It’s been quite some time since I announced any releases, but to tease some forthcoming news about the Storm Trilogy, here is a surprise for you, a short story set at the beginning of the first book of the trilogy, Whispers of a Storm.
If you have already read the trilogy, you will hopefully enjoy this return, fleshing out events in the first few chapters of the book.
If you have never tried my work before, welcome to The Four Vales.
When death came to the forest that morning it moved like the spreading dawn mist, slow, cold and silent. Reaching out for the sentry who was barely awake on his feet as he rested a cramped shoulder against the trunk of an old tree, it stole the life from his throat with a swift, deft cut, before lowering the struggling, twitching corpse to ground. On death came, less cautious now, blood-lust rising as the shadows gained form in the grey light of the new day.
As the sleeping camp and second sentry loomed near, the shadows parted, forming a line of grim warriors, all choosing their footing with care, all that is, except their leader, whose long blade was slick with blood and thirsty for more. Clouding breaths joined the still mist as they shared hand signals and the leader, his eyes bright with eagerness, crept closer to his prey.
Behind him the other warriors slipped through the forest, spreading out in a watchful line, readying their weapons for the carnage that would follow. Clutching at charms and offering silent prayers to their Gods for this glorious opportunity, the Reven waited patiently, saw the struggle that ensued and became aroused by the Valian blood colouring the crisp dawn air as their leader repeatedly hacked his blade into the neck of his next victim.
In the early dawn light he turned to them, uncaring of the strangled, futile scream that had escaped his victim’s open throat before it was parted from the shoulders.
A fierce smile spilt the Reven’s bloodied, tattooed face as he threw his head back in triumph. Raising his weapon high and the severed head aloft, the leader roared out a battle-cry to the grey heavens overhead and threw his trophy towards his enemies.
Below the still canopy of the forest, violence erupted, destroying the peace of the coming day.
As the blood-thirsty howls and whoops of glee broke the serenity of the new day the Valian knight flinched from his light slumber, almost pitching from his stool beside the previous night’s dying fire. Reaching for his blade, his instincts reacting more quickly than his sleep-filled eyes, Elan roared out a warning to his comrades as he dragged himself to his feet and surveyed the chaos before him.
The dawn mist was alive with danger now, a twisting, seething mass of shadows that descended upon the camp like a pack of ravenous wolves. The four of his men he could still see standing cried out their own throaty challenges and rushed forward to meet the threat.
Hefting his large, rounded shield onto his left arm, the Valian knight turned away as the shrieks and curses were drowned out by ringing clashes of steel and a telling scream of agony. As he ran for the solitary tent, pitched at the rear of the camp beneath the boughs of an ancient oak, the knight could feel the cold fear tight in his chest and stiff on his mailed arms.
There were Reven in the Four Vales! And he was certain, by the Storms, that they had come for her…
Elan threw back the canvas door to the tent and could see the wide, fearful eyes that flashed at him from the shadows. As he entered, he knocked his head on the lantern hanging from the tent’s roof, sending the shadows and wan light swirling wildly about him. Ignoring the young woman’s decency, he stabbed his freed blade into the ground and rushed forward to grab her by a slim wrist as she finished buttoning her blouse.
“What is happening?” his charge demanded, as she was hauled her to her feet in a tangle of wild, raven-black hair and gasps.
“We must flee, my lady,” Elan offered, releasing her wrist to sweep up his Valian long sword. “Stay close to me. Leave everything behind.”
Without waiting to hear her protests, he stepped outside, the young woman close behind him. To his horror, he could see that two of his men were down, the Reven hacking them to pieces with their axes and swords. Grimacing, he searched vainly for the horses, but their attackers had already set them free.
“Fall back!” Elan roared, barely heard above the din of battle. He swallowed hard, as two Reven swung their wide, frenzied eyes towards him at the cry.
“Run, my lady,” the knight hissed, as his charge cowered behind him.
As the Valian knight protected the woman’s escape, an attacker rushed across the clearing towards him and leapt over the fire with a scream, his bloodied teeth bared and axe raised high.
Turning the axe aside with his shield, Elan ignored the force of the blow riding up his left arm and hacked his blade into the Reven’s fur-clad side. As his opponent’s wild charge forced him back, the knight pulled his steel free and stepped aside. Howling madly, the Reven stumbled by and Elan swept his blade across the back of his assailant’s bald head, adding a thick scarlet line to the black-inked tattoo of a crow.
Twisting away before the Reven pitched into the tent, Elan spied a Reven tribesman at the far side of the camp, his small crossbow raised. Another Reven stalked warily towards him amidst the dance of battle, crouched low, his bare arms and the twin axes he wielded already awash with blood. Falling back, Elan raised his shield before him, shifting his attention into his retreating heels. As the bolt sprang across the camp towards him, the Valian knight stepped aside, sending the archer a disdainful look.
Two of his men still fought bravely on and as he watched Kaspian cut the Reven axe man down from behind, Elan swallowed down the disgust rising in his throat. Turning, he fled into the shadows of the forest after the woman he had sworn, above all others, to protect.
Elan did not see the Reven leader cut his friend down from behind and would have been glad he did not bear witness to what the tribesmen did to his body.
The Valian knight ran through the forest, ducking low to avoid branches, crashing heavily through the unforgiving thicket as he hurried to catch up with the young woman. It didn’t take him long, such was the colour of her blouse and though he was thankful he had found her, he knew that it would not be long before the Reven did, too.
“My lady,” he gasped, keen to douse the fire in his lungs with some much needed air. As he called out to her again, she sent a wild look over her slim shoulder and then slowed in relief.
As he hurried to her, she folded her arms across her chest, trying to hold herself together.
Elan had protected her for many years, but the tempestuous girl he knew, the one everybody whispered about when her father was not in earshot, was absent now. He saw before him only a frightened glimpse of the woman she could become one day, shackled for now, by her own insecurities and drained from the horror of witnessing her first battle. When Elan had accepted the honour to protect her as they journeyed southwards through the North Vales towards the capital, in this time of peace neither of them could have envisioned what dangers awaited them.
Ignoring his own thoughts as they stirred with worry, Elan cast his suspicions aside. He needed to focus on getting her to safety first. Everything else, beyond that one duty, was insignificant – even beyond his family’s honour and his own life.
As she gathered her breath and wits together, the Valian knight dealt a worried look over his cloaked shoulder. The forest said much with its silence and he failed miserably as he tried to bury his sorrow for another day. His men, all six of them, were his friends, his brothers. They had grown up in Highwater, had began their training on the same cold morning, and he smiled sadly as he lost himself briefly to the memory of a better day…
It had been cold, so very cold in the frosted courtyard that spring morning, but they had stood together as one and remained respectfully still as they listened to William Bay’s speech and the protests from their numb bodies.
As the years slipped away, they had become at first men, and then knights, together. They had bled for one another in numerous border skirmishes with Reven raiders across the Great Divide, had shared the ale and wenches that helped them celebrate their safe return each time.
Elan shook his head sadly. When he should have stood with them, he had willingly turned his back on them. To keep his honour and dignity, he had betrayed theirs.
As he looked back to his charge and remembered his duty, Elan sensed that they would not be able to outrun their attackers. He was too heavily armoured, she, too used to the comforts of her lineage. As his body began to stiffen with worry for her safety, the knight began to sense he would not be parted from his brothers for long.
Letting out a long, heavy sigh, he watched as the woman began to hurry away from him again through the forest, waited, as she realised he was not following and held his breath again, as she slowed to a confused stop.
Shouts began to rise behind him and several crows took to the grey skies overhead, irritated at the disruption. As she came back to him and planted her hands on her leather-clad hips, he could see the confusion in her dark eyes and watched the furrow deepen her brow.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, her confusion falling from her features as she anticipated what his response would be.
Elan looked back to the trail behind him. No birds sang to greet the new day, nothing stirred in the lifting gloom. The distant sounds of combat had long since faded in favour of the victor.
It was quiet, far too quiet.
Clenching his jaw firmly the knight looked back to his charge and softened his worry into a smile that failed miserably.
“Go, my lady,” he told her gently. “I will buy you time to escape and join you if, when I can.”
“No!” the young woman protested. Her face was pale, even paler than usual and her fear froze any further words on her trembling lips.
Shouts of glee echoed through the trees in warning and with his breath trapped in his throat, the Valian knight raised his sword in salute and kissed the bloodied blade.
Turning, Elan ran away from her, not seeing her take several steps after him through the tall trees, not hearing her futile sob as she gave in to her fear and ran from her protector in the opposite direction.
Elan’s mind was clear of all thoughts, save one single purpose, as he strode back towards the glade and the camp they had barely escaped from with their lives. Shapes gained weight in the grey light of the dawn as he stepped past a hollowed tree, bent and broken by storms and time.
Five Reven slipped through the gloom towards him, their cries of glee failing in their throats as he waited for them quietly, his shield raised close before him. Ramming his blade into the ground, Elan pulled off his mailed glove with his teeth. He spat it away and reached out to touch the trunk of the old tree with a bare, shaking hand.
Smiling, Elan closed his eyes, listening to the mournful wail of the rising wind, smiling as he traced the knots in the rotting bark with his fingers.
Opening his eyes, he could see that the Reven waited, allowing him this last moment.
Thoughts flooded his mind again, and as Elan swept up his sword and the Reven charged forward, he regretted that he had not spent more time with Lysette, the woman he had left back in Highwater.
He wished that he had told her that he loved her.