The Shadowbearer – Chapter 1
PORTENTS AND PLOTS
Knight Commander Stefan Dorn surveyed the battlefield below him from his vantage point astride his horse. The oncoming Astocan army stretched in a long line that disappeared into the shadows of the mountains behind them. The Setian Knight Commander grimaced. “Fools. They’re dead.” With a shake of his head, he let out a resigned sigh. “Prideful and stupid to the end.” It pained him to see such a waste of good men even from his enemies. Their general should have listened to reason. Together they could have averted the upcoming bloodshed.
“The way the Astocans would tell it, it’s bravery of the highest degree.” Knight General Garrick Nagel shrugged, broad shoulders made even wider by the pauldrons of his plate armor. He twirled his mustache around his thick forefinger. “They give their lives for pride. To claim they bent knee to no one. They would say their gods and people deserve nothing less.”
Atop his brown gelding, Knight General Kasimir Edsel snorted. “Too bad their gods aren’t fighting the battle.” With the recent sunny days, the Knight General’s skin had tanned to a deep brown.
“Indeed.” Stefan nodded. As a believer and leader of the Setian, he understood how a man might wish to have the deities on their side in a battle like this, especially if that man was an Astocan. He pursed his lips as he scratched at the annoying black stubble under his chin and studied the enemy.
Spread like fangs, the peaks of the Sang Reaches cast long shadows as the sun blazed in the cloudless skies. From their depths, the Astocan army boiled in numbers to dwarf his Setian forces. The smell of horse, sweaty men, and metal choked the air as his cavalry spread to his left and right. Up ahead his infantry advanced.
“I still don’t understand your concern for them,” Garrick said.
“You wouldn’t,” Kasimir replied. “Not after what they did—”
Stefan cut Kasimir off with a glare. It served no purpose to remind Garrick of the past. “They’re men with families and livelihoods like us.”
“Never like us,” Garrick snapped. “Lose this battle today and they would enslave us all, rape our women, and pillage our cities.” Nostrils flaring as they often did when he was angry, Garrick pulled so hard on his mustache Stefan wondered if his friend felt any pain at all. “So you’re right, Kas, I wouldn’t understand, not after how they made me suffer. But I know what it means to you, Stefan.” He nodded to the Knight Commander. “You have way more honor than I ever will.”
“Thank you.” Stefan dipped his head and let out a slow breath that Garrick held his temper in check. “You don’t give yourself enough credit, old friend. You’re as honorable a man as I have met, regardless of how you try to hide it.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the thin form of Knight General Cerny as the man made to say something. The Knight Commander spurred his horse forward a few steps. The King’s errand boy could wait a bit longer.
Drumbeats rolled from across the battlefield. Blaring horns and the stomp of marching feet joined in. The jangle of weapons and the trundle of carts from Stefan’s army of Setian played accompaniment. In tight formations, armor dull and dusty, his infantry lines awaited their commands.
A buzz—like flies alighting on a bloody corpse—filled the sweltering air. Arrows darkened the sky, shot from the blackness beneath the drab grey and green mountains.
“Incoming!” boomed the voices of the silver–armored Setian Knight Captains. Their warning rose unnaturally over the trumpets and drums echoing from the enemy’s ranks.
Stefan’s infantry legions brought forearms up to shield the eye ports of their helmets.
The buzz grew in intensity. Arrows began to land, pinging harmlessly off imbued steel plate.
“Be ready!” the Knight Captains yelled as the barrage ended.
Several horns blared down the cavalry lines to Stefan’s sides.
He brushed a stray lock from his face then raised the looking glass to his eye. Despite their location at the base of the mountains some six hundred feet away, the encroaching Astocan soldiers sprang into his vision as if he stood among them. Their archers were preparing another volley.
“Infantry … Formations,” Stefan called out.
The trumpets relayed his order.
Two ranks of shield–bearing swordsmen marched forward. Spread from left to right, they made up the vanguard. A similar formation of pikemen wielding twenty–foot spears followed them ahead of an additional double rank of swordsmen. Behind the column of foot soldiers were Stefan’s ranged legion consisting of bowmen, operators, and Cardian slaves. In unison, over twenty thousand sabatons stomped. The impact with the parched earth resounded—a mocking challenge to the Astocan archers’ efforts.
“Return fire,” Stefan said.
Amid horns announcing the command, the trot of a horse’s hooves accompanied Knight General Cerny’s appearance next to him. Cerny made to speak, but Stefan spared the small man a look, eyebrows raised. Cerny’s mouth snapped shut. With a gloved hand, Cerny dabbed at his sweaty forehead.
At the rear of the infantry, the small complement of bowmen stepped forward. They drew fletchings to ears. Bows twanged and arrows loosed.
Stefan’s gaze followed the flight of the Setian arrows. As expected, they fell woefully short. No man could fire as far as the Astocans with the monster bows they wielded. A derisive cheer rose from the Astocan legions. Stefan smirked.
“Slow forward,” Stefan said to Kasimir and Garrick arrayed on either side of him.
With nods, they called out the order. The Setian heavy foot surged ahead, a step at a time. Their boots drowned out all else.
Across the plain, in numbers like swarming brown ants, the leather–clad Astocans dispatched their infantry. Their cavalry spread to their flanks, lances upright, tassels blowing in the wind. Mounted bowmen moved among them. Stefan gave a wry smile. Renowned for their horseback archery, the large Astocan warriors could deftly handle their mounts while firing their oversized bows with deadly precision. The sight was a thing of beauty … or terror.
“Have the drays follow.”
This time, there was no trumpeting the command. Bannermen brandished the Setian flags in a complicated pattern. The images of a forest with a quake splitting it down the middle swirled with the movements.
Each pulled by a pair of huge, tan–skinned Cardian slaves, the drays trundled forward. The two–wheeled, flat bed carts followed in the paths created by the infantry. The thin, gill–like slits on each side of the Cardians’ necks flared open and closed with their exertion. Two Setian soldiers—the operators—followed behind every dray.
Scorpios sat atop each dray, positioned between the wheels. The weapons measured five–feet from their front to the end of their loading chambers. They were in essence massive crossbows with arms twice as long across. With two thousand scorpios at his disposal, the Astocans stood little chance. Stefan had hoped he wouldn’t need to resort to their use today, but their general had rebuffed any further attempts to parley.
“You wish to speak, Cerny?” Stefan said to the red–faced Knight General. Why had King Nerian chosen to send this buffoon with his message? The man couldn’t lead a horse to a trough. Kissing the King’s ass does have its benefits, he supposed.
“Why would you risk getting your men wounded by moving closer to the Astocans?” Cerny said in a huff. “You will not be able to reach them with your bowmen. Why use them anyway? You have the scorpios.”
Stefan preferred not to waste his time or breath, but he still spoke. His answer might shut Cerny up. Gods knew he couldn’t stand the man’s mouth. “The Astocans are overconfident. They believe if they make us work, that by the time we engage, our men will be tired from marching in heavy plate armor. Add that to the wounded, and they think—”
“The armor is imbued,” Cerny blurted, hairless brows rising. “It weighs no more than leather. And their arrows will not penetrate unless they get lucky.”
“The Astocans know this how?” Stefan tilted his head toward Cerny. Explaining himself was a chore he’d rather not take up with the man, but he did so nonetheless. “They will continue to fire, maybe even take out a few slaves, thinking they have the advantage as we advance. In close combat, their general believes he can win because of the strength kinai gives them. Against lesser forces? Yes … but my men have had their fill of kinai juice as well. Their stamina is beyond what General Dedrick expects. I’ll allow him to feel he can milk their superior range while we draw closer. By the time the scorpios begin, it will be too late for them to retreat.”
“You’re going to force them to charge,” Cerny said, eyes widening.
Stefan gave a slight nod then resumed his attention of his army’s advance.
The Knight Captains bellowed orders. Accordingly, the rearmost shieldbearers paused for the drays to catch up. They aligned themselves next to the wagonbeds in order to protect the slaves against a possible Astocan volley.
Again the buzz rose, the sky darkened, and a hail of arrows fell. Shafts landed among the drays in greater concentration. The Setian soldiers raised shields to protect not only themselves but also the Cardian slaves closest to them. The scorpio operators had their own shields on each dray, and they raised them as well. In some spots, a slave fell, an arrow protruding from his body. When the sky once again lightened, slaves in reserve dashed forward to replace their fallen comrades.
“Cavalry to the wide flanks,” Stefan ordered.
“Hmmm,” Kasimir mused, “you think we’ll need them?”
“I doubt it, but one can never be too certain.”
In response to the horns blaring the new order, several Knight Captains flapped their reins and detached themselves from the long line of horsemen stretching to Stefan’s left and right. Their men followed hard on their heels as they rode toward the battlefield’s eastern and westernmost edges.
The Astocans deployed more men to the wide flanks to outmatch any numbers Stefan produced. Good, maybe I can save some of you.
He judged the distance between his infantry and theirs. “Five hundred feet. Sound the last command for the men to prepare.”
The call went out. Now, it was a simple matter of waiting for the battle to unfold. Despite the certainty that he already knew the outcome, a slight tingle of fear and anticipation ran through Stefan’s body as the space between the armies closed.
“Four hundred and fifty feet or there about,” Knight General Garrick said, a smile splitting his square face, his dark eyes twinkling.
Kasimir grunted his agreement. “No turning back for them now.”
“Nope.” Garrick’s amusement grew to a toothy grin.
The roar and rumble of sixty thousand Astocans became thunderous. Their cavalry wheeled as if to begin their charge.
“S–Sir,” Cerny said, his voice shaky, sweat beading his brow. “Shouldn’t you respond with our cav—?”
“And waste good horses to their mounted archers?” Stefan wrinkled his face in distaste at Cerny’s suggestion. After a deliberate shake of his head, he refocused on his men.
“Watch and learn a thing or three,” Garrick added as flippant as ever.
The Cardian slaves ran to the sides of each dray and began to work. There was the clack, clack, clack of winches being turned, closely followed by the grind of metal gears. The drays, with one operator on top, elevated another few feet. Within moments, two thousand scorpios were primed and ready.
The scorpio operators cranked the winches that drew the bowstring back into firing position. Once secure, they fed the large, steel–tipped bolts into the sliding chambers and declared their readiness.
Standard–bearers waved their flags all along the ranks.
A simultaneous twang followed as the scorpios fired. Indiscernible blurs in their flight, the bolts ripped into the Astocans.
The precision was uncanny. The majority struck true, punching through armor, flesh, and bone like paper. Blood sprayed. Men and horses screamed.
Within the first minute, a second and a third salvo ensued. If a bolt struck a man on horseback, it threw him from his mount. Those on foot simply crumbled before their brethren trampled them.
Two–handed great swords brandished, the Astocans’ pace began to increase in tiny increments. Behind their ranks, the drumbeats also sped up.
Stefan’s army advanced at an almost leisurely rate, one pronounced step at a time.
The air hummed with another flight of death from the scorpios.
Soon the Astocans were trotting. A horn blew from among them. The drums rose to an incessant roll, unfaltering. A roar went up from the enemy ranks, and their speed increased to a sprint. The cacophony of the Astocan charge—hooves, boots, rolling drums, screams, and shouts rolled across the plain in a living wave.
Stefan’s men stood fast, staring down the incoming enemy that outnumbered them at least two to one. Not a single man among the Setian shifted or flinched. They simply waited.
Another flight of bolts tore into the Astocans. Empowered by battle rage and kinai, those pierced in the chest managed a few more steps before they fell. Where the steel–tipped projectiles sliced or severed a limb, that Astocan still attempted to drag himself to the melee.
Ignoring the onrushing forces, Stefan focused on his men and studied the smoothness of their reaction. His soldiers shifted positions instinctively. Their ranks curved at the far ends and collapsed inward with the shieldbearers taking up the foremost positions. Behind them, the pikemen formed a column four lines deep with more swordsmen at their back. To the rear stood the ordered scorpio file, still shooting.
More steel bolts thrummed death into the Astocans.
Yet, their charge did not falter.
Neither did the scorpios.
The Astocan cavalry drove forward, well ahead of their infantry now. When the enemy reached within forty feet, the Setian shieldbearers shifted. The pikemen adjusted their stances and dropped down to brace the pikes into the ground behind them, using the small bucklers at their elbows for support. Into the small spaces opened by the shieldbearers, the twenty–foot spears jutted out.
Too late and moving too fast to pull up, the Astocan cavalry slammed into steel instead of men. Horses died and sent soldiers crashing to the ground. The force of some of the sudden impacts propelled Astocans into the Setian ranks.
The Setian front line took a step back. Simultaneously, the pikemen yanked out their spears from the dead or dying. They shifted, allowing a space between each man, and the next file assumed their places. The movement was seamless. Unable to breach the formation, the next wave of horsemen died, impaled on steel.
Stefan saw he was wrong about one thing.
The Astocan cavalry were not simply archers but trained infantry also. Roaring as their battle rage took them, the ones who flew into the Setian lines that hadn’t sustained grievous wounds lay about them with short swords. Their blows sheared through steel and lopped off limbs. More often than not, it took three or more of his men to down one crazed Astocan. When the last one fell, the Knight Commander let out a relieved breath. The second rank of his swordsmen replaced the first. Stefan shifted his attention to the remainder of the Astocans.
Depleted by more than half, the charge waned while their men still died to the firing scorpios. The drum rolls and triumphant horns faltered, cutting off mid note. By the fifteenth flight of steel bolts, before their main infantry ever reached the Setian front lines, the Astocans broke.
The barrage of projectiles did not end. The Astocans were well within the scorpios’ thirteen hundred foot range. Winches cranked to increase their trajectory. The machines fired again and again. Bolts split skulls, punched through backs, and some cut limbs in half. Fleeing men fell.
Out of habit, Stefan took the pendant that hung from the chain around his neck and kissed the likeness of his wife. Soon, they would be together, but for now, there was a little work left. If they were lucky, maybe a quarter of the Astocans survived. Face a mask, Stefan said, “Call off the scorpios. Kasimir, Garrick, leave as many alive as you can, but bring me their General’s head.”
“King Nerian’s orders were to kill everyone,” Cerny protested.
Garrick clapped the smaller man on the back. “Do that and who would tell of our glorious victory then?”
“But the King—”
“Doesn’t command this field.” Stefan spared a glare for Cerny. He nodded to Kasimir and Garrick. “Send eagles to the other forces and let them know we no longer need them here. Have them head to Castere and take control of what’s left of the Astocan government. I’ll see you back at my pavilion when it’s done.”
“What of the King’s tithe as well as the number to be enslaved?” Garrick raised a questioning eyebrow.
The thought of slavery curdled Stefan’s insides. He didn’t object openly, but his refusal to partake in the negotiations after the victories spoke for itself. Once in a great while someone mistook his concern for softness until his sword proved differently. “Send word to the King that as usual he can have one of the High Council relay his demands.” Nerian wouldn’t be pleased, but then again, he was accustomed to Stefan’s way of doing things. Sweeping victories in return for some leeway was a good tradeoff.
The two Knight Generals put fists to hearts and rode toward their legions.
“Cerny,” Stefan said, the corner of his lips curling. “I don’t care if you’re slotted to be the next Knight Commander. Object to my commands in front my men again, and I will have you flogged and sent home to the King with your back and ass bloody.”
At first, Cerny’s mouth dropped open, and his complexion paled. Then he gathered himself and stiffened. “I’ll have—”
“Are we clear?” Stefan made his eyes blank pits, his features expressionless.
“Yes, sir, Knight Commander Dorn.”
Without another word, Stefan signaled to his escorts. Not caring if Cerny followed, he wheeled his mount to face the neat Setian tent lines spread before him less than a mile away. He set off at a trot.
Inside his tent, Stefan’s gaze drifted to the map of Ostania and all its kingdoms. Three of them now belonged to Seti—the three that mattered the most. Next to the map was an artist’s impression of the Great Divide far to the north in Everland—a jagged tear in the earth that went on for miles. Depicted crawling from the edges, creatures of pure night slunk up from the chasm. Shadelings, every one of them. People fled before certain death. He kept the artwork there as a constant memorial of the darkness that once plagued Ostania. A reminder of why he fought these campaigns.
As he stroked the prickly stubble under his chin, Stefan mulled over the message Cerny had delivered from the King. “Is that all? I need to let my men know they have earned their peace.”
“Look,” Cerny whispered, eyes shifting nervously to the tent’s entrance. “I advise against this.”
Stefan scowled at the man. “And I advise you to keep this news to yourself. If I even hear a word of it from any of my men … an inkling … a whisper ….” He let his voice trail off but deliberately slid a hand to his sword.
Cerny’s head bobbed up and down as he averted his eyes. “As you say, sir. How soon will you speak to your men so Selentis and I can be on our way?”
“Cerny.” Stefan took a deep breath. “You’re trying my patience. Stop, please. Also, I don’t care if she’s outside or how you feel about them … when speaking of Alzari in my presence use the proper title and show respect.”
After sparing the Knight General an additional glare, Stefan stepped outside, his armor clinking as he ducked through his tent’s flaps. Overhead, Denestia’s twin moons shone in a cloudless sky, casting the surrounding countryside in silvery blue. He breathed deep, rolled his neck, and worked the tightness from his back and shoulders. The smell of food, the cackle of laughter, raucous song of drunken soldiers, the tinkle of music, and the giggle of women greeted him. Campfires and torches lit the encampment as his men reveled in their victory. They drank, gambled, gorged themselves on a myriad of dishes, or rutted with whores.
He signaled to the green and gold robed Alzari Matus who stood guard outside his tent—one of King Nerian’s own. The woman, who along with Cerny, had brought the news from the King. News he never expected. “Zar Selentis, if you will be so kind, I need everyone to hear me.”
The Alzari Matus’ face wrinkled in concentration. As with any other of her kind who could delve into the elements of Mater said to reside within everything in the world, Stefan was certain she was doing just that. The ability allowed her to touch the essences within those elements and shape them by the force of her will.
He wanted so much to open up his own senses to see the wonder of what she Forged. But he cringed with the thought of what might await him there. Yet, he couldn’t help but frown. Did she Forge air alone to carry his voice? Or more?
In his youth, he’d often dreamed of wielding the same power as an Alzari Matus or any other Forger. They were lauded as being blessed among the gods, and as a boy of faith, he could not think of a greater honor. Gifted with the ability to harness the elements of Mater like the gods themselves, able to create, to destroy, or to save lives. How he’d dreamed. Until he witnessed what awaited those who succumbed to the very power they wielded. Those horrors had etched themselves into his mind. He shuddered.
“It is done, Knight Commander. You may speak,” the Zar said, her voice showing no strain.
“Thank you, Zar Selentis,” Stefan said. He closed his eyes to quell the emotions warring inside him. Words from The Disciplines echoed in his head. ‘As a leader, be careful what you promise your men. Failure to deliver can be as costly as defeat. Glory, the spoils of war, and the worship of the commoners are good forms of motivation, but use such rewards sparingly. The trust of your men hinges on their belief in you. In turn, victory hinges on that same belief. Break that trust but once, and the damage may be irreparable.’
“Men,” he called as he opened his eyes.
Enhanced by the Alzari Matus’ power, his voice boomed across the encampment to every corner, certain to reach all thirty thousand soldiers. The celebratory noises dwindled away, leaving only the crackle of fire and the scuff of a boot here or there. Heads shifted and eyes focused in his direction.
“For thirty years, you have followed me. You have feasted with me before every battle and after every victory. You have obeyed my commands without question. In turn, I have walked in the footsteps and listened to the words of a great man, a man more like a father to me than the father I knew. To King Nerian the Lightbearer!” Stefan raised his cup of kinai wine and downed it in one gulp.
“To King Nerian the Lightbearer!” his men echoed, cheering each other on as they drank.
The liquor wasn’t as refined as his wife’s was, but it did the job. The kinai wine’s heat flared down his gullet, bringing with it a sense of renewed vigor. Tasting the drink brought on a longing to be with Thania, conjuring memories of her dark hair, coppery skin and golden eyes. Stefan smiled despite the heaviness in his heart. “Men.” The noise died once more. “Tonight, we feast together again, but for another reason. I was a mere youth, my nineteenth naming day when I earned my first command.”
“Are you saying you’re an old man now?” called a gruff voice.
All around, soldiers barely stifled their laughter.
“Not quite, Carim,” Stefan said to the smooth–faced Knight. “But I could whip you and any other youngster who think they can best me with a sword. Wait …” He grinned. “Isn’t that exactly what I did to you two days ago? It was four of you, wasn’t it?”
Guffaws and good–natured ribbing came from the men around Carim. Red faced but smiling, the Knight bowed.
“Anyway,” Stefan said. The men quieted. “When the King began his campaigns, I assured him we would be victorious—I promised YOU victory.”
“Stefan the Undefeated, Stefan the Steadfast,” someone shouted. Picked up by other voices, the names rolled through the camp.
The Knight Commander raised his cup, and the shouts lessened until the men drifted into silence once more. “The victories are not mine alone or the Knight Generals.” He gestured to Garrick, Kasimir and the others. “But yours.” He pointed to the soldiers. “You men made this possible. Your willingness to believe in us, to stand before superior numbers undaunted, and battle to the last breath. Your fortitude to train until your body burns and you can no longer take a step much less lift a weapon has carried us to this point.” Chest heaving, he paused. “YOU … have made the name Setian a name to be feared, a name to be held in awe, a name to be revered for all time!”
A cheer went up then, building into a deafening roar. Stefan allowed it to continue for a few moments. They deserved their elation.
“Today,” Stefan said, his words rising above the din to wash it away. “You won the last victory in our campaign to make Ostania whole once more. We can stand against the shade and any other enemies as one people, one nation, unified. Today, we routed the Astocans like their cousins the Cardians before them. Coupled with the Banai surrender, we have prevailed. Today, we can truly consider ourselves an empire.” Amid the wild whoops that followed, Stefan rolled the word around on his tongue, loving the taste.
“I promised you something else back then. For those of you who remember that day and have witnessed me repeat the same time and again … I promised you peace … a chance to raise your families, to love your wives, to find a wife, start a family, to ensure our future as a people.
“I said you would have a chance to go home to Seti one day to live a different life. Not as soldiers, but as merchants, miners, farmers and teachers, or simply to relax, enjoy life and your children until the end of your days.”
The camp reached a palpable silence.
“You.” He pointed out to his men, drawing his hand from left to right to encompass them all. “You. Every single one of you. The ones before you who have shed blood, who have given an arm, a leg, a life, for the King, for Seti, for victory, deserve this day.
“Men of the Unvanquished …” it was the name many had begun calling them, and although he resisted it, and often said he never wanted to hear the name in his presence, right now, the title fit. “I give you peace.”
When the triumphant cries bellowed, Stefan could no longer hear himself think. He allowed the feeling to wash over him, reveling in the tingle it brought. Not only the cheers and belief of his men but the word peace itself.
It meant he should have been able to finally go home to Seti, be with Thania, and maybe, just maybe, start a family. A smile that did not touch his eyes bloomed on his face. However, as he turned and entered his pavilion with Garrick and Kasimir close on his heels, his expression crumpled.