This story happens during the history of Cember Earth, a world I've created (for a seven book series I hope to right sometime.
Rise of Shadow
Shadow stood, shrouded in the dusky gloom at the forest’s edge as he scanned the plain spread out beneath him. It was still several hours until sundown, but the heavy gray sky kept back all but the faintest apparition of the sun.
A cold wind rustled the through the dying leaves above him and Shadow shivered. He felt naked without his armor, and touched his sword’s hilt on his side to reassure himself. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. This mission was dependent on stealth, not strength; if he was discovered, there was very little chance of making it back to Pernilla and the Atharishian army waiting there.
Shadow pulled his mottled green and brown cloak closer about him and leaned back against the rough bark of a tree. He could wait.
Absently he watched the leaden clouds above as they began to fissure and crack, letting spears of late afternoon sunlight stab toward the grassy plain. And still he waited.
He heard them before he saw them; a low rumble that seemed to fill the air and shake the ground beneath his feet. Shadow tensed, sinking deeper into the gloom, his gaze darting back and forth along the ridge of hills bordering the plain.
Then came flashes of light, glints betraying spear tips and bronze shields. A disorderly mass of soldiers spilled over the crest of the hills, followed by another, then another. Shadow snorted to himself. Soldiers! They didn’t deserve the name. They were pirates from the Fairith Isles, descendants of the rebels from Laurenthalas in the north. Murderers and thieves. And they thought, just because they wanted more gold and land, they could cross over to the mainland and invade Atharim? Shadow clenched his fists. They’d better think again.
The army came to a halt in the plain. Shadow watched as dense circles of tents sprang up quickly. Other makeshift shelters were scattered haphazardly about. He waited for a little longer to see if more troops would join them, but none did.
Shadow wondered if Father would approve a night attack. They could rout the Pirates and drive them back to the see. Then again, the general might think it too large of a risk. The king of Atharim had let the army fall into confused disarray. That was why the pirates hadn’t been brought to a halt on the beaches. That was why they had managed to strike deep into Atharim’s heart, burning and pillaging as they went. That was why they were now only half a day’s march from Pernilla, Atharim’s capital.
Shadow finished surveying the pirate’s encampment. 50,000 men, more or less, he estimated. No cavalry though, that was good.
Campfires blazing and the setting sun shown red beneath the retreating clouds before Shadow turned away and headed quietly back into the forest. He paused for a minute in a clearing, retrieving a bow and quiver of arrows from a hollow tree before heading into the thickening gloom of the trees. He walked warily, alert for a signs of an enemy patrol. But he saw none.
He was nearly through the wood, which separated him from the lush meadows surrounding Pernilla, when a voice, hushed but strong, came from Shadow’s right.
“Stand and declare yourself.”
Shadow paused with a quick smile. He knew the voice.
“It’s Shadow.” He waited. Silence. “Alright, Strevin, then. Strevin, son of General Hadin. You know my voice, Arrow. Don’t pretend you don’t.”
“As if I would ever think of such a thing.” Arrow stepped from the shadows and lowered his bow. “Just like you would never leave on a scouting mission all alone.”
“It was safer with just one.”
“Safer, do you really think-“
Shadow cut his friend off. “The pirates finished setting up camp about an hour ago. But we should send out scouts to make sure they don’t advance during the night.” Shadow started walking again.
“I’ll bring orders to Nysander if you want me to,” Arrow offered.
“Thank you.” Shadow paused as they broke from the forest. The campfires lighting this plain were in orderly rows. Beyond them, the city of Pernilla seethed with lights as hundreds of new refugees tried to find a place to settle down. Arrow headed off to talk with Captain Nysander and Shadow made straight for the great tent in the center of the camp. The night wind set half hidden flags fluttering and snapping.
Shadow nodded to several soldiers as he passed. The situation wasn’t completely hopeless. His father had managed to regather about half of Atharim’s army after the first battle, when the king was killed and the soldiers routed. The pirates still outnumbered them two to one, but the pirates were only fighting for money. The soldiers here were fighting for their families, their freedoms, and Shadow was sure they would win. They had to. There wasn’t any choice.
“Any news?” A hand pulled on Shadow’s sleeve as he was about to enter Father’s tent.
Shadow turned and smiled as he saw Aryanna. The flickering light of the lamp over the entrance to the tent lit up her calm face. She was the king’s only daughter, but, more importantly to Shadow, she would one day be his bride. They’d pledged themselves only days before her father’s death.
“They are in the valley.” Shadow said, reaching out and brushing a wisp of dark hair from her eyes and tucking it behind her ear. No need to say who they were.
“So will it be tomorrow.”
Shadow nodded. “At dawn, most likely. Anything happening here?”
“A Ryshanian captain is inside with the general right now.”
“That is good news.” Ryshan was the country to their east. They had only recently become independent from Atharim and had promised General Hadin their aid.
“Perhaps,” Aryanna hesitated then took my bow and quiver. “Well, go on and report to the general. I’ll have a hot meal at your tent whenever you decide to get there.”
“I won’t be long.” Shadow promised, and lifted the thick curtain, passing into Father’s tent.
Another curtain divided the tent into two rooms. The outer chamber was empty except for two guards who stood on either side of the entrance. Soft light and softer voices filtered out of the inner chamber. Shadow entered quietly.
Father was pacing between sparkling lamps which hung in the back corners of the tent. A long table with writing materials and several maps stood in the center of the room. A Ryshanian captain sat in a chair before the table. By the looks of his begrimed armor, he had been in a skirmish. His shield was leaning against his chair and his shoulders were slumped as he rested his forehead on his hand.
Father glanced at his son. Shadow’s heart sank. He knew that look, though he’d only seen it once, the night before Mother died. It was a look of deep foreboding, almost of hopelessness. The General turned away quickly and bent over a map.
Shadow leaned closer and saw it was a map of the mountains and hills to the north of Atharim and Ryshan.
With a barely audible sigh, Father straightened. “Thank you Thry. You and your men have done well.”
The Ryshanian nodded and slowly rose to his feet. “We merely did our duty.”
“But you did it well,” Father repeated. He came around the table and gripped the captain’s arm. The captain saluted and left.
Father waited until the man’s steps had left the tent, then he turned on Shadow, energy springing back into his eyes. The look Shadow had seen earlier was gone. “And you! Why did you leave to go scout alone?”
“You hadn’t given me orders.” Shadow looked at his feet.
“Orders.” Father snorted. “You left early to avoid them. I told Arrow to go with you and he came back saying you had already left.”
It was true. He’d wanted to be alone for just a few hours. “I’m sorry.” Shadow looked back up at Father, “I won’t do it again.” After the battle that was sure to come the next morning, there wouldn’t be a chance for it to happen again. Either they would be victorious…or they would die. Shadow shook his head; they would be victorious
“No harm’s been done…this time,” Father’s face softened. “So what do you have to report?”
“About 50,000 pirates, but disorganized. They camped in the plain beyond the wood. I sent Arrow to get Nysander to post scouts to make sure they wouldn’t launch a surprise attack. They have no cavalry.” Shadow smiled. “We can defeat them…they have no organization and are overconfident.”
“If it was just them, that might be the case.” Father shook his head, the weariness returning to his face. He hesitated, then his eyes met Shadow’s. “That Ryshanian captain, Thry, was attacked by a patrol of Shangarens. The Shangarens are gathering to help the pirates; they have probably joined them already under cover of darkness.”
“The wolf riders,” Shadow exhaled softly. That dashed any plan of a night attack to pieces. Now he understood Father’s look. “But the Shangarens were supposed to be at peace with us.”
Father just looked at him
“Well, what about the lion riders which live on the border?” Shadow asked. “They are the only ones who can face the wolf riders on equal terms and I know they are stanchly on our side. Will they help?”
“They might, but there is no time to call them even if we knew where to find them.” Father shrugged. “They might know already and be on their way here, but we can’t be sure.”
For a long minute there was silence between the father and son. Shadow had never seen the fierce wolf riders up close, but the tales of brutal strength and harshness were enough to chill the heart of any man.
“So what is to be done?” Shadow finally asked.
“Rest, for now.” Father smiled slightly. “The camp will be aroused an hour before dawn, like normal. When the sun rises, we will see what the day brings.”
Shadow nodded, but was unwilling to leave. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Like what?” Father demanded with a chuckle. “You’ve been out scouting all afternoon. Get you your tent and the meal your betrothed has waiting for you. But don’t talk to Aryanna for too long. She will be with the archers tomorrow and needs her rest as much as you.”
“I will be in bed before the hourly call,” Shadow promised.
He ducked out of the chamber, passed the guards, and stepped into the night air. The moon was rising in the east and fires crackled on every side. Shadow hurried toward his own tent. The night had seemed so full of promise when he’d arrived. Now his heart felt heavy. The chances of his living another night were growing slimmer by the minute, but he didn’t mind death so much if he could only knew it would do some good. But to die and leave Atharim for the pirates…for the woman and children to be taken into slavery by the Shangarens…Shadow clenched his fists. It could not happen. He would not let it happen.
“I thought you said you would be quick.” Aryanna greeted Shadow cheerily as he entered his own tent, lit with two hanging lamps. Her face grew grave as she looked at him. “What has happened?”
Briefly Shadow told her of what he’d learned from Father as he devoured the stew and bread Aryanna had set out for him. He tried to keep the outcome of the coming battle as hopeful as possible, but he could tell Aryanna was not fooled.
She took his dishes when he was finished eating and went to the tent entrance. “Don’t lose hope yet, Shadow. The lion riders might come, and we are not helpless either, you know.”
Shadow smiled. “I worry more for you than for myself…or the outcome of the battle.”
“Oh, do be quiet.” Aryanna came back and gave him a quick kiss on his forehead. “You know better. Now get some rest.”
“You go straight to bed too,” Shadow ordered. “I want you to be able to shoot straight so you can cover me tomorrow whenever I get in a tight spot.”
“Selfish.” Aryanna threw her hair over her shoulder and left the tent with a small laugh.
Shadow took off his light leather breastplate and set his sword by his cot, then turned down the lamps. Then he rolled up in a blanket, fully dressed. He lay staring into the darkness, listening to the steady tramp of the sentries feet and the occasional clatter of a horse bearing a scout into the camp. What would tomorrow bring? Victory, or death? There didn’t seem to be any other option. He tried to think, to weight one option against another, so see if there was something which could counterbalance the Shangaren’s wolves, but gradually his surroundings faded into forgetfulness and Shadow fell asleep.
“Hour of standing to, sleepyhead.”
Shadow sat up with a jerk and looked around. Aryanna stood before him, her bow in one hand and a lamp in the other.
Shadow jumped to his feet and grabbed his breastplate…a sturdy metal one, not the light armor of the day before. Aryanna set down her lamp and bow and helped Shadow into his armor. Their fingers flew and within a few minutes Shadow was buckling on his sword. He snatched up his rectangular shield in one hand and took the piece of bread Aryanna offered and together they stepped out of the tent.
The sky was dark, and the stars shone cold as the soldiers assembled silently, with only muted orders, the tramp of feet, and clink of armor breaking the silence. Shadow paused as they approached the battlefield. The line stretched across the neck of land which Pernilla rested on. The left flank dipped down to the Sterling River while the right flank hugged a rugged bluff which also tumbled down to the river as it curved around.
“See you later.” Aryanna smiled then hurried toward the hill which rose in the center, behind the line, dominating the whole field. That was where the archers were posted. Shadow’s own command was at the left flank. He strode along the line of gathering soldiers and on to the center where his father stood in command.
The general glanced toward shadow as he came up.
“Any reports?” Shadow asked in a low voice.
“About 500 wolf riders rode into the pirate camp late last night.” The general replied in a soft voice.
Shadow nodded, his heart sinking. He’d been clinging to the faint hope that the Ryshan Captain was wrong.
The general gripped Shadow’s shoulder. “Stand strong, my son. Don’t give up before we’ve even started.”
Shadow straightened. “Never!” He saluted and made his way back to his post, in the center of the left flank, grim determination coursing through him.
At least they were in a good position. ‘The pirates will attack us wherever we are,’ his father had said. ‘We might as well choose the ground.’
Shadow shivered slightly. The hour of standing to, the hour before dawn when attacks were most likely, slowly dragged on. Ahead of him, about a thousand paces distance, rose the forest…the only thing laying between us and the pirates…and the wolf riders of Shangar.
Shadow glanced over his shoulder as the sky in the east began to lighten. The walls of Pernilla were deserted. There were no men to spare to guard them. If the battle when ill, then Pernilla would fall. The refugees and townspeople, those that were left and not out here on the field with a bow or sword, had taken cover by order of the king.
Shadow found himself longing for the security of the walls, but he knew why Father had drawn the line here on the plain before the city. The brunt of the battle would fall here…if it made its way to the capital, many people would die. In the end, they might have to retreat to the city. But not yet, not until all else had failed.
Shadow hated waiting, but he well knew the wait would be over too soon. The sun began to appear over the horizon. Suddenly deep horn filled the air. Shadow straightened, his hand moving to his sword’s hilt. That was no Atharim horn.
The call rumbled forth again, echoing though the plain. Around Shadow, the men shifted.
Something flashed in the forest and Shadow drew his sword, the metallic swish of his blade sliding from its sheath joining thousands more as soldiers all down the line drew theirs as well. The next moment shadows disattached themselves from the gloom of the trees. Tall figures, with great spears.
Shadow sighed with relief. Pirates. He’d dealt with them before. He briefly wondered where the wolf riders were, but there was no time to think about it.
With wild yells, the pirates raced toward the Atharishian line.
“Shields up!” Shadow yelled, clenching his sword with his right hand while lifting his shield with his left. The men around him did the same, forming a living cave with walls and roof of shields. Dull thuds and splintered wood, mingled with several strangled cries told Shadow that at least some of the pirate javelins had found a mark. More yells from the pirates told that Atharishian arrows were also taking their toll.
The battle cries grew nearer. Shadow watched the approaching enemy through a crack between two shields. Fifty paces. Twenty. Ten. Five.
“Now!” Shadow dropped his shield arm and lashed out with his sword. The battle was joined.
The sun rose on a battlefield, already soaked with blood.
Shadow fought fiercely. The pirates were strong but disorganized. The wolf riders had yet to appear and Shadow felt hope growing in him once more. On and on the battle raged. Now the Atharishian line wavered, now it stood strong and the pirates pulled back, now they charging again. The sun rose high in the sky and Shadow clenched his teeth, ignoring his thirst and the ache of his arm.
The pirates wavered again, then began to retreat. Cheers rose up around Shadow.
“Stand!” Shadow yelled. “Do not pursue. Not yet!”
Suddenly, with no signal or warning of any sort, Shadow saw dark figures streaking out of the forest. The pirates wavered, then fell in place behind the wolf riders as they hurtled toward the Atharishian lines. A moment later, swarthy riders atop great black wolves slammed into the Atharishian ranks. They were worse even than Shadow had imagined.
He ducked to avoid the jaws of a wolf and barely parried a sword thrust from the rider. Men fell on either side of them, but more soldiers stepped up to take their place. The wolf riders pulled back and charged again…and again. And still the Atharishians fought on.
Shadow glanced along his line as the Shangarens pulled back one more. His line was thin…only one man deep in some places. They wouldn’t be able to withstand another charge.
A melodious horn sounded to his right and Shadow turned toward the sound. In a glance, he saw the right wing had been hopelessly shattered. The general’s standard was now flying from the crest of the hill. His horn winded out above the field once more, calling all survivors to join him.
“To me!” Shadow heard himself calling above the noise of battle. “To me!” But already the wolf riders were charging once more. This time, the riders broke through the line.
Shadow managed to gather a small body of men. Slowly but surely they fought their way to the hill, some men falling, others joining him.
Atharishian solders had formed a new line around the foot of the hill. Shadow passed through them, leaving his men there, hurrying up to where the general and several officers stood at the crest of the hill. Aryanna was there too, as well as a handful of other archers. As he walked, Shadow glanced to either side. The whole Atharishian line had been decimated. Those who had not yet made it to the hill were surrounded by wolf riders and pirates. Some of the pirates were already at Pernilla’s walls, throwing up ladders and streaming over them. Shadow forced himself to look away and focus on the current situation.
Shadow turn father. “So now what?”
“We fight.” The general’s lips tightened into a grim line but a fire seemed to light his eyes.
Shadow looked down to where the remnants of the Atharishian army defended the hill. The pirate had gone on after easier prey and the Shangaren wolves and their riders were tearing ragged gaps into the diminishing circle.
“Stay up here and do what you can with your bow,” Shadow commanded Aryanna, then he plunged down into the fight.
The fight of earlier seemed child’s play compared to the battle taking place now. Wounds were nothing…Shadow saw men half dead, using the last of their strength to take a wolf or its rider with them to the grave. Shadow himself was wounded slightly in his side. He pulled out of the battle for several minutes while Aryanna dressed the wound, then took up his sword and joined his men again. Time seemed to drag on as the sun slowly sunk down towards the west.
In the back of his mind, Shadow wondered how long this fight could continue…how long until they all were dead upon the hilltop? The circle compressed and step by step the line was forced up the hill. Behind him, Shadow could hear his father calling out encouragement, stepping in occasionally to strike a blow, then moving on to the next weak point.
“How are you doing?” Father’s voice sound suddenly near and Shadow realized that the General had stepped in to fill a gap next to him.
“As best as can be expected.” Shadow drove his sword into the mouth of a wolf.
“Then-” the General gasped and Shadow turned to see him pull a spear from his chest and collapse on one knee.
“Close ranks!” Shadow shouted above the tumult. He leapt back out of the fight, dragging Father with him to the small space still open.
Aryanna bent down opposite Shadow, but as Shadow looked at his father, he knew the wound was mortal. He shook his head and Aryanna stood with a small sob, reaching for another arrow and turning back to the fight.
“Shadow…” The general clutched Shadow’s arm, gasping for air.
“I’m here.” Shadow clenched his jaw.
“Save them…if you can.” The General’s hand fell limp.
Shadow took a deep breath, then rose to his feet, anger surging though him. Save them…if you can. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t! What more could he do? It didn’t matter, he would do it anyway. But even as Shadow stepped toward the fight now raging only several paces away, a sound arrested his movement. A clear high horn, ringing over the field.
The battle seemed to freeze for several long seconds and Shadow’s head jerked toward the forest.
The horn came again, followed by ringing shouts which surged high over the commotion on the field.
“Lion riders!” Shadow yelled as he caught sight of the first golden beast spring from the forest. He sprang to the front of the battle line. “Lion riders!”
“Lion riders!” the call spread through the Shangaren attackers and they broke off the attack on the Atharishians, turning toward the lion riders issuing from the woods.
In the brief respite Shadow glanced toward the city. The gates were open now, and the pirates were streaming through. Shadow could hear the screams of the townspeople. Their cries were heartrending, but for a moment, Shadow was at a loss of what to do. There were too many pirates and Shangarens between him and the city…and there wasn’t enough soldiers alive to retake the city even if that could get there.
He turned back to the lion riders, who were now approaching at a rapid pace. They didn’t seem to be attacking the wolf riders…rather they were fighting defensively, pushing through the enemies.
Aryanna gripped Shadow’s arm. “There’s not enough of them,” she gasped.
Shadow tightened his hold on his sword. He’d noticed the same thing. After the first rush of lion riders, no more had come. Near a hundred of the great beasts were loping towards them, but they that was not enough. What were they doing? They hadn’t come to simply die with the Atharishians…that wasn’t their way.
The first of the lion riders galloped up to the line.
“Circle round!” The ride shouted. Even without his order, the men were forming a ring around the battered Atharishian troops.
The rider slipped off his lion, he was a head taller than Shadow, and his blond hair fell over his greenish chain mail. “I am Silian. Where is General Hadin?”
Shadow motioned with his head to his father’s body lying on the hill behind him.
The rider’s face grew grim. “And these are all the soldiers left?”
For a moment Silian looked at the surrounding battle. Shadow followed his gaze. The lion riders were holding their own, but Shadow didn’t know how long it could last in the sea of wolves.
“And who are you?”
Shadow turned his attention back to the man. “Strevin, son of General Hadin. I am called Shadow.”
“You are the leader here?”
“Yes.” Shadow didn’t hesitate.
The man nodded. “The main group of lion riders is still in the mountains, preventing any more Shangaren reinforcements from entering Atharim. We can’t defeat these wolf riders, there are too many of them.” He hesitated. “But we can rescue you and your men.”
“But what about Pernilla?” Shadow looked toward the city. “We can’t just leave them!”
The rider gripped Shadow’s shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. “They will ravage the city, and if you attack, they will kill everyone. But once the battle is over, they will enslave the people, not kill them. Leave with us and regroup in the mountains. We will help you and eventually you will be able to retake Atharim and free the people. Will you come?”
Shadow glanced toward the city in despair, but he knew the rider was right. His shoulders sagged. “We will come.”
“Up and mount!” The Silian shouted, and his riders slowly retreated up the hill.
“Mount behind them.” Shadow hurried round the circle of his own men. “We are getting out of here.”
The operation was performed in short order. Shadow helped Aryanna behind one of the riders. After everyone was mounted, he sprang up behind the Silian.
The rider raised his horn to his lips and gave a sharp blast and the cavalcade started off at a swift pace. Cries of rage rose from the wolf riders as they saw their prey escaping, and they closed in, but to no avail. Though some of the riders fell, the majority broke through the lines and into the wood.
Clusters of wolf riders followed hard on their heels for well-nigh a league but the lions sped forward, and after a time they were racing on alone.
Shadow felt grim fury rise up within him as the noise of battle was replaced by the rush of wind in his ears. He glanced over to where Aryanna rode a few lions over. Her face was taunt and tears streamed down her cheeks.
The sun was setting as the lions entered the foothills of the Bald Mountains, crossing into the border lands of Atharim. Shadow half turned, watching Atharim fall away below. His heart ached for the terror he knew would fall on the people of his country.
“I will return.” Shadow whispered to the wind. The vow hardened in his heart and he clenched his fist. “I will return!” He shouted. A darkness had fallen over Atharim, but Shadow knew it would not last forever. He would fight, from the mountains and the hill, from the forests and the caves. And in the end, he would win. He would honor his father’s wish. He would save them. He was Shadow, General of Atharim!