Read Once A Hero Online

Authors: Michael A. Stackpole

Once A Hero (8 page)

Another long and loud whistle brought my horse back to me. Blackstar got his name because or the black blaze on his white face. Aside from face and white stockings, the monstrous beast is the color of midnight all over, and his disposition is not much lighter. He eyed me with a cold anger for having ridden him into a tripline, but he did not seem hurt by the mishap. It took a low growl from the Dreel to remind him that worse fates were possible before he allowed me to remount him.

Blackstar, as warhorses go, did not weigh as much as some of those my company rode, but he made up in strength and cunning what he lacked in bulk. The fact that he had been trained by Elven masters still made him a bit skittish of me, but we had reached an accommodation over the two years he had been mine. If he pleased me, I would keep the Dreel away from him.

Senan led our squad back to the Haladin camp, which had good water and a meadow where our horses could crop some grass. As the men made up camp and started boiling dried meat, millet, and wild onions into something edible, Aarundel and I inspected the detritus of the Haladin camp.

I poked some very dirty, lice-ridden rags with a stick. "They had been here for a long time, no doubt about it. They must have been deserters. I know the Haladina do not hold with cowardice, but they would have welcomed anyone back before the battle on the central plains."

"I cannot dispute that assessment, but I wonder if these were not more than ordinary bngands." The Elf concentrated for a moment, bringing his dark brows together as he did so. "I seem to recall having heard a rumor about one cavalry company having run off with a payroll for the rest of the mercenaries. This could have been them."

I frowned as I tried to remember details of that story. "That was Dijjal's unit wasn't it? I'm thinking I'm not missing their departure. If this was them, they fell on very hard times."

"Traitors are seldom welcome anywhere, and the Haladina have their tradition of death by Eight Cuts for traitors."

"True enough." I nodded. "In Dijjal's case I'd not mind seeing him roped to his saddle with his own entrails, but that's the only time I've not thought Eight Cuts extreme. Your point about traitors is well-taken, for the Reithrese would not welcome them back, and none of the Man-towns we've liberated would invite them in."

Aarundel shook his head. "Save, perhaps, Aurium. Market centers always have a need for gold and jewels."

"I suppose we will find that out, won't we?"

The whole of the Man-war against the Reithrese had been full of odd alliances, great heroics, and brilliant strategies on the part of the Red Tiger. A couple of years after Tashayul's death he led a slave revolt in south Centisia and took his men into the Kaudian mountains, where they became a bandit band that harried the southern trade routes. The first I heard of him, in fact, came when a bard added a verse to a song about me suggesting I'd be heading off to end the Bandit's career.

I had no such intention because I was spending most of my time with Aarundel, Drogo, and a few others who formed the core of the Steel Pack riding through the border provinces of Tashayul's empire causing trouble for the Reithrese. In Irtysh I picked up the Dreel—embarrassing Duke Sture, Harsian's son and heir, in the process. During that time I heard about how the Red Tiger was becoming bolder in his war with the Reithrese, but I stayed away because Sture created his Exile Legion and rode off to help the Red Tiger.

Of course, with Sture forming up his own military unit, I felt a need to do the same. The Steel Pack was born on my twenty-seventh birthday, and a year later the Red Tiger sent an envoy to me to ask us to join his war of liberation. I took a vote among the men, and we'd fought for the Red Tiger for the last seven years.

The Red Tiger showed a keen sense of strategy in planning out his war. Sture, who constantly agitated for the liberation of Irtysh, did not understand that Centisia and Ispar were the keys to destroying the Reithrese Empire. The Red Tiger did, and worked hard to deprive the Reithrese of their two richest provinces, because in doing so he crippled them and provided himself with the resources he needed to defeat them.

This year we had finally become strong enough to fend off all the assaults on the mountain freestate we had created, and ventured forth into Centisia. The strategy was to split Centisia in half and trim off the southern end of it. Toward that end we sent Sture's Legion driving down toward Polston, then had it turn north at the Aur River while the Red Tiger and I, with the main body of our troops, punched straight east across the Central Plains.

Polston revolted against the Reithrese, and they responded by sending Haladin units to lay siege to the city. Their cavalry units got there quickly on the eastern side of the river, missing Sture's Legion. The Reithrese and Haladin reinforcements, moving slowly with their supply trains and siege engines, hit Sture head-on and stopped. Then we slammed into them from the west and broke them.

The Red Tiger, having crushed the reinforcements for the southern Centisian garrison force, had sent on three quarters of his army under Sture to lift the Haladin siege of Polston. Sture accepted the assignment despite its taking his troops further from Irtysh. As much of a patriot as Sture was, he did tend to enjoy his time in cities, and Polston had all sorts of things to offer a man with such broad tastes as our Sture.

The Steel Pack had been sent north along the Aur River toward the little town of Aurium. The town itself was less important than its location, which was at the confluence of the two rivers that made the Aur. It was possible that the Reithrese might ship Imperial troops from Ispar down the river to attack Polston, and if they were going to do that, the Red Tiger wanted us in Aurium to slow them down. He himself was bringing the remainder of his army up in our wake, so if we could not hold the Reithrese at Aurium, he would stop them elsewhere along the river.

Our primary fear had been—and still was, for that matter—that part of the Haladin force operating in the Central Plains had retreated north and occupied Aurium. If they had done that, our job would be very complicated. By pulling a scouting detail from the Steel Pack and running along ahead with it, we hoped to be able to spot signs of Haladin movement. Still two days' ride out from Aurium, the ambush was the only hostile force we had run into.

I worked my left arm around and grimaced at the ache in my ribs. Hunched down in the shadows, Shijef watched me, his mouth open in a canine grin. He clearly took pleasure in the fact that I hurt, but in him I sensed some pride that the man who had bested him and had become his master had proven very difficult to kill. I smiled understanding at him, which disgusted him, and he shambled off into the darkness.

"Aarundel, if the Haladina get to Aurium first, do you think they will sack the town?"

"Their behavior will depend on a number of factors. I largely believe their conduct will be determined by whether or not they know you are coming after them."

"What difference will that make?"

The Elf smiled. "Were the Haladina raiding at their leisure, they would raze the town after looting."

"Raze it?" I frowned. "It's a trading town. Why destroy it when you can raid it over and over again? The Haladina are shrewd, they'll see the wisdom in that."

"They are quite intelligent, Neal, of that there is no question. The trick of it is this, though—if you are not following them, they will destroy it as a sign of contempt for the Red Tiger and for you."

"And if they know we're coming."

"You said it yourself, it's a trading town." Aarundel shrugged easily and fished a whetstone from a belt-pouch so he could apply it to the blade of his ax. "The Haladina will hold the town so they'll have something for which you'll be willing to trade."

Chapter 3
Received by the Lords of Aurdon
Early Spring
The Present

The little girl's scream brought Gena running through the camp. Darting around small family knots gathered for the noontime meal, she saw Andra standing in the grasses by the edge of the road. Picked wildflowers lay scattered around the screaming child, and blood dripped from twin puncture wounds on her right wrist.

Gena scooped the child up and saw a black serpentine shape slipping off through green grass. She'd not caught enough of a glimpse of the snake to be able to identify it, but the swelling around the wounds already told her it was likely venomous. She carried Andra to the roadway and lay her down just as the girl's mother came running.

"My baby, my baby . . ."

The woman teetered on the brink of hysterics, and Gena knew she could not let the woman break down. Having Andra's mother wailing and crying in her ear would shatter Gena's concentration and distract her so she could not weave the spells that could save the girl. Knowing she had to act quickly, she put an edge into her voice and turned on the woman. "I need you to fetch me bandages, clean bandages, now!"

Her command sent Andra's mother scurrying off, so Gena turned her attention to her patient. The child thrashed on the ground and cried loudly, and both things threatened to disrupt Gena's concentration as much as the mother had. Knowing she would get no useful information from the girl, Gena brushed her fingers over Andra's clammy forehead, casting a spell that dropped the child into a temporary sleep.

Taking Andra's arm, she triggered a simple diagnostic spell. Aside from reporting puncture trauma to the muscles, the spell provided Gena with an impression of corruption spreading through the area. She knew that came from the necrotic processes started by the venom, and acted fast to limit and heal the damage.

Instead of wasting energy on a spell that would cut off blood flow from the arm to the rest of Andra's body, Gena picked a round stone from the roadway and forced it up into Andra's armpit. She enlisted one of the girls gawking down at her to hold the stone tight against Andra's arm, knowing the stone would compress the arteries and veins, temporarily isolating the arm from blood flow.

Had she known exactly what type of snake had bitten Andra, Gena could have chosen a spell specifically created to deal with that snake's bite. Instead she had to rely on a spell designed to counteract most hemotoxic venoms. Pressing her palms against the wound, she invoked the spell, and warmth passed, from her hands to Andra's arm.

The diagnostic spell reported the immediate neutralization of the venom, bringing a smile to Gena's face. "Good, good. You can drop the rock now." She looked up at the people who had gathered around. "She'll live, and with a bit more work here, she'll be fine."

Repairing the damage to Andra's arm should not be difficult at all. Healing spells worked to speed up the body's normal healing processes. With a child Andra's age, the magick had no trouble augmenting her healing rate, and when Gena finally pulled her hands away from the snake bite, smeared blood gave the only clue that Andra had been bitten.

Gena stood slowly and fought off a wave of dizziness. Though the spells had been simple, they had taken something out of her. After a moment or two the dizziness passed, and Gena wiped her hands off with one of the rags the girl's mother had started to tear into bandages.

As Gena moved away from the crowd—leaving Andra in her mother's care—one of the boys Durriken had charged with guard duty came running over to her. "You should see this, m'lady." He jumped up and pointed north-east past one of the wagons.

Walking around the wagons, Genevera saw distant dun hints of the dust cloud long before she heard trumpets or caught the scarlet pennants snapping in the breeze. Unable to identify them at first, she muttered a prayer in hopes they were not Haladina. She had the spells and experience necessary to raise a defense of the camp, but after treating Andra she needed rest before she could be at her best in combat.

The approach to the camp took the riders up a slight incline, which she knew would take the edge off a charge. That hardly mattered, though, as Haladina seldom fought in unison and would attack from many points at once. The grasslands, baked golden-brown by the sun, offered her magicks fodder for a fire, but it would rage out of control and kill her and the people she meant to save as well as their tormentors. Her defense would have to be more careful, making it that much tougher on her, and she wasn't certain she was fully up to the task.

Shenan, Keif's younger brother, stood beside her, shifting throwing stones from left hand to right. "What do you mark them to be, m'lady?"

Gena glanced down at the towheaded boy beside her. "How much can you see?"

"Cloud, all whispylike. Has to be riders." The boy lowered his voice. "If Neal was here, we'd learn them."

She gently rested her right hand on his left shoulder and felt tense muscles loosen beneath rough homespun. She narrowed her eyes and watched carefully, then smiled with relief. "I see banners of red, with black piping and devices."

"Flash of gold from the top of one standard, too, eh?" The Elven female nodded. "You have the eyes of an eagle, Shenan. Just so you know, those are likely Aurdon Rangers."

"How likely?"

Gena squatted down and pointed at a rider at their head. "I believe that is Durriken riding beside their captain, so I do not fear another Haladin raid."

The boy's smile broadened, piling up dimples at the corners of his mouth. "Can I tell my ma?"

Gena nodded, and quite quickly the whole camp had its attention drawn to the approaching riders. She joined the refugees in smiling at the riders, but she neither shouted nor waved until Durriken cut abruptly to the right for a slow-count of three, then rode back to the line. With that signal she knew he had come without coercion or under duress, so she raised her left hand and shouted a welcome.

Durriken rode a bit ahead of the Rangers and reined up short. Cupping her jaw gently in his long-fingered hands, he bent down from the saddle and kissed Gena, then winked at her and turned back toward the others. "Lady Genevera Sylvanii, may I present Captain Floris Fisher of the Aurdon Rangers, Seventh Regiment."

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