An action-packed and magic-fuelled fantasy novel from a British debut author, Stephen Aryan’s Battlemage features mages fighting an empire-spanning war for a homeland that fears and despises them
Another light snow shower fell from the bleak grey sky. Winter should have been over, yet ice crunched underfoot and the mud was hard as stone. Frost clung to almost everything, and a thick, choking fog lay low on the ground. Only those desperate or greedy travelled in such conditions.
Two nights of sleeping outdoors had leached all the warmth from Vargus’s bones. The tips of his fingers were numb and he couldn’t feel his toes any more. He hoped they were still attached when he took off his boots; he’d seen it happen to others in the cold. Whole toes had come off and turned black without them noticing, rolling around like marbles in the bottom of their boots.
Vargus led his horse by the reins. It would be suicide for them both to ride in this fog.
Up ahead something orange flickered amid the grey and white. The promise of a fire gave Vargus a boost of energy and he stamped his feet harder than necessary. Although the fog muffled the sound, it would carry to the sentry up ahead on his left.
The bowman must have been sitting in the same position for hours as the grey blanket over his head was almost completely white.
As Vargus drew closer his horse snorted, picking up the scent of other animals, men and cooking meat. Vargus pretended he hadn’t seen the man and tried very hard not to stare at his longbow. After stringing the bow with one quick flex the sentry readied an arrow, but in order to loose it he would have to stand up.
“That’s far enough.”
That came from another sentry on Vargus’s right who stepped out from between the skeletons of two shattered trees. He was a burly man dressed in dirty furs and mismatched leathers. Although chipped and worn the long sword he carried looked sharp.
“You a King’s man?”
Vargus snorted. “No, not me.”
“What do you want?”
He shrugged. “A spot by your fire is all I’m after.”
Despite the fog the sound of their voices must have carried as two others came towards them from the camp. The newcomers were much like the others, desperate men with scarred faces and mean eyes.
“You got any coin?” asked one of the newcomers, a bald and bearded man in old-fashioned leather armour.
Vargus shook his head. “Not much, but I got this.” Moving slowly he pulled two wine skins down from his saddle. “Shael rice wine.”
The first sentry approached. Vargus could still feel the other pointing an arrow at his back. With almost military precision the man went through his saddlebags, but his eyes nervously flicked towards Vargus from time to time. A deserter then, afraid someone had been sent after him.
“What we got, Lin?” called Baldy.
“A bit of food. Some silver. Not much else,” the sentry answered.
“Let him pass.”
Lin didn’t step back. “Are you sure, boss?”
The others were still on edge. They were right to be nervous if they were who Vargus suspected. The boss came forward and keenly looked Vargus up and down. He knew what the boss was seeing. A man past fifty summers, battle scarred and grizzled with liver spots on the back of his big hands. A man with plenty of grey mixed in with the black stubble on his face and head.
“You going to give us any trouble with that?” asked Baldy, pointing at the bastard sword jutting up from Vargus’s right shoulder.
“I don’t want no trouble. Just a spot by the fire and I’ll share the wine.”
“Good enough for me. I’m Korr. These are my boys.”
He gestured for Vargus to follow him and the others eased hands away from weapons. “Cold enough for you?”
“Reminds me of a winter, must be twenty years ago, up north. Can’t remember where.”
Vargus grunted. “All over. Too much.”
“So, where’s home?” asked Korr. The questions were asked casually, but Vargus had no doubt about it being an interrogation.
“Right now, here.”
They passed through a line of trees where seven horses were tethered. Vargus tied his horse up with the others and walked into camp. It was a good sheltered spot, surrounded by trees on three sides and a hill with a wide cave mouth on the other. A large roaring fire crackled in the middle of camp and two men were busy cooking beside it. One was cutting up a hare and dropping pieces into a bubbling pot, while the other prodded some blackened potatoes next to the blaze. All of the men were armed and they carried an assortment of weapons that looked well used.
As Vargus approached the fire a massive figure stood up and came around from the other side. It was over six and a half feet tall, dressed in a bear skin and wide as two normal men. The man’s face was severely deformed with a protruding forehead, small brown eyes that were almost black, and a jutting bottom jaw with jagged teeth.
“Easy Rak,” said Korr. The giant relaxed the grip on his sword and Vargus let out a sigh of relief. “He brought us something to drink.”
Rak’s mouth widened, revealing a whole row of crooked yellow teeth. It took Vargus a few seconds to realise the big man was smiling. Rak moved back to the far side of the fire and sat down again. Only then did Vargus move his hand away from the dagger on his belt.
He settled close to the fire next to Korr and for a time no one spoke, which suited him fine. He closed his eyes and soaked up some of the warmth, wiggling his toes inside his boots. The heat began to take the chill from his hands and his fingers started to tingle.
“Bit dangerous to be travelling alone,” said Korr, trying to sound friendly.
“Suppose so. But I can take care of myself.”
“Where you headed?”
Vargus took a moment before answering. “Somewhere I’ll get paid and fed. Times are hard and I’ve only got what I’m carrying.” Since he’d mentioned his belongings he opened the first skin and took a short pull. The rice wine burned the back of his throat, leaving a pleasant aftertaste. After a few seconds the warmth in his stomach began to spread.
Korr took the offered wineskin but passed it to the next man, who snatched it from his hand.
“Rak. It’s your turn on lookout,” said Lin. The giant ignored him and watched as the wine moved around the fire. When it reached him he took a long gulp and then another before walking into the trees. The archer came back and another took his place as sentry. Two men standing watch for a group of seven in such extreme weather was unusual. They weren’t just being careful, they were scared.
“You ever been in the King’s army?” asked Lin.
Vargus met his gaze then looked elsewhere. “Maybe.”
“I reckon that’s why you travelled all over, dragged from place to place. One bloody battlefield after another. Home was just a tent and a fire. Different sky, different enemy.”
“Sounds like you know the life. Are you a King’s man?”
“Not any more,” Lin said with a hint of bitterness.
It didn’t take them long to drain the first wineskin so Vargus opened the second and passed it around the fire. Everyone took a drink again except Korr.
“Bad gut,” he said when Vargus raised an eyebrow. “Even a drop would give me the shits.”
“More for us,” said one man with a gap-toothed grin.
When the stew was ready one of the men broke up the potatoes and added them to the pot. The first two portions went to the sentries and Vargus was served last. His bowl was smaller than the others, but he didn’t complain. He saw a few chunks of potato and even one bit of meat. Apart from a couple of wild onions and garlic the stew was pretty bland, but it was hot and filling. The food, combined with the wine and the fire, helped warm him all the way through. An itchy tingling starting to creep back into his toes. It felt as if they were all still attached.
When they’d all finished mopping up the stew with some flat bread, and the second wineskin was empty, a comfortable silence settled on the camp. It seemed a shame to spoil it.
“So why’re you out here?” asked Vargus.
“Just travelling. Looking for work, like you,” said Korr.
“You heard any news from the villages around here?”
One of the men shifted as if getting comfortable, but Vargus saw his hand move to the hilt of his axe. Their fear was palpable.
Korr shook his head. “Not been in any villages. We keep to ourselves.” The lie would have been obvious to a blind and deaf man.
“I heard about a group of bandits causing trouble in some of the villages around here. First it was just a bit of thieving and starting a couple of fights. Then it got worse when they saw a bit of gold.” Vargus shook his head sadly. “Last week one of them lost control. Killed four men, including the innkeeper.”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Korr. He was sweating now and it had nothing to do with the blaze. On the other side of the fire a snoozing man was elbowed awake and he sat up with a snort. The others were gripping their weapons with sweaty hands, waiting for the signal.
“One of them beat the innkeeper’s wife half to death when she wouldn’t give him the money.”
“What’s it matter to you?” someone asked.
Vargus shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. But the woman has two children and they saw who done it. Told the village Elder all about it.”
“We’re far from the cities out here. Something like that isn’t big enough to bring the King’s men. They only come around these parts to collect taxes twice a year,” said Lin with confidence.
“Then why do you all look like you’re about to shit yourselves?” asked Vargus.
An uncomfortable silence settled around the camp, broken only by the sound of Vargus scratching his stubbly cheek.
“Is the King sending men after us?” asked Korr, forgoing any pretence of their involvement.
“It isn’t the King you should worry about. I heard the village Elders banded together, decided to do something themselves. They hired the Gath.”
“He ain’t real! He’s just a myth.”
“Lord of Light shelter me,” one of the men prayed. “Lady of Light protect me.”
“Those are just stories,” scoffed Lin. “My father told me about him when I was a boy, more than thirty years ago.”
“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Vargus grinned. But it was clear they were still scared, more than before now that he’d stirred things up. Their belief in the Gath was so strong he could almost taste it in the air. For a while he said nothing and each man was lost in his own thoughts. Fear of dying gripped them all, tight as iron shackles.
Silence covered the camp like a fresh layer of snow and he let it sit a while, soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying the calm before it was shattered.
One of the men reached for a wineskin then remembered they were empty.
“What do we do, Korr?” asked one of the men. The others were scanning the trees as if they expected someone to rush into camp.
“Shut up, I’m thinking.”
Before Korr came up with a plan Vargus stabbed him in the ribs. It took everyone a few seconds to realise what had happened. It was only when he pulled the dagger free with a shower of gore that they reacted.
Vargus stood up and drew the bastard sword from over his shoulder. The others tried to stand, but none of them could manage it. One man fell backwards, another tripped over his feet, landing on his face. Lin managed to make it upright, but then stumbled around as if drunk.
Vargus kicked Lin out of the way, switched to a two-handed grip and stabbed the first man on the ground through the back of the neck. He didn’t have time to scream. The archer was trying to draw his short sword, but couldn’t manage it. He looked up as Vargus approached and a dark patch spread across the front of his breeches. The edge of Vargus’s sword opened the archer’s throat and a quick stab put two feet of steel into Lin’s gut. He fell back, squealing like a pig being slaughtered. Vargus knew his cries would bring the others.
The second cook was on his feet, but Vargus sliced off the man’s right arm before he could throw his axe. Warm arterial blood jetted across Vargus’s face. He grinned and wiped it away as the man fell back, howling in agony. Vargus let him thrash about for a while before putting his sword through the man’s face, pinning his head to the ground. The snow around the corpse turned red, then it began to steam and melt.
The greasy-haired sentry stumbled into camp with a dagger held low. He swayed a few steps one way and then the other; the tamweed Vargus had added to the wine was taking effect. Bypassing Vargus he tripped over his own feet and landed face first on the fire. The sentry was screaming and the muscles in his arms and legs lacked the strength to lift him up. His cries turned into a gurgle and then trailed off as the smoke turned greasy and black. Vargus heard fat bubbling in the blaze and the smell reminded him of roast pork.
As he anticipated, Rak wasn’t as badly affected as the others. His bulk didn’t make him immune to the tamweed in the wine, but the side effects would take longer to show. Vargus was just glad that Rak had drunk quite a lot before going on duty. The giant managed to walk into camp in a straight line, but his eyes were slightly unfocused. Down at one side he carried a six-foot pitted blade.
Instead of waiting for the big man to go on the offensive, Vargus charged. Raising his sword above his head he screamed a challenge, but dropped to his knees at the last second and swept it in a downward arc. The Seveldrom steel cut through the flesh of Rak’s left thigh, but the big man stumbled back before Vargus could follow up. With a bellow of rage Rak lashed out, his massive boot catching Vargus on the hip. It spun him around, his sword went flying and he landed on hands and knees in the snow.
Vargus scrambled around on all fours until his fingers found the hilt of his sword. He could hear Rak’s blade whistling through the air towards him and barely managed to roll away before it came down where his head had been. Back on his feet he needed both hands to deflect a lethal cut which jarred his arms. Before he could riposte something crunched into his face. Vargus stumbled back, spitting blood and swinging his sword wildly to keep Rak at bay.
The big man came on. With the others already dead and his senses impaired, part of him must have known he was on borrowed time. Vargus ducked and dodged, turned the long blade aside and made use of the space around him. When Rak overreached he lashed out quickly, scoring a deep gash along the giant’s ribs, but it didn’t slow him down. Vargus inflicted a dozen wounds before Rak finally noticed that the red stuff splashed on the snow belonged to him.
With a grunt of pain he fell back and stumbled to one knee. His laboured breathing was very loud in the still air. It seemed to be the only sound for miles in every direction.
“Korr was right,” he said in a voice that was surprisingly soft. “He said you’d come for us.”
Vargus nodded. Taking no chances he rushed forward. Rak tried to raise his sword but even his prodigious strength was finally at an end. His arm twitched and that was all. No mercy was asked for and none was given. Using both hands Vargus thrust the point of his sword deep into Rak’s throat. He pulled it clear and stepped back as blood spurted from the gaping wound. The giant fell onto his face and was dead.
By the fire Lin was still alive, gasping and coughing up blood. The wound in his stomach was bad and likely to make him suffer for days before it eventually killed him. Just as Vargus intended.
He ignored Lin’s pleas as he retrieved the gold and stolen goods from the cave. Hardly a fortune, but it was a lot of money to the villagers.
He tied the horses’ reins together and even collected up all the weapons, bundling them together in an old blanket. The bodies he left to the scavengers.
It seemed a shame to waste the stew. Nevertheless Vargus stuck two fingers down his throat and vomited into the snow until his stomach was empty. Using fresh snow he cleaned off the bezoar and stored it in his saddlebags. It had turned slightly brown from absorbing the poison in the wine Vargus had drunk, but he didn’t want to take any chances so made himself sick again. He filled his waterskin with melting snow and sipped it to ease his raw throat.
Vargus’s bottom lip had finally stopped bleeding, but when he spat a lump of tooth landed on the snow in a clot of blood. He took a moment to check his teeth and found one of his upper canines was broken in half.
With both hands he scooped more snow onto the fire until it was extinguished. He left the blackened corpse of the man where it had fallen amid wet logs and soggy ash. A partly cooked meal for the carrion eaters.
“Kill me. Just kill me!” screamed Lin. “Why am I still alive?” He gasped and coughed up a wadge of blood onto the snow.
With nothing left to do in camp Vargus finally addressed him. “Because you’re not just a killer, Torlin Ke Tarro. You were a King’s man. You came home because you were sick of war. Nothing wrong with that, plenty of men turn a corner and go on in a different way. But you became what you used to hunt.”
Vargus squatted down beside the dying man, holding him in place with his stare.
Lin’s pain was momentarily forgotten. “How do you know me? Not even Korr knew my name is Tarro.”
Vargus ignored the question. “You know the land around here, the villages and towns, and you know the law. You knew how to cause just enough trouble without it bringing the King’s men. You killed and stole from your own people.”
“They ain’t my people.”
Vargus smacked his hands together and stood. “Time for arguing is over, boy. Beg your ancestors for kindness on the Long Road to Nor.”
“My ancestors? What road?”
Vargus spat into the snow with contempt. “Pray to your Lantern God and his fucking whore then, or whatever you say these days. The next person you speak to won’t be on this side of the Veil.”
Ignoring Lin’s pleas he led the horses away from camp and didn’t look back. Soon afterwards the chill crept back in his fingers but he wasn’t too worried. The aches and pains from sleeping outdoors were already starting to recede. The fight had given him a small boost, although it wouldn’t sustain him for very long. The legend of the Gath was dead, which meant time for a change. He’d been delaying the inevitable for too long.
* * *
Carla, the village Elder, was standing behind the bar when Vargus entered the Duck and Crown. She was a solid woman who’d seen at least fifty summers and took no nonsense from anyone, be they King or goat herder. With a face only her mother could love it was amazing she’d given birth to four healthy children who now had children of their own. Beyond raising a healthy family the village had prospered these last twenty years under her guidance.
Without being asked she set a mug of ale on the bar as he sat down. The tavern was deserted, which wasn’t surprising with everything that had happened. On days like this people tended to spend more time with their loved ones.
Vargus drained the mug in several long gulps and then nodded. He set the bag of gold on the bar and watched as Carla counted it, but didn’t take offence. The bandits could have spent some of it and he didn’t know how much had been stolen. When she was finished Carla tucked it away and poured him another drink. After a moment’s pause she tapped herself a mug. They drank in comfortable silence until both mugs were dry.
“How is everyone?” asked Vargus.
“Shook up. Murder’s one thing we’ve seen before, in anger or out of greed, but this was something else. The boy might get over it, being so young, but not the girl. That one will be marked for life.”
“And their mother?”
Carla grunted. “Alive. Not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. When she’s back on her feet she’ll run this place with her brother. She’ll do all right.”
“I brought in a stash of weapons and their horses too. You’ll see she gets money for it?”
“I will. And I’ll make sure Tibs gives her a fair price for the animals.”
The silence in the room took on a peculiar edge, making the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.
“You hear the news coming in?” asked Carla. There was an unusual tone to her voice, but Vargus couldn’t place it. All he knew was it made him nervous.
“Some,” he said, treading carefully and looking for the trap door. He knew it was there, somewhere in the dark, and he was probably walking straight towards it.
“Like what?” asked Carla.
“A farmer on the road in told me the King’s called on everyone that can fight. Said that war was coming here to Seveldrom, but he didn’t know why.”
“The west has been sewn together by King Raeza’s son, Taikon.”
Vargus raised an eyebrow. “How’d he manage that?”
“Religion, mostly. You know what it’s like in Zecorria and Morrinow, people praying all the time. One story has our King pissing on an idol of the Lord of Light and wiping his arse with a painting of the Blessed Mother.”
“That’s a lie.”
Carla grunted. “So are all the other stories about him killing priests and burning down temples. Sounds to me like someone was just itching for a war. A chance to get rid of all us heathens,” she said, gesturing at the idol of the Maker on a shelf behind her. Most in Seveldrom prayed to the Maker, but those that didn’t were left alone, not killed or shunned for being different. Religion and law stayed separate, but it was different for the Morrin and Zecorrans.
“What about the others in the west? They aren’t mad on religion, and no one can make the Vorga do anything they don’t want to.”
Carla shrugged. “All people are saying is that something bad happened down in Shael. A massacre, bodies piled tall as trees, cities turned to rubble because they wouldn’t fight. After that it sounds like the others fell in line.”
“So what happened to King Raeza then? Is he dead?”
“Looks like. People are saying Taikon killed his father, took the Zecorran throne and now he’s got himself a magician called the Warlock. There’s a dozen stories about that one,” said Carla, wiping the bar with a cloth even though it was already clean. “I heard he can summon things from beyond the Veil.”
“I didn’t think you were one to believe gossip,” scoffed Vargus.
Carla gave him a look that made men piss themselves, but it just slid off him. She shook her head, smiling for a moment and then it was gone.
“I don’t, but I know how to listen and separate the shit from the real gold. Whatever the truth about this Warlock, and the union in the west, I know it means trouble. And lots of it.”
Carla nodded. “Maybe they think our King really is a heretic or maybe it’s because they enjoy killing, like the Vorga. Most reckon they’ll be here come spring. Trade routes to the west have dried up in the last few days. Merchants trying to sneak through were caught and hung. Whole trees full of the greedy buggers line the north and southern pass. The crows and magpies are fat as summer solstice pheasants from all their feasting.”
“What will you do?”
Carla puffed out her cheeks. “Look after the village, same as always. Fight, if the war comes this far east. Although if it comes here, we’ve already lost. What about you? I suppose you’ll be going to fight?”
There was that odd tone to her voice again. He just nodded, not trusting himself to speak. One wrong word and he’d plummet into the dark.
“People like you around here. And not just for sorting out the bandits,” said Carla scrubbing the same spot on the bar over and over. “You know I lost my Jintor five winters back from the damp lung. The house is quiet without him, especially now that the children are all grown up. Fourth grandchild will be along any day, but there’s still a lot that needs doing. Looking after the village, working with the other Elders, easily enough work for two.”
In all the years he’d known her it was the most Vargus had ever heard her say about her needs. The strain was starting to show on her face.
He settled her frantic hand by wrapping it in both of his. Her skin was rough from years of hard labour, but it was also warm and full of life. For the first time since he’d arrived she looked him in the eye. Her sharp blue eyes were uncertain.
“I can’t,” Vargus said gently. “It’s not who I am.”
Carla pulled her hand free and Vargus looked away first, not sure if he was sparing her or himself.
“What about the legend of the Gath?”
He dismissed it with a wave. “It was already fading, and me with it. There aren’t many that believe, fewer still that are afraid. It’s my own fault, I guess. I kept it too small for too long. It would only keep me for a few more years at best. This war is my best way.”
Carla was the only one in the village who knew some of the truth about him. She didn’t claim to understand, but she’d listened and accepted it because of who he was and what he could do. It seemed churlish to hide anything from her at this point.
He waited, but to his surprise she didn’t ask for the rest.
“So you’ll fight?”
“I will,” declared Vargus. “I’ll travel to Charas to fight and bleed and kill. For the King, for the land and for those who can’t defend themselves. I’ll swear an oath, by the iron in my blood, to fight in the war until it’s done. One way or the other.”
Carla was quiet for a time. Eventually she shook her head and he thought he saw a tear in her eye, but maybe it was just his imagination.
“If anyone else said something like that, I’d tell them they were a bloody fool. But they’re not just words with you, are they?”
“No. It’s my vow. Once made it can’t be broken. If I stay here I’ll be dead in a few years. At least this way, I have a chance.”
Reaching under the counter Carla produced a dusty red bottle that was half empty. Taking down two small glasses she poured them each a generous measure of a syrupy blue spirit.
“Then I wish you luck,” said Carla, raising her glass.
“I’ll drink to that, and I hope if I ever come back, I’ll still be welcome.”
They tapped glasses and downed the spirit in one gulp. It burned all the way down Vargus’s throat before lighting a pleasant fire in his belly. They talked a while longer, but the important words had been said and his course decided.
In the morning, Vargus would leave the village that had been his home for the last forty years, and go to war.