Raike - Book Three
The horses stomped restlessly, bucking against the cold, every grunt accompanied by a blast from their nostrils. Our small contingent of cavalry remained on the look-out, searching the autumn forest to the east. Saddles squeaked with every move, their leather armor gnawing from every shift. The remaining members of infantry, archers, and mages kept a loose eye on the Galinnean village of Orkust to the west; a clutter of homes that lay seemingly lifeless the moment the sun reached the horizon. Behind us, a simple country road twisted back to the heartland of the empire.
We stood on the black sandy shore of the Dead Lake; a writhing mass of water that fed a hundred fjords and a thousand miles of icy wilderness. Across the lake, snow-capped mountain ranges awaited, home to old warlord tribes who wanted nothing more than to mount our heads on the walls next to their slain werewolves, hell hounds, and – rumor had it – a set of infant dragon skulls.
Alysia Kasera Lavarta waited patiently by the roaring fire, her gloved hands clasped as she stared out across the lapping water. A few feet away and with her side to the flames stood Zara, her hand resting on the black sash around her waist, ready to snap it into a spear the moment trouble fell upon us.
The infantry kept an eye on the village. The cavalry took turns provoking the forest ambushers into an attack. The archers searched this way and that. The mages stared at the stars above. No one wore an imperial uniform nor showed an insignia, but that wouldn’t stop anyone from figuring out who we were. We stood on the northern-most tip of the Isparian Empire, facing a wilderness of barbarians, berserkers, and creatures from beyond. If everything went according to plan we would be responsible for the murder of a king and ending a dynasty that had kept the north untamable by Ispar for six hundred years. If we failed, all manner of death and revenge would plague us and everyone we knew for years to come.
For the first time in hours our guide had fallen silent. Mikael remained crouched in front of the fire, warming his face and hands while bouncing on his tiptoes. Everyone enjoyed the relief from his bardic tales until Zara felt compelled to break the silence. “We’re losing the moon.”
“They’ll be here,” chimed Mikael. “Trust me, Agnarr is as eager to meet you all as you are eager to meet him. Probably more so, in fact. You have your southern wine and gold and he’s nothing if not a man of practical sense. Wine for the nobles and gold for the armies. You won’t find a greater match than that on the mortal plane. He’ll offer some ice wine to compare against your southern reds, he’ll have a moose, or the like, on a spit which will be almost palatable, and we’ll all reminisce about the old times of trade before your blockade, the rare furs and mined stones for your spices and wealth. It’ll be easy. Just, you know, avoid talking about Galinnia’s conquest as much as possible. Oh, and that his wife is Beatrix, not Bellatruce. The last person to meet him called Beatrix by his ex-wife’s name and things never really improved from there, did they? Although you may want to give me a moment to speak to Torunn when he gets here, just in case we now have a Katrine or something instead of Beatrix. You know how these things go.”
You would think someone like Mikael would eventually run out of stories to tell, but no. He had something for every occasion, for every religion and every custom. Zara found him three months ago while I was stationed in Anglaterra. He was an associate of an associate who knew absolutely everyone in the north, if his stories were to be believed.
Everything around us was in somewhat disputed control. Galinnia was unified into the empire’s newest province at the tail end of Emperor Aracella’s reign, just before the madness of the four emperors in one year began. The northerners had a claim over Orkust, the village just a stone’s throw away, thanks to someone with a title marrying someone else with a title and promising something to someone else a hundred years ago, thus making King Draegor believe that Orkust was a northern exclave within Galinnia.
Did the empire care? Not in the slightest. Did they care about me, Alysia, Zara, or any of the soldiers with us who were about to be smuggled into enemy territory? No. Was the empire even aware of what we were doing? Not exactly. Was our mission here completely legal? No. But we were doing it anyway.
The skin along the back of my neck was nearly numb with tension, yet it still whispered to me. Something else is out there, watching you. I couldn’t help but shiver as I double-checked our surroundings.
The forest was a hundred yards away. Well within arrow range. The fire in the middle of our group would illuminate our contingent of General Kasera’s vanguard from any distance, even though we had built a low mud wall around it to block the light and bounce as much heat back to us as possible. The main break in the wall faced the lake, allowing our escorts to find us in the dead of night. Over the hours we all found ourselves creeping closer to the warmth, grouping together. Perfect targets for a volley of arrows.
Alysia lifted her chin, peering across the water’s edge. The faintest slosh of an oar striking the lake reached us. The northerners were on their way.
I strode over to Alysia.
She kept her voice as low as she could, peering across the water. “If we flee right now, how far do you think we could get?”
I searched the pair of row boats ahead, looking for whatever had set her off. “If all we’re running from is whoever is in those boats, we could reach your husband in six days. Three if our lives depended on it and if we’re not intercepted along the way. Did you see something?”
“A ship. Bigger than what we were expecting.”
Mikael clapped his hands together and joined us. “No need to worry, m’lady. Agnarr has assured us safe passage and safe passage we shall–” He jolted to the side, surprised that Zara had closed in on him without making a single sound.
“That looked like a private conversation you were interrupting,” said Zara.
“My apologies,” muttered Mikael. “I just don’t want the lady to have any unnecessary doubts. Lord Agnarr has given us his word, you have given him your word, and since I have no interest in losing my head, tongue, hands, or Mikael Junior then I will do my part to the best of my abilities, which means allaying your fears whenever they arise so all parties meet face to face in the best of spirits. Of course, if I have overstepped my boundaries, I will return to the fire.”
Alysia gave our guide a polite nod. “Thank you, Mikael. I just need a moment with my advisors.”
“Of course, m’lady. And while I hate to point it out, may I just mention the risk of turning down a meeting like this? Especially when you’re not the only force in play here. Agnarr is the last friend you have in the north and his time is running out. Draegor is gaining momentum every day and his newest allies will soon have unfettered access to the entire northern ranges. They will strike at every enemy they can find to bolster Draegor’s grip on the region. Trust me, he’s not going to be any weaker than he is right now. I mean, ideally you should’ve made this trip months ago, before half of the northerners fled the region to find safer grounds. Even if they didn’t want to fight for Agnarr, they would’ve at least fought to depose Draegor.”
“You don’t need an army to defeat a king,” I said.
“True, but people respect it more than stabbing him in his sleep,” piped Mikael.
Alysia gave him another polite nod. “Thank you, Mikael. As I was saying, I just need a quick word with my advisors. In private.”
“Of course, of course,” Mikael muttered under his breath before retreating back to the cozy fire.
Zara remained nearby. Tall. Broad shouldered. Killer cheek bones. No doubt known as an ice queen for the lack of warmth in her eyes. Having now seen her day-to-day life a little more I would’ve assumed that she called herself ‘busy’ and thus not interested in forming lasting relationships which in itself was strange. I had seen her return to her room night after night, alone, and talk to herself by the candle light while the laughter of local revelers crept through the air.
Alysia glanced over the thirty two armed faces there for her safety, pulled out two sealed letters – both addressed to the same man but each given a distinctive mark to identify them. Despite looking comfortably warm her fingers shook with an uneven shiver. “I need you to give these to our fastest rider. If anything goes wrong on their way they are to ride, not fight, and deliver them to Auron.”
Zara stared at the letter, the words stuck in the back of her throat. “I don’t want to jump to any conclusions ...”
“Then I’ll do it on your behalf. Mikael’s right. We waited too long and may have already lost the north.”
“I’m curious about what’s different in each letter.”
“My final words to my husband, only one will help to clear him of any wrongdoing if this doesn’t go well.”
Zara dropped the sealed letters to her side. “We can still get you out of here.”
Alysia grimaced as she glanced back towards the Dead Lake. “It’s too late. Come winter this whole place will be overrun with Draegor’s new best friends.”
“Let it,” I said. “The empire has only just acquired Galinnia. They can afford to lose it and take it back later.”
“And who will they send to reclaim it?” asked Alysia.
The likely answer – especially if the governor found out that we were already stirring up trouble in the north – was either Commander Lavarta or General Kasera, which didn’t bode well for Miss Kasera Lavarta in the slightest. Even more annoyingly, the governor would be encouraged to put Lavarta’s cohort through their paces. The cohort had spent the last few months being trained to fight the northern king’s inhuman ally by yours truly, which likely meant that I was supposed to die, not in some backwards province in a forgotten region of the empire but in a frozen shithole of a disputed war zone while freezing my balls off and reconsidering many of life’s forks in the road.
Zara headed over to the lieutenant of the cavalry, spoke with him for but a moment, and passed Alysia’s letter to a young woman riding a gray beast of war, a waif with arctic-blond hair who was no doubt the lightest of riders among the general’s vanguard and who had already proven herself to be quick beyond surprise.
Mikael turned away from the smoke to cough, stirring our attention.
Alysia looked my way. “Do you trust him?”
“Him? No. It took a long time to vet him and his people and they all came out clean, but even so: no. But I don’t trust the soldiers to my rear, either.”
“They’re the best my father has to offer.”
“Your husband’s people would’ve been better.”
“Well, he has to play the next few years by the book.”
A breeze kicked in, carrying our scent out across the lake. Mikael rose, fixed his clothes which had bunched up around his waist, and stood to face the water.
Alysia locked onto the row boat in the lead, her hand moving immediately to her dagger.
“What did you see?” I asked.
Alysia squinted. Hesitant. “I’m not sure. More of a feeling, really.”
The horses stomped about, grunting with unease. Half of them retreated to the other side of the fire, away from the arrivals.
The lieutenant called out. “My lady? You may want to saddle up.”
Mikael turned in dismay. “What? We can’t run now. Please … once you meet Torunn you’ll see that he’s perfectly harmless. A man of gregarious stories. You’ll like him. And he always brings food.”
The horses bucked and gnawed, forcing their riders to rein them back under control.
“My lady? Please?”
The infantry shifted uneasily, gathering into two lines, ready for the order. One of the riders brought Alysia’s chestnut horse closer, both of them moving with great reluctance onto the obsidian sand.
Mikael looked over the spectacle of horses fighting their masters, his features dropping as a deep-seeded concern started to take hold. He reeled back towards the boats, afraid that his well-calculated plans were about to be undone. Beyond us was a ship hiding from the fading moonlight, the front lifting up out of the water and pulled back into the head of a horse, snake, or dragon. Her sails were at rest. All light absent.
Mikael waved one hand through the air. Someone from the second row boat waved back. Mikael cupped his hands around his mouth. “Who goes there?”
A stammered bellow came back to us. “T-Torunn!”
Mikael sank with relief. Grinned at us all. “See? No problem.”
I caught the faintest movement from the row boat in the lead – almost unperceivable – yet it chilled my soul in a way the winter snow could never hope to achieve. One of the figures at the head of the boat was breathing us in. “Alysia? Get on a horse. Now.”
Alysia didn’t hesitate. She pinched the sides of her cloak and hurried back behind the line of infantry.
Mikael spun. Arms out. “M’lady, please … nothing is the matter. Torunn will get us all to Faersrock within the day, I promise.”
Zara squinted into the darkness after me. “Holy fuck ...” Turned. Ran to her horse.
“We’re leaving!” shrieked Alysia, pulling the reins on her horse into a full one-eighty.
“M’lady, please ...”
A shadow leapt from the bow of the row boat. Fifty yards out. The boat nose-dived into the water, the rowers crying out from the imminent capsizing and scrambling to right themselves. The shadow soared overhead, landed on the road behind us and stopped, holding his position.
The infantry spun. Spears down. Shields up. The cavalry moved to surround Alysia, their horses wailing against the new arrival. The archers locked on. Our eight mages readied their best spells. Hands out. Fingers crackling with magic.
The vampire dropped his diamond shield down, cutting off our escape.