Home > A Heart of Blood and Ashes (A Gathering of Dragons #1)

A Heart of Blood and Ashes (A Gathering of Dragons #1)
Author: Milla Vane

CHAPTER 1


   MADDEK

 

 

Commander!” A young Syssian soldier called out as Maddek rode toward the bridge. “Something’s got the savages on the run!”

   Her polished helm gleaming beneath the early-morning sun, the soldier pointed across the river. Maddek slowed his mare, his gaze scanning the opposite bank. This was a grim stretch of the Lave. On either side of the swift-flowing waters, sparse grasses grew on stony ground that buckled and heaved into hills and ravines. The Farians’ hunting party was camped in one of those gullies, hidden from Maddek’s sight—though he knew well its location and had posted soldiers along the riverbanks, eyes covering every route out of the ravine that the savages might take when they finally attempted to cross.

   Covered in the mud they painted over their translucent skin, now Farians scrambled their way out of the ravine using all of those routes—but not in concerted attack. Instead they were as gutworms wriggling free of infested dung tossed on a fire. Some carried spears and spiked clubs, but most had no weapons, as if they’d been surprised in camp and chose to run rather than arm themselves. Faintly Maddek heard their urgent hoots over the rush of the river.

   “A trap jaw?” Maddek asked Kelir as the warrior rode up alongside him. If one of those giant predatory reptiles attacked the alliance army camp, Maddek would not have reprimanded any soldier for fleeing there, too.

   His second captain cocked his head, dark braids brushing his shoulders. “Too quiet.”

   So it was. A trap jaw was silent until it rushed its prey. Then it often loosed a trumpeting roar—one that would have reached them even over the sound of the river.

   A handful of savages scuttled nearer to the bridge, as if preparing to escape across the water, though this side of the river was no safer for them. Two dozen of Maddek’s mounted Parsathean warriors and a handful of soldiers waited to separate the Farians’ hairless heads from their hunched shoulders.

   In nearly eight years of holding the Farians at the Lave, Maddek had seen savages run toward death many times. Never had he witnessed a Farian flee from anything.

   “There it is!” a soldier cried out.

   Coming up the stony path out of the ravine. A siva beast.

   Maddek exchanged a look with Kelir as the soldiers snorted with laughter. Though as heavy as a yellow tusker and as tall as a mammoth, a siva beast was docile as a milk cow. Usually it waddled along, a plated dome of armor over its humped back and protecting the sides of its belly, using hardened beak and curved claws to rip open rotten logs and dig up roots.

   Yet there were few roots and logs here. The jungle where the siva beast must have wandered from was three days’ ride downstream.

   A hard, bloody journey for the siva. Gaping wounds on its leathery neck and legs showed signs of attack. Gore dripped from its beak.

   As did green foam. Maddek tensed. “It is poisoned.”

   Kelir had seen the same. “Silac venom.”

   Stung by one of the two-armed serpents that swam the Lave. The Farians had been right to flee. That venom first weakened the serpent’s prey so it could be dragged from the riverbanks and drowned. Most animals stung by the serpent didn’t escape.

   And those that did, didn’t truly escape. They only staggered away, until the weakness put them to sleep—and they woke as if brainless, unfeeling of pain and killing everything that moved. Eventually they starved or died of wounds. But the siva’s armor protected it from an easy kill, particularly from the Farians’ primitive spears and clubs, so the best chance of survival was to stay out of its sight.

   The savages weren’t out of sight yet. If the siva made noise, Maddek couldn’t hear it from this distance. Silently it charged, tearing open a savage with curved claws as long as daggers. Its strong beak crushed another Farian’s leg as the savage tried to run away.

   Maddek heard those screams. He also heard a young Gogean soldier nearby, his face bloodbare as he watched the beast attack the Farians.

   “So we . . . let the siva kill the savages for us?” He looked to his companions hesitantly, as if uncertain whether to be glad the beast tore their enemy apart.

   Although that question hadn’t been directed at Maddek, he answered it. “Then wait for it to attack our camp? It does not care if we are Farian or human. It will kill us all,” he said. “There are enemies, and there are monsters. Always slay the monsters first, because enemies may one day become allies—but monsters never will.”

   As the Gogean soldier would have looked upon Maddek as an enemy only a generation past. Perhaps even thought him a monster.

   Color stained the young soldier’s cheeks as if realizing the same.

   Maddek drew his sword. “Kelir?”

   The warrior hefted his axe. “Ready.”

   To the soldiers, Maddek said, “Hold the bridge while we are across.”

   He took a dozen Parsathean riders with him. Their hooves thundered across the stone bridge. Immediately the siva found new focus, growling wetly as it charged Maddek and his warriors.

   Had Maddek known he would be facing a beast maddened by silac venom, he’d not have ridden his favorite mare to the river this morn. Yet there was reason she was his favorite. Though tall and muscular as all Parsathean steeds were, she was also nimble as an antelope. With the barest signal from Maddek, she dodged the siva’s swiping claw. As soon as they were past the beast, the siva’s attention shifted to Kelir and the warriors behind him. Maddek’s mare swiftly pivoted and sprang forward with a powerful thrust of her hindquarters.

   The siva’s soft belly was too low to the ground to offer a real target—any warrior low enough and close enough to cut it open might be crushed when the beast fell dead. Yet Maddek had seen that every time the beast struck with its foaming beak, first it reared back its head.

   Sword in hand, Maddek launched from his saddle. The siva’s neck muscles bunched as it prepared to snap at Kelir. A grunt tore from Maddek’s chest as he swung at the beast’s exposed throat, laying it open with one powerful slice of sharpened steel. Blood jetted from the fatal gash. Narrowly Maddek avoided a blow from flailing claws, rolling out of the way across the hardened ground and coming to a quick stop in a crouch—face to face with a Farian that hid from the beast behind a nearby boulder.

   Muscles coiled, bloodied sword in his hand, Maddek made no move. The Farian held a bone blade in its long-fingered grip, yet the savage also remained motionless, near enough that Maddek could feel the hissing breath that issued from between its pointed teeth.

   Mud covered its pale face. The savage’s large ears shifted subtly—no doubt tracking his warriors’ movements by their sound. All had fallen quiet behind Maddek. Waiting for his signal.

   A signal would not come. He’d given an order that as long as the savages remained on this side of the river, the alliance soldiers and Parsathean warriors were not to kill them except in defense of their own lives. Maddek cared not if the Farians overran the territory south of the Lave, from the Bone Fields to the Salt Sea. He would leave them in peace. Yet if they crossed the Lave, they would die.

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