Chasing the Prophecy by Brandon Mull, now you can read online.
A HERO FALLS
Nearly Twenty Years Ago . . .
An arrow hissed out of the night and thudded near the embers of the shielded campfire. Always a light sleeper, the young squire jerked awake. This close to Felrook it was a wonder he had dozed at all. Nedwin stayed low, holding his breath, and stared out into the darkness, scrutinizing the shadows beyond the shelter of their modest encampment. All was dark and still. Some of the men around him whispered and stirred.
Prince Galloran had posted two sentries up in trees. The angle of the arrow showed that it had come from Malak. Nedwin regretted having glanced directly at the arrow, because the nearby embers from the fire had dulled his night vision. Listening intently to the quietness, he tried to will his eyes to penetrate deeper into the gloom.
Malak would not have launched an arrow into camp unless enemies were almost upon them. Such an arrow was reserved as their most urgent distress signal, and Malak was no jittery novice. Quite the opposite. The twenty men Galloran had handpicked for this final mission were among the most seasoned and intimidating warriors in all of Lyrian. All were veterans of daring campaigns, all had shown an ability to prosper against incredible odds, and all were despised by the emperor.
Nedwin grimly reflected that he was the sole exception. As squire to Galloran, he had been thrilled and honored to learn that he would join this noble company as the only participant who had not yet reached full manhood. He was no great soldier, no master woodsman—his only real specialty was that he knew how to sneak.
Although Nedwin was scarcely thirteen years old, Galloran had already used him as a spy for years. Nedwin possessed a knack for quietly ferreting out information. He understood where to stand in a crowd, how to position himself where a conversation could barely be overheard, how to use his expression and posture to appear inattentive. He had a sense for when to hide, when to run, and when to appear obliviously engaged in some mundane task. At first Nedwin had brought Galloran unrequested information—suspicious murmurs overheard at court. As Galloran began to recognize his talent, he gave Nedwin secret assignments, and Nedwin had faithfully delivered.
Despite his useful history, Nedwin would not have expected to be included on a campaign like this or to be entrusted with a secret like the one Galloran had privately shared. Faced with the sudden prospect of approaching enemies, Nedwin was relieved to find that he was not particularly afraid for his life. His main worry was disappointing his master.
A strangled cry interrupted the silence. The voice might have been trying to shout “Flee!” or “Fly!” Nedwin listened intently as Malak’s unseen body crashed through branches on the way to the forest floor.
While men around him staggered to their feet, drawing swords and fumbling with bows, Nedwin scurried away from the encampment. He moved using his hands and feet, springing more than crawling. Haste was so crucial that he allowed himself to make a little noise. Finally, he paused behind the trunk of a knobby old tree, wedging himself between a pair of thick, gnarled roots.
The half moon came out from behind a cloud, spreading soft silver radiance over the scene. Before sunset, Galloran had chosen to bed down in the remains of a hall of an ancient warlord. The walls had tumbled down long ago; a few jagged remnants jutted up like haphazard tombstones. Lawson had built the modest fire in the ancient hearth, shielding the flames and trusting the darkness to hide the wispy smoke. Although the timeworn ruins were all but forgotten, and far from a path, they were still something of a landmark. Nedwin would have preferred a more anonymous campsite.
By the ghostly moonlight Nedwin watched a barrage of arrows whisper out of the night, thunking against shields, clanging off armor, and also finding flesh. After three heavy volleys, armored swordsmen rushed into the camp. Galloran’s men raced forward to engage the attackers.
Nedwin gaped at the masterful assault. Clouds had obscured the moon all night. How had their enemies synchronized the attack so perfectly? Darkness had disguised their approach until Malak had issued a late warning. Then the moon had come out just in time to help the enemy archers find targets and to make escape into the murky forest more difficult. Could such impeccable timing be ascribed to luck?
Nedwin noticed a pair of bodyguards ushering Galloran away from the oncoming foes. Galloran appeared to be resisting, and Nedwin had to clap a hand over his mouth to prevent himself from yelling for him to run. If Galloran fell, all would be lost. The other men understood this—all were ready to die for him.
Tursock of Meridon, a bear of a man who wielded a huge war hammer in each hand, charged the onrushing attackers. Lesser fighters would have struggled to employ either of his hammers using both hands, but Tursock’s strength was legendary, and he began to send opponents flying, crushing shields, helms, and bones. Other comrades of Galloran followed Tursock into the fray, each a champion capable of singlehandedly turning the tide of a battle. The overmatched attackers quickly succumbed to sword, ax, and spear.
In the brief lull that followed, a fresh volley of arrows hissed from various angles. In a flash Nedwin understood that the foot soldiers had been a sacrificial ploy to draw Galloran’s men away from cover! Many of the archers had sighted on Tursock, who staggered and then dropped to his knees, the dark form of his bulky body suddenly imitating a pincushion.
As shields were raised and Galloran’s men sought cover, manglers—huge creatures encased in spiky armor and fitted with a deadly variety of whirling blades—appeared out of the darkness. Elite soldiers—conscriptors and displacers—joined them. And arrows continued to fly with fatal accuracy.
Galloran and his bodyguards had retreated into the woods out of view. Nedwin knew how hard it must be for his master to run while others fought to defend him.
Tursock struggled to his feet as the manglers approached. With a tremendous clang he toppled the nearest one, denting its iron shell. A clamor resulted as his hammers battered another, even as a multitude of merciless blades penetrated his furry robes. As the manglers plowed into the other defenders, it became clear that many of the men lacked their full armor. Nedwin’s eyes widened in horror as men he had idolized his entire life began to fall.
He tore his gaze from the grisly battle. He had to hide! Galloran had entrusted him with crucial information. His position behind the tree would not suffice. Scanning the vicinity, he spotted a hollow log. He was small enough to squirm inside. But the best hiding places had to be unpredictable. He glanced up. If all else failed, he could climb a tree. He knew how to do so quietly, creeping up to limbs that would seem unreachable to most. No, he wanted something better.
Some distance away Nedwin observed a minor tangle of dead branches on the ground. Perfect. The branches did not appear to offer terrific cover, but if he wormed deep beneath them, took advantage of the shadows, and camouflaged himself using the surrounding foliage, he could become virtually invisible.
Despite the distracting uproar of the battle, Nedwin stayed low and moved silently. There was no way to be sure who else was lurking in the woods. Since he had watched the arrows fly, he did not believe an archer was near his current location, but he had no guarantee.
No armor slowed him. When stealth is your best advantage, armor and cumbersome weaponry become more a hindrance than a protection. He carried only a knife, a small crossbow, and one of the precious explosive spheres that Galloran had entrusted to his care.
Nedwin made it to the deadfall and squirmed underneath, dry twigs crackling despite his best efforts. He brushed leaves and moist dirt over himself, moving efficiently. His position still provided a partial view of the skirmish. Breathing softly, he watched as archers converged on the remaining combatants, bows drawn, led by a very tall conscriptor who held a heavy iron rod.
“Hold!” the tall conscriptor bellowed.
Amazingly, the fighting stopped. Only five of Galloran’s men remained standing, winded and injured. Several manglers had fallen, as had many enemy soldiers. But plenty remained.
“You are surrounded!” the tall conscriptor asserted, leaning on his metal war bar. “This is over! Throw down your arms!”
Nedwin bit his bottom lip. The conscriptor was right. The archers were now near enough that they could easily eliminate the remaining defenders.
“Stand down, lads,” Lawson growled, dropping his short sword.