Thursday, April 30, 2015

MORNING PATROL


This week I'm pleased to share an excerpt from my unpublished novel Kingsmen the Dreamer.

“Third group on me!” Skirmish Master Eryx shouted. “Full kit. We’ve got a patrol to run!”

Adrian woke with a start. He had been dreaming again, vivid nightmares of a fog shrouded wood and an unseen enemy. His head swam, and his heart thudded hard enough that he felt it in his fingertips. His entire body groaned from waking too early too many times over the past year. He lurched out of bed and pulled open his equipment chest, fumbling in the semi-darkness for his armor and weapons.

His nightmares had always been chronic and repetitive, but this one was newer and more persistent than other dreams. It started over a year before, when he left home for the training camp high in the mountains. The past few nights, since being assigned to the 31st Banner and arriving on the front, it had haunted his dreams every time closed his eyes.

He pulled on his kit and tramped a hasty exit out onto the assembly field. He stopped short at the barracks door. Outside, the air was still and filled with a dense fog that turned the camp into an eerie ghost realm of blurred shadows and scattered light. Cold-fire lamps glowed like rows of pale blue moons floating in the chill air. The voices of the skirmish masters sounded strangely close, though their shapes prowled the base of the tower far across the field.

A steady rattling clack-clack-clack echoed through the dank air. High above, massive gears driven by ancient engines of lost design carried the deck slowly down the massive spiral of the watch tower like some colossal bolt threaded upon a screw. The ghostly form of the structure slipped slowly into view and, with a grating groan, came to a halt. The metal hatch swung open and the tall silhouette of Quarter Master Declan, the quad leader, stepped out.

A strange, distant feeling clung to Adrian as if he were still in his dreams viewing things through another’s eyes. Someone prodded him in the back and he came to his senses enough to take up position on the assembly field. 

It’s just nerves. The training masters said it would be like this on my first combat patrol.

His nightmares hovered on the outskirts of his mind. 

What if it’s not? the quiet voice at the back of his mind whispered. He muttered a prayer to the Maker for an uneventful patrol.

Adrian could feel his entire body threatening to tremble, so he turned his mind to checking his gear. He cinched the chinstrap on his broad brimmed helm tighter and checked the brass latches on his stone breastplate, leg and arm greaves. He pulled his goggles up over his eyes and clicked through the various lenses and filters. He hoped for a moment that he might find some combination of the crystal lenses that would pierce the veil of vapor that lay over the mountainside, but nothing seemed to improve visibility. Adrian let the goggles hang about his neck and ran his gauntleted hand over the sword hilt at his hip. The ancient longsword his father had given him hung from his belt, heavy and substantial. Dirge, his short sword, was strapped across the small of his back for a left-handed draw. His father had trained him to use the two weapons in tandem, a style of combat that none in the 31st Banner preferred, but it had seen his father safely through sixteen years of service. It would see him through the next few hours.

The trembling retreated to a spot near his spine just below his stomach, leaving behind cold tendrils of sensation twisting in his shoulders and knees.

“All right, Fourth Quad, we have the southern patrol this morning.” Quarter Master Declan said. He was tall, a full four or five inches taller than Adrian, but no more than a year older. His sandy hair was cut close to the scalp. Even at the crack of dawn, clad in nearly fifty pounds of armor, he managed to look dashing and lean. He walked with the distinct swagger of a man who knew he was handsome.

“We’ll be cutting south to the Rift Road, then east to the falls and back. Break into your skirmish groups. First on me! Second and Third Group, flanking positions. Fourth, rear guard. For some of you cobbers, this is your first run to the front. Pay attention to your skirmish master and if he gives you an order, you’d better burning mind it!” The quarter master said andd gave one of his gauntlets a final tug. “Alright, let’s move out!”

He waved the men forward and they broke into their skirmish groups. Adrian fell in trail behind Skirmish Master Eryx, the leader of Third Group. The sounds of camp haunted them far down the mountain slope, before fading into silence. The dark towering columns of the trees marched past, emerging out of the fog before and vanishing behind. Adrian gradually became attuned to the sounds of the wood, the quiet creek of the trees and the ceaseless patter of water tripping from the tips of drooping pine needles and falling to the forest floor.

The remnants of his nightmare crawled out of some dark recess of his mind. The smell in the air, a low birdcall, the soft silhouette of a moss-clad log—they sparked an uncomfortable familiarity, yet he had never been so far south of camp before. It was as if he had seen it all before, but at some slightly different vantage.

A shiver ran through Adrian. 

I’ve seen this all before. 

No… No, I just dreamed it. Dreams don’t come true. 

Then, how…?

His unease grew along with the awful sense that he knew exactly what was going to happen next. They crested a low rise and through the fog he could make out an endless undulating sea of ferns that flowed around the feet of the ancient pines. The shadows of First Skirmish Group forged ahead, wading waist-deep into the under growth. This he remembered clearly from his dream, and what would happen next. 

I’ve got to do something. 

What if I’m wrong? 

What if I’m right?

“Sir?” Adrian hissed urgently.

Skirmish Master Eryx shot him a glance and gave a short hand gesture signaling for silence. Adrian knew the movement was coming, knew what it looked like before it came. “But sir, there’s something ahead.”

Eryx turned sharply. “What did you see? Quick, Skirmisher!”

“I… I don’t know,” Adrian whispered. “But… I thought I saw an archer, maybe more than one. Up ahead.”

Eryx whipped around, following the line of Adrian’s outstretched hand. Nothing stirred. The skirmish master waved quick signals and ahead the shadowy forms of First Group fanned out. The alarm spread until the entire quad crouched motionless, waiting. Adrian strained his eyes trying to catch the slightest movement through the swirling mist. He fastened his hand to Death Song’s dew-slick hilt.

The fog churned slowly around him, snaking around the broad tree trunks in fleeting tendrils and half-seen waves. It seeped through the seams of Adrian’s armor and dripped from the brim of his helmet. Ahead shadows stirred and sounds impossible to pinpoint echoed down the mountainside. Long minutes trickled away, the endless seconds punctuated by the soft tap-tap…tip-tap of falling moisture. His unease grew. Adrian could not shake the feeling that something was wrong, waiting for them to proceed farther down the slope.

Ahead someone from First Group stood. The skirmisher gave the all clear signal. Eryx stood and waved acknowledgement.

A short chip-chip-chip call. A whir of wings. A flash of red.

A cardinal shot from the sodden underbrush and flitted away into the mist. Terror washed over Adrian and without thinking, he lunged in a low dive that struck Eryx at the knees. The two men went down in a tangle.

The arrow meant for the skirmish master’s head slashed past and stuck quivering in a tree trunk.

Eryx swore. He staggered up to his knees, hands flicking warnings to the rest of the quad. Adrian did not wait to see if they answered. He surged to his feet, sweeping Death Song from her scabbard. 

I was right. 

Oh, Maker! I was right!

The first arrows flew, hissing past, whispering of death to come.

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~SJA

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