I: Talden

A Storm is Coming

The undergrowth was strewn with dirt and grime, blood clotting on fallen leaves and pine needles. With an effort, Talden Angevin staggered to his feet and spat out a glob of bloody spittle. Around him, arrows whispered through the woods, the bowmen invisible sentinels in the trees, while indistinct shapes struggled with one another in the clearing. Weapons clashed together, ringing and clanging and raising a hellish clamor. Somewhere off to his right he heard a grunt as an arrow found its target. Had it been an orc or man? No way to tell.

Blind—we're fucking blind.

They had stolen up on the orc camp shortly after sunset, quieting their horses with soft words and holding herb-filled bags to the animals' nostrils to keep them from bolting from the orcs' scent. Nevertheless, a garron had panicked, and the ambush had unraveled then and there. Desperate, Kurt had ordered a charge, hoping still to catch the greenskins unawares—but it had been futile.

And now, here he was, unhorsed and blind and like to have his head hacked off, all because of the stupidity of one bloody rider and his inability to handle his bloody charge!

Out of the corner of his eye, Talden spotted firelight glinting off dull metal. He swore, ducked, and tore his sword from its sheath. No sooner had he done so than an axe whistled over his head. He swept his own blade forwards and buried its edge into a thick leg. He jerked it free and parried another stroke. The orc growled. The axe passed over his head again. Talden took a step back, fended off an attack, retreated another step.

And then he felt the heat at his back, smelled the bitter smoke, saw the warm glow cast on the forest floor and his dancing shadow.

Shit.

He was trapped, caught between the orc and the campfire.

A crackling branch splintered beneath his heel. Sparks flew everywhere. Talden risked a quick glance over his shoulder to see tongues of flame reaching for his cloak. He whirled back just as the haft of an axe pummeled into the side of his face. His jaws clicked painfully together and, arms whirling, he went down, landing beside the fire.

The orc stood over him, red eyes gleaming. The executioner's blade flew down.

He rolled to the side, his hand seizing a burning branch from the flames as the blade bit into the soil beside him. He shoved the blazing limb into the orc's eyes. The monster reeled away. Taking the opening, Talden struggled upright, feinted to the left, and slid his sword between the plates of armor that shielded the orc's chest.

The axe fell to the ground. Big meaty hands reached for him, fingers clawing at the air. Impaled, the orc took a step forwards. A rattling growl reverberated through its body. Talden was close enough to see a dark liquid trickling from its jaws. It took another step. Disgusted and fearful, he kicked it in the chest. The brute collapsed with a gurgle, its weight tearing his sword from his grasp, and twitched as it died.

Hell. Why is the Light so damn cruel to me? He tugged violently at the hilt, but it wouldn't come loose. With a final heave, he left it there, buried beneath the body, and dropped to all fours, hunting for another weapon. His wrist bumped into a corpse. Desperately, he turned it over, fingers scrabbling over the body, seeking the belt. Where the hell was it? And bugger that—where was the bloody sword? Daggers? He had to find something or else he'd find his head rolling on the forest floor.

Around him, horses whinnied, hounds howled, and men shouted to one another over the din of battle, their words lost among the screech of metal on metal and the screams and moans of the wounded and dying. A wind picked up and blew through the woods, throwing up leaves from the ground, plastering his sweat-dampened hair to his forehead. He welcomed the breeze, but...

Nothing. There was nothing. The man must've been looted already. Talden shoved the corpse away. Damn it all to hell, he was going to die. He squinted and crawled towards another dark shape.

Pain erupted in his left calf.

Shitfuckcrap by the bloody Light what the hell? Eyesight foggy from the agony, he reached back to feel the bolt that jutted from his flesh. Warm blood trickled from the leg. The archers, he thought. The damn archers can't fucking aim.

Then something grabbed his ankle and crushed it. He glanced over his shoulder. It was the orc that he had killed—but wait. Had he killed it? He couldn't remember, couldn't even think. Ice-cold fire spread from his calf and pulsed through his veins. And the orc—it was dragging itself along the ground and pulling him closer. He reached for something to hold on to, but only found clumps of dirt. Needles and stones and twigs stabbed into his hands. He flipped over onto his back somehow, kicked the beast in the face, kicked it again and again and again. But somehow its hands were almost at his throat and now its foul breath washed over his face and, Light save him, he really was going to die, wasn't he?

Fingers closed over his windpipe and squeezed. Talden fought for a breath, wheezing. The world blurred, shrank until all he could feel was the hand on his neck and the burning pain in his leg. He vaguely registered that the shaft must have gone all the way through since he was lying flat on the ground, and when a shrill scream split the air, he barely noticed. Grom Hellscream, he thought hazily.There was a rushing sound in his ears now like the torrent of a cataract. A black haze crept over his vision, shrouded it, drowned him in shadows while his lungs screamed for air.

When he woke, it was to an excruciating pain in his lower leg. He tried to scream, but someone had put a scrap of leather between his teeth, and he bit down on it instead. The bitter stink of alcohol wafted over him. Strong arms were holding him down, restraining him as someone tugged viciously at the embedded arrow and poured a warm liquid over it. A mist of tears welled up in his eyes as the alcohol stung the wound—and then he felt the flesh part; the arrowhead came free. A gush of warm blood poured out. A fresh wave of dizziness swept over him.

"Keep him down! Staunch the bleeding!"

"'urry up or we'll lose 'im, dammit!"

"Got it, hold him still. He'll jump at this," and a piece of hot iron was pressed into the wound.

He grunted and cried and pounded his fist into the ground, and when he could no longer control himself, he screamed – screamed until his throat was raw. The reek of burning flesh made him want to vomit, but there was nothing for his stomach to reject and in the end, darkness reclaimed him.

When next he regained consciousness, someone was splashing cold water all over his face. Snarling, Talden opened his eyes and sat bolt upright. A red-hot lance of pain shot up his leg.

Darrick the surgeon, sitting beside him, raised an eyebrow and held up the waterskin.

"Yes, damn you, give it to me," Talden said, his voice scratchy and hoarse. He gritted his teeth. "Is that water or wine?"

"Water, and be glad with it; the wine'd probably taste like horse piss. But it's good to see your manners have improved, Talden."

"Aye, no problem." He snatched the skin from Darrick's fingers and drained it, nearly choking as he did so: Swallowing was painful. When he set the skin aside, a set of coughs wracked his body.

"All right there?"

"Yeah." Talden took another swallow with more care. "What happened while I was sleeping like a bloody wench after a good fuck?"

"The orcs threw in the white flag," Darrick said. Talden glanced up, surprised. A cut above Darrick's right eye was oozing dark blood, and his greasy hair was damp with sweat, but otherwise he was unharmed. The surgeon's hands shook.

"Surrendered?" Talden said. Another cough shook him. He handed the skin back to the surgeon. "Just like that? Damn polite brutes, aren't they? Couldn't have just surrendered at the beginning and save us the trouble, save me this leg?" He patted his calf and regretted it as soon as he touched it.

"Yeah, well—Hellscream called 'em off." Darrick shrugged. "I can't say much 'bout it myself. Mighty strange, I tell you. But I've got to treat the rest now. Not much time for talk. You'll be fine, young and healthy as you are," and with a final pat, Darrick moved off to help another man with a burned arm. From the looks of the blackened skin, the man had fallen into the campfire. Not unlike his own close call. In that case, perhaps the Light had been feeling a tiny bit generous today…

The poultice Darrick had applied to his leg burned beneath the bindings, and his tongue worked on a tooth that had been knocked loose during the battle. Standing was difficult; his attempts were all rewarded with throbs that threatened to send him spinning back to oblivion, but clenching his jaw, he somehow managed to struggle up and limp over to a solid-looking tree. Never mind the fact that swords and axes had marred the bark, letting the sticky pine resin ooze out. Never mind that. He leaned against it, chest heaving for breath, taking in the spicy-sweet aroma of the resin as his legs shook beneath him. But damn it all if he wasn't better off than the dead that surrounded him.

Corpses littered the dark earth, their blood seeping slowly into the dirt. Dull eyes gazed away into infinity, and slack mouths opened wide. Flies were already gathering for the feast. Talden slapped at one that landed on his arm and brushed away the dead insect.

The men healthy enough to walk were digging a mass grave for the fallen while others stoked up the fire and tossed in the bodies of slain orcs. Even in death, they looked monstrous with their jade-green skin, piggish eyes, and protruding jaws. As he looked on, four men dragged a body closer to the flames and heaved it in. The embers drifted higher and higher and higher into a sky studded with pale stars. Spinning, whirling, dancing sparks. He averted his gaze, lightheaded. The acrid smoke made his eyes water. He blinked away the tears.

Across the camp, the remaining orcs—excepting one that could only be Hellscream— were chained together a fair distance from the hobbled horses, but the animals continued to toss their heads nervously. No surprise there—the horses were always skittish—but... Wait. What was that?

Squinting, Talden could see that the chains were thin and rusted, some of the links close to breaking. He found Kurt talking with a group of men near the fire, but the man didn't appear to be the slightest bit worried. A twinge of bitterness traveled through him: Thaelin would've made sure the captives were secure, he would've seen that everyone was fine before moving off to the side to discuss bloody politics – and he should've been the one in command of this group. Then nothing would've gone wrong...

They broke camp some hours later when the grave was refilled and the fire put out, leaving only a smoking heap of charred bones and twisted metal. Amazingly, Talden climbed atop a horse without any help, though he held on to the reins tightly with one hand, head swimming. His leg felt as if a dagger were stuck in it; he peered down and took in the red stain growing on the bandages without astonishment. Darrick hadn't cauterized it properly. It'd be a wonder if he made it back without crashing to the ground and getting trampled beneath iron-shod hooves.

The gelding's gait proved smooth, however, and a man later grabbed the reins and led the horse over even ground, which helped. Nevertheless, every footfall sent a stab of pain through his leg. He suffered through it in silence, determined not to cry out if only because of his damned pride. And besides: he was lucky. Other men, wounded and untouched both, had to walk. Many of the horses had been slaughtered before they left. He had seen his own rouncey being put down with a knife to her throat; she had broken a leg after he had been unhorsed, and a lame horse was of no use to anyone. Still, the fact that someone else had killed his horse rankled him; he should've been the one to set her to rest.

He dozed in the saddle, half-asleep and half-awake. When they finally reached the internment camp—the last standing internment camp near Durnholde Keep—the stars overheard were dying away into a sky streaked with pale blue, gold, and rose. Kurt, riding at the head of the column, put a warhorn to his lips. Two sharp blasts sounded out, loud and shrill. The great oaken doors before them swung inwards with a creak and a whoosh, and in they rode, hooves clattering against the stone and leather boots scraping the courtyard floor.

When they stopped, it took all of Talden's strength to keep from toppling off his gelding. A fever had swept over him during the ride—but dismounting was the true trial. As soon as he attempted to stand, his leg almost crumpled beneath him. Stiff and inflamed, the limb responded to the slightest pressure with agonizing pain. But— and he didn't know how—he managed to hobble over to the wall, which he used as a buttress to watch the chaos from a safe distance.

Young boys milled about in the mass of riders, leading the horses away by the reins to be watered down and groomed in the stables while the orcs were prodded towards the jailhouse. Less than a score of them had survived. From where Talden stood, he saw Kurt wheel his courser around to observe the disorganized procession.

"Alan? You here? Where are you?" Kurt said.

"No need to shout. There's enough noise as it is, and I can hear you perfectly fine. How many wounded?" The voice sounded familiar to Talden's feverish mind, but he couldn't place it. Then it clicked into place: the priest. He could finally have his leg seen to by a professional.

"No more than a score, most with minor injuries. Tend to them—I need to speak with the captain." Kurt slid off his courser and handed the reins to an eager stableboy.

"In his chambers poring over some old maps, I should think."

Kurt patted his horse on the rump and nodded before leaving, cloak sweeping behind him. Within moments, the priest came into view.

Alan wasn't a true priest—not at all, though most of the garrison had named him one years ago after he had brought a man back from the brink of death, a feat that a traveling cleric had termed a miracle. Thin and lanky, he wore long and unadorned white robes that contrasted sharply with his dark hair and eyes, and in his thin hand a leather valise swung. An assistant plodded along behind him, carrying other medical supplies which would surely be more effective than the improvised ones Darrick had used on the battlefield.

As Alan and his assistant bent over a wounded man left in the courtyard, Talden caught a few words that floated over: "…inflamed…wonder…not dead…poultice…poisonous…"

A grimace spread across Talden's features. He sank to the dusty ground, wondering how long Darrick would still be employed as the army's field surgeon after this skirmish.

He was the last to be treated. After having bound the rest of the men up tight and good with a command to get some sleep before sending them off, Alan approached him, knelt, inserted a cold knife beneath the bindings, and cut them off. A hiss escaped Darrick's mouth.

Looking down at his leg, Talden could understand why. He swallowed. Pus and blood oozed through the rather nasty-looking hole in his calf where the arrow had passed through both meat and muscle. The skin surrounding the injury had a sickly sheen to it. Some of the tissue was blackened. He heard Alan cluck in disapproval.

"Not even cauterized properly. Will, hand me the liferoot and then hurry off to get a crutch from my chamber," Alan said. The harried assistant pulled a withered brown root from his bag, which Alan commenced to mash up with a mortar and a pestle while the young man ran off. Talden looked away, his stomach roiling.

Then more pain flared up in his leg as the man crammed the paste into his wound and wrapped a clean white linen bandage around it, tightening it until Talden was sure his circulation had been cut off. He grunted. "Yeah, that's tight enough."

A snort from the priest, and then they waited in silence.

"There he is," Alan said in satisfaction as Will materialized out of nowhere with a crutch in his hand. The lad was panting. "Now, no pressure on the leg, and don't take the bandages off. Let the herb work its magic. You should be better in a few weeks provided you don't do anything stupid," the priest said. And then he packed everything back into his suitcase and scooted off, Will shooting Talden a long-suffering look as he followed his master.

Talden groaned. Time to get moving. Using the wall as a support, he helped himself upright and proceeded for the mess, the crutch under his left arm digging into his armpit. But he made it to the hall without worsening his injury or letting more than a few swears pass his lips.

Late for breakfast, there were plenty of empty seats scattered around the room. He sat down on the closest bench and called for a serving girl. She appeared with a tankard of ale and some bread, cheese, and meat, which he wolfed down; he hadn't eaten since late last night, before that travesty of an ambush.

In the middle of his meal, sounds outside made him glance up at the door. Three men entered the room, all of them well-rested and healthy. They were chattering about something as they seated themselves near Talden, the subject of their conversation easy to pick out in the empty hall. He listened as he drank.

"—heard that somethin' ill took the other group."

"Standin' outside the captain's room again, eh?"

"Reckon he'll rip off your ears when he finds out."

"Eh, y'guys know he's merciful, he is. But, I heard that Kurt talkin' with him 'bout not bringin' back t'others. Thaelin and his lads, y'know. They disappeared right off, and he couldn't find 'em."

Talden put down his tankard. Thaelin was missing? But hadn't Kurt told them that he had ridden back and was likely on another scouting mission for the camp? Hadn't he told them? What if he had been lying? What the hell was going on? He squeezed his eyes shut and recalled the night before:

"I'll be off to find Thaelin. You men stay tight. Warren, you're in command 'til I'm back," and then Kurt slipped away into the darkness between the trees, his hand ready on his sword.

"Probably just needs to take a piss and doesn't want the rest o' us see the size o' his cock," someone joked as soon as Kurt disappeared. A cruel jape. Talden grinned. "'Sides—"

"Silence," Warren hissed, "unless you want the monsters to find us."

Talden leaned closer to his rouncey, whispered a few sweet words into her ear, patted her neck, and continued holding the bag of herbs to her nose. Bugger all this sneaking around; he was tired of it. His arm ached from the strain of having held the pouch in a single position for what seemed like hours, and he wasn't the only one feeling mutinous about it. Despite Warren's warning, whispers floated among the riders.

It felt like another hour before Kurt reappeared, a troubled expression on his face.

"He and his men're tired. They'll be headin' back to the camp; they need their sleep. Come next morning, they're to do another round through the villages. Anyways, we have enough men to take the greenskins. Mount up, lads."

He was snapped out of his reverie by the sound of someone snapping in his ear. He opened his eyes and glared at the man. "Hey, you. Weren't you one of them ambushers? Seen Thaelin lately?"

"No, I haven't – and leave me the fucking well alone," Talden snarled. He drained the rest of the ale, slammed down the tankard, and departed from the mess hall before they could interrogate him any further. He heard curses as he left and could imagine them shooting dark glares at his back, but he didn't care.

The sky outside was dark, and a warm wind wound its way through the internment camp. A bank of grey storm clouds had rolled over the sun. Talden shivered and limped towards the jailhouse, the crutch helping him along.

He meant to find out what had happened to his brother.