Mage hunter episode 1 bl.., p.1
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       Mage Hunter: Episode 1: Blooded Snow, p.1

           Ty Johnston
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Mage Hunter: Episode 1: Blooded Snow


  MAGE HUNTER

  Part I of V: Blooded Snow

  The Ursian Chronicles

  by Ty Johnston

  a Monumental Works Group author

  visit the author’s website: tyjohnston.blogspot.com

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental

  Copyright © 2012 Ty Johnston

  Cover artwork copyright © 2012 Ty Johnston

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, contact the publisher at htjohnston@yahoo.com.

  The Ursian Chronicles

  (in order of publication)

  City of Rogues: Book I of The Kobalos Trilogy

  Road to Wrath: Book II of The Kobalos Trilogy

  Dark King of the North: Book III of The Kobalos Trilogy

  The Kobalos Trilogy OMNIBUS edition

  Blade and Flame: short story sequel to The Kobalos Trilogy

  Bayne’s Climb: Part I of The Sword of Bayne

  A Thousand Wounds: Part II of The Sword of Bayne

  Under the Mountain: Part III of The Sword of Bayne

  The Sword of Bayne OMNIBUS edition

  Ghosts of the Asylum

  Demon Chains

  The Castle of Endless Woe (novelette)

  Six Swords, One Skeleton and a Sewer (short story)

  Road of the Sword (short story)

  Five Tales from The Rusty Scabbard

  Mage Hunter: Blooded Snow

  Mage Hunter: Sundered Shields

  Mage Hunter: Bared Blades

  Mage Hunter: Hammered Iron

  Mage Hunter: Changeless Fate

  for C.L.

  1,913 years After Ashal (A.A.)

  Chapter 1

  Guthrie counted nine of the barbarian riders in the pass below. Too few to be a raiding party, but larger than a hunting expedition. Still, most of the group bore signs of recent conflict. A pair wore bandages about their heads while another had an arm wrapped in a sling. Here and there were other signs, dented armor, dried blood. What struck Guthrie as most odd was the inclusion of a female riding in the middle of the group. Obviously she was a wyrd woman, her back straight as she sat high in the saddle, her long hair the color of wheat cascading out behind her in the chilled wind as her horse stamped through snow and over rock. If her bearing had not been enough to hint at her vocation, then the many animal-shaped patches stitched into her heavy wool cloak was evidence enough.

  “Clan Bear,” Thezul whispered at his side.

  Guthrie twisted his head around to glare at his comrade. Though high upon a perch behind a boulder, they were not so far above the riders that speaking should be done safely. Besides, it was obvious the clan of the Dartague riders. Each of the men wore heavy coats of thick bear hide about their shoulders and carried long swords with narrow hilts upon their belts.

  Thezul shrugged his apology, then slid back and away.

  Bringing his hands beneath him to push up, Guthrie spared one more glance to the Dartague below. Nine of them. One wyrd woman. All showing signs of injury except for the witch. This lot had seen trouble. Their proximity to the border and the fact they fit the description given by the survivors of the village of Herkaig meant they were assuredly part of the group Guthrie and his men sought. But he had expected twice their numbers. Not these nine.

  He pushed away from the ledge of the boulder and allowed himself to slide down its backside, his studded leather armor scrapping against the ice crusted stone. Landing on his feet, he looked up to find Thezul had already retreated the twenty or so yards back to the clearing among the trees where they had left their steeds and the other four soldiers. Guthrie could see they were already talking amongst themselves, probably asking Thezul questions, but at least they were keeping their voices low.

  Grimacing, Guthrie strode toward the group, his left glove gripping the dagger at his side, the other hand hanging in a fist on his right next to the iron-headed mace swinging from his belt.

  “You think it’s them, sergeant?” Briar asked from horseback as Guthrie approached.

  Thezul and the others, all on foot, turned to look at their leader.

  Guthrie glanced around the group, noting signs of sloveness but glad to see all of them wore their armor in working order and carried their swords and spears, the shields and crossbows tied to the horses. He nodded. “I think so, but there should be more of them.”

  “Just what I was saying,” Thezul said. “Think they split up?”

  “I don’t know,” Guthrie said, shaking his head beneath the hood of his cloak. “This group is heading west, but I don’t know where the others could have gone. There’s no path north or east from here that I know of, and it’s not likely they would have headed south back into Ursia.”

  Briar leaned back in his saddle as if stretching, the man raising a hand to shield his eyes as he stared out across the wide valley to the snow-tipped peaks on the other side. “Could they have been crazy enough to try and climb over?”

  The sergeant shook his head again. “Probably not. It’s more likely they know of a route of which we are unaware, maybe a tunnel or some old animal trail.” Something bothered Guthrie, but he could not place a finger upon what it was. He stared out into the thick woods that spread beyond his men, rising gray crags standing out here and there among the snow-dappled greenery.

  Turning toward Thezul, Guthrie started, “Did you post a --”

  A shaft of wood sprouted from Thezul’s throat, gray feathers blossoming at the end of the arrow. Beneath his rounded helmet, Thezul’s eyes darted down to glare at the end of the shaft protruding from his neck. His gloved hands shot up, grasping the wood and cracking the arrow, but then his fingers went limp, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he slumped to the ground.

  “Archer!” Guthrie yelled, diving toward the nearest cover, which proved to be a long-dead tree that had fallen on its side.

  The sergeant was proven wrong, however. There was more than one archer. A half score arrows lanced into his party. Two of the flying javelins caught Briar in his back, causing the man to scream out before dropping from his horse. The other men fared better being on their feet and among their horses, only Jermus taking a direct hit, an arrow lancing his right eye and barreling on through to punch out the back of his skull.

  His men scrambling and ducking beneath their riding animals, Guthrie unslung the heavy mace from his belt and lifted it, wishing he had not left his crossbow tied to his saddle.

  Another wave of arrows launched into the surviving soldiers. None of the men were hit this time, but the horses did not fare so well. One animal was killed as an arrow thunked deep into its side, only the fletchings proof the arrow had entered flesh and muscle. Several other steeds were injured, shafts baring feathers swaying from their rumps as the animals screamed and jumped before turning and galloping the way they had come up the trail.

  Guthrie cursed as his gaze darted here and there looking for an enemy. Only two of the horses were left, the rest having fled or died, and his remaining men were still in the open without bows of their own to give a return to their foes. Worse yet, the sergeant could not make out any signs of their attackers. It seemed obvious the arrows came from Dartague warriors, probably the others
who had not been riding below, but Guthrie could see nothing of them. True, the trees were thick all around, but there should have been something to see, movement in the darkness, approaching enemy, something.

  More arrows darted forward from the trees. More men died. An arrow punched the ground near Guthrie’s face, sending up a spray of snow.

  That one had been too close. Guthrie had to do something or all of his men would die.

  He rolled back from his hiding spot behind the dead tree and jumped to his feet, screaming all the while with his weapon raised over his head as his hood fell away.

  As if to answer him, two more arrows launched in his direction, both missing by only inches as the sergeant dove to one side. Guthrie landed face first in snow, then pushed himself off the ground. He had to keep moving, to keep the assault directed at him while his remaining men scampered to cover.

  A glance to one side revealed there was no need.

  While he had been rolling and jumping and dodging, the last of the Ursian soldiers had died. Now they all lay unmoving in a circle around one another, blood and a carpet of arrows blooming among their studded leather mail and their dark plum cloaks.

  Guthrie slumped to his knees, the cold wet pushing through his woolen breeches. His mace hung at his side, though he had yet to drop the weapon. He had let his men die. All of them. There had been no time to act, the attack coming so swiftly. What else could he have done? He should have noticed when his corporal had not set a watch along their trail. He should have had the men prepare their crossbows as soon as they had dismounted. He should have been prepared for treachery among the Dartague barbarians. After all, these were Dartague lands, and if anyone knew where to set an ambush, it would be those who had dared to attack the village, men familiar with these lands and more than willing to spill blood.

  The cold seeping into his legs and his heart, Guthrie almost wished he could die right there, with his men. Almost. By all rights, he should have died. He could yet die. But he vowed to himself it would not be so. He had served his nation and His Holiness well for ten years. He would not be killed now, here, with only a week remaining until his discharge. And he would yet show these barbarians there was a price for raiding into Ursian lands, a price to be paid in blood.

  He grimaced as he forced himself to stand, lifting the heavy mace up to his chest. He was not surprised the arrows had stopped. The Dartague were a vicious foe. They would plan to torture him, to flay him alive and to disembowel him. Perhaps to burn him. Then they would set his body upon a tall spike or a spear above the bodies of his men. His corpse would be a warning to other Ursians come seeking revenge.

  Guthrie Hackett would have no part of it. He would live. He would escape. To do that, he must run.

  He turned to dart into the woods.

  A woman stood before him, mere yards away. He blinked at her, recognizing the stoney pale chin, the yellow locks flying around her features, the thick cloak patched with carved skins cut into the shape of bears, eagles, wolves and other beasts. He would have thought her beautiful at any other time, if his men were not dead behind him.

  He raised his mace, its round head aimed at her. “You!”

  She said nothing then, her blue eyes flashing at him as men moved up from behind her. There were more than a dozen of her fellows, big men wearing mail thrown together in piecemeal fashion from scavenged or stolen armor over the years, their shoulders covered in bear furs, each of them wielding a mighty sword.

  One moved to step around the wyrd woman, but she thrust out a hand to grasp him by an elbow. He turned to look at her, her gaze softening the large warrior. He stepped back, away from the Ursian sergeant and the woman, his look less bent upon horror as it had been but a moment earlier.

  She turned her gaze upon Guthrie. He found it a cold look but not one filled with menace.

  “What do you want of me?” he asked.

  “Never to return,” she said.

  Guthrie could not trust those words. He and his men had invaded Dartague territory. The Dartague did not tolerate such and did not leave survivors of those who would dare.

  “You do not believe me,” the woman said. “I can see it in your eyes.”

  “Even if your word is true,” Guthrie said, “the Dartague do not take orders from a woman, even a wyrd woman.”

  A smile crossed the woman’s thin, pale lips. “You know little of our kind.”

  “I know enough,” Guthrie said with gritted teeth, shaking his weapon before him to show he meant his words. “I’ve been stationed along the border of Dartague for years. I’ve seen the results of your raids, your thievery and butchery.”

  The witch’s head tilted slightly to one side, her gaze one of curiosity. “I thought your face was familiar.”

  The sergeant’s features went pale. “How?”

  “We watch the border towns, the villages, the keeps. Even the tents your men erect while moving about. We can see much from here in the mountains.”

  Guthrie’s gaze drifted to look the barbarian men in their faces, one by one. All were quite, stoic. They were ready to strike, but the wyrd woman kept them at bay.

  “You recognized me from below,” she said.

  He nodded. “You move deceptively fast. It took my men and myself hours to climb to this spot on horseback.”

  The woman’s grin widened. “I was never on the trail. You saw what I wanted you to see.”

  “Ah.” The woman had used her magic to delude him and his men while her warriors had been climbing. Or had the Dartague already been in wait, knowing their prey would make use of the most natural of hiding spots?

  The smile vanished from the woman. “Now go.” She pointed the direction the horses had gone. “If you hurry, you might be able to catch one of your animals.”

  Was there trickery here? Guthrie thought not, but he did not know. The Dartague were not above attacking from ambush, as evidenced by the bodies of his squad, but they were generally not ones for great subterfuge nor betrayal. Would an arrow in his back be payment for turning and fleeing? And could he live with himself if he did such? He looked down to the dead. Could he live with himself knowing he was the only survivor while those under his command had perished?

  Yes. Yes, he could. There would be rough nights for perhaps years, but it was better to be alive than to act foolishly for little cause and perish.

  Guthrie lowered his weapon but did not drop it nor return it to the loop on his belt. If he could leave here without further bloodshed, then he would do so. Otherwise, the outcome would not be in his favor. Dying here served no purpose. His death would not avenge his comrades nor serve His Holiness in protecting the borders.

  But he was still confused.

  “Why do you do this?” he asked of the woman.

  She chuckled. “For you to spread the word. The Dartague will no longer stand for the incursion of you Ursians upon our mountains and our forests. Tell your people this. Tell them that if they continue to send soldiers into our lands, our raids will only worsen. Your fields will run red with the blood of your children.”

  The grip tightened on Guthrie’s mace. “You would actually harm a child?”

  “An Ursian child? Yes,” the witch said, her voice solid. “It would bring me no pleasure, but it would mean one less enemy for future generations of my own kin. You may look down your nose at us, calling us barbarians and the like, but your own kind have done more than their share of butchery.”

  “You raid our towns!” Guthrie shouted. “You kill our people and steal our crops!”

  The woman’s voice grew in pitch and volume. “Only after you Ursians intruded upon our lands and our ways, spreading the worship of your god ... this Ashal! We have no need of your petty southern god! We have our own ways, and we mean to keep them. If that means the life of every Ursian must be spilled upon the earth, then so be it! Leave us be and your people will survive. Otherwise, let what comes fall upon your own heads!”

  She turned away then, her rough
cloak swinging out and around her as she marched through the warriors. Guthrie’s gaze followed her back for a moment, but then he noticed the shifting of the men. They were moving between him and her, and edging closer. If she were truly going to let the Ursian live, Guthrie believed he needed to leave soon, especially after the heat of their last words.

  No time like the present, he told himself. Let’s see if they mean to keep their word.

  He turned his back upon his foes, upon those who had slain his countrymen. Without a look to the dead, he walked away. With each step he expected an arrow in the back, or to hear the battle cry of the Dartague as the warriors rushed him.

  But there was only quiet.

  And the snow began to fall in lazy drifts, the flurries wetting his eyelids as he tromped and tromped.

  Upon reaching a rise in the land, Guthrie spotted one of the Ursian steeds standing below in a shallow glen. He stopped atop the hill, pausing long enough to catch his breath and to look back one last time.

  The Dartague were gone, as were the corpses of his men. He had not heard the bodies carried away. The only remaining sign of violence was the blooded snow.

 
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