Hannon pulled on his reins, his patience exacerbated. Rain washed his face as he scowled up at the overhead canopy, his eyes briefly retaining an image of the dappled light even though the day was grey. It seemed that there was to be no letup in the weather, but that was not his main concern. He cocked his head as he listened to the woodland noises trying to decipher the many sounds. His face was set in concentration and worry gnawed in his guts. He did not have long to wait and he flinched when a crack from a broken branch confirmed his fears. That was a large animal and a sturdy branch by the sounds of it. He was being followed.
With some difficulty, given the narrowness of the trail, he turned his mount to face the way he had come and waited. Rain continued to seep under his collar, damp now rather than cold. He blinked to clear his vision, knowing that he may need to react swiftly should the need arise. He was confident of his own skills. Youth and dexterity were on his side, but the damp would wear any man down and his joints ached softly.
After a few moments a silhouette appeared from within the tunnel framed by trees. A rider. A lean man astride a brown horse that looked as miserable with the weather as Hannon did. The man urged his mount forward and then stopped no more than ten paces away and at that moment even the birdcall vanished, as though in expectation of the events to follow.
“Why are you following me?” Hannon demanded softly. There was no need to raise his voice. He wanted to sound calm even though his pulse raced. The other man rose in his stirrups as though relieving a cramp. Long, dark hair framed a youthful face. His eyes were pinched against the drizzle, his eyebrows narrowed in concentration. Hannon knew instantly that this man was not to be trusted, whether a premonition or a judgement of character he cared less. He dropped his gaze to the other man’s weapons; a sword and knife scabbarded at his waste. The sword’s pommel looked worn; a bad sign that he may be an experienced sword’s man.
The man smiled thinly. “Give me the kara-stone and I will let you ride on.” His voice was gravel, flat and full of menace.
Hannon’s horse crabbed across the path and he pulled on the reins, bringing it to a halt. “Kara-stone? I don’t know what you are talking about.”
The other man snorted. “I saw it, yesterday, when you were sitting in the tavern, waiting for your meal. You took it out, wrapped in a cloth and looked upon it; a blue-green stone, the colour of the ocean. I would have it. Give it to me and I will let you ride on,” he nodded to the trail behind Hannon, letting the malice in his words hang in the air between them.
“I am content to sell it – if the price is right,” Hannon stated. That was his intention all along, to sell it and make some money and he was hoping for a sizeable sum.
“Why should I buy it when I can take it,” came the reply. Hannon had half expected it. His luck never ran true and with hand the gods gave and the other they took away.
Hannon’s one advantage now was action rather than inaction. Without further consideration he dug his heels in his mount’s flanks and, shouting, urged his horse forward, intending to use his mount’s momentum and sudden attack to unbalance his foe, for that was who he was; an enemy that must be swept aside. Horse and man covered the distance swiftly. The other man’s eyes grew wide and he shouted an oath as his hand flew to his sword. He half drew the weapon before the horses collided, bodies impacting with a heavy thud that rocked Hannon in the saddle, even though he was prepared for it.
Hannon drew his sword as the other man was thrown aside, leaning precariously back, hanging on with his reins and fighting to stay in the saddle. His sword remained undrawn as he fought for balance. Hannon used the flat of his own sword, aimed at the other man’s head, trying to stun him rather than kill. With a look of terror the other man dodged the blow and urged his horse away from the sudden melee.
Glancing back at Hannon his eyes were ablaze with fury as he regained his seat. Over his shoulder he shouted words, his fingers tracing a symbol in the air. Hannon’s insides grew cold. A sorcerer. A blast of air threw him from his saddle and the ground slammed into him, knocking the wind from his lungs. A loud ‘oofff’ escaped his lips and the back of his head hit the ground, rattling his brain. For a moment the world went black. Gasping for breath he tried to turn so he could get to his knees, his head ablaze with pain from the sudden impact.
The narrow woodland trail gave him a few precious moments respite as the other man fought to turn his horse. Senses reeling, he tried to get up, but instinct caused him to throw himself to one side and he rolled as the other man thundered by, trying to trample him beneath his horses hooves.
Hannon found himself off the trail between the trees. Still winded he tried to rise to face his enemy. His knees gave way and he held a solid tree trunk for support. He shook his head to try to clear the fog and fresh waves of pain caused him to vomit. His knees buckled. His head hurt like hell.
The other man dismounted now that the trees were between them and he came forward, drawing his sword with an exaggerated slowness that bespoke volumes. Hannon realised then that he had dropped his own weapon. His thoughts ablaze with fear and dread Hannon cast about, seeing his sword on the trail in front of the advancing man. There was no way he could reach it before the other man did. Cursing, he pushed himself away from the tree he was balanced against and sought to retreat further into the wood. His legs felt leaden. His muscles barely responded and then after a few strides he found his balance and weaving between trees he sought to flee.
The dense trees saved him from the second sorcerous attack. As he dodged between tall oaks a blast of flame scorched his hair, narrowly missing him before slamming into a stout trunk in a loud explosion that rocked the very earth. The flame rebounding from the impact took his breath away and he ducked, shielding his head with his arms. Ears ringing, he knew that he wasn’t going to survive the attack. He stumbled to a halt and raising his hands he gasped, “Enough!” He twisted around as the other man started to walk towards him, slowing from his own sprint, his sword level with the ground and pointing at Hannon’s stomach.
Hannon’s hand went to his leather jerkin, soaked through with rain. He sought an inner pocket and found the package that he wanted. He was furious with the turn of events and struggled to keep his anger from his face. He held the bundle out to the other man, unwrapping the contents and revealing the kara-stone for the first time. The other man’s eyes locked on the prize in obvious longing. The stone was fist sized and glowed softly, seeming translucent in the woodland’s half light. Hannon recognised the greed reflected in the other man’s eyes and the sight further angered him. He hated to lose, especially such a wealthy prize.
“Take it,” Hannon snapped, thrusting his arms out in supplication. The man paused as though sensing a trap. His head tilted to one side and his eyes locked on Hannon’s. The eyes were uncompromising and Hannon knew he had chosen correctly. Surrender rather than death, but even still his thoughts rattled on, seeking to reverse his situation.
“Take it,” he urged again, holding the prize out as if it offended him. The stone rested on the cloth. The blue/green glow seemed to pulse as though in time with Hannon’s heart and Hannon looked at it with growing dread. He had not seen it do this before and he realised how little he knew about the orb. He had found it a few days before, nestled between two rocks in an isolated mountain recluse he had been exploring; the ruins of a cottage where he had hoped to find a stash of gold or silver; a building no doubt over run by krell at some time in its past.
What was he holding? He had scant information about kara-stones other than sorcerers would pay good gold for one. Rumour suggested kara-stones might be dangerous to touch. He had no idea why, but that was his only advantage that something might happen if it came in contact with flesh. He kept the revelation from his face, grimacing as fresh waves of pain swept through his head.
The other man’s hand reached out for the stone, his sword’s point an inch from Hannon’s unprotected belly. His enemy was young as he had first thought; his chin devoid of facial hair and his skin as yet unblemished by wind or sun. Hannon tried to read his mind to anticipate his actions. He didn’t like what he saw. The other man looked confident and uncaring.
A crooked smile formed as his hand sought the cloth the stone rested on. He was clearly trying not to touch the stone and this was the distraction Hannon was waiting for. He tilted his hand, bringing the stone in contact with the other man’s flesh. His eyes widened and he thrust the sword forward as Hannon desperately sought to twist away. The other man screamed, but his blow was already committed and Hannon was not quick enough to escape fully. The blade sliced along Hannon’s torso and pain erupted as it bit deep. Twisting saved the point entering his body, but the blade itself was razor sharp and passed through linen and flesh with an ease that made Hannon scream with pain.
Both men fell to the ground. Hannon clutched his wound, which flamed as though a red hot poker had been held there. He cursed and tried to stand. The kara-stone had fallen to the ground between the two men, forgotten for the moment. His opponent was still on the ground and Hannon wondered for an instant what the stone had done. Then he was up, one hand drawing his dagger and the other clamped to his belly.
Before he could attack, his enemy rolled over and stood, albeit with difficulty. Hannon swiped the knife across his enemy’s throat, but the other man reacted swiftly, pulling his head back and the knife narrowly missed the exposed flesh. Only then did Hannon register the other man’s eyes. Abruptly they were changed. They were ethereal; detached from the face as though belonging in another plane of existence. Large orbs, glowing green locked on his with an intensity that made his heart quail.
Instinctively, Hannon drew back. He had heard about the krell wars. He had also heard about demons. Who hadn’t? Laughter filled the air as he confronted the other man, terror preventing him from attacking but also preventing retreat. A possession, he guessed, as the other man stalked around him, a manic grin on his lips as his eyes seemed to flash an undecipherable message. The eyes shifted relative to the other man’s face as though not quite belonging there and a dread cold seemed to fill the void between them.
Hannon considered flight. He stepped back and his heel caught something behind him, threatening to spill him to the soil. He kept his balance. “Let me go!” he pleaded, waving the knife in front of him.
The demon’s eyes dropped to the blood seeping through Hannon’s fingers and he licked his lips. “And why should I do that?” his enemy croaked as though unused to speaking.
With a scream that froze Hannon’s blood the other man leapt the intervening distance, easily knocking aside his blade from nerveless fingers. He could only cry out in terror as hands sought his throat and incredibly strong fingers crushed his windpipe, stopping the life giving air from his lungs as he collapsed once more to the ground.
Hannon fell. He fell for an eternity. His cry mixed with that of his soul. A perpetuity of pain in an instant. And yet... a promise of far more to come.
By David Burrows
Author of the Prophecy of the Kings