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       The Hollow, p.13

           Andrew Day
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containing his small flask of the Elixir was covered.

  “I’m Brant. Brant O'Kellin,” said the man, offering his hand. He was younger than most of the other Hounds, probably only a few years older than Serrel.

  “Serrel Hawthorne.” He shook Brant's hand. It was rough and calloused.

  “I remember when I was Fresh Meat. This lot aren’t exactly the most inviting, I know. Just let them get to know you.”

  “Sure. Then they can really hate me. Is it because I’m mage, or because I’m new.”

  “Mostly because you’re new. We haven’t had a mage since old Barnaby went and got himself et.”

  “Et? Something ate him?”

  “We did tell him not to pet that jackalope. But he just wouldn’t listen. “They're herbivores” he said. Ha! That's just what they want you to think.”

  “All right then,” Serrel said slowly. “See, I just assumed Sergeant Caellix had killed him.”

  “Well,” Brant looked about dramatically to see if anyone was listening in. “There are those of us that say the sergeant was seen talking to the jackalope moments before the whole unpleasant incident occurred.”

  “Uh huh.” Serrel nodded.

  “And she never did get on with that Barnaby. He kept trying to change her dogs into ferrets.”

  “Right. Is this part of the initiation? See how gullible I am?”

  “No harm in trying,” Brant said with a grin. “If you were a complete blithering idiot, better we find out now.”

  “So what really happened to your mage?”

  “Werewolves. Get comfortable, Fresh Meat. The next two days are going to be mightily unpleasant. Hope you don’t get sea sick.”

  In hindsight, Serrel figured he should have seen this coming. That a war would break out the second he joined the Imperial Legion... Well, that was just how his luck seemed to run lately.

  The exact reasons for the war were sketchy. The Land of Elsbareth, known mostly as the Faelands, had long been at peace with the Empire. Mostly because they had only barely managed to avoid being decimated by the Empire during the last war, over a decade ago. When that war had ended the ruler of Elsbareth, some elven king Serrel didn’t know the name of and probably wouldn’t have been able it to pronounce even if he did, had been deposed and replaced with someone more... amendable to the needs of the Empire.

  So the Faelands and the Empire had co-existed peacefully as a reluctant puppet and a domineering puppeteer respectively. Until the appearance of some elven warlord named Vharaes, who claimed to be some blood relative of the previous unremembered and vastly unmourned ruler of the Faelands. He managed to rally together a band of like-minded countrymen... or perhaps country-elves, and had started a rebellion.

  Somehow, Vharaes had taken control of the elven trade city, Vollumir, and murdered the Empire’s ambassador, which was apparently an act of war. The fighting was still ongoing, and the Imperial Legion were now on their way to aid the flagging forces of Elsbareth.

  All this, Serrel knew in passing. It was mostly just a load of strange names to him, and a lot of big and important sounding words like “economics” that seemed like poor reasons to have to fight someone.

  All of his life the Faelands had been only a legend, a place you told of in bedtime stories to young children. He knew this was the land of the Elves, an ancient and mysterious race of great power, and that many strange, wondrous, and horrifying creatures still existed there, and nowhere else on the planet. But he had never expected to have to actually go there.

  As the night progressed, the ship left port and set off out to sea with little or no fanfare. The rest of the Hounds took the opportunity to rest, and soon the hold was filled with the sounds of nearly two dozen men and woman snoring at varying volumes. But Serrel couldn’t rest. His uncomfortable position and the rocking of the ship, an alien and disconcerting sensation in itself to a previously landlocked carpenter’s son, combined with the apprehension stirring in his mind and kept Serrel awake. Eventually, he rose and quietly stepped around his sleeping companions to make his way to the deck of the ship.

  The stars were growing dim in the night sky when he emerged from below-decks. He found a quiet spot out of the way at the stern of the ship and watched the sun rise in the east, directly in front of them. When he looked back, the land he had been born on, and not too long ago, had expected to die on, was a mere dark smudge on the horizon. He thought about the things he was leaving behind, and realised it was a very, very short list.

  But ahead of him... Well, who knew what was out there? The idea that maybe, just maybe, something good would come out of this frankly, rather terrifying experience was almost enough to damp out the darkness of the Hollow that was starting to stir inside.

  So engrossed in his own thoughts, he didn’t realise he had company until he glanced to the right and realised his new commanding officer was standing next to him. He quickly snapped to attention.

  “At ease,” said the newly promoted Captain Snow.

  “Sir. Is there something I can do for you, Sir?”

  “No, Caster. I’m just taking in the view. Marvellous, isn’t it?”

  “Yes, Sir. I’ve never been out at sea before, Sir.”

  Snow took a deep breath and grinned broadly. “Ah, smell that sea air! Marvellous!”

  “Yes, Sir.”

  “So...” Snow said in what he thought was a casual, just-one-of-the-men type of tone, “We left port a bit late last night. We seem to be lagging behind the flotilla a tiny bit.”

  “Yes, Sir,” said Serrel. It seemed like a safe response.

  “Can’t have that,” said Snow. “Can’t have the Hounds behind everyone else. What sort of scout unit would we be then, eh?”

  “I’m... not sure, Sir.”

  “The others would be laughing behind our backs... Except in front of us... Which is where they are. In front. Far in front.”

  “Yes, Sir.”

  “A pity. Wouldn’t you say so, Sergeant?”

  “Yes, Captain,” said Caellix, making Serrel jump. Somehow she had appeared next to Snow without making a sound.

  “A real pity,” Snow went on. “You know, some of these ships have their own mages on board. Someone to blow the sails as it were. Shame we don’t have one of those.”

  Serrel kicked himself for being so slow. “You want me to... make the ship go faster, Sir?”

  “You think you can?” said Snow, still grinning.

  Serrel had his doubts. He had a vague idea of how boats worked. Wind blew into the sails and the ship moved forwards. Though he recalled something called ballast, and thought that maybe that came into play somewhere, whatever that was. Also keelhauling. That might have been important, too.

  Though what he said aloud was, “I’ll give it a try, Sir.”

  “Oh yes, Fresh Meat,” said Caellix scornfully. “Do try.”

  Serrel took his staff and approached the main mast cautiously. A few sailors looked over in interest. One pointedly spat overboard. Serrel ignored them. He regarded the sail, and the way it moved, the rigging that held it in place. He felt the wind on his face, and the way it fluttered his long coat.

  He imagined the sail filling up with air, with wind and force, pushing forwards, making the boat cut through the sea. Not too much force, though. Uncontrolled, the sail would rip, the boat might be damaged. There would be shouting, most of it directed at him... No, you needed enough force, just enough...

  Serrel felt the ether flow through him, through his staff, and weaved it into a form he could use. In his mind, he thought, Soa...

  A wave of force struck the sail, and the ship suddenly heaved forwards with an unexpected burst of speed. Serrel focused on the force, on exerting the right amount of pressure on the sail, endeavouring to keep the amount of energy he used as low as possible. He ignored the sailors that now hurried around him, making adjustments to the rigging.

  “What are ye doing?” a large burly man with an eye patch snapped at Captain Snow.

  “Your job,” Snow replied, still smiling. “We are so far behind the others, I half expect the war to be over by the time we reach landfall, Captain. At least bring us level with the nearest ship, if only to appease my wounded ego.”

  The ship’s captain grumbled something about the bloody Legion and their bloody wizards, and went off to shout at his crew.

  “Well done, Caster Hawthorne,” Snow called to Serrel. “Well done. If the Captain requires any... further assistance, please lend it to him.”

  “Yes, Sir,” said Serrel.

  “Marvellous,” Snow said again, before going back below-decks.

  Sergeant Caellix just sniffed, and followed him.

  Serrel smiled to himself. The motion of the ship, and the feeling of energy pulsing through him, just weaving in general, made him feel better about himself. Whatever else life threw at him, he had this.

  And when it occurred to him that he was, by himself, single-handedly moving an entire ship, his smug self confidence all but clouded out the Hollow inside.

  Not that that feeling lasted.

  The rest of the Hounds treated him with equal amounts of indifference and outright disdain. In the close confines of the ship’s hold he was regularly, and roughly, bumped back and forth by his fellow soldiers, and caught by a few unexpected elbows to the side when he least expected it. The best apology he got was, “Sorry, didn’t see you there”.

  It was all rather childish, but Serrel bore it as best he could. Of all the Hounds, Brant O’Kellin seemed the most friendly. He was also the biggest mouth of the unit, and
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