Haven: A Trial of Blood and Steel Book Four

 

Published 2011 by Pyr®, an imprint of Prometheus Books

 

Haven: A Trial of Blood and Steel.
Copyright © 2011 by Joel Shepherd. Maps copyright © Kinart. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Cover illustration © David Palumbo.

 

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Shepherd, Joel, 1974–

Haven / by Joel Shepherd.

p. cm. — (A trial of blood and steel ; bk. 4)

Originally published: Sydney : Orbit, 2010.

ISBN 978–1–61614–363–3 (pbk. : acid-free paper)

ISBN 978–1–61614–364–0 (e-book)
I.  Title.  II.  Series.

PR9619.4.S54H38  2011
823'.92—dc22

2010050959

 

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

 

 

 

 

 

K
essligh galloped his horse up the field beside the tree-lined avenue, and saw that he was too late to save Hershery. He swung down from the saddle and scrambled along the embankment between the trees, staring at the flames that rose from the old town's little cluster of rooftops. Men rode about the town on horseback, pointing and talking. Several put their heels hard to their mounts and tore off in pursuit of something unseen.

“That one's the leader,” said Errollyn from Kessligh's side, stringing his huge bow with a heave and twist of powerful arms. He nodded to the apparent captain on his horse. “I could have him.”

The captain was at least sixty strides away, in heavy chain armour, but Kessligh did not doubt Errollyn's certainty. Kessligh shook his head. “Wait.” He looked back across the field, and waved his arm toward the tree line, pointing for an encirclement.

“I count twenty,” said Errollyn. From within the little town came wails and screams, and the barest sound of fighting. In the villages of Rhodaan, safe and happy behind their defensive wall of Steel for two centuries, there was rarely any more than that. Several nearby houses were now going up in flames. “If we're fast we could save more.”

“I know,” said Kessligh. He wasn't here to save Hershery. These villagers had been told to evacuate and hadn't listened. From that refusal on, their fate had been beyond his power to alter. He could, however, do something about the Regent's advance raiding parties…for whatever good it would do.

The captain and his one man departed at a gallop.

“Let's go,” Kessligh told Errollyn. As they accelerated down the slope to the village, a dismounted soldier appeared from a little lane between brick walls. Errollyn's bow thumped, and the man took a shaft through the eye. Errollyn did not so much as blink as they dismounted for a second time, and tied their horses' reins loosely to a post.

Errollyn's arms beneath his loose sleeves were crisscrossed with scars, and the gleam in his inhumanly luminescent eyes was different from what Kessligh remembered from their first meeting. The mischief was gone, replaced by something implacable and deadly. That Errollyn had always seemed surprised by his own proficiency at killing, and faintly apologetic about it. This Errollyn apologised to no one, and regarded his victims with cold disinterest.

Kessligh led the way, controlling his ever-present limp enough to make a decent pace up the narrow, weaving lane. Smoke billowed from a doorway. At a gate, an old man lay dead in his own blood. Within a second gateway, Kessligh glimpsed more bodies. Footsteps gave him warning of an approach, and when the soldier appeared, Kessligh shoved his serrin blade through the man's chest—mail and bone parted like butter and the man sank with a burbling, spluttering protest.

A man of Meraine, Kessligh noted, not of Larosa. The Larosans were now the kingly province of the Bacosh, and led the invasion of Rhodaan beneath the command of Regent Balthaar Arrosh, soon to be High King Arrosh. As soon as he reached Shemorane, and the Enoran High Temple. Kessligh had known warfare since his late teens, and he knew that it could not be stopped now. He only hoped to slow the Army of the Bacosh down, in order to organise further defences.

The path opened onto a little stone courtyard, picturesque with flower boxes, a small well, and the end face of a chapel with a little iron bell. Limp figures were now being hung from the branches of an oak that spread beside the chapel. Three men were heaving on a rope, while another supervised. Hung by the neck, the bodies were already dead, but disembowelled and gruesome, they hung as sentinels or warnings.

Errollyn shot the supervisor through the back of the thigh, reloaded fast, and, as the three holding the rope began to react, shot one through the neck. The two remaining dropped the dangling body, which hit the stones with a horrid thump. Those two tried to retreat, in shock and fear, then attacked when they realised they were trapped against a courtyard wall. Kessligh took one attacker through the hand when he presented a poor guard, sending fingers spinning. The other presented a more commendable attack, which Kessligh sent sliding past with a high elbow and downward angle that whipped into a cut whilst the attacker was still in his follow-through. The man split and hit the stone in a gush of blood.

Errollyn took guard while Kessligh stood over the arrow-shot man, struggling on the ground, trying to half-limp, half-slither away. “How many in this party?” Kessligh asked him.

The man grimaced, unreasonably attempting to escape. Kessligh put the blade to his neck. “Mercy,” the man muttered, tears leaking from tightly shut eyes.

“Oh, I don't think so,” said Kessligh, looking at the carnage around him. “How many, and I'll make it fast.”

The man said nothing. And was knocked sprawling by Errollyn's arrow through his chest. Errollyn strode over to him, put a boot to the dead man's chest, and retrieved his arrow with a yank. The armour-piercing head was intact, barely scratched, to the satisfaction of Errollyn's critical gaze.

“Twenty,” said Errollyn, placing the arrow back in his quiver. “I told you.” And he set off down the narrow lane, looking for men to kill. Kessligh thought about cutting down the hanging bodies, but decided against it. Better that his men all saw. A few had not yet been persuaded of the necessity of the action he proposed.

From the fields came the sound of galloping hooves and the cries of battle. Errollyn climbed a short stairway to a wall beside a rooftop, and Kessligh joined him with a little difficulty. From there they could see the trap this party of Meraini had stumbled into. The land here was a depression, a small basin amidst fields and trees, with limited escapes and one obvious approach for a sweeping counterattack from Rhodaani cavalry.

Now those cavalry came, on Kessligh's command, while other light cavalry approached Hershery on Kessligh's flanks to cut off any escape. Meraine cavalry scattered before barely thirty oncoming horsemen—there were twenty more ahorse, in addition to the twenty Errollyn had counted in the village. Their positioning poor, they tried to flee and the Rhodaani cavalry cut them from their horses. Several came rushing toward the town, to find some safety within its walls. Errollyn stood, drew firmly, and shot a man from his horse. He pulled another arrow immediately, fitted it…and was surprised when Kessligh yanked on his bow, throwing off his aim.

“They're dead anyway,” Kessligh explained to Errollyn's nonplussed gaze.

“But not by me,” said Errollyn, as though offended.

“Exactly,” Kessligh said grimly.

They were finishing with the bodies when a captain of the Rhodaani Steel came galloping across a field, five soldiers at his flanks. He rode to where Kessligh was examining bodies and horses, looking for clues. Errollyn had little interest in corpses and captured horses. Kessligh had a war to win, and was a general once more. Errollyn was glad Kessligh had found a purpose. He wished he had one like it.

Errollyn swished his hand at some tall grass. Wild wheat, escaped from nearby farmers' fields. Thirty terms for it in Saalsi occurred to him. This wheat was a crossbreed of human lands; it had not existed here before the serrin had brought it from Saalshen. Like so many things.

He could overhear the captain and Kessligh arguing. The captain was General Geralin's man, and Geralin was a stern and proper soldier of the Rhodaani Steel tradition. The Steel had never lost a war in two centuries of constant testing, yet now they fled across the fields of Rhodaan, with the soon-to-be King Arrosh in hot pursuit. Geralin and his higher officers thought themselves still in command, yet Kessligh of the Nasi-Keth, and similar-minded soldiers of a less formal battlefield tradition, insisted on taking the fight to the enemy in this unorthodox manner.

The captain now insisted that Kessligh cease to waste men in this way. Kessligh replied that he hadn't actually lost anyone today. The captain remarked acerbically on the scale of Kessligh's achievement—thirty dead Meraine cavalry, against the hundred thousand plus that advanced on them. Kessligh barely bothered to answer, bored with the whole debate and disdainful that he even had to answer to the likes of Geralin and his men, who understood not a thing about this kind of warfare.

Or no, Errollyn corrected himself…not disdainful. It was too strong a word for Kessligh, in speaking of his interaction with people for whom he had limited respect. Such people Kessligh merely looked past, as a master composer might regard some insignificant student, barely hearing a word they said while, in his head, already composing his next great music.

The captain rode off in frustration. Kessligh set about explaining some things to several of the younger riders—one of them Daish—escapees from the Tol'rhen in Tracato. He beckoned to Errollyn too, with some annoyance.

“…all men of one house,” Kessligh was telling the youngsters, pointing to the bodies on the ground. “That's the problem with feudal forces: the division of responsibility falls along lines of lineage and power, not of capability. These are men-at-arms and a few half-nobility from the same lands in Meraine; they're after spoils, probably they volunteered.”

“They're just trying to sow terror,” Daish muttered, looking back to the still-burning village of Hershery. “Arrosh himself ordered this.”

Kessligh nodded. “But it's the opportunists who volunteer to carry out the orders. We've an opening here; such men are not natural scouts, they cling to their groups for protection rather than strategy, and don't understand the advantage of the land as Lenay cavalry might. Now let's be off before their friends come to check on the delay.”

There were three prisoners, on their knees still with hands on their heads. There was no possibility of taking them along, they had not the forces to spare for guarding them. And from the terrified looks on their faces, it seemed they knew it. Errollyn took his bow in hand, but Kessligh issued the orders elsewhere, and gave Errollyn an irritated gesture to mount up.

“It's easier to do it from range than let the kids get their hands bloody,” Errollyn explained as they rode away from Hershery.

“You've killed enough,” Kessligh said shortly.

“I don't mind.”

“I know,” said Kessligh. “That's the problem.”

It was the kind of thing Sasha would have said. Or rather, it was the kind of thing a certain Sasha would have said perhaps a month or two ago. Lately, Errollyn didn't think she'd have minded any more than he did.

Sasha rode with the Army of Lenayin. Those were her people. Kessligh's too, if pressed on the point. The Army of Lenayin were allied to the Merainis they'd just killed. They marched now some distance behind this main force of the Army of the United Bacosh, but not too far now, considering how much lighter Lenays would travel.

Verenthane gods and Lenay spirits forbid that they ever catch up. Errollyn did not know what he would do then. His people's very existence was threatened, for this enormous army that came down upon them was motivated not merely by the reconquest of Bacosh lands, but by the prospect of ending all serrin life in the world, forever. Yet he could only think of Sasha, and how he would rather let anything happen than be forced to fight against any number that contained her as well.

It was a preposterous sentiment, and one worthy of self-loathing. But he did not loathe himself for it. Not really. He just killed every enemy Kessligh pointed him toward, and tried to think on other things. Kessligh worried for him, he knew…which was odd, because Kessligh was a general who saw things from the broadest possible perspective, and spared his personal concern on very few. Possibly Kessligh was concerned for him on Sasha's behalf, because in his odd human way, Kessligh felt for Sasha as a daughter, and for her lover as some kind of son.

Which was nice, Errollyn supposed. And unnerving, because he no longer believed any of them were going to make it out of this alive. Not on his side of the fight, anyhow. On Sasha's side, there was a chance. He hoped she would stay precisely where she was, and that her brothers would place her far at the rear of any fighting. It did not seem likely that they or a thousand wild horses could keep her there, but he could hope. He would never see her again, of course. But she'd live a full life, and grow old to tell her children of fond memories of the strange serrin man she'd once loved. That was better than an early grave at his side, unmarked upon some foreign field, far from her beloved Lenay home.

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