[For 14 weeks, beginning on March 19th, on Sundays and Wednesdays, I’ll be posting chapters of book one of my Jaben’s Rift trilogy: From a Far Land. I hope you enjoy it. The first part is here. I’d love to hear any feedback.]
The Best Laid Plans
“Where are they?” Gatlor asked no one in particular. He held his hand above his eyes to shield them against the sun’s onslaught. Even through the shimmering waves of heat rising from the parched ground, it was clear there was no sign of an army anywhere. And where was the scout party sent ahead?
Eight thousand forces from Lore’s Haven stood at the eastern edge of Faedor Woods, ready to engage the army in the Scorched Plains. Seeing through their animals’ eyes, teams of saiken from the Amethyst Order had opened multiple portals from Lore’s Haven large enough for columns of fighters to pour through. The plan was to use the element of surprise to destroy the smallest of the enemy forces before they could call for reinforcements. But the Plains were empty.
He turned to see four men carrying a stretcher accompanied by one of the healers. He kneeled down as they set the injured man on the ground in front of him. Brennon, one of the members of the scout party sent out two days before.
“He insisted he see you immediately,” one of the men said. He nodded and motioned for them to stand back.
As he looked the man over, he did not need to see the healer’s bleak expression to know Brennon was on the verge of death. The soldier fought for each breath, sweat pouring from him, and his skin was a pale ashen color where it wasn’t covered by reddish-brown streaks of half-dried blood.
“Brennon, what happened?” he asked.
At first, Gatlor thought he was too far gone to answer his question, but then the blood-rimmed eyes opened slightly. His lips moved soundlessly as he struggled to speak. Gatlor leaned down closer to hear.
“They knew,” Brennon whispered. “They knew…we were coming…” He coughed harshly, the exertion sending a small trickle of fresh blood from the corner of his mouth. “Ma…Manarachs… Trellin… As soon as the portal closed…they attacked.” His eyes closed again.
Gatlor looked to the healer, who shook his head. “There is nothing I can do,” he said. “He has been injected with Manarach venom. If we had found him sooner, perhaps, but…” His voice trailed off.
Gatlor looked at the soldiers who had carried the dying man. “What of the others?”
They shook their heads. “He was the only survivor, sir,” one said. “The others…”
“The others what, soldier?” he demanded.
“They were torn apart, sir. This man was the only one left whole and alive.”
So they meant for us to find him, he thought. But why? As a warning? To taunt us? He felt an icy fury building within him at the thought of the brutality his men had endured.
“A message…” Brennon rasped, somehow finding the strength to grasp his arm. “They gave me…a message.”
Gatlor forced his anger aside. He gently pulled his arm free, ignoring the streak of red left behind from Brennon’s hand. “What message, Brennon?”
“They sa…said we cannot stop them.” He coughed again, sending more blood down his cheek. “They said they know ev…every move we make.” Then his body contorted from the venom, the muscles in his neck standing out like ropes, pulling his face into a rictus of agony.
Gatlor looked at the healer, who shook his head again. There was only one thing to do. He drew his long dagger from its sheath. He looked at the other warriors and saw their expressions of horrified understanding. They knew what he was about to do, but also knew that it would be a kindness. As one they saluted their fallen comrade. He turned back to Brennon, still writhing in pain.
“Be at peace,” he said, and drove his blade home, ending Brennon’s suffering.
He felt the rage building again as he looked at the blood on his dagger. This time he let it come. He had only ever had to deliver the killing blow on one of his own twice before, and each time, those responsible had paid with their lives. He intended to see that the same thing happened this time as well.
Even through his anger, his warrior’s mind was still calculating odds, considering tactics. He began pacing as he searched for answers. How did they know about the scouting party? Did they really know, or had the enemy gotten lucky, and this message was all talk? Where was the enemy army? What about the other men he had sent to watch the other two armies?
He stopped. If the message were true, if the enemy really did know their plans…
Shouting from the woods at the back of the Haven forces answered his unfinished question. The army, which had been facing the Scorched Plains, scrambled to reorient itself. Even as Gatlor ran toward the shouting, he knew they had to get out of the woods.
If Manarachs were among the attackers, as Brennon’s death attested, his army would be at a major disadvantage underneath the canopy of branches and leaves. Not only could the deadly creatures attack from above, the woods would also conceal the enemy’s numbers, making it impossible to know how many they faced.
“Retreat to the Plains!” he shouted as he ran. “Ware the trees! Regroup on the Plains!” He spotted one of the saiken lo and grabbed her arm. “Erynn, get two other saiken lo and come with me. Have the rest ready to open portals from the Plains to Lore’s Haven on my command.” Erynn nodded and ran off, shouting to get the other saiken adepts’ attention. In a moment, she was back with two more saiken. Together they ran toward the sounds of the battle.
As he ran, he saw the majority of the fighters running as fast as they could for the open plains. Those at the back of the army, however, did not have the luxury of retreat. They were fighting for their lives. Bodies littered the ground as far as he could see into the dense trees.
The warriors slowly gave ground as they backed toward the Plains. As he skidded to a stop, two of the fighters were jerked into the trees above. Another managed to cut the trapsilk before being raised off the ground, but his sword got entangled in the net and he was quickly cut down by Trellin. Gatlor turned to the saiken.
“I need fire. There, there, and there,” he said, pointing. “On my mark.” They nodded and readied themselves.
“Retreat to the Plains!” he shouted. Then he turned to the saiken. “Now.”
Instantly power shot from their hands, causing explosions of flame where he had pointed. The fiery blasts engulfed some of the enemy immediately. The rest hesitated as they saw the fire. The Haven forces took that opportunity to turn and run.
“Again,” he ordered. The saiken sent another wave of explosions, filling in the gaps between the first.
“Retreat to the Plains!” he shouted again at the fighters, even though most of them were already dodging among the trees as fast as they could.
He waited until all of his fighters passed him before running himself. He saw another net drop down and pull one of his men off the ground. Without breaking stride, he jerked a dagger from his bandolier and sent it streaking toward the shadowy figure in the branches above. The Haven fighter dropped back down, with the Manarach falling right after, Gatlor’s dagger buried hilt-deep in its chest.
He slowed to cut the man free of the trapsilk, and the two of them ran for the openings in the trees ahead. Looking back as he ran, he saw the flames vanish. He was not surprised. He expected them to have saiken of their own. The fire had been a momentary diversion to give his fighters a chance to break for the Plains.
As they burst from the trees, he shouted for his soldiers to keep moving to put more distance between them and the forest. The further they could get into the Scorched Plains, the more of the enemy army they would be able to see. The nearest fighters turned and ran, shouting his orders to the others.
Up ahead, two lines of archers stopped and turned back toward the trees, the front row dropping to one knee. He nodded in approval. The archery commander, Revin, had assessed the situation and had his archers ready to give the trailing fighters a little more time.
When the first of the enemy forces cleared the trees, the front row of archers let fly a barrage of arrows. A split second later, the second row released their arrows, and then the archers ran after the rest of the army.
He stopped to see the results. The archers had been brutally accurate. At least two score of the enemy was either dead or wounded, but it was clear that those numbers were insignificant compared to what was emerging from the tree line. For a span of a thousand paces, Trellin, Manarachs, humans, and other races erupted from the forest, a torrent of death and destruction pouring across the Plains after the fleeing fighters.
He turned back toward his army just as large sections of ground crumbled away, dragging scores of warriors into the pits that opened up under their feet. Dozens more tried to stop but either could not slow in time, or were struck from behind by others unaware of the new peril. Grithor! he thought. The warriors adjusted their retreat to avoid the pits, but too late to save those already swallowed by the earth.
For the first time in his life, he was uncertain. It was clear that the enemy had known they were coming, and had sent the bulk of their forces here to destroy the Haven army. He estimated that they were already outnumbered two to one, with more still emerging from the trees. He sprinted after his retreating fighters, who, even with the unexpected appearance of the pits, had opened up a sizable gap between themselves and the enemy.
“Portals!” he shouted, when he had closed some of the distance.
On Revin’s order, the archers stopped again to give the saiken time to open the way back to Lore’s Haven. The saiken worked in teams of three to create portals large enough for a score of fighters to run through side by side. He heard Commander Jorik shouting over the commotion, and then the commander and his company of three hundred men moved into position behind the archers, ready to try to give their forces more time once the enemy got too close for the archers. As Jorik’s men prepared, he saw four portals spring into existence behind the Haven forces.
“Through the portals to the Haven!” he ordered. “Tell them to be ready in case any of the enemy gets through!” He joined the fighters preparing to make their stand. “Revin, have your archers fire at will until the enemy gets too close or they run out of arrows. Once either happens, do not hesitate. Run for a portal.” Revin nodded and turned to his bowmen.
“You heard the captain!” he barked. “Make them pay for their approach! Any saiken you see is a priority target!”
Immediately the archers sent a wave of arrows into the air. Again, scores of the enemy fell. Although that temporarily slowed the approaching horde, it was obvious that it would not slow them very much.
Gatlor saw that the volley of arrows was having an unexpected effect. The arrows struck mainly in the center of the approaching army. This was allowing the enemy to flank the retreating warriors on both sides as they waited to go through the portals. Unless something was done quickly, the Haven forces would be decimated within a matter of minutes. Though he was loathe to leave, he knew he had to deal with this new threat.
“Hold here as long as you can,” he told his commanders. “I must see to our flanks.” Jorik and Revin nodded as they saw what was happening.
“None shall pass while we draw breath,” Jorik said.
Gatlor ran toward the portals, looking for the three saiken who had provided the fiery delay in the forest. They would not be among those who had run ahead to open the portals. He spotted them and ran to them.
“We need protection on our flanks. I need you three on one side, and we will have to use three portals instead of four so that the other side will be protected as well.”
The saiken looked at each other. “Captain,” Erynn said, “there is another way, but it will require dropping two of the portals.”
He looked back to see the archers running for the portals, their quivers empty, while Jorik and his men braced for the onslaught. He turned back to her. “If it will save my fighters, then do it!”
She nodded. “Have the army use the two center portals. We must drop the outside ones.” She turned to the men with her. “We must shield. Belk, tell the north portal. Gavin, the south. Meet at the back of our forces.” Then all three ran in different directions.
Gatlor raced toward the army, shouting as loud as he could, “Use the two center portals! We close the north and south!” Even as he shouted, he saw the nearest portal vanish, then the far one. Seconds later, he saw the saiken running toward where Erynn waited.
The nine adepts formed a semi-circle facing outward. Each put one hand on the shoulder of the saiken between them and Erynn, at the center of the formation. As they took up position, Commander Jorik and his men engaged the enemy. He heard the sharp ring of steel. Unless the saiken worked quickly, Jorik and his men would not survive long.
“Seventy paces!” Erynn shouted.
As one, the nine saiken bowed their heads for a moment, then their heads jerked up and they thrust their free hands, palms outward, toward the enemy. Instantly, a multicolored shield sprang up between the Haven fighters and their attackers, encircling the Haven forces back to the two remaining portals. The seventy pace distance sent the crackling energy surging through the enemy force, cutting the leading attackers off from the main body of the army, and instantly killing any unfortunate enough to be exactly seventy paces from the adepts. The shield sparked and flashed as the enemy tried to breach the wall of power.
The barrier extended fifteen paces beyond where Jorik’s men were fighting. As they realized that, instead of the thousands they expected to face, they were now only fighting a few score, they fought with even greater intensity. Gatlor could see that Jorik’s men had been reduced by at least a third. He did not see Jorik anywhere.
When the enemy fighters inside the shield realized they were cut off, they hesitated. Then they charged toward the semi-circle of adepts. The soldiers at the back of the Haven forces were quicker, however, and moved to intercept them before they could reach the saiken. In a matter of minutes, no enemy fighters remained alive within the shield.
Even with the shield in place, Gatlor knew they could not relax, even for an instant. The opposing saiken were throwing bolts of power at the shield, while the fighters continued to attack it with their weapons. Deafening concussions filled the air from the dimsai attacks. Beads of sweat ran down the faces of the Haven saiken, and they were breathing heavily. He did not know how long they would be able to hold. He hoped it would be long enough.
“Keep moving through the portals! Run!” he yelled.
Moving as quickly as possible, the men and women of Lore’s Haven made their way through the portals. After what seemed an eternity, the last ones staggered through. The only ones remaining were the saiken holding the shield and the two portals, along with what remained of Jorik’s company. From where he stood, he saw that Commander Jorik had fallen along with his men. The saiken were at the end of their endurance. Several swayed on their feet, supporting themselves with the hand on the shoulder of the next in line.
“You men!” Gatlor shouted at Jorik’s remaining fighters. “A score of you prepare to help the saiken get to the portal when the shield drops. The rest check among your fellows to make sure we do not leave any behind who are merely wounded and not dead.” Then he turned to the saiken at the portals. “Drop the portals. I need two of you to open a portal fifteen paces behind the shielders. The rest return to the Haven as soon as that portal is open.”
Before the two larger portals could close, Revin and a score of his archers returned, followed by seven of the remaining members of the Circle. The only Loremaster missing was Seryn. Obviously she had stayed to tend to the wounded.
Revin ran to Gatlor. “Captain, we are restocked and ready.”
He clapped Revin on the shoulder. “And well come you are,” he said. “How many Deadmarks have you?”
Revin turned to his men. “Deadmarks! Front and center!” Eight archers ran forward.
Gatlor motioned toward the shield. “Mark where those dimsai blasts are coming from and take out those saiken as soon as the shield drops. The rest of you, aim at the largest of the front attackers. If you can take out a Manarach, so much the better. Fire one shot and then run for the portal. One shot only, and make it count.”
The archers nodded and took up their positions, as the High One and the other Loremasters came forward.
“What would have you us do, Captain?” the High One asked.
“The shield saiken will only last a few more moments,” Gatlor said. “We need to give them, and the men bringing the wounded, time to get through the portal.”
The High One nodded and turned to the other Loremasters. After a quick discussion, they moved into position behind the archers.
Each shield saiken had two of Jorik’s men behind them, ready to help them through the new portal. More men carried wounded. The archers were in firing position, and the High One turned to Gatlor and nodded, indicating that the Loremasters were ready. He didn’t waste any time.
“Ready! Drop the shield!”
The shield vanished as the adepts collapsed into the waiting arms behind them. The soldiers carried their burdens as quickly as they could toward the portal. Immediately, the archers sent their arrows into the horde, then turned and ran past the Loremasters toward the portal.
Five of the Loremasters sent blazing bolts of power into the enemy ranks. Kalen Dristal waved his arms and a blistering desert wind drove grit and sand into the attackers’ eyes, blinding them momentarily. Then Brin Jalasar, his face bearing a terrible grin of vengeance, stepped forward. “For my son!” he roared, thrusting his arms at the approaching creatures. The stone underneath the front ranks of the enemy exploded upwards, sending bodies flying into the air and forming granite obstacles the rest of the enemy would have to go over or around.
“Now back to the Haven!” Gatlor shouted.
The Loremasters sent one more volley of fire into the horde and then turned and ran through the portal. After a last glance at the enemy, Gatlor and the two remaining saiken ran after them.