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An Excerpt from:

THE SWORDS OF MERCY

A WarQuest Novella
by D.W. Beyer

Chapter One: Otholist

Captain Eurrick Volhammer, commander of the Swords of Mercy, sat alone in his tent on a small stool before a large campaign table staring at his hands. His stomach roiled like an angry cook pot.  The night before a battle affected him less than the prospect of his worn and cracked hands never holding sword and shield after tomorrow.  He was a big man, broad shoulders and a big chest that tapered to a taut and narrow waist.  Where his muscled arms and thighs belied his age, the remaining white stubble on his head betrayed him.  Three other stools stood empty around the table.  The canvas tent snapped in the offshore breeze cresting the bluff on which it stood.  The smell of the evening’s cook pots had faded leaving only the familiar scent of wood smoke.  The evening sun cast a cheery glow in contrast to Eurrick’s dark mood.

There was a quiet cough behind him and he turned to see Lieutenant Galcrux standing in the open flap.

“Sir, Algoth and Wigeyn,” Galcrux said nodding toward empty stools, “have taken the men down to Otholist to billet them for the night.”

“Thank you, lieutenant.”  Eurrick said.  “That will be all for the night.”

Eurrick returned to his contemplation, his attention shifting from his hands to the old camp table.  How many maps and battle plans had its worn surface borne?  Would the camp table make its transition to retirement any easier than he?  He picked at a deep gash with the side of his thumbnail and chuckled.  Wigeyn had made it one night when he was in his cups.  That was a night, he recalled smiling to himself.  He tried to picture the table in some crofter’s home surrounded by laughing children and beaming parents enjoying a dinner of fat suckling pig, but failed. It had held the plans for so many deaths that it seemed destined for some lesser purpose.  A crowded tavern or discarded in pieces in a woodpile awaiting its final passing.

Looking around the tent he took the measure of his life, his martial belongings by far outnumbering his personal: several old letters bound with twine, a dried ink pot, a dog-eared copy of The Book of Katak, his bedroll, and a chipped black dragon glass cup.  He’d always had that cup though he had no idea where he had come by it.

“Is there something I can help you with, Lieutenant?”  Eurrick asked.  He turned on his stool and looked at Lieutenant Liana Galcrux still standing just inside the flap of the tent silhouetted in the evening sun.  The crossed swords epaulettes of the Swords of Mercy glimmering blood red in the dying light.

Liana stepped into the tent letting the flaps fall close behind her.

“Are you sure about this sir?” she circled the camp table stopping at the field desk picking up a stack of parchments.  “Are these the contracts that Mince sent up?” she asked flipping through them.  They scratched like leaves, dry and dead.  “There is another way.  Turn your command over to one of us.  Wigeyn is strong and has the respect of the others.  Algoth is clever.  You have seen that at this table many times.”  She gestured toward the camp table with the parchments.

“Yes.  Sure as I have ever been,” he paused. “As sure as I can be.”  Eurrick looked up.  “Turning over command doesn’t bring any better contracts.  You see the one in there about the pigs?”

“Yeah,” Liana chuckled.  “Pitiful, it is, but easy money no doubt.”

“It’s never been just about the money.”

Liana dropped the contracts back on the field desk with a sigh.

“Well then, what has it been about?”

Eurrick shook his head and smiled at her.

“Well… Sir,” she said taking a deep breath.  “Me and the men are having a bit of a celebration down in Otholist tonight.  Lifting a pint, as it were, on the last night of our duty to the Swords.”

Something caught Eurrick’s attention, a small movement in the corner of his vision.  A pair of small gray eyes reflected in rows stared at him from the faulds of his armor on its stand in the corner.

She gave him her usual crooked smile that bunched the purple scar crossing her face from the corner of her mouth to a no man’s land of white scalp behind her ear shaped like a cat’s paw.  The path of the old wound had destroyed a good portion of her face and left a clouded eye and drooping eyelid to lament its passing. She may have been pretty once, before she met a goblin sword, before she swore her life to the Swords, a duty they would no longer bear by this time tomorrow.

“Liana,” Eurrick softened his tone. “You go ahead.  I want one last evening here,” he said looking about the tent.

She paused, looking long at him, then nodded.  “If you change your mind, sir, just look for the noisiest tavern in Otholist.”

“If I recall, Otholist only has one tavern.”

“Should make it easy then, eh?” Liana grinned, crumpling the left side of her face once more.

Eurrick chuckled, though it did little to quiet his gut.

“Dismissed, Lieutenant.”

Liana came to attention and solemnly gave Eurrick the feathered salute of the Swords of Mercy as she backed out of the tent, her half smile intact.

The freshening wind pushed a salt tang of the sea mixed with the smell of crushed grass through the tent flaps before they could fall closed.

Turning back to his armor, he saw the eyes were gone.

“Oh, Pip,” he whispered to himself.

Eurrick rose and tied the tent flaps.

He moved to his cot in the rear of the tent, stripped down to his small clothes, donned a long night shirt, and slid into his bedroll.  He tried thinking of what he would tell the men and women of under his command all these years as he lay listening to the high notes of his armor accompany the popping and booming of the canvas tent.

***

Eurrick jerked awake.  The cold slap of frosty night air on his face was unnecessary to bring his senses to full alert.  Blood thrummed in his ears.  Something was not right.  His hand found the hilt of his sword as he rolled from his cot and out under the edge of the tent in a fluid, well practiced move.  His long sword slid loose from its scabbard with a quiet “schlick.”

Outside the air was still, the encampment silent in the depth of night.  He could feel the cold dampness in the air, the long grass wet under his feet and around his ankles.  An orange glow blotted out the stars above Otholist lying just out of sight over the lip of the bluff.

“Galcrux… Algoth… Wigeyn,” he whispered as he passed a cluster of tents.

No answer.

They have not returned from Otholist yet, he thought.  He straightened, relaxed.  He didn’t begrudge them a night of celebration, he never had, and certainly he would not tonight.  They would find their way after the Swords.  They were smart capable men.  It is I that have reached the final night.

They would go on.

He continued to the edge of the bluff knowing it would be hard to return to his cot even though the pounding in his chest and its echo in his ears had subsided.

It was the glare that hit Eurrick first. Then the heat.  He raised his forearm to shield his eyes from the burning inferno of Otholist below.  Between the buildings and in the streets, massed bodies squirmed and twisted in battle, firelight flashing off blades while the sounds of slaughter rose from the violence.  He watched innocent men and women resist and just as quickly, die.

Eurrick sprinted to the switchback leading down to the seaside village.  His lungs burned in the cold night air and the hard pack of the road stung his bare feet as he ran, but by the time he reached the edge of Otholist, it was clear he was too late.  He roamed the streets of the village in his night shirt and small clothes armed only with his sword.  Around him bodies lay slashed and severed and seared, many unarmed, their blood mixing with the dirt to make a gruesome sticky mud that squeezed between his toes and clung to the soles of his feet.  Eurrick had witnessed many battlefields in his life, but they paled in comparison to the sheer brutality visited upon the residents of this small seaside village.

Around him, flames bubbled and crawled up knuckled black timbers marking the remains of the wooden structures.  He continued through the village, his nose burned and eyes watered from sting of smoke.  Near him a structure collapsed sending up a shower of sparks rising to mingle with the stars.  He raised a hand against the renewed flames and could feel the heat through his night shirt singing the hair on the back of his arm.

“Commander,” a voice rasped out of the flickering shadows.

Eurrick turned to see Liana Galcrux wavering on her feet dragging the spiked head of her war hammer in the bloody mire as she approached.  The hair on her head was gone, singed away to stubble.  Her uniform hung in shreds from her soot and blood smeared body exposing a sagging, withered breast.  He leapt forward to catch her as her legs gave way.

“Give me a moment,” she said, strength returning to her voice. “It’s not my blood.  I’m okay.”  She began to shake and leaned harder into Eurrick for support.  “They were big and they came at us fast, growling like beasts, swinging hammers the size of mill stones.  The village was overrun and burning before we were able to raise a defense.  We were simply out-matched.”

“And you?” Eurrick asked, nodding at her tattered uniform.

“I’ll be okay,” she said making no move to cover herself.  “Something felt a bit off,” she paused.  “I thought it might be the ale and all at first.  Or the sea air, maybe.  But I couldn’t shake it.  I stepped out…”  She stared off in the distance, the fires flickering in her good eye.  “I stepped out to get fresh air and saw a darkened ship slipping into the harbor.  They came over the sides of the ship and up the docks.  I…”  She dropped her head and stared at the ground.  “I tried…”

“Galcrux.”

Liana looked up and into Eurrick’s gaze.

“You fought well.  And you are alive,” he said quietly.

She nodded, dragging a dirty and torn sleeve across her soot stained face.  Shrugging the remnants of her uniform around her shoulders.

“Where are Algoth and Wigeyn?”

“Over there,” she gestured with her war hammer. “Back the way you came.”

They found Algoth and Wigeyn’s bodies lying outside the crackling embers of Otholist’s only tavern.  Their swords were drawn and between them lay the remains of a dozen villagers.

Eurrick kneeled and carefully closed the lids of their sightless eyes.

“Go to your peace.  May the Swords of Mercy who have gone before you embrace you, and welcome you, in your final rest,” he said under his breath.

“They fought hard,” said Liana,  “protecting the town.”

“But in the end, it wasn’t enough,” Eurrick said and shifted his weight on the balls of his feet, examining a muddy patch of ground to the left of Algoth’s shoulder.

“But where are their dead?” asked Liana.

Eurrick stood, stepped back and made a turn looking at the ground around where his men and the others lay.  Kneeling down again, he measured one of the impressions in the mud with his outstretched hand.  It took nearly four hands to span the toes to heel.  “They were big, alright.  And judging by the depth of these prints,” he stood and lifted one of his feet for comparison, “many times heavier than any of us.”

Eurrick bent and pulled a torn scrap of cloth from the mud and stood.  “This symbol,” he said holding it up to the flickering light, turning it several times.  “I have seen this design before.”

A new sensation rose in his gut.  A burning pinch he had never felt in the press of battle.

Eurrick looked down toward the empty dock and beyond.  Far out to sea, a square rigger silhouetted against the night sky shrank in the distance.

“Lieutenant, gather as many men as you can find.  We sail in the morning for Myrathia.”

(to be continued…)

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