CHAPTER 1: WAR UNENDING
Four hundred and thirty-one days after it began, four hundred and thirty-one days after that day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban walked alone through the ruined village.
At least, he was alone for now.
He didn’t think he would stay that way for much longer.
When the others found him, there was going to be a fight.
He stopped in what had once been the village’s forum, staff ready in his hands, his eyes scanning the ruins.
Once this village had been known as Liavatum, and it had been one of the scores of small villages dotting the forested hills and valleys of the Northerland. Like all villages in the harsh Northerland, Liavatum had been well-fortified against raids, whether the pagan orcs of the Wilderland, the Anathgrimm of Nightmane Forest or the kobolds and dvargir of the Deeps. A stout stone wall had encircled the village, its houses and church built of worked stone, and a strong stone keep had risen from the center of the village.
The defenses had held back the wild orcs and the kobolds, but the Frostborn had smashed them.
Great breaches had been torn in the outer wall, the gates lying in shattered rubble. The houses and the church had burned, leaving only stone shells, and the broken crown of the keep clawed against the gray sky like jagged fingers.
Ridmark did not know what had happened here. The army of Dux Gareth Licinius had evacuated the towns and villages along the Moradel road as they fled south, but they had not been able to reach every village in the hills. Perhaps the villagers had fled, either to the safety of Castra Marcaine or the warded trees of Nightmane Forest. Or perhaps they had all been slain or carried off into captivity as slaves for the Frostborn.
Ridmark had seen many such dead villages over the last year, left behind as the Frostborn had swept across the Northerland from their strongholds at the ruins of Dun Licinia and Black Mountain. Nearly all of the Northerland, save for the lands around Castra Marcaine, had been overrun by the Frostborn. The Frostborn had converted some of the ruined villages into strongholds, their khaldjari engineers raising fortifications of enspelled ice and stone. Other villages had been abandoned.
And some, like the ruins of Liavatum, the Frostborn used as staging grounds, waypoints as they sent more soldiers to the siege of Castra Marcaine.
Ridmark suspected one such group of soldiers would pass through Liavatum today.
A flicker of blue overhead caught his eye, stark against the gray thunderclouds.
Ridmark broke into a run, ducking into the stone shell of what had once been a tavern. He pressed himself against the doorway, drawing his gray cloak close around him. An instant later a creature flew overhead, its vivid blue carapace stark against the darkening sky. It looked like a winged mantis, albeit a mantis the size of a hunting hound, the gossamer of its wings blurring over its back, its scythe-like forelimbs sharp enough and long enough to gut a man with a single blow. The creature’s head turned back and forth, eyes like black jewels surveying the ruins of Liavatum, but it did not see Ridmark.
He watched as the locusari scout circled the forum twice and then descended towards the ruined church.
Ridmark considered that. The Frostborn would not scout a ruined village unless they had a use for it. Almost certainly they had sent another detachment of soldiers to Castra Marcaine, and those soldiers would use Liavatum as a campsite for the night. If he left at once, he could warn Qhazulak and Caius and Third and the others, and they could prepare an ambush for the medvarth and locusari warriors that would make up the bulk of the Frostborn force.
Or, if he attacked now, perhaps he could eliminate a few of the Frostborn scouts. The Frostborn were inexorable and patient and logical, but even the wisest man needed sound information to make good decisions.
It would also provide an outlet for the rage that had burned within him ever since he had strode into the hall of Dun Licinia’s keep to find Morigna dead upon the floor.
Ridmark glided forward, walking in silence towards the ruined church.
The main doors had burned in the destruction of the village, but Ridmark was not foolish enough to use them. Instead, he circled to the side, dropping to a crouch, and peered through the windows. Like most of the churches of the Northerland, the church had been built to double as a refuge for the women and children during an attack, so the windows were high and narrow to thwart any raiders. Through the window Ridmark saw the tangled, charred beams that had once been the church’s roof, collapsed in a heap upon the floor. He also saw the locusari scout perched upon one of those beams, and the creature spoke in a tearing, rasping metallic voice.
Ridmark eased to the side, trying to see more. If the locusari had come to report to one of the Frostborn, Ridmark would not try to fight a Frostborn warrior by himself.
But his luck held. The locusari scout spoke to two khaldjari. The khaldjari were distant cousins to the dwarves of the Three Kingdoms and the dvargir of Khaldurmar and shared their same gray, granite-colored skin and blunt features. Unlike the dwarves of Khald Tormen, the eyes of the khaldjari shone with a harsh white glow, like the sun striking ice in the heart of winter. They wore chain mail and carried maces at their belts, though Ridmark knew from hard experience that the khaldjari had no need to rely upon weapons of mundane steel.
As far as he could tell, the two khaldjari and the locusari scout were the only occupants of the church. Three foes in all.
Ridmark thought he could take them. If he did, they could not return to warn their masters of the danger, and that would make it all the easier for his own warriors to strike.
If he killed them.
He circled to the front of the church in silence, slinging his staff over his shoulder from its leather strap and lifting his bow. Ridmark next to the church’s main doors, listening to the khaldjari and the locusari. Even after a year of constant warfare, he only understood bits and pieces of the Frostborn tongue. The khaldjari and the medvarth and the cogitaers and the others seemed to have their own tongues, sometimes slipping into a hybrid blend of the Frostborn language and their own language while speaking. Nevertheless, Ridmark suspected the khaldjari were arguing with the scout. That was a waste of time. The locusari were literal-minded and always followed their orders.
Fortunately, the argument made for an excellent distraction, and Ridmark decided to use it.
He took a deep breath, steadying his hands, stepped into the doorway, and raised his bow. The khaldjari had their backs to him, but the locusari scout could see him from its perch atop the blackened beam, and it started to shriek in warning.
The shriek got louder when Ridmark’s arrow punched through its left wing and slammed into its abdomen. The locusari scout reared back, trying to take to the air, but the arrow had destroyed its wing. The khaldjari whirled, raising their right hands. White mist swirled around their fingers, hardening into blades of glittering frost as strong as steel and as sharp as obsidian.
The two khaldjari charged, but Ridmark was already moving. He cast aside his bow and yanked his staff free. The staff was lighter than it should have been, yet it still struck as if had a core of iron.He met his enemies, trading half-dozen blows with them in as many heartbeats, the staff clacking against the blades of magical ice. A deathly chill radiated from the swords, sinking into Ridmark’s limbs, and a layer of frost spread across the surface of the staff, its length growing cold beneath his grasp. Soon it would be too cold to grip.
Ridmark let the khaldjari drive him back, and then he twisted, dodging a thrust from the khaldjari on the left. The glittering blade of ice missed him by an inch, and the khaldjari stumbled, off balance. Ridmark whipped his staff around, shattering the khaldjari’s outstretched wrists, and then swung again, his weapon striking the back of the khaldjari’s knees. The gray-skinned warrior fell with a cry of pain, shouting words in his strange language.
The second khaldjari came at Ridmark, and he deflected the swing with his staff. The impact knocked the weapon from his grasp, so he sidestepped again, yanking the dwarven axe from his belt. The khaldjari warrior did not react in time to Ridmark’s new attack, and the bronze-colored blade crunched into his neck. Ridmark ripped the weapon free, the khaldjari’s white-glowing blood steaming with cold upon the blade, and spun as the wounded locusari scout attacked. He retreated as the creature swiped at him with scythe-like forelimbs, and chopped with the axe. The weapon of dwarven steel snipped off the locusari scout’s front right limb, and the creature stumbled.
Ridmark buried the axe in its head, right between its pincers. The locusari scout shuddered and went limp, collapsing to the floor of the ruined church in a tangle of gleaming blue limbs. He ripped the axe free, the yellow ichor that filled the locusari scout’s veins freezing as it mingled with the glowing blood of the khaldjari. One of the khaldjari was dead, but the other was wounded, scrambling backward as he raised his ruined hands and screamed words in his language.
Likely he was asking for mercy.
Ridmark did not have much mercy left in him.
Not after Morigna’s death. Not after the murder of the High King and the slaughter at Dun Calpurnia. Not after a year of grinding war, with most of the Northerland falling to the Frostborn and only the valor of the Anathgrimm keeping the Frostborn from tearing into the loyalist armies of Prince Regent Arandar.
Ridmark did not think he had any mercy at all left within him.
If he did, it wouldn’t be for the creatures of the Frostborn.
The khaldjari managed one final scream before Ridmark killed him quickly and efficiently. He cleaned the freezing blood from his axe with care. Once that was done, he recovered his staff and bow and stepped back into Liavatum’s desolate forum, watching for enemies.
As Ridmark stepped forward, blue fire flashed into the corner of his eye.
He whirled, bringing his staff up…