Sweat rolled down Avari’s shoulders as she heaved another bundle of hay onto the lift pallet. Straightening, she rubbed her fists into the burning muscles of her back to score away the pain. She sighed as she surveyed the work that still awaited her. More than half the fall haying lie in neat bundles on the floor of the barn. By the end of the day, it had to be loaded onto the lift, hoisted into the loft and unloaded again. She twisted her back sharply to help alleviate the ache of fatigue, and thanked the goddess of the harvest that haying only came once a year. As she leaned to pick up another bundle, however, a knife thunked into the post that stood less than a hand-span from her head.
She whirled and dove, catching up the pitchfork she had been using. Righting herself from the roll, she caught the glint of another thrown dagger, but managed to intercept the deadly missile with the haft of the fork; it tumbling harmlessly into the haystack. Her adversary was not visible, but she did not expect him to be standing in plain sight. She moved again, looking for both a better weapon and her opponent’s location. The barn was still. Slowly she crept closer to the barn door, holding the pitchfork slightly in front of her, until she could see the yard. Nothing. That must mean…
“Oh no!” she gasped as she realized the trap, but it was too late. Something heavy hit her squarely between the shoulders before she could turn toward the open window behind her. Her attacker smirked at her as he leaned through the window, resting his forearms on the sill. The amused expression on his face slowly turned to sorrow.
“I’m sorry, Avari, but you’re dead.” He shook his head. “You’ve got six-inches of steel sticking into your back, and you probably won’t last much longer. It was nice knowing you.”
Avari sighed as she picked up the rock that lay at her feet, and rubbed the new ache in her back.
“Father, you have wounded both my back and my pride. But how do you expect me to finish pitching this hay if I’m dead? I guess you’ll have to take over, though I’d like to see you climb the ladder to the loft!” With her last words, she hefted the stone and flung it at the window. He ducked, cursing profusely.
“Child, you’ll be the death of me yet, not to mention the ruin of the barn!” He fingered the gouge that the rock had put in the window frame. Looking up, he caught a big grin on her face, which she quickly replaced with a more solemn mien.
“Ahh, what’ll I do with you?” he said as he made his way around to the barn door, while her laughter rang from inside.
As he entered, he took stock of his only child leaning against the towering bales of hay. Nearly his height, she was both taller and broader at the shoulder than most men. Years of hard labor had built muscles capable of tossing those bales of hay or restraining the wildest green horse in their corral. His training had granted her the grace seen in those who know their own strength. Her rust-streaked sandy hair and green eyes she had inherited from her mother, but there the resemblance ended. Her mother had been a petite woman with pale skin, gentle manners and a soft voice. And here stood their daughter, her hair damp with sweat and clinging to her face and neck, her sturdy muscles evident through the thin leather of her leggings and in her tanned arms crossed over her chest. Her big white teeth gleamed from under sharp features liberally sprinkled with freckles that had not faded with womanhood. Not a beauty in the usual sense of the word, with milky skin and a fragile air, but she was strong and healthy and spirited, and he loved her more than life itself.
“Well, that’s the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a dead person,” he said, scowling at her. “And you would be dead if that stone had actually been a dagger.”
Avari looked at the pile of hay she was pushing around with her foot. “I know, father. I just wasn’t thinking straight. But who else is going to attack me in the barn in broad daylight?”
“How do you know when or where an enemy will sneak up on you? Do you expect all attacks to come from a charging orc, screaming to let you know he’s there?” Her father’s voice had turned rough and his face red. “It’s that kind of thinking that lay half my leg on a barroom floor! And it’s that kind of thinking that put your mother in her grave!” He sat down on a bale, his face in his hands.
Avari stood quiet, startled at this rare outburst, not knowing what to say. Finally her father looked up, his rage gone, and smiled at her.
“Forgive my ranting. I only want you to understand the importance of self-defense in this world. I’ve taught you all I can. I know you think these little ambushes of mine are bothersome, but trouble always seems to come when you’re not expecting it, or when you’re weary or unprepared. I just don’t ever want to lose you the way I lost your mother.”
Avari went to him as he stood and gave him a hug that made even his ribs ache, tears glinting in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, father. I do understand, and I appreciate all your lessons. I’ll do my best for you, I promise.”
“That’s all I can ask.” He turned to go back to the cabin. “Finish stacking the bales and come in for supper. I’ve made a stew from the venison you brought back yesterday.” He stopped and looked at her sternly. “And don’t forget to retrieve my daggers.”
Avari quickly recovered the dagger from the post and returned to the barn door as he crossed the yard to the small house they shared. He was tall and hugely muscled, evidence of a long, hard life as a warrior. Both his long red hair and beard were braided, and now sported more than a little grey. The only element that destroyed the illusion of a warrior was the wooden leg extending from his left knee to the ground. His legging was tied close to the bottom of his stump, exposing the false limb as if it were a penance.
Avari hesitated, then took careful aim and flung the dagger at his retreating back. It thunked into the wooden leg. Her father stopped and slowly turned. He looked at her, at the dagger, then back to her.
“I’ve been practicing.”
They stared at each other a moment longer, then both burst into laughter and went about their respective tasks.
The sun’s daily demise had painted the sky in a blaze of crimson by the time Avari had the last of the bales stacked away. The tall pines to the west stood as stilettos against the sky, their edges tinged with the blood of the day’s last light. Avari shivered as the cool breeze blew over her skin and clothing still damp with sweat. It was autumn, and the warmth of the day disappeared with the sun. The horses fidgeted at the corral gate, nickering as their mistress neared, nipping at her clothing and hair as if admonishing her for delaying their dinner.
Avari swung herself onto the back of her favorite mount, a dove-gray mare. The weary young woman lay along the animal, her arms wrapped around the sturdy neck, her face nuzzled into the silky mane. She loved her charges, and her most joyful hours were spent riding through the woods and fields. Avari would do anything for her horses.
With a start, she realized for perhaps the first time that this was precisely the way her father felt about her. When she disciplined an animal, it was for its own good; when her father got upset at her, it was for her own good. Avari thought long and hard on the subject as she stabled and fed the horses.
Her father… Her sole guardian, teacher and parent for seventeen of her twenty years, since that dreadful day her mother had died. Her father had been absent, as he often was. He led an order of warriors who were charged with the protection of the lands around the town where they lived. But to protect a resource is to make enemies of those who would have it for themselves. He had thought his wife and daughter safe within the confines of the town, an assumption for which he had paid dearly. Men had come in the night, men intent on hurting Avari’s father the only way they could. Her mother’s screams had torn the peaceful night to bloody shreds, ringing through the quiet village for more than an hour before falling into deadly silence. Her screams had been heard, but unheeded by fearful neighbors reluctant to invite death into their own homes.
Upon his return, Avari’s father was met by the death of his wife and the disappearance of his daughter. Only by virtually tearing down his cottage was he able to find Avari, still hidden, still keeping quiet as her mother had begged her to. Yet the loss of his beautiful wife was too much for the man. He spent the next several days in a tavern, drinking to ease the pain, blaming himself. And the men struck again, seeking to kill a besotted drunk. But years of experience, and his rage at those who had killed his beloved, took his assailants by storm. Four of the seven died in that barroom, the other three died later on gallows, but he had been horribly crippled in the melee.
When months of healing had eased his sore heart and maimed leg, Avari’s father packed up what few belongings he had, sat his daughter firmly on the saddle in front of him, and disappeared. They settled in a vale in the high country of one of the isles well off the mainland coast, and here Avari had grown up, strong and without worry, never caring that there was more to the world than their little ranch and her horses.
A nudge from a warm nose brought Avari back to the present. She smiled and scratched that favorite spot behind the soft ears. The past was the past. She was happy, her horses were happy, and she thought that even her father was happy.
“Well, he’ll have no more complaints about me from now on, will he?” she questioned the horse whose face she held close in both hands. “As he takes care of me, so I’ll take care of him.” She planted a resounding kiss on the horse’s nose and a departing slap on its rump. Laughing, she dodged the gentle kick and ducked out the barn doors.
Across the dark yard, warm golden light glowed from the small cabin’s windows, promising warmth, company and food. Avari quickly drew a pail of water and doused her face, arms and shoulders, rubbing vigorously with a hard bar of homemade soap. The shock of cold water washed both the dirt and her weariness away. Rinsing herself off, she poured the rest of the bucket over her head and scrubbed at her long hair, which had come unbraided sometime during the day. Done, she set off toward the house, and the aroma of venison and fresh pan-bread set her stomach instantly to rumbling.
Her father stood by the fireplace stirring a bubbling black pot. “Supper is ready, so hurry and change before it cools.”
Pulling aside the curtain, she ducked into the little alcove where her bed and a small chest stood. She drew the curtain for some measure of privacy and quickly peeled out of the sodden shirt and pants, toweling herself dry with a rough cloth. Flinging the cloth over a line strung by the bed, she threw open the chest and pulled out a clean linen shirt and newer, softer buckskin leggings. She hurriedly pulled them on, not bothering to tuck the shirt in. After quickly brushing her damp hair, went out to join her father at the table.
Avari smiled as he spooned stew into their wooden bowls. He wore an old apron—now much mended and stained and a little too tight—a gift from Avari as her first attempt at sewing. Time had not improved her techniques much, so he made most of their clothing, using both the soft leather and furs reaped from her hunting, and the white linen that they bought in bolts once a year. But no matter how many times she saw him in that apron, it never failed to bring a smile to her lips.
He noticed her grin and snorted, wheeling around on his peg leg to replace the heavy pot on the hearth hook. He removed the apron and sat down, trying to suppress his own smile. Snatching up a knife, he sawed slabs of dark bread off the steaming loaf.
Quelling her stomach’s ravenous howling, Avari waited patiently, knowing better than to begin ahead of him. She may have grown up on a horse farm, but he had taught her proper manners. After placing several pieces of bread on both plates, he finally bowed his head for a brief blessing.
“Bless the Earth Mother for yielding her bounty so we may grow strong in her service. And bless Eloss the Defender for keeping us safe and healthy in our devotion.”
Avari murmured the blessing along with him, then picked up her spoon and sampled the stew. It was mostly meat, with a few vegetables lurking in the thick gravy. The first mouthful silenced her stomach and set her mouth tingling with its spiciness. She mumbled her approval around the next mouthful.
“You’d best enjoy it. I salted the rest of the carcass down and barreled it up, which means that it’s back to beans and salt pork after this.” Tearing off a hunk of bread, he soaked it liberally in gravy and stuffed it in his mouth.
“Just once, I wish we could have a nice roast instead of salting it all down for winter,” Avari said with a slight pout.
“I’ll bet you a week’s worth of chores you’ll change your mind after the first snows come and all the game runs to the low country,” he said, shaking his spoon at her for emphasis.
When winter struck up here in the highlands, the snows would pile as high as a man’s head. Consequently, hunting in the high country during the winter was notoriously poor. In the past, many an ill-prepared family had been forced to slaughter valuable livestock to survive until spring. Fortunately, Avari’s father was adamant about keeping a well-stocked cellar, so they had never been in danger of going hungry or having to kill any of the brood mares they kept through the winter. In fact, aside from an occasional mountain cat or wolf pack, the only danger with the onset of winter was of going crazy with boredom.
But before winter there would be the harvest festival. Avari and her father would make the four-day trek to the lowlands to sell their stock. Memories of last year’s festival sent a thrill of anxiety through Avari. She enjoyed the bright colors and merriment, but in the last few years these pleasures had been overshadowed by a sense of alienation. As a child Avari had neither noticed nor cared about the not-so-subtle stares of the townsfolk, but with budding womanhood she had become more aware. Later came the realization that people thought she was odd; a woman living in the wilderness, raising horses, wearing masculine leggings and boots. Avari had never known any other way, and was more disturbed that others’ opinions bothered her than in knowing she was different.
“Have you decided yet which horses to sell at the fair this year?” Avari asked, as much to change her own train of thought as from honest curiosity.
Her father’s spoon stopped halfway to his mouth, his eyebrows raised, as if surprised at her subject. Then his gaze drifted back to his bowl.
“Actually I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought. After all, we still have half a moon before the festival.”
“I was just wondering if you planned to buy a couple more mares like we discussed.”
He gave a snort and returned to his meal in earnest. “Still planning to make our little ranch the sole supplier of horseflesh for the entire eastern continent, are you?”
Avari stared at him, then slumped her shoulders and looked away. “We have the best stretch of land in the high-country. It’s a shame to waste it on the few animals that the two of us can handle. With a little help we could—”
“You know how I feel about hiring lowlanders, Avari,” her father interrupted, wiping the last of his stew from the bowl with a crust of bread. He rose to fetch a second helping. “Besides, it’s not like we’re starving to death. The two of us are doing pretty well. And I was thinking of using the profits from the sales at the festival to put some additions onto the house, and maybe set some aside for your dowry.”
Avari flushed red and rose from her seat. “We’re not having that discussion again!” She swept her supper dishes from the table, not waiting for him to finish his meal.
He continued eating, ignoring her outburst. “I don’t understand what you have against marriage, girl. Doesn’t the thought of starting your own family hold any promise for you?”
“Oh, and who would you have me marry? Some smelly goatherd of a lowlander? Or perhaps some prissy city boy, with silk stockings and half my height.”
The big man chuckled at the thought of his tall, strong and invariably temperamental daughter being courted by some pimply-faced cobbler’s son. She would most likely break his skinny neck the first time he laid hands upon her. He sobered slightly and took his bowl to her. Avari was scouring the dishes with a vengeance. Her father put his bowl into the basin and wrapped his massive arms around her shoulders in a short hug.
“You’ll not marry until you’re ready, girl. That I promise.”
She stopped her work and smiled at him. “It’s not that I don’t ever want to marry, Father. It’s just that I can’t think of any of the men around here—”
A sudden piercing squeal shattered her explanation. Their eyes met for a scant instant, horror painted plainly on both their faces; the equine cry of terror had come from the barn.
Her father bounded toward the window, snatching his sword from the mantle on the way. “Avari! Get your bow! And check out the other window!”
Avari snatched the longbow from the corner of the kitchen, and had it strung and her quiver slung over her shoulder before her father had finished his commands.
“It must be those damned wolves again!” she cursed as she readied an arrow.
A gasp from her father whirled her around. The murky glass of the front window glowed red through the open curtain.
“The barn’s afire!” he yelled as he moved to the door.
She glanced out the back window as she had been told, then turned to follow, just in time to hear his bellow of rage.
“It’s a diversion! Thieves! They’re taking the horses!”
She dashed to the door as he lurched onto the porch, his sword raised, yelling obscenities into the night. As she reached the portal, she heard hoof beats and spied several shadowy figures at the edge of light. She heard a whistling whir, then two sharp thunks, like an axe biting into soft wood. Her father’s curses ended in a strangled gasp.
The whole world slowed as Avari watched her father fall backward. He struck hard, bonelessly, eyes wide in shock. Two shafts protruded from his chest, green and red fletching barely showing. A wide red stain spread through the white linen of his shirt, his face set in a surprised but oddly peaceful expression. His hand still clenched the hilt of the broadsword that had been at his side through countless adventures. As the etchings on the blade danced before her eyes with the reflection of the burning barn, Avari’s heart froze in her chest. The thought of never hearing his voice again, never seeing his smile or hearing the throaty laughter that had brought her such joy, stopped her cold.
The thunder of hooves snapped her back to reality. Four horsemen were bearing down on her with swords drawn and more death in their eyes. She saw her first shaft strike the lead rider in the chest before she even realized that she had drawn her bow. Her target tumbled backward as she nocked another arrow and drew. Seeing their leader shot from the saddle brought the other bandits up short. One of the thieves wheeled his mount and shouted, but his words ended as Avari’s second arrow pierced his throat. She fired twice more as the others raced into the woods, but could not see if her arrows found their marks. Everything blurred as her eyes filled with tears.
Avari became aware that her chest ached and realized she was screaming. She stopped and took a sobbing breath, then dropped the bow and returned to her father. Kneeling next to him, she reached out to caress his face, crying more openly now. His features were calm, the color draining away as her tears wetted the cooling skin. He did not blink as her shaking fingers closed those icy blue eyes forever. Finally she broke down completely, leaning over and cradling his head in her arms. Her tears fell steadily into his red hair, darkening its fiery color to match the blood that had already begun to dry on the porch.
Lord Nekdukarr Iveron Darkmist strode through the deepest corridors of the keep, a satisfied smile on his cold lips. He moved like a dark wraith, gliding along the dim passages in near silence despite his apparently bulky plate armor and chainmail. He entered a chamber that comprised an intersection of passages, with a domed ceiling supported by an intricate latticework of arches. One arch revealed an ascending stairway. A small, bent figure stood at the base of the stair, shifting from one foot to the other, gnawing at the filthy claws that tipped its fingers.
As Darkmist approached, the little creature hopped up and down in anticipation, gibbering in an unintelligible language filled with clicks and hisses.
“I wait,” it croaked, switching to the common language of the Dark Gods. “Yes, I wait, and I tell, yes. Master come and I tell, yes. I wait for master, then tell, yes…” Its prattling continued until the dark lord stood only a step away, looking down expectantly. The creature merely looked back, a toothy grin on its mottled features, eyes wide in admiration.
“Well?” Darkmist barked through clenched teeth, his patience draining away. “You have a message?”
The small one’s face went blank as it contemplated its master’s words, then the expression became pained and it began once again to chew on an already badly dulled claw.
“Message?” the hapless creature croaked around its fingers, staring fearfully up at Darkmist.
“Yes. Message!” Darkmist snapped. Then he sighed and continued. “You have a message for me from one of my Dukarr.”
The little beast brightened immediately. “Yes, me tell. Wait for master, then tell.” It grinned at its comprehension, then stood straight and, for the first time, spoke intelligently and clearly.
“Captain Fnarengul wishes to state that all is ready for your address. The troops have been assembled in the Hall of Pillars. We await you in the adjoining chambers.” Having finished its recitation, the messenger beamed up at Darkmist with pride.
“Well, we mustn’t keep them waiting.” Darkmist patted his servant absently on the head and turned to the stairs. Pulling a small feather from a pocket of his cloak, he tossed it into the air as he chanted a short incantation. The feather dissolved into a shower of shimmering dust. The Nekdukarr walked through the dust, then rose from the floor and swooped up the tunnel. The little creature watched him disappear up the sweeping stair, looked around in confusion, then dashed up after him.
Darkmist settled back to the floor after his flight and strode into the chamber where his squires waited. They snapped to attention, some stooping in the cramped quarters. He stopped to survey the group for a moment and smiled. Of the twelve, only two were human. Two rock trolls served as commanders of the main levels of the keep; eight ogres held sub-captain positions, having been chosen for their relative intelligence and ability to lead troops. All of these and several others not present had sworn their allegiance to him, had endured the rites that made them Dukarr, and now wore the iron circlet of Mortas; he gauged their loyalty to be as firm as the stone under his feet.
“Report,” he said.
One of the human Dukarr stepped forward and gave a curt salute. “My Lord, Sub-Captain Glurg has moved his troops into the upper level, as per your orders. By now they should have the area secure and watches set in the outer court. The remaining troops have been assembled in the hall and await your words.”
“Good,” Darkmist said. “Remain here.”
He strode across the room to a set of double doors. The guards stationed to either side snapped to attention and swung the doors open. A wave of noise assailed Darkmist as he stepped onto a balcony overlooking an immense chamber. The room was dominated by twelve polished granite pillars, ten feet thick and ten times that from floor to ceiling. As he looked down at the tightly packed horde, the roar became deafening. He raised his hands and the din subsided. Finally he spoke.
“We have been brothers,” he began, and the crowd fell utterly silent. “Not brothers of blood, nor brothers of race, but brothers of a different kind. Brothers of a kind that outlasts mere ties of kinship or allegiance. For we have been brothers in captivity. This brotherhood has lasted throughout most of your lives, and a large portion of my own. From the beginning I have pledged that I would end our captivity, and that you would reap the wealth of the undeserving surface dwellers.”
A murmur rose from the crowd. Although most of them lacked the basic faculties to grasp his meaning, they could tell by his tone that he was building up to something important.
“And now it is time for my promises to be fulfilled, for our captivity is at an end! We are free!”
The crowd erupted and surged forward in a futile frenzy to reach their lord and commander. Many of the smallest in the crowd were trampled in the crush, but Darkmist did not notice, for he had already turned away and reentered the chamber where his squires waited. He immediately began giving orders.
“Keep one battle group in the upper keep. Post sentries in the outer court day and night. Send out patrols to scout the area and return with detailed maps and any supplies they can plunder. I want the zykell sent out on long-range scouting missions. Have them report with detailed accounts every other day.” He whirled with a wave of dismissal and started out of the room, then stopped and turned back to the group. “And send my fastest flyer to inform my sisters of recent developments.”
Turning away before they had time to bow, Lord Nekdukarr Iveron Darkmist was halfway to his private chambers when next his cruel smile parted to form words.
“And so it begins again, after nearly a hundred years…”