Obsidia (1st chapter)
Note: this is the first chapter of an epic fantasy project. It still stands close to half-finished (or half-drafted) at around 50,000 words. Maybe one day I’ll finish it. More likely, I’ll recycle the ideas I liked and write something more coherent. Nonetheless, I think this version of the start of the book came out pretty well. The Imperial / barbarian thing wasn’t a plot axis, by the way.
‘Stubborn old fool,’ cursed Marcus to himself, ‘he’s going to get himself killed.’
His father, Friduric, had insisted on leading their regiment from the front. After days combat on the northern frontier between the Empire and Taarnia, the fighting was coming to a head and Friduric had insisted that the Taarns were on the verge of breaking.
Marcus didn’t see any evidence of that.
Today the Taarns had struck at first light in the morning mists, overrunning the front line through surprise and speed. They became bogged down quickly once the Imperials organised their defence, but their numbers kept increasing as more warriors appeared from mists.
‘Father, we must fall back and regroup!’ shouted Marcus, struggling to make himself heard over the clamour of battle. The cold caused his breath to add to the morning mists.
Friduric pulled a disgusted face and spat. ‘Show some spine, boy!’ he bellowed. ‘I will not bow before these barbarians! For once in your life act like a man!’
Anger flushed through Marcus’ face, but then he heard screams from the left flank. He and Friduric strained to see what was happening, and saw a wedge of Taarns on the verge of breaking through.
‘Go, boy!’ shouted Friduric. ‘Make yourself useful and shore up the left!’
Marcus ran as fast he dared across the frozen mud, all the while cursing his father under his breath. Their formations were becoming disorganised and press of bodies was now too tight for a horse. It took him and his personal guard precious minutes to reach the beleaguered position.
‘To me! For the Empire!’ shouted Marcus, immediately laying into the nearest Taarn with sword and shield, slicing tendons and severing muscles. The men rallied at his appearance and redoubled their efforts.
Time dissolved into a blur of clashing steel and cries of pain. Marcus’ muscles burned and his throat was raw from shouting, but the flank held and the barbarians’ assault was stalled. There was a lull in the fighting and he stepped back to catch his breath, wiping the sweat, blood and grime from his forehead.
He wondered whether his father had watched him fight. Hopefully the miserable old goat would be pleased with him for once, though somehow he doubted it.
Marcus looked back towards his father’s position, expecting to see him glowering at the enemy lines and berating his troops to fight harder.
Instead he saw another wedge smashing through the line and overrunning the Imperial position completely. The regimental standard wavered and then fell, its bearer cut down. The Taarns roared in triumph. Their cohesion dissolved and they ran onwards, through the remnants of the front line and towards the centre of the army, leaving the scattered Imperials to fight for their lives.
‘Father!’ screamed Marcus. He abandoned the left flank, trying desperately to reach his father’s position. His guards followed, struggling to match his pace.
Friduric faced off against a beast of a man, easily a foot taller and twice as wide as him. He was ugly as a butcher’s block, dressed in the furs and studded leather armour that the northerners favoured, which were adorned with gaudily painted symbols.
The brute hefted his enormous spiked club with a sickening grin and brought it down in a crushing blow. Friduric tried to dodge to the side but age and tiredness were against him, and he took most of the blow square on his shield. He cried out in pain and shock, and couldn’t help dropping his arm. A nearby soldier tried to help him but was stabbed from behind by another northman.
Another Taarn tried to block Marcus’ way. He paid for it with a slice across the guts and shield in the face.
Marcus ran on but he was too late. The brute lashed out again at Friduric. His shield arm still shocked, he raised his sword to block. It was a futile gesture and both he and the brute knew it. The blow smashed straight through the block and crushed Friduric’s helmet. He collapsed to the earth without so much as a whimper.
‘No!’ screamed Marcus. He closed the last of the distance and saw the brute grinning at him. The thug lifted his club again and swung, but Marcus was ready for him. At the last moment he ducked low and to one side and then, snarling, he thrust his sword into the man’s armpit, twisting the blade as he withdrew.
The brute howled and his right arm went limp, dropping the club. Marcus wasted no time but slashed across the backs of the man’s legs, causing him to collapse to his knees in the mud.
Marcus flung down his shield and grabbed the brute’s filthy hair, yanking his head back.
‘Murdering Shadow-spawn!’ he screamed, smashing the pommel of his sword into the man’s face. Marcus hit him again and again, until he felt resistance leave the brute.
He ripped his blade across the man’s throat, spraying blood in all directions, then let the corpse drop to the ground.
Anger and grief raged in his veins and he longed to slaughter more of the enemy.
‘Come on!’ he shouted. ‘Who dies next?’
More Northmen stood nearby, some staring at him with confused or fearful expressions after seeing their enormous fellow dispatched with apparent ease. Others had vengeance in their eyes yet they were cautious after seeing the brute slain with apparent ease.
Just when it looked like they would rush him all at once, a horn sounded. The Taarns looked at each other, frowning and cursing, then backed away from Marcus.
‘What are you waiting for?’ he shouted. They didn’t spare him another glance, instead heading quickly back to their own lines.
Another horn sounded, this time one Marcus recognised. It belonged to the Shining Lance, the Emperor’s cavalry regiment. He hopped onto a rock for elevation and saw the Lance tearing through the Taarnian wedge formations that had overrun his father’s position. The cavalrymen skewered the northmen with lances, butchered them with swords and trampled them under hooves.
Watching the carnage, Marcus realised that the northmen had ordered a retreat. They had probably done so as soon as they saw the cavalry approaching, lacking an effective defence against them. The Lance were merciless, however, and no more northmen made it back to the breach in the Imperial lines.
Lacking any Taarns to kill, Marcus’ rage subsided and left behind an aching void of grief. He stepped down from the rock and dropped his sword. He unbuckled his helmet and threw it aside, followed by his gauntlets.
He knelt by Friduric. His father’s helmet had been crushed onto what was left of his head. Blood seeped thickly from the ruined metal.
‘You old fool,’ whispered Marcus. ‘What were you trying to prove?’
Hot tears welled in his eyes, rolling down his cheeks and into the corners of his mouth. He tasted salt and dirt.
‘Lord Marcus!’ said a nearby voice, but he didn’t look up. It was one of his guards.
‘My lord, forgive us! The barbarians separated us in the chaos. Is the Lord Friduric…’
The guard trailed off as he realised what had happened.
Marcus stood up and faced the guard and his fellows.
‘Lord Friduric is dead,’ he said quietly. ‘I failed to reach him in time.’
Marcus turned away from them and stared after the retreating Taarns.
He imagined returning home and explaining to his mother and brother what had happened. How the lord had perished as Marcus watched.
Something died inside him. He had failed.
Evening came and Marcus sat in his father’s tent. Friduric’s lifeless form lay on a table, covered with the regimental standard, still clad in his armour and broken helm.
Servants had come and gone but Marcus had paid little attention to them. The exception was when one tried to clean his father’s body. Marcus grabbed him by his shirt and thrown him from the tent in a rage.
Someone entered the tent. A curse arose in Marcus’ throat but it died on his lips when he saw who entered. It was Mattias Eberhardt, the Heldenstein family’s fencing master and drill sergeant. His full, black beard hadn’t clipped in all the weeks they’d been here. Added to his large and very solid build, he seemed in real danger of turning into a bear.
‘My lord,’ he said gruffly. He was carrying two flagons of beer.
Marcus waved vaguely at another chair but said nothing. Mattias put the flagons down on a table next to Marcus and fetched the other chair, then thrust a flagon insistently at Marcus until he accepted it.
’Now’s not the time for hysterics, lad,’ he said. The deep gravel of his voice had a softness that Marcus had never heard before.
Marcus stared into his beer. ‘I failed him, Mattias. I should have made us fall back and regroup. I should have bolstered the left flank more quickly. I…I should…’ He trailed off.
Mattias sighed. ‘I already heard what happened. I’ll tell you this for free—no man ever made Friduric von Heldenstein do anything he didn’t want to do. He always said he’d sooner die, and he was never one to break a promise. Come now.’ He raised his flagon. ‘Tonight we honour his memory. Tomorrow we seek revenge.’
Vengence. The idea burned in Marcus’ mind, and he raised his flagon.
‘Friduric von Heldenstein,’ said Mattias.
‘Stubborn to the end,’ said Marcus.
They drank, each gulping down mouthful after mouthful until the flagons were upside down and drained.
Marcus wiped his mouth on his sleeve and slumped in his chair, dropped his flagon on the floor.
‘You think I’d be happy, in a way. We never got on, arguing about anything and everything. I could never work out if the old boar hated me or was just disappointed with me, and I could never work out why, and that just made it worse.’
Mattias nodded. ‘He was a difficult man to understand.’
‘Now he’s gone, and that’s left a hole I don’t know how to fill.’
‘Time, lad. Time is the slayer of men but also their pain. One day, you’ll feel better.’
‘I’ll feel better this time tomorrow.’ Marcus’ voice turned cold. ‘Those mud-bathing savages will taste steel, be assured.’
‘I’d better get more beer then,’ said Mattias, ‘because I want to drink to that.’
‘Peace treaty?’ shouted Marcus. He slammed his fists on the table and leapt to his feet.
‘Sit down!’ yelled the Lord Marshall.
Marcus glared at him rebelliously, but eventually he complied, muttering curses as he did so.
The Lord Marshall Leichyl von Malan recomposed himself.
‘As I was saying, the Taarns have petitioned us for a cessation of hostilities. They wish for negations to be held at a mutually agreed location, with the stated outcome being a lasting peace treaty.’
The commanders and lords present looked at each and murmured to each other. Marcus said nothing.
Leichyl motioned for quiet. ‘As I am sure has become abundantly obvious, there is little hope of either side winning an outright victory, and we must reconsider what is an acceptable outcome for us. Both sides have suffered…casualties.’
He glanced at Marcus.
‘I intend to draft a preliminary agreement with the Taarn general that will halt hostilities immediately. I will propose that emissaries from each side convene in the city of Kaarschmal in order to agree upon a peace treaty.’
Marcus stood up again, slowly this time. His face was dark, and he fixed Leichyl with a steely gaze.
‘Am I to understand,’ he said, struggling to keep his voice under control, ‘that with my father dead not even one full day, you would dishonour him by not seeking vengeance upon our foes?’
Leichyl returned his gaze. ‘Your father’s loss pains me, for I knew him well, but he died in defence of the Empire and will always be remembered for his sacrifice.’
He looked around the others. ‘Our approach has failed, however, and now we must defend our Empire with other tools. I, for one, will not be sorry to leave this freezing, muddy hell and return home. Stand by for the order to break camp and return home. Dismissed.’
The meeting tent emptied but for Marcus and Leicyl.
‘This is a betrayal,’ said Marcus. The Lord Marshall shook his head.
‘It isn’t, and you know it.’
He sighed and walked over to Marcus, taking the chair next to him.
‘I should have liked nothing more that to have returned to the Emperor bearing news of a great victory, but that will never happen. I would need more men, more supplies and a hot summer. Instead, I must minimise our losses and come to an agreement with the Taarns that the rest of the lords can stomach. Such will be the victory I must bring before His Majesty.’ He couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice.
Marcus’ anger collapsed. He shook his head.
‘I can just imagine my father here now, telling me how disappointed he was I wasn’t out getting revenge for his death.’
‘You’re probably right,’ said Leichyl, ‘though I understand you made short work of the Taarn responsible for his demise.’
He rose and straightened his uniform. ‘There will always be further opportunities to defend the Empire. When that happens, I do not doubt that it will need your sword again.’
Marcus had nothing to say in reply. He saluted curtly and left the tent.
Leichyl returned to the head of the table and began examining a sheaf of papers, when a messenger entered and saluted.
‘Despatch from the capital, my lord.’
He handed a sealed document to the lord and waited in case of a reply.
Leichyl broke the seal.
The Varlath rumours continue and can no longer be ignored. It is only a matter of time before they come to the attention of the council. If they are true then we must prepare for a war that will threaten the whole Empire.
There was no signature, but Leichyl knew who had sent it. He folded the letter again and threw it into a nearby brazier. He watched it flare as fire consumed it and turned it to ash, then addressed the messenger.
‘No reply is necessary. Dismissed.’
The man saluted and left.
Leichyl frowned. He had to resolve this Taarnian mess quickly.