I've run this part of the story before, but I keep going back to it and making little changes to it, so I honestly have no idea whether or not I've ever published the "final" version here. Regardless, this is one of my oldest fantasy stories. I wrote the first draft while I was still on terminal leave from the Army way back in 2000 and decided to include it in this particular collection back when the book itself was designed to be an anthology of disconnected stories.
That anthology--Tales from Danno's Lair, or whatever I wind up calling it--is still sitting in outline in my notebook. I still want to do it. But this book became something different about midway through. I finished Part 3 of the book, "The Priest of Loki," realized that I'd written two parts of a three-act play, and redesigned the book as a whole to accommodate a new, more coherent single-story structure.
"The Caravan" is the only piece of the original design that remains, and I had to leave it in because I wound up making further use of our heroes, Tand'lion and especially Vedra, later in the story.
The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 2: The Caravan
“In the chaos of the Elder Days, the dark races of the world warred upon each other and upon humanity. The darkest of the peoples were the fire elves, slaves to Hephaestus the Unyielding, their wicked god of the volcano. Hephaestus taught his children to hunt the people of the world as food for his fire…
“To keep safe their interests, the houses of the wealth sought the protection of the powerful. These were the War Masters…”
- Marcus Sylvanus, from The Life of Po
The Low Forest Road winds through the southern half of continental Frankonia for some three hundred miles, linking the southern port of Cairnness with the northern half of the country and Frankonia’s heartland. Along its southern stretches, though, it’s a road in name only. In reality, it is at best a rutted dirt track through a barely charted, tree-filled wilderness. For those wishing to bring goods up from the south to the more prosperous, more widely settled parts of Frankonia, however, it is the only overland option.
That doesn’t make it a good option, Tand’lion thought for perhaps the hundredth time. What a mess. Draks could’ve sprung for a ship. We could’ve sailed up from Cairnness like normal traders do. But no. The cheap bastard doesn’t want to pay the new tariffs.
So here we are.
Tand’lion turned and looked back along the line of wagons that stretched behind him. They bumped along at a sedate pace, raising dust for a few hundred meters back along the trail. Trees grew in tightly packed bundles on either side of the “road” both before and behind, along with a wall of green undergrowth that served to link the trunks at ground level and keep visibility to an absolute minimum. In such conditions, the smart play was to hurry through this section of the forest, using speed as much as possible to limit the caravan’s exposure to potential ambushes. However, with some fifteen wagons in the train—and these mostly pulled by oxen—speed wasn’t a realistic option. Instead, Tand’lion was left to ride as scout in front of his charges, plodding—like the caravan plodded—in the hope that whatever raiders he met would attack him personally rather than waiting for the more tempting targets that followed behind. It was a risk, of course, but it was a more acceptable risk than was offered by any of the alternatives.
Unfortunately, Tand’lion needed this caravan.
Fire elves were not much-loved in southern Frankonia—or in any other part of the Continent, for that matter—but Tand’lion had managed through diligent effort and the good graces of his current patron to get the War Master’s Guild in Cairnness to take him on as an apprentice some dozen years ago. After more than a decade’s study and dedication, he had finally passed for journeyman in the guild, and this particular duty, guard duty on an overland caravan bound for the north, was his first independent commission as a fully qualified War Master under his own authority. Granted, the commission came from Draks Darkmore, the same patron who’d helped him enter the guild in the first place, and granted, Draks was himself a fire elf—and a smuggler and a pirate and the gods-alone knew what else—and granted, the commission at hand was escorting an entire caravan of fire elves through the Low Forest to avoid paying Sentralian tarrifs. None of that mattered. What mattered was that Tand’lion had succeeded where few had believed success was possible. He, a fire elf, had entered the presitgious War Master’s Guild and had then succeeded in attaining rank.
Tand’lion now had to succeed at his chosen profession. He would do so no matter what was required. If he had to walk all the way to northern Frankonia, he would walk and be glad of it so long as it meant that his charges got there safely and his first commission was judged a success by his guild. The greybeards amongst the War Masters might begrudge him his success because he’d been born an elf in the Fire Islands, but Tand’lion cared nothing for their affections. He wanted their respect, and this caravan was his first step towards taking it.
“You plod like an old woman, War Master.”
Tand’lion sighed and turned in his saddle. There sat Vedra, princess of fire elves and daughter of Draks, riding in state on the padded bench seat of the caravan’s first wagon. It was always Vedra, he knew. His erstwhile caravan leader, the jewel of House Darkmore.
“At this rate,” she said, “we won’t reach the northlands until after the year’s first snow.”
“What would you have me do?” Tand’lion asked. “I cannot make the oxen pull any faster, my lady, and besides, we saw Teegan raiders not two days ago.” Tand’lion caught himself before he got further into his explanation and tried to force himself to be more deferential. He owed his success to Vedra’s family, after all. A cross word from the princess would ruin him once they returned home. “I am doing the best that I can, princess. On that you have my word.”
“Excuses,” Vedra replied. “It is always excuses with you. You prattle like my ancient grandfather and move at much the same pace. I thought my family had hired a War Master. Fortune favors the bold, does it not? Why, I bet there is not a Teegan raider or highwayman for at least a hundred—”
A rustling in the trees cut Vedra’s rear her words short. Tand’lion cursed and reached for his saber, but even as his hand closed on the hilt, he knew he was already too late. A war elephant crashed through the trees—right into Vedra’s wagon. Fire elves and wagons both scattered and tumbled as the beast lurched forward, wild-eyed and trumpeting. A cry went up from within the trees, but before Tand’lion could begin to organize a defense, he heard more shouting up ahead. He turned in time to see Teegan tribesmen come howling out onto the road. They were trying to get in front of him, to block the convoy’s progress and prevent the fire elves from escaping.
Tand’lion’s saber came free at last. “Ambush!”
Spooked by the Teegans, Tand’lion’s horse reared. He fought frantically for control. His convoy had half a minute—at best—before it was struck by the enemy assault force that surely waited in the trees.
“Follow me!” he cried. “Ride through!”
Tand’lion spurred his horse. The beast reared and then surged ahead. Behind him all was chaos. Tand’lion blocked out the noise and focused totally on the men to his front. The raiders’ blocking force was not yet set, and at some visceral level Tand’lion knew that his convoy had hope if he could strike quickly. He could only pray that the rest of his guards would follow.
There were maybe eight Teegans milling in the road to his front. All wore crude-looking furs and carried wooden-hafted spears, and all looked nervous and unsettled. Tand’lion thought they looked harried, and they were slow to set their line. He leaned low in the saddle and picked his target—an awkward-looking youth barely out of boyhood. The young man stood at one end the row of spearmen, eyes wide, staring uncertainly at the crazed fire elf bearing down on him on horseback. Others in the group moved to block Tand’lion’s charge, but Tand’lion closed too quickly. His saber flashed, battering spears aside, and then he took the boy fully through the chest and ripped, sending blood into the air in a cloud of mist.
“Urk.” The boy’s eyes bulged.
The spray of blood and the immediacy of death left the boy’s comrades gaping. Tand’lion’s horse reared again, and that drove the raiders back, and Tand’lion laid about himself with his blade. More Teegans slumped away, and then it was over. Tand’lion rode free on the far side of the line.
He felt more than heard his men following, engaging the broken remnants of the blocking force. Further back, traders in wooden wagons whipped their oxen, frantically struggling to move through the ambush zone even as Teegan raiders at last began surging out of the forest. The assault force was disorganized and piecemeal in its attack, and in the chaos, the war elephant went mad. It began stomping and thrashing, plowing through ambushers and caravan wagons alike. Any semblance of order dissolved, and against this scrum, Tand’lion’s guards moved as a unit. Teegans began falling as Tand’lion’s caravan guards carved a path for the merchants behind them.
Tand’lion wheeled his horse and studied the scene. It had been a classic “L” shaped ambush, but while it had been well-planned, it was executed poorly. The dismounted spearmen—the blocking force—had intended to fix the caravan in place while the element with the war elephant—the assault force—moved to finish the fight with an attack into the caravan’s flank. Had it gone to plan, it would certainly have worked. The elephant’s handlers must have lost control of the beast while moving it position, though, disrupting the timing of the attack. Tand’lion had himself cut an escape route, and in consequence, most of his traders—and Tand’lion’s newly-won commission—would survive. The caravan might lose a few wagons, but the event was not half the disaster that it could have been.
“Damn you, War Master! I’ll see you burn for this!”
Tand’lion looked again and saw Vedra.
It was always Vedra.
She was surrounded by Teegans, her wagon was overturned, and she herself was in serious danger. Having lost the advantage, the Teegans were focused on the sole prize remaining—the fire elf noblewoman. A blazing nimbus of sorcery surrounded each of Vedra’s outstretched palms, but although she was far from helpless, she was outmatched against a dozen burly raiders. She might burn some of them with the gift of Hephaestus, but they would take her. Of that, there was no question.
“Do you hear me War Master?” she shouted. “Damn you! Hephaestus himself will feast on your soul!”
Tand’lion pointed to Gaspar, a lieutenant in the Darkmore House Guard. “Keep the caravan moving and don’t stop. We’ll catch up when we can.”
Marcus Marcelledon, one of the caravan’s senior merchants, rode up and grabbed Tand’lion’s arm. “You’d do us all a favor by letting them make off with her. Damn Draks for sending her here in the first place.”
Tand’lion shook his head. “I cannot,” he said simply. “My commission would never survive the loss of my patron’s daughter.”
“Aye,” Marcus agreed. “Shame, that.”
“Hurry on with Gaspar,” Tand’lion replied. “We each have our duties. Yours is to survive.” He turned away without another word.
Several Teegans turned to see Tand’lion spur his horse back in their direction, but only a handful seemed to realize that the fight wasn’t actually over. A pair of grizzled-looking veterans set spears to block his path, but Tand’lion paid them no heed. He stood in his saddle and put his horse to a gallop, saber out. His horse fairly flew down the trail, and for an instant, Tand’lion gloried in the feel of the wind in his hair. At that moment, he realized the truth.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.
Not the caravan, not the guild, not Vedra, not even the plodding wagons at the heart of his current commission. The pedantic rebukes of an overbearing mistress were as nothing compared to the grim certainty of this moment. The wind, the trail, the two men blocking his way… They were all that was. Tand’lion’s entire life distilled down to this one crystalline moment. Charging towards a hopeless battle against an enemy he had already defeated, Tand’lion let his frustration and rage flow freely at last. He had bottled it up, taken the insults, given ground where he’d rather have stood and fought, but that was over now. This was not the guild house. He did not have to kowtow here, to play the humble apprentice. He did not have to make excuses for his pointed ears or the color of his crimson skin. He did not have to genuflect to his so-called betters. These Teegans had come to take what was his, and for once, he could use his years of training to do something about it.
He could make them pay.
It was a heady feeling. It roared within him, firing his blood.
When Tand’lion’s horse balked at the Teegan spears, he vaulted from the saddle, up high and into the air. He twisting through a somersault above the heads of the men blocking his way and drew his hatchet, screaming defiance. His chi flared, surrounding his body with the eldritch halo of his soul’s inner power. He struck even before he landed. His hatchet bit cleanly through one man’s neck; his saber took the other through the chest. Tand’lion spun and let go his saber. A thunderous standing sidekick threw a third Teegan clear across the now bloody clearing. The Teegan smacked a tree trunk with bone jarring force and collapsed.
Tand’lion drew his rapier and turned. The war elephant reared, towering over him. High atop the beast, a tiny figure in rude-looking furs struggled to regain control while Teegan raiders fell back on every side. Tand’lion dove as the beast’s huge hoof came down hard where he’d been standing. Another Teegan lashed out, but Tand’lion parried and rolled to his feet, sweeping with his leg and tripping the his attacker backwards. The elephant stomped again, and the Teegan screamed from underfoot.
The elephant’s handler was distracted. Tand’lion focused his chi and leaped, soaring twenty feet in the air to land lightly atop the elephant’s head. His rapier flicked and opened the beast’s handler’s throat. Tand’lion kicked the body out of the saddle and then slashed the elephant’s reins. The animal trumpeted its rage and began thrashing more wildly than ever. Tand’lion dove to the ground even as the elephant charged off into the forest, goring whatever hapless Teegans happened along in its path.
Vedra stood a few dozen yards down the trail. She was using her riding whip, frantically trying to beat back or intimidate the Teegans surrounding her, but at least a score of the bastards had converged on her position. They made catcalls and lewd gestures, and even from across the clearing, Tand’lion could feel her tiring from the effort of keeping them back. Her sorcery had diminished to a few scattered flames. The ring of her assailants was slowly closing in.
Suddenly the Teegans fell silent. A new figure emerged, a huge warrior with rippling muscles, a fitted bronze breastplate, and a massive claymore strapped across his back. He was long-haired but cold eyed, and if he was bothered by the mess that his ambush had become, Tand’lion could not see how.
“She is mine,” he said.
The raiders parted. The newcomer’s presence brought a calm to the Teegan ranks that Tand’lion would not have believed possible. He moved like a chieftain among his men, instilling a discipline in them through the sheer power of his presence. He was awe-inspiring. Tand’lion had no choice but to admit what he saw with his eyes. This warrior, had he been in position to lead the ambush personally, would certainly have made a difference in the battle’s outcome.
Tand’lion realized he was about to watch Vedra die.
He started sprinting. He was twenty yards away when Vedra fired off a burst of sorcery that struck the chieftain fully in the breastplate. The Teegan ignored it. At fifteen yards, Vedra drew back her whip to strike, and at ten yards her arm flashed forward. The whip snapped, but the Teegan’s sword was far too fast despite its enormous size. It cut the strand in a motion like a lightning strike. At five yards, the champion raised that sword again. The blade fell.
Tand’lion dove, hatchet extended.
He struck the claymore mere inches from Vedra’s throat.
Tand’lion slammed bodily into the Teegan, throwing all three into a tumbling heap. The War Master landed hard on his shoulder and upper back, off balance and tumbling. He lost sight of both the Teegan and of Vedra, and he had to parry wildly to stop a rain of lesser attacks from a dozen different attackers. Tand’lion slashed and stabbed wildly. Teegan foot soldiers grunted and fell back, and at last he regained his feet.
The Teegan champion was waiting.
Tand’lion snarled, and his chi flared. He stepped forward with his right foot, leading with his rapier in an offensive stance. He would end this fight quickly. He lunged, seeking his enemy’s heart, but the Teegan batted Tand’lion’s rapier aside and then let his claymore flow around and over—into a murderous chop. Tand’lion leapt madly backwards, inches from death. He lost his footing and sprawled helplessly, landing on his tailbone. Pain shot up his spine, and the Teegan pursued, attacking with a flurry of swinging strikes that sent Tand’lion rolling desperately to one side. Chunks of earth flew where the claymore struck, and it was all Tand’lion could do to stay a half-step ahead. At last he threw his hatchet up and intercepted the claymore solidly on its head. The jarring force of the parry threatened to crush his arm, but the power of his held his limbs straight and unbroken. In that moment, Tand’lion kicked out his enemy’s knee.
The chieftain buckled and fell back.
Tand’lion kicked up and settled into a defensive stance, hatchet leading. A buzz ran through the crowd as the tribesmen saw their leader struggle back to his feet. He waved them off.
“Fire elf scum.” He spit. “You won’t be the first War Master I’ve killed.”
Tand’lion raised his rapier in salute. “On that we agree.”
The champion lunged forward with a quick feint. Tand’lion stepped back and began to riposte, but his strike was also a feint, and when the Teegan champion struck in earnest, Tand’lion was ready. His body flowed backwards, around and away from the falling claymore. The blade moved past, and Tand’lion shifted his weight onto his back foot. He focused his chi and kicked with every ounce of strength he possessed. That kick caught the Teegan right under the chin, and a there was a crack like a snapping tree branch. The champion staggered, his neck twisting at an impossible angle, and then he fell forward onto his face. His body lay in a boneless heap.
In the distance, Tand’lion could hear Vedra threatening to have him disemboweled. He paid her no heed. He was exhausted, and his chi was fading, but in front of the remaining Teegans, anything less than an overwhelming show of confidence would mean instant death.
He mustered his remaining strength and snarled. “Who else wishes to die today?”
The Teegans stood staring. Tand’lion’s lip twitched, and he stepped towards the lot of them, a growl low in his throat. They broke and ran as one, leaving Tand’lion and Vedra standing alone on the trail. Tand’lion turned and began to stagger back towards his horse.
Darkness took him before he reached the saddle.
It was fully dark when Tand’lion awoke. He felt as if someone had driven spikes through his eyes, and he was briefly nauseous. The world tilted and spun, and in the distance he could see that someone had lit a campfire. He recognized the smell of roasting meat in the air. His stomach growled, but when he started to sit up, pain ripped across his shoulders and his back.
“So this is the famed Solitude of the War Master?”
With an effort, Tand’lion forced himself to sit. Vedra stood over him. She wore a short robe of white silk and carried a bottle, a blanket, and a small basket of what Tand’lion desperately hoped was food. She smiled, and for once the expression was only a little condescending.
The War Master bowed his head. “Indeed, my lady. A War Master can channel his chi for short-term gain, but there is always a price. I fought a war elephant and a barbarian chieftain today. The powers of my guild made me the superior fighter when it counted, but the price left me weak as you can see. I should return to my duties now, though, before I am—”
“Shhhh…” Vedra put her fingers to his lips and leaned forward. “I owe you my life. That is no small thing.”
Tand’lion started to protest, but even as he opened his mouth, she set the basket down beside him. Inside, Tand’lion could see a loaf of dark bread and a few small porcelain containers. He could smell meats and other, more savory flavors.
“Here,” she said. She began to spread her blanket out onto the ground.
Tand’lion needed no further encouragement. He tore into the bread with a fierceness that surprised him and began searching through the porcelains for more. There were sweetmeats and jellies and a kind of grainy black paste for which he had no name. He shoveled food into his mouth while Vedra watched, seemingly delighted.
“God of fire, War Master,” she said, “Watching you eat is like watching a tornado consume a village. You leave a path of destruction.” She poured two glasses of wine and handed him one. Then she sat down beside him, closer than was comfortable. “Here. You will want this as well, I suspect.”
He took the glass and drank, not knowing what else to do. It was a powerful vintage, and it burned going down. “Strong stuff,” he replied. Her presence made him feel awkward and foolish.
Vedra ran her fingers across the back of his neck and then idly twirled a lock of his hair. “I do not wish to be in your debt, Tand’lion. A daughter of House Darkmore should not be a debtor.”
It was the first time she had used his given name. His heart began pounding in his chest, and somewhere in the back of his mind a tiny voice cried out in warning. Her fingers, though—running through his hair then dancing lightly upon his chest—were a far more electric and immediate presence.
“My lady,” Tand’lion said, “I am you War Master. I performed my duty. There is no debt in that.”
“You talk too much.” She pushed him to the ground—hard—and then knelt astride him, taking his head in her hands. “If I tell you there is a debt, then there is one,” she replied. “I will also tell you when that debt has been discharged. Are we clear?”
After that, neither of them spoke for very a long time.