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by Kara

The Kingdom of Telvis had been a safe haven in the war-torn world of Gandrick for years, the royal family keeping the place secure and out of the twisted politics that dragged the other nations into conflict with one another so often. They had a large standing army; a force of men both well trained and well equipped, but that was not the main reason no one had ever sought to invade Telvis in more than a decade. The real reason for the kingdom’s security was that the College of Magi had set up their arcane tower in the capital, the white stone tower sitting close to the King’s palace and safe within the high walls of the city. Not that the mages needed such protection of course: their spells were more than a match for any invader.

For centuries, ever since the varied mages of the world had first come together to form the college, it had been an unwritten rule that no one would ever attack the land where the mages had established themselves, and that the land it was in would also never attack anyone else, at least in an aggressive and pre-emptive manner, lest they find the mages withdraw their college tower and leave that kingdom open to attack once again.

Telvis was just the most recent in the string of kingdoms the mages had called home, but so far it had been the only one content to follow the rules the mages had laid down. The mages were happy with the state of things; the royal family of Telvis were pleased not to be dragged into a conflict that would see them dead sooner or later; and the people were happy. Everything seemed to be perfect in the Kingdom of Telvis.

Deep in the heart of the Carpethrian Mountains on the kingdom’s southern border, Sergeant Harridan was creeping as silently as possible across the snow-covered ground, his footfalls making soft crunching sounds as his boots compacted the loose snow beneath them. It was damn cold at this time of the year, but Harridan had lived for the past ten years up here, manning one of the numerous watchtowers than kept an eye on every border of the Kingdom. The towers had once been of vital importance to Telvis, but their use had dwindled since the arrival of the mages, with more and more men being pulled away from the border duties till only a handful of the once proud scout corps remained, their duties little more than the occasional patrol and more often dealing with drunks in the local villages than fighting back incursions from enemy scouts and raiders.

Harridan had hated the inactivity he had been forced to endure for the past few years. He had been a veteran scout for many seasons before the mages arrived and had been proud to call himself such. Nowadays however, he felt like some fat aging bureaucrat in the King’s court; wasting away his years with frivolous things while any chance of real work was vanishing with the sense of security the mages had brought, along with the acrid scent of their magics that now filled the air of the capital.

Which was why he took every chance to get out of the watchtower and out into the surrounding mountains. No matter the job, he felt like he was doing something useful again and for the middle-aged sergeant that was just about perfect.

Creeping along the line of a ridge, his longbow clutched tightly in his left hand, the wood of the weapon covered in cloth to stop the cold from freezing it and causing it to break when he put it under strain, Harridan moved along, his ears picking up very little sound, save for the wind and the distant cries of the animals in the farms down in the village let out to ease their limbs after the confines of their barns. He could smell something strange carried on the wind though, but was unable to place it against the more natural smells of the mountains in the grip of winter. As he moved silently along, he let his mind drift back over the events of the past two days.

At dawn two days before, a runner from the watchtower adjacent to Harridan’s own post came banging at the solid oak of the door, his face cut and bloodied along with his clothes; the stained cloth reeking of smoke. The runner spoke of the village in the mountains south of his post disappearing after a bad storm, and of the band that set out to investigate their fate, thinking them no more than cut off due to the weather.

As the scouts neared the village, they were ambushed by a band of unknown raiders. Most of the guard were slaughtered there on the mountainside and only two of them, the runner included, survived to flee back to their watchtower to warn the remainder. The man had been told to set out for Harridan’s post to spread the alert, to ensure that the Sergeant’s men were set for any attack in their region from these bandits.

Then had come word from the local hunters as they stalked their prey up in the mountains. They reported distant sightings of strange men, all of them larger than most men of Telvis and clad in dark furs. They had not gone close to them or tried to hail them and after the runner’s report, Harridan thought that extremely wise of the hunters and said just as much to them, warning them to stay out of the high hills until he had brought the matter to a close, one way or another.

A farmer soon reported than part of his herd had gone missing during the night. There had been signs of a struggle, and a few drops of blood on the ground, but no sign of what had actually happened to his animals or where they had been taken by whatever had attacked them.

Knowing that this would only get worse, Harridan left his corporal in charge of the tower and set off into the mountains, his weapons already hanging about his person and ready for use should the need arise.

He had followed tracks just visible in the snow, the wind having already worn away much of the ground sign, following the path they had made deeper into the mountains, even crossing the Eagle’s Point, the weather worn rock formation that marked the border of the Kingdom, his mind focussed on finding out what was behind the series of raids and banditry in his region.

As he came up on a rise, the snow layered deeply and the surface cracked and rippled like pastry in a baker’s window, Harridan could hear strange sounds drifting faintly on the wind, sounds he would have expected to hear more from a training ground in one of the Kingdom’s castles and not up here so deep in the mountains. Climbing up over the snowdrifts and up to the lip of the rise, Harridan peaked his head over the top to see what was down below. The sight that greeted him stilled the breath in his chest.

Stretched out below him on one of the plateaus that dotted this region of the Carpethrian’s was the largest battle camp Harridan had seen in years. Hundreds of tents ranging from small one or two man affairs to massive communal ones that could have housed anywhere up to two hundred men at a time covered over half the plateau, interspersed with large paddocks filled with horses, the sounds of the beasts echoing off the stones around them. Training lanes for archers and crossbowmen were laid out in the snow as well as practice rings for swordsmen, each of these areas packed with men clad in dark furs working away at their skills. Harridan could see a few scattered banners, each one finely wrought and standing out against the otherwise barbaric appearance of the camp, but the veteran knew this was no idle band of brigands nor one of the uncivilised roaming tribes. This was a battle camp and one set to invade the southlands of Telvis, and if the tents were anything to go by, there was enough men in this one camp to overwhelm any of the garrisons all the way to the Hannacock River, more than halfway to the capital.

Pulling out a piece of vellum and a stick of charcoal, the scout sketched out what he could see of the camp, noting down observations wherever there was space on the small roll before he slid back down the rise, not caring about stealth. He had to get back and report this to someone in power. The Kingdom was about to be invaded.

The sun rose up over the horizon, spilling its rose-tinted light over the capital city; the light creeping up the city walls and up over the buildings within like a growing vine before it spilled down into the streets. The heat quickly dispelled the chill grip the night had placed upon the thoroughfares, burning away the thin mist that had been clinging to the cobbles.

Slowly, the populace of the city began to wake up, the dawn soon met by the sounds of merchants selling their wares to the early risers, their cries almost as loud and as raucous as those of the sea birds circling over the harbour down at the bottom of the large hill the city was built on. The vast city gates slowly began to creek open and the stream of merchants; mercenaries, travellers, pilgrims and priests began to flow into the city. It was as if the capital was some vast organ, pulsing with the life that flowed into it every morning, but for the people who lived there, they wouldn’t have changed a thing about it.

Yawning loudly, Sergei De Bourgarde pulled himself out of his cot, stretching out his sleep cramped muscles as he reached out with one long arm to pick up his shirt from where he had dumped it the night before, sliding it on over his head and buckling around his middle with his belt, the worn piece of leather a hand-me-down from an old bridle that had snapped the previous winter on one of his charges.

Dragging his breeches and boots on, Sergei ran a ran over the course stubble of his face before walking out of his small room and into the stable proper, smiling as he heard the greeting whinny of his multitude of charges. At nineteen, Sergei was as big as any boy of his age; only Jorge and Sander, the two blacksmith apprentices, were larger than him. He had been first apprenticed to the palace stables and then became the horse master when his teacher died suddenly of fever a year past. He loved working with the animals and would quite happily spend the rest of his days caring for them.

Walking to each stall, he refilled the water troughs and fodder for each beast, chatting idly with each one, not caring if they understood him or what others might think of his behaviour. Here in the stables he was lord and master and even the King had to accept his rule here if he wanted to make sure his mounts were kept as fit and as able as possible. Not that he’d refuse the King of course; that would be suicide, but a man had to dream, and Sergei could do that with the best of them.

He loved his horses, but he wished to serve in the King’s Army, fighting to defend his land against the hordes of creatures and the vile predations of the neighbouring kingdoms, hoping to win honour and glory so that he might claim the hand of the beautiful Princess Persephone. The fact that Telvis hadn’t been to war in years didn’t do anything to dissuade him of the fantasy, especially whenever the Princess came down to the stables to take her horse out for the day. Sighing softly, he pushed the fantasy to the back of his mind and started to focus on the chores of the day.

The sun was approaching its zenith when Sergei heard the frantic clatter of hooves on the thick wood of the drawbridge and the cobblestones of the castle courtyard, his ears picking up the tell-tale sparking, hissing sound as the animal’s shoes struck hard against the stones. Laying aside the brushes he had been using on the coat of a mare, Sergei walked out of the building, wiping his hands on his apron, wondering what was going on as he saw a rider heading towards him, his horse’s flanks heaving as the beast tried to pull air into its abused body, its eyes wide with the effort it had been put through by its rider. That alone meant nothing good had happened somewhere in the kingdom, even without Sergei noticing that the man on the horse’s back was wearing the uniform of one of the border scouts, the aged and battered look of it telling him that this man was one of the old breed of scout; the yellow sunburst symbol on his leather pauldron confirming his veteran status in that corps.

‘Quickly boy! I need this one fed and watered and ready to ride out again by the evening bell!’ barked the man, his voice as weather beaten as his face.

‘Sergeant, I don’t think this one will be able to ride by then.’ Sergei said, a note of reproof in his tone as he took note of the stripes on the sleeve of the arm with the sunburst mark.

‘Then get me another,’ the Sergeant snapped.

‘If you didn’t ride this one so hard, it would be ready to use again.’

‘Boy, if I didn’t ride this one hard, then it would be unlikely we could do anything in time to save our damned kingdom! Now stop giving me problems and do your damn job before I knock you to the dirt!’ the older man snapped before turning on his heel and marching swiftly towards the entrance to the palace, one hand on the hilt of his broadsword.

Cursing the man under his breath, but intrigued by what he had said at the last, Sergei took the horse into the stable, feeling it quiver with exertion at his side, before placing the mare in one of the empty stalls with fresh water and fodder, before he slipped off his apron and soiled boots, slipped on his spare boots he normally wore when heading to one of the temples in the city proper and walked into the palace, his mind fixed on finding the scout sergeant and listening to what he had to say. Whatever it was, it was bound to be exciting given his manner of arrival and the part of Sergei’s mind that created the fantasies could not shake the idea that this might be the way to see them through.

With his heart beating quickly within his breast from the effort of the long, hard ride from his post in the Carpethrian’s, Sergeant Harridan marched swiftly through the richly appointed hallways of the royal palace, his dirty boots feeling marks on the carpets that would have the servants clucking their tongues for days after he left the city.

After he had found the battle camp just across the border, Harridan had rushed back to his post to warn his men, bringing not only his tower but the neighbouring ones to full alert in case the enemy should attack before word could be sent back to the King, but nothing had come that day or the next, and so he had set out again, hoping to scout out the enemy positions further. What he found was enough to still chill his blood. Three other battle camps, all thankfully far smaller than the first one he had come across, were nestled high in the snow-covered peaks of the mountains, each one filled with more warriors training for what could only be the invasion of Telvis. He had also noted several different banners amongst the assembled tents, leading him to guess that this was some vast alliance of barbarian tribes poised to loot and pillage the rich lands beyond the peaks, but that notion had been dispelled when he noticed the banners of some of the other kingdoms of the land, along with the tribal marks of the more human like monsters that lived beyond the borders of the civilised regions. What dark power could hold sway over so many, Harridan had no idea, but each scrap of information he gathered would be more in the armoury of the Kingdom so that they could repel this attack.

Clutching at the tough cured hide tube that contained dozens of tightly rolled pieces of vellum he had sketched the information onto, Harridan made his way into the court, letting his ears and nose guide him, the rich stench of perfumes and opulently scented cloth tearing at his senses more than the stench of the blood of some vile beast.

As the dirty and weather-beaten scout walked into the crowded chamber of the court, silence spread like ripples on a still pond as the assembled nobles and lackeys took in his appearance. Many turned their noses up at the commoner amongst them, while others noted the sword at his hip and the longbow slung across his back. Only a handful took note of the sunburst and stripes, those handful talking quietly amongst themselves, sending word out to the barracks of the palace guard and the army stationed within the walls of the city, knowing that any reason that caused one of the border scouts, especially such a high standing veteran, to leave his post could only mean bad news for the Kingdom.

Ignoring everyone, Harridan marched up towards the throne where the King now sat straight, the bored expression that had held sway over his features banished with the strange and unannounced arrival.

Coming to within a few steps of the throne’s dais, Harridan halted, snapping his heels together and slamming his closed fist against his heart.

‘Sire, I bring news from the watchtowers of the Carpethrian Mountains.’

‘And what news might that be, Sergeant?’ asked the King, his voice soft but firm with the manner of a man not used to being ignored or disobeyed.

‘Grave news sire, and I doubt it is for the ears of all present.’

‘Indeed. The court is dismissed! I wish for my generals to remain and for Captain Longarde to be present,’ barked the King, his voice echoing around the chamber, his tone carrying the threat that no one should disobey him or be the focus of his displeasure.

With grumbles and chatter between themselves, the hall slowly emptied of the nobles, leaving only a handful of men behind, all clustering around the throne, and Harridan was sad to note that only three of them wore any armour or carried any semblance of military bearing about them.

‘So, Sergeant, tell us what it is you have come here for.’

‘Sire. Twelve days ago, I was brought word by one of the other towers that a village had been lost during a bad storm and when they dispatched scouts; they found the place in ruins. Only a few of the men they sent out returned. I brought my tower to full alert, but I received further news of a farmer’s herd going missing with little trace and a group of hunters informed me they had spotted strange men higher in the mountains. I set out to investigate all this and discovered the largest battle camp I have ever seen.’ Harridan said, pulling forth his container and spreading out the vellum pieces on the small table that sat at the foot of the dais.

‘I drew this from my observations and as you can see, it could contain many thousands of warriors.’

‘Where did you say you found this camp?’ Asked the man wearing the armour of the palace guard, a man Harridan knew to be Captain Longarde, a man he had known for many years and respected as a fine soldier, despite his relatively soft posting.

‘Just over the border past the Eagle’s Point.’

‘Damn, that is far too close to the border for my tastes, sire. So far I am in agreement with Sergeant Harridan’s concern.’

‘You know him?’ asked the King.

‘Yes, Sire. I’ve known him for fifteen years. He is one of the best we have.’

‘I see. Please continue, Sergeant Harridan.’

‘Yes, Sire. As you might imagine, as soon as I had what information I could, I returned to my watchtower and brought it to full alert as well as the towers nearby, but nothing happened for two days, so I set out again to see if the enemy had moved or if there were more of them out there. Sire, I found three more camps, all smaller than the first, but all with different banners amongst them, including several of the Dark Tribes.’ ‘The Dark Tribes? Are you sure?’ asked the King, concern over the implications of this news clear on his face.

‘Aye, Sire, I am. I saw the horrible bastards myself. Saw a couple of their warlord types amongst them as well, but none of them looked like the boss around there.’

‘Sire, I find this all too hard to believe,’ spoke up one of the generals, his portly body clothed in court fineries rather than the functional clothes or armour of a soldier. Harridan looked at the man’s hands, frowning as he noticed not a single blemish on the skin. It was clear this man had never lifted a sword in his life.

‘Are we to understand that a horde of barbarians and monsters is poised to attack our Kingdom? That the disorganised rabble we see eking out a living in the plains beyond the mountains are suddenly able to muster an army that could threaten us? If this is true, why have we not heard anything from any other scouts? Why would they even try to attack us when the College of the Magi resides within our borders? No, I say this is all false: the idle fancy of a man past his prime, trying to find some glory before he retires to the taproom,’ sneered the court dandy, giving Harridan a look of utter disdain that led the veteran sergeant to believe the man looked at his dogs in a better light.

‘Where did you earn your title, sir?’ asked Harridan, putting as much insolence and hatred in the title as he could. ‘At the feet of your whoring mother? Or was it by kissing arses till you had what you wanted? I know what I saw and no damned fat court prancing bastard is going to try and smear my good name.’

‘Why, how dare you? I’ll have you flogged!’

‘Why not fight me yourself, you fat coward?’ snarled the sergeant, his hand going to the hilt of his sword, the motion making the noble take a few steps backwards, the colour draining from the hanging jowls of his face.

‘Enough! Both of you!’ barked the King; his face red with anger, though from his gaze, Harridan could tell most of the ruler’s ire was directed at the noble still cowering from him.

‘Sergeant, what is your suggestion?’

‘That we muster our forces and meet this foe before they can ravage our Kingdom, Sire.’

‘Very well. Captain Longarde?’

‘Sire!’ barked the captain, snapping to attention with a clink of metal on metal.

‘Orders to the garrisons. Muster the army and prepare to march south. We go to meet this threat head on. Please convey this to the College as well and ask if some of their battle mages will accept to join the march.’

‘Aye, Sire!’

‘Sergeant Harridan, I want you to head over to the skirmisher lines and bring their officers up to speed on the situation before riding south with them ahead of the main force. I want as much information as you can gather so we can win the campaign before it gets started. Send word by messenger bird to the watchtowers and have them get their men out scouting the enemy lines but be ready to retreat to the main body as we head south.’

‘Aye, Sire!’

‘And as for you, General Julianos, get out of my sight. You are hereby stripped of your rank and I do not want you in my court again. Guards, escort him out of my city. I will not have such a coward polluting the minds of my people.’

‘Yes, your Majesty!’ barked two of the guards standing by the throne, grabbing the gasping former general under the arms and frog marching him out of the palace.

‘Well then, Gentlemen,’ the king said to the remaining officers. ‘It looks like we have a lot of work to do. See to your commands and have them ready to move out the day after tomorrow.’

‘Aye, Sire!’ the others barked, saluting with their fists closed against their hearts as they marched out of the throne room. The Kingdom was going to war.

Almost running back to his stables, Sergei gulped loudly as his heart beat out a rapid pulse in his chest, his sides heaving in panic as if he was one of his own horses that had just run a long race. He couldn’t believe it, the kingdom was really going to war for the first time in years, and it was against some of the most evil creatures that stalked the lands. No wonder that sergeant had been so careless in the way he treated his horse if he had information like that to bring to the King!

Returning to his work, Sergei let his mind drift as he worked on the horses, becoming focused on the tasks in front of him, not hearing anyone arrive until her heard an impatient huff and someone stomping their foot down onto the cobbles of the stable behind him.

Whirling around, Sergei blushed as he saw who was waiting for his attention. Princess Persephone, her hands on her broad hips stood there, a look of annoyance on her beautiful features, the bodice of her dress moving up and down in a very distracting manner as her breathing increased with the irritation she was feeling at the slowness of the stable boy. She knew how pretty she was, and how infatuated Sergei was with her, but she would never let him near her, partly because she really cared very little for the stable master and his wandering eyes and also because she knew that she was needed to marry carefully to ensure the future of her father’s Kingdom and as the only heir to the throne, it was her duty to be even more careful with her partner as they would at the very least rise to the position of royal consort.

‘Well now that you have finally noticed me, perhaps you’d care to prepare my horse?’

‘Errm, yes! Right away your Highness!’ Sergei said, almost leaping across the stable to where the Princess’s saddle lay, bringing it over to her favourite horse, a white-coated mare she had called ‘Snowstorm’ when she had been given it as a birthday present from her father five years before. The Princess doted on her mount.

‘Here we are, your Highness, all ready for you.’

‘Good. I’ll be back in a few hours, make sure her stable is ready for then and have fresh fodder and water in place as well.’

‘Yes of course, Princess.’ Sergei mumbled, his cheeks flushed as he helped her up into her saddle, the Princess sitting astride her horse, rather than side-saddle like most ladies in the Kingdom. She had always preferred to ride that way, especially since with no brothers to inherit the crown, she had been trained since girlhood to ride and fight in battle.

‘Have you heard, Princess? The Kingdom is going to war.’

‘Yes I did, Father told me just before I came down here.’

‘Will you be riding with the army to the battlefield?’

‘No, sadly not. Father ordered me to remain here. I’m to take over as regent until the campaign is won to ensure that the affairs of the Kingdom keep running smoothly.’

‘Aren’t you worried?’

‘With the mages here in the Kingdom? Not at all.’ Persephone said, clucking her tongue as she placed her heels lightly against Snowstorm’s flanks; the mare responding to her mistress’ touch and trotting out of the stable.

Sighing as he looked at the back of his love as she left, admiring the way her full backside flared out as she sat in the saddle, Sergei returned to his duties reluctantly. He might yet ride out with the army, but not if the horses in the King’s stable were in a poor state. Putting aside his thoughts, he returned to caring for his charges. It was going to be a long and busy day in the stables.

The battlefield was strewn with the bodies of the dead and the dying, their forms twisted in the sick formations of death, the ground hissing and smoking as their hot blood defiled the earth where they fell. Broken banners lay where they had fallen, the cloth stained with mud and the bodily fluids of the slain, their battered and broken arms and armour as scattered as their corpses.

Despite this vision of death, the battle raged on, men clashing with men, going hand to hand with monsters as they tried to survive the maelstrom all about them, the constant cries of those that failed filling the air more powerfully than the cries of the carrion birds as they spotted the dead spread out like a feast before them.

Swinging his sword in a wide arc, the once bright blade stained with the blood of the invaders, King Freyic cut down another of the enemy facing him, spitting on the corpse as the head rolled away, twin jets of blood splattering over his armour before the body tumbled away back down the hill, fouling the feet of some of its fellows trying to run up after him.

Cursing, King Freyic looked around, seeing what was left of his force pulling into an ever tighter shield wall at the top of the hill, their numbers dwindling as the enemy grew. It had only been a week since he had marched out of the capital at the head of his army, but it seemed that the campaign might already be lost. He had vastly underestimated the number of the enemy facing his people, and that mistake had been paid for in the blood of his men. The skirmishers led by Sergeant Harridan and Captain De Turnel had vanished two days before, but he was sure they hadn’t been slain, just become lost in the great marshes that lay a day’s march ahead of the bloody fields where he now fought.

When the skirmishers had gone missing, he had personally led out a force to investigate, leading over three thousand men, a mix of cavalrymen and his own House Guard out from where the army was encamped, across the river Styien and towards the marshes. But as soon as he crossed the bridge over the Styien, the enemy had struck. Ogres had destroyed the bridge as the last of the House Guard had crossed over, the large hammers they wielded proving more than a match for the ancient water worn stones, trapping them on the far side with no real line of escape as the river was too high to ford with a flood of melt water coming down from the mountains.

The enemy hit them then, while they were still reeling from the sudden loss of the bridge, slaughtering several companies before they could fight back. But as soon as the men of Telvis were able to gather their wits, they struck back hard. While the enemy soon overwhelmed the men left on foot, those who had managed to stay in their saddles were cutting great swathes through the enemy, a fact that they soon realised, directing their attacks not towards the rider but to the horse instead. Soon, every one of them was on foot apart from a few horses they had managed to save from the slaughter, each of them held safely within the heart of the shield wall.

Cutting down another tribesman that came screaming at him, King Freyic turned to one of his messengers, the young man as stained with blood as any of the other older men around him, pulling his own sword free from the neck of one of the green skins; his boot on the beast’s chest to break the suction holding the blade in place.

‘Son, I need you to take one of the remaining horses and get back to the main camp any way you can.’

‘Sire?’ asked the boy, duty mixing with confusion and disappointment at being pulled from the fight in his tone.

‘Get a message back to the generals and tell them that cavalry is the way to beat them. They have little defence against horsemen and tell them to armour the horses as best they can.’

‘Yes Sire, but I wish to stay here and fight.’ The young man said, determination burning in his voice, his eyes alive with bloodlust.

‘I know you do boy, but the battle is lost, and word must be got back to the main force if we are to survive this war.’

‘I…. I see, your Majesty.’ The messenger said, realisation dawning on him in a flood, tears edging his eyes, as he knew what his King was telling him.

‘Is… Is there something you wish me to convey to your daughter as well, Sire?’

‘Yes. Please tell her to rule better than I did; take her own counsel and that the mages can help our Kingdom. Also please give her this.’ He said, pulling the crown from his helmet and handing it to the boy.

‘Tell her I have always loved her and not to join me too soon in the afterlife.’

‘Yes, Sire, I will tell her.’

‘Good, now go!’

Saluting with his hand against his heart, the messenger ran from the wall, leaping onto one of the horses, turning it away from the battle and down the steep far side of the hill, sliding the beast down into the cool, deep water of the river beyond. Before his head had even slipped behind the lip of the hill, his space in the wall had been filled and the battle continued.

Sighing, knowing that he had now done all he could, King Freyic turned back to the battle, ready to send as many of these devils to the feet of the gods before he arrived there himself.

As the sun slipped below the line of the distant mountains, the messenger brought his horse to a halt on the crest of a hill on the far side of the river, almost a mile away from where the destroyed bridge now sat, twisting in his saddle to look back at the battlefield.

The shield wall had dissolved under the enemy assault, the creatures had got amongst the men of Telvis and that had been the beginning of the end for them. Now, nothing was left of the three thousand men that had marched out of the camp that morning aside from broken corpses and their blood soaked banners. The whooping calls of the enemy as they celebrated their victory came drifting to the messenger’s ears on the wind, chilling him with the horror of it.

With tears stinging his eyes, he turned away from the scene, planting his heels into the flanks of his horse and rode off into the darkening sky.

Slumping back into the throne with shock, Princess Persephone tried in vain to assimilate what the messenger had told her. Part of her mind didn’t believe a word of it, hoping against hope that her father would walk through the doors to the throne room with a big smile on his face and a bone breaking embrace for his daughter, but the blood stained armour and filth encrusted face of the man told her all too much about the truth of his words, the stained crown now resting in her hands telling her the rest. She took small consolation in the fact that the blood wasn’t her father’s and that he had given it over to the messenger willingly rather than have it taken from his corpse, but it was little in the face of the black crushing despair that now filled her heart with the death of her loving father.

‘Your highness,’ whispered Lady Richmond, her lady in waiting and chief advisor for many years, leaning over to bring her lips close to the Princess’ ear so that her words would not be overheard. ‘I don’t have any words to express my sorrow at the death of your father, the King, but you are now the ruler of our Kingdom and the threat in the south still exists. We must deal with it and swiftly if we ever hope to get over this tragedy. We can mourn later, in private if you wish, my Princess, but now you must be strong, if only for the sake of your people.’

‘Yes. Yes, you’re right,’ Persephone whispered, her voice husky with sorrow before she cleared her throat and sat up straighter in her throne, trying not to look at the empty one to her right where her father had sat only a few short days before.

‘Thank you for bringing me the message of my father’s passing. Is there any other word from the forces to the south?’

‘I am sorry to report that there is further news, your Highness. After I had arrived at the main camp and reported to the Generals, they informed me that enemy troops had snuck into the camp during the hours of the night while I was riding to them and had slain all the horses in the corral. Not a single one survived so they could not send word north to the palace until I arrived. It is also the reason for my current state which I can only apologise for.’

‘Think nothing of it; you did your duty and did it well. Lady Richmond, can you see that the servants find Squire Hadrian some quarters so that he might rest up.’

‘Yes of course, your Highness.’

‘I think that for today, all other business of the court is suspended. There is much to be done if we can secure the war and the safety of our Kingdom.’

Standing from her throne, Persephone walked out of the throne room and out into the courtyard of the palace, a group of the guards following close behind as they now always would. She was now the ruler of the Kingdom and her life was more important than theirs.

Sighing heavily, Persephone made her way towards the tower of the mages. They might just hold the only solution to the problem now.

Archmage Florin rubbed at his beard as he looked over at Princess Persephone, or rather the soon-to-be Queen Persephone now that her father had fallen in battle to the darkness coming down from the mountains. She had come to the tower requesting an audience with him and after talking with her for a while, he had to admit that she had the strangest request he had ever heard. That wasn’t to say he didn’t agree with her basic idea, but the request was not one he had ever dealt with before in all his years of working the art.

‘So let me understand you fully, Princess. It has been discovered that the army coming from the south is susceptible to attack from cavalry, and that they now know this after the sacrifice your father made and so they have slain all the horses in your army that marched out to meet them. So you are asking me and my mages to conjure up enough horses to mount your whole army to push back these creatures and secure the Kingdom once more, am I correct?’

‘That is what I am asking, yes. My father said that if I needed help, I could turn to you and your mages and that you have ensured that our kingdom remained safe in all the years your tower has been here. While you offer us protection, we do the same in turn, so I am asking if you will do this for us,’ Persephone said, her eyes slightly red from the tears she had shed in the few quiet moments she had snatched on the way from the palace.

‘I see. You need to understand something, Princess. Magic doesn’t create something out of nothing. Something is always needed as the basic material for the spell. For a fireball, it might be some ash; to make gold, you need a pound of lead; to make a woman you might need a man and so on. So to create the herd you need, especially the size of it, the base material is going to need to be found first.’

‘I… I see. What would you suggest, Archmage?’

Nodding, his mind going through a huge list of probabilities, he wrote something down on a scrap of vellum after several minutes had sunk through the hourglass on his desk. Pushing it over to the Princess, he sat back and awaited her reaction.

Picking up the scrap, Persephone read it quickly, her eyes going wide in shock before hardening with a grim determination that Archmage Florin knew would make her into one damned fine ruler as she settled into her new office.

‘I see. While I do not like the suggestion, this is a time when the ends justify the means. You have my blessing to do this; I only ask that the remainder have no memory of this. Questions cannot be asked or the crown will fall and we will end up in civil war at the very least.’

‘A wise suggestion, Princess. It will be done. Make sure that any you need to be around once this is done stay in the castle tonight and tomorrow. It will not affect the men under arms or those with a vital trade, but the rest… well, you will see the results for yourself at the midday bell.’

‘Good. Thank you for your time, Archmage.’ Rising, Princess Persephone dropped a small curtsey to the Archmage before he bowed on one knee and kissed her hand lightly. As she left, the Archmage frowned as he began to work out what would be needed to complete the spell. It would take the efforts of most of the House of Transmogrification as well as his own efforts to cast it, but he knew it would be successful.

Sitting down in his high-winged chair, Florin wrote a couple of quick memos, handing them to his messenger imps before sitting back, steepling his fingers under his chin and letting his mind go deep in thought. Much would be needed and the Princess was right on several matters. Should people know, civil war was inevitable, but it was also necessary. The ends would justify the means, so long as the war was won of course.

The sun was shining brightly the next day, the seabirds crying out merrily as the first of the fishing boats arrived back into the harbour with the labours of their day. Despite the war and the crushing sorrow of the losses the Kingdom and its army had sustained so far, the people did not seem unhappy. Of course that might have been because of the day of mourning the Princess had called to honour the memory of her father; while the nobles mourned, the commoners took to the market, taking the chance to browse the stores so often denied to them by the labours of their normal days.

Smiling, Sergei was walking through the streets of the market himself, his coin purse jingling at his belt as he went from stall to stall looking at everything the merchants had on offer for an unattached young man like himself. With the losses in the army, he was considering taking a walk over to the office of the local commander, his aide still in the city with a small cadre of troops in case men did offer to pick up arms, and offering his services in another way to the crown, and so he was focusing on those stalls that sold the armour and weapons he was sure to need, not knowing if he was supposed to arrive at the office with all his own gear or not.

All day there had been something strange in the air over the capital; the strong spicy scent that hung about the tower most days was somehow much stronger today, carrying on the wind much more than normal: so much so that some of the more sensitive people in the city had already been forced to head to the apothecaries in the hope that the healers would be able to do something for the terrible headaches and spontaneous nosebleeds they were suffering from since the sun had risen over the horizon.

Sergei barely noticed it and if the mages were up to something, knew he wouldn’t feel it: his own sensitivity to magic was lower than that of most animals, something he had apparently inherited from all his time being around the beasts of the land. Not that it bothered him that he was found to be so low in that spectrum when the Archmage tested everyone within the walls of the palace, but it did worry him slightly that he wouldn’t know if spells were being cast around him, just in case he happened to be the target of them.

As the noon day bell struck out its soft peel from the top of the temple of the Sun Goddess, the scent of magic only got stronger and stronger, washing over the streets of the market district like the waves of a storm at sea. Sniffing, Sergei wrinkled his nose up in distaste at the smell: he was about to ignore it and continue with his shopping trip when he heard a woman cry out from further down the street. While that wasn’t an odd occurrence in the city given the prevalence of cutpurses and thieves, the fact that the whole place had gone deathly quiet had Sergei worried.

Turning around, Sergei watched as from the far end of the street people began to freeze where they were, not moving a muscle apart from a slow steady rise and fall of their chests as their hearts continued to beat. The stillness spread out like a ripple in a still pond, affecting more and more people until Sergei himself felt some strange grip on his muscles, his heart thundering madly with panic as he lost his ability to move, but his chest rose easily, pulling air into his body still, that one action not taken over by the panic shooting through his blood, his mind quickly realising that the simple function had been taken out of his control too, some mystic force holding him and every other person in the busy marketplace in thrall.

Yet despite this, Sergei could still hear the city going about its business elsewhere, the fishermen and dock hands busy down at the harbour, the remaining soldiers busy in their barracks, even the thunder of a smith’s hammer as the craftsman continued to work, oblivious to what was happening right outside his door.

The young stable hand was forced to watch, utterly helpless as he saw another ripple like effect passing through the crowd, running unstoppably towards him. Everybody held in thrall by what could only be a magic spell began to shake and quiver, a sweat bursting from their skin as their bodies responded to the magic and what it would doubtless be trying to force upon them.

As the quivering struck Sergei, his attention was forced away from what was happening to the people around him, focusing on what was happening to him; panic surged through his immobilised body, his clothes already soaked through as his skin burst out in a heavy sweat; his stomach churning as the magic roared through his body made him feel more nauseous than he had ever known before.

A sudden, terrible pain erupted in his hips, making him feel as though he had just been kicked in the back by one of his charges; making him groan in agony; his vision greying out a little at the edges as his mind reeled back from the signals it was receiving from his spine. The pain only got worse with each beat of his heart, forcing the young man to bow forwards, doubling over at his waist, the speed of it making him throw his arms out in front of him to stop slamming face-first into the cobbles of the street. Yet his hands slammed into the cool stones far sooner than they should have, and with a sick feeling, Sergei watched as his arms began to shake and quiver, the bones growing longer in a nightmarish fashion; his elbow joint creeping further up till it settled half way up his longer arms where it grew larger, settling into whatever purpose the spell had in mind for him and every other person in the market. With a loud and horrifying snap of bones, Sergei felt his shoulders and collarbone shift and take on a new shape, keeping his arms forever locked in their new position, but before he could let out another cry of dismay, the same snap of bone tore from his hands, the young man’s eyes drawn towards them.

The two middle fingers were growing fatter, merging together as though they were made of wax, soon creating one huge digit; the others shrinking away to tiny nubs that slid up his palms as they shortened and began to flatten out; the huge digit growing larger with every frantic pulse of his heart, the nail thickening and growing darker till twin black hooves graced his very equine forelegs.

Letting out a sob of fear, Sergei was left standing on all mismatched fours for a few moments, his backside all but touching the ground as he tried to compensate for the full length of his new forelegs, but the magic didn’t leave him alone for long as another tingle of pain whipped through his body, centred on his real legs this time, his mind retreating again as he knew what was about to happen there.

With another painful snap of bones and muscles, Sergei’s legs grew longer, matching his new forelegs in seconds, his feet changing to hooves even faster than his hands had done only a few moments before. Now standing on matching sets of hooves, Sergei let out another sob of anguish at what was happening, wondering who and why this was being done to the people of the city, but his mind was forced to retreat again as fresh waves of pain roared through his changing body, tearing at him from the top of his head right down to his backside.

With a series of snaps and pops, Sergei felt his body take on mass, and a lot of it. His bones lengthened, changing shape, becoming denser and stronger to support the weight of the muscles growing around them. His clothes groaned, the seams stretching until they were forced beyond what they could take, splitting off his larger form and falling down to the cobbles in a cascade. His chest rippled as muscle grew there, outstripping the lines he had developed over the years of hard work in the stable, yet it was little more than a shapeless mass until he felt the bones of his ribs pop and snap, each one growing larger and thicker until his chest had barrelled out into a shape he was all too familiar with, confirming what he had begun to suspect was happening to him. He felt the base of his spine snap as the bone pushed out through his skin, flesh and hair bursting around it as soon as it touched the air till a long horse tail was hanging down from his very equine hindquarters, the tip brushing at the skin just below his newly jointed knees.

He could only groan in pain as his neck grew longer, pushing his still human head further away from his body, but he could feel his lungs draw in more air than before, his heart thundering far more powerfully within his chest. The magic seemed to be making him into a specimen in the peak of fitness, a paragon amongst horses, but the reason still eluded him. Why would the mages turn the citizens of the capital into beasts of burden?

But the idea of being a stallion did excite Sergei somewhat. He had always loved seeing the powerful males running about, the warhorses able to do almost as much damage as the knights on their backs as well as the way they acted around the mares being so dominant and forceful in their interactions. But shouldn’t he have felt something change down there, no matter how painful?

Twisting his head down, his longer neck allowing him to see straight down the line of his equine body, Sergei looked at his genitals, letting out a gasp of surprise as he saw them still looking exactly as they had done before the spell had begun to take its toll on him. They looked utterly out of place on his new form, but he couldn’t understand why they hadn’t changed along with the rest of his body. A spark of recognition flashed through his mind only a moment before another bout of searing agony shot through his body, the pain focused around the same organ his eyes were fixed on.

Unable to tear his eyes away, Sergei watched, utterly helpless, as his once proud manhood seemed to wither, the blood pulling away from it to leave it as little more than a husk of dead flesh. The skin began to darken, creeping back towards his new tail, the skin soon turning to a leathery black as it began to split down the middle, forming into something much different. Sergei was spared the sight of its final change as it slipped up between his new legs, but he could feel it as it settled under his tail, as well as all the changes that followed within his new form.

Letting out another cry of anguish, his new vocal cords turning it into a very equine whinny, Sergei didn’t care as pain erupted in the bones of his face; his head pushing outwards to match the rest of his body, stealing away the last of his humanity and sealing his fate forever as that of a well-built horse, and a mare at that. But as her form settled, Sergei felt something happen in her mind. It started as a strange pressure, as if she had spent the night in a tavern, but it soon grew till she could identify another presence there, something that only called itself ‘right’ as though it was meant to be in her head all along. Touching it with her thoughts, Sergei noticed that it was made to fit this new body, coming with all the instincts and knowledge of how to move it and make it work properly. As she touched that new presence with her mind, Sergei gasped mentally as she felt it flow into her personality, altering it to suit her new body, erasing those pieces that no longer mattered. Sergei let out one final cry as her old identity was subsumed, the former stable hand fading into the dark recesses of the new creature’s mind.

With a huff, Sara looked around her, her nostrils flaring as she picked up the scents of hundreds of other horses all around her. She could smell so many other mares, but she felt her heart beat a little faster as she picked up on the scents of the scattered stallions amongst the herd. She knew who she had been, but was unconcerned over her past. She was Sara the Mare now, part of the herd that filled the streets around her.

Sara was just waiting patiently in the street as the armed guardsmen entered the market, each one of them throwing ropes over the necks of each horse waiting there before taking several back to their garrison. As the rope was thrown around her own neck, Sara trotted along happily behind her new master as he led her and several of her herd mates through the city to the barracks. She didn’t know what was waiting for her, but she had the suspicion that she might be joining the army anyway, just in a somewhat different manner than she had intended that morning.

The sun was starting to peek over the mountains, casting a warm orange glow over the countryside, the light spilling over the meadows and the tents of the dark horde that were encamped there before it rose up to meet the men assembling at the top of the hillside beyond the fields. Each man was mounted on a large warhorse, each of the beasts as armoured as the men on their backs, their legs encased with segmented steel, the lessons of the early battles with the horde bringing about the changes in the Kingdom’s military.

Standing on the rise, her ears flattened back against her head, her muzzle covered by the heavy plate of her mask, Sara huffed out in irritation at the delay, flicking her tail across her hindquarters as her rider brought her to a halt alongside her herd mates. It had been three weeks since that day in the market and since then Sara had grown used to her new body as she was put through the training of the new Queen’s horse masters, the soldiers preparing her and the other new horses for the war. They had been surprised at how quickly the new beasts had taken to the lesson and how they interacted with each other, but after a visit from the Archmage, their minds were set at ease as to the intelligence of their new charges.

Now the rekindled army was ready to launch what the generals hoped would be the final battle, knowing that their new supply of horses would be the deciding factor in the coming fight.

Noticing his mount’s impatience, Sara’s rider leaned down and patted her side with one gauntleted fist, the metal clanging loudly against the armour on her flanks.

‘Hush, girl. We’ll get our fill of blood soon enough.’ The soldier said, his voice steady, having the calming effect he desired on Sara, her body easing as her ears perked up at the sound of his voice.

Suddenly, a horn blew out a crystal clear note, the sound rolling out across the hills to spark off across the distant mountains. At the signal, the commanding general, riding his own brand new horse, a huge snow white mare, brought his sword up into the air.

‘Charge! For the Queen and for the Kingdom!’

With a roar, the soldiers put heels to their horses’ flanks, spurring their mounts forward, pushing them into a gallop, all of them charging down the hill in a wave of bright polished armour.

With a cry of her own, Sara thundered forward, her hooves slamming hard against the soil of the meadow, crushing everything under foot. She might have become a horse, but she was here, defending her homeland and avenging her slain king. She was proud to be one of the Queen’s army and one of the King Freyic Herd. That day, all the King’s horses would exact their vengeance.

The dark horde was crushed that day out on the southern plains of Telvis, their leader slain in single combat with one of the knights of the Kingdom, the survivors fleeing back towards the mountains they had been hiding in before the start of the invasion of Telvis. But there would be no sanctuary for them anywhere on the long flight back. The surviving Telvian skirmishers, who had been forced into hiding in the swamps after they were ambushed by the horde on the morning before King Freyic’s death, attacked them mercilessly as they ran, slaying all the survivors while the army continued to push them southwards. Sergeant Harridan slew the last of the tribal leaders as the horde attempted to reassemble, causing the final collapse of the invaders, and led the victory procession into the capital, his once impugned honour fully restored in his eyes.

In the years that followed, Queen Persephone led her Kingdom to new and greater heights, making her land one of the foremost kingdoms in the realms, the capital city growing into such a major trading hub that ships from all over the world arrived every hour of the day and night, the wealth that poured into the royal coffers allowing the Queen to support her people properly and rebuild the damage from the war.

Sergeant Harridan was promoted to Captain, but returned to the watchtowers and the restored scout corps, keeping his eternal vigil on the southern border in case anyone should ever try and invade the kingdom again.

The College of Magi flourished under the new monarch, eventually deciding to establish permanent roots in Telvis, throwing open its doors to new members and whoever wished to learn the magical arts. The relationship between Archmage Florin and Queen Persephone blossomed and within a few years of the final victory, the two were married, sealing the bond between state and mages. Their children would go on to lead very interesting lives of their own, but that is another story for another time.

As for Sara and the other transformed horses, they lived as a wild herd, roaming the lands of the Kingdom, returning to the capital every year when they were ready to bear their foals so that the Kingdom would always have a supply of warhorses in case of further invasion. Telvis would become famous for its impressive horses with their amazing intellect, but for Sara and the others, they were just happy to live their lives as they pleased. It might not have been the life they would have chosen, but none could deny that they were happy with it.

The End