The War Of The Black Tower (Book 1), страница 1
THE WAR OF THE BLACK TOWER:
Part One of a Trilogy
by Jack Conner
Cover image used with permission
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INTO THE SHADOW
They were almost on him. Baleron’s blood chilled to hear their howls at his back as he rode through the forest, Salthrick beside him, both ducking their heads to avoid branches dripping with moss. Sweat soaked his hair and trickled between his shoulder blades under his plate mail.
An arrow whistled by his cheek, so near it almost burned.
“Un rostrig cun Gilgaroth!” a Borchstog called behind him. “U Asguilar!”
“They’re closer,” Baleron said.
“Almost there,” Salthrick said. “I think—”
They burst from the forest wall. Unimpeded by roots and branches, their horses raced toward the bulk of Ichil Keep that reared against the sky, grim and gray, pocked by lichen and moss. Baleron turned his head to see the Borchstogs reach the edge of the forest and pause. The sun would pain them, the clearing before the keep intimidate them. Thank the gods, he thought.
The great iron doors of Ichil banged open, and Baleron and Salthrick darted inside. The courtyard was a great, bustling place like the rest of the keep, one of the largest of the border fortresses.
Baleron swung down as his brother Haben, one of the king’s eldest sons as well as the lord of the keep, approached, looking breathless and surrounded by a small group of nobles.
“Bal! All you all right? I was watching from the wall.”
“I’m fine.” Baleron’s chest still burned from the exertion. Behind him the gates slammed closed. “A scouting party, I think.”
“But it’s day!” one of the nobles said. Some of the others regarded Baleron with open disdain. “The creatures never attack under the sun.”
“Baleron’s right,” Salthrick said. His handsome, black-bearded face was flushed and sweaty. To him the nobles listened. “It was an organized band. Maybe part of a bigger group, I don’t know.”
“We were just going down the road when they attacked,” Baleron said. Then, to Haben: “You might want to prepare your soldiers. Just in case.”
Turning to one of his retinue, Haben said, “General, see it done. The Borchstogs probably don’t belong to a force large enough to do us harm, but it pays to be ready. And send some riders to scare these bastards off.” The noble bowed and departed. Others frowned at Baleron.
They’ve heard of me even out here. Perhaps I should have stayed in Glorifel.
Salthrick handed him his flask, and Baleron knocked back a steadying draught.
Haben sipped from it next. He and Salthrick were old friends and he did not begrudge the captain’s spittle.
“I’m sorry for your reception, Bal,” Haben said, and from his tone Baleron wasn’t sure he meant the Borchstogs or the nobles. “I was delighted when I got word you were coming to visit us. You haven’t ventured to the border in some time.”
“There were ... circumstances.”
“Was it another duel?”
Baleron grimaced. “Duke Eplan.”
“I told him he was mad,” Salthrick said.
Haben hesitated, as if loathe to ask the obvious question, then asked anyway: “Did you win? Of course you did. So now you’ve earned the enmity of House Eplan, too. It’s no wonder you had to get out of Glorifel. The downward spiral continues.”
Baleron went through the motions of stuffing and lighting a pipe, which hopefully concealed his shaking fingers. “He tried to cut off my head, Hab. Giving him his third blood was the only way to end the fight.”
“But there did not have to be a duel in the first place, Bal. Gods, why do you keep doing this? Forcing these—”
A horse screamed over the din, and Baleron’s head snapped to see his stallion sway on its feet. Froth issued from the animal’s mouth, but it had turned red. He hurried over. Groomsmen were trying to subdue the panicked horse, but it chomped and kicked at them. Suddenly it sank to its knees, and Baleron knelt beside it.
“Steady, boy. Steady.”
Avlor quieted. Blood dripped from his chest. Something went cold inside Baleron. He’d ridden Avlor for many years and loved him well. The horse fell over on his side, and bloody froth bubbled at his lips and hung in pink streamers from his head. More blood coursed from under the saddle blanket. Baleron flipped it back and cursed. A black-feathered arrow had sunk into Avlor’s side so deep only its tip stuck up.
“Must have lodged there during the flight,” Salthrick said. “Worked around till it hit a lung.”
“I’m sorry,” Haben told Baleron. “Shall I have him put down for you?”
Baleron felt sick. “It should be me.”
“Are you sure, Bal?” Salthrick asked. “You know I have a steady hand.”
“No.” Baleron forced himself to his feet and unsheathed his sword. “You were a friend,” he told the horse.
He paused. Do it. He’s in agony. Baleron drove the blade home. The horse shuddered once, then went still. Baleron let out a deep breath. Salthrick handed him his flask, and Baleron knocked back another gulp.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Haben said. “It’s no easy thing to lose such an animal.”
As Baleron was discussing the disposition of Avlor’s remains with a groomsman, the general Haben had had spoken to before returned.
“Sir, the Borchstogs have gone.”
“Send some men to track them. I want to know what they’re up to. It’s not normal for a raiding party, if that’s what this is, to venture so close to a place like Ichil.”
Haben turned to Baleron and Salthrick. “Why don’t you two get cleaned up and meet me and the others for dinner.” With his hangers-on, he vanished.
“Dinner sounds good,” Salthrick said. “I could eat a gaurock.”
It took nearly an hour to get cleaned up, and Baleron was glad of the guest quarters Haben had lent him. They weren’t spacious, but they were warm. Servants helped clean him and took his armor away to be polished while Baleron donned a robe and descended into the natural spring baths; Ichil Keep boasted a hot, steamy natural bath adjacent to the catacombs, and Baleron luxuriated in the feel of the hot water against his skin as he lathered himself and dunked his head, again and again. His fingers still twitched from nervousness, and part of him still ached for Avlor’s loss.
I’m not cut out for this. Splashing his face, he pictured the eyes of the Borchstogs that had almost ridden him down, fierce and red. He had participated in small skirmishes before, but to be surrounded by the enemy, as he and Salthrick had been on the road ...
We were damned lucky we made it out. Salthrick was right; we should have traveled with a company. Baleron had wanted to keep his profile low, and his ability to travel swift, but that clearly been a mistaken impulse. The Borchstogs, though ...
Why would an enemy raiding party risk coming so close to the city of Ichil and its formidable castle? Could they mean to attack? At the thought, Baleron’s belly burned with acid. Keep it together, Bal. If it all goes to hell, Haben will alert Master Turran. The sorcerer’ll send for a host of riders to relieve us from another fortress.
Wouldn’t the Borchstogs know that?
He wasn’t the only one to come to the baths. Several other nobles had decided to partake, as well, and they gave him a wide berth. He was used to the treatment. Done, he dressed and made his way to the Lord’s Tower
The new night loomed black and cold outside, and a brooding thunderhead gathered to the south. Baleron ventured onto the terrace to watch the storm come in. From up here he could see the cleared slope south of the keep, then the tangled forest that led all the way to the foothills of the Aragst Mountains, the vast range running the width of the continent, from sea to sea, that separated the free kingdoms of the Crescent Alliance and the soft northlands they guarded from the empire of Oslog, where the Breaker ruled in all his terrible might and majesty.
“Rain will do us good,” a voice said from behind, and Baleron turned to see Haben. A stiff breeze had begun to blow, and Haben’s hair rustled in the wind.
“What are you doing out here? You should be inside, entertaining your proper guests.”
“And you’re not proper? What is this, Bal—self pity?”
Baleron sipped his wine, which was quite fine. “Far from it,” he said. “Just doing my part to maintain the festivities.” He flicked his gaze inside, to the finely-dressed nobles, some of whom lived in the city of Ichil, some of whom had come to visit. Haben was a well-liked figure in the kingdom, and most agreed that he would one day be king; he was rarely without visitors.
“It’s not as if you have the plague,” Haben said. “They wouldn’t run screaming if you joined us.”
“Oh, I’ll join you. When dinner’s served, I’ll be the first one at the table. I need something to soak up all this wine.”
Haben leaned against the balustrade. “You did well today, truly. You alerted us to a grave danger and lived. I’ve heard several people commenting on it. I’ll make sure Father hears of it.”
“It’ll take more than me running away from the enemy to make him forgive me, Hab.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It was your own fault that landed you in this position, and the hole that you dug by your own labors may also be escaped the same way.”
Baleron paused. “Haben, the men you sent out after the Borchstogs—what did they find out?”
A dark look passed over Haben’s face, then was gone. “They never returned.”
He steered Baleron inside, and the younger prince surrendered. He was beginning to smell the savory scents of dinner—roast venison and potatoes and custard, for a start. Servants came out of the kitchens wheeling gleaming plates laden with delicious morsels, and Baleron took a seat next to Salthrick. Normally commoners would not have been permitted at the table, but Salthrick’s friendship with Haben ran deep. Before becoming the captain of Baleron’s guard, Salthrick had been in Haben’s. Baleron had never been sure exactly what Salthrick had done to deserve such dishonor as being removed from his brother’s side and assigned to him, but he was sure it was something suitably vile.
At the head of the table Haben toasted his visiting brother.
“To Prince Baleron!” the guests echoed, with somewhat less enthusiasm.
Dinner commenced, one course after another—roast pheasant, peas and rice, salmon encrusted with walnuts. More toasts followed, a toast to the king, the kingdom, a toast to the serving girl, and so on. Finally a toast came that Baleron took interest in.
“To Rolenya, fairest flower in the land!”
At the head of the table, Haben smiled. “May her wedding be joyful, and her marriage be moreso.”
“Ah, sod the bastard!” someone said. “I was hoping she’d be mine!”
Coarse laughter followed, and Baleron stabbed his fork at the man who’d spoken. “That’s my sister you’re talking about. Still, he doesn’t deserve her.”
“No one could,” Salthrick said.
Dinner resumed. There was more talk of Rolenya and her wedding. Some said it would be the grandest affair in the history of either Havensrike or Felgrad, but Baleron barely listened. To his left the comely Lydia Tines giggled and flirted with him. She was young and blushing and wed, and she had heard of Baleron’s supposed valor earlier.
“You were so brave,” she said, more than once, leaning over so that he could catch a glimpse of her cleavage, and squeezing his bicep. “I heard you slew a dozen Borchstogs in your encounter, all by yourself.”
Thank you, Haben. “That number might be a bit inflated.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” She raised her glass to him. “My hero!”
Salthrick nudged Baleron. “Not again, Bal. Her father-in-law is General Tines.”
“I was just in town visiting my sister,” Lydia went on. “Just me and a few retainers. You know, it is so rare that I journey out without a chaperone.”
That couldn’t be clearer, could it? “Your husband didn’t know I would be here.” Baleron said.
Leaning over, she whispered, “Perhaps we should take advantage of that.”
After dinner they retired to her guest quarters, which Baleron was surprised to find were even smaller than his own—Haben truly had given him one of the nicest available suites—and she proceeded to show him why her husband rarely let her out of the house unescorted. Her only nod to discretion was her ability to achieve pleasure in relative silence, obviously a skill acquired to facilitate such trysts. Of course, plenty had noticed her talking with him at dinner, and Baleron knew, not without a twinge of sadness, that word would get out. It would not be long before Baleron had to sharpen his dueling blade again.
Afterwards, as they lay panting in her narrow bed, fierce rapping issued from the door.
“Hells,” Baleron said. “Please don’t tell me your husband followed you.”
A servant’s voice called through the door: “It’s the Borchstogs, my lady! They’re attacking!”
Thunder cracked outside. Horns blared.
Feeling something tight in his chest, Baleron hastily pulled on his clothes and quit Lydia’s bedroom. She gave him a quick kiss and he was gone. His armor had not yet been polished and returned to him, so he descended to the courtyard, where hundreds of soldiers gathered at the armory. Side by side with them, he donned the common armor he was dealt and mounted the wall, where Salthrick took him to Haben.
Rain beat down, and lightning lit he sky. The cold shower seemed to find every crack in Baleron’s armor, and he shivered as he reached Haben, standing at his position on the wall. The south-facing arc of the fortress was shaped like a series of Vs so that archers could more easily pick off Borchstogs scrambling up it, and Haben stood at the joint of the center-most V. His bushy beard stuck out beneath the lion-mask of his helm, and his eyes flashed dangerously.
In the distance, and growing closer, Borchstog war drums sounded, rolling northward like a pestilence, sapping the will of the men. Baleron felt a great and malignant will emanating from the south, felt it in the bitterness on his tongue and the hairs that rose from the nape of his neck.
“You should not be here.”
The voice was solemn. For a moment Baleron was unsure who had said the words, as Haben’s gaze was on the forest.
Baleron shrugged. “I would be nowhere else.”
“Nor I,” said Salthrick.
“How many are they?” Baleron said.
Haben’s face tightened. “Scouts report thousands. A whole host.”
“So the ones we encountered earlier, they were scouts,” Salthrick said.
“They have some plan,” Haben muttered. “Some stratagem. I can feel it. This attack is too reckless. No feints, nothing. These demons are devious, and subtle. There is no subtlety here.”
“Ask for aid, then,” Salthrick said. “Alert Master Turran. Have the other fortresses send their riders.”
“And leave them defenseless just when the Enemy has chosen to exert itself?”
The first line of dark figures emerged from the forest, mere shadows against the trees. The Borchstogs were much like men in shape and size, but in other ways they were v
“Asguilar,” he said. When the others turned to him, he said, “When they were chasing us, the Borchstogs chanted something. They mentioned the Wolf, of course, but they also mentioned Asguilar.” Ever since the War of the Moonstone, Asguilar had been lord of the mountain fortress of Wegredon, Oslog’s principal seat of power in the region. Legend held that Asguilar was a rithlag, a thing of death and darkness that had no life of its own but had to steal the lives of others through their blood. “I think he may be leading this attack.” If the stories could be believed, Asguilar possessed unnatural powers.
Rain matted Haben’s beard and glinted off the iron spikes of his armor. “If that’s true, brother ... if Wegredon has roused itself against us ...”
All the Crescent states lived in fear of the day when Gilgaroth, the Dark One, would bestir himself and send out his legions to utterly crush his foes. Periodically he would flex his muscles, but it had been some time since the last great war, the War of the Moonstone some fifty years ago. Wegredon was not Ghrastigor, the fortress of the Breaker deep in his land of Oslog, but it was powerful and much dreaded.
Generals approached, and Haben issued hurried orders. “Send all civilians from the fortress,” he told General Hathyn. “Only military men may remain.”
“But my lord. The fortress is the most secure building in the city. And surely you cannot mean to empty the nobles ...”
“I do. We may not survive this assault, my friend. I would not have our children and womenfolk suffer worse fates. Sending them out will at least give them a head start.”
With a drawn face, General Hathyn moved off. Haben barked more commands, and generals scurried to obey. Catapults spat flaming payloads, and ballistae fired bolts, but the Borchstog host rolled on, inexorable. Soon they came within arrow range, and shafts cut the midnight air. Heedless, the Borchstogs advanced, their drums crashing like thunder.