The bell in the city square chimes as the horn blows for the first time. Deep is its cry and far its call. Screams echo through the streets of Noldum as the blood of its people drenches the soil outside the city gates along the dusty stones of the Axeway leading to the Road of Red Leaves. The dark of night is descending quicker than usual as the rain clouds gather momentum in the skies above.
The solitary guard captain of the evening watch, Keon, who was woken from his slumber by the panicked cries of a recently enlisted and still inexperienced recruit, walks the wooden ramparts of the stone wall dividing the Dukedoms of Elumbria from the wild, green woods of Ardenea. After a sudden but almost decisive first assault by the Yslfar, whose arrows pierced the very rain drops to fall upon hundreds of defenceless citizens, he is now the last commanding officer of the city watch guarding the Axeway. Though he is yet to realise it.
‘What in the name of Maellor is going on? Who sounds the horn at this hour?’
His eyes scale the ground absorbing every detail his sight can see. The frenzied assault of the Noldorian’s mud-covered attackers is relentless. Every woodsman with an axe or farmer with a scythe that had the misfortune to be outside the city gates now lie dead. Two thirds of the watch guard assigned to patrol the border have been decimated. They who remain are scattered, scared and clamouring for survival.
The horn blows for the second time.
No matter how many of their brothers in arms lie motionless at their feet, the watch guard cannot retreat. Too many remain outside the walls, cowering in stalls and huts or crying for salvation. They must remain.
‘How has any of this been allowed to pass? Where are Captain’s Marston and Ronal?’
An archer of the tower guard leans back against the cold stone behind him with an arrow firmly embedded in his shoulder having pierced his chainmail with ease. A shallow pool of blood gathers by his hand. He has lost all feeling in his arm whilst he dithers as the wind howls across walkway.
‘Th-they’re dead, C-Captain Keon?’
‘Speak up man. This arrow hasn’t pierced your throat.’
‘Look. Look to t-the road, near the edge of the market. That is w-where the farlings struck first. Then…. after that, they hit everyone bearing iron or s-steel.’
He gazes down across the field to see Captain Ronal’s distinctive chestnut brown beard, that he braided and grew to honour the passing of his late mother, now matted in mud. He lies face up, eyes wide open, with his own axe now splintered and embedded into his chest. His body lies beside thirteen others dressed in the brown garments of a Noldum guardsman all of whom were felled by the arrows and barbs of the Yslfar.
‘Captain M-Marston took some men into…. the forest…. bar-barely half an hour ago. H-He was lured there. I could hear their cries from here. He took only s-s-six with him and now they’re all…. all gone.’
Another guard, green yet so eager that he has yet to tie his belt across his waist, comes rushing toward the captain. Several others soon follow suit.
‘Captain? What are your orders?’
‘Franklin. Get runners into the city barracks, both east and west, and have them summon every last soldier who can fight. Wake them all and tell them to be here within the sounding of the horn or they’ll each of them face the lash.’
‘Owen. Send word for the archers from the north and west watchtowers to come to the Axeway. Their eyes and arrows are needed here.’
‘Sheridan. Go to the Duke, by my order and let no one stand in your way. Tell him we need to call for aid from Blackport and Mordan.’
‘But captain? It will be days before word reaches them and maybe weeks before they get here?’
‘Don’t question me here and now boy! This is the most vicious and cruel I have ever seen the woodland folk and their numbers are immeasurable.’
The captain points out toward the road into the forest as he yanks Sheridan by his spaulder.
‘Look out there. Look at the bodies of our people. If the Axeway falls and the Noldum guard fails, do you want to be the reason our allies are left unprepared?’
‘No, of course sir but what of the city of Kilman Quay?’
‘Those pious bastards can fend for themselves if these leaf skins get past us! Time and again they close their gates to all but their own. Let them stay on their knees and pray to their precious bloody saviour.’
‘Right away captain.’
‘The rest of you are with me.’
Captain Keon moves hastily to overlook the very gate of the Axeway itself and peers through the barricades to see where the invaders are gathered. The Yslfar are naturally green skinned so they blend into the trees all too well, especially in the dimming of the daylight. They are known to coat their bodies in mud to conceal their movements in layers so thick that even the rains won’t wash it away. The fading light of the darkening sun as the evening turns to night means that any chance of a clear line of sight is now all but gone.
Loud footsteps clatter on the wooden floors of the ramparts behind the captain.
‘Archers, hear me!’ booms the voice of Captain Keon.
‘Coat your arrows in tar and set them aflame. We will send a volley of fire into the distance. Our enemy cannot evade our sight for long.’
‘Captain? The rain, will it not douse the fire.’
‘This is tar imported from the pinewoods of Lochland, it will do the fucking job. Now keep your mouth shut and look to the far side of the Red Road. Light your arrows and aim for the trees.’
A volley of forty arrows fire in unison toward the treeline separating the forest from the edge of the road into the woodlands. The leaves are thick and bountiful all year round in Ardenea. It does not take long for the fire to take root set the skyline ablaze despite the ever-heavy downpour.
In defiance of their ploy, the Yslfar scatter swiftly into the mud and grass. Despite the agony and cries of their kin as they burn, they still number at least a thousand. They shriek and howl in retaliation with the fury of a forest ablaze. It is as if the Noldorian’s are surrounded by the owls and wolves of a raging woodland come to life.
‘It’s not working. The fire just fuels their wrath.’
Keon orders the guard to fire again as the horn blows for the third time. Several feet high above the ramparts in a watchtower, two tower guards armed with longbows fire into the distance toward the firelight.
‘Why are they attacking us?’ asks a timid guard still adjusting to life as one of the city watch as he hurries to refill his quiver from a supply cupboard in the back of the room.
‘Apparently the Duke thought it would be a good idea to send his wood cutters into the forest, far beyond the Road of Red Leaves and deep into their territory’ responds Edith, a tower guard, former mercenary and prolific archer with years of service for the Dukes of Elumbria to her name as she readies her bow to fire.
‘You mean the woodlands near the Brambleberry River?’
Edith squints and aims her shot. ‘No, that territory is disputed but not enough to start a war. Think deeper.’
‘The Rain Woods? But I thought that was too close to the leaf-skins and their villages? Wasn’t there a pact put in place that borders our lands from theirs.’
‘Yes, and evidently it was.’ With a slow, deep breath she takes a step back, aims her longbow skyward and unleashes her arrow. ‘Now they retaliate.’
The rains fall heavy to the muddy ground. Each drop thuds against the armour of the Noldorian gate guards scrambling to defend the traders and travellers still clamouring to escape the fury of the Yslfar onslaught.
‘How do you know this Edith? You’re just a tower guard.’
‘Am I now?’ she remarks with a smile.
‘And is that all I am? Six of their number lie dead by my bow whilst you’ve yet to hit a single mark’ she gestures with a nod to his ever-emptying quiver.
‘So? I can’t even see them.’
‘So, my daft friend, you shouldn’t judge someone by what you know. Or in your case, what you think you know.’
‘As for the farlings, you need only look for their green eyes in the dark.’ She takes aim once more and unleashes an arrow into the rain. ‘That’s seven.’
Edith lifts up her chainmail over her waist with a free hand and pulls down her breeches to reveal her bare hip and with it, a small brand, known by many but seen by few. The raven mark.
‘You. You’re one of them. One of the Grey Ravens! I-I need to…’
‘Hush now’ she whispers softly.
‘You know what happens to those who speak too freely about us.’
‘I thought you lot were only up in Gaiaden, in Ayrlaston and Lochland.’
‘See? There you go again, thinking you know what’s what.’
She pulls her breeches back up and places another arrow against her bowstring. A moment passes to judge the course of the wind. ‘That’s eight.’
Edith lowers her bow and kneels to sit beside her fellow tower guard who has all but given up trying to strike the enemy.
‘The Ravens fly free. Always have, always will. And if you don’t shut up about it, you’ll probably go flying tonight over the Axeway with an arrow firmly stuck into your chest’ she says wryly patting his knee.
‘I doubt anyone will notice any different on a night like tonight. So why don’t you stay there, stop wasting those arrows and carry on knowing what you know.’ Edith stands back up, stares into the distance and readies another shot.
‘As long as that knowing doesn’t turn to talking, we’ll be fine. Another one down, which makes nine. Anyway, it doesn’t take one of us to know that our Duke is a stubborn old fool drooling over the contents of his coffers. He’s been known to favour profit over the blood of his people before. Didn’t that skirmish on the Red Road last year teach him anything?’
‘What? That wasn’t our fault, they came from the forest and attacked our patrol! The Duke doesn’t care about gold. Noldum’s people are taxed least of all of Elumbria. He regularly goes into the city to bring food and clothing to the beggars.’
Edith laughs in a mocking tone. ‘Naive fool. Has it never crossed your mind that it’s all an act.’
‘Yes.’ With a carefully placed shot she claims her tenth kill.
‘He can afford to appear generous and humble. He gives away bread and water with one hand whilst in secret he authorises raids into the lands of the farlings with the other. He claims little from the city coffers because he takes what value he can that lies out there in the forest. There is a whole country of worth to a man like him beyond your precious walls. His pockets are lined with gold as he leaves a trail of ash in his wake. It doesn’t take a wise man to understand that the Duke of Noldum is allied with the Merchant’s Guild. How else does the city afford to build towers of steel and walls of stone? The Duke’s own personal brand of charity? That’s eleven.’
‘They’re here now because of him!?’
‘Now you’re getting it. He seems to have underestimated the forest folk by quite a bit. This is no mere raiding party. They are here to kill. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in Noldum is that out there, the trees and creatures of Ardenea, mean more to the Yslfar than all of the gold and jewels in Elumbria. Come, we can’t stay here. We need to move down below.’
The horn blows for the fourth time.
‘We need to push the leaf-skins back’ shouts Captain Keon across the ramparts. ‘We’re running out of time.’
The guard captain marches across the wide walkways of the stone wall, gathering guards bearing shields and clad in heavy plate armour as well as a few eager townsfolk armed with whatever weapons, be they pitchforks, hatchets or bread knives, they can find. As he walks, gathering his force unto him, Keon happens upon one of the tower guards shivering in fear. His quiver is full and his bow remains untouched.
‘Have you fired a single volley all night lad?’
‘Pathetic wretch. May the Lady of Death take you and the Hollow damn you!’
Keon leaves him be and grasps the archer’s quiver as he continues his pace.
‘Edith? Glad to see there’s still a half decent shot among the lot of you’ he shouts having spotted her above the main gate.
‘Only fourteen so far captain’ she grins.
‘Oh, is that all. Here.’
Keon throws the quiver to the floor at her feet.
‘I’ll expect at least a dozen more by night’s end. Keep firing, no matter what happens. Show these leaf-skins not a single jot of mercy.’
‘As you say old friend, so shall it be.’
‘Come on. Gather your shields lads. We must get those people into the city before that horn blows for the fifth time.’
The fire rages amongst the leaves accompanied by the unearthly wails of the raging band of Yslfar warriors. With each branch cracked, they mourn as if it were their own fingers being broken and ripped from their hands. The rains cannot wash away the ashes and burnt embers left behind by an increasingly blackening forest. Keon and his band are gathered under the gate of the Axeway.
‘Go, now! Let’s bring our people home.’
They spread out with shields held aloft at the front of the formation so that the guards and townsfolk at the rear are able to bring what few survivors remain home. Through the blood and muck, they are each dragged into the city through the gates as they await the final blast of the horn. A child’s cry can be heard against the howling of the wind. Captain Keon peers into the distance to see a small boy cradled under the body of his father felled by half a dozen arrows, each of which has pierced his neck and skull. He looks around, his men are now retreating with the last of the townspeople. Only the Yslfar, the boy and the dead now remain.
‘Fall back captain. Let’s shut out these savages and be done with them.’
The wailing of the child screeches loud, alerting the attention of one of the encroaching Yslfar who readies an arrow and steadies his bow.
‘Leave him be, you godless bastard!’
The warrior from the woods strides through the rain to stand above the child who bears no axe, nor iron or steel of any kind causing the farling to hesitate for a moment.
‘Your people, with iron and with stone, have encroached too far. The forest will not abide your presence any longer, son of Maellor.’
‘Edith’ screams Keon as he looks to the ramparts above the Axeway. ‘Loose.’
Almost as soon as he had finished his command, the Yslfar was felled with an arrow to the throat. But another emerges from the dark in his stead to reach the child. The Captain, now wearied from trudging through the thick of the mud which has all but coated what few stones lay on the road, struggles to move as the rain lashes against his face. He stamps through the mire, desperate to reach the trapped boy. Seeing his foe not far away, he lunges his shield with such a force that it knocks the leaf-skin off his feet and onto the ground. Ignoring the cries of his men who are shouting for him to return, he continues on to where the boy lies and pushes the dead weight of the boy’s father over.
‘Come with me boy. We must go.’
The horn blows for the fifth and final time.
The boy nods and clambers to his feet, slipping as he struggles to stand. The wind’s howling becomes fiercer by the minute as the captain looks toward the Axeway, barely able to make out the torchlight from inside the gate. The boy screams aloud. The Captain winces in pain as his back is struck with an arrow. And then a second, and a third. He did not have time to dress himself with plate mail as he was roused. A fine coating of steel and thick leather that would likely have withstood the force of the blows. Keon falls to his knees as he clutches the hilt of his sword.
‘Run boy. Run to the gate, now! EDITH!!’
The rain is too heavy now and Keon is much too far away. Edith’s arrows fall too short or go too long as they hit the muddy ground with a dull thud. She cannot see them anymore. Not from the watchtower. Not from the ramparts. The paths of her arrows are too shrouded by the dense downpour, too much even for her.
‘Follow the path and keep going until you find the trees coloured so red, it is as if they’re bleeding.’
These words are spoken to travellers wishing to venture into the forests of Ardenea by the gatekeepers of Noldum. This city was built upon the broken branches and burnt ashes of a once mighty forest that lay east of the Brambleberry River and represents the final fortress of the human settlers from across the Severed Sea before the border into the Yslfar lands of Ardenea. To the peoples of Elumbria it is a city of pride, a stone walled defence against the dangers of the green folk beyond its fortifications. For the once peaceful forest dwelling Yslfar, it is a constant reminder of the invasive hordes ever encroaching upon their domain. Ever pressing, ever demanding. Those who bring the axe to bear have pushed their agenda for decades now and none more so than the current Duke of Noldum. This dark night of felled steel and muddy stone is just one price to be paid for his greed. For now.
Edith sits alone in her watchtower looking down at what befell Noldum the previous night. It is very quiet now, the Yslfar have long gone back into the dark of the woods. The screams have died down. Only the sound of crying for lost loved ones can be heard from her perch above the battlefield amongst the faint words of the city watch trying to restore some order. The sun rises to greet those who labour now to carry the dead into the city as a wooden door creaks open behind her.
‘Edith? I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone would be up here.’
It is the same naive tower guard from before. Barely tired and unblemished. There is not a single mark of dirt, sweat or blood on him.
‘Looking for a quiet place away from all that’ she says gesturing toward the road below.
‘Captain Keon died trying to save that child’ mutters the tower guard in a hushed voice as he peers his head out of the watchtower.
‘Tried he did. Little good it did either. That woman down there cradling that boy in her arms’ she sighs as Edith points downward. ‘That’s his mother. Crying her heart out for what they did to him. I don’t even know if she is aware that her husband is dead. Or of what Keon did to try to save him. It doesn’t seem right.’
‘She, not knowing of what was sacrificed. Her son is dead yet she lives, as do hundreds more, because of people like Keon.’
‘All for nothing.’
‘I see you still claim to know much my daft friend, and still understand little. None of what Keon did was for nothing……AH!!’
Edith winces in agony as the sharp pain of a dagger’s edge cuts through her chainmail and into her rib-cage.
‘I know more than you can even imagine Edith Mercer.’
The tower guard yanks her hair back with his free hand and forces her to look upon his chest. Pulling down the chains of his armour with his fingers, he reveals to her the same mark she bears. The mark of the raven.
‘Before you close your eyes for the last time. Before Ashyara claims you for her own, I would like to thank you. I have been waiting, wearing this sodding uniform day in, day out, for only the gods know how long.’
He pulls the blade out of her chest sharply, twisting it as he goes. Edith breathes deep as she struggles against the shock of the blow and the hurt of her wound.
‘I never was much good at seeping into the cracks of a city. Infiltration was never my strongest skill. To wait. To learn who my next target was supposed to be. I thought the Duke was just a figurehead. A simpering fool without a clue. I guess his reputation is just like you said…all an act. Thanks to you, that part is done and I can finally move on from this shit stain of a city. Once the job is finished.’
Edith looks down at where she was stabbed and holds her hand against the wound. ‘Assassins now, are we? Since when, when did we start authorising the murder of Dukes. Or even our own’ she gurgles, spitting blood as she holds her head low to stop herself from choking.
‘Since we decided we didn’t want to stay rotting in the bowels of this world any longer. The old ways are fading. We are no longer content to stay hidden in the dark cracks of forgotten streets long abandoned.’
‘Who are you?’
‘That won’t matter to you any longer.’
He holds his dagger in front of his eyes, watching with a nasty grimace as a drop of blood falls onto the floor. A moment passes. Thoughts fade and the cold seeps into the walls of the tower as he thrusts his blade into Edith’s neck.
‘The Ravens fly free. Grimjaw Jak sends his regards.’