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Authors: Christian Warren Freed

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A Whisper After Midnight

BOOK: A Whisper After Midnight
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A Whisper After Midnight

Book Three of the Northern Crusade

By CHRISTIAN WARREN FREED

Edited, Produced, and Published by Writer’s Edge Publishing 2014
© 2014 by Christian Warren Freed.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

 

 

 

Acknowledgments

For my beloved wife, Anicie. I am all things with you by my side.

Other Novels by Christian Warren Freed

The Northern Crusade Series

Hammers in the Wind

Tides of Blood and Steel

A Whisper After Midnight

Empire of Bones

The Madness of Gods and Kings

Even Gods Must Fall

 

A History of Malweir Series

Armies of the Silver Mage

The Dragon Hunters

Beyond the Edge of Dawn

 

 

PROLOGUE

Cold winter winds kissed the broken mountaintops. This part of northern Malweir was a wicked and cruel place, filled with nightmarish despair, the perfect place for the Hags to roost. The three harpies were sisters, wretched and cunning. They claimed the broken peaks and forced away smaller animals and other predatory birds. Men seldom came this far north without truly understanding the perils in the mountains. Only a tribe of Giants occupied the valley at the top of the mountains: Venheim, the fabled forge of Giants. It was here the Hags chose to maintain their watch. And wait.

Freina flexed her clawed feet, tilting her head back to enjoy the breeze. Her dark eyes watched the mountain pass far below and focused on the small band of travelers with their wagon. She was surprised they had made it this far with all of the odds thrown against them. Amar Kit’han and the Dae’shan seemed intent on killing them all but one, yet nothing they had done worked. Freina attributed that to the wizard, Anienam Keiss. The last of his kind, his magics came from deep in the earth and were stronger than anything she remembered encountering before. The wizard made her and her sisters cautious, perhaps overly so. The Hags bristled at their defeats.

Brom crooned, a strange combination of pain and impatience. “We should not have agreed to help the devils.”

Freina spread her wings, dark feathers tipped with frost. “These choices are not ours to make. Our kind swore an oath and we are honor bound to adhere. Do not question my decisions, Sister.”

“She speaks what we all feel, Freina,” Garelda snipped. Smaller than Freina, Garelda’s heart bled with hatred. “This is not our war.”

“Men are weak,” Freina countered swiftly. “The Dae’shan herald the coming age of the dark gods. It is wise to serve them now so that we are remembered when the proper time arrives.”

“At what cost?”

Freina cocked her head. “Explain your question.”

“Our kind has exhausted itself to near extinction following the corrupt orders of the Dae’shan. So few of us remain it is impossible to rebuild. We are dying, Sister, and your blind obedience will see us put in the ground as well. It is time to break away from the dark gods and find our own path.”

Brom jerked back, shocked by her sister’s boldness. Freina clenched her fists, claws digging into the calloused flesh of her palms. “We serve as our ancestors did. There is no greater cause than that given to us by our birth. To do less would be blasphemy.”

“Against what? We do not worship the dark gods, Freina. Is it not time to reclaim our lives and rebuild the great aeries?”

Freina seemed to consider the wisdom behind Garelda’s comment. The thought of building a nest, a place to raise children and become queen of her race enticed her, but not to the point of abandoning her oaths. Honor spoke otherwise. They were Harpies, as ancient and venerable as the great Dwarven kings of old.

“Our kind has never worshipped the gods. We are sisters of sky and mountain, yet we have sworn commitments. The Dae’shan command us now.”

“The Dae’shan will see us all brought to ruin before this ends,” Garelda countered.

“What say you, Brom?”

The larger Hag puffed out her chest, dark feathers glimmering in the moonlight. “The winds have changed. We are not the owners of our lives. Difficult decisions must be made, but all for the better of our kind.”

Freina waved her claws dismissively. “Everything I do is for our kind. There is no personal motive, Sister.”

“I have doubts,” said Brom before falling silent.

Too much had happened since Amar Kit’han first ordered them to follow the Delrananian princess. They’d been given free rein to kill as many of her protectors as necessary, but had yet to come close enough to make this a reality. The desire to sink her claws into human flesh was becoming overpowering. She needed to feel the thrill of a kill, the taste of flesh and warm blood filling her belly. The Hags hadn’t killed in so very long, giving her pause to believe this lay at the center of their discord.

Turning to her sisters, Freina said, “We have much to do if our charge is to be fulfilled, but we obey on empty stomachs. Too long has passed since our claws enjoyed ripping flesh. There is a small Man village at the base of the mountains. Let us go and fill our bellies and relieve this tension.”

The prospect of hunting again stole away seditious thoughts, for the moment at least. Brom nodded and took flight first. Garelda, ever distrusting of her sister’s true intentions, followed suit, leaving the frigid elder sister along on the small outcropping with dark thoughts coursing through her mind. The past remained unchangeable, but the future was locked in doubt. She very much wanted to see her sisters free again but lacked the foresight to discover how. With a heavy sigh she launched into the midnight sky and hurried after her sisters.

Far below, the wagon rambled on, unaware of the forces gathering against them. Only the Hags watched their passing.

 

ONE

Ambushed

Pale moonlight casted the world in a haunting glow, broken only by heavy storm clouds and overshadowing mountains. Light snow drifted down, adding to already deepening drifts pouring down from the mountain peaks. Cold winds howled like wolves on the hunt, shredding through the pines in unabated wrath. Winter had come to the Murdes Mountains, the vast range separating Delranan and Rogscroft.

Only a fool would dare cross the long forgotten passes high in the clouds. Only a fool or a man so desperate it was all he could do. Mahn and Raste were desperate. Their kingdom had fallen to the combined might of the Wolfsreik and an army of Goblins from the east. Their king lay dead, murdered at the hands of King Badron himself. Deposed, what remained of the army broke into bands and retreated to the relative safety of the mountains.

Older, Mahn watched the trees with casual interest as the pair of scouts nestled into the snow. Younger and more energetic, Raste looked bored and impatient. There was so much more to be done than hiding in the snows. Many of his friends died during the sack of Rogscroft, leaving him with a growing darkness in his heart. Revenge called.

“Stop moving. You’ll give us away,” Mahn scolded quietly.

Raste rolled his eyes again. “Away to whom? We haven’t seen so much as a deer or rabbit since sundown.”

The older scout calmly shook his head. Raste had been a hothead since they’d first met but the war only pushed him farther. Excessive exposure to violence and death threatened to undo the man Raste was capable of becoming. Mahn didn’t know what to do. The loss of King Stelskor and the burning of their city inspired hatred in much of the youth and, while Mahn could never bring himself to forgive the act, he understood it on a base level. Wars were won by will, and the Wolfsreik showed more of it.

“Prince Aurec sent us to watch the mountain passes for a reason,” Mahn replied. “We have to know enemy troop movements so we can retake our kingdom.”

“Prince Aurec hides in Grunmarrow while we waste our time counting snowflakes.” Fires burned in his eyes. They’d spent two weeks hunting Goblin war parties before this assignment and Raste chafed at being suddenly left out.

I am losing him. This war is stealing our very souls. Nothing will remain but the burnt husks of what we were. And for what? That monster Badron only wants power and is willing to plunge Malweir under the blade in order to get it. Still, Raste has a point. Aurec has become a hollow reflection
.

Mahn’s last glimpse of Aurec was of the youth hunched over a small fire at their refuge in Grunmarrow. The look of despair wallowed deep in his spirit. His father’s death robbed him of what might have been. Aurec was a fine man, but not the experienced warfighter his people needed to lead them through the dark times. A prince at dawn, king at dusk. Mahn grinned ruefully. Aurec was a king without a kingdom.

“Leave Aurec to his sorrows for the moment. No man should come to the throne by such means,” Mahn said.

“The prince has…”

A sudden snap, crisp and echoing across the deepening night, stopped him in midsentence. Another followed. And another. Heavy boot steps turned into a loud roar. Armor jostling and weapons clanging joined in. Mahn’s eyes narrowed as he tracked the sounds. Both scouts forced themselves deeper into the snow as the front ranks of a company of Goblins marched into view. Their squat, grey bodies came in ragged ranks deep into the narrow pass. Mahn smiled coldly.

The scouts had been chasing rumors of Goblin troop movements since the initial displacement from Rogscroft in late autumn. Winter slowed most military action considerably, giving the beleaguered defenders the opportunity to gather their strength and refocus their efforts. Badron decided to keep his ten-thousand-man Wolfsreik in the lowlands to secure the kingdom and sent the Goblins into the mountains to root out the rebels and the Pell Darga tribes. The war quickly devolved into a brutal series of ambushes and hit-and-run engagements.

Mahn started counting as the Goblins went past. This marked the first time in two weeks he and Raste had seen the enemy. Fifty had already gone by, causing Mahn to swear under his breath. At least a full company was in front of them. For so many to be in one place meant something big was about to happen. The armored column continued on. Every few Goblins carried torches. Each flicker threatened to reveal the scouts. Neither would last long if they were forced to flee. Goblins might be slow witted and better suited to fight in caves, but they were exceptional trackers and notoriously vicious.

A small Goblin with a torch stopped abruptly and turned his head up to the air, sniffing deeply.

A second barreled through the ranks. “What is it? What do you smell?”

“Man stink.”

Howls and grunts spread through the column. Short swords, the traditional weapon preferred by Goblin infantry, were drawn in anticipation of battle. They were an animalistic race, bred for warfare. Carnage and slaughter were like an elixir from the gods to them. Heads swiveled, peering into every shadow and snow drift. They strained. Chests heaved. Blood heated, the Goblins wanted to be set loose.

Mahn slowly reached over to tap Raste’s shoulder. The younger scout immediately understood and, using the Goblins’ own noise for cover, started worming his way back down the slope. They might have a chance of escape if they could make it to the pine stand where their horses were tethered. The distance was only one hundred meters, but the going was narrow and treacherous due to the weather conditions. Ice coated the rocks and drooped from pine needles. Loose snow went down nearly a foot at its deepest. Mahn knew there wasn’t that much luck in the world. Any hope of escape he harbored vanished the next instant.

“Find the Humans! Bring me their heads and it’s an extra ration of grog!” the Goblin commander roared.

The column broke apart like a hammer stroke in a chorus of howls and cheers. Deprived remnants of the first Dwarves, Goblins lusted for the taste of flesh. They drew sword and axe. Their breath came in ragged plumes of steam. Anger filled their eyes, hatred filled their hearts. They split into squads and began to hunt, the promise of dining on Man an unquenchable lust. Mahn cursed again. The Goblins were better organized and moving much faster than he anticipated. They torched nearby trees and brush with enough foliage to burn. Soon thick clouds of choking black smoke wafted up. Snow began to melt at their feet.

BOOK: A Whisper After Midnight
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