Today we have both an extract and a competition!
On Friday, we met the Wild, which proved its bite is even sharper than its bark, and today we have one last pivotal, character to introduce. His name is Thorn, he has set the board for a game against man, and now the pieces are moving…
We have 10 copies of The Red Knight to give away to some lucky readers. To enter, just answer the following question: Who told Tunxis he shouldn’t trust Thorn? Send your answers in an email with the subject ‘Red Knight’ to firstname.lastname@example.org, including your postal details, before midnight on Monday 12th November. You can read our terms and conditions here. Good luck!
West of Lissen Carak – Thorn
A two hundred leagues north-west, Thorn sat under a great holm-oak that had endured a millennium. The tree rose, both high and round, and its progeny filled the gap between the hills closing down from the north and the ever deeper Cohocton River to the south.
Thorn sat cross-legged on the ground. He no longer resembled the man he had once been; he was almost as tall as a barn, when he stood up to his full height, and his skin, where it showed through layers of moss and leather, seemed to be of smooth grey stone. A staff – the product of a single, straight ash tree riven by lightning in its twentieth year – lay across his lap. His gnarled fingers, as long as the tines of a hay fork, made eldritch sigils of pale green fire as he reached out into the Wild for his coven of spies.
He found the youngest and most aggressive of the Qwethnethogs; the strong people of the deep Wild that men called daemons. Tunxis. Young, angry, and easy to manipulate.
He exerted his will, and Tunxis came. He was careful about the manner of his summons; Tunxis had more powerful relatives who would resent Thorn using the younger daemon for his own ends.
Tunxis emerged from the oaks to the east at a run, his long, heavily muscled legs beautiful at the fullness of his stride, his body leaning far forward, balanced by the heavy armoured tail that characterized his kind. His chest looked deceptively human, if an unlikely shade of blue-green, and his arms and shoulders were also very man-like. His face had an angelic beauty – large, deep eyes slanted slightly, open and innocent, with a ridge of bone between them that rose into the elegant helmet crest that differentiated the male and female among them. His beak was polished to a mirror-brightness and inlaid with lapis lazuli and gold to mark his social rank, and he wore a sword that few mere human men could even lift.
He was angry – but Tunxis was at the age when young males are always angry.
‘Why do you summon me?’ he shrieked.
Thorn nodded. ‘Because I need you,’ he answered.
Tunxis clacked his beak in contempt. ‘Perhaps I do not need you. Or your games.’
‘It was my games that allowed you to kill the witch.’ Thorn didn’t smile. He had lost the ability to, but he smiled inwardly, because Tunxis was so young.
The beak clacked again. ‘She was nothing.’ Clacked again, in deep satisfaction. ‘You wanted her dead. And she was too young. You offered me a banquet and gave me a scrap. A nothing.’
Thorn handled his staff. ‘She is certainly nothing now.’ His friend had asked for the death. Layers of treason. Layers of favours asked, and owed. The Wild. His attention threatened to slip away from the daemon. It had probably been a mistake to let Tunxis kill in the valley.
‘My cousin says there are armed men riding in the valley. In our valley.’ Tunxis slurred the words, as all his people did when moved by great emotion.
Thorn leaned forward, suddenly very interested. ‘Mogan saw them?’ he asked.
‘Smelled them. Watched them. Counted their horses.’ Tunxis moved his eyebrows the way daemons did. It was like a smile, but it caused the beak to close – something like the satisfaction of a good meal.
Thorn had had many years in which to study the daemons. They were his closest allies, his not-trusted lieutenants. ‘How many?’ Thorn asked patiently.
‘Many,’ Tunxis said, already bored. ‘I will find them and kill them.’
‘You will not.’ Thorn leaned forward and slowly, carefully, rose to his feet, his heavy head brushing against the middling branches of the ancient oak. ‘Where has she found soldiers?’ he asked out loud. One of the hazards of living alone in the Wild was that you voiced things aloud. He was growing used to talking to himself aloud. It didn’t trouble him as it had at first.
‘They came from the east,’ Tunxis said. ‘I will hunt them and kill them.’
Thorn sighed. ‘No. You will find them and watch them. You will watch them from afar. We will learn their strengths and weaknesses. Chances are they will pass away south over the bridge, or join the lady as a garrison. It is no concern of ours.’
‘No concern of yours, Turncoat. Our land. Our valley. Our hills. Our fortress. Our power. Because you are weak—’ Tunxis’ beak made three distinct clacks.
Thorn rolled his hand over, long thin fingers flashing, and the daemon fell flat on the ground as if all his sinews had been cut.
Thorn’s voice became the hiss of a serpent.
‘I am weak? The soldiers are many? They came from the east? You are a fool and a child, Tunxis. I could rip your soul from your body and eat it, and you couldn’t lift a claw to stop me. Even now you cannot move, cannot summon power. You are like a hatchling in the rushing water as the salmon comes to take him. Yes? And you tell me “many” like a lord throwing crumbs to peasants. Many?’ he leaned down over the prone daemon and thrust his heavy staff into the creature’s stomach. ‘How many exactly, you little fool?’
‘I don’t know,’ Tunxis managed.
‘From the east, the south-east? From Harndon and the king? From over the mountains? Do you know?’ he hissed.
‘No,’ Tunxis said, cringing.
‘Tunxis, I like to be polite. To act like—’ He sought for a concept that could link him to the alien intelligence. ‘To act like we are allies. Who share common goals.’
‘You treat us like servants! We serve no master!’ spat the daemon. ‘We are not like your men, who lie and lie and say these pretty things. We are Qwethnethogs!’
Thorn pushed his staff deeper into the young daemon’s gut. ‘Sometimes I tire of the Wild and the endless struggle. I am trying to help you and your people reclaim your valley. Your goal is my goal. So I am not going to eat you. However tempting that might be just now.’ He withdrew the staff.
‘My cousin says I should never trust you. That whatever body you wear, you are just another man.’ Tunxis sat up, rolled to his feet with a pure and fluid grace.
‘Whatever I am, without me you have no chance against the forces of the Rock. You will never reclaim your place.’
‘Men are weak,’ Tunxis spat.
‘Men have defeated your kind again and again. They burn the woods. They cut the trees. They build farms and bridges and they raise armies and your kind lose.’ He realised that he was trying to negotiate with a child. ‘Tunxis,’ he said, laying hold of the young creature’s essence. ‘Do my bidding. Go, and watch the men, and come back and tell me.’
But Tunxis had a power of his own, and Thorn watched much of his compulsion roll off the creature. And when he let go his hold, the daemon turned and sprinted for the trees.
And only then did Thorn recall that he’d summoned the boy for another reason entirely, and that made him feel tired and old. But he exerted himself again, summoning one of the Abnethog this time, that men called wyverns.
The Abnethog were more biddable. Less fractious. Just as aggressive. But lacking a direct ability to manipulate the power, they tended to avoid open conflict with the magi.
Sidhi landed neatly in the clearing in front of the holm oak, although the aerial gymnastics required taxed his skills.
‘I come,’ he said.
Thorn nodded. ‘I thank you. I need you to look in the lower valley to the east,’ he said. ‘There are men there, now. Armed men. Possibly very dangerous.’
‘What man is dangerous to me?’ asked the wyvern. Indeed, Sidhi stood eye to eye with Thorn, and when he unfolded his wings their span was extraordinary. Even Thorn felt a twinge of real fear when the Abnethog were angry.
Thorn nodded. ‘They have bows. And other weapons that could hurt you badly.’
Sidhi made a noise in his throat. ‘Then why should I do this thing?’ he asked.
‘I made the eyes of your brood clear when they clouded over in the winter. I gave you the rock-that-warms for your mate’s nest.’ Thorn made a motion intended to convey that he would continue to heal sick wyverns.
Sidhi unfolded his wings. ‘I was going to hunt,’ he said. ‘I am hungry. And being summoned by you is like being called a dog.’ The wings spread farther and farther. ‘But it may be that I will choose to hunt to the east, and it may be that I will see your enemies.’
‘Your enemies as well,’ Thorn said wearily. Why are they all so childish? The wyvern threw back its head, and screamed, and the wings beat – a moment of chaos, and it was in the air, the trees all around it shedding
leaves in the storm of air. A night of hard rain wouldn’t have ripped so many leaves from the trees.
And then Thorn reached out with his power – gently, hesitantly, a little like a man rising from bed on a dark night to find his way down unfamiliar stairs. He reached out to the east – farther, and a little farther, until he found what he always found.
Her. The lady on the Rock.
He probed the walls like a man running his tongue over a bad tooth. She was there, enshrined in her power. And with her was something else entirely. He couldn’t read it – the fortress carried its own power, its own ancient sigils which worked against him.
He sighed. It was raining. He sat in the rain, and tried to enjoy the rise of spring around him.
Tunxis killed the nun, and now the lady has more soldiers. He had set something in motion, and he wasn’t sure why.
And he wondered if he had made a mistake.