Blood Wars, Part One
They hadn’t gone far into the forest when they realized the deception. The wood, which had appeared inconsequential without, was a world of dense foliage and winking shadows within. Trees it should not have contained, loomed miles above their heads. The horses stumbled over roots and tripped through bracken. They couldn’t turn around. The original path had abruptly vanished; when they looked back, they couldn’t tell where they had been. The distress of the men was obvious. Willam the Rash looked for the break of light he’d seen. Ondred did his best to maintain a bored expression.
The King’s mount stumbled over a hidden root and went down on one knee. William tumbled to the ground and rose, cursing. Drawing the sword, he began to slash blindly. The ivy, heavy as fabric, fell in a wide swath and exposed a path on the other side.
“By all the gods!” shouted Anjhest.
The men stared. The King walked through the opening and stamped his foot on the well-packed earth.
“Well, well,” William made no attempt to hide his satisfaction or relief. “This path is so worn it could lead to my bedchamber. Let us hope the birds have had enough privacy to breed.”
“In all likelihood,” observed Ondred, “we will be led straight to the robber’s den.”
“Adventure at last!” Creath, riding up from the rear, brandished his sword wildly. A pair of leather gloves attached to his belt came loose and went sailing through the air, landing in a prickly bush. He did not deign to pick them up, but urged his horse ahead until he was abreast with the King.
The path was broad enough for two and the party set off at a lively pace. After a bit, they halted to rest and water their horses at a small stream. Some time later, they stopped to water them again. It was now well into the afternoon.
“This is a dammed long path,” remarked Dinnisee. “I for one will be glad to see the end of it.”
“I agree,” said Gerlatch. “As of the moment, I would divide my lands to be at home and at table.”
“Silence,” growled the King and would have said more but Creath interrupted with a strangled shout.
“What is it, man?”” asked Dinnisee, looking at Creath rather than in the direction he was pointing. “Have you seen a ghost?”
“My gloves!” said Creath, pointing. “There be the gloves I dropped!”
Ondred walked to the prickly bush and picked them off.
“You dropped your gloves.” He held them up for Creath who still sat astride his horse. “You have them back.”
Creath tightened his hands on the reins and refused to take them. “You don’t understand. I dropped them this morning, just after the King cut through the path.”
The gloves dangled from Ondred’s fingertips as if he too wished to drop them. The men looked startled, then alarmed. For all their frivolous ways, they were experienced outdoorsmen, and the implication of Creath’s statement was not lost. Perri, the falconer’s nephew, set up a wail.
“Shut him up,” growled William to Garrion. “Or I will have him stripped and flayed alive when we reached Ursaulis.”
Garrion shot his nephew a warning look. Perri was his sister’s only boy and he had promised to look after him. The wailing tapered off, replaced by sniveling.
“We’ve been circling ourselves for hours,” Gerlatch stated the obvious.
“We are lost,” said Creath, stating their fears.
“How can that be?” asked Dinnisee. “We haven’t been on the same path. One of us would have noticed.”
“There are rumors of roads such as these in the Banescale near Nevers,” began Anjhest bleakly. “They’re called Twinning Roads. It is said a man will meet himself again and again, but he will never come to an end. Nor will he die.”
Garrion caught his nephew’s eye and shook his head in warning.
Ondred flung the gloves back on the bush, where they dangled. “We aren’t enchanted. We’ve simply gotten ourselves onto a circle track without noticing. Now, we know. That is all.”
He looked to the King for confirmation, but William was staring at the gloves, his jaw popping as he worked away on a blade of grass. “If there is indeed enchantment, it’s slight. Fairy magic, I’ll wager. It is well known that there are fairies at Saundris Cove and some of them must have taken up abode here. We can think our way out of this.” He paused, helping himself to a generous swig of Frennin White. “We must think and think clearly.”
“In the meantime, spare us this Nevers nonsense,” said Ondred to Anjhest waspishly. “There is no such thing as a twinning road.”
“We shall see,” said William, plugging the wineskin. “You,” he pointed to Perri. “Take a stick and fit one of the gloves atop it. Plant it there.” He pointed to a larger bush a short way off. “Now, we shall see if we are chasing our tails.”
Perri planted the stick, the men spurred their mounts, and they set off at an anxious pace. Soon enough, the stick with the glove reappeared. Perri burst into sobs.
“Quiet!” shouted Garrion, but it was too late. The King whipped his horse about and bore down on the boy with a raised crop. But before he could strike, a raucous cry came from the bush. William twisted in his saddle. The men watched, shock still, as the bush trembled and parted. A three spotted falcon emerged and rose magnificently in the air.
“By God, there is it,” shouted William, flinging aside his crop. “Quick! Net it and let’s be done with this dammed sacred place!”
Garrion made a grab for the net, but it was too late. The bird rose above them, filling the air with harsh, angry sounds.
“Look at the size of it!” exclaimed Gerlatch. “It has the span of an eagle!”
“Is it indeed a falcon?” asked Creath.
“Yes, but not the one that lured us here,” began Garrion. “This was is–“
He was interrupted by the bird’s strange behavior. Though it should have escaped, it showed no signs of retreating. It hovered in the air, then dove downward, heading first for Anjhest’s red beard. Anjhest ducked, but the bird managed to rake the top of his head with its talons. Blinded by blood, Anjhest cursed and raised a fist in the air. The bird wasn’t deterred. It dove again and again, eluding the nets, dodging the arrows, forcing each man to acknowledge the cold fury in its eyes.
“Is it guarding a nest?” asked Dinnisee, ducking a talon.
“Kill it! Kill it!” William roared.
The bird changed tactics, flying well above the trees. As it circled, a fine mist began to rise from the ground. The vapor thickened, bellowing into smoke, though there was no smell of fire. Curiously, it had a calming on the horses and they fell asleep on their feet. The men were blinded and scared. The bird gave one final shriek and the air grew still.
“What is happening?” asked Dinnisee, from the center of the mist.
“This is part of the entrapment.” Already, Anjhest sounded dead. “We’ll never escape.”
“Never?” Creath’s voice was tight with fear. “But we must, we must–“
“Sit still,” commanded William. “We will face this like men.”
The smoke wrapped around them; time ceased to exist. Ever so slightly, a breeze began to blow. Bit by bit, the men began to see outlines of one another, their horses, the trees. A sudden gust cleared the air but for a few wisps, tied like ribbons, about the horses feet. In the blink of an eye, that was gone as well.
A man stood before them.
He was slight build and indeterminate years and clad simply in a bluish gray robe. His eyes were gray, just a shade darker than the cloak he wore, and dispassionately noted the agitation of the men.
Finally, he focused on William and nodded his head, as if granting him permission to speak. William, with his usual diplomacy, thundered, “Are you responsible for this? I’ll have your head!”
“In that case, I need to be brief,” His tone was light but there was no humor in his expression as he faced the five men squarely. “You are trespassing in a sikestra. You must leave at once.”
But the path is gone!” cried Anjhest. “We can’t find our way out of this bloody place!”
“Silence!” William, for all his rashness, was no coward. He shot Anjhest a withering look. “I am in charge here.”
“I thought as much. You look familiar.” The man sounded mildly curious.
“I am your King!”
“You are a trespasser in a sikestra, a sacred spot.”
“This is folly. All lands are mine.”
“You have been misinformed. Even kingdoms have limits. You have reached yours.” The gray robed man ignored the collective gasp which followed his statement, choosing instead to brush a feather from his sleeve. He seemed not the least embarrassed by this action; in fact, his attention was momentarily caught up in watching it drift to the ground. “The Eld Forest belongs solely to the Elyon.”
“Who are you to make such an assertion in the face of the High King?” demanded Creath, his face ablaze with outrage. “We are nobles, sirrah, and unused to taking orders from a peasant covered with feathers and lice.”
“Ah, nobles, very well, I will introduce myself. I am the Shautu the Seer, Keeper of the Blue Stones, and Sikestran of the Eld Forest. Perhaps you have heard of me?”
“You are a myth,” said Ondred, flatly.
The Seer laughed, not without mirth. “So you say. In any event, I charge you to leave this place before further harm is done.”
“We are here to capture the three-spotted falcon,” said William, adding, “Dead or alive.”
“No blood must be spilled in the Eld Forest. Rid yourself of that foolish idea.”
“Step aside, sirrah,” declared the King, raising his bow. “Before I put an arrow through your heart.”
William nocked his arrow. The Shautu raised his hand and a harsh, strange language ripped from his throat. The air about them came alive with inhuman sounds. William’s arrow flew forward a few feet, then fell helplessly to the ground. He tried to dismount only to find he couldn’t move. He looked at his nobles. They too were struggling with ropes astride their mounts, bound and helpless. The forest sounds grew mocking, whipping through the air.
“What mischief is this?” William roared. “I am High King of Casoria! How dare you work this foul magic on me?”
“What seems to you most foul is really fortuitous,” the Shautu replied. “Were you to actually spill blood in the Eld Forest, more than mischief would ensue. Go home at once.”
“You cannot order me! You cannot shame a King!”
“Then say I begged. Say I begged you to go home to your throne and your court and your walled city and never to enter the Sacred Forest again.”
It was the last the Seer would speak to them in a language they could understand. The strange words began again, only now the tone was sharper, directive. The horses came fully awake and pricked their ears. The pack ponies were the first to break, scattering nets and wineskins to the ground. Then, the horses followed, snorting, jostling; when they saw a clear path, their hooves ate up the ground. The nobles swayed in their saddles, bobbing and cursing.
They were able to dismount on the outskirts of Nails Bottom, which was three miles past Saundry, where they had camped for the night. In the morning, they awoke to find their mounts had vanished, and so they began their return on foot. Some miles later, they accosted a farmer driving a wagon loaded with pigs, and tossed the swine out. The men surveyed the filthy wagon bed with misgivings.
“This is not a gentlemanly conveyance,” protested Ondred.
“Get in,” said Creath, through gritted teeth.
In accordance with the clomping of the horses’ hooves, the farmer breathed, “Pigs . .. pigs.”
William the Rash re-entered his glorious city amongst urine soaked straw and shamefaced men. The farmer was directed to the smaller bailey and the King entered the castle the kitchen way, enduring silent, curious stares. Ignoring his blisters, William strode into his council chambers and called for his advisors, but before they could convene, he had sensibly declared war.
It was to be a one day battle, an afternoon’s sport at best. Willam acknowledged the Shautu had power, but no magician could withstand the onslaught of one hundred trained men. Alongside his calvary, William had assembled a squad of trained archers, the finest in the realm.
The Eld Forest was pitiful in the face of such an army. In the space of a few days, the leaves of the sycamores had somehow turned a sickly yellow, the pine needles appeared brittle and spare. The army milled about, bored and baffled. William leaned back in his saddle and signaled for his cupbearer.
“I don’t relish slaughter, but the man was most unreasonable. Stiff necked and proud.” His comment was directed to Lord Torpaine, a seasoned veteran who rode at his side. He was flanked on his left by Ondred, resplendent in hammered chain mail over a tunic of brightest green. Those of the original party had already repaired to their various locations. William had called them cowards to no avail.
The King, Ondred, and Torpaine rode to the edge of the field that separated the Eld Forest from the main road.
Torpaine shaded his eyes from the glaring sun. “Sacred forests must be in great demand these days. Is this the best the Elyon could do?”
William shrugged and took a sip of wine. “The fool covered in lice and pigeon feathers seemed assured this was sacred ground.”
“At least the rock is the right color and shape,” said Torpaine.
The rock, ever conspicuous, was set against the forest’s edge. Today, its surface did not shine white, but reflected a dull, bleached gray.
“Once we were inside, the charlatan sought to disguise his poor surroundings with illusion,” offered Ondred. “But the light of day, coupled with our own perceptions, shows us the forest as it really is.”
Torpaine narrowed his eyes, checking the sun’s position.
Rather than embark on a full scale attack, William began the assault with the squad of archers. They were Casoria’s finest: hard, sure men and they rode into the forest at a cantor. The wood offered no resistance.
“Just as I expected,” William signaled for his cupbearer again. “Soon I will have the sorcerer’s head on a pike.”
“As he deserves,” said Ondred, his mail flashing.
Torpaine focused on the back of the head of the last rider and didn’t reply.
Less than an hour later, two of the ten archers emerged. An arrow protruded from the back of one; he managed to reach the King but fell dead off his horse.The second was alive but his wits were addled. “Mist . . . suffocating smoke,” he managed, slack-jawed and drooling. “All the men, horses . . . gone. . . screaming.”
Then, he too was dead.
A circle of men formed around the corpses.
“What is going on here?” demanded William the Rash.
“This one,” said Torpaine, nudging the freshest corpse with the toe of his boot. “told us the others, along with the horses, vanished into smoke. I’ve been in many battles, but I’ve never heard a story like this. I have no reason to doubt; truth comes from dying lips.”
Torpaine proceeded to the corpse lying sprawled by his horse. He turned the body over and tugged at the arrow protruding from its belly, but the shaft was deep and came out only after a series of rude jerks. The arrow was of white wood, light, but with the strength of iron. Torpaine tried to break it in his calloused, soldier’s hand.
“This is not magic, but Pentacacus made,” he said finally. “Our sorcerer has enlisted Whitehair aid, the most savage of the clans.”
“I know of this tribe,” William studied the arrow reflectively, though he was not a reflective man. “They speak in strange tongues and dance naked around fires. This is preposterous! My men have been defeated by untrained savages!”
“Aye, but skilled fighters all the same,” replied Torpaine.
“At dawn, I will lead the charge.” William turned on his heel and stalked off to his tent.
The King was as good as his word, and the morning’s light found him saddled and ready. The first skirmish cost him seven calvary men and two fine horses, forcing the soldiers to retreat before they ever entered the forest. William was too incensed to think of another strategy, and so charged again, shortly before noon. The arrow that pierced his throat was in the first volley. He slumped across his mount, but the animal, caught in the retreating chaos, threw him midway across the field. The King’s corpse lay in the open until nightfall when it was gathered with the rest. From that day forward, that insignificant patch of ground was known as Blunder Field.
Upon reaching Casoria, William received a splendid funeral as befitted his rank. The process lasted for three days, after which his son, William III, was crowned and hastily dubbed the Warrior King. He was only seventeen.
Coronation of William III, Warrior King.