“Soul of Serpents” excerpt

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Chapter 1 – Warband

Mazael Cravenlock awoke from a dream of a great black wolf.

For a moment the wolf’s howls echoed in his ears.

He sat up in bed, blinking.

Yet the howls continued.

Those weren’t howls, he realized, but a blast from the horns carried by the night guards upon the castle’s walls.

Castle Cravenlock was under attack.

Mazael surged to his feet, and his bedroom door burst open. A boy of twelve years stood in the doorway, clad in the black-and-silvery livery of the Cravenlocks. Usually the boy wore an expression of chilly arrogance, but now his eyes bulged with fear.

“My lord,” said Rufus Highgate, “my lord, the sentries…”

“I know,” said Mazael. “Find one of the pages, send him to Sir Hagen. Tell Hagen to rouse the garrison. Then get back here and assist with my armor. Go!”

Rufus sprinted off. Mazael paced around his bed, bare feet sinking into the carpet. His rooms atop the King’s Tower held only a bed, a desk for writing, a wardrobe for his clothing, and racks for his armor and weapons. A thick carpet to guard against the winter chill was the only concession to comfort.

That, and the rooms had a superb view of the castle and the surrounding countryside.

Mazael hurried onto the balcony, seventy feet above the courtyard. The night guards stood upon the curtain wall, crossbows in their hands. Torchlight blazed in the courtyard as men raced back and forth. Sergeants bellowed commands to armsmen, while knights ran for the stables, followed by their squires. Good – Sir Hagen had already roused the garrison. Yet where was the attack?

Beyond the curtain wall, light flashed in the darkness. Cravenlock Town, an overgrown village of four thousand people, stood a half-mile in that direction. Mazael saw firelight from the town, and heard the distant sound of steel on steel, the shouts and screams of men and women.

The town was under attack.

His hands curled into fists. These were his people, his lands. And someone dared to attack them? He would make these attackers pay, he would make them suffer…

Mazael closed his eyes, forced himself to calm.

Fury was not a luxury that a child of the Old Demon could afford.

For a moment he remembered a blue-eyed woman lying on a cold stone floor, black hair pooled around her head.

He knew where the rage of the Demonsouled ended.

Rufus sprinted into the room, breathing hard.

“My lord,” he said, “I’ve sent the message…”

“Good,” said. “Help me with my armor.”

He’d worn the same armor for years, but it had been destroyed last year during the great battle below the walls of Tumblestone. So Lord Malden had made Mazael a gift of a new set. A chain mail hauberk with a steel cuirass, and gauntlets backed with steel plates and armored boots, all crafted by Knightcastle’s finest smiths. Mazael pulled on the armor with Rufus’s help. The boy was nervous, but he worked quickly and without error. That was good. He would make a capable knight.

Assuming he lived through this attack.

Mazael tugged on a black surcoat adored with the sigil of three crossed swords, the symbol of the Cravenlocks. Rufus fetched his sword belt, and Mazael buckled it around his waist. A dagger hung on his left hip, and a longsword on his right. The longsword’s pommel was a golden’s lion head, glittering rubies in its eyes. Lion, Mazael called the sword, and it was worth more than his castle and everything in it.

Older than his castle, too.

He took one last thing. A silver coin, the size of his thumb joint, threaded with a fine chain. Mazael tucked it into his belt.

“Come,” said Mazael, and he left his rooms, Rufus following, and hurried from the King’s Tower. Chaos still reined in the courtyard, but it was an ordered chaos. Mazael’s knights sat atop their horses, lances and shields in hand, armor flashing in the torchlight. His armsmen had also been mounted, sword and mace ready at their belts.

Two hundred men. Mazael hoped it was enough.

“My lord!”

A grim-faced man with the shoulders and chest of an ox strode to Mazael’s side. He wore a Cravenlock surcoat and a mail hauberk, eyes glinting over a close-cropped black beard. One hand rested on his sword hilt, and the other bore a shield adorned with the sigil of a burning bridge.

“Sir Hagen,” said Mazael. “What news?”

“Someone lit the alarm beacon in the town’s church tower,” said Sir Hagen Bridgebane, Mazael’s armsmaster. “The night guards saw it and summoned me.” He scowled, shaking his head. “It’s too dark. We can’t see anything. But I think the town militia is holding. For now.”

“Who is attacking?” said Mazael. “Bandits?” It would indeed take a daring band of bandits to attack a walled town. But who else? The Elderborn tribes? One of Mazael’s vassals? Some of Mazael’s knights and vassals hated him, but none were bold enough to stage such a raid.

Lord Richard Mandragon, perhaps? Mazael remained in his liege lord’s good graces. But Lord Richard the Dragonslayer was feared with reason. If he decided that Mazael was an enemy, he would not hesitate to strike.

“I don’t know, my lord,” said Hagen. “But they’ve no horses, I’m sure of that. We’re ready to ride when you give the command.” He grimaced. “But the wizards want to speak with you first.”

“Good work,” said Mazael. “We’ll ride when I give the word. Leave the squires here. I don’t want any of them killed fighting in the dark.”

Hagen hurried to his horse, shouting commands.

Rufus brought out Mazael’s war horse, a vicious-tempered destrier named Challenger. The huge horse looked as eager for blood as any knight. Mazael swung into the saddle and accepted a lance and a shield marked with the Cravenlock sigil from Rufus.

“I should accompany you, my lord,” said Rufus. “It is only honorable.”

“No,” said Mazael. “Stay here with the other squires. I’ll not explain to your father why I got you killed in a night battle.”

Rufus scowled, but obeyed. Mazael urged Challenger to a walk, steering the beast with his knees. Sir Hagen waited near the barbican, along with three other men. The first was old and tough as an ancient oak tree, clad in mail and leather. The hilt of a greatsword jutted over his shoulder, and a mace and war axe waited at his belt. Sir Nathan Greatheart claimed to have retired, but the old knight still fought with the prowess of a much younger man.

The other two men wore black cloaks and long black coats adorned with metal badges. The older of the two was nearing forty, with tousled hair and a pointed brown beard. The second was barely over twenty, face shadowed beneath his cowl. A black metal staff rested across his saddle’s pommel.

None of Mazael’s men went close to the two wizards. Especially the younger one.

“Lord Mazael,” said Timothy deBlanc, the older wizard. “My war spells are at your command.”

The younger wizard looked up, black eyes glittering in the depths of his cowl.

“And you’ll need them,” said Lucan Mandragon. He was younger than Timothy, but far more powerful. Men called him the Dragon’s Shadow, and dared not meet his eye as he passed. “My wards were triggered. At least one of the attackers is using magic. Possibly more.”

“Can you take them?” said Mazael.

“We shall do our best, my lord,” said Timothy.

Lucan’s contemptuous sneer expressed more confidence than words.

“Good,” said Mazael. “Sir Hagen!”

The armsmaster spurred his destrier forward, lance and shield ready. “My lord?”

“Tell the armsmen to keep watch,” said Mazael. “They’re to close the gate after we leave, and leave it closed until we return. The knights and mounted armsmen will stay in formation. Any fool rides off on his own, I’ll have his hide.” Hagen nodded and bellowed the orders to the sergeants. “Sir Nathan!”

The old knight turned his horse. “Lord?”

“Take command of the knights,” said Mazael.

Nathan frowned. “I am no longer armsmaster of Castle Cravenlock, and I…”

“Yes, yes, I know,” said Mazael. “Do it anyway.”

A flicker of a smile went over Nathan’s seamed face. “As you bid, my lord.”

“Sir Hagen!” said Mazael. “We ride.”

Hagen gave the orders. Chains rattled, and the portcullis slid open with a metallic groan. Mazael kicked Challenger to a trot and rode through the gate, the knights and armsmen falling in around him. Sir Aulus Hirdan, Mazael’s herald, rose at his side, the Cravenlock banner fluttering from his lance. Though Mazael doubted anyone could see it in the dark.

The road to Cravenlock Town sloped alongside the side of the castle’s crag. The sounds of fighting grew closer, accompanied by strange, bestial roars. Had the attackers brought war dogs? Timothy shifted in his saddle, fumbling with a fist-sized chunk of wired-wrapped crystal. Mazael had seen him use that spell before. It bestowed a sort of limited clairvoyance, letting Timothy sense the presence of enemies. Timothy held up his hand, and the crystal flashed with a pale white light.

“Timothy!” said Mazael. “How many?”

“I…I do not know, my lord,” said Timothy, shouting over the drumming of the hooves. His eyes darted back and forth, tracking things unseen. “At least…two hundred. Probably three hundred. They’re at the town gates for now. But…my lord…”

“What is it?” said Mazael. “Are they in the town already?” Gods, he hoped not. House to house fighting would negate the advantage of his horsemen.

“No,” said Timothy. “But…I’ve never sensed anything like them before. It’s as if…it’s as if they’re not human…”

Lucan gave Timothy a sharp look, hand tightening around his black staff.

“The San-keth?” said Mazael. “Or the changelings?”

“No,” said Timothy. “No, I know how they feel to my arcane senses. This is…different. Darker, considerably.”

Demonsouled, then? The thought of three hundred Demonsouled gathered made Mazael’s blood run cold. But Mazael doubted that any number of Demonsouled could cooperate for any length of time.

He knew very well the sort of homicidal madness carried by Demonsouled blood.

“Whatever they are,” said Mazael, “they’re still flesh and blood, and we’ll sweep them away. They’re massed near the town gates?”

Timothy gave a sharp nod, eyes still twitching.

“Then we’ll hit them there,” said Mazael. “Sir Hagen! Get the men in line. Once the enemy is in sight, we’ll charge and ride them down.” With luck, the gate held the attackers’ attention, and they would not spot Mazael’s horsemen until it was too late.

Hagen and Nathan bellowed orders, the knights and armsmen forming a wide line. The horses moved forward at a trot, ready to leap into a gallop. Cravenlock Town came into sight, the rooftops rising above the thick stone wall surrounding the town. Lord Mitor, Mazael’s predecessor and elder brother, had let the wall fall into disrepair. Mazael had ordered it rebuilt, despite the expense. He also insisted that the town men’s form a militia, training regularly, despite their grumbling.

He doubted anyone would grumble after this.

Torches blazed atop the stone wall. Militiamen fought from the ramparts, wielding crossbows and spears. A dozen ladders rested against the wall, and Mazael saw dark-armored shapes scrambling up the rungs, spears and axes in hand.

The invaders.

Mazael took a look at them, a good look, and blinked in disbelief.

The invaders were not bandits. Nor were they were Mazael’s vassals, or Lord Richard’s men.

They weren’t even human.

Mazael had never seen creatures like them before.

They looked almost like men, albeit men with leathery gray skin and long, pointed ears. Their eyes were colorless, milky white, yet they seemed to have no difficulty seeing. The creatures wore greasy leathers, ragged furs, and black chain mail. Dozens of them lay dead below the gate, covered in black blood. Yet the creatures showed neither fear nor pain, and flung themselves at the defenders with abandon, roaring and howling like beasts.

Lucan swore, very softly.

“What are they?” said Mazael.

“I had never thought to see them,” said Lucan.

“Damn it, what are they?” said Mazael.

Lucan looked at Mazael, his eyes reflecting the firelight. “Malrags.”

“Malrags?” said Mazael. “Malrags are a legend, like…”

“Like the Elderborn?” said Lucan. “Like the San-keth?”

Mazael growled. “Legend or not, they are still flesh and blood. Sir Hagen! Sir Aulus! Sound the charge…”

The air crackled, and a bolt of green lighting screamed out of the cloudless sky, so bright that it filled the plains with ghostly light. It struck the arch over the gates with terrific force, blasting stone and wood to glowing shreds. Smoking debris rained over the Malrags and the town militia alike, knocking them to the ground, and the horses whinnied and stamped in terror.

For a moment the battlefield remained motionless, the echoes from the lightning blast rumbling into silence.

Then the Malrags raced for the ruined gate.

“The charge!” said Mazael, raising his lance. “Now!”

Sir Aulus lifted a horn to his lips and loosed a long blast, a thunder of a different sort rolling over the plain. Mazael put his boots to Challenger’s sides, and the big horse surged forward with an excited snort. Behind him the knights’ and armsmen’s horses exploded into motion, the earth rumbling beneath steel-shod hooves.

The Malrags near the gate turned, forming a line of spears, but it was too late. Mazael caught a brief glimpse of a Malrag at the forefront of the mob. The hands gripping the spear had six fingers, black veins throbbing and pulsing beneath the leathery gray skin. Then the Malrag disappeared beneath Challenger’s hooves in a flash of black blood, even as Mazael drove his war lance through the face of another Malrag. He ripped the lance free and struck again as Challenger thundered forward, the horsemen crashing into the Malrags. Horses screamed and stamped, men shouted, and the Malrags bellowed their battle cries.

Mazael stabbed his lance into a Malrag, the heavy blade crunching past armor and sinking into the creature’s neck. Yet the Malrag showed no fear, no sign of pain, even pulling itself up the shaft to claw at Mazael’s arm. Mazael plunged the lance into the creature’s chest again, and the Malrag toppled, wrenching the weapon from Mazael’s hand.

Challenger galloped through the Malrag mob, breaking free on the other side. Mazael wheeled the big horse around, drawing Lion from its scabbard with a metallic hiss. The ancient steel blade glimmered in the torchlight, seeming to flash and flicker.

And then Lion jolted in Mazael’s hand. Power flowed up Mazael’s arm, and the light reflecting in the sword’s blade turned blue. A halo of sapphire radiance crackled around the sword, and then the blade burst into raging azure flame. Lion had been forged long ago by the great wizard-smiths of ancient Tristafel, created to destroy things of dark magic.

It seemed that the Malrags, whatever else they were, were also creatures of dark magic.

Mazael shouted, kicked Challenger into motion, and rode back into the fray, striking right and left. The Malrags had shown no fear of steel weapons, even of wounds and death, yet they flinched away from Lion’s raging blue flame. Mazael struck the arm from one Malrag, and the head from another, Lion blazing like an inferno in his fist. The Malrags reeled back, and Mazael’s knights and armsmen fell upon them.

The enemy broke and ran. The creatures did care about pain or injury, but they feared Lion’s flame, and Mazael’s men were more numerous and better armed. Dozens of Malrags sprinted into the darkness around the town. But others raced through the ruined gate, vanishing into the streets of the town.

Damnation. They could go from house to house, killing. Or hide themselves in the cellars and attics to attack later. For that matter, the ones fleeing from the town could band together and raid some of the smaller villages.

“Sir Hagen!” said Mazael. Hagen rode to Mazael’s side, his sword and armor splattered with black Malrag blood. “Take seventy men. Hunt down as many of those devils as you can. I’ll deal with things here.” Hagen nodded. “Sir Nathan!” The old knight turned, greatsword in one hand. How he managed to use such a massive sword so effectively from horseback, Mazael had no idea. “Get the rest of the men together. We’ll have to go from street to street, finish off the Malrags.”

Sir Nathan shouted the commands, and Lucan rode to Mazael’s side, that strange black staff laid across his saddle.

“My lord,” said Lucan. “Listen to me. I’ve read the ancient records. Every Malrag warband has two leaders. A shaman, a spell caster. Probably the one that cast that lightning bolt upon the gate. And a chieftain, a war leader…a ‘balekhan’, in the Malrag tongue. The Malrags will not give up until both of them are dead.”

“Then we’ll simply have to kill them both,” said Mazael. “You and Timothy can deal with the shaman, I trust?”

Lucan sneered. “Please.”

Mazael turned Challenger toward the ruined gates. He rode into the town, his men following after. Some of the militiamen hurried from the walls, while Mazael ordered others to stand guard over the ruined gates. Hooves rang against the cobblestones, but Mazael saw no sign of any Malrags. Where had they all gone? At least a hundred had made their way into the town.

He heard the sounds of fighting coming from the town square. The square held two large buildings. The Three Swords Inn, four stories of mortared stone and trimmed beams. And the town’s church, a massive domed structure, dating from the old kingdom of Dracaryl. When the town was under attack, the women and children fled to the church…

The women and children.

The sounds of fighting grew louder.

Mazael cursed and kicked Challenger to a gallop, his knights and armsmen following.

2 thoughts on ““Soul of Serpents” excerpt

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