Read The Silent Army Online

Authors: James A. Moore

Tags: #epic fantasy, #eternal war, #City of Wonders, #Seven Forges, #The Blasted Lands, #Sa'ba Taalor, #Gods of War

The Silent Army (2 page)

BOOK: The Silent Army
9.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

When she asked him why, he could only shrug. Perhaps, he had mused, because the gods were leaving the Taalor Valley and offering their followers the whole wide world in exchange.

“We are to get mounts?”

“No, Andover. We are to choose them and they are to choose us.”

“Where do the mounts come from, Delil?”

“They are gifts of the Daxar Taalor, provided we can prove worthy of the offering.” That was her only answer. He already knew, however. Whether they were punished, rewarded or redeemed, the mounts were also Sa’ba Taalor, or at least they had been.

The great predatory beasts were larger than horses, thicker in the body and muscular. Though he had yet to see one of their faces beneath the armor their riders provided for them, he had seen them eat meat and rend flesh with ease. He had seen the great mounts cover vast distances in single leaps. They were not status symbols, but they were also hard to earn.

“How do we capture mounts?”

“How do the Sa’ba Taalor do anything, Andover Iron Hands?” Delil smiled at him, her face wrinkling with pleasure. “We fight and we demand their submission.”

Andover nodded his head. In his very soul he had known that, but there had been a hope for a different answer.

Not all prayers are answered in the method we prefer.

“So now we go to them? We choose the ones we want to ride?”

Delil laughed, her voice filled with amusement. “They are already looking for us, Andover.”

“They are?”

“Oh, yes. Mounts need to find riders. There are very few left in this place.” She slowly unwrapped a thick metal chain from around her waist, examining the links as she slipped them through her hard, callused fingers.

“Is the chain the best method for taming a mount?” He watched her hands, the surety with which she moved, the casual stance she took as she coiled the length around her wrist, holding the majority of the chain in her hands on either side.

“I do not know, Andover. I know that we will have a chance to tame the damned beasts. And they will have a chance to hurt us.” She dangled a heavy weight from the end of the chain. The sphere of metal looked to weigh close to four pounds. A blow from that lump of iron would leave a skull caved in.

“So you will beat them to death before you tame them?” He couldn’t keep the humor from his tone.

In the distance he heard a roar coming from the valley below.

“Use what you will, Andover, but be prepared to strike hard and fast. When they come for us they will be hungry as newborns.”

Andover considered his choices. He had his axe. He had his bow and arrows. There were a few ranged weapons.

And there were his iron hands. Solid iron, flexible, capable of tearing flesh if need be.

“Should we go looking for them or should we wait?” He looked toward Delil, his eyes taking in the details of her body and her muscular arms. He stared at her simply because he needed to think of something pleasant before the enemy came and the fighting started.

The Pra-Moresh had the decency to advertise their arrival. The Sa’ba Taalor called them “Cacklers” because of the fearsome beasts’ insane laughter and weeping combined. Long before they came for you, you knew they were on their way. It was both terrifying and a chance to prepare yourself.

The mounts were different. They were large, sleek, predatory nightmares. They were often silent and they stalked whatever they intended to kill.

Andover wanted desperately to reach for his axe, but did not dare. The idea was to capture a mount, not cleave it in half and there was nothing about the obsidian blade and handle that Durhallem had gifted him with that was meant to be a weapon of submission.

Besides. If he could not handle the threat with his iron hands, he was not worthy of the challenge. Delil herself, along with Drask and Bromt, had taught him to use his body as a weapon. He had learned well enough to survive several encounters.

His confidence dwindled a bit as Delil let out a deep, stressed breath and muttered a prayer to her gods.

Andover thanked the Daxar Taalor for their blessings and then stretched his arms, rolled his shoulders and looked away from the woman at his side. He had changed since he met her. Not only was he now taller than her, he was also not afraid of what was coming. Wary, yes, but not fearful.

The trees lower down in the valley shuddered and shivered closer to them now. Close enough that he knew the mounts were coming.

“Where do they come from, Delil? The mounts? What have they done to be reshaped as beasts instead of as men?”

“Do you think they are being punished, Iron Hands?” There was a faint note of teasing in her voice.

Andover tilted his head. The idea that it wasn’t a punishment had never really crossed his mind. “Are they not?”

“No, Andover. It is a second chance.”

“You said that about the Broken and the Cacklers.”

“No, those are punishments. They carry a chance of redemption. The mounts are a second chance for those who have done the impossible and grown too old to fight any longer.”

Despite himself Andover laughed. “That can happen with your people?” It seemed nearly impossible. The Sa’ba Taalor worshipped combat and war. The very notion of anyone living long enough to grow too old to fight seemed absurd.

She shook her head and crossed her arms. “How many of my people have you seen?”

“Thousands and thousands.”

“How many mounts have you seen?”

“All told? Maybe a hundred.”

“Now you know how often a Sa’ba Taalor grows too old to fight.”

There was logic to that. He nodded and once again looked around.

They stood in an area that was mostly stone and little shelter, but the closest shrubs and trees that could hide one of the great mounts were not far distant.

He had seen the beasts leap. He knew they could come quickly if they chose.

The first of the massive things came from the side and he looked directly at it. Like the Sa’ba Taalor, their mouths were slashes across their face that sometimes bisected or intersected the larger maw. Great Scars, marks that showed the favor of the gods. The first one had three such scars. The eyes were large and glowing, the face bestial, designed to bite through meat and bone with ease.

The monster ignored him completely and charged for Delil. Part of him longed to protect her, but that notion was cast easily aside. The woman was more than capable of defending herself.

And if he even tried, she’d cave his skull in for his troubles.

That was the last thought he managed to complete before the time came for instinct over consciousness. The mount that ran at him was fast. Its fur was dark black and its eyes shone like silver coins as it burst from the closest trees and bounded across the remaining distance between them.

That great gash of a mouth was open and showed teeth the size of his hands.

The impact lifted Andover completely from the ground and hurled him effortlessly. The weight of the mount was more than he’d expected, more than he was prepared for, and he hit the ground on his back and did his best to roll with the blow instead of breaking under the force. He was moderately successful. All that saved his arms from being skinned was the leather hide that tore away as he spun and tumbled.

Not far away something growled. He could not honestly say if the sound came from one of the beasts or from Delil.

Or maybe it was from him. Andover rose into a crouch, his feet wide apart, his body low to the ground. His arms were spread and his fingers hooked into claws as the thing facing him rumbled and locked eyes.

He chose not to wait, but instead ran for his enemy. The mount raised one massive paw to swat him down. Andover dodged hard to his right and rolled under the advancing beast. With a single swipe of a blade he could have gutted the thing, but instead he let the monster move past and rose as quickly as he could.

The idea was not to kill it, but to show it exactly who was going to be in charge of their relationship.

The great back of the thing was to him for the moment but it was already turning, planning to come for him again, no doubt. Andover jumped, his arms stretched wide, and as his chest crashed into the broad back of the mount his arms swept inward until his hands found each other on the opposite side of the mount’s neck. The mount roared and threw itself in a half circle, and Andover clenched metallic fingers together, locking his grip across the corded muscles of the wide neck.

He hunched his body forward until his legs were around the broad abdomen of the mount and gulped in air. Fear surged through him again as he tried to hold on. One thing to face the damned thing in combat and another to try to ride it. He’d never even been on a horse’s back in his life and the mount was bigger, and far deadlier. It twisted its body much as he had seen cats do and tried to reach him. Andover’s knees slipped and he scrambled with his legs, but his grip was sure enough for the moment.

The great mouth opened in a screech of anger and Andover pulled his arms in closer, drew himself up the great body until his legs were in a better place. The pulse of the thing’s heart pounded against his arms, and he squeezed harder still, feeling the pumping blood through the thick neck muscles of the mount. It grunted under him, and still he held on. It tried to turn its head enough to bite him, but could not.

The monster rolled over onto its back and he felt its crushing weight grinding down on him. His breath was caught in the mane of the brute, his face buried in the thick coat. His hands trembled but held and his legs stayed tight to the sides, boot heels digging into the ribcage of the monster as it rolled and scraped and tried to peel him away.

The leather of his pants tore at the knees and the seam along his left thigh split and ripped away, taking flesh, drawing blood.

Andover roared himself, pain lashing at his senses.

Enough. This would end now.

He squeezed harder still and the great beast gulped for air. The weight lifted off him and he gasped, but did not dare let go his grip. The brute had him in size, strength, ferocity and weapons if you counted the claws and teeth. Letting go would be enough to get him killed in seconds and he knew it.

A sound erupted in his head. It did not bother with his ears, but instead filled his mind. He tried to shake the mental noise away but it would not go. Gods had spoken to him but this was different. When the Daxar Taalor spoke there was a feeling that came with it unlike anything he had ever experienced in his life, a sort of euphoric awe. This was insignificant in comparison but enough to distract him

The mount tried to roll again, slamming him into the ground, and Andover drove his heels into the sides of the great beast to hold himself in place and then choked harder still. The noise in his head grew brighter.

The thing made a noise that was part snarl and part stuttering, slurred words. The noise in his head clearly said, “I yield.”

The sound in his head and the rumbled noises. They were linked.

Andover did not let go his grip, but he eased it.

“Then roll off me!” He wheezed the words more than spoke them. The weight of the beast pinning him in the dirt was substantial.

The pressure shifted and then eased and the world came back into view, replacing his close and intimate view of the hairy skull of the mount.

It did not lie. He knew that. The mount spoke the truth when it said it yielded. Sometimes he wondered if the Sa’ba Taalor even understood the concept of lies, but he knew better. Of course they did. King Glo’Hosht and the followers of Paedle most certainly understood the power of deceit, even if the rest did not.

He let go his grip on the mount’s heavy neck and staggered back four steps before landing on his backside in the dirt. Dark spots ran before his eyes and he breathed in deep gulps of air, already doing his best to get back to his feet. Delil was nearby and the other mounts as well. They might be allies if things went well but right now they were monsters.

Andover adjusted and adapted, as he’d been trained to do, and pulled his axe free, holding the obsidian in a hard grip. He looked at his mount, which was now settling down and waiting. He looked toward Delil and saw her, where she was pinned under the mass of her assailant.

Every muscle tensed, ready to move toward her.

Delil grunted, struggled, her arms trembling; the chain in her hands rattled with the strain.

The beast over her was a heavy gray form that dwarfed her. The chain was wrapped around its muzzle, and around its neck. Where Andover had held onto his attacker from behind, Delil was clutching the front of the thing in a death grip, her body literally pressed between its wide-set forelegs. She had managed to wrap the length of chain around both the front paws in an elaborate web of links that had the mount struggling to move without falling face first into the dirt.

The fall would have worked to the creature’s advantage, except for the blade pushed against its stomach. A dagger was resting against the soft part of the belly, braced against Delil’s knee. She had a sheath there. He had no idea how she’d managed it but the blade was now where it would do the most harm.

Her face was buried in the thick mane of the mount. Behind her, several of the other creatures were already moving away. They had no choices here. They would not locate another here to choose them and so they left.

Delil released the chain from the thick neck and gently pulled it away from the torn, bloodied mouth of her mount. She fell back, panting, as the brute stepped back and carefully extracted itself from the length wrapped around its paws.

Delil looked toward him for a moment and sighed. She closed her eyes and gulped in breaths as the mount slipped back and settled down.

“What is your name?” The words were muttered and spoken directly into his head again.

“I am Andover Lashk of the Iron Hands.” He looked toward the black mount. It came closer and nudged him gently with its muzzle. The teeth in that mouth could have taken the head off a horse with one bite. He knew that. He also knew that he now had nothing to fear from the mount. “And what do I call you, my friend?”

BOOK: The Silent Army
9.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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