An excerpt from Pawns (The Wielders of Arantha, Book1) by Patrick Hodges
The midday sun hung high in the cerulean Elystran sky, and the view was magnificent. Kelia shrugged her kova-leather satchel off her shoulder and took a long, quenching sip from her water-skin. She’d worked up quite a thirst during the hour-long walk from her village to this spot. She stood upon a prominent outcropping of rock, overlooking the vast Praskian Desert that stretched out between the Ixtrayan Plateau and the distant Kaberian Mountains. Over her thirty-six years, she’d visited this spot many times, but never with such a profound sense of purpose as today.
This outcropping marked the western edge of the Ixtrayu’s territory, which ran from Lake Barix in the southern range of the Kaberian Mountains through the large expanse of forest north of the Plateau the Ixtrayu called home. Not for the first time, Kelia smiled at the irony that this part of Elystra belonged to a tribe of women, and not a single one of the distant kingdoms, ruled for millennia by men, even knew of their existence.
Arantha has been good to us, she thought. Eight centuries, she’s kept us safe and hidden.
She took a deep breath of the warm, dry air and sat down in the shade of a large huxa tree that grew a few yards from the edge of the overlook. Its trunk was thick and its bark hardened to withstand the desert climate, but it seemed to welcome her presence like an old friend. She absently moved a tress of her long, dark brown hair over her left shoulder, where it hung past her breasts. She took a moment to admire the intricate braid her aunt, Liana, had woven for her, and how beautifully it complemented her loose-fitting reddish-brown robe.
Her hand then moved to the lump of lustrous brown metal that hung from the loose leather string around her neck. The necklace had been crafted by her daughter Nyla when she was only six years old. It consisted of six wooden beads strung together, three on either side of the tiny piece of metal that hung between it. Touching its smooth surface brought forth memories of her mother, as it had been Onara’s final gift to her before her death.
Even though her powers of divination paled in comparison to those of her Onara, she was still able to discern much from the images that flashed through her mind during her most recent consultation. Since assuming the mantle of Protectress, she’d hoped each consultation would reveal the reason Onara had decreed a halt to the Sojourns; but every time, Arantha chose to keep that knowledge to herself. Since her mother’s death, not a single Sojourn had been taken, and therefore, not a single daughter had been born to the Ixtrayu. Kelia’s people pleaded with her, wanting answers she couldn’t provide.
For the last thirteen years, her visions had been unremarkable––frustratingly so. That morning, however, Arantha finally showed her something new.
She saw, clear as the waters of the river Ix, an image in her mind of this exact spot. She felt the image pull at her, as if her very essence was being drawn here. She knew there was something of grave importance that Arantha wanted her to see. Liana packed a satchel with provisions for Kelia, who set off from the village within two hours of having her vision. The Council suggested she not travel unaccompanied, but Kelia insisted she go alone. What Arantha had in store for her was for her eyes and no one else’s.
She opened her satchel and surveyed its contents: several pieces of riverfruit, a few strips of dried kova meat, a loaf of holm-grain bread, and two extra skins of water. Liana had even included several sachets of jingal-root tea and a small metal kettle for steeping. As an Elemental Wielder, she didn’t need a fire to get water to boil; she could not only manipulate water’s physical form but also its temperature. She knew she would need the tea to help her stay awake and alert, since she had no idea how long Arantha would require her to keep watch.
Kelia nestled back against the trunk of the tree. Her dark brown eyes scanned the barren wasteland that lay spread out before her, searching for anything out of the ordinary. She felt a faint tingle of excitement as she wondered what Arantha had brought her there to behold.
Elzor watched the riders approach at a full gallop: five men, dressed in fine, high-quality armor. The merychs they rode were well-bred and strong, with long, flowing manes; suitable mounts for those who commanded the Agrusian army.
He cast a quick glance to his right. As always, Elzaria stood at his side. Like him, his twin sister was tall, with black hair and dark eyes that blazed with as much determination as his own. She, unlike Elzor or the six hundred soldiers that followed him, wore no armor. She wore a tight, emerald-green tunic, cinched at the waist by a thick leather belt, which hugged her slim frame. She was never shy about showing cleavage: it turned the heads of men who would invariably underestimate her.
Elzor heard the crackle of energy pass through her body as her power began to manifest, making the face beneath his short, dark beard itch, and a cold smile formed on his face. She’d come so far from the submissive, broken girl she once was.
Were he one of the many gullible fools who worshipped Arantha, he might have reasoned that finding the Stone was their destiny. Without it, he and his sister would have just been two more faceless orphans to work themselves to death in the mines of Barju.
On occasion, Elzor cursed the fates for choosing to bestow so much raw power upon his sister and not himself. Her capricious personality, coupled with her deep-seated rage, made her abilities difficult to keep secret. She spent years learning how to focus her mind, until such time as Elzor could gather enough followers to seize power for themselves.
He’d been patient, cunning and industrious. His masterplan was about to come to fruition. The power Elzaria channeled made her the most powerful weapon on Elystra.
It was now time to unleash that weapon.
As the riders drew nearer, Elzor scanned his surroundings. The road upon which they traveled, the main thoroughfare between Agrus and their former homeland of Barju, was wide and flat and accommodated most of his army, whom he’d dubbed the Elzorath. Six hundred men stood in impassive silence as the riders approached. Every man had his hand on the hilt of his sword.
This particular stretch of road curved through a thick forest of deciduous nipa trees. Most of the buildings in Agrus were made from this sturdy wood, the largest exception being the Castle Tynal. The centuries-old castle was the seat of power for Agrus’s rulers, and by day’s end, it would belong to him.
With a chorus of merychs’ whinnies and the clip-clop of their hooves, the riders slowed to a halt. Elzor waited for them to dismount, but they did not.
He stared up at their leader, whose high-quality machinite armor bore the Agrusian emblem of two crossed swords. The commander’s long, fair hair spilled down from his head, his jaw as square as his shoulders were broad. Elzor waited for the man to speak, but received only a contemptuous glower.
Another useless tactic. One would think that marching an invading army, in broad daylight, straight to his country’s borders, would convince him that I’m immune to intimidation. What an arrogant braga.
“Shall I destroy them?” Elzaria whispered.
“Not yet, dear sister. Patience.”
She did not object. She merely cracked her knuckles in anticipation.
Finally, the commander spoke in a deep, booming voice. “When my scouts informed me earlier this morning that an army bearing no country’s standard approached our borders, I was certain it was a mistake. Now that I have laid eyes upon this gross violation of our boundaries, I can see I was correct: this godless rabble has no business calling itself an army.”
Elzaria’s lips curled into a snarl, the quietest of hisses escaping her lips. Elzor put a steadying hand on her arm as his eyes turned back to the Agrusian commander. “Bold words indeed,” he said, “for a man whose death is but one gesture away.” He raised his hand, and the front line of soldiers edged their swords several inches out of their scabbards.
The man’s face hardened at the threat. “I am Nebri, High Commander of the Agrusian army. I have fought, and defeated, far more worthy foes than you, Elzor of Barju.”
Elzor’s face broke into a humorless grin. “I see my reputation precedes me.”
Nebri gave him a dismissive smirk. “And what a reputation it is: a deserter, a coward, a captain who slaughtered his commanding officers and fled Barju like a whipped tigla.”
Right behind and to his left, Elzor heard the sound of a sword being unsheathed. He turned to see a bald, bearded, barrel-chested man glaring at Nebri while taking several lumbering steps forward. Elzor held his hand up, halting the man’s forward progress. “Stay your hand, Langon,” he said firmly.
Langon stopped at the order and stood at Elzor’s side. “Yes, my liege.”
The big man’s words elicited a peal of mocking laughter from the commander. “‘My liege’? Great Arantha, you are an arrogant fool, aren’t you?”
Elzor’s eyebrows knitted together. “Taunt me at your peril, Agrusian,” he shot back.
“You are a fool, Elzor. No other description fits the folly of your presence here.”
“And what folly might that be?”
Nebri gestured back in the direction from which he’d come. “At the end of this road, the entire Agrusian army is assembled. We are better trained, better armed, and outnumber your filthy gang of heathens five to one.”
He raised his voice, addressing the Elzorath. “You men! If you turn back now, King Morix gives his word that you will not be pursued. But if you dare engage us in battle, I can assure you, no quarter will be given. You will die in ignominy, your lives cast asunder by the whim of a fool.”
A few of the assembled soldiers looked at each other while others shuffled their feet in momentary indecision. But none spoke, and none made a move to depart.
“As you can see,” Elzor said with a smug grin, “my men are loyal to me. No quarter would be asked for.”
Nebri scoffed. “Then they are as foolish as you. What self-respecting soldier would follow a leader who would bring a woman,” he turned his glance toward Elzaria, “into battle with him? Who is she, Elzor? Your own personal whore?”
The surge of power that resonated from within Elzaria increased as her seething, silent anger turned into white-hot hatred. A blue corona of energy appeared around her body, crackling and sparking as the power of the Stone coursed through her.
The Agrusians saw it too. They sat in slack-jawed silence for a few moments before pulling back on the reins of their whinnying merychs.
Before the riders could retreat, Elzor and Elzaria locked eyes. Elzor returned his sister’s pleading look with a whispered, “Leave two of them alive.”
She nodded and smiled, strutting forward. She raised her arms, holding her palms outward. Addressing Nebri, she spat, “I am Elzaria, and I am your death!”
Intense blue energy shot from her hands. It diverged and formed branches like a bolt of lightning, striking Nebri and two other riders in the chest. Frozen in place, their bodies shuddered and twitched as their blood boiled from within. The three men let out a collective unholy scream that Elzor hoped could be heard by the rest of the Agrusian army. Wisps of smoke curled upward from their leather armor as their skin charred and split.
The other two riders, unable to help their comrades, turned their merychs away and spurred them back the way they came, riding like the wind.
After one final blast of energy, Elzaria pulled her hands back and studied her palms. She watched as the blue light flared and vanished, leaving not even the slightest mark or burn upon the skin of her hands. Her work done, she stepped back and returned to her brother’s side.
In unison, the three riders toppled from their mounts and crashed to the ground. The merychs, though terrified, had not been touched, and would probably have bolted if three Elzorath hadn’t come forward to grab their reins.
Elzor nodded, admiring his sister’s precision. He glanced up, his eyes locked on the two surviving riders, who were already a hundred yards away and would soon disappear around the bend in the road.
Langon spoke up. “The archers you had me deploy behind the tree-line are in position, my liege. Shall I give the order to fire?”
Elzor shook his head. “No, Langon. Let them go.”
The big man looked incredulous, but Elzor ignored him. He stepped forward and took the reins from one soldier before placing his foot in the stirrup of Nebri’s merych and hauling his body into the saddle. Elzaria and Langon climbed onto the other two.
Elzor turned to face Elzaria. “I have a task for you. Have you the stamina?”
“Then ride with all speed to the road that runs parallel to the Saber River. When those two fools report what happened here, Morix will send messengers to his allies in the east, calling for aid. You must intercept them before they reach the northern forest.”
“Consider it done, my liege,” she said.
“When you have completed your task, join us on the plains northeast of Talcris. Kill any who stand in your way.”
Elzaria bowed her head, and immediately kicked her merych into action. The legion of soldiers parted as she rode through their ranks.
Elzor watched her go. Two miles away, this road intersected another that bore due west. Elzaria would then follow the tree line until she reached the Saber River. He had no doubt she would succeed in her task, and even less doubt that the Agrusian army knew what lay in store for them.
On his other side, Langon gave a deep, throaty chuckle as he shifted his massive bulk on top of his equally thick-muscled steed. “I’ve always wanted to ride a merych into battle.”
Elzor chuckled as well. “Today is the day, my friend.”
Langon raised his meaty arm, and a hush grew over the assembled army as they awaited the order. A faint smile played on his lips as he bellowed, “Elzorath, move out!”
As one, Elzor’s army began their inexorable march across the Agrusian border, on the heels of their leaders who urged their merychs into a slow canter.
Elzor smiled again. His men were capable fighters, and were more than adequately prepared for battle.
Victory was theirs for the taking . . . after Elzaria had her fun.
Today, two legends would be born.