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The Red Kings - The Mercenary

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Desert Wind’s hooves thundered across the muddied ground as Jeri crouched low in the saddle, her spear braced for impact. With a fierce snarl, the first of the wolves leapt at her stallion’s left side and she thrust out with the spear, lodging it deep in the beast’s shoulder. The monstrous wolf yelped in pain and rolled away trying to extract itself from the barbed point of the spear, but it was trapped deep in its flesh and the wolf only succeeded in dragging the weapon from Jeri’s hands. She cursed and drew her sabre, the curved blade gleaming silver in the pre-dawn light. The goblin rider had nimbly leapt clear of his injured mount and came rushing at her on foot attempting to thrust his own spear into her left leg. She expertly batted it aside with the flat of her blade and then countered, the narrow point of her sabre sliding smoothly into the Goblin’s unprotected throat. The goblin raider shook as she withdrew the sabre, clutching at his throat but unable to stop the torrent of blood. Jeri cursed again her mortally wounded foe’s lifeblood sprayed across her chest and face before the goblin fell to his knees and slumped face first into the mud.

She tugged at the reins and guided Desert Wind into a tight turn, just in time as the second goblin wolf-rider was closing quickly from the opposite side, shrieking in fury at the death of his companion. The goblin struck out at her steed’s neck but lacked the reach to connect solidly and the point of the spear was deflected by the steel links of the destrier’s armour. Jeri chopped down across the body of her horse and her sabre sliced neatly through the wooden shaft of the spear and also severed two fingers off the goblin’s outstretched hand forcing him to drop what remained of his weapon. The two mounts then collided heavily and Jeri clutched desperately at Desert Wind’s neck with her free hand to prevent being dismounted. The goblin tried to latch on to her leg with his uninjured hand, but fell away moaning in pain as Jeri kicked out and smashed her boot into his nose. Then they were free, the massive warhorse muscling away from the smaller wolf with ease.

Jeri wheeled the horse around and rode at the goblin again. With the spear gone and his short bow still slung across his back the goblin pulled a thin bone dagger from his belt and tossed it in her direction. The blade flew true but ricocheted off her armour and fell away without causing any injury. The goblin kicked furiously at the wolf’s sides and ducked down as she slashed with her sabre at his neck. The slim blade hummed past just above the goblin’s hairline missing him completely, but slicing through the top of his short bow and ruining his last weapon. The goblin stayed low and kicked again at the wolf’s flanks and tried to manoeuvre the beast towards nearby trees where he stood a good chance of losing Jeri and her much larger steed in the tangled undergrowth of the forest.

Circling around, Jeri wasn’t about to let her opponent escape and with a gentle nudge from her knees Desert Wind set off in pursuit, eagerly thundering after the wolf and its rider. The goblin glanced over his shoulder at the fast approaching rider and kicked again at the wolf, screaming at in his own tongue. However, burdened by its rider the wolf was no match in speed for a warhorse trained from birth for combat and with another glance over his shoulder, the goblin dived off his mount and rolled to his feet attempting to flee on foot. Now free of its rider, the wolf bolted for the forest but Jeri ignored it and guided Desert Wind after the fleeing goblin. Realising escape was now impossible the goblin fell to his knees and began to plead for mercy in broken common. Jeri ignored him and expertly ended his pleas and his life with single thrust to his chest, her blade slicing through the goblin’s tattered leather armour and entering his heart.

The last of her opponents defeated, Jeri turned and rode back to where the first wolf rider had fallen. Swinging herself down from the saddle she strode across the bloodied ground to retrieve her spear from the wounded wolf. The wounded beast was attempting to extract the heavy spear with its jaws, but stopped and snarled at Jeri as she approached. She readied her sabre, and as the wolf lunged at her, its jaws snapping at her face, she struck upwards with the blade cutting through its chest and up into its vital organs. The beast still struck her solidly, knocking her back into the mud, but she smashed an armoured fist into its jaws and allowed it to gnaw on steel as she pushed it aside. She cut upwards with her sabre, until the wolf gave a final cough the wolf slumped lifeless into the mud and Jeri was able to clamber back to her feet.

“Fifteen,” she muttered to herself as she looked around for another opponent, but sometime in the past few minutes a white mist had blanketed the valley blocking sight of the battlefield. The Mountains of the Silent Watch were notorious for such mists during autumn. They were thick, cold, and persistent, often curling about the lower reaches of the mountains until well after noon. It was one the reasons why few humans lived in the region, that and the large tribes of goblins and other undesirables who also populated these peaks, raiding any nearby human settlement for food, gold and weapons.

“You test me Avani,” Jeri growled at the pale orb of the Sun as it began its rise above the mountains, just visible through the morning fog.

She walked back to her horse, who had taken the brief respite from the battle to find a patch of long grass to munch on. Pulling a rag from a saddlebag, she carefully wiped all traces of the blood off her sword before sliding it back into its scabbard. She would clean it properly tonight, assuming she managed to rejoin her company. She also undid the straps of her open faced helm and tugging it off she placed it on the saddle as she carefully wiped the blood off her face and away from her eyes. A little cleaner now, she walked back to the dead wolf and placing one foot solidly on its corpse, gripped the haft of her spear with two hands and tugged the barbed weapon free. More blood splattered across her boots, but she ignored it for now as she cleaned the spear.

The muffled sound of a wolf howl sounded in the distance and she slowly backed away from the dead wolf toward her horse. Desert Wind had stopped chewing on grass and stood with his ears pricked looking at something past her, but the fog was still hiding whatever it was from view. Second-in-command of Harien’s Swords, a mercenary company that plied its craft among the rich nations of southern Brechtür, Jeri was only too aware of what could be waiting for her in the thickening fog. Her company had been battling a particularly nasty army of goblin raiders for nearly four hours. Like many creatures of evil, they were also beings of darkness, preferring to strike during the darkest hours of the night, where their superior vision gave them an advantage over their human foes. Jeri had hoped that advantage would evaporate with the dawn, but instead conditions had only become worse and somewhere out there, still hidden in the fog, was a larger force of goblins, survivors of the initial attack on the Sword’s camp site.

Her company, aided by a small group of the Stille Wächter rangers, had been hired to protect an important caravan carrying gold and other valuables from the eastern city of Edlenna to the capital Poden. In addition to the waggons loaded with valuables, they also had been travelling with Baron Eldred Oerwinde, the elderly leader of eastern Rheulgard, and several members of his court. Raiders had been expected, but the company’s captain, Colier Harien, had assured her that the goblins would not dare attack such a large and experienced company. He had been wrong and now many fine men and woman lay dead or dying on the damp ground. Although the dead, like the goblin’s themselves, remained hidden from Jeri’s vision.

Running a gloved hand through her dark, tightly braided hair, she looked around for any sign that might help her deduce where the enemy lay. Of course, in her dark clothes and armour and midnight-black steed, which stood out plainly against the white background of the fog, it was more likely that the goblins would see her before she spotted them. Jeri didn’t see this as a problem though, she wanted to be seen. Right now, there was nothing she wanted more than to avenge those friends and colleagues who hadn’t made it through the night. She had served with some of them for close to ten years and this was an ignominious way for them to meet their end.

She had been lucky enough to be on guard duty when the goblins struck and had been able to fight off the first few attackers long enough to reach her horse. She had also escaped injury so far, aside from a few minor scratches. But many others had not been so lucky, dying while still asleep or perishing as they struggled buckle on their armour and pull their swords from their scabbards. Had it not been for the fact that the caravan had been expecting trouble, they might all have been overwhelmed in their sleep, not even living to witness the dawn. Fifteen goblins had fallen to her blade and spear so far that night, but she still craved more kills, eager for revenge.

For now though, the landscape appeared to be clear of both friend and foe. In fact if she didn’t know better she would have thought herself the only living being in the whole valley. The battlefield had gone quiet, with even the screams of dying men and horses and the war cries of the raiders fading away. Replacing her helm and climbing back into the saddle, Jeri rested the heavy shaft of her spear across the leather saddle, looking for any signs of life. However, what had been for the past few hours a bloody battlefield was now a quiet, almost serene landscape, with the only sound the rhythmic breathing of her stallion, and her own beating heart.

Jeri didn’t like it all, something was definitely wrong. She had expected the fog to dampen the noise somewhat, but not to this extent. Her fingers tightened their grip around the long haft of the weapon she held, ready in case the misleading calm should erupt into furious battle once more. When she had lost sight of the rest of the company nearly an hour ago, just after the mist first began to crawl across the valley floor, she had not expected to find herself lost. Jeri was an experienced campaigner, fighting in wars from Müden to Kiergard, and she had never lost track of her companions before, no matter how furious and heated the fighting may have been.

This time something was different, and there was almost something unnatural about the calm that had now settled around her. Jeri had never considered herself a superstitious woman, preferring to believe in the strength of her steel and her will to see her through the battle, and not put her trust in something she didn’t understand. Certainly, she prayed each morning to Avani, the goddess of the sun and the lady of reason, but that was more of a habit born of her Khinasi upbringing than any real belief. Now though, trapped here in this mist her mind was beginning to play tricks on her and she was starting to imagine things that did not exist. A tree stump became a crouching goblin, and every bird call an enemy signal.

Nervously she gathered up the horse's reins in one hand and gave them a quick flick, urging the large stallion to move faster. Below she could still see the rough dirt of the road, so she knew she was not truly lost, but of her surviving companions there was still no sign. The stallion picked up his pace as he felt his mistress' nervousness. Born and bred on the great plains to the south the horse didn't like the mist any more than Jeri. To his animal intelligence it was something new, and therefore something to fear. He was a well trained warhorse though, and had been taught to follow his riders lead, and at the moment the warrior on his back was telling him to go faster.

So onward they rode, always following the dirt path that marked the road to Poden. Jeri knew that even if she could not find the caravan again she would eventually reach the Bannalach and the small fishing villages dotted only its shore. She would be able to wait there, although she did not relish the explaining she would have to do when the company eventually caught up with her. Of more immediate concern though were the raiders, probably still scattered throughout the valley somewhere. A meeting with a large force of goblins, possibly with Trolls and other monsters aiding them, was not something Jeri looked forward to, at least not without a few sturdy blades to back her up.

However, it was also a meeting that was not to be avoided this morning. Just as Jeri had thought she would never encounter another living soul again, a harsh cry rang out from behind and slightly above her. Fortunately her battle skills did not fail her and acting almost on pure reflex she spun around in her saddle to face whatever had cried out. At the same time she bought the spear down and around so its sharp steel was protecting against a frontal assault. Jeri was expecting battle, but even she did not expect something to happen quite so quickly, thinking that the cry had been a goblin signal to point out her location to a group of enemy warriors.

Instead, it had been a war cry, but the first Jeri knew of an attacker was when a dark shape lunged out of the mist, seeming to fly through the air towards her like a bird. Surprised by the sudden attack, there was little she could do but watch as the attacker impaled himself on the sharp end of her spear. The weapon was pulled from her hands again by the weight of the now dead goblin and dropped to the ground. Still surprised by the whole encounter, Jeri drew her sabre and looked around for another attacker, but the path seemed quiet once more.

Sliding her blade back into its scabbard she swung herself down from the high saddle and landed catlike on the damp ground. With one hand still on the hilt of her weapon, she crept forward, inching towards the fallen goblin. Her spear still looked like it was intact, its thick oak shaft fortunately withstanding the impact of the armoured goblin. Reaching the side of the goblin she checked for a pulse, just to make sure he was dead. One look at the pool of dark green blood and the blankly staring eyes though, quickly confirmed that. With a sharp tug she pulled the spear from the goblin's chest, still somewhat confused and amazed by what had occurred.

Then, wiping the weapon's blade clean again with a piece of the goblin's rough woollen shirt, she looked carefully around her, still a little anxious about a further attack. She almost jumped when she saw a large dark shape a short distance off, before relaxing a little when she realised that it was nothing more than a tall tree that had passed unseen in the fog. She quickly came to the conclusion that this must have been where the goblin had come from, leaping down at her in an attempt to catch her unawares. It was only luck that she had been carrying the spear and managed to swing it around in time to face her attacker. Still, as her old teacher back in Shoufal had always said, a good soldier makes their own luck.

After poking the long weapon into the tree's branches a couple of times to ensure it was now empty of any more goblins, Jeri moved away and headed back to her steed, only to find that Desert Wind was no longer where she had left him. Cursing Sera, the goddess of fortune, she called out to the horse and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when a loud whinny reached her ears from a short distance further down from the path. Picking her way carefully through the fog she reached the stallion's side.

“Taking time out to eat were you?” Jeri whispered in the horse's ear, while at the same time patting the stallion's sleek, black coat. “Well no time for a break yet, we still have to find Cole and the others.”

The horse shook his mane, as if it understood her, and Jeri allowed herself a small laugh at the stallion's playful nature. Even here in the thick of battle, well in the thick of a very chilly foggy morning anyway, the horse was still playful and ready for action. Jeri on the other hand was not so flippant and, after carefully checking to make sure her weapons were secured, pulled herself up into the saddle once more, urging the horse away from his meal of dew dampened grass and back onto the trail.

For a moment she paused to consider the road, unsure which direction she should travel. Then the sound of a distant horn made up her mind for her. It was the sound of Colier Harien's silver battle horn, the one he blew in battle to call for a rally to his position. Her heart lifted at once, as Jeri realised that at least some of her companions must still be alive. Then, through the fog she heard the distant rumble of horse's hooves, many horse's hooves. Only her company had been mounted, well except for Baron Oerwinde and his bodyguards, so that must be them. With a tug on the reins and a light, almost feather-like, touch of her knees she guided the big stallion around, heading back along the road she had been riding for the past half hour.

Before Desert Wind could take more than a couple of steps, however, there was a sudden flash in front of her and with a enormous cracking sound the nearby tree exploded with blue lightning. The stallion may not have been spooked by the fog, but this was something else entirely. He reared up suddenly, sending Jeri flying backwards out of the saddle, before galloping off into the mist. Unable to react in time, Jeri suddenly found herself flying through the air. Her flight was short lived though, as she struck the grass-covered ground with a heavy thump, sending a jolt of pain screaming through her hip. Her head came to ground moment after the rest of her body and her temple collided solidly with a large rock that sat by the roadside.