“Mask of Dragons” excerpt

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CHAPTER 1: SPIDERS

Mazael Cravenlock rode west, battle on his mind.

Behind him rode his men, five hundred knights and armsmen upon fierce warhorses. Tervingi horsethains flanked them, clad in chain mail and furred cloaks, long spears in their hands and axes and swords at their belts. Behind Mazael rode his standardbearer, Sir Aulus Hirtan, and from his lance flew the banner of the House of Cravenlock, three crossed swords upon a field of black. Mazael heard the horses’ hooves clomp against the grassy earth of the Grim Marches, the creak of the wagons, the clatter of armor and the murmur of men speaking in low voices. He smelled the scent of horses and sweating men, but the wind coming from the west was cold and clear.

To the west he glimpsed the distant, hazy shapes of mountains rising over the rolling bleak plains of the Grim Marches, gray and craggy and topped with mantles of white.

“Skuldar,” said Mazael.

“Aye,” said Romaria Greenshield Cravenlock.

Mazael’s wife was tall for a woman, and sat in her saddle with the easy grace of long experience. Her face was lean and just a little too angular to be human, a legacy of her mother’s Elderborn blood, and her eyes were a shade of eerie, icy blue. Her black hair had been tied back in a thick braid that brushed her hips, and she wore leather armor and a green cloak darkened with the dust of their ride. A bastard sword hung sheathed upon her saddle, and the staff of her Elderborn bow rested behind her. In her hands she carried the short hunting bow favored by the men of the Grim Marches when on horseback, the bows they had used to devastating effect against the Malrags and the Tervingi and the Justiciar Order.

And, unless Mazael missed his guess, they would soon use them against the Skuldari and their valgast allies.

“Eager to return?” said Mazael.

She smiled. “Not particularly. The Skuldari are a secretive and unfriendly people, and not fond of travelers. Nevertheless, I did make some friends there. I hope they are safe.” She gazed the distant peaks. “The mountains are beautiful, though.”

“Bah,” said Mazael’s daughter.

Molly Cravenlock, Mazael had been told, looked a great deal like him, with the same brown hair, gray eyes, and perpetually grim expression. Fortunately for Molly’s husband, the resemblance ended there. She wore clothes similar to her stepmother, and looked like a lovely, albeit unusually fit, woman in her twenties.

Many people had made the fatal mistake of underestimating her.

“You don’t care for mountains?” said Mazael.

Molly tossed her head with a scoff. “They’re great damned piles of rock, father dear. Everyone always goes on about how scenic they are, but I just don’t see it.”

“The Tervingi traveled through the passes of the Great Mountains to reach the Grim Marches,” said Riothamus, Molly’s husband. The Guardian of the Tervingi was a sober-looking man with blue eyes and thick black hair, and even after coming to the Grim Marches, he was still uncomfortable in a saddle. He wore chain mail and leather, and across his saddle rested a long staff of bronze-colored wood. The staff of the Guardians of the Tervingi was ancient. It was, perhaps, the oldest single object in the Grim Marches. “By comparison, the mountains of Skuldar are foothills.”

Romaria laughed. “This is so. Still, I would not wish to bring an army into them.”

“As we are doing,” said Molly.

Mazael grunted, one hand upon his reins, the other tapping the pommel of his sword. He called the long, curved sword Talon, mostly because it had been wrought from the claw of the dragon he had killed in the Great Mountains. Riothamus had enspelled the sword, giving it the ability to wound creatures of dark magic.

“Aye,” said Mazael at last. “As we are doing.” He turned his head. “Sir Aulus!”

“My lord?” said Aulus.

“Call for a halt,” said Mazael. “We’ll wait here.”

Aulus lifted his war horn, blowing a long, wailing blast. Mazael reined up, and around him the knights, armsmen, and horsethains came to a stop. Molly frowned in puzzlement, but Riothamus and Romaria both looked to the west, towards the dark shape of the mountains of Skuldar.

“Why are we stopping?” said Molly. “It’s not even noon. We’re to meet the host of the Grim Marches at Weaver’s Pass, and that’s still a few days away.”

“I know,” said Mazael. “We’ll need to fight first.”

A smile went over Molly’s face before she could stop it. Mazael understood. She was his daughter, and she shared the blood of the Old Demon. The Old Demon was dead, destroyed by his own pride in Cythraul Urdvul, but the blood of the Demonsouled lived on in Mazael and Molly. Mazael knew that she felt a savage joy in fighting, a furious rage that filled her with strength and power and speed, exultation in slaying and slaying until her sword and arm ran red with the blood of her foes.

He knew she felt those things because he felt them himself, save that he felt them more strongly.

She met his gaze, and a flicker of dark emotion went between them. Mazael had been a terrible father to her, but he could do one thing for Molly that no else could.

He understood her completely.

“Not that I object to a good fight,” said Molly, “but why do you say that? I don’t see any foes.”

“Nor do I,” said Romaria.

“Not yet,” said Mazael, “but soon. We’ll see our scouts first, and then the enemy.” He pointed. “A dry streambed is about a half-mile to the west. It’s the closest thing to a road in this part of the Grim Marches. If a raiding party came down from Skuldar, this is the best path.”

“And that,” said Romaria, “is why we rode this way?”

Mazael nodded. “If I was the lord of Skuldar, that is how I would begin my war upon the Grim Marches.” He felt a hard smile go across his face. “And if I was Mazael Cravenlock, that is how I would start making Basracus and the Skuldari regret ever setting foot upon the Grim Marches.”

“Start?” said Riothamus in a quiet voice. Riothamus had more of a conscience than Mazael, which he had to admit was not all that hard. The Guardian could not use his magic to harm or kill a living mortal.

Of course, Riothamus son of Rigotharic was clever enough that it never slowed him down.

“The Grim Marches are my lands,” said Mazael. “Its people and the Tervingi nation are under my protection. Anyone who makes war upon them shall answer to me.” He looked to the west again. “And unless I miss my guess, at least some of them shall answer very soon.”

“Here come the scouts,” said Romaria, shading her eyes.

“I don’t see them yet,” said Molly. “I…wait. Yes.” She looked at Mazael and rolled her eyes. “You do like showing off, don’t you, father?”

“A lord needs to inspire confidence in his men,” said Mazael. “It helps to guess correctly now and again.”

A dozen horsemen appeared on the horizon, riding hard. The men were horse archers, wearing light armor and carrying spears and the recurved short bows of the Grim Marches. At their head rode a thin, sharp-featured knight in chain mail, his green surcoat adorned with the sigil of a black crow perched upon a gray rock.

“Sir Tanam!” said Mazael. “What news?”

Sir Tanam Crowley reined up before Mazael. “Another Skuldari warband, it seems. The bastards don’t know when to give up.”

“Stragglers from Greatheart Keep?” said Mazael.

“Nay,” said Tanam. “Fresh lads, I deem. About two hundred, maybe two hundred and fifty. Heading down the streambed. Probably think to find a little loot and plunder.” He grimaced. “They have about fifty of those damned spiders.”

Mazael nodded. “Mounted?”

“Aye, they’re riding the damned things like horses,” said Tanam. He shook his head. “Disgraceful. The gods intended men to ride horses to battle, and that’s all. Not giant spiders.”

“The Tervingi,” said Molly, “might disagree with you on the topic of griffins and war mammoths.”

“Well,” said Tanam, grinning at Riothamus, “a man must make allowances for the peculiar ways of outlanders.”

“Even the Tervingi have taken to horses,” said Riothamus.

“How far are they?” said Mazael.

“Four miles that way,” said Tanam, pointing. “They are coming fast. Those spiders aren’t as fast as proper horses, but have better stamina.”

“Did they see you?” said Mazael.

“I don’t think so,” said Tanam. “Impossible to swear to it, of course, but they didn’t react when we left, nor did they change direction.”

“Very well,” said Mazael. “Romaria. Take the horse archers, all fifty of them, and ride ahead. Once the Skuldari see you, hold their attention.”

Romaria grinned. “Irritate them, you mean?”

“Exactly,” said Mazael. “Ride circles in front of them and shoot them until the spiders pursue. The footmen couldn’t possibly close with you. Then draw the spiders back here. We’ll smash through them, keep riding, and trample the footmen. They’ll run to follow the spider riders and stretch themselves out, and we can ride them down.”

“A good plan,” said Riothamus.

Molly snorted. “Something will go wrong.”

“Something always does,” said Mazael.

His daughter rolled her eyes. “How very profound, father.”

Mazael chose to ignore that. “Sir Hagen!”

Sir Hagen Bridgebane, the armsmaster of Castle Cravenlock, eased his horse forward. He was a big knight with a scowling face and a bushy black beard that made his scowl all the more formidable. Despite that, he had a steady temperament, and did a fine job of keeping Mazael’s armsmen ready for battle.

“It will be done, my lord,” said Hagen, turning his horse as he stood in his stirrups. “Knights and armsmen in the center!” His voice roared like a thunderclap. “Horsethains on the wings! Mounted archers to the banner. Move!”

The horsemen began to rearrange themselves, the knights and armsmen moving to the center, the lighter Tervingi horsethains to the wings. The horse archers came forward, grim-faced militiamen holding their bows at the ready. They centered themselves around Romaria, adjusting bowstrings and readying their arrows.

“We’ll wait for you here,” said Mazael.

Romaria grinned, the smile and her cold blue eyes making her look wild and fierce. “I’ll bring you some spiders to kill for me, my love.”

Then she put her spurs to the horse, dropping the reins to steer with her knees as she took her bow in both hands. The other horse archers followed, galloping forward to meet the advancing Skuldari. Mazael waited in his saddle, his face impassive even though unease and rage warred inside of him. He did not like watching Romaria go into danger. Of course, she could take care of herself better than any of the horse archers. If one of the archers was unhorsed, the man would die. If Romaria was unhorsed, she would use the power of her Elderborn blood to take the form of a great black wolf, and kill even more Skuldari.

Both the Tervingi and the Marcher folk called Romaria the “she-wolf of Castle Cravenlock”, though never when they thought Mazael could overhear. Still, for all her skill and supernatural power, she was still mortal. She could be hurt or killed.

If she was…

Mazael shifted in his saddle, adjusting the weight of his armor.

If she was, Mazael could envision a world without the Skuldari.

And unlike most men, he had the power to make it happen.

The horse archers disappeared into plumes of dust. A man could see a long way over the rolling plains of the Grim Marches, but Mazael did not have the eyes of the Elderborn, and soon the archers disappeared from sight. He did, however, soon see small dark shapes darting back and forth just before the horizon.

The battle was underway.

The dark shapes grew larger. The horse archers were coming back, and they were bringing the Skuldari spider riders after them.

“Are you ready?” said Mazael.

In answer, Molly only grinned, drawing her sword and the dragon’s tooth dagger that Mazael had given her after their duel in Arylkrad.

“I thought you didn’t like fighting from horseback,” said Mazael.

“Well,” drawled Molly. She rolled her shoulders, loosening the muscles. “It’s easier than walking. Or traveling through the shadows.”

Mazael nodded. “Sir Hagen?”

“We are ready, my lord,” said Hagen.

“Riothamus?” said Mazael.

“If they show themselves, I will be ready,” said Riothamus, holding the staff of the Guardian across his saddle.

“Good,” said Mazael, watching the horse archers. The archers scattered into two groups, heading for the sides of the mass of horsemen.

Which gave Mazael a straight route to the advancing spider riders.

“Sir Aulus!” said Mazael, drawing Talon, the symbols of golden fire flashing upon the dark dragon claw of the blade. “Now!”

Sir Aulus lifted his war horn and blew a wailing blast, lifting high the lance with the Cravenlock standard. Behind him the knights and armsmen and horsethains cheered, brandishing their swords and spears. Mazael put his spurs to his horse, and the big destrier let out an irritated snort and surged forward. Around him the horsemen advanced, dropping their lances and spears to form a bristling wall of steel points.

The horse archers passed them on the left and the right, and Mazael had a clear look at the Skuldari spider riders.

The Skuldari raiders wore ragged armor of leather and fur, their long black hair bound into braids, their faces painted dark blue. Many of them had human skulls hanging from their belts, or wore skulls upon their shoulders. Romaria claimed that the Skuldari kept the skulls as trophies, that a Skuldari clan might pass the skull of particularly famous foes from generation to generation as a treasured heirloom. The riders carried axes and spears and swords, shouting and brandishing their weapons.

The Skuldari warriors were fierce, but their spider mounts looked far more formidable.

The damned things had bodies the size of ponies, black with red stripes upon their abdomens and sides. Their legs looked like bundles of steel wire, and glistening mandibles jutted from their eight-eyed heads. Fortunately, their mandibles were not poisoned, though one bite in the right place could cripple or kill a man. The spiders were more maneuverable than a horse, though not as swift.

Mazael planned to exploit that weakness.

“Aulus!” he shouted. “The charge!”

Sir Aulus blew another blast upon his war horn, and the knights, armsmen, and horses shouted. Mazael kicked his mount to a gallop, and the destrier whinnied and surged forward, eager for battle. His heart thundered in his ears like a drum, and he felt the fury come upon him, the Demonsouled rage demanding that he kill and kill until his arm ran red with blood. Long and often bitter experience let him keep the rage at bay, sealed behind the dam of his will.

And now, at last, he had a release for that rage.

The horsemen thundered forward to meet the Skuldari, and the horses and spiders crashed together.

One of the Skuldari riders came at Mazael, the spider rearing up to bite at his horse’s neck. Mazael caught the Skuldari raider’s spear upon his shield, the shock of it going through his arm, and thrust with Talon. The curved blade of dragon claw ripped through the spider’s head with a ghastly puncturing sound, yellow slime spurting from the wound. The momentum of Mazael’s charge ripped the blade free from the spider, and the creature fell upon its side as it died. The Skuldari rider scrambled to his feet, only for Sir Hagen’s lance to punch through his chest and erupt out his back.

“For Basracus!” roared a hulking Skuldari warrior, wielding a huge axe with both hands as his spider danced and skittered around a knight. “For Basracus the High King and Marazadra!” The axe hammered down with enough force to pierce chain mail, killing one of Mazael’s armsmen. The armsman fell limp from his saddle, his horse panicking and galloping away.

Mazael spun his horse and charged, and the Skuldari warrior turned to meet him, his blue-painted face twisted with battle rage, his eyes wide, his braided black hair bouncing around his head. The Skuldari raider rose in his short stirrups, lifting the axe over his head for a single massive blow. Mazael’s horse surged forward and he swung Talon, catching the axe just below the head as it started to fall. The weapons crashed together, splinters flying from the haft, and the spider danced around Mazael’s horse as he wrenched Talon free.

“For Marazadra!” screamed the Skuldari, raising his weapon. Mazael swung Talon again, and this time the curved blade sheared through the huge warrior’s right wrist. The axe fell along with the warrior’s right hand, the heavy blade crunching into the spider’s gleaming black abdomen. The warrior howled, and Mazael finished him with a quick slash across the throat.

A half-dozen of Mazael’s men had fallen, but the heavier horsemen crashed through the spiders. The Skuldari had been overconfident. They regarded spiders as sacred messengers of their goddess, so perhaps they had put too much trust in them. Or they had spent so much time in their gloomy mountains that they didn’t realize the power of a charge of heavy horsemen.

Regardless of the reason, the horsemen of the Grim Marches broke through the spider riders. The spiders turned to flee, urged by their riders, but it was too late. The faster horses overtook them, the knights and men-at-arms and horsethains striking with sword and spear and axe. A few moments later the final spider rider had been struck down, the spider’s furred black legs twitching and clawing at the air, and Mazael rose up in his stirrups and waved Talon’s glowing blade over his head.

“Reform!” he shouted. “Return to the line! Aulus!”

Aulus Hirtan had stayed close behind Mazael through the charge, and the standardbearer raised his horn and sounded the call to reform. The scattered horsemen slowed, returning to the black Cravenlock standard. The horse archers returned as well, dividing themselves into two groups. In the distance Mazael saw the mass of the Skuldari footmen advancing. The Skuldari footmen were hideously vulnerable without their spider riders. Likely they would form into a shield wall to defend themselves against the heavy horsemen. The answer to that was to send the horse archers to circle around them, loosing shaft after shaft until the Skuldari finally broke or tried to pursue the mounted archers.

Then Mazael would sweep them away and continue to the Weaver’s Pass to join Sigaldra and Adalar and the rest of the lords of the Grim Marches.

Though the Skuldari footmen continued their advance, which was odd. Why were they doing that? They would get slaughtered when the horsemen ran them down.

Then Mazael saw three figures in ragged black cloaks striding at the head of the Skuldari warriors. They were taller and thinner than the Skuldari, and as they hurried forward, the black cloaks billowed back to reveal the creatures beneath them. They looked female, their bodies encased in overlapping plates of form-fitting, blood-colored chitin. Jagged claws rose from their crimson fingers, and four more legs rose from their sides, knobbed and armored, longer than they were tall. Their faces were eerily, inhumanly beautiful, with eight white-glowing eyes.

The creatures were soliphages, the soul-drinking spider-devils the Tervingi had fought in the Endless Forest. They could take the form of human women to lure their victims to their death, leaving only a desiccated husk behind. They also could cast spells, and already Mazael saw their clawed hands gesturing, greenish-blue light flashing around their fingers.

“Riothamus!” he shouted, kicking his horse to a gallop.

The soliphages thrust out their hands, and a thunderclap rang out. Invisible force exploded among the charging horsemen, and a half-dozen riders tumbled through the air, ripped from their saddles by the magic. Mazael snarled a curse and urged his horse faster.

Golden fire flashed in the corner of his eye, and he saw Riothamus gallop forward, the staff of the Guardian raised. The Guardian of the Tervingi could not harm or injure humans, but the soliphages were alien creatures of dark magic. He gestured, and a pillar of white mist swirled a half-dozen feet over the heads of the soliphages. The soliphages started to dodge, but it was too late. The mist hardened into a jagged shard of ice the size of a coffin, and it plunged down, crushing one of the soliphages beneath it with a horrid crunching noise. The remaining two soliphages cast spells at Riothamus, bolts of purple fire bursting from their claws, but Riothamus swept his staff before him. A shimmering dome of golden light enclosed both the Guardian and his horse, and the bolts shattered against it.

Mazael crashed into the soliphages, Talon in his fist. The nearest soliphage leapt at him, raking with her claws. Mazael twisted and caught the claws upon his shield, the crimson chitin rasping against the steel-banded wood. The soliphage retracted her claws, cat-quick, but the Demonsouled rage was upon Mazael now, and he attacked before she could recover. Talon’s curved blade bit into the soliphage’s side, black slime bubbling from the wound, and the soliphage reared back with a scream. Mazael ripped Talon free, and the soliphage attacked again, two of her giant spider-legs whipping for Mazael’s face like barbed clubs.

He swept Talon before him, severing the legs. They struck his chest and bounced off the armor of golden dragon scales he wore, and the soliphage screamed again, stumbling as she lost her balance. Mazael seized the opening and swung Talon again, the blade crunching through her skull and sinking halfway into her head. The glow in her eyes sputtered and went out, and Mazael ripped his blade free and turned to face the final soliphage.

The creature raced towards him, claws raised to tear out his throat, and then a slender pillar of darkness swirled behind her. The darkness hardened into Molly Cravenlock, her face wild with the same battle madness Mazael felt, her slender sword and dragon’s tooth dagger flashing in her hands. The soliphage staggered as Molly’s blades punched into her back, and Mazael finished off the creature with a final stab of Talon.

The last soliphage slumped to the ground, and Mazael turned, seeking new foes.

But there were none to be had.

With the soliphages slain, the horsemen charged into the Skuldari raiders. On foot, the Skuldari were overpowered and outnumbered, and the men of the Grim Marches rode through them like a storm. The battle turned into a rout and then a slaughter. None of the Skuldari would escape to fight again.

Mazael felt no regret about that.

If the Skuldari had wanted to live, then they should not have tried to make war upon his people and his lands.

He let out a long breath, forcing back the Demonsouled rage, and looked down to see Molly still standing next to the dead soliphage.

“You lost your horse,” said Mazael.

“I didn’t lose him,” said Molly, rolling her shoulders again. “I know exactly where he is. He was just getting in the way.” She watched the horsemen ride down the Skuldari. “Looks like we’ve won.”

“This battle,” said Mazael. “There will be more.”

An hour later it was over. Riothamus healed the wounded, and Romaria rejoined Mazael. Sir Tanam’s scouts began screening the way forward, seeking for more Skuldari warbands or sign of valgast raiders. The horsemen rode west to Weaver’s Pass, where the armies of the Grim Marches gathered for war.

From there, they would march into Skuldar itself.

The Prophetess had started this war by suborning Earnachar of the Tervingi and rousing the Skuldari and the valgasts to march against the Grim Marches.

Mazael intended to end it.

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