FIRST LIGHT

Chapter 3

Next morning Baran and Varil made ready to return to the Forest and select the rest of their fighting force. All concerned had been adamant that no one should be forced or coerced into joining, but such was the depth of feeling in both Forest and Mountains about the actions of the Dark Lord and his mercenaries that it was more likely that there would be more volunteers than needed for the battle, rather than that any should prove reluctant. Marvis was going with them, to guide them back to the Fortress Cave, and three more lads to join the two already tending the horses and bring them back to Baran’s camp. Thirty riders, plus Marvis, had set out from the camp, and there were more mounts to be led back than Baran, Varil and Marvis could have managed alone. While they were away in the Forest, Tamor would send word to his outliers and gather more fighters to Tamorine and Brann. Brann went with his father and the others to the head of the Falls, where they prepared to descend the steep Stairway in the rock face. Baran embraced Brann, and said, “Good hunting on this trail, my son, and whatever gods may be in your favour go with you.” Brann watched his father and the others disappear over the edge of the Stairway, and wondered if there were indeed any gods in his favour. The old gods had failed them and their worship mostly died out; his father’s words were more of a good luck charm than a prayer.

Brann retraced his steps to the gate in the stockade, where the guard admitted him. He found Tarn waiting there with Tamorine and Gamlin. “So, they are safely away” Tarn said, “and begin to gather our forces.” “And the call has gone out to ours”, Tamorine told them. “We should have our force together before too long. And then we set out.” “My father wished us good hunting”, Brann commented, ” and the protection of whatever gods may be in our favour.” “I hold no great faith in gods” , replied Gamlin. “I would rather rely on the skill of our Swordsmen!” “Oh, I do not believe in them, either, and nor, I think does my father, in truth”, Brann answered. “But perhaps he believed we will be in need of whatever help we may find on this way we set out on.” Tamorine was looking thoughtful. “I do not believe in the old gods either”, she said. “I think there must be something greater than us, but whether whatever it is concerns itself with us, I doubt.” Brann laughed. “We are growing philosophical, and we have matters more pressing to deal with than the existence of gods!” Still, he could not help but reflect on his strange inner conviction that if there was a force of Darkness, there must be an opposing force of light, and hoped, despite his scepticism, that if there were, it might be less impersonal than Tamorine had suggested, and be prepared to help them in their battle. Gamlin said “Now the call has gone out to gather our fighting force, we need to plan our manouevres. We should consult our charts and see the route we need to take.” They were all in agreement, so returned to the Great Hall of the Fortress. Tamor was there with some of the other Mountain Swordsmen, and when consulted about the charts he went to find them in a big chest nearby. Returning, he spread them out on the table, and Brann, Tamorine, Tarn and Gamlin gathered round with the others to study them with the aid of a lamp. The charts were quite comprehensive: Brann could see that they included the Forest and the Harbour with its small town, with marsh beyond and the hill above, all surrounded by the Mountains, with the narrow slit of the Spearcleft Pass the only way through them. The Pass had not protected the Harbour, though, from the depradations of the Dark Lord and his mercenaries, coming as they had by sea from the East, landing at the Harbour and further along the seacoast at the small trading town near to the City which they had captured and made the Dark Lord’s citadel.

A second chart showed the other side of the Mountains beyond the Pass, leading down to the Great Moor, a few small villages at its fringes, and the road to the Dark City, beyond the small forest Tamorine had mentioned. It was not so far to go, but on foot and with great caution, it might take several days to approach it unseen. The chart that showed the lands beyond did not concern their goal, but they examined them; the Western lands where there were some farms which had no doubt been raided by the Dark Lord’s mercenaries, as had Marvis’ small farm, for whatever they could obtain in the way of grain and cattle or horses. If any had survived such attacks, they might have made their way to the villages, or taken refuge in the Western mountains or on the high plateau that rose alongside the mountains. The small trading town and its separate harbour were also in the hands of the mercenaries, but far enough away from the Dark City to make an attack on their forces from that direction unlikely, if they could reach the Dark City without detection. When in the hands of the men of Li’is, unsuspecting of grave danger, the City had been relatively unprotected, which was why it had fallen such easy prey to the Dark Lord. Now, though, its defences had doubtless been strengthened and manned, and the problem of how to breach those defences would be the crux of their attack.

Over the next few days Tamor’s outliers began to come in, all of them ready and eager to make the attempt on the Dark City. As in all of Li’is, many of them had lost family members, friends, or goods to his mercenaries and wanted revenge. Weapons were furbished and readied for action, and Forin, with guidance from some of the Mountain men, gathered the healing herbs that grew here, and which he might need to tend any wounded. Lords of both Mountain and Forest brought out of storage leather breastplates and helmets, kept ready with frequent waxing and oiling, had them prepared with fresh oiling, and gathered camouflage cloaks. At last the guards on the Fortress Level heard the signal they had awaited from the foot of the Falls, and let down baskets on ropes to bring up the supplies Marvis and the men of the Forest had brought, followed by the appearance of Marvis , with Varil and the new contingent of fighters who followed them, ascending the Stairway at the side of the Falls. They were eagerly welcomed, and Varil told Brann what preparations had been made on the Forest side and what goods and provisions they had brought with them. Any old suspicion or animosity that might have lingered between men of Mountain and Forest had been thrust aside, as Brann had hoped, in the new alliance against the Dark Lord, and now that all the fighters from both sides had assembled they were prepared to accept and respect each other as brothers in arms.

It was deemed wise to spend some time in training their forces, accustoming them to each other and to any variations of technique between Swordsmen of the Forest and those of the Mountains, and reinforcing their skills. The Swordsmen of the Forest learned the Swordsmen’s handclasp used by the Mountain men, for it might be helpful in recognising friend from foe in a confused situation. As Gamlin had suggested, they divided their force into two units of fifty, comprised equally of men from Forest and Mountain, the first group led by Brann and Tamorine, the second by Gamlin and Tarn, who had grown to like and respect each other. Kerrin, Tarn’s new Sword-Brother, was adamant that he should be part of Tarn’s unit. They spared ten days to consolidate and train their forces, until they were satisfied that they were as prepared as they could be. So at last they were ready to set out on their desperate mission to free Li’is from the subjugation of the Dark Lord. Weapons and supplies were distributed, and after a night’s rest and a morning meal that was enough to sustain but not enough to slow them, they marched out of the Mountain Fortress, with Brann and Tamorine at their head. Tamorine had her hair braided and coiled up beneath the leather helmet, and Brann was thankful that with the helmet, male clothing,leather breastplate and camouflage cloak, she was not recognisable as female,except from very close quarters. He was still concerned about what might happen if she fell into the hands of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries.

They set a steady, rhythmic pace up the Mountain towards the Spearcleft Pass, keeping a wary eye out in case more hill-cats should be nearby, but saw none. They passed the hunting shelter and kept on their upward path, the trees growing thinner. They paused once to take a drink, for the day was warm, but did not stop. Tamorine had told Brann that on the other side of the Mountain was a place where there was a spring of water and a place where they could stay for the night, but first they must traverse the Pass. When they reached the Pass the two Mountain Swordsmen guarding it told them that there was no sign of any activity on the other side or down on the Great Moor, so they passed through the shadowed depths of the narrow col and emerged on the other side. Here, as Tamor had said, the trees were less dense, twisted and stunted by the cold winter winds from the Seacoast Mountains in the East. It was growing towards evening by now, and they would need to make camp soon and rest their troops.

Tamorine easily found the spring she had told them of, and though the water was not abundant, it was sufficient for their needs. “There is more water here earlier in the year”, she told Brann, ” but there is always some, even in hot weather.” They all settled down on the springy grass , in the shelter of the thinned-out trees. The day’s warmth lingered as it grew darker, and the twin moons of Li’is , though neither was full, cast enough light to see by. No need of a fire for heat or light, though they would not have lit one anyway. It did not seem that there were any enemies near, but no need to risk betraying their presence. They would sleep warm enough wrapped in their cloaks, with guards posted at the perimeter of their camp. They were glad to relax and eat their evening meal after the day’s march. Brann looked down over the expanse of the Great Moor and hoped they would be able to cross it undetected. It might be wise to stay close to the edges where the few villages might offer some shelter, but they could discuss tactics in the morning. For now it was a relief to rest and enjoy the quietness of the night. Brann slept well, and woke to a morning that, though still warm, was overcast, though not with a look of rain. As the small army ate their morning rations, he said to Tamorine, “It is as well that it is cloudy. We will cast less shadows crossing the Moor.” Later they consulted with Tarn and Gamlin about their route. Brann mentioned his idea of staying closer to the villages, and the others considered it. “The danger is that the villagers might see us, take us for mercenaries and try to attack us”, said Tarn, but Gamlin replied “The villages are small and peaceful. They would be more like to flee.” “I would not wish that”, Brann said. “They might flee from us and fall into less friendly hands.” In the end they decided that they would stay as close as they could to the cover of the villages, but not near enough to alarm any inhabitants.

They moved on again, down the mountainside to the Moor, the trees, though sparser than on their own side of the Mountain, still affording some cover. Once they reached the Moor there would be no more tree cover, and at the edge of it they divided, as planned, into two units of fifty. Brann and Tamorine led their men out onto the Moor. Its surface was covered with matted vegetation, and Brann was concerned that they would leave a trail, but the tough plants sprang back into place as they passed. The ground beneath was not so hard as to make it uncomfortable for walking, but the vegetation was tangled enough in places to trip the unwary, and they proceeded with caution. They kept near to the inhabited edges of the Moor, as they had decided, but suitably distant from the few villages. Brann glanced in their direction as they passed, but saw no signs of life. It could be that the villagers were in hiding for fear of mercenaries, or maybe the villages were deserted after all, and their inhabitants had escaped from, or been captured by, the Dark Lord’s forces. He commented as much to Tamorine, and she too glanced across at the quiet buildings, and said quietly “It is still best that we keep our distance. Who knows but there may be something hiding there.” The camouflage cloaks they wore were of a sludgy green that blended well with the Moor, and their clothing dull coloured too, and with swords sheathed so no bright flash could betray them, they were hidden well enough . Tarn and Gamlin’s troop had moved out on to the Moor too, well behind them, so that if there were any danger ahead they had reinforcements. The open terrain of the Great Moor stretched before them, and even on horseback would have taken a hard day’s riding to cross. On foot it would take twice that, and Brann knew he would be anxious until all of them had crossed it safely.

When night came they were still only just over midway across the Moor. They were in the vicinity of a small hamlet, and when the darkness showed no sign of lights in the few silent buildings, Brann said to Tamorine, “I wonder if we should send scouts to see if that place is unoccupied. It would make better shelter than being on the open moor, if so.” “They would have to be very cautious, then” she commented, “in case there are mercenaries there, in hiding for any who might take shelter there.” They consulted their men, and there were several volunteers to investigate the hamlet. Forin would have gone, but Brann would not spare their Healer, so Harin and Harith were sent, since as hunters they were used to moving quietly and furtively. There was an anxious wait until they returned to report what they had found. “It is deserted”, said Harith. “It seems the people left in a hurry, for not much has been taken.” ” It does not seem like the work of mercenaries” added Harin. “There is still grain in the storage jars and other things which they would have taken. The people must have left for somewhere safer, maybe one of the larger villages. By the signs they have been gone for some time.” “Then it would be safe to stay there for the night?” asked Tamorine. “By all the signs, yes” , Harith replied. So a runner was sent back to Tarn and Gamlin’s troop to tell them to join the others in the shelter of the hamlet, and Brann and Tamorine moved their men, still cautiously, in among the deserted cottages. It was a small place indeed, barely a handful of buildings in total, and it was easy to see why its inhabitants had decided to move somewhere less vulnerable. As Harin had said, many things had been left behind, as though the departing people had taken only what was most necessary or valuable to them. There was no sign of disorder or panic, though, which suggested that the withdrawal had been made calmly and through choice. They chose a couple of the cottages, close to each other, to shelter their two groups of men, and set a guard. The windows of the chosen cottages had wooden shutters, so it was safe to light the lamps they found there, with their oil supply intact.

Brann and Tamorine conferred again with Tarn and Gamlin. “I am glad of this shelter”, Tarn said. “It has been a long march and we can rest secure for the night.” “We have done well so far” Gamlin commented, “and once we are over the Moor, there is more cover. That will be the worst part done.” “Until we near the Dark City”, Brann said, grimly.”It must be guarded.” “I still believe the Dark Lord will be unprepared for an attack.” Tarn answered. “He has done as he willed for so long, he must think himself fully secure.” Tamorine said, “Can it be the same Dark Lord? If so, he must be quite old, for he has held Li’is in thrall for many years.” “Unless the tales are true, and he is not of Li’is at all” Gamlin replied.”In that case he might not even be a man. Has he ever been seen?” “There are other tales” Brann told him. “When our Harbour Town was overcome and men escaped to the Forest they spoke of a tall, pale man with burning green eyes who was the Lord of the mercenaries.” “Whether it is the same,or his kin, he holds the same power and controls the towns and cities of Li’is through his mercenaries.” Gamlin said. “Does it matter who or what he is? We must defeat him or Li’is will be in bondage forever.”

The night they spent in the abandoned hamlet was uneventful, with the changes of guard reporting no sighting of movement nearby. Next morning they took their meal, checked their weapons, and formed up again in their two companies. Brann and Tamorine led their unit out first as before, Tarn and Gamlin waiting before following. The day was again overcast and Brann was relieved that so far whatever powers might be seemed to be with them, keeping the clouds over them so that they cast no shadows on the surface of the Moor. They kept constantly alert, and paused once at a distant movement, but it proved to be only some of the food-beasts, and they moved on again. If the food-beasts were feeding on the Moor, Brann thought, it meant there was nothing near to alarm them, which was reassuring,and they were far enough away from and downwind of the Swordsmen to be untroubled by their presence and so would not flee from and betray them. So their march across the rest of the Moor proceeded without incident, and by dusk they were at its edge, on the lip of a hollow surrounded by bushes. Tamorine sighed with relief, and said, “We have crossed the Moor!” They edged through the bushes to look down into the hollow and saw that there was a building there, a solid-looking farmhouse with a pair of barns attached, and a well. Beyond lay a couple of small fields. The whole was surrounded by a stone wall with a gate. However, like the abandoned hamlet, this building too showed signs of vacancy and neglect. The gate was wide open and half-hanging off its hinges, some of the stones had fallen out of the wall, and the fields were green not with crops, but weeds, and the wild self-sown remnants of some kind of grain. Brann said “The place looks deserted. We may be able to shelter there, and there is a well, if its water is still sweet.” Tamorine agreed, so once again they sent Harith and Harin to inspect the building. Even though they knew the hunters were moving down the slope, Brann and Tamorine could not see them, so skilfully did they move, and they did not go through the broken gate but must have found some other means of entry, returning as silently and invisibly as they had gone. The report was good; no sign of life in the three buildings, which looked even longer deserted than last night’s hamlet. They could shelter there safely. This time Brann and Tamorine decided to take their men down and out of view of the Moor before sending a message to Tarn and Gamlin to follow.

Reassured by Harith and Harin’s report, they marched boldly down to and through the broken gate and went through the closed but unlocked door into the main farmhouse. It had several rooms and would make a good shelter. One of the Forest Swordsmen went to try the water in the well, and came back with some in a wooden cup. Forin, the Healer, smelled it, then tasted it cautiously. “It is good.” he pronounced. Satisfied, they sent their messengers back to tell Tarn and Gamlin where to come, and set about exploring the place more thoroughly. In the end room, apparently some kind of kitchen, Brann noticed a change in the floor surface, and went to investigate, followed by Tamorine. It proved to be a kind of stone trap door set in the stone of the floor, with a metal ring to lift it. “It must be a basement room, or cellar, for storage.” Tamorine said. Brann bent and pulled at the ring. He expected a struggle, for it must have been unused for years, but it moved easily, which made him wary. “It seems to me that this has been used recently, since it was easy to lift.” he told her. “We had best take care, Tamorine.” “Then we should see if there is danger down there” she replied, “or we might be slaughtered as we slept!” “We will wait for Tarn and Gamlin” Brann said, “and meanwhile leave it as we found it.” So he closed the stone again and they went back to the main room of the house to wait for their lieutenants.

When all their force had assembled in the old farmhouse, Brann and Tamorine took Tarn and Gamlin, with Brann’s cousins Jamin and Javan, plus Kerrin and Marvis, to investigate the cellar they expected to find beneath the moving flagstone. Brann was sure it had been moved recently, and though whoever had moved it might have long since left, he felt it was wiser to have the small group of Swordsmen with them, in case of danger. They went back into the room and lifted the stone, laying it aside. They had brought small lamps with them to light the way, and peered cautiously into the space beneath the gap left by the removal of the stone. The first surprise was that the light revealed not, as Brann had expected, a shallow flight of steps leading to a cellar. Instead, they saw a deep shaft with a circular stone stairway descending into its depths. They glanced at each other, then Brann stepped resolutely down onto the staircase. It was solid enough, and a rope hung alongside to hold on to, though he was not sure whether to trust it, in case it was old and rotten. A couple of tugs on the rope proved that it was in fact quite sturdy and strong, and Brann continued cautiously down, with the others following. It was a long climb down, and their small lamps did little to illuminate the deep shaft, but eventually Brann’s feet touched an earthen floor and he moved away from the foot of the stairway so that the others could get down. Holding his lamp aloft, he saw that another surprise awaited them. This was no cellar, but an underground cavern of some size. It seemed empty but for some old, empty barrels and boxes, but as they moved on to explore further they saw that at the far end there was an arched opening into some kind of tunnel. It was a strange place to find beneath a farmhouse. Perhaps the remains of some old mine or quarry? They had seen and heard no signs of life, but were curious to see where the tunnel led, and what might lie beyond, so the whole group advanced, cautiously and ready to draw their swords at any sign of danger, towards the tunnel.

They moved into the tunnel, whispering their comments as they saw that, as they had suspected from the neatly arched opening, it was not – or not wholly – natural, but had been hewn from the rock. The light from their torches showed the old tool marks on the walls. Then, as they moved into what had been the darkness beyond their torchlight, every hand went to its sword-hilt. Their way was blocked by a man. He was tall and lean, dressed in a strange long robe of striped blue and white cloth. His face had a seeming agelessness, looking neither young nor old. His hair was dark, and held in a thin gold circlet. His eyes, though, were what held their attention, for they were an intense, vivid blue – extraordinarily blue, as if lit from within. Brann felt a moment’s fear, remembering that the Dark Lord’s eyes were said to ‘burn’. But surely those eyes were green, not blue? The man moved his hand, which had been at his breast, and suddenly they saw that it had concealed a white, blazing stone. Again Brann thought of the Dark Lord, and the stories of the magical stone he wielded. Yet this man had a kindly, peaceful air about him, and the stone, though awesome, was not threatening. At first they had thought the stranger was alone, but now they saw that he was accompanied by four men, evidently guards. Not mercenaries though, for none of them had ever seen men like these. Their appearance and clothing were completely alien to those of Forest and Mountain alike. All of them were clothed the same, in leather kilts to the knee and blue cloaks pinned at the shoulder, wearing sword-belts and swords at their waists. Each had on one wrist a band of plaited cords in colours of red, blue, yellow and green, and on the other an open-ended gold bracelet. They were barefoot. and their skin was golden toned, their hair glossy black, their eyes dark brown. And each held a tall spear. Tamorine, as unsure as Brann, whispered to him “Is it the Dark Lord?”

Though she spoke so quietly, the man heard her. He smiled, and answered, his voice soft and gentle, but strangely accented. “No, Brann, Tamorine, I am not the Dark Lord.” “Then who are you?” Brann demanded, “And how do you know us? And what is that?” pointing to the bright stone. “I am Rafel, a Lightfriend and the Lightstone-Bearer” the man replied, “and this is the Lightstone. And I know you because your way is prophecied by Light.” “I do not understand.” Tamorine said. Her eyes flicked questioningly over the men ranged behind Rafel, and she asked, indicating them, “And who are these?” It was one of the four warriors who answered her, speaking, as the Lightfriend had, in the common tongue, but with the same oddness of inflection and speech. “We are the Ketai, the guardians of the Lightfriends.” Brann had felt a strange stirring in him at Rafel’s words, remembering the times he had thought to himself that Darkness could not be all. He recalled how he had said to his friends that there must be a power of Light to balance Darkness, or where would honour and love and joy come from? Now he asked aloud, “Then – there is a power of Light? It does exist?” “Yes, Brann” Rafel answered, “there is a power of Light. Light is the only true power. The Darkness is only a usurper.”

Published by afaithbasedfantasytrilogy

I'm first and foremost a Christian. I'm also a widow, mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and a retired school librarian.

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