Note: On October 4, 2015, I will be releasing a free serialized novella on Wattpad called Hedge King in Winter. Below is an adapted excerpt from Episode 6, plus the never-before-seen map of the Kingdom of Droma and the Surrounding Lands!
The frosty morning air sighed down from the mountains. The first glimmerings of dawn burned behind the head of Mount Ydrys like a halo. Chill fog rolled through the hills of Droma toward the river and the lowlands and the distant sea far beyond.
Eowain arrayed his troop and marched out on the east trail toward Trígrianna at a hurried pace. He rode his chariot at the head of the column, and had selected nigh on seventy men from his company. Medyr accompanied him on a stout pony.
By a circuitous route through the hills north of the Drægan ridge, Eowain made his way past Dúngráig, then north through Echraivaile and Heddooch before circling west toward Careganath. But then he turned his men off the trail not a mile distant from that settlement.
Instead Eowain ordered his troops into the woods, with cavalry to the rear as a reserve. He dismounted the chariot, and with two score infantry bearing spears, swords, and bows, he advanced with them on a line to the north through the forest.
The rolling hills there were already chaotic enough, studded with ash and silver birch as they were. But thorn and bracken conspired to choke the narrow ways between hills and under trees, and their footing was cloaked with treacherous snow. Eowain’s breath frosted on the morning air. He rubbed the icy rime from the tips of his mustaches with the back of his gloved hand. His toes ached with cold in his boots, despite woolens and good leather. Like any soldier, he griped and grumbled to himself as he scanned the trees ahead of him.
They’d gone not more than a mile when the land began rising abruptly toward the oak-crowned summit of Maladarach hill. The morning light crowned over the head of distant Ydrys at last, casting bolts of misty light and long shadows through the trees.
Eowain cocked his head. Had that been the creaking of a branch he’d heard?
There was a strong, ringing sound as if a harp string had been plucked. A thud echoed through the trees as one of his men jerked backward and fell to the ground with an arrow protruding from his skull.
Shouts went up all along the line as men brought shields to bear against the sudden onslaught.
A dozen or more bandits sniped at them from the trees. Eowain and his men spread out and advanced on the line, tree to tree, but the bandits scampered away, falling back, refusing to be engaged.
The man next to Eowain screamed and went down as his leg disappeared under him into the snow. Down the line to his right, another man was jerked up by a rope into the trees.
Eowain’s jaw clenched with fury. The bastards had set traps and deadfalls to cover their retreat. Helpless, he heard and saw more of his men falling victims to leg-holds, snares, and pit-traps. It was a grisly advance up the hill of Maladarach, and Eowain cursed when he heard the hurried flight of horses’ hooves before ever they reached the little farm atop the hill.
Later, Eowain watched helplessly, shaking his head while Medyr and his acolyte treated the wounded. “They used crossbows and had light steeds waiting. There were traps set.”
Medyr considered this as he tightened a splint around the leg of a man who’d been rendered senseless with herb-magick. “It seems to me like they retreated down a well-executed escape route?”
Eowain grimaced and nodded. “They knew we were coming.”
By midday, Eowain and Medyr stood together outside an old, ruined barn. There had proven to be a hidden cellar beneath the basement. It was a sordid-smelling place where the bandits had camped.
Bran the Handsome, chief-holder of the thorp at Maladarach, seemed not at all surprised to learn that an abandoned barn on his property had been hosting a conclave of villains for weeks.
Bran was on his knees, held by two of Eowain’s men. “You knew about this.”
“They threatened my family.” Bran seemed calm. “Who’m I supposed to trust, after the rape over in Careganath? You and your men?” He didn’t seem convinced.
“I’m not sure. Maybe forty or fifty. They moved around a lot, a dozen here, two dozen there, coming and going.”
“About two dozen, well-kept.”
Bran sneered. “They’re thieves, ain’t they? Hells yes, they’re mine.”
“Held you to ransom for your own good behavior, did they?” Eowain didn’t feel convinced. The hidden cellar certainly wasn’t new. Eowain didn’t believe the bandits had stolen horses or anything else from Bran.
“What was I supposed to do, Eowain? You ain’t king yet, and we ain’t seen hide nor hair from Lórcan in nigh on a month. Just you, parading that foreigner woman to and from Cailech. Is that the idea now, we’ll start crowing in the wilderness with those savages?”
Eowain knelt down to look him in the eye. “Where’d they get the crossbows, Bran?”
“Couldn’t tell you if I knew.”
Eowain didn’t believe him. Bran knew, he was certain, but was more afraid of the bandits than of his own king. “You’re too good-looking for me to ask again, Bran.” Eowain gestured to the two soldiers holding him. “Tell me. Before the lads have to hurt you.”
He shook his head.
“Bran?” Eowain was losing his patience. Maybe his men could tell, or maybe they were angry about the ambush. One of his soldiers wrenched at Bran’s arm.
The chief-holder relented with a squawk. “Alright! Aiii, alright, I said! Stranger come round here a few weeks ago with a wagon. Come down the road from Mónoc hill, looking for someone, I don’t know who.” Bran waved to the eastern trail. “He wandered off again with his wagon toward Ruakhavsa and Bankern. I never did know what he was hauling in that wagon, but he had five surly-lookin’ lads with him what had them crossbow things.”
Eowain rose and stepped away from Bran. He crooked a finger for Medyr to join him, then turned away from Bran to whisper. “What do you think? The tinker Kerron and his cousins, working the High-King’s Road two weeks’ past?”
Medyr shrugged. “The timing makes sense. The shipment that your aunt was bringing up river, hijacked from Hanlainn territory on its way north? The sudden appearance of crossbows in the hands of bandits? So much for the innocent tinker and his distant relations.”
Eowain turned back to look at the chief-holder. The thorp of Bran the Handsome wasn’t one of the larger hold-fasts. Fifty-odd souls on forty-odd acres. With good seed and no troubles, they could turn a decent profit come harvest time. They had a small grain mill that served the settlements nearby, and a modest tailor who did good work with woolen kersey and serge. Bran’s wife had brought a handful of horses to the hold as part of her dowry, and he’d made good custom from breeding and foaling since she’d passed on. Bran’s son was serving honorably in the King’s Company, as his father had before him. All together, it was a respectable place, and Eowain would have been glad to count its people among his clients.
But Bran had been a gadfly for years, first under Findtan’s reign, and then under Lorcán’s. Maladarach was a border holding, and after the wars with Ivea a generation earlier, that border had crept ever closer. Bran agitated for a campaign to retake the hill three miles to the north that his grandfather had once held. Bran complained that not enough trade from the High-King’s Road came to his little thorp. Bran caviled that there was never enough relief for farmers when the harvests were bad, nor enough subsidy when the harvests were good.
Frankly, Eowain had always despised Bran. And now, he also knew him as his cousin’s not-so-secret partisan. But he still had an obligation to the people who lived here, to keep them safe. As much as he might want to carve the pretty off Bran’s famously handsome face, the people of Maladarach wouldn’t be any safer, and their opinion of Eowain and his brother might turn yet further away. Was it better in this case to show mercy or strength?
There was a sound like the sizzle of water on a hot oven. What’s that? Eowain looked to the two men holding Bran, then to left and right, and even behind. One of the men seemed to hear it too and shrugged at him. It sounded as if it were nearby, yet also as if it were moving, but he couldn’t see anything to account for it.
Then, quite suddenly, a flame appeared between Eowain and Bran. There was no firebrand, no live coal, not even a cinder. Simply a disembodied flame, hovering alone in that morning of the winter, as far from the ground as the head of a young boy at play.
Eowain gawked, he couldn’t help himself. It danced random and erratic through the air. He knew he should do something, but didn’t know what. First it was here, then it was yon, then thither and there. It flickered as it went, like a candle in the wind.
The men holding Bran went pale with fright. Bran himself went grey.
Then the dancing flame collided with one of Eowain’s men and kindled the tartan of his livery. All of them stared at the coruscating flickers as the dancing flame bobbed away. Then the man slapped once, twice, and again at the tongues of flame licking along the warp and weft of his woolen tartans. He released his hold on Bran the Handsome, swatting with both hands at the spreading conflagration. He began to scream like a pig at slaughter, flailing like a fool as he fled from the very thing he was wearing.
The dancing flame weaved again and again through the air, a-lighting on clumps of dead winter grass, fallen twigs, and broken branches, spreading its flames out in a semi-circle between Eowain and Bran the Handsome.
The other soldier released Bran and removed his cloak, beating with it at the burgeoning flames. Bran the Handsome shrieked and ran off into the forest.
Medyr stepped forward to face the flame, a far-away look in his eyes. Eowain dared not imagine what his drymyn saw beyond the pale of the world. Medyr raised his hands, gesturing with inscrutable purpose, then barked a single word: “Forsendath!”
The spark of flame flared and then burst into sparks and vanished.
One of Eowain’s men had the mercy to put a bolt through the burning soldier before he reached the forest’s edge.
Don’t forget: Until October 3rd, you can sign up to my mailing list at no cost to receive weekly episodes of Hedge King in Winter delivered direct to your inbox, and to earn a chance to receive the collected episodes in a special limited edition eBook.
If you enjoy this content, please sign up for the mailing list:
You’ll receive access to free eBook content, daily writing prompts, and a monthly newsletter from the studio of a working writer and professional publisher.