The opening chapter in my debut fantasy novel, The Rise of Kings; the first in the Flameweaver's Prophecy series.
The world had changed, he thought, wrenching his sword from the chest of the last of the raiders. Since he was a child, at least. He wiped the flat of the blade on the dead man’s tattered and filthy shirt, cleaning the blood from each side. Death hung like a pall over all of Banmer. The eastern Tribes tore at eachother with a ferocity absent for decades; the Free Cities in the west were beset by clans of bandits, while the nomads of the Blacksand Desert grew ever bolder in their raids of the southern lands. And now the Vahc hordes had descended upon Alloria in numbers that had never been seen before.
Sheathing the steel weapon he stood upright and looked around. Two thousand of the Vahc raiders lay dead and dying about him, their faces concealed by the hoods they wore in battle. Those that still lived were being mercilessly butchered by the survivors of the Ninth Legion. Screams and pleas filled the endless, unclouded sky as the sun began to bake the bodies beneath it, and carrion birds patiently circled above.
‘Lieutenant Galarus,’ a voice called from behind him. ‘Over here.’
He turned toward the speaker. He was still unused to the title. A swordsman, blood dripping from a shallow cut across his forearm, beckoned him over. Behind the soldier, to the west of the carcass-littered battlefield, lay the smoldering remains of a small village; buildings blackened by fire, and short narrow streets smeared with the blood of its inhabitants.
Galarus grimaced as he passed, the stench of burning flesh seeping into his nose until the taste seemed to sit like a weight upon his tongue. They had arrived too late. Far too late for others, but it was galling how close they had come to sparing this village from the tragedies that had befallen those further east.
He had been sent, with the Ninth, to the western coast of the Inner Sea, which bordered the southernmost stretches of Alloria, to investigate reports of a Vahc raiding party numbering in the hundreds. Even the tracks they had found had belied the true size of the force they had eventually encountered. He had, at first protested against his orders. After all, what were several hundred Vahc worth when compared to the six thousand that had marched into central Vinnah not two days before?
Six thousand, Galarus repeated the number in his head. And all behind one man: Desturum the Malign.
It had been a week now since the Vahc warlord had led his men from the Wastes of southern Banmer into Alloria, headed, it had been supposed, toward the capital, Caldoa. Galarus, though it pained him to admit it to even himself, was impressed by the feat. The Vahc were and always had been divided into warring factions, concerned only with violence and plunder. But Desturum had changed that. Rumour had it he had defeated twenty faction chiefs in single combat to unite the Vahc as he had done. The young lieutenant understood that rumours very rarely reflect the truth, though in the case of the Malign, this number could well have been accurate.
‘Just down there, sir,’ the swordsman directed his superior toward the small, central square of the village.
Here, bodies of dead raiders lay scattered about; men who, having accepted their defeat in battle, had returned to the village to loot what they could before retreating south. Galarus had sent his men after them, but a number, no more than twenty or thirty he guessed, had managed to escape.
In the north-west corner of the square, a handful of his men stood, weapons sheathed but shields raised, in a semi-circle. The lieutenant saw the flash of a sword blade beyond them, and caught a glimpse of the small figure wielding it.
‘Back away,’ he ordered his men as he approached, and they did so, shields still held in front of them. He strode into the semi-circle to see a young boy, no more than fourteen by the looks of him, with mousy blonde hair and a blood-drenched Vahc blade in his right hand.
The sword came up as Galarus neared, and the lieutenant halted, raising his hands to show he was unarmed.
‘It’s okay, lad,’ he said, reassuringly. ‘They’re gone.’
The boy seemed unconvinced, but the blade lowered ever so slightly.
‘My name is Arkus Galarus, commander of the Ninth Legion,’ he introduced himself. ‘No one here will hurt you. You have my word on that.’
‘Galarus?’ the boy replied. ‘Like the General?’ The sword had dropped to his side completely now.
Galarus nodded. ‘He’s my father.’
There was a loud clatter as the blade hit the cobbled stone at his feet, and the boy collapsed to his knees. Galarus darted forward to catch him before his face hit the ground. His thin, exhausted frame was wracked with quiet sobs, as the lieutenant called two of his men forward.
‘Take him back to the supply wagons,’ he instructed them. ‘Give him food and water and somewhere to sleep.’
The soldiers nodded, and between them half carried the child out of the stinking wreckage of his village.
‘Nicely done, sir,’ came a gruff voice at the lieutenant’s shoulder. ‘Never did have a way with children myself.’
‘I don’t doubt that for a second, Placatas,’ the officer agreed with his friend.
The spearman, armour stained a steel crimson, moved to stand beside Galarus. He removed his helmet and ran a dirty hand through his greying hair. ‘No ordinary child that one though. I saw him kill three raiders on his own. Nearly a fourth, too, before they spotted us and ran. I can’t imagine they’ll get far. The last one had his face opened up by this thing.’ He nudged the bloodied Vahc blade the boy had carried with his boot.
‘Hmm,’ Galarus grunted, impressed but thinking, scratching at the lengthening beard of dark hair upon his chin as he did so. ‘How many did we lose?’ he asked finally.
‘About two hundred and twenty,’ Placatas replied, more somber now. ‘Another forty wounded. Most of the casualties were to the swordsmen and macemen. Only a handful of spearmen fell.’
Galarus nodded to show he’d heard, surprised, and yet grateful, that they had lost so few. The heavy armour of the spearmen had held up well, as well it should have done, against the poorly fashioned weapons of the horde, even despite the legionaries being outnumbered two to one.
‘Leave another forty here with supplies,’ he said. ‘Have them escort the survivors, ours and the village’s, back to Caldoa.’
‘Will do,’ Placatas agreed.
‘Did you find their dead?’ Galarus asked. He meant those that had fallen victim to the barbarities of the Vahc before the Ninth had arrived.
‘I did,’ Placatas replied shortly.
‘Do I want to see them?’
Placatas recalled the clouds of flies that hummed in the air about the door to the low, broad storehouse on the outskirts of the village, desperate to feast on the tortured flesh within. He forced bile back down his burning throat for what was more than the first time that day.
‘No,’ he replied sadly, in little more than a whisper.
Galarus looked at the spearman. He was some fourteen years Placatas’ junior, and the older man had seen a great number of the atrocities that war will always bring, but he had never looked so pale. If Placatas told him he did not want to see them, then he would not question him. ‘Have the men set up camp on the western side of the village. They can rest tonight. We march at dawn tomorrow.’
Placatas nodded, and left the lieutenant to his ruminations, his cold green eyes sweeping slowly over the charred nightmare before him.
The sun rose the following morning on the back of a slow breeze that teased the banks of ash into low, rippling waves across the flats of the once-prosperous Vinnah plains. The vineyards to the south of the village, the source of the region’s wealth, now lay in ruins, and Galarus stared out across them as he led the column of the remaining seven hundred soldiers of the Ninth westward. The loss would do little to dent the finances of Caldoa, but those that had survived would find no livelihood to return to once it was all over.
‘How far away do you think they are?’ Placatas asked.
Galarus shrugged. ‘Three days, perhaps.’ He wasn’t sure himself.
The remaining nine Caldoan Legions, under the command of General Raenan Galarus, had marched south from the capital with the intention of intercepting Desturum’s horde somewhere in central Vinnah. The lieutenant had sent a runner, a man named Balcon, one of the few surviving macemen of the Ninth, to his father as a messenger, informing him of the hugely underestimated raiding party and its destruction. If the bulk of the Vahc invasion had not already been defeated, what was left of the Ninth would no doubt be needed in the battle to come.
Two days passed slowly; the monotony of the green flatlands rolled out in every direction, while beautiful, became mind-numbing, and the horizon was rarely broken but for a handful of low hillocks, and a pair of villages half a day’s march apart.
‘This one’s deserted too,’ Placatas informed his lieutenant, relaying the message from the score of soldiers that had been sent to explore the small buildings of timber and thatch. ‘They must have fled north once the Vahc invaded. Shame those further east didn’t do the same.’ He lowered his head, remembering the scenes that had greeted the soldiers in the burnt-out settlements.
‘They thought they were safe,’ Galarus mused. ‘Desturum was headed for Caldoa. They had no reason to think there’d be another army. No one did.’
A shout went up from the northwest corner of the village, and the pair jogged quickly to the source. Balcon had returned, breathing heavily and doubled over, sipping, when he could, at water provided by a spearman stood next to him.
‘Lieu…lieutenant…’ he rasped, his throat dry and lungs on fire. ‘You are needed by the General. The…the horde was…pinned down…but a second Vahc force has moved up from the west…’ He took a large swig of water, only just managing to stand upright as he did so. ‘Your father is surrounded,’ he finished, gulping down air.
‘How far are we from the Legions?’ Galarus asked, unable to keep the urgency from his voice.
‘Half a day west along this road, and another half a day north-west off it,’ Balcon informed him.
‘Placatas,’ the lieutenant turned to the spearman, ‘find another runner to return to my father. Tell him we’ll be there by midday tomorrow.’
Placatas saluted and hurried off to find another suitable candidate.
‘You did well, Balcon; thank you,’ Galarus said earnestly as the maceman sank to the floor, his burning limbs unable to withstand his weight any longer.
The march from that point onwards was forced, and at as fast a pace as the lieutenant would expect from soldiers that had not just fought a battle two days prior. Driven by tortuous thoughts of the death and decimation of the General and his army, Galarus pushed his men to their limit, relenting only after the sun had fallen beyond a bank of bloody cloud in the west, and even then with reluctance.
That night he spent much of his time moving from group to group, enquiring after minor wounds he knew his men had suffered, and listening to the stories they told, of home or battle, it mattered little.
Placatas watched as his lieutenant moved on, remembering the names of each of the five soldiers huddled around a campfire. The young lad would do well, he thought. He had seen the resolve of older men fail in the face of smaller challenges, and for that Galarus had earned a great deal of respect amongst the Ninth. There were no tents built that night, on the lieutenant’s orders. Firstly, because a camp would take too much time to dismantle the following morning, and, secondly, because the supply wagons carrying the tents had fallen behind on the march. But none complained. The fires served to keep them warm, and their commander kept their spirits buoyed.
And Placatas was proud. Many had questioned the decision to make Galarus a lieutenant, young as he was; at nearly thirty he was the youngest of all ten officers leading the Legions. But the old spearman had had faith in him. He had served with Galarus since the lad had first enlisted at eighteen, and he was happy to serve under him still. He held out his weathered hands over the warmth of the small fire in front of him. He was tired, and the morning would bring challenges fresher than he.
The Ninth Legion was on the move before dawn, once more resuming their swift march westward, and it was a little before noon when the distant sounds of battle, the ring of steel and screams of the wounded, drifted toward them in snatches.
Galarus quickened his pace even more, and the Ninth rippled forward to keep time with him. The din of warfare grew clearer now; a low rise in the landscape all that separated them from the rest of the Legions. At the summit, as the Ninth fanned out along the ridge, the young lieutenant was confronted by the sight that had haunted his every waking moment. Below, on the plain, the armies of Caldoa and the Vahc had clashed, and it was the men of the Malign that looked to have the upper hand.
From what he could glean from the scene below, Galarus guessed that the Legions had met Desturum’s main force in a pitched battle, only to have been outflanked by the secondary invasion force, of which Balcon had informed them, forcing the General to divide his troops and fight on two fronts. The bodies of hundreds of legionaries littered the ground, their armour, muddied and bloodied, still shone like a steel blanket over the grasslands, and what was left of the ranks of the living had been buckled in several places.
As Galarus looked on, the Vahc warriors began to spill into the sides of the Caldoan formation, and their flanks began to give way under the pressure of the assault. Only a singular bulkhead remained in the centre, able to withstand the onslaught. There was little doubt in his mind that his father was rallying men to his side there, in a desperate attempt to break through the horde and turn the tide of battle.
Galarus roared, brandishing his spear in the air. What noise he made he was unsure, it was not words, but the war cry was taken up by the seven hundred soldiers about him as they sprinted down the rolling slope toward the enemy amassed below. They charged, with no regard for rank or order, and their bellows caught the attention of the Vahc on the edges of the conflict. The horde turned to meet them; they would not be enough to stop the rage and ferocity with which Galarus and his men threw themselves into the fight.
Almost hoarse from shouting, the lieutenant met the first of his enemies: a small man confidently wielding an axe. Galarus brought up his shield and ran through him, knocked him to the sodden ground and felt his boots crush over him. Placatas was at his side, and the legionaries of the Ninth slammed into the Vahc like a hammer blow. The speed of the charge carried them forward, through two ranks of the horde, flattening men with their shields. Galarus speared a second attacker in the face, and a third rose to meet him. Still running, the lieutenant swung his shield across his body, connecting with the assailant’s jaw and sending him reeling to the ground. His spear lodged in the torso of a fourth and he drew his sword, hacking maniacally at the press of bodies around him.
With the appearance of allies, cheers erupted from what was left of the Legions, and a fresh counterattack began. The Vahc, confident in their near-victory, were forced on to the back foot, as sword and spear and mace bit into their numbers, and the grass beneath them became sticky with the blood of their own.
Galarus and his men surged forward, heading for the very centre of the battle, where the fighting was hardest and numbers thickest. The flanks of the legionaries began to reform as the Vahc began to fall back under the renewed strength of their foes. Only surrounding the General did the conflict still rage proper. With the abandonment of formation, the legionaries in the centre now fought a brawl; one on one with their Vahc counterparts.
Galarus and a handful of the Ninth managed to fight their way into the messy skirmish, and could see the General himself, valiantly fending off attackers. The horde fell about him in a chaotic maelstrom of bloody death and torment, as every one of them focused their murderous intent against the one man that was holding the Legions’ defence together. On either side of the General his men tried to keep up, defending their commander as best they could.
And then Desturum appeared. The warlord was a large man, all muscle, and carrying an enormous poleaxe. With one clean swipe he felled two of the General’s men, and clattered the broad blade off the shield of the General himself, sending him staggering to one side.
Galarus fought his way through a pair of Vahc that tried to stand against him, slicing through the neck of the first and driving his blade into the chest of the second. Finding open ground he charged at Desturum, only to be knocked easily to one side by the haft of the warlord’s poleaxe. The weapon rose into the air, and in one swift movement fell toward the downed lieutenant. In a flash, his father was stood above him, shield raised, and the blade rang off steel. The warlord swung again, but the General was ready, parrying the swipe to one side and countering with a quick riposte. Desturum slipped past it with ease, and took a step back to steady himself. Galarus scrambled to his feet and took a position at his father’s side, shield raised and sword ready.
The warlord hefted his poleaxe in his hands, and swung mightily at the officers. Galarus ducked under it, and his father met the blade with his shield once again, chopping down upon its shaft with his sword, severing the weapon’s head. Galarus, staying low, slashed his sword into Desturum’s right leg, cutting it to the bone, bringing the Vahc leader to his knees. The General met the malevolent stare of the Malign as his blade sank into the warlord’s neck, easily sliding deeper through his body. Blood bubbled upward, as all around him the Vahc crumbled.
Galarus straightened his back, blood-drenched and exhausted, at his father’s side, as the legionaries chased down the fleeing horde, slashing at the routing men as they slipped on blood and entrails. He looked around hastily for Placatas, whom he was glad to see slam a mace down into the chest of a pleading Vahc warrior. The Ninth stood proudest amongst the survivors, some of them barely able to keep on their feet for the fatigue that consumed them. More had fallen, he could tell, as those that still lived made their way toward their lieutenant.
His father wordlessly clapped a hand upon his broad shoulder, grinning through the blood and grime that coated his face. The world had changed, he thought, as he stared out over the field of bodies. And still it changed.
The Rise of Kings
Ben Emery Books