A/N: I would like to thank all the people that have supported me these past four years. Some of them happened to be in my current workplace - encouraging me to seek a publisher despite the fact that none had seen the garbage that I had put down onto electronic paper. Others have wanted to have a sneak peek at the project that I've kept tightly under-wraps.
But most important of all, I would like to acknowledge my good friend Hayate for continually supporting me. It's been a long road but she was the first that I showed my curated pieces of writing to.
So here's the draft I actually wrote to completion. If there's any hope that it might be published, well, here's to many further rewrites!
Though summer had reached its zenith in the valleys just south of the Riulev Range, there was still a nasty chill in the air as Kiralt leaned over the battered parapets of Fort Gumners and the gathering horde below. A wave of dread washed over him but he choked it back, forcing a grin to his face as he glanced to the red-haired man beside him. Dressed in a leather overcoat that trailed down to his knees and shimmied with runes, it was clear that this was no mere Protector. Protocol, regiments – far be it for the man before him to follow through, thought Kiralt, catching sight of a loose strand of long hair that had escaped its binds.
Adventure, as he had commonly stated, came from choice and the unknown. Dismay had met his words when he first broke the news that he had joined the Ylsven Protectors. Not as a captain or lieutenant of standing, from his accomplished years as a member of the infamous mercenary group known as the Vipers but as a lowly Master-of-Arms.
It had taken years to rebuild the trust but Kiralt could say with pride that he would give his life for the man before him.
"How many, do you think are down there?" Kiralt asked.
The man closed his eyes, a crinkle forming between the well-sculpted brows. It was a decidedly odd look for one that had been dubbed the 'Rogue' for his dashing and handsome visage in the Jewel. For a moment, Kiralt pondered whether it would be seen as petty vengeance if he could only point out the virtues of the man before him.
"Thousands," said the mercenary, finally. "There's even a few Aethali down there, too." He looked up and this close, Kiralt could see the gold flecks in his friend's hazel eyes. "We could retreat. Set up defences close to home."
"What choice do we have, Lathin? You know as well as I do that we'd be hard pressed to mount any resistance at the Jewel. At least, not with the recent troubles with the Movement," retorted Kiralt, keeping his voice light. "Besides, it's not like you to second guess." With a tilt of his head, he gestured to the looming and heavy reinforced gates. "Should it all come tumbling down, we've a means of escape."
"Your optimism is noted," said Lathin drily, wiping his sweaty right palm against his trousers. He risked a peek over the battlements. "So much for the Golden Age of Winchesa," he muttered under his breath.
"And here I thought you were just complaining about not having much in the way of jobs," pointed out a familiar voice that sounded like a soft growl. Kiralt startled and whipped his head around to see a wolfish smirk adorn the Aethali's face. She was dressed in the same half-plate armour he wore with blue and gold trimmings on the pauldrons. Tall and lithe, like many of the children of Hythal, she struck an imposing figure atop the parapets.
"'Lori!" he exclaimed.
"Easy, there, sir," said the beastwoman, raising her twin paws above her head, one clutched tightly around a longbow. Her amber eyes stared at the unloaded crossbow that he pointed in her direction. "You wouldn't want to accidentally shoot me."
Kiralt glanced down and felt a flush creep past his thick neck. "Yes well, there shall be no teasing of your commanding officer. Perhaps after we've survived this and there had been a couple of drinks shared all round." He looked up and wished he could wipe away the self-satisfied look from Kulori's face. Instead, his attention refocused to the walls as a loud cry erupted from the barbarians below.
It was swiftly followed by a loud explosion and the entire fort shook down to its foundations. Teeth clenched, Kiralt managed to keep his balance and peered over the fortifications one last time, scanning the teeming mass of bodies that were pressed against the walls. Another blast came from the left and he heard Walax shout out a warning as the mountain men peppered the wall with deadly musket fire.
From whence they had acquired such weapons had been the reason why Kiralt had been assigned to the north of the kingdom. Had he known he would have been drawn into battle, Kiralt thought he might have reconsidered his choices. Perhaps abandon the post he had been assigned and flipped off his superior officer. And return to the obscurity of teaching young recruits the way of the sword, of how to survive on the front lines or to simply patrol the streets of the Jewel.
Another barrage assaulted the walls, blasting out chunks of masonry. Kiralt ducked as the tower beside them toppled, spewing stone and Protectors down the sheer cliff the fort overlooked. In the chaos, he watched as men scrambled for position, preparing to return fire as commanders stood tall, order flying from their lips. Their heads cool when all around them confusion and bedlam reigned.
Just as he manage to stand, Kiralt saw Gistahl, one of the commanding sergeants, motion to a group of men that were attempting to scale the far right. A flurry of arrows and bolts disappeared, at his command, into the swarm of mountain men and he watched as they fell mid-climb like ants once met with the fury of a giant's hand. Cries of pain filtered their way up, adding to the chorus of misery.
Kiralt clenched his teeth and looked to the men around him. Many of the Protectors, both human and Aethali, exchanged grim nods and Kiralt hoped that they could not see the sheer panic hiding beneath the veneer of strength he kept steadily in place. Steady, he thought to himself, as the pressure mounted. He fought to keep the tremble from his hands.
"What are our orders, Kir?" asked Lathin as another attack rocked the stone walls. Kiralt reached out a hand to steady himself. He risked another glance and immediately snapped his head back as a bolt clipped the air where it had once been.
"Tell the men to ready the bows," ordered Kiralt, instilling into his voice an authority he did not feel as he set the crossbow down with one steel-capped boot and loaded in a bolt. He hated the things. Just a twitch of the finger and the projectile would soar through the air and into flesh. There was no finesse or honour to using a crossbow. Now, a sword or an axe – that was far more visceral. "On my mark, we'll whittle down their numbers. Be on the lookout for grapple hooks. Toss them back down if you can." Pivoting on his heel, he made sure that he caught each and every eye of the Protectors before him as he mustered all the courage within his body, tapping into the cold rage that simmered just beneath the surface of his skin.
"By Hapstal's Spear, we will live to see another day!" roared Kulori by his side as she placed a paw on his shoulder in a gesture of support. He took comfort in that as he set his face into snarled outrage. "If the enemy reaches us, we'll strike them down with our blades!"
Her words were met with a resounding bellow. 'For Winchesa!' was the cry on every soldier's lips as they prepared to repel the first wave.
Eyes stinging and hair, coarse and black, matted against his skull, Kiralt nimbly dodged past the crude spear that had thrust towards him and stepped into the mountain man's guard, stabbing him deeply through the gullet. Sweat poured down his face like a rainstorm, blinding him. Yet despite the cuts and bruises, the Thrill sang within him. A mountain man came over the side and swung an axe towards his head. Kiralt adroitly ducked under it, choking back a laugh as the man, bundled in a thick fur-lined tunic, hoped to land an overhead strike. Kiralt pirouetted to the side, his own long sword coming down to bear, slashing at the rear. He watched as the raider fell before he dived back into the melee atop the walls.
Kiralt caught the spinning blade of another crudely shaped axe, pushing back against the woman that wielded it – her hair billowing out in a wave around her. She growled at him and he responded in kind as he managed to break free from her grasp. He pressed his advantage, taking the short precious seconds as she stumbled back to step inside her guard and drive his blade through her stomach. Surprise was writ on her face when he pulled the sword out as the hammer she wielded embedded itself into the Gift-imbued stone. There was a simple joy to the dance that Kiralt had long thought lost but found again as if it were an old friend.
Yet despite the war god's blessing, the other Protectors felt as if they were fighting a desperate battle with the mountain men. He glanced around and saw as fear guided the sword arm of many of the men. These were not the practiced strokes of masters. Rather, they sloppily hacked and slashed at the barbarians that that had graced the walls of the fort as terror gripped their hearts. Kiralt frowned. A familiar anger burned in his chest but he clamped down on it. This was no time for the 'Whirlwind'.
Just as he was about to land a killing blow on a mountain man that was hounding Lathin with a great claymore, he heard a screech of surprise to his right. There, weathering the blows of a skilled combatant was an Aethali. Her brown fur was covered in scarlet red. It was clear that without help she would join the others that had been claimed by Durnham.
There was no question on what he had to do. With one great sweep of his sword, he sliced the head off. The body twitched once as it tried to continue with its downward swing before slumping to the ground.
"Thank you, sir," said the Protector as Kiralt extended a hand to help her up. He gave a nod of acknowledgement but his attention was riveted to the gates on the far side.
They shuddered on their hinges. Another blow rung out and this time the giant heavy oak planks caved, splintering to the sides. In times past, Fort Gumners had once sported a portcullis but the snow and ice had seen to it. Kiralt bit out a curse, eyes searching for Walax and the men who had heeded his call to arms when he had spotted the danger. How had they believed they were safe? The thought only fuelled the flames of rage within and it was all Kiralt could do to leash the 'Whirlwind.'
"What now, sir?" asked the beastwoman. In the thick of combat, Kiralt's mind wandered and he could not recall her name. It slept on the edge of his tongue.
"We keep on fighting," Kiralt answered with a grunt. "Men! Drive these savages back! Give us some breathing room."
As the lingering mounds of snow took on a distinctly violet hue, the mountain men fell back, their numbers significantly diminished. Kiralt watched them slink into the surrounding forest, the proverbial tail between their legs and released the breath he had been holding since the clarion call had sounded over the battlefield. For a moment, his heart had sunk at the thought of another offensive. His men were barely standing as it were and there was an undeniable thirst that clawed at his throat.
Lathin, his coat tattered and blood soaking through his linen shirt, limped up, accompanied by Kulori. The beastwoman had seen better days but what little scrapes she had paled in comparison to some of the others Kiralt had seen.
"Dozens dead, Kir. More than thrice that number injured and being tended to by what physicians there are," reported Lathin, exhaustion evident in his voice.
"Still alive and kicking if you'd believe it. Never thought they'd bring down the tower but that young lieutenant is one creative son of a bitch." He flinched at the glare the beastwoman shot his way. "No offence intended," he hastily added.
Kiralt arched a brow. "Let me guess. With one of their own muskets?"
"He can be taught!" exclaimed Lathin with a cheeky grin as Kulori snorted over his shoulder. "Not sure how he managed to get his mitts on one of 'em, but I wouldn't mind something with that kind of kick."
"I hope he realises that he's trapped us all in this godsforsaken fort."
"You wish, Dithe." A deep baritone reverberated through the air as an Aethali stepped from the shadowed alcove. His fur was a rare russet shade, common to the beastman found in the south. Across his snout, a large gash festered and he carried his left arm at his side. Where once shone polished steel, there was a score of dents and scratches. "There's a route through the pantry that leads outside. A bolt hole, if you will. When they first constructed this place, an Aethali, by the way, was the chief architect, that was one of the first things they installed."
"Good to see you too Walax," said Kiralt. "For a moment there, I'd thought we'd lost any hope of recovering your corpse from the ruins."
"Ha!" grunted the beastman. "If you wanted to see the last of me, the blade will have to be yours—"
"—and straight through the back," finished Kiralt. "What? You don't think I could win in a proper fight?"
"I'd bet on it," came Walax's answer. "But that's neither here or there. We need to shore up a barricade before they attack again."
"Surely, they would give us at least a proper night's rest," said Lathin. "Right, Kir?" It was clear from the way he clutched at his side that the injury bothered him. Kiralt glanced worriedly to his friend but Lathin cut off any questions with a firm shake of his head. 'Not now,' he seemed to mouth.
Kiralt gave a brisk nod. "I'll see to it. As for you, Lathin," he turned towards the mercenary. "You better have that checked by a physician. Afterwards, see what little you can scrounge up from the storerooms. Meat, bread, maybe some wine. We can't have you fainting from the pain. Or hunger. And knowing your better half, it would be best if Kulori escorted you over." He managed a grin though it did not reach his eyes.
"I'll make sure he doesn't keel over," Kulori chimed in dutifully. "Perhaps it would teach him some humility."
Wincing, Lathin trailed after Kulori as she grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and led him to the healer's ward. Kiralt watched them leave, the smile he had forced to his lips fading into a scowl as he spied the Aethali lieutenant resting against the stonework. His eyes were closed but startled open at Kiralt's approach.
"Don't even think it, Dithe," warned the young beastman.
Kiralt pursed his lips. "You'll be no help to anyone like that."
"I could still take you down in ten seconds. Flat."
"Want to test your mettle against the 'Whirlwind?' I'd gladly oblige. Winner receives one bottle from the other's private stash." Without another word, Kiralt slung one arm under Walax and helped him to stand. Instead of guiding the injured beastman towards the barracks, he led him to what remained of the gates.
"You just wait, Dithe. I'll be more than happy to knock you onto that huge arse of yours."
Kiralt woke to the sound of shouts and loud frantic hammering on his door. He sat up, groggily wiping away the last vestiges of sleep. His focus narrowed as he caught sight of a dim light flickering at the edge of the door as the pounding continued, rattling the brass knob. A groan sounded to his right and he saw Lathin crawl to his feet, torso wrapped in tight linen bandages. Before the mercenary could even shout out a greeting, the door opened of its own accord. Kulori and Walax all but stumbled in, torch in hand. What had once been sleek silver was marred with dark oozing red.
The lieutenant was suffering from new cuts while the beastwoman had a nasty slash to her ribs.
"'Lori!" Almost immediately, Lathin was at her side, helping her to a crate that had been stacked close to the entrance.
"What's happened?" asked Kiralt, cutting to the quick even as his thoughts seemed to jump from one conclusion to another. For a brief moment, he remembered another bloodied battlefield. One face leapt to the fore. Shoulder length black hair that curled at the edges. A nose that had been broken in a scuffle during their younger years. Eyes that were a light blue bordering on grey as they reflected the sky above and that were so much like his own.
"—weren't enough." Kiralt blinked and the image was gone.
There was a suffering sigh but Kiralt could not detect the source.
"We're all but overrun. The mountain men are pouring over the walls in the hundreds and our men are being slaughtered." As if to accentuate his claim, there was a wounded cry. Walax glanced over his shoulder, twisting his snout into a grimace that only an Aethali could pull off. "If we don't leave now, none of us will make it out alive."
"By the time they noticed the savages atop the walls, it was too late. Most of them had their throats slit and there were none to man the alarms. We've been caught with our trousers done, lads," said Walax, a touch of irony in his voice. "At the very least, I can say that I died with a full belly."
Kiralt reached for his long sword even as he finished pulling on his boots. While he would have preferred the hefty weight of plate armour protecting his vitals, what they needed now was speed. Lathin, having reassured himself that no harm had yet to come to his favourite beastwoman, had slipped on a fresh shirt and was about to throw his leather overcoat on. "How is the courtyard looking at the moment?"
"There's a clear path to the pantry, if that's what you're asking. We've managed to hold them off but our time is running out, sir," this time Kulori took the lead. Without her armour, it was hard to see the harsh Protector that had been a steady presence at his side. She wore a simple garb though she, at least, had the foresight to slip on a mail hauberk. Walax, himself, had yet to remove the half-plate.
"Right," said Kiralt, urgency lending him a laconic pattern of speech. "Lathin, looks like you'll be on escort duty."
The mercenary seemed ready to protest but Kiralt managed to halt any protests with a sharp look. For a few minutes, they exchanged in silence before the red-haired man tore his hazel eyes away. Lathin looked down, fist clenched tight around his bow.
"What about you, Dithe?" asked Walax as they were ushered out of the room.
Kiralt tossed back a bare toothed smile as he set about readying his gauntlets and greaves. "I'll be serving as the distraction."
The men were falling back. Most were scampering back towards the safety of the hidden passage though some stood strong among the tide of mountain marauders. Bristling brown fur coated Gistahl as he swung his huge great axe with the strength borne of his Gift. Dozens fell in one massive sweep. Just as Kiralt was blessed by Hapshal, so, too was the hulking Protector who hailed from a little known village that sat above the Southern Bay.
He grinned when Kiralt joined him. "The 'Whirlwind' at last," he said. "I left you a couple stragglers." He gestured to the men that streamed through the breach in barricade.
"I'd heard stories of the Wild Bear," said Kiralt as he unsheathed his long sword. In the light of the moon, it seemed to glow with unnatural light. A soft pulsing that whispered of death. "Did you want to make a wager?"
"Ten golden lions."
Kiralt whistled. "Someone's cocky."
"Wouldn't have it any other way," said the sergeant. "Brace yourselves. Here comes another wave."
Staring fixedly ahead, Kiralt dived deep into himself and found the fount of rage that had both frightened and excited him as a child. Even now he had little control over the Gift. The face flashed before him again but he quashed the memories before they could fully form. There was a part of him that was afraid. Who rejected and hated what it meant to be the 'Whirlwind' after everything that had happened.
A stray arrow zipped past him, cutting into his cheek. Kiralt allowed the pain to fuel the fury. As he allowed the anger to build, Kiralt could not help but recall where it had all gone wrong. How had it come to this last suicidal stand in the Riulev Range when once he had only sought the pleasure of teaching? Kiralt supposed that his fortunes had changed when he had accepted that first commission.
It had been early spring and he had been assigned command of a small patrol team.
The thought did not give him the comfort he sought as darkness narrowed his vision, refining it into a sharp focal point as the rage finally settled behind the wheel. For a moment, panic gripped him. The loss of control was a terrifying prospect. But it was soon swallowed by the roaring in his ears and the Thrill of Hapshal's cursed.