Saturday, August 6, 2011
Blood Duty - Chapter One
A scream echoed through the valley. Jessup stood in the copse of trees, barely breathing as he watched the camp of the Faragund army below teeming with movement. He pressed back against a tree. In the dense shadows of the forest, he would be impossible to spot. The scene down showed him what a bad idea being captured would be.
The wind brought the sound of the mages chanting. One of the scouts from Ilkasar hanged, bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet dangling a hand span above the ground. The muscles of Jessup's jaw knotted, but saving the man in the middle of an army that stretched nearly to the horizon wasn't a possibility.
Jessup felt fairly sure it was the Faragund king who stood before the prisoner. Five mages, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes, stood in a semi-circle near the king. The king was of no great height, but massively muscled with a vast chest and arms. His biceps bulged from his gold brocade vest which caught the bright sunlight. He wore no armor, but a gold scimitar hung from his belt. The man's blond hair flowed below his shoulders in a mass of braids. On each side of his face, scars ran from mouth to hairline. A long blond mustache drooped from corners of his mouth.
He raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm. The man screamed. Blood gushed, and one of the mages rushed forward to catch the liquid in a bowl that glinted golden in the sunlight. For the entire day Jessup had watched the scout being bled. The ground below him was black with it. At first they had simply let the blood drip into the dirt while the prisoner had refused to scream. Now his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive. With each slash, they poured blood onto the nearby stone altar.
Jessup stared past the camp into the thick oak forest to the east where giant trees reached toward the sky and a gentle dark settled between the columns of their trunks. He sucked in a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors, from the day his own people had been slaughtered, but watching this twisted his guts.
Jessup forced his eyes back to the Faragund camp. The altar he recognized as one to the God Kanandra, but he wasn't sure what magic they were powering with their magic. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
Khyle would want word of their movements, though. From the number of bodies decorating the camp, Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped. The emperor's spymaster would be frantic for news. He had told Jessup that he feared the Faragund had gained enough power to attack the Ilkasar Empire again.
It had been twenty years since their last attack had failed, and the Faragund army was wiped out by the Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and the Ilkasar Imperial Army. The hatred between the Faragund god, Kanandra, and his twin, the Goddess Urthus, whom the Ilkasar worshipped, mirrored the hatred between their followers. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. There were few families who hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.
One of the mages turned to the king and seemed to speak. The sound of the chanting changed, becoming softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel the surge of power as the chants grew demanding. He sucked in his breath as the king plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest. Jessup gritted his teeth.
The mages' chanting again changed, growing faster and faster. Smoke swirled around the altar. The king ripped into the dead scout's chest with the dagger and jerked and sawed before pulling out the dripping heart. Jessup thought he removed other parts, but the king blocked his view of what was happening. The king turned to a smoking cauldron and raised both arms over his head. Blood ran in rivulets down his arms as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat.
A roar from the smoke ripped the air. The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze.
The king stood, motionless, watching the altar. He turned and struck one of the mages across the face, knocking the man to the ground. The conjuration, whatever it was supposed to do, hadn't made the king happy.
Jessup backed up a pace and slipped through the deep shadows under the copse's tall spruce trees. Time to put some space between him and this camp. His dun was tied just inside the edge of the woods on the other side of the slope. As he jerked the reins loose from the branch where they were looped, he heard a snap behind him.
He whirled, drawing his sword to find himself looking into the face of a Faragund warrior, the tip of the man's scimitar swinging toward him. Jessup met it with his own in a clash of metal. Their blades caught fast. Jessup leaned in with all his strength. The Faragund spat in his face. Jessup smiled. The warrior twisted his blade down Jessup's, leaving a line of blood dripping down his arm. They broke apart and moved in a circle, blades low and ready. The warrior brought his scimitar up to slice downward; in less than a breath Jessup dodged to the side, bringing a sweeping backhand cut to hack through the man's neck. Blood gushed as the warrior fell.
Jessup leapt onto his horse and jabbed his heels to its flanks. Taking word of this to Khyle would repay an old debt. But the Faragund army was a long march from Ilkasar. He had plenty of time to get there and something more important to take care of first—
Saturday 6 July through Monday 8 July, I am offering review copies of Blood Duty FREE for download from Smashwords. You will find Blood Duty here in most formats and use Coupon # PB77C at the checkout screen.