Thursday, 23 July 2009

"The Heirs of the Magi" - Another sample chapter

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The chapter from 'The Heirs of the Magi' that I published on my blog the other week, met with a good response. But with it being the first chapter, it was a little slow in narrative, being mainly made up of dialogue and description to set the scene.


So I've decided to post another chapter. This one relates events a little later on in the book, but still at the start of the story, before the Magi's heirs have returned to Yvoronay. It tells of an incident involving Dern Anchar (mentioned in the first chapter - Mas Kellack's great niece, who had become one of The Brethren.) This chapter contains a little less dialogue, but a lot more action, involving battles with the Lhij invaders. It also introduces the concepts of the 'talents' shared by the Magi and The Brethren, and also gives more details about the free horses, and especially the elite members of their kind who align themselves with the Magi.


Again, this is in draft form. I'm sure there's much wrong with it that editing may put right, but it's the stuff that can't be corrected by editing I'm concerned about, so as usual, I'm hungry for comment and criticism. If the criticism is constructive, all the better, but say what you think because more than anything, I want honest criticism.
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Dern Anchar was exhausted. She sat slumped over the neck of her mount. Thankfully, the recent skirmish had been quick; her adversaries were gone for now, some of them killed but most dispersed. She feared that the survivors would return once they had regrouped, and being realistic, she was resigned to her belief that they would. Now was probably her only chance to escape before they did. The sun had gone down, and though the Lhij had better night vision than she had, there would be a fair chance of evading them if she could place some distance between herself and this place before they returned.

There was no sign of her companions. They had been gone when she'd first re-emerged from the ravine below, and she had ridden to this place in the hope of relocating them, but she’d had no luck before she’d encountered her assailants. She tried her best to look around in the darkness, fearing that she may find evidence of their fate, but saw nothing except for the smouldering remains of the rat people she'd just despatched. It seemed that her comrades had either retreated, or had left to pursue more of the Lhij before she'd been able to rejoin them. She paused to recollect her thoughts and remembered the events that had brought her to this place...

~o~O~o~

Her party had earlier travelled across the southern plains to the west. They were a small group sent out to investigate the strength of the desert dwellers' forces in that area.

During recent battles, despite the Brethren's undoubted superiority in force of arms and organisation, the enemy's overwhelming advantage in numbers had caused them to be repeatedly pushed back, and they had been forced to regroup on numerous occasions. Each time they moved to counter-attack, they had found the Lhij stronger in numbers on their western flank, as though their purpose was to move northwest, toward the mountains.

Reaching the mountains was unlikely to give the desert horde any advantage in itself. Here, the western range consisted only of rocky mounds, cliffs and outcrops with crevices between, but the mountains soon became impassable, with higher peaks which couldn't be scaled, further to the north.

They’d started their expedition during the late afternoon, and it was mid-morning on the second day before they encountered anything of significance. Her party had spent all morning riding west toward the higher ground from the lower plains. It had been hard going, travelling at speed over such terrain: hard for them, but even harder for their mounts. They had reached the more rugged land nearer to where the plains met the foothills at the edge of the mountains, when they found evidence of the Lhij in force. They’d seen dust rising from the ground well to their south, and when they’d found ground high enough to afford them a better view, they had confirmed that there was a small group of Lhij advancing toward them, some miles away. They’d been surprised to find the enemy this far north, even in these limited numbers, and had thought the discovery significant enough to immediately despatch a rider back to their main forces. Dern Anchar was sure the messenger would have got through, since their journey until that point had been uneventful. The remainder of the party decided to manoeuvre so as to surround the Lhij forces on three sides.

Kasilkan, the Somnehlian plainsman who commanded the party, seemed to decide their strategy almost immediately. Dern Anchar admired him, especially his ability to think so quickly, to make decisions under pressure and to take control in situations like these. He issued directions to the others in his group: “Dern Anchar and Jassan: We must divide our forces, and you two are the best suited to each take command of a unit. I’d like you both to lead your groups further west initially.

“Jassan, you should hold the ground to the north of the enemy to prevent them from passing, but be prepared to attack should the need arise.” He paused and scanned the surrounding terrain, as though checking details before he continued: “I want you, Dern Anchar to continue onward working your way around to the target’s western side. Jassan, take ten Brethren with you; I'll lead twenty to circle behind them to the south.”

He turned his attention to Dern Anchar, placing one hand on her shoulder. ”You should take the remainder. That will be a group near equal in size to mine: We suspect that their objective is probably to the west so we'll need to strengthen our attack from that direction.”

He addressed all of the Brethren then: “From what we can tell, they are an isolated group, small, no more than fifty to a hundred of them, but there may still be greater numbers out there yet undiscovered, so when we attack it must be swift; we must despatch them all, or push them toward our forces in the east, before they can reinforce. My group will attack first; we will summon fire to rain down upon them, then we’ll harry them with our archers.” He paused again, and stroked his chin: a mannerism recognised by Dern Anchar and her colleagues to indicate that he was thinking carefully, and weighing all the possibilities. It was almost as though he was putting himself in the Lhij’s place, determining what their response might be. “They will flee toward the north and west,” he continued eventually, “so you should follow up immediately with similar attacks from your forces Dern Anchar.”

She grimaced. She knew how effective it was to use the talent of summoning to bring fire down upon her enemies, but she also knew the cost of it in the effort the summoner needed to exercise, how it almost consumed them, leaving them little better than exhausted for minutes afterwards. She didn’t question Kasilkan’s instructions. She was confident that his strategy was sound, and conceded that they had to use all the weapons and skills at their disposal, whatever her reservations might be.

Kasilkan continued: “Jassan, your purpose is to prevent the enemy from escaping to the north. You should set a couple of your Brethren to summon a wall of flame. Two of you should be able to maintain it, leaving the others free to protect the summoners with arrows or with less conventional methods.”

The wall of flame was a more overwhelming use of the summoning talent, exerting only a slightly lesser toll than the rain of fire when first summoned, but requiring uninterrupted concentration by the summoner, for as long as the wall was required to be maintained.

Over the past few years, the Brethren had discovered many of the talents they now possessed. Scholars within the mountain cities had identified them as being those talents traditionally possessed only by the Magi themselves. Working closely with the scholars and with reference to their records and historic accounts, they each had mastered powers they’d never even imagined previously, let alone ever considered possessing.

The talent of summoning had been one of the first that they’d discovered and was the most effective in battle. It involved calling forth the elements and reshaping them into forms that they could control and use against their enemies. Summoning of fire was the most destructive of the forms of elemental summoning that the Brethren had yet discovered, destructive both in its permanent effects to the target, and in its temporary effects on the summoner. The rain of fire and the wall of flame were two of its forms and were both perilous if not controlled carefully. Only summoning a ball of fire was more dangerous, since achieving this at anything but short range was practically impossible, and when summoning an immense ball of exploding fire close by, the summoner and nearby allies were almost as likely to be consumed as were any of the enemy it was directed at. The Brethren only ever summoned a ball of fire as an absolute last resort.

There were a number of other elemental forces the Brethren had learned to summon; most with less devastating effects than the summoning of fire, but also less effective as weapons in battle. They were however, well suited to use as a form of defence and it was these that Kasilkan had referred to as 'less conventional methods.'

Just after midday, Kasilkan and his twenty rode southeast, in order to circle behind the unsuspecting Lhij unit. They travelled slowly and carefully, each using their talent of illusion in combination to attempt to pass by the enemy unseen, while the greater force under command of Dern Anchar and of Jassan, another  Somnehlian member of the Brethren, travelled swiftly west.

It was late afternoon, before Dern Anchar left Jassan and his smaller force and rode onward toward the rockier terrain at the foothills of the western range. “Remember Jassan,” she said as she left, “Wait for evidence that I have attacked before you set your walls of fire. The enemy will likely flee north when confronted with mine and Kasilkan’s attacks on two sides, so I want you to surprise them as they do. Don’t give them time to think, and they’ll see themselves having no choice but to attempt an escape to the east.”

Later, as Dern Anchar's party rode toward their planned position, they encountered an obstacle: A deep ravine stretching from the mountains in the northwest and bending southward and eastward. It appeared that it had been a river in earlier times, and she half remembered her own people talking about the ‘dead river’ to the south. When hearing of it, she’d always imagined a shallow channel winding its way across the plains but if indeed this was the dead river she’d heard about, it must have once carried a torrent since the ravine was deep and the rocky sides were steep, the dried up river bed being many feet below them.

A lone rider was despatched to follow the ravine to the south to determine if it was passable downstream, or what would once have been downstream. He soon returned with good news: Only six miles further on, the terrain dropped off somewhat and it was possible, even on horseback, to descend the north eastern bank. A short ride further east, the opposite bank was easily scalable by the mounted Brethren.

The party rode quickly toward the passing point, being aware that speed was important if they were to return westward after the crossing, so as to be in position by the time Kasilkan's attack began.

Once the dead river was crossed, they retraced their route, on the opposite side of the ravine now, to where it bent toward the mountains, and then they continued their ride westward to arrive at their planned position while the sun was still hanging low in the evening sky.

Kasilkan's attack began a little while before sunset. The darkening sky suddenly appeared alight as fire rained down upon the position they knew the Lhij would be occupying by now. As predicted the Lhij fled north at first.

Dern Anchar hoped that when the enemy encountered the dead river, they'd be forced to the east before they even encountered Jassan's forces, but instead the Lhij forces headed west directly toward her party.

As they advanced, they were unaware of the resistance awaiting them, so when Dern Anchar attacked, the Rat men were taken completely by surprise. The battle went in favour of the Brethren, and it wasn’t long before the Lhij retreated to the east. Then suddenly they unexpectedly turned southward. Dern Anchar was surprised: she hadn't expected them to retreat straight into the path of Kasilkan's forces.

But Kasilkan's forces didn't attack, and when Dern Anchar had composed herself after the initial skirmish she noticed that though there were still signs in the night sky of Kasilkan's efforts, the fire rain was now falling much further away than earlier. She realised that Kasilkan's party were engaging a second enemy force, further south, even nearer to the edge of the desert.

She had to make a decision: To maintain her position, and keep to the original plan, or to pursue the retreating Lhij before they could form a scissor attack, which would surely lead to the defeat of Kasilkan and the other Brethren to the south.

She called over one of her comrades: “We're going to Kasilkan's aid. When we get to the crossing point in the dead river, I want you to cross and ride to Jassan. Bring him back here to occupy this position. The river itself will surely be enough alone to provide a northern barrier. Should the Lhij get a chance to return this way, Jassan's reduced forces should be enough to hold here.” She continued: “The rest of us will leave you at the crossing point and pursue the Lhij force before they can attack Kasilkan's rear. If they won’t retreat eastward on their own, we’ll try to drive them that way by force.”

Within moments each of the Brethren in her party were mounted, and they galloped hurriedly in pursuit of their enemy.


~o~O~o~

Kasilkan was surprised by the attack of the second Lhij force from the south, but by the time their attack came, the Rat men he'd ambushed had already begun to flee in panic, north at first then west as he’d expected them to, toward where Kasilkan was confident that Dern Anchar's force could contain them.


He quickly amended his strategy and ordered his comrades to head further south, to meet the new oncoming desert force, rather than to stand and wait for them to attack. This was his one mistake for, as became apparent within moments, this new force of Lhij was much larger than he had expected. He knew then that sooner rather than later, his Brethren would be compelled to retreat, and it occurred to him, that unless Dern Anchar had despatched the other Lhij force entirely, his route of escape may be cut off completely.


~o~O~o~


It didn't take long for Dern Anchar's mounted Brethren to ride down the retreating Lhij. After the messenger departed across the dead river toward Jassan, they caught the rat men they pursued a mile or two further on, near to the southern edge of the ravine. They attacked immediately, in an attempt to prevent the Lhij from advancing on Kasilkan's position directly south. Their attempts were successful. The enemy made no attempt to escape, but stood and fought instead. This was unusual for the Lhij: From experience of recent battles, the rat men’s armies were not known to defend a position unless it was absolutely necessary. It occurred to Dern Anchar that the Lhij were trying to prevent the same fate for themselves that currently threatened Kasilkan: they would rather fight here than risk being caught on two sides if the fighting moved further south.

Seventeen in her force of Brethren rode into battle against some seventy Lhij. There had been over a hundred in the original force, but Kasilkan's efforts and her own had thinned those numbers somewhat. The close quarters of the fighting restricted the Brethren from relying on their special ability to summon fire, so the battle consisted of hand to hand fighting, the Lhij having the advantage of greater numbers, but the Brethren having the greater manoeuvrability of being mounted.

The Lhij were armed with fierce saw-edged swords and carried heavy shields, though had no other protection in the way of armour. The Brethren each carried a sword, and wore light leather armour, though their talents allowed them to maintain an additional shield, enveloping them completely but invisibly, and able to deflect all but the most accurate and brutal of attacks.

Dern Anchar was never comfortable with a sword, being more at ease with her bow, which at this proximity was useless. She fought in vain to get the better of the three rat men who assailed her, inflicting minor injuries on them but being pressed back little by little. It was a relief when eventually, two of her companions came to her assistance, killing one of her Lhij attackers and effectively relieving her of the onslaughts from the other two.

She swung her mount around in order to ride back into the battle. It bothered her to be riding such a noble animal as this. At first she had resisted using one of the free horses as a mount, and had ridden horses supplied by the Somnehlians. But those animals however well trained, didn't last long in battle. Eventually she had taken one of the free horses, and they had been together ever since. She had cried the night that she'd used her talent of compulsion to force him to succumb to her as his rider. Even if her Loniantehl upbringing hadn't taught her how unnatural it was for a free horse to be used as a battle mount, she knew it for a fact now. Even if she hadn't always believed how wrong it was to ride a free horse against its will, she was convinced of it now.

Throughout the battles they had experienced, she had expected to sense the discomfort and the anguish of the enslaved horse, and she did, but what was worse for her, was that she also detected a real feeling of torment from the horse. The nature of compulsion was that the subjects of it were not just forced to act against their will: their will was actually changed so that they felt they wanted to obey. Unlike many of the other Brethren, she had a concern for the welfare of her mount, probably because of her upbringing, possibly due to the guilt she felt in taking him into battle. Her talents allowed her to know when her mount was injured or weary. But as well as sensing his physical well-being or lack of it, she was also aware of the agony deep within him, the torment as part of him resisted the compulsion with all his effort, whilst another part of him surrendered to it and welcomed it.

As she swung the horse around, he stumbled. This was unusual for such an animal as this; the free horses were usually sure footed even in the most extreme of circumstances. She struggled to stay on his back as his hind legs slipped backwards, first one, then the other. It was at this point that she realised that in turning the horse, she'd inadvertently led him to the very edge of the ravine and now his hind legs were slipping down into it. The horse fell, and she fell with him. For a moment or so she managed to stay upon his back, but then she parted company with the horse. She tumbled downward, and saw the horse following close behind her, struggling in vain to regain his footing as they both fell the fifteen or twenty feet down the steep ravine edge to the dry rocky bed below. If the river had not been long dead, the water may possibly have been deep enough to have broken her fall, but as it was, there was nothing to put an end to her falling until her head finally hit the dry river bed and she lapsed into unconsciousness.

She wasn't surprised to see the horse still there when she awoke. She was a little surprised to see him standing, but then after checking herself for injuries she realised that if she'd survived the fall unscathed save for the large bump on her head, then the horse most certainly would have. The nature of the compulsion was that the horse wouldn't attempt to escape even when she was asleep or unconscious. He would be with her until she chose to release him. That was something she'd considered doing many times, but each time she'd realised that she needed him to ensure her own survival. She would be lost in battle without him.

She knew by instinct that she hadn't been unconscious for long, but she could no longer hear the noise of the battle from above. Maybe the Brethren had defeated the Lhij, but if so, why hadn't they come searching for her? Maybe they'd forced the rat men further south, out of her earshot. She quickly mounted the horse. She would have to ride swiftly to the west to the point where she could climb the bank, and then eastward again and then south to locate her companions.

A few minutes later, she was out of the ravine and back onto the higher land; a short ride later and she was back at the location of the earlier fighting, but there was still no sign of the other Brethren. She galloped south for a few moments before she suddenly came upon a group of around forty Lhij. The night was so dark that she didn't see them until she was almost on top of them. Her impulse was to turn and ride swiftly away from them in the opposite direction to which she'd been travelling, but she'd been so sure that she'd find her companions soon that she hesitated as if half expecting them to come riding over the next mound to her rescue. They didn't, and she soon found herself about to be surrounded by angry vicious Lhij. They charged toward her as she backed her horse away. There was only one chance. She summoned a ball of fire high above her head, then turned her horse and galloped as far away to the north as she dared to if she was to still ignite it. The Lhij followed her, seemingly oblivious to the blazing ball hovering twenty or so feet over their head, so that the majority of them were directly under the fire ball as she caused it to explode outward and downward. She held onto her horse as he galloped further north, and collapsed with exhaustion, barely holding onto him as she heard the screams and cries of the Lhij being incinerated behind her.

She returned a few moments later to the site of the fire ball explosion, she was still exhausted but needed to check if there were any signs of her companions nearby. She quickly examined the bodies of the enemy that she'd just killed. Only the remains of about fifteen Lhij lay scorched on the ground. The others had no doubt been injured and had fled, but might return soon. Unless these were survivors of the recent battle, it would seem that there were more parties of the desert dwellers in the vicinity than any of her companions had suspected. She had no way of knowing whether her comrades had survived the initial battle or not. Even if they had, and had managed to reach Kasilkan, there was no guarantee that any of them would still be there. She didn't want to consider the chance that they'd been defeated and all lost, preferring to think they'd either been victorious or had retreated and escaped back to the main force in the east. Either way, there was nothing to be gained in waiting here for whatever Lhij forces remained to attack her. She made up her mind to head northeast herself. She knew that she had to evade any remaining rat people if she was to escape. She couldn't use her talent of illusion to hide from them because she would first need to know where they were, and they were more likely to find her before she found them. She was unable to ride directly north because of the dead river blocking her way. She knew she could cross it further to the west, but that was the opposite direction to where she wanted to be. She decided instead to head eastward: There was likely to be less Lhij in that direction and she hoped she would find another crossing point along the way somewhere.

After riding about three miles, she found a section of the ravine where she could quite easily guide her horse down to the dry river bed. Unfortunately there wasn't a similar area on the northern bank so she carried on riding along the bed of the dead river itself. She rode a few miles further to the east without luck before deciding that she was maybe safer down in the ravine than riding alongside it anyway.

She didn't possess the night vision that the Lhij had, but didn't need it to know when they'd found her. She'd just passed another scalable section of the south bank and had thought to climb it in order to check if she could determine her location, but decided against it when she heard the sound of many naked clawed feet marching to the south. As the sounds of footfall got closer, she could make out the characteristic noise of the rat people chittering in their strange, alien sounding language, and realised that they were much closer to her than she’d first assumed. She rode onward to the east quickly, and heard the cries and snarls of the Lhij as they swarmed down into the ravine far behind her. They had found her and would soon be on her. Alone, she would be lost if they caught her. She didn't have the strength to summon fire again this soon and decided that her only chance was to ride as fast as her horse would carry her.

She would possibly have outrun her pursuers had she not come across what seemed to be an impassable obstacle. Despite her fear, she almost laughed. She knew that the land to the east was much lower than the land to the west. She knew that she was riding along what was once a deep wide river, so she shouldn't have been surprised when she came to what had once been a waterfall. The land suddenly dropped away in front of her. In the dark, she only half noticed it at first; it was almost as if the night had got a little darker here, so that she couldn't even see the ground in front of her, then just as it occurred to her that there was no ground in front of her, her horse stopped and reared up, turning away from the edge of a drop of what must have been over a hundred feet.

She dismounted and looked over the edge. There were trees and heavy bushes flanking both sides of the river bed, so that she hadn't noticed the river banks themselves falling away. She thanked the horse, patting him on his neck. So this was her fate then: To either fall or jump to her death, or to wait to be butchered by ravaging rat men. She feared that the time of her death was near and remembered that there was something she’d always promised herself that she’d do when this moment arrived. Her mount was now frantically galloping between the banks of the ravine, as if in panic. She returned to the horse and faced him, head on. He lowered his head to her as she placed her hand palm down on the front of his head, between his eyes, with her fingers pointing toward his forelock. The horse fell silent as it closed its eyes and she closed her own.

“I know I've led you unwillingly to this point,” she said in her head, knowing that it was the horse she was speaking to, “and this may not appear as much of a gesture since it's likely that we're both going to lose our lives quite soon. But I want to release you from your compulsion.

She didn't know if the horse understood the words she was thinking or merely sensed the meaning of her thoughts, but she knew it appreciated what she was trying to say to it. “Before I do though, I want you to know how sorry I am for treating you like this, for forcing you to do my bidding, and for forcing you to want to do it. Once I release you from your compulsion, you're going to hate me, and I expect that. I beg your forgiveness, though I don't expect you to grant it to me.

She opened her eyes and with a mere thought, the compulsion was lifted. The horse stood for a moment then threw back his head and whinnied. She knew the relief he must have felt, because she too felt it, as though she had been released from the compulsion herself. She stood back with tears in her eyes as she watched the horse frantically walking from one side of the river bed to the other, looking over the edge. She turned as she heard the approaching sound of the Lhij, then turned back to see the horse walking into the heavy bushes against the northern bank, near to the precipice to the east. After a few seconds he hadn't come out and she feared he'd fallen over the edge. She went over to the north bank and found the gap he'd taken, walking into the bushes herself. There was no sign of the horse. But there was a path that sloped steeply downward here. She looked down the path and saw the horse a few yards further on and a few feet below her. It looked as though he'd found a way down.

She followed. If there was even the slightest chance of surviving this, then she was going to attempt it. She would have to be quick as from the sounds she could hear, the Lhij were almost upon her. She stopped and turned and listened. They were close enough now that using her talent of illusion might just work. There was only her, and far too many of the enemy for her to do anything really complex, but she suddenly remembered the scholars teaching her how the Magi had been capable of weaving together the effects of two or more of their talents, and it occurred to her that by coupling her talent of illusion with her talent of compulsion, she might just manage to persuade them to miss the gap in the bushes she'd just passed through. Even with their night vision they wouldn't see it if she wove together the illusion with a compulsion, so that they didn't want to see it. She tried it, and was amazed at how easily it came to her. Despite hearing of the Magi’s ability to weave talents, she hadn't met anyone amongst the Brethren who'd ever successfully done it before.

Suddenly she realised that the Lhij were now standing at the top of the falls, only yards away from her, but that they hadn't found her escape route and that it hadn't even occurred to them to look for one. She turned and began climbing down the path at the edge of the falls to the lower land below. She sensed where the horse had been, but felt her way carefully to avoid losing her footing. It wasn't until she was about twenty feet from the lower ground that she was finally convinced that she was going to make it. She turned and looked back up the steep winding path. There was no sign of the Lhij following. They had probably given up and returned the way they had come by now. She looked downhill again as she tackled the last section of the path. Below her, at ground level, to the east, she saw the horse galloping away and she smiled.

~o~O~o~

As the horse galloped away to the east, another watched him from a nearby hillside. This horse was one of a few that were known and revered by the other free horses. Amongst her own kind she was known purely by her deeds and her history, and had no need for a name, but the human she was bound to had named her Thundermane. It wasn't important to her that the particular human she'd chosen had lived many centuries before, and had been replaced by numerous others since then, no more than it even occurred to her that the free horse he'd been bound to was not her, but one of her own ancestors. Her rider had existed in many bodies since then, both male and female, as had she. But in both their cases, they retained the memories of those that came before them, and where to the humans, each life they lived was distinct from previous ones; to her they were all just separate parts of one continuous existence. To her, whether she'd been mare or stallion, she had always been here, the one her human had named Thundermane, and she'd lived forever since that day, hundreds of years ago.

She could sense where her rider was at all times. She knew when she was needed, was aware when her rider was in trouble. Being bound meant that her human was in her mind always. But for years now, that presence had been absent from her mind. One day over twenty years ago, the woman had dismounted and walked into the mountains and she'd never seen her, heard from her or felt her again.

Not until now at least, because now her senses were reawakened; she was aware of her rider again. She knew that could only mean one thing: She had returned.

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