pull it from the wound before it ripped it out of my grasp. Placing myself between June and the beast I gripped my spear white knuckled.A roar of pain and fury sounded from my left where Pieter and Joe were dealing with the big one. A glance to the side showed Joe had the point of his short sword embedded in the thing's lower torso but he never got a chance to withdraw it as an enormous clawed hand gripped his shoulder and dragged him closer. Joe struggled and tried to pull his blade sideways spilling it's guts but before he could it's other hand closed around his own on the hilt of his sword. Bending down slightly the monster bit down on Joe's free arm as he raised it,trying in vain to push it away. Pieter rushed in, spear held forward only to be backhanded so hard his feet left the ground and he crashed into the roadside a few metres away. I needed to help Joe but I couldn't leave June. Making a snap decision I reared backwards and threw my spear one handed at the larger wolf-thing. I didn't wait to see if I hit but snatched June's spear from where it lay on the ground with both hands. By the time I returned my full attention to the smaller one in front of me it had recovered and was already rushing in, claws reaching for my throat.I braced myself in my half crouched position at the last moment. It let out a surprised yelp and blood ran from its muzzle as my spear-point entered it's torso dead center. The force of its charge pushed me backward and off balance. Trying to pull my spear back proved impossible, the wolf-thing had gripped it where it entered it's body and even gravely injured it was still too strong. It's other arm clawed the air towards me furiously as it howled in pain and rage. Abandoning my spear I turned, dashing to where Pieter lay unmoving on the side of the road. Blood ran down his face and his jaw hung unnaturally off to one side, obviously badly broken. Panting from the fear and exertion I searched frantically for his spear.It wasn't here! I couldn't find it. Glancing back to the road revealed I was out of time. The smaller wolf-thing was pulling the spear slowly from its chest whimpering and the big one stood in front of me, looking down into my eyes. I froze in fear. It glanced down at the wooden spear sticking out from its thigh and pulled it out as I watched. Tossing the spear to the side. It continued to look at it's spear wound. I couldn't believe it, the wound began closing right before my eyes. Apparently satisfied it looked calmly back at me. Its glowing eyes snapped me out of it and I tried to jump backwards. Just as my feet left the ground it showed that impossible speed,gripping me by the head with its right hand and my upper arm with its left. Pulling me close I struggled desperately as it yanked my head to one side opened it's mouth to reveal its huge teeth and with a flash of agony bit down on my shoulder between my arm and neck. Screaming in agony sudden tears blurred my vision and with a crunch of bone everything went black.