My writing projects have been slow going of late, mostly because of how crazy busy life’s been. In short, I’m stuck on where to take them at the moment. But I still have the itch to write, so I’ve decided to write random scenes: some completely new ideas; others ideas I’ve toyed with before. So read on and let me know what you think. It’s just a quick draft, so bear that in mind, but feedback is always appreciated.
This scene/chapter/what have you I like to call The Kal’shee Grave Lands.
“Ghosts don’t feel swords,” Barnabus had said.
Jeffrey didn’t have to answer to recognize the truth in his words, but he had lied about his concerns over Milia’s recent cough. Entering the dead’s circle without one’s sorceress at full strength was foolishness, but there was little choice. They had been overrun in Sook and would have to hope the King’s armies weren’t so bold as to follow them into that ghastly place.
“Keep your minds closed,” Milia had said, “or if the spirits do sense our presence, focus your thoughts on your shield…and pray to the Guardian.”
It was the last thing said before they passed through the final brush of quagmire and entered the wooded hills that led to Harkstrom. Some would die here; Jeffrey knew it, and anytime he felt a semblance of hope against the notion, it was squelched by the low moans of the Kal’shee just beyond the trees ahead.
They had missed their last two meals, and Jeffrey’s stomach grumbled something fierce as they came upon the long moor of the grave lands. Dusk had painted the wisps of clouds with orange, purple and red, yet the forest had darkened the ground to near-pitch. The path ahead had been thinned by the reaching arms of overgrowth, and gradually their line of near two hundred men thinned for easier passage.
Dominick was one of the first to reach the headstones, not far ahead of Jeffrey, and he muttered a troubled, “…by the Guardian’s grace.”
“Easy, fellows,” Jeffrey said. “Remember, empty your minds.” He knew that would be impossible to do for the full length of the grave lands. A thousand paces or so of eternity to pass and it wouldn’t take ten for the first of the Kal’shee to awaken.
The shriek came from his left, strident and sustained. The glowing apparition snagged the soldier’s foot and carried him upwards half the height of a grand hemlock before heaving the poor soul back down to the earth like a meteor; his armor did little to preserve his body as it struck a grand statue of a past king. The man’s shrieking stopped immediately, but this stirred others to charge the creature with hoisted shields and swords postured.
Fools! Jeffrey thought, and panic squeezed his heart. “To me, men! Gather in clusters and hoist your shields!”
More Kal’shee had taken notice. Jeffrey saw what may have been ten to fifteen flashes spring up from their resting grounds on all sides. The specters hovered for a moment and then flew toward his army with frightening speed.
“Remember your training, men!” When Jeffrey needed to be heard, he could make it so. This was a necessary skill as a commander. But amidst the cries of the Kal’shee, he wondered if anyone was listening. “Hoist your shields in cluster formation! Remember Milia’s words!”
And as he said this last part, Milia’s words spoke prominently in his mind: “…pray to the Guardian.” There had been more, details about how to use their shields and group up with others to form a shell around them, about how the spirits prey off their fear and the cries are meant to draw out that fear…but all of this was distant and faint.
“Pray to the Guardian.”
And for a moment, that’s just what he did, for nobody was following his command, nobody was keeping their heads…
…we’re all going to die here.
It wasn’t death that had him so afraid, but failure. He had led them into the web of the Kal’shee and they hadn’t even made it past its threshold before coming to this grisly end. He had failed his men in the revolt against the King and now he had failed them here, as well.
He felt his fingers loosen their grip on the strap of his shield as he began to give in to what was inevitable. No, he wasn’t afraid of death and began to open his heart to its icy grip, readying himself for the passage to the Guardian’s court, to Onallos.
“Young sire…to me, to me!”
The request came from a soldier named Patric, his silvery beard pushing out at the base of his helm. To Jeffrey’s surprise, several soldiers behind him were obeying his orders, clustering their shields together, sealing themselves in a kind of husk. Most of the soldiers probably hadn’t heard his command, but once one cluster formed, others began to form.
He followed Patric into the circle and raised his shield above his head to create another piece of the covering—when his shield touched the others’, he felt a jolt of energy pass through him. It was invigorating, renewing his focus so that he became aware of every movement made by each of the soldiers in their circle. He knew this was Milia’s doing and couldn’t help the smile that stretched out his cheeks.
The she-devil came through! I’ll have to kiss her if we get through this.
“One thing at a time, ol’ boy.” This he said aloud, but amidst the ruckus his words went unheard.
The cries of the Kal’shee had grown to an almost-deafening scale, but Jeffery was now tied in to Milia’s magical chain of protection and so he heard the words of her conjuration clearly in his mind. Beyond their wall of shields, he spotted her pacing about the men with arms held outward and her lips flapped like the wings of a hummingbird.
…dethros, arga es uul…
He had once heard that magic could leave an imprint on a person, and that sometimes that imprint could be accompanied by a curse. But he didn’t care. If a curse was what it took to live through this, he’d gladly accept the terms.
He didn’t know how the old sorceress could walk about the Kal’shee unprotected and exposed like she was, but they didn’t seem to notice her. As if reading his thoughts, he heard Patric utter, “Scary powerful, that Milia, aye?”
They looked like an army of giant scarabs in a terrain that had been dark when they arrived but was now filled with the glow of an army of Kal’shee, zipping and wailing as they sought out the men who had yet to find a shield cluster to join. Occasionally, another blood-curdling cry could be heard, but they were fewer now.
We might make it through this after all.
There was nothing left to do but move.
“Forward, men!” But he saw that the men in other clusters hadn’t waited for this command; already several were plodding forward one step at a time.
As they walked in a collective crouch, his arms began to burn from the pressure of the wailing Kal’shee beating against his shield. Slowly, they made their way toward the Dithe fortress, hoping the elements hadn’t claimed it.
What were you thinking, Jeffrey. He pushed this thought aside, knowing he hadn’t the luxury of dwelling on a decision at this late of an hour.
Every so often, a Kal’shee would slip into one of the other shield clusters. Jeffrey knew this, because of the screams—it was horrifying to hear a grown man scream, especially one who had seen the things his men had seen. He bit hard on his upper lip, keeping his focus on his own movements, his shield, allowing the pinch of Milia’s spell to strike him where his shoulder touched the comrade to the left and then letting it pass through him until that energy emptied into the other soldier on his right.
He couldn’t be sure of how much time had passed since they’d first entered the grave lands, but he had the idea that it had been longer than it felt, perhaps as long as an hour. One step forward at a time, he pressed on, letting out an occasional cry of adrenaline as he struggled to keep his shield hoisted—he didn’t know how much he had left in his arms, and his eyes stung from the brightness of the Kal’shee.
Finally, when the moans had grown dull and distant and the men of the cluster began to separate, he dropped his shield and fell to his knees. He allowed his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness once again, tempering his breath to calm himself. He wasn’t quite there yet, however; he knew better than to fully trust his ears. The Kal’shee was clever and knew how to lure its prey into traps. He’d seen it before, though never with of the spirits to worry about at once.
Men around him fell to their knees in exhaustion. Others stripped out of their armor to breathe easier.
“Don’t let down your guard, men,” Jeffrey said. “Not yet. The Kal’shee can smell you still!”
But Jeffrey eased a bit when he spotted the massive stoned structure in the distance that could only be the famed fortress of Dithe.
“Weather has not been kind to that place,” Barnabus snorted. Jeffrey saw that he was in all ways correct, and he heart dropped a little. A sizable piece of wall spanning forty or fifty paces was missing from one side, and the upper halves of three of the four pillars had all but completely collapsed.
“I’m not staying in there,” another said. “And have it cave in on us as we sleep? No…by the Chalice, no!”
Jeffrey surveyed what was left of his army, with the final cluster of soldiers just now coming into view through the trees. When he saw how few they had become, tension built in his stomach and he had to fight the urge to vomit. They had already been cut down to a couple hundred from their last battle—now he was looking at…seventy? Maybe eighty men?
“Heavens,” he grumbled, gripping the back of his head and clenching his jaw.
“It was a necessary risk, my Lord.” Jeffrey barely heard Patric’s words, and kept his eyes locked to where they had exited out of the grave lands, praying for more clusters to appear.
When none did after a time, he spoke: “Form a group to check for injuries. See that Milia is safe and still with us. I assume she is—we’re here, after all, thanks be the Chalice. We’ll camp here tonight and assess the structural soundness of the fortress at first light. Nobody is to re-enter the grave lands for any reason. If someone claims to hear a soldier crying out, remind him that the Kal’shee can mimic voices. We’ll camp here in the clearing.”
Patric gave his Lord a half-salute and left to carry out his instructions.
Jeffrey undid his garb and lay upon the earth, his upper body propped up by his elbows. The ground was damp and warm, which meant the bugs would be out tonight. Sleeping would be difficult, though Jeffrey supposed that he’d rather sit awake all night than dream about the souls of his fallen men.
Legend held that Lord Lancaster, once the keeper of the fortress, had built an underground passage that bypassed the Kal’shee graves. It was only accessible from the fortress–that meant one had to be let in. It was a way to keep unwanted visitors out. According to the stories, there was a stone map in Lancaster’s quarters that showed the way. Jeffrey hoped this was true—his plan had centered on it being true. He didn’t think he could lead his men through such a hell as the Kal’shee graves a second time.
“Never an easy choice in war, m’Lahd.” Milia had a way of sneaking up on even the most alert warrior. She stood behind him, all four feet of her, smiling her crooked, toothless smile and gazing at him with those gray, vacuous eyes. Her white hair had thinned over the years, revealing scalp in some parts.
“Our losses were much fewer than they could have been—thanks again to you, Milia.” There was no warmth in Jeffrey’s voice. Yet, his fatigue had displaced most of his sorrow. Remorse was not a weakness a future king could afford.
“You protect me from swords…I protect you from the dark conjurin’. I’d say we do well for each other.”
In the distance, the Kal’shee continued their shrill cries. Every so often, Jeffrey could see a flicker of one from behind the patches of trees. The glow would wink out just as it had appeared, and eventually they would become fewer and fewer.
“We’re safe here?” he asked.
“Safe here,” confirmed Milia. “The Kal’shee don’ go far from the graves, so says the good book. They remain bound to their mortality, foolish, poor souls, they are.”
The two sat in silence, watching the men pitch tents and tend to the wounded. Jeffrey sat awake until all others slept – even Milia. She placed a cold but somehow comforting hand on his shoulder before curling up against a mossy tree and closing her eyes.
When all was quiet, he sang a song into the darkness, one his mother had sung to him and his brother, Adam, when they were boys, telling the story about a band of soldiers crossing an ocean of fire and meeting a kind serpent along the way. For a moment, Jeffrey forgot why he was at odds Adam. He recalled a brother who had taught him to climb the old Oakwood tree near their cottage; who had given up half his rations of food the week Jeffrey had prepared for the Camden Tournament for Young Warriors; and who had promised to protect and honor his brother forever.
At a point, night’s stillness was stirred by the chirping songs of crickets, toads and the singing mosquitos, and he realized that these songs had always been there, that he was just hearing them now for the first time.
The Kal’shee had long returned to slumber, so Jeffrey thought he would now, too. He slumped against the root of an oak and, facing the silhouette of a massive stone structure outlined by the moon, he drifted to sleep.