The wind blew, a bitter cold that cut through your wrappings, numbed your fingers, stiffened your limbs, and bit your face. Atop the ridge, the gusts muttered like the voices of dead men. Some said they were, that any who listened for too long would lose their minds.
Cold as it was, the rage in Karth Blaine’s heart was colder yet. The voices whispered, yet he was deaf to their seductions. The young giant leaned on his halberd, an eight foot shaft topped with a slim bladed head as long as his forearm. His cloak billowed against his muscular body, the grey fur showing the last wearer to be a wolf. He had hunted the wolf with his bare hands, strangled it in its own den to take his place as not merely a man, but the leader of men. A prince, the crown prince of Skarlath.
His hair, worn long in defiance of his enemies, whipped across his face. Karth ignored it, staring down into the valley, watching the twinkling fires and the shapes that moved around them. In his mind’s eye, he saw grey cloaks moving through the trees, massing where the fires were thickest, sword and axe blades shining when the cloaks were thrown back. The rush, the shouts of alarm, the first screams of the dying.
The bards would sing of this, of the greatest insult ever offered to the Skarl, the deepest raid ever conducted in retaliation, and the effects that would reverberate across the continent. Skarl vengeance would never again be doubted, and the Ice Kingdom would thrive. He would be remembered as the greatest king Skarlath had ever know… if he was successful.
A twig snapped beside him, and a deep voice said, “My Lord.”
It was Gwuern, Karth’s mentor and closest confident. The prince turned, meeting the gaze of the only man both tall enough and bold enough to see eye to eye with him. Gwuern was old, stoop-shouldered and scarred from a life of war. He’d been Karth’s teacher all his life, instructing him in everything from combat to politics, from riding to swimming to running down the deer to singing the old tales to addressing a young woman without making a fool of himself.
“My Lord, you should come down,” the old man said bluntly. “It is too exposed at the crest. You’ve seen enough, it is time to make the final plans.”
Karth nodded slowly, fingers flexing along the halberd’s haft. He followed Gwuern back along the ridge, away from the wind funnel, to a small sheltered place among the trees. Fires burned here as well, carefully screened from sight by brush and mounds of dirt.
In the glade, a score and a half of Skarlath’s finest lay, sharpening weapons, polishing armor, and checking straps. Here away from the wind, the cold was much less. Karth squatted beside one of the fires, warming his hands.
“A good night for a hunt,” he remarked to a warrior who sat chewing a strip of dried beef.
“Aye, my Lord, a fine night for it,” the warrior replied. “And the finest game any could ask for.”
“Men,” Karth nodded.
“Women,” the warrior said emphatically. “Any fool can take a man, but to carry off a woman requires far greater endurance, eh, my Lord?”
Karth chuckled. “Perhaps, Malte, perhaps. We’ll see, won’t we?”
“You’ll see,” Malte said ruefully.
“We all have our tasks,” Karth agreed. “But if we have time we’ll hit a caravan on our way back North. Fine silks, or jewels, or an Erith stallion perhaps. You’ll not return empty-handed if it can be helped.”
Moving away, Karth reflected on that. That he would ravage the girl seemed assumed by all, from his father to his own men. That was good, if they thought so then all Parsamore would think so. That he’d taken her from within Mondera would drive a wedge between the two kingdoms, and Parsamore would start casting frenetically about for help, doubting their own strength even more. Traditionally, Skarlath’s strength lay in her navy, a land raid would only add to the fear and eventual anarchy.
He reached the fire where his three lieutenants sat, settling down and reaching for a hunk of toasted cheese-bread. After a couple of bites, he cleared his throat. The lieutenants instantly ceased their own activities, watching him intensely.
“All right, here’s the plan,” he said quietly. “We wait till three in the morning, then move out quietly. Laithe, you take your men and circle around to the far side of the camp, by the three-topped oak. That’s where you attack. Use the slings at first, take down the guards around at least one watch fire. Send two archers with fire arrows to rush the fire, I want that carriage burning when the rest of us charge the left flank. I don’t need a total massacre, just kill enough so that we can retreat unhindered when we secure the princess. Joak, have four of your men deal with their horses. Take as many as you think we could use, kill the rest. I don’t want them moving anywhere quickly. Once we’ve got the princess, we leave. If they give chase, we turn and fight again. I don’t like being pursued.”
His lieutenants nodded.
“We’re writing our own saga,” he continued. “All who return will receive a silver honor arm-ring, and their houses shall bear the title of Longmarch. Pass that along to the men, set watches, and bank the fires. There’s six hours till we need to move out, do as you will with them.”
They saluted, touching their brows with clenched fists, and he leaned back. The firelight danced along his halbrad’s edge, painting the steel with blood. In just a few hours…
A predatory smile crept over his features.