A Rage in The Heavens by James A. Hillebrecht on the Independent Author Index
THE FIRST BOOK IN THE PALADIN TRILOGY “Power be the lure that draws men forth, and power be the snare that takes them.” Thus runs an ancient proverb of Alencia, and its truth is demonstrated when Alacon Regnar, Tyrant of the Northlands, is enticed to accept a demonic scepter known as the Ohric with whispered promises of conquest and domination. The Ohric fulfills these promises beyond even Regnar’s wildest dreams, summoning forth the Juggernaut, a gigantic darkness in human shape that smashes its way through everything in its path and leads the Northing horde towards Jalan’s Drift, the greatest and richest fortress-city in all the world. Against this horror stands a single man, Darius Inglorion, a holy warrior known as a Paladin, who is summoned to rally the states of the Southlands which are frozen by fear and treachery. But societies have their own defenders who strike out when their functions are threatened, and Darius faces treachery from dukes and priests alike. He finds a devious ally in Adella, a fearless thief with a mystical sword who just may hold the key to the Juggernaut. And finally, pursuing him over the long leagues is Darius’ own 17 year-old daughter, Shannon, who has ignored his orders and followed him to the wars, heeding a call she can neither understand nor resist.
The army of Northing invaders was closing in upon Carthix Castle. After weeks of rumors and the scattered reports from scouts tracking their surprisingly rapid progress crossing the jagged barrier of the Earth’s Teeth, the barbarians had emerged from the mountains in remarkably good order and in still more remarkable numbers. Two days ago, reports had them reaching the high passes, yesterday put them among the foothills, and now as this morning dawned, they had already spilled out upon the plains and were nearly upon Carthix Castle itself.
The woman stood just inside the main gate of the castle and looked up at the mass of clouds that had come over the mountains as well, almost as if they were providing a blanket of cover for the invaders. The first hint of morning light showed that these clouds weren’t white or grey or even black: they were a noxious, unnatural green. Green clouds moving against the mountain winds and keeping pace with the vanguard of the Northings, thought the woman with a slow shake of her head. That speaks of magic, powerful magic. But Northing wizards are usually lucky if they’re able to darn their own socks with a mending spell.
The woman was dressed as a common serving wench complete with thick housedress and apron that nevertheless hung nicely on her lithe frame, and normally come a’morning, she would be in the food halls, the kitchen, or the scullery helping to feed the thousand hungry mouths of the garrison and the castle’s inhabitants. But no one had a thought for food this day, and the courtyard was dotted with anxious servants who had come timidly out in the hopes of learning something about their approaching peril.
This woman, however, had positioned herself directly beside one of the small observation slits in the main gate where a dozen guards were peering out in turn at the enemy army. She planned her move carefully as one of the guards stepped away from the opening to comment to his mates and left the spot momentarily unattended. She could tell from the mutterings that none of them had any eyes for her.
“…looks like nobody left north of the mountains…”
“…surging past on both flanks…”
“…Northings burn their prisoners alive…”
She had only a few seconds at best, and she made the most of them, scanning across the view from left to right rather than just a single stare that might fixate on one thing. Spread out across the plain before the castle was an endless mass of flickering torches, the sign of an army that had marched through the night, all coming steadily closer. The sight was as fascinating as it was unnerving. It seemed as if the mountains had spawned a plague of monstrous fireflies that had all taken flight towards Carthix Castle.
The woman slipped off to the side as the nearest guard turned back to the viewing slit. Northing raids across the mountains were not unheard of, several tribes banding together to force a passing of the Earth’s Teeth for the promise of easy booty in the soft lands of the Plains, but they inevitable fell to quarreling over the first division of plunder. They should have lost a third of their strength making a spring crossing of the high mountains, the woman told herself. Melting snows, rock goblins, and personal quarrels all should have taken their toll. Instead, they looked like they had just emerged from a comfortable rest with warm beds and plenty of food.
Something a’miss, she realized. Some key to explain how this could be.
She simply had to get another look at the closing enemy. The officer at the gate was a surly fellow named Gamblen who had leered at her on numerous occasions when she had been serving in the officer’s food hall. He will do nicely, she decided.
“Oh your lordship, what might all these alarms mean?” she asked him, wearing her meekest expression.
The man turned upon her, his face hard, but it softened at the woman’s deep blue eyes.
“Nothing to worry your pretty head about,” he said. “You just mind your plates and pans, and leave us to deal with the Northings.”
“If I could just take a tiny peek, perhaps I might not feel so helpless,” she whispered and glanced towards the observation slit.
“A peek at the Silver Horde of Alacon Regnar to give you courage!” the man laughed, naming the dreaded Tyrant of the Northlands who was said to have banded all Twelve Tribes together beneath his iron hand. “If you tremble now, you’d die from that sight!”
“You know best, Your Lordship,” she whimpered. “But my heart would surely take it as a kindness if I could but look once.”
The man smirked at her timidity, a smirk the woman longed to wipe away with her hidden sword, but she firmly checked the impulse. By feinting fear, she was bending him to her will as certainly as if she had a knife to his throat, and sure enough, he stood back and bid her look.
Now with no restraint on time, she was able to stare more closely at the advancing enemy, and she nearly choked at what she saw. Her eyes were far better than most, and through the morning mist, she saw there were groups in the closing force that did not have torches lit, creatures that spurned the light, creatures that needed that canopy of clouds to protect them from the hated sunlight.
Rock goblins, the deadly enemies of all humanity, were actually marching with the Northings!
The woman fell back, the enormity of the revelation bursting into her brain. The size of the Northing force, their rapid progress over the mountains, even their speed in marching at night, all of it explained by the shattering fact that the rock goblins were helping them rather than fighting them!
“A scary sight and no mistake, as I warned you,” said Gamblen, misreading her reaction. He stepped closer, reaching out for her as he added softly, “But I know how to keep you safe.”
She slipped away with a shy smile, though she wasn’t concerned with modesty; a touch on her body would tell him she was wearing leather armor beneath her serving dress. Her mind, however, was still swirling with the implications of what she had seen through the portal.
This could be no mere raid.
This was an invasion.
The soldiers around her were still confident behind their walls, knowing the Northings could not carry siege equipment across the mountains and wood was too scarce and too green on the plains to build any quickly. Without siege equipment, the barbarians could no nothing against the solid walls of the castle and must fall back in the end, frustrated as always in the past by the citadels of the plains.
All very true, but the brave soldiers around her were missing one very critical point. The Northings, whatever their disagreeable tendency to sack villages and burn people alive, were no fools. They would not have mustered such an army, enlisted the aid of the Rock Goblins and endured a spring crossing of the mountains for naught but a raid. They had come to break Carthix Castle. But how?
“Come now,” Gamblen was saying to her. “Set aside your shyness, girl. Who knows what fate awaits us this day?”
Mirna’s gift to women, she thought wryly as she looked at him. But the fool has no idea how much truth there is in his words. The clouds on the horizon seemed to shift for a moment, allowing a watery hint of sunlight to slip through, and Gamblen suddenly got a clear look at the expression in the woman’s cold blue eyes. He took a step back.
“My Lord!” came the unexpected cry of one of the lookouts on the battlements. “Something comes against us!”
Men rushed to the ramparts to peer out at the mist-shrouded dawn, straining their eyes in the dim light. Gamblen went to one of the slits in the gate, but the woman pushed beside him, casting caution aside. The snowy peaks of the Earth’s Teeth were stained green from the reflected glow of the leprous clouds overhead, and below them were the rough, dark masses of the foothills, children of the mountains clinging to the feet of their great parents. Closer were the torches of the Northing host, scattered throughout the morning fog, but that could not have been the cause of the guard’s alarm, for the torches had been in sight all night long.
Then, as she watched, it seemed as if one of the foothills took a step towards them.
“What in the name of Darkness..?” Gamblen cried softly.
They had all been focusing on the torches of the approaching barbarians and had had no eyes for something much larger looming over them, something that had been lost against the shadows of the foothills, something that had been approaching them steadily through the night. It moved again, and they saw it stood upon two legs, though each was thicker than the bodies of half a dozen men, and it seemed to have arms of equal size. The form stayed black despite the weak morning light, as if it denied the power of the sun, and from deep within its midnight face, two glowing red eyes blazed with an endless hunger that chilled the blood of all caught within their gaze. It was a terror from a madman’s nightmare turned loose upon the waking world.
“Merciful Mirna,” breathed Gamblen. “What has that devil set upon us?”
The woman flung herself away from the gate and charged up the narrow stairs to the battlements above, and no one took notice of a serving wench going to man the ramparts. She was effectively puncturing her own disguise, but she had to get a clearer look. She reached the ramparts, pushed in right beside the soldiers, and froze in place.
The thing was continuing to move towards them, slowly but with a dreadful intensity that made each and every heart quail, and around the feet of the monstrous shadow, the Northings pranced and capered in unholy glee. It must have been steadily approaching throughout the night, and they all began to understand the growing dread which had been seeping into every heart: their souls had felt the coming of this terror long before their eyes beheld it.
“Catapults and ballistas!” an officer was crying, trying to rouse his men from their stupor. “Stand to your weapons there! Altor, aim for the thing’s eyes and blind it! Captain of the Wall! Are you asleep? Those Northings are within arrow range! Shadow or no, we’ll teach them the price of dancing beneath the walls of Carthix Castle!”
The boulders and bolts from the castle’s artillery were sent flying, the soldiers loading and firing with the speed and skill of long practice, all of them raining down on the monster. But though their aim was true and the weapons struck home, the projectiles had no effect on the darkness, and the shadow never faltered as it inexorably closed upon the walls.
“Burning oil! Bring forward the oil!” came another shout. “Pikemen to the walls! Stand to on the battlements!” Onward the shadow came with the enemy packed around it, closing on the castle with a startling speed, and arrows that should have rained upon the Northings were wasted instead against the apparition.
Onward it came without faltering once, approaching the great ditch filled with sharpened stakes and gnarled thorn trees, its blazing eyes nearly level with the men on the parapet, cold and despair radiating from it like heat from a flame. The burning oil was brought along the battlement, a dozen men manning the wooden handles of each cauldron, and the tainted morning air was overwhelmed by the stench of the oil.
The monster stepped down into the ditch, the packed thorn trees that guarded the walls snapping and cracking beneath its black feet, and the tempered steel of the spears and pikes were hurled down upon it. Then three cauldrons of burning oil were flung out to envelop the thing in fire, igniting the trees around it to create an inferno that nothing living could possibly endure.
To no avail.
The dark giant stood unharmed amid the flames and raised one huge arm, both armies pausing with eyes and jaws agape, waiting to see what power that limb possessed. With frightening speed, the black fist plunged downward and struck squarely against the castle, and a dozen massive blocks exploded out of the wall.
The entire citadel shook from the blow, the parapet crumpling like cheesecloth, and the men on the battlements were thrown off their feet, two of them shaken loose from their posts to plunge screaming into the flaming ditch far below. The woman gawked in disbelief at the devastation from that single blow, and as she watched, the second fist came smashing home, blasting still more blocks from the wall and collapsing another huge part of the parapets, sending it down to fill the ditch and make a rough bridge for the Northings. The thing had struck only twice, and already the breach was half-formed.
There was nothing for it. The wall was already crumbling, and in no time, they would be faced with a horde of barbarians pouring through the breach, hungry for booty and slaughter. She could easily slip away during the final battle, move through the shadows and cut down anyone foolish enough to challenge her, but with a sudden surge of anger, she decided to fight. She leaped down onto the stairs and reached the courtyard in two heartbeats to find Gamblen trying to rally his men.
“Man the battlements!” the idiot was shouting, responding to orders now completely useless. “All spears to the ramparts and…”
The woman grabbed his shoulder and hauled him around with a surprising display of strength, the force shutting off his blather.
“Not on the battlements, you damned fool!” she roared in his face, the man’s eyes like saucers. “Stand your men to in the courtyard! Our business is with the barbarians! We’ll try to close the breach after this hellish thing passes!”
Gamblen nodded, instantly recognizing the plan was their only chance, even if it had come from the mouth of what appeared to be a mere serving wench. To his still greater amazement, the woman abruptly produced a gleaming silver sword with black hilts seemingly from nowhere which she swung with practiced skill, the mere sight of the weapon making his throat go dry.
A third blow from the monster, and the battlements collapsed, carrying every man upon them down to a mercifully swift death.
The walls of Carthix Castle were breached.
Copyright© Jim Hillebrecht. All rights reserved.