Chapter 3 – 996 NE, Fall

The Warder's skin itched. Shadowspawn were nearby. This close to the Blight that wasn't a profound revelation. Pulling his cloak tighter around him, the Warder maintained his scan of the tree line. The villagers had cut trees down for 400 paces to the north and west. Someone had had the good sense to use the lumber to build a palisade and a muddy, stake-lined moat around the north and west sides of the village. The Warder admired the villagers a little. They were stupid for living this close to the Blight, but at least they had picked a secure location to place the village. The River Mora passed south and east of the village. Knowing Shadowspawn's dislike of crossing water the location served a dual purpose. The river protected the village on two fronts and limited the directions from which an attack could come.

Tamsin Sedai and the Warder had stayed at the village all summer and planned to stay through the winter. The village had weathered several Trolloc raids already. Tamsin Sedai had her hands full healing villagers injured trying to prevent Trollocs from climbing the palisade. Her Yellow Ajah sensibilities found the task of alternating between scolding the Arafellins for their stubbornness and healing them of their wounds a fulfilling task. Bogdan found it tedious.

Bogdan knew he didn't need to warn Tamsin of the Shadowspawn. She could feel their presence just as he could. Her cavalier attitude toward the danger irked him severely. So did the feeling of smug satisfaction he felt coming from Tamsin through their bond. She knew he disliked the situation, and she loved every second he spent irritated. The Warder's sharp eyes picked out movement in the tree line. The Warder didn't move. He waited for a villager to pass by. The unsuspecting victim was a boy of around 11-years of age. The Warder caught the boy by the arm in a grip like iron. The lad jumped like a spooked rabbit and his eyes as big as tea cups. Bogdan knew the boy hadn't seen him, not with his Warder's cloak. It was a mean trick but a Warder had few opportunities for entertainment.

"Boy, go tell your village leaders the Trollocs prepare another charge. I want archers at the palisades before I find you again." The Warder let loose the boy's arm. The Warder wasn't sure but he thought the boy may have given him a small nod before running off. Bogdan sensed Tamsin's frustration at his own mirth. Thank the Light for small victories.

The villagers quickly formed ranks of archers behind the palisade. A rank of spearman stood behind the archers, ready to step and repel the Trollocs that reached the palisade. Not for the first time the Warder wondered where their reinforcements were. He had sent riders to Shol Arbela periodically for weeks with no response. Either the riders weren't getting past the Trollocs or this was much worse than simple raid. After months of skirmishes Bogdan was starting to lean toward the latter. He walked along the ranks of villagers, finding them anxious but confident. Though the Trolloc numbers had steadily increased the villagers had held out. They knew they were getting the better of this fight. There was not a soldier among them, but every villager was a Borderlander at heart. Here and there Bogdan found a youth more nervous than the rest, bow held in a white knuckled hand. The Warder did what he could to shore up their spirit. A firm hand on a shoulder and light hearted comment here and there could make all the difference in battle.

Bogdan had nearly completed his third circuit of the ranks when the dissonant cries of Trolloc war horns split the air, the sound causing Bogdan's teeth to grind. Myrddraal on black horses trotted out of the tree line, stopping short of the villager's bow range. Five Myrddraal. Bogdan's insides began to knot. There could be a thousand Trollocs hidden in the forest, maybe more. Too many for the villagers to handle. The Warder had never heard of a force this large outside the Blight. Light help us.

The charge came on the heels of a shouted order by one of the Myrddraal. Arrows loosed immediately and lightening flashed. Trollocs were fast. The lead ranks of the Shadowspawn ran headlong into the first volley. The Trollocs that fell or slowed were trampled by those behind. Two more volleys slammed into the Trollocs before the creatures hurled themselves into the moat. Soon the muddy ditch was filled with Trollocs thrashing on the spikes that pierced their bodies, but still the Trollocs came. The horde slammed against the palisade, shaking the ground. Chips flew amidst the sounds of splintering wood as Trolloc axes attacked the palisade. Villagers rushed to fit spears, forks, and blades through gaps in the palisade to strike at the wall of black chainmail beyond.

Screams and howls erupted from the Trolloc ranks. The mass of Trollocs at the palisade suddenly seemed less solid. Needing a better view of the battlefield Bogdan made for the nearest building and was pleased to find archers on the roof. A helping hand and a little scrambling put the Warder in position to see the most spectacular sight. Nearly a quarter of the Trollocs at the palisade were on the ground convulsing. Beyond one Myrddraal thrashed upon the ground, a lance protruding from its chest. The headless body of another Myrddraal bounced behind its fleeing horse, the Halfman's armored boot caught in a stirrup. The three remaining Myrddraal were attempting to engage a lone rider whose horse deftly maneuvered out of sword range anytime more than one Myrddraal got close. The rider was armored in a burnished breastplate and steel-barred helmet over a red uniform. An Andoran? What in the Light is the bloody Queen's Guard doing in Arafel?

Bogdan couldn't believe his eyes. The Andoran was a large man with long arms. He used the nimbleness of his horse and his reach against the Myrddraal, staying out of reach of the Halfmen's black blades while making quick cuts and thrusts to Myrddraal and horse alike. One of the Myrddraal charged in and attempted a killing blow with a vicious overhand slash. The Andoran's horse took one quick step toward the Myrddraal and with a flick of his wrist the man took the Halfman's arm off at the elbow. This man must be fearless!

Tarin's heart beat so hard and fast he feared it might explode before the Myrddraal had the chance to cut it out. Sweat stung his eyes and his stomach threatened to fill his helmet with sick. Creator save me.

Weeks of hard riding had taken Tarin from the familiar streets of Caemlyn to the northern territories of Arafel. After years of sifting through rumors about the disappearance of his father Tarin had found a credible tale of Luc Mantear attempting to cross the Mountains of Dhoom directly south of Shayol Ghul. The Arafellin merchant had thought the Andoran prince intended to make for Shayol Ghul by the shortest route possible. Bells rang as the Arafellin vigorously described how a Lord Luc had visited an inn in Shol Arbela. This Lord Luc claimed an Aes Sedai had predicted he'd find glory in the Blight, which he intended to find on the slopes of Shayol Ghul amongst the strewn bodies of Shadowspawn.

Tarin never thought he'd find his father, but maybe there was a chance he could learn of his father's fate. That quest was always going to take Tarin into the Blight. He had tried to steel himself against whatever he might find there, but he had not expected to run into Trollocs and Fades south of the Blight. Even this close to the Blight with Borderlanders' tales ringing in his head he hadn't been sure they even existed.

The Trollocs and Fades were attacking what appeared to be a small fort on a river bank. The Fades were in the rear staying out of bow range. Fire and earth erupted from within the Trolloc horde. Thank the Light, an Aes Sedai! Some Trollocs attempted to flee but one of the Fades rode forth and chased them back to the fight. When that Fade turns around they'll all know I'm here. Tarin heeled his horse into a sprint.

As he neared the Fades Tarin lowered the point of his lance and cried, "Moridin! Dyu ninte concion ca'lyet ye!" The nearest Fade's sword appeared in its hand faster than Tarin's eyes could follow. As the creature's horse turned to face this new enemy the Fade's gaze swept over Tarin. Tarin's breath froze. His thoughts shattered as he saw the face of a Myrddraal for the first time. No eyes! How can it not have eyes? Chance brought the point of Tarin's lance into the Fade's chest as much as skill or intention. The Fade tipped off the back of its horse and Tarin's lance broke under the strain. The shower of splinters snapped Tarin back to reality. In an instant his heron-marked sword was in his hand. An elegant weapon with a long curving blade, sharpened on one side. He lashed out and felt the slightest resistance as the blade severed the head of the next Fade, then he was turning away and creating distance between him and the others.

Tarin had the best trained horse in Andor, maybe the Westlands. He'd paid a king's ransom for the fastest mare in Tear. Wind Dancer, he named her. Tarin had taught her to respond to the slightest pressure from knee, calf, or heel. While other mounted warriors preferred stallions that charged into their enemies kicking and biting, Tarin's horse danced circles around the heavier horses of his enemies. Horse and rider acted as one. Wind Dancer leapt forward as Tarin exchanged cuts and thrusts with the Fades and danced away whenever more than one got close. The Fades were fast as vipers and every time Tarin checked a blow by one of those black swords the impact threatened to tear his sword from his grasp. For a moment fear crept back. Surprise was no longer on his side and Wind Dancer would tire if she kept this up much longer. One Fade suddenly charged forward, its sword high overhead to deliver a powerful blow. A twitch of Tarin's knee brought Wind Dancer a half step closer to the Fade as he brought his sword up to block. The blade caught the Fade right behind its elbow, arm and sword alike fell to the ground. Another stroke and the Fades' head nearly toppled off.

Tarin raced away from the two remaining Fades and whipped Wind Dancer around to face his enemies. Behind the Fades he saw the Trolloc horde in chaos. Most were dead or dying on the ground, the others scattering. Light flashed nearby and a roar like thunder rattled Tarin's teeth. Wind Dancer nearly threw him from the saddle as she started from the blast, and Tarin instinctively threw an arm over his eyes as pieces of Fade began falling around him. One left. Attack! Prepared to heel Wind Dancer forward Tarin lowered his arm. The Fade was nearly on him. The sword stroke would have cloven Tarin in two, but as the Fade made the strike Wind Dancer reared. Tarin watched the blade bury deep into her neck as he slid off the back of his saddle. He rolled away from his dying horse and brought his sword to bear expecting the Fade to charge once again. Instead he was shocked to see the Fade fleeing for the forest, its sword stuck fast in Wind Dancer's neck.

Tarin slowly regained his feet as he watched the Fade fleeing. The Fade seemed to vanish the instant it reached the shadows of the tree line. The remaining Fades thrashed on the ground nearby. None made to stand or attack and Tarin believed them to be dead or dying. Turning back to the village Tarin found himself staring into the eyes of a Trolloc only ten paces away. The creature held a crude bow at full draw, a viciously tipped arrow nearly as large as a small spear pointed directly at Tarin. The bow made a heavy sounding twang as the Trolloc released the arrow. Tarin brought his blade up in a sweeping block but too late. His backplate must have stopped the arrow. A full pace of arrow shaft wide as his thumb protruded from under his collar bone. Tarin's chin came to rest on the shaft when he looked down. He coughed into his hand. Foaming pink spittle covered the palm of his glove. Tarin was vaguely aware of the Trolloc knocking another arrow.

Tarin smiled and managed a few last words between gurgling breathes, "Moridin, dyu ninte concion ca'lyet ye." Gathering the last of his strength he sprinted toward the Trolloc just as the beast started to draw its bow once again. The Trolloc arrow in his chest almost caught Tarin's blade as he slid through The Heron Spreads Its Wings. The Trolloc's bow split in half and a spray of hot dark blood covered Tarin as the creature fell to the ground.

Tarin collapsed atop the Trolloc.

Bogdan saw the Trolloc ranks begin to break as the third Myrddraal fell to the mystery warrior. The Warder dropped from the roof and cried, "Prepare to open the gates!" With a sharp whistle the Warder's heavyset stallion came running. Before Bogdan could get his foot in his stirrup Tamsin caught his arm.

"You bloody ox of a thimble-brained man. Where do you think you're going?"

Bogdan jerked his arm free. "For a stroll," he replied. Before the Aes Sedai could respond the Warder was in his saddle and spurring toward the gate. The stallion reached full sprint before making the gate. The villagers guarding the gate had barely opened the doors far enough for a rider to get through when Bogdan reached the opening. He charged through sword in hand. Trollocs fell left and right as he chopped his way free of the mass near the palisade. Leaping the moat he pulled hard on the stallion's reins and turned the beast toward the lone warrior. He nearly lost his mount as the stallion stumbled over the arrow-ridden body of a Trolloc.

Through his bond Bogdan felt Tamsin Sedai's frustration vanish in a wave of determination and concentration. Ahead one of the Myrddraal exploded under the force of a lightning strike, pieces flying in all directions. In the same instant the other Myrddraal sprang forward and nearly took the head off the lone warrior's mount. The blade must have lodged in the horse's spine because the Myrddraal let the blade go and spurred his horse toward the safety of the trees. Trollocs were fleeing in all directions. Bogdan watched in horror as one of the Shadowspawn, still a hundred paces from the warrior, raised its bow and fired an arrow into the warrior's chest from point-blank range.

The Warder's roar was wordless and guttural. He spurred his stallion faster but the horse was already giving everything he had. To Bogdan's amazement the warrior was able to close the distance to the Trolloc. He recognized The Heron Spreads Its Wings as the warrior cut down the Trolloc before collapsing.

Tarin was waiting for death to take him when a figure appeared above. The figure's face was shadowed and its body seemed to fade into the sky above. "Are you the Creator?" Tarin asked. The figure knelt and Tarin was sure he heard music somewhere in the distance ringing like a thousand tiny bells.

"No," answered a voice thick with the accent of Arafel.

Tarin felt himself floating into the sky, the slightest sensation of arms lifting him. Vaguely he was aware of coming to rest with something under him. A horse he thought. Wind Dancer? No, he thought. She's gone now.

"A heron-marked blade is an excellent weapon for fighting Myrddraal," the mysterious figure stated. "Bloody useless against archers. You should get yourself a shield."

998 NE, Adar 19th

The men of the Queen's Guard broke camp an hour before dawn. The eastern sky showed only the faintest hint of grey light when the column took to the road again. The men had picked up on Tarin's mood. The specifics of their mission were still a secret to them, but they knew now that it was serious. Their procession was somber. Tarin picked up on a feeling of resignation coming from the men. They realized fighting was possible now and were prepared to die for Queen and Andor. Tarin hoped that would not be necessary.

The sun had barely cleared the horizon when Market Sheran came into view. Every surface glittered like diamonds in the morning light. Tarin couldn't remember seeing frost this late in the year. Spring was too long coming, but that was not his concern. Market Sheran was too quiet.

Most people would just be waking at this hour, but some should already be up and starting chores. The sound of swords loosening in scabbards told Tarin his men had noticed as well. "Bogdan, take four men and take the right. Under- Lieutenant Oren, take four men and the left. Engage only if attacked first and avoid killing if at all possible. I want to know what's wrong here."

The remaining men tightened up formation behind Tarin, no longer a column but a narrow wedge. Tarin's shield hung slung across his back. The shield was large but not overly heavy. A smaller man would have trouble using the shield for any significant amount of time, but to Tarin the weight felt natural. The shield was as wide as his sword was long, slightly concave, and built from strips of wood as wide as his thumb plated with a thin layer of steel bearing the Anvil of House Mantear. The size and shape of the shield made swordplay somewhat awkward and was not nearly as useful as the more popular heater and kite shields for swordplay. However, it provided great defense and total cover from melee or ranged attack. The shield was certainly more useful for stopping arrows than a sword.

With a deep breath Tarin heeled his horse and led the way into town. No whispers floated out from windows. No shutters opened or closed. No faces peered from windows, and no guards came running to challenge them. The village seemed dead. What happened to everyone coming to see the False Dragon, Tarin wondered. There should be some sign of life. Tarin spotted the village inn and scowled. A dark Dragon's Fang adorned the door. He reined up short of the building and dismounted. He handed the reins to the Guardsman behind him and strode to the door. Four loud bangs with a gauntleted fist announced his arrival. Stepping back he placed his hand on the hilt of his longsword and prepared for whatever might be coming.

The door opened just far enough for a man to peer out. His hair was unkempt and he wore a worried, almost fearful, expression. When he saw his visitor wore the uniform of the Queen's Guard the man's demeanor lightened noticeably. The door opened fully and a stout, jowly innkeeper wearing a white apron emerged. He smiled amiably enough but wrung his hands nervously and seemed poised to duck back inside the inn at a moment's notice. He eyed the three golden knots on Tarin's armor as though unsure what they meant. "Lieutenant? How may I be of service?"

Tarin sighed. "It's captain. My lord will suffice. I don't care which. What happened here? I don't have much time. Answer quickly and tell me everything."

"Darkfriends, my lord." The innkeeper seemed to almost gag on the word. Tarin had no doubt the innkeeper believed what he said. "Two days past we had visitors in the inn. A young man entered and began questioning them. He called himself Paitr, but I don't think that's his real name. Anyway, it wasn't just a few moments before one of my guests – a lanky brown haired boy, seemed like he mighten have got into his cups the night before - accused this Paitr of being a Darkfriend. I thought for sure they were all going to pull knives and have at it, my lord. They argued for a moment. I heard them mention Four Kings I did. The lanky fellow and his friend – a tall red-haired boy – tried to leave and this Paitr tried to stop them. They had a small scuffle and the two boys ran out of the inn, Paitr shouting behind them about 'the Great Lord of the Dark is stronger and the Shadow swallow you all' or some such. Scared me right to my bones it did. The town hasn't been the same since. That night someone scrawled this," he nodded toward the Dragon's Fang, "on my door. Haven't had a customer since. Tried to scrub it off I did, but nothing I tried worked. Gonna have to replace the whole door, my lord."

When he was done the innkeeper looked as though he'd just run a mile. Sweat soaked his shirt and his breathing came in heavy rasps. Tarin handed the man a few coins from his pouch without bothering to check what he grabbed. The pouch contained silver and gold. From the look on the innkeeper's face it was enough to cover the cost of a door, two days of lost custom, and a deal more as well. "I can spare some men to keep the peace."

"Thank the Light, my lord."

Tarin mounted his horse and called, "Outriders! To me!" Bogdan and Oren approached from the fringes of the town, their men trailing behind. "Under-Lieutenant Oren, you are to remain here with your men for two days then continue east and try to catch us. We shouldn't be hard to catch. I'll give you some gold. Ride hard and purchase fresh horses if necessary."

The young Guardsman acknowledged the order with a salute then ordered the innkeeper to stable his men's horses and prepare a meal. That one will be a captain one day. Tarin was sure of it. Tarin raised his voice to command volume and ordered, "Guardsman, form column." Without waiting for acknowledgement or action he heeled his horse east. Before they exited the village the remaining Guardsman were in perfect formation.

Market Sheran was still within bow range behind them when Tarin faced Bogdan. "I have orders you will like. Take off that burnished armor and gaudy red undercoat. I want you in woolens, leathers, and that cloak of yours riding scout for us. One of the men can pack your uniform for now."

The Arafellin grinned at the order. "Aye, Captain. What should I keep an eye out for? Darkfriends? Whitecloaks?" The emphasis he placed on Whitecloaks told how much he hoped for the later.

"You remember that wagon yesterday? You thought the boy in the back was an Aielman." The man nodded. "I think those two boys have Darkfriends chasing them. The innkeeper described two boys very much like them having an encounter with a Darkfriend named Paitr in his common room. That's what had the town on edge."

"Blood and bloody ashes. I'll get to it, Captain." Suddenly the man had the look of a Warder again. He hadn't even unclasped his breastplate yet but there it was. The anger and vengefulness Bogdan had worn on his sleeve since Caemlyn was replaced by a calm, cool confidence. He was no longer the smoldering coal but something more akin to a steel-tipped arrow on a taunt bow string. All he needed was a target.

"Bogdan, I know the bond is broken, but do you still have the gifts?"

"They fade, Captain, but yes."

"Stay out tonight. Once we make camp I want you to circle outward from the camp. Avoid any farms or villages. Go as far as you can but be back before we break camp." The Warder's gaze seemed to measure Tarin and his words both. Tarin couldn't tell what the man was thinking at all, but Tarin thought he detected the slightest expression of concern. The Warder nodded. Moments later a man in a color-shifting cloak vanished into the wilderness north of the road. It may have been his imagination but Tarin thought the mood of the Queen's Guards eased just a little. Tarin had to admit, having a Warder for your scout certainly boosted one's confidence.