Sneak Peek - The Claiming of the Highlands
“Steady, lads. Steady, lasses. Steady.”
Nestor, a grizzled Highlander with a white beard trailing halfway down his chest, whispered his instructions to the men and women hidden among the trees, Marchers all. Trained as the warriors of the Highlands beginning at the age of ten, they were a hard people. But such a practice proved necessary. They lived in a harsh environment. The Highlands were a beautiful sight, but also dangerous. The rugged land hid untold riches -- gold and silver, precious jewels and more -- among its craggy, snowcapped peaks. But throughout their history the Highlanders had little use for the wealth that could be mined in their homeland. Rather, the people of the Highlands remained focused on a cold, stark and unforgiving reality, one of constant threats and peril, particularly from the north.
For Nestor and the other Highlanders that reality had crashed down upon them just a decade before. In a valley to the east of where the squad of Marchers now hid rose the stronghold of the Highlanders, the Crag, a monolithic rock that thrust up out of the earth and the surrounding forest. Carved from the mountain, the redoubt was a formidable sight. The Highlanders had built their fortress on top of a long-dead volcano, taking great slabs of black stone from the plateau to form its walls. During the night, the citadel receded into the darkness, indistinct in the gloom. The Crag had never fallen to an enemy. Many an army had learned that lesson the hard way, leaving behind crushed bodies and broken spirits. Until that fateful day ten years before, when a traitor among the Marchers had aided the reivers during their surprise attack on the Crag. Supported by warlocks and dark creatures, as soon as the Ogren and Shades broke through the Crag’s outer curtain, the reivers grasped that they had won, and that the fate of the Highlands was sealed. Nestor and many of the Marchers standing with him now and shivering in the early morning cold had lived through that day, a day of shame and infamy. Talyn Kestrel, the Lord of the Highlands, had died that day. Refusing to escape, he fought until the very end in the Hall of the Highland Lord. His son, Benlorin Kestrel, met a similar fate at his camp in the northern peaks. Consequently, the Kestrel line had been broken, or so it had appeared.
Led by the Dunmoorian Lord Johin Killeran, who served as the High King’s regent, from that point forward the reivers had assumed control of the Highlands. The High King had wanted the Highlands outright for himself, but there were still questions about the grandson. Did he die that night as well? Or had he survived the attack? A body had never been found. Therefore, according to the law set down during the time of the first High King, a decade-long regency was required. If no legitimate claimant stepped forward prior to the end of the stated time period, then the Highlands would revert to the High King for administration and rule. Although unhappy with the forced delay, it did not stop the High King, through his selected regent, from doing as he wished within the Highlands, much to the detriment of the Highlanders themselves, who reeled from the shock and loss of what had happened that fateful night and set the Highlands on a path of terror and oppression.
Nestor smiled to himself, remembering those not so long ago dark days. Hope had been lost during that desperate time and he, much like many of his people, had felt cast adrift, their thoughts only of survival, not vengeance. For with none of the other Kingdoms strong enough or willing to aid the Highlands against the expanding dominance of the High King, Killeran and his so-called Army of the Black Sword had been given free rein by Rodric Tessaril to do as charged. Enslave the Highlanders and force them into the mines so that the High King could extract the wealth that he needed to increase his power and achieve his larger objectives. For almost ten years the scheme had worked well for the High King and his sycophants. Until the boy appeared. The boy first known as the Raptor. The boy who aided the Highlanders whenever possible and killed dark creatures with ease. At first, Nestor, staying close to family in the passes of the northern Highlands, had taken the stories that had begun to spread among the peaks as no more than the fantasies of a desperate people, a people slowly being crushed under the heel of the High King. Even though the Marchers had the will to continue the fight, they didn’t have the numbers to defeat the thousands of reivers that had flooded into the Highlands as part of the Army of the Black Sword and, more importantly, they had no way to defend against the Dark Magic of Killeran’s warlocks.
But with time, as the stories continued to proliferate among the Highland towns and villages, and Nestor began to find evidence of the Raptor’s work sprinkled among the Highland peaks – a small village saved from a reiver patrol thanks to the sharp shooting of a near perfect archer or the remains of several Ogren hamstrung and beheaded – he had started to believe, his hope returning once more. For Nestor and many others, that boy who had become the Raptor had shifted from myth to reality, in fact a new reality that held the promise of a better future for the subjugated Highlanders. The same boy who became a constant thorn in Killeran’s side, burning down his primary fort and in the process reigniting the fire for freedom that now blazed in the breast of every Marcher. The boy who just a few months before had become the Lord of the Highlands. The Lost Kestrel was no longer lost. The grandson of Talyn Kestrel had returned to the Highlands to take his rightful place, and woe to any who opposed him, as the honorable Marchers had a saying: “A debt is owed.”
With the return of the Lord of the Highlands, the Marchers began collecting on those debts, starting with the Army of the Black Sword, which had pushed deeper into the Highlands seeking to quell the uprising before it gained a momentum that could not be stopped. Killeran’s reivers had failed miserably. What a glorious day that had been, thought Nestor, allowing his mind to drift just for a moment even as his eyes scanned his surroundings in an unerring arc, paying particular attention to the gulley that ran beneath where the Marchers hid among the evergreens. With the last of night still upon them, there was nothing but shadows to stare at among the bracken below.
Even though Ogren and Shades had been used in support of the reivers, the Marchers under the command of Thomas Kestrel had destroyed the Army of the Black Sword against the walls of a Highland village named Anselm, which was located at the very edge of one of the northern passes. Since that time, the Marchers had harried and harassed any reivers foolish enough to remain in the Highlands, driving them out or, as Nestor preferred, killing them. For the Marchers sought to pay their debts, and they owed the reivers a huge sum for the pain, misery, and death Killeran’s lackeys had spawned in their homeland since the fall of the Crag.
Yet even with one victory attained, other challenges remained. Dark creatures from the Charnel Mountains continued to cross the barren Northern Steppes, seeking to gain a foothold in the Highlands for their master, who stirred once more. It was because of that threat, one that had troubled the Highlands for centuries, that Nestor and his Marchers waited patiently among the trees, bows in hand, several long, steel-tipped arrows stuck point first into the rocky soil and within easy reach. The Shadow Lord sought the Kingdoms for his own, and when his Dark Horde descended from the north the Lord Thomas and every other Highland chief, Nestor included, believed that the black-hearted bastard would seek to avoid the Breaker, the massive, granite wall to the west that ran from the Highlands to the coast and the Winter Sea. Three hundred feet in height and one hundred feet in width, the Breaker was constructed after the Great War by the Kingdoms as a way to defend against the Dark Horde, believing that the massive barrier would prevent the Ogren and Shades, Fearhounds and Mongrels, and the other terrifying, monstrous dark creatures that obeyed the Shadow Lord from threatening the Kingdoms once again. Yet Nestor scoffed at the naïve and misplaced hopes of those who had thought a stone wall would eliminate the need to defend against such an ancient evil. The Shadow Lord was not a fool. He had simply adopted a different strategy, seeking different routes into the west that would allow him to bypass the Breaker. Thus, the importance of the Highlands to his plans as an alternative path into the Kingdoms. Because of this threat, the new Highland Lord had charged Nestor and his Marchers with protecting the northern Highlands while he made his formal claim to the Highland throne during the Council of the Kingdoms.
Nestor hoped that all had gone well in Eamhain Mhacha, understanding the danger that Thomas, Coban, Oso, and the other Marchers had ridden toward. A danger that was difficult to defend against because more often than not politics hid your enemy in plain sight up until the instant you felt the dagger slide into your back. Much better to be here in the Highlands where you had no doubt about what you were fighting for and what you were fighting against.
“On my command,” whispered Nestor, his eyes tightening as he glimpsed finally the movement that he had been expecting. The several dozen Marchers raised their bows in unison, the pull back on their strings barely making a sound as the biting wind swept up from the Northern Steppes, finding a path through the ravines and gullies leading up to the higher passes.
Large shapes had appeared just below the Marchers in the gloom of the early morning, the sun yet to find its way over the towering, rugged mountain peaks to the east. Bunched together, the huge creatures struggled up the slope of broken brush and loose rock, unaware or uncaring of what waited for them at the top.
The arrows flew through the morning mist, almost all finding a target. Roars of anger and pain echoed off the surrounding spires of rock. Below the Marchers some of the large shapes had fallen to the ground, never to rise again. But only a few, as these creatures were difficult to kill because of their armor and toughened hide, often requiring an arrow through the eye to ensure a clean kill, and to ask that of the Marchers in the dim light of the morning would have been unfair.
The Marchers immediately heeded Nestor’s command, pulling free the arrows they had stuck in the dirt by their feet and fitting them to the taut strings of their bows.
“On my command!”
The Marchers pulled back on their heavy bows, now seeking individual targets. The dark creatures below them had separated, their once orderly march having dissolved into a maelstrom of uncoordinated activity. Several of the beasts roared in rage and began to climb the slope toward their attackers.
A second flight of arrows arced through the air, all striking true this time as the monsters emerged from the grey murk in their rush to confront their tormentors. The dark creatures roared in rage as they struggled up the loose rocks of the incline, several using the broken brush to pull themselves up in order to avoid sliding back down the steep slope. Twice the size of a man, their heavily muscled bodies covered in fur, Ogren were truly hideous creatures. Their massive shoulders and upper body sometimes proved too heavy for their spines, forcing them to walk hunched over. Their chiseled, beast-like faces looked as if they had been carved from rock. Long, sharp tusks protruded from their lower lips to curl around their cheeks. They lacked intelligence, but their strength and viciousness more than made up for that shortcoming. Ogren were efficient soldiers. They enjoyed killing, and given the opportunity they ate what they killed, no matter what it was. A single person did not willingly fight an Ogren, not if they wanted to live. But the Marchers had mastered how to fight dark creatures such as these.
The Marchers responded a third time to Nestor’s command, ignoring the Ogren as they hauled themselves closer, several resembling pin cushions as arrows sprouted from their chests and thighs, the wounds seemingly having no effect on the enraged beasts.
“On my command!”
The Marchers raised their bows once more, sighting on individual targets, selecting the Ogren that had scrabbled closest to the Marcher line.
The third wave of arrows had a devastating impact at such a close distance, the steel-tipped shafts of wood tearing through Ogren eyes and mouths as the Marchers targeted where the beasts were most vulnerable. Almost all of the Ogren closest to the Marchers fell to the ground, an arrow embedded in their brains. But not every dark creature unfortunately. Therefore, Nestor judged that it was time to go.
The Marchers quickly began pulling back, following Nestor as he trotted off to the south. The Highland chief took great pleasure in the fact that they had hurt the Ogren raiding party badly with none of his Marchers the worse for wear. But the dark creatures were too many for the Marchers to stand and fight, and the beasts would be after them in an instant. In fact, he could hear several of the Ogren already pulling themselves to the top of the slope, their roars of triumph sending a shiver through his body and giving him a greater sense of urgency as the monstrous beasts began the chase.
“Come on my lads!” encouraged Nestor. “Come on my lasses! No one for an Ogren cookpot tonight.”
The Marchers responded with a burst of speed. Increasing their pace, Nestor and his fighters ran across the rocky terrain, understanding the price they would pay if caught.
A tall man stood unmoving within the shadows of the forest, looking out from his place of concealment among the evergreens and birch trees at the verge of a small plateau. The field of long grass funneled toward him, constricted by two large, stone outcroppings that loomed above the wood on both sides. This would do nicely, he thought. Nicely, indeed.
He wore brown breeks and a dark blue shirt that covered a slim body. Though he did not look it, he had a deceptive strength. The cloak he wore not only helped to ward off the chill, but it also swirled around him, its green and brown colors allowing him to blend in perfectly with the environment. His piercing blue eyes held an intensity that would have frightened most men and were accentuated by the sharp features of his face. The short black beard flecked with grey gave him an almost dastardly appearance. If anyone had the courage to tell him so, he would have smiled and thanked them for the compliment.
“They come,” said the diminutive woman standing next to him, who wore a similarly designed cloak so that she would remain hidden among the trees as well. She had used the Talent to scan their surroundings, having expected their quarry to arrive shortly after sunrise.
“It’s about time,” replied the man. “I’m tired of waiting.” He glanced down at the beautiful woman who had stolen his heart so long ago. No more than five feet tall, she carried herself like a giant. As she swept her dark, chestnut hair away from her face with a quick swipe of her hand, she revealed deep blue eyes. Eyes that the tall man had often gotten lost in time and time again, much to his pleasure. In his mind, saying she was beautiful did not do her justice.
A massive shadow approached from behind, only the bright yellow of its eyes visible in the gloom of the forest. The growl that emanated from its throat sounded like the rumble of thunder.
“Yes, I know you had a part to play in putting this all together, Beluil,” said the tall man, turning toward the wolf as it stepped out of the murk. The wolf stood as tall as a pony. Covered in a thick, black fur, he was invisible in the night, except for the streak of white fur that crossed his eyes. “Are you and your packs ready?”
Beluil growled once more, stretching his jaws in anticipation of what was to come and revealing his sharp teeth in the process.
“Then off with you, you big furball. We’ll meet in the center.”
Beluil dashed back into the trees straight away, lost from sight in less than a second.
“I’m glad that wolf is a friend,” said Catal Huyuk, the hulking warrior stepping forward to stand next to his companions. He stood a head taller than most men, and his dark brown face disguised his age. His leathery skin showed him to be a man who had spent most of his life in the outdoors, and that he wasted little time in towns or cities. His long black hair was held back from his face by a knot of leather at the base of his neck. He was dressed in the leathers of a woodsman with a huge sword strapped to his back and a wickedly curved axe hanging at his waist instead of the expected bow and quiver of arrows. “Because I would hate to be his enemy.”
“Yes, indeed,” replied Rya. “Our grandson has a habit of acquiring dangerous friends.”
“That’s why I like him so much,” rumbled Catal Huyuk. “He keeps things interesting and fun. Makes you feel alive.”
“Fun?” asked Rya Keldragan, eyebrow raised quizzically.
“What could be more fun than killing dark creatures?” replied Catal Huyuk.
“It’s time,” said Rynlin Keldragan, ending the banter around him, his gaze fixed on the far side of the field. “They’re only a few hundred yards from the entrance and coming fast.”
“Good,” said Catal Huyuk, who pulled his battle axe free. Even the largest of men would struggle to use the heavy weapon effectively, yet the Sylvan Warrior flipped it from one hand to the other as if it were no more than a child’s toy. “I haven’t been in a good fight in days.”
Nestor cursed as he ran through the forest, ignoring the branches that scraped at his face and body. He had started out leading his Marchers through the fractured and jagged terrain as they sprinted from one copse of trees to the next after their ambush of the Ogren raiding party. But that hadn’t lasted long. The younger and faster Marchers had sped ahead, and he had urged them on.
Now he was the last one, and he had larger things to worry about. Much larger. A handful of Ogren had closed in on him since the chase began, the foul beasts now no more than a few hundred feet behind and coming fast. The rest of the dark creature raiding party followed just seconds behind, ravenously pursuing their prey, pushed on by hunger and rage. Roars blasted through the small forest, the Ogren calling to one another as they continued to hound the Highlanders.
Peeking quickly over his shoulder to gauge his distance from the closest Ogren, the veteran Marcher stumbled on some loose rock, tumbling to the ground and slamming into the base of a fallen tree. Nestor hauled himself up rapidly, thankful that he hadn’t injured anything except for his pride, but also realizing that his clumsiness had cost him greatly. The five Ogren that had raced ahead of the other dark creatures approached in a line, having caught up to him. The beasts bellowed in triumph as they brandished their short swords and axes, strings of spittle hanging from their curved tusks. Nestor pulled his sword from its scabbard across his back, relieved that it was still there after his tumble. There was no point in running. He’d never make it now. The Ogren were too fast. Better to die like a Marcher.
One Ogren charged forward, wanting the kill for itself. Nestor set himself, preparing for the attack and hoping that he could put up a good fight at least for a time. If he could delay the Ogren, even for just a couple minutes, then perhaps the time earned would aid his Marchers in their escape. The Ogren raised its battle axe above its head, thinking to bring it down on top of his smaller opponent and split him in two. Raising his sword in a two-handed grip, Nestor sought to deflect the blow, but he knew with some regret that he had little chance of success, the dark creature’s blow too powerful.
At the last second, Nestor ducked down, hearing the distinctive thrum from behind him as three arrows in rapid succession streaked through the space he had just been occupying. The first arrow struck the beast in the chest, the second in the thigh, but those only enraged it. It was the third, driving through its cheek into its brain, that finished the job. The massive beast crashed face first to the ground, dead before it hit the rocky soil. The other Ogren watched in disbelief, then bellowed in anger and rushed forward.
A tall Highlander stood above Nestor, offering a hand. Nestor gladly accepted it and quickly regained his feet.
“Come on, old man,” said Aric. “We’re almost to the plateau. Once there, it’s just a straight run across. Can you do it without falling?”
Not bothering to reply, though several pointed comments crossed his mind, Nestor ran through the forest, dodging trees, rocks and other obstacles that sought to take him down, until finally breaking out onto the wide stretch of grassland that he saw narrowed just ahead between two rocky outcroppings. Aric stuck close to his heels, apparently wanting to make certain that Nestor didn’t have any more problems during their attempted escape.
Blasted children, Nestor thought. Stronger. Faster. Thinking they knew more than you. Much too confident. Not understanding the value of experience. The Highland chief pushed the thoughts from his mind. Yes, he was old. But he could still fight and lead. And he’d need to thank Aric once they escaped the Ogren. The young stripling had saved his life, and for that he owed him a debt.
“There they are,” rumbled Catal Huyuk, pointing to the two Highlanders sprinting through the long grass and striving for the trees at the far side.
“The Ogren are gaining,” said Rya. “They’re not going to make it.”
Nestor and Aric didn’t bother to look behind them. The Marchers were well aware of the danger that pursued them. Four Ogren were no more than one hundred feet behind them and gaining with every step, the beasts’ long strides allowing them to make up the ground in seconds. The remainder of the Ogren raiding party, almost five dozen in all despite their previous losses, followed after them, intent on the chase and not paying attention to their surroundings.
“They don’t need to make it,” said Rynlin. “They just need to get a little farther. We need the last of the Ogren into the gap. Otherwise, the trap fails.”
“Marchers to the ready,” Catal Huyuk ordered. Nestor’s Marchers, all of whom had made it safely across the grassland into the small forest at the far side, stepped to the edge of the wood. Bows in hand, an arrow already on the string, they placed a half dozen arrows each into the soft earth in front of them, ready to launch on command. Nestor and Aric were agonizingly close, but it was too late. They weren’t going to reach the safety of the trees by just a small margin. The Ogren were only a dozen feet behind them now.
“They’re through the gap,” confirmed Rya.
“Now!” shouted Rynlin.
He and Rya stepped forward, seizing hold of the Talent and allowing the natural energy of the world to flow through them. Several other Sylvan Warriors followed them out from the trees. Maden, almost as tall as Rynlin, wore a sword at his hip. Though it appeared as if his features were carved from granite, he always had a ready smile, and he wore it now as balls of white energy danced across his hands. Gavin of Ferranagh, a short man with a long, white beard that he looped in his belt to keep out of the way, emerged next. Followed by Brinn Kavolin, an extremely tall, slender man.
He had a sharp, angular face and dark brown hair that continually threatened to fall into his eyes. Right behind him came the twins, Elisia and Aurelia Valeran from Kashel, the only difference between the two being the color of their hair, Elisia’s a midnight black and Aurelia’s a shocking white.
Just as the lead Ogren was about to stab his sword into Nestor’s back, a bolt of white light shot over the Marcher’s head and blasted through the chest of the pursuing Ogren. Nestor had ducked the blow he felt coming, sliding through the grass and then tumbling past the men and women who stepped from between the trees and faced the onrushing Ogren. Once again Aric helped him to his feet, and they watched in astonishment and delight as more bolts and balls of white energy slammed into the charging dark creatures, blasting through their wide chests and leaving a sickly smell of burning meat to drift on the wind.
“Release at will!”
Catal Huyuk’s craggy voice cut through the commotion. The Marchers lined up behind the Sylvan Warriors released their first flight of arrows, and then another, followed by another. The men and women of the Highlands each sent a half-dozen shafts into the sky in less than a minute. The arrows flew through the air in an almost continuous stream, the flow thick and heavy, forcing the Ogren to halt their attack. Most of the arrows found their target, slamming into the Ogrens’ heavily muscled bodies, although few found their killing mark. But that was not the intention. The Marchers simply wanted to cause confusion among the Ogren, and they swiftly did, as the huge beasts, many with two or three shafts protruding from their chests or legs, looked around uncertainly, not sure whether to continue their attack or seek to escape.
The decision was made for the slow-witted Ogren when a howl echoed off the two rocky outcroppings. A massive black wolf, a stripe of white across his eyes, sprinted at the head of more than a hundred wolves that streamed through the gap leading onto the plateau, their shining eyes intent on their prey. Launching himself into the air, Beluil slammed into the back of an Ogren, forcing it to the ground. Before the dark creature could bring its short sword to bear, the rusty blade stuck beneath its chest, the black wolf tore into the beast’s throat with his sharp teeth. The growls and howls of the wolves added to the almost overwhelming din as they broke off into groups of three or four and tried to separate the Ogren, nipping at the back of its legs and seeking to bite into a calf or hamstring. Once disabled and on the ground, the wolves could easily finish the task or leave it to their allies, as the Marchers, having dropped their bows and pulled their swords, charged into the melee, Catal Huyuk leading the way as he cleaved an Ogren’s head from its shoulders with the first swing of his giant battle axe.
In just a few minutes, it was over, the bodies of the Ogren scattered across the trampled long grass of the plateau. Marchers and Sylvan Warriors walked among the dark creatures, ensuring that none survived.
Rynlin watched the entire exercise with a grim smile, knowing that the lack of mercy was necessary. He was pleased. The trap had sprung exactly as planned with none of the Marchers, Sylvan Warriors, or wolves seriously injured. Smiling in satisfaction, a shriek above him pulled him from his thoughts and his gaze to the sky. A large raptor circled above. Dipping its wing, the large kestrel glided across the battlefield screeching in triumph, then tilted its wings to catch the wind coming through the gap between the two rocky promontories, which had served the purpose of the Marchers and Sylvan Warriors so well by guiding the Ogren toward the defenders of the Highlands. Rynlin watched the raptor sweep past. Its strong wings, spanning seven feet, propelled it higher into the air. The white feathers speckled with grey on the bird’s underside blended perfectly with the sky. When visible, the raptor was a dangerous predator. When hidden, it was deadly, shooting down through the thin air like an arrow, its sharp claws outstretched for the kill. Much like he and his allies had just done, Rynlin thought.
“What should we do with the bodies?” asked Nestor, coming to stand next to Rynlin. The grizzled Marcher looked none the worse for wear despite his struggles of the morning, though he did appear a little winded.
“We’ll burn the bodies,” said Rynlin. “If your Marchers could help us move them into a pile, it won’t take long.”
“Give me a moment to take some of the heads,” said Catal Huyuk, as he strode past them toward a dead Ogren lying in the grass just a dozen feet to their front.
“Why does he want the heads?” asked Nestor.
“As a warning,” replied Maden, the tall Sylvan Warrior wiping black Ogren blood from his sword onto the grass. “Catal Huyuk is a quiet man, letting his axe do most of the talking for him. But he still knows how to make a statement.”
“A man after my own heart,” replied Nestor. “We need to have him visit the Highlands more often.”