Honour Has A Cost

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Logline or Premise
What do you do when your duty no longer makes sense and the bedrock of your life becomes unstable?
First 10 Pages

Crouched in the dark, Primin’s temples throbbed with her heartbeat. Her hands clenched on the hilts of her sheathed swords, and a drop of sweat ran down her brow, distractingly warm against the cold air.

Blotting her damp palms on her knees, she sensed movement to her left and looked to see Sunder trot into place. His huge form dropped prone, his only way of hiding behind the brush beside the road, even in the dim moonlight.

“Ready.” Sunder’s mumble told her the ambush was set, calming half of her concerns. Unjustified concerns, given the combined experience of her people, but she worried all the same.

A wash of relief went through her as she heard the distant sounds of a wagon and riders. The thick forest on either side of the road distorted the noise, warping hoofbeats and the rattle of wheels running over the rough surface. A wagon travelling so fast, on this back road at night, and with an escort? It was surely their target.

Rolling her shoulders, she emptied her lungs to release tension. Her nerves drained away, leaving a calm focus.

She grasped the end of the rope at her feet and pulled. The woven silk rope looped around a branch and extended across the road, rising to head height. She tied it off and wiped her hands on her black tunic, ridding herself of the alchemical dust that coated the rope.

Crouched yards back from the road’s edge, a scrubby bush sat between her and the road. Peering through the leaves that hid her, she spotted the roiling shadow of riders and wagon. Carefully, she pulled a thin copper flask from her belt and placed her thumb against the stopper. As the target raced toward their kill zone, she thumbed the top off the flask and raised it over the rope. Springing the trap a moment early would be worse than too late.

Her hand hovered over the rope, quivering as the riders drew close. A part of her ached to tip the flask and end the tension. She knew it was her muscles tightening as her body readied itself for combat, and she willed her hand steady.

The wagon and escorts were thirty yards away. She tipped the flask and closed her eyes. The stream of dark grains run from the metal tube and pattered onto the silk rope. Through her eyelids, a white flash marked the reaction. A spitting, incandescent flame sprinted along the powder-covered rope, up the tree and created a line of brilliant white flame across the road.

Men yelled and horses squealed. The riders stopped in short order, but the wagon team had a harder time of it. Less than a yard lay between the cart horses and the burning rope, and the animals continued to buck from the searing light.

As hooves skidded on the hard dirt of the road, Primin was on her feet and running. Her twin short swords found their way into her hands, drawn without thought. Crashing through the bushes to her left, Sunder held his spear point lowered toward the nearest wagon guard. A flash of light from back down the road signalled the second rope had been raised and lit, creating a burning barrier against the wagon’s retreat.

She charged the four mounted guards on her side of the wagon and noted four more on the other. As she closed on the nearest rider, an arrow sank into the chest of the wagon driver, rocking him back against the wooden seat.

The rider before her had been slow to draw a weapon, with all attention on controlling his panicked horse. She took advantage of the mistake by launching herself and driving a short sword into the rider’s chest. The crunch of her blade passing through hard leather armour jolted her arm and the guard stiffened.

Her thrust was too low, missing his heart. Recovering from the spasm, the guard let out a roar of rage and turned his body toward her, nearly pulling Primin’s sword from her grip. The rider groped for the hilt of his own weapon and freed a foot of steel before her other blade lanced through his chest. The rider crumpled and fell sideways, crunching off the wagon before slamming into the dirt.

Turning to face the next rider, Primin brought her off-hand blade up to deflect the downward slash of a long sabre, her throat closing as the curved blade passed by her face. The swordsman attacked again, more to keep distance than to cause any harm. His horse panicking, the rider yanking on the reins with one hand. The animal turned and reared its head back, blocking a third downward swing and giving her an opening. She hacked at the guard’s left arm, chopping through his flesh and breaking the bone.

The guard snarled, his voice all anger. His limp hand dropped from the reins and he leaned far over with a great downward slash, leaping from the saddle at her. Anticipating the desperate move, she side-stepped the sabre and brought her own blade whistling upwards, nearly removing the guard’s head as he fell into the dirt.

The guards had shown no pain from their wounds and were aggressive to the point of recklessness, dispelling any lingering doubt about whether this was the target. This was who she had been waiting for.

Checking on her team, she found Sunder proving as lethal as ever. One guard lay in the dirt with a large hole in her chest and a pool of blood beneath her. The dying woman flailed about with her sword and tried to rise, the lower half of her body clearly not responding. Primin stepped around, knowing the guard would bleed out quickly.

The last guard on her side of the wagon remained mounted, several deep wounds to his chest and belly. Blood coated his beard and tunic and he coughed more with every breath. Fury shone in his eyes as he continued to strike out at Sunder, but blood loss made him clumsy and the big spearman landed a killing blow into the rider’s heart. As the rider slumped and fell, a surge of tense optimism washed through her. Four guards down with no casualties of her own.

The clashing of blades continued on the far side of the wagon and Primin ran to join the melee. Three of the mounted guards had fallen, and the final rider was pressed against the side of the wagon, too panicked to use his horse to escape. Dael was wearing the rider down with careful, patient pressure and dozens of small cuts.

The guard was frantic, his swings wild and reckless, and he clearly hoped to end the fight with a heavy, lucky strike. He lunged hard, leaning far over his saddle and leaving himself unbalanced. Dael took the opening and turned his body, allowing the blade to whistle by harmlessly. He returned his own precise thrust, skewering the guard between neck and shoulder, sliding his broadsword deep into the man’s torso. The guard’s eyes bulged and his mouth opened, and his limp form thudded into the dirt.

The sudden quiet was the perfect accompaniment to her relief. Any mission that ended with no casualties was one to celebrate. She clapped a hand on Dael’s shoulder as the bladesman produced a rag to clean his weapon.

Having stolen a moment of calm, Primin was turning her mind back to the task at hand when the scrape of boots on dirt turned her head. From the front of the wagon came the driver, his front wet with blood from three arrows lodged in his chest. He staggered forward a step and slumped against the wagon wheel, trying to keep the crossbow in his hands aimed in her direction. A wet cough forced a gout of blood from his mouth.

She kept her blades down. With any luck, his wounds would end him before he pulled the trigger, so delay was her best tactic. Her eyes followed the crossbow, anxiety ebbing and flowing as the driver’s aim wavered over each of her companions in turn.

“Easy,” she said. “The fight is over. There’s no reason to continue.”

The driver dipped his head, face deep in shadow, and Primin hoped he was hearing her words as they were intended. The dying man was still for a moment before one of his knees buckled. He grunted and forced it straight, slapping his trembling left hand onto the wagon wheel to stay upright.

He raised his head and locked eyes with hers. She saw acceptance, and he struggled to stand at his full height one last time.

With the burning rope sputtering its end, a fourth arrow struck the driver high in the back, jolting him forward a step on legs that could not support him. Knees hitting the hard dirt, the man released a sigh and fell forward.

The crossbow bounced, the impact jolting the trigger. Primin felt a sting along her jaw and jerked her head to the side as the bolt barely missed punching through her cheek.

A wet choking sound caused her to turn. Dael stood behind her, hand to his throat as his blood, black in the fading light of the burning rope, rushed between his fingers. He stumbled forward and grasped at her shoulders. His blood sprayed, droplets scattering across her face and chest.

She grabbed Dael under the arms as he slumped. He was a big man and too heavy for her to hold, and the two of them stumbled to the ground.

“Healer here, now!” Primin had more strength in her voice than she had in her body. She clamped her hands down on the wound at the front of Dael’s neck and discovered a second ragged wound at the back. Her soldiers gathered, keeping a few steps back, anxiously watching.

Stefen ran out of the darkness beside the road, his many pouches bouncing violently. Dropping to his knees in the bloody mud next to Dael, the mage produced a large, floppy leaf that looked freshly picked from a well-watered tree. Primin knew the artifact to be old beyond memory and sustained by the magic it contained.

Stefen swapped the pressure of Primin’s hands for the leaf and began muttering a faint incantation. A dim white glow emerged from the leaf, highlighting the startling expanse of red where Dael’s blood had spattered. The cadence of Stefen’s voice increased, and the glow brightened, throbbing with the rhythmic beat in the incantation.

Dael’s wound was barely bleeding and his short, shallow breaths made her belly twist with dread. The bladesman’s eyes rolled, focusing on the past or some other world. He reached out to touch something and brushed against Primin’s shoulder, frantically grabbing at her tunic with fingers that had no strength.

Stefen’s voice rose, the chant carrying an urgent, desperate tone. The leaf glowed brighter and she shielded her eyes, and Dael’s fingers drop away.

Stefen stopped his chant, the silence abrupt and startling. The magical glow faded, leaving the sputtering white flame of the burning rope as the only source of light. Still, Deal’s face was visible, his eyes open and his chest unmoving. The healing magic had been too slow.

“Shit.” There was a job to be done, yet she pushed the thought away for a few moments longer. Dael had been part of the troop when she joined and had turned down a promotion when their old troop leader retired. His skills had prevented casualties among their own more times than she could count. Now he was dead, killed by stupid chance.

With an effort, she pushed her anger and grief into the back of her mind, forcing them behind a thick door, to be opened only when the circumstances allowed. That time would come, but there was much to be done before she let those feelings loose.

Sunder had moved the rest of the troop into activity as she and Stefen failed to save their friend. Saddles and bridles had been cut from the horses, which were disappearing into the overgrown scrub. The bodies of the driver and guards were being moved into a dry gully, and the wagon team was being guided through the trees into a small clearing. In short order the road was clear. The only sign of activity was the bloody patches of mud and scorch marks on the trees. The wagon’s owners would come looking for the group eventually, though with any luck the ambush site would remain undiscovered for weeks.

She let her troops check over the bodies and joined Sunder at the wagon, where he was sorting through low-value goods that didn’t justify the urgent, well-guarded journey she had interrupted. Her second-in-command had the rear of the wagon in hand, so she turned her attention to the driver’s seat.

A rough, untreated wood bench, and badly sprung at that, seemed cheap even for this charade of a merchant. Any real wagoner knew the hours spent sitting justified some love and attention to where they would place their behind. At the very least, a good sanding would be worth the effort. The moon was a poor source of light for such work, but the fighting was done they needed the dark to avoid any chance of being noticed, so she let her fingers do her searching.

After gaining several splinters, Primin found a spot underneath the bench with suspiciously fewer sharp points. Exploring the patch with her fingertips, a section slid sideways with a well-oiled movement.

Pushing the section free, she held a rectangular block the size of her thumb. One side was rough, matching the unfinished bench, and the other three were oiled and polished. A fine line around one end revealed a cork cap, which she removed with a faint pop. Angling the container toward the moon, Primin saw a tiny, tightly rolled parchment inside.

“Found the cargo,” she said, pushing the cork back into place and tucking the container into a pouch on her belt. “Everyone back to camp.”

Joining the rest of her troop, Primin waited as they lifted Dael’s limp form and set off into the trees. Following behind, she began thinking of what she would say to Dael’s wife.


Stewart Carry Wed, 26/07/2023 - 08:58

The frenetic pace of the action is a great hook but the subtle use of dialogue would prevent the reader from being bombarded with too much information.