They came for Rathann in the hour of the wolf, when the twin moons were low on the horizon and his small tower room was plunged into deep shadow. He had been asleep for barely an hour, sunk in exhausted slumber, when the sound of splintering wood split the silence in the small antechamber beyond.
The attackers were swift and highly skilled. Rathann’s only slave, a scarred human male that slept on the floor just beyond the doorway, slowed them for barely a moment. A startled shout echoed from the darkness, cut short by the thudding of heavy blows and the brittle crunch of bone, and then Rathann heard the soft whisper of footsteps racing through the darkness towards his bedchamber.
There was no time to think, no time to wonder at the reasons for the attack. Rathann’s body moved without conscious volition, as it had been trained to do by the Black Guard’s brutal weapon masters. His hand closed on the hilt of the long knife hidden beneath his pillow as he bolted from the narrow bed. The curving wall of the tower room was to his right, close enough to touch. A tall, narrow window pierced the stonework a few feet farther along the wall, looking out onto the profusion of slender, sharp-edged towers that lay at the heart of the black ark known as the Fortress of Malice. The faint gleam of starlight leaking through the soot-stained glass barely served to paint the outlines of the wooden clothes chest at the foot of the bed and the wooden stand across the room where his arms and armor were kept. Rathann could just make out the battered harness of plate-and-mail and the ebon shaft of his halberd less than half-a-dozen paces away, but they might as well have been at the bottom of the sea for all the good they did him. By the time his bare feet hit the cold, wooden floor his attackers were upon him, their hooded forms flitting through the shadows like silent, vengeful ghosts.
Rathann counted at least six attackers in the uncertain light; they fanned out as they charged, but with his back to the wall there was no way they could get behind him. Two circled around the foot of the bed to get at him, while two more leapt onto the bed itself, leaving the remaining two out of room and forced to hang back. Rathann noted the details with cold detachment. He did not weigh the odds against him, nor feel the faintest glimmer of fear. His aches and fatigue faded away, drowned in an icy surge of rage.
With a fierce war cry he lunged towards the bed, snatching a corner of the thin blanket and yanking it out from under the leaping assailants. Both stumbled, their limbs tangling as they crashed into one another, but Rathann was already turning away from them, snapping the blanket like a net over the head and shoulders of the third attacker to his front. The assailant instinctively flung up his arm to ward off the entangling cloth, giving Rathann the opening he needed. He leapt forward, stabbing through the blanket again and again as he crashed into the onrushing attacker. The druchii’s knife struck home, but the point skidded from the curved surface of a steel breastplate beneath the attacker’s robes. Cursing, he drew back his blade and slashed at the attacker’s hooded face. This time he was rewarded with the thin hiss of steel slicing flesh, but if his opponent felt the cut he gave no sign.
Snarling, Rathann drew back his knife to strike again. A wooden club struck his wrist, knocking the weapon from his numbed fingers. Another blow smashed into the side of his knee, causing him to stumble, and a third clipped him just below the temple. The dark room dissolved in a white burst of pain. He fell back, cursing in fury and lashing out with his fists, but powerful hands seized his arms and trapped them with practiced skill. Rathann blinked the white haze from his vision and lashed out at the attacker on his right with a savage kick to the knee, but his bare heel connected with a steel knee-cop and skidded harmlessly away. He roared with fury, twisting savagely in his assailants’ grip, until the warrior whose face he slashed stepped in and brought his club down on Rathann’s forehead.
The next thing he knew he was being half-carried, half-dragged across slimy cobblestones, and a cold sea wind was blowing across his face. Rathann tried to force his eyes open, only to find the left one crusted shut with dried blood. He raised his head just enough to see that he was being borne across a long, narrow bridge, high in the air amid the towers of the ark. He heard the faint sigh of waves and smelled the acrid tang of the war-forges far below. Somewhere off in the darkness a faint voice pleaded for mercy before dissolving into wordless shrieks of pain. The sweet sound cleared Rathann’s throbbing head and helped focus his thoughts.
He recognized the octagonal tower rising ominously at the far end of the bridge. Unlike most of the spires crowding the center of the ark, this one had a broad, flat top, ringed about by statues of onyx dragons with eyes made from orbs of green witchlight. The tower was known as the Witch King’s Spear, and a spire like it stood in every city and black ark of Naggaroth as a pointed reminder of Malekith’s brooding presence. They were the strongholds of the Witch King’s elite Black Guard, fanatical highborn warriors conditioned from childhood to know nothing but loyalty to Malekith and unending hatred of his foes.
Rathann knew the tower well. For the past year he had trained there under the merciless tutelage of the Witch King’s war-masters.
His assailants dragged him roughly through a narrow, arched doorway at the far end of the bridge, then up a winding stair dimly lit by faintly glowing witchlights. Rathann paid little heed to his surroundings; instead he focused his attention on testing the strength of his limbs and looking for an opportunity to turn the tables on his captors. It was one of the central tenets of the Black Guard. So long as you breathe, you live. So long as you live, you fight. So long as you fight, you triumph. Yet no such opportunity presented itself. His captors were experts, holding him just far enough off the ground and moving just fast enough that he couldn’t get his feet underneath him.
Higher and higher they climbed, into a part of the tower that Rathann had never been permitted before. After many long minutes his assailants stopped at a narrow landing and then passed through another narrow door into darkness. Rathann felt his toes drag across cold, polished marble, and heard the footsteps of his captors echo faintly in a large, vaulted space. Finally, he heard the sound of a halberd shaft striking the floor ahead of him, then a groan of iron hinges as a pair of heavy doors swung open and spilled a flood of witchlight across the polished floor. Rathann watched tiles of black marble flecked with gold pass beneath him as he was dragged into an even larger chamber and dropped unceremoniously onto the floor.
The battered druchii was up in an instant, rising swiftly to a kneeling position with his palms pressed flat to the floor. With an effort Rathann forced his scabbed left eye to open and quickly took in his surroundings.
He was surprised to find himself in a vaulted audience chamber, perhaps a hundred paces long and twenty across. Tall, marble columns were spaced evenly down the long walls of the chamber, each one carved in the shape of a rearing dragon. Unbound witchlight burned in the dragons’ open mouths, filling the chamber with flickering green light and silhouetting the ranks of silent warriors that formed two lines down the length of the chamber. Witchlight gleamed on the razor-keen edges of their long halberds and the barbed flanges of their heavy armor. Their faces were hidden behind tall, conical helms, but he could feel the weight of their stares like a brand pressed against his skin.
At the far end of the chamber was a small dais with two great witchlight braziers set at the corners. Standing between the silent, roiling flames was a lone figure, clad in lacquered black armor edged with gold. The skirts of his robe were a rich blue, worked with the black sigil of a dragon – the insignia of Malekith’s Black Guard. His elaborately-worked helm was tucked beneath his left arm, while his right hand clutched the haft of a fearsome, saw-edged halberd that glowed with sorcerous power. Rathann knew him at once: Halghast, Master of the Witch King’s Spear and Captain of the Black Guard at the Fortress of Malice.
Yet what surprised Rathann most of all wasn’t Halghast, but the arming stand that had been placed at the foot of the dais. Carefully arranged on the polished wooden stand was a supple leather gambeson, or kheitan, made of fine human hide. Layered atop the kheitan was a knee-length hauberk of gleaming mail, and atop that were black-lacquered plates of flanged steel armor engraved with the dragon sigil of the Black Guard. Set beside the armor was an ebon-shafted halberd, more than seven feet in length from the tip of its serrated point to the polished steel cap at its end. The sight of the wargear quickened his blood, cutting through his rage like a knife and filling him with questions. What was going on? Why have I been brought here?
Yet he said none of these things. Instead, his hands clenched into fists. Knuckles pressed to the cold marble, he fell to one knee and bowed his head to Halghast, as a lifetime of training had conditioned him to do.
For several long moments the only sound he heard was the breathy hissing of flames. Then Halghast spoke in a sibilant hiss, like a knife drawn over a whetstone.
“Rathann Darkmoon,” he hissed, “son of the house of Bruthir. The Witch King chose you from the cradle and raised you to be an instrument of his will. He forged your skills in the black fires of your own hate and honed your lust for battle to a razor’s edge. There is no greater honor in all of Naggoroth,” the captain declared, his voice rising to a harsh rasp.
“You were sent here from Naggarond to complete your training, and for a year I have gauged your worth as we have pursued our war here in Ulthuan,” he said. “I have watched you in battle against our degenerate cousins – yes, even as you raided deep into Chrace my eye was upon you, for the sorceries of the Witch King’s servants reach far and wide.”
Halghast paused, letting the words sink in. When he spoke again, his voice was full of contempt. “I have judged you, Rathann Darkmoon, and I find you wanting.”
The words went through Rathann like a bolt of lightning. His head came up, eyes widening in shock and anger. Only by the greatest effort of will did he hold his tongue.
“You are worthless!” Halghast spat. “I would sooner admit an effete son of Avelorn into our ranks than a worm such as you! Your tutors at Naggarond should have fed you to the cold ones while you were still a child and spared us from wasting so much time on you. If you are the best that your household could offer to the Witch King it’s no wonder that your family has all but died out!”
Each word struck him like a blow, hammering not at his flesh, but at his pride. Yet his sense of discipline held against the onslaught; he ground his teeth together, biting back one savage retort after another as Halghast continued.
“When you were chosen by Malekith you renounced your hereditary rank and privileges forever; I suppose we should be grateful for that, because our people are better off without you.” The captain descended from the dais, his expression full of disgust. “I should kill you now, but that would not settle the accounts between us. No, you owe us for the years of training we lavished on your worthless self, so you will spend the rest of your life in the slave pits instead.”
Rathann recoiled at the words. He would not have reacted more had the captain struck him with his halberd. The druchii were the chosen people, the masters of the world. Slavery was the fate of lesser races, like humans or the vile, green-skinned orks. It was the worst insult any druchii could imagine, and delivered by one such as Halghast, whom he’d trained all his life to serve, it sank like a blade into Rathann’s heart.
Halghast raised his halberd and pointed to the suit of arms on the stand beside him. His thin lips curved in a cruel smile. “I could have had you dragged from your chamber and thrown into the pits without any explanation, but first I wanted you to see what you have lost. That would have been your armor, Rathann Darkmoon, had you proven yourself worthy. Let the sight of it haunt you for the rest of your short, miserable existence.”
The captain lowered his halberd and, in a final gesture of contempt, turned his back on Rathann. “Take this trash away,” he said over his shoulder.
Rathann heard the rustle of cloth behind him as his captors moved to obey the captain. His mind reeled, unable to come to grips with what had happened. Hands seized his arms, hauling him to his feet, but his eyes remained fixed on the wargear at the far end of the hall. Halghast’s words echoed in his mind. That would have been your armor, had you proved yourself worthy.
Incredulity gave way to pain. Pain gave way to pure, unfettered rage.
With a bestial snarl Rathann twisted in the grip of his captors and threw a kick at the druchii on his left. He connected with the side of the warrior’s head, causing him to let go of Rathann’s arm and sending him reeling backwards. The moment his left hand was free, Rathann twisted back to the right and snatched at the club hanging from the other druchii’s belt. He tore the cudgel loose and drove its tip into his captor’s groin, then smashed his forehead into the druchii’s nose. Rathann heard the crunch of cartilage and the warrior released his grip with a strangled curse. Another blow from the heavy club caught the druchii in the side of the head and knocked him to the floor.
The druchii that he’d kicked was already lunging forward again, armed now with a long, saw-bladed dagger, and his four remaining companions were charging forward as well. They were all armed with a combination of knives and clubs, and Rathann knew they wore armor under their robes, but he had one thing they did not: his hate. And the first thing he had been taught by the masters of the Black Guard was the druchii’s oldest proverb.
With hate, all things are possible.
Rathann swung his club at the warrior lunging in from his side; the druchii ducked the blow easily, but that had been only a feint. He spun on his heel and lashed out again with his foot, hitting the warrior squarely in the face. As the druchii fell, Rathan recovered his balance and snatched up the warrior’s fallen dagger.
There was a searing pain as a knife sliced across his back, then a brutal blow as a club struck his upper left arm. Rathann channeled his rage into his limbs, forcing them to work as the leapt forward into the midst of his attackers. The move caught his foes off-guard for just a moment, but the hesitation cost them. Rathann brought his club up under one druchii’s chin and slashed the wrist of another with his knife. Both staggered backwards out of the fight.
A knife sank into Rathann’s left thigh; he twisted on his heel before the blade could dig too deep and smashed his club down on his assailant’s knife-hand. The druchii retreated with a curse, leaving his knife in Rathann’s leg.
The last attacker pulled up short, suddenly aware that the tables had turned. With a contemptuous snarl Rathann flung his knife at the druchii, then reached down and plucked the second dagger from his leg. The thrown knife took the druchii in the chest, hurled with such force its tip penetrated his robes and the armor beneath. He staggered, cursing, and tried to pull the dagger free, but Rathann never gave him the chance. He threw his club point-blank and struck the warrior in the face.
Rathann whirled before the druchii’s body had hit the marble floor and sprinted to the end of the hall. The fight had lasted only a few seconds, and so far neither Halghast nor the rest of the Black Guard had reacted, but that was certain to change. He had only a moment or two left to react.
He felt a surge of triumph as he reached the arming stand and closed his hand around the ebon haft of the halberd – his halberd. Rathann tore it free and whirled it over his head with a bloodthirsty howl; it was light and swift, far better than the ponderous iron weapons he’d been forced to train with.
The halberd’s razor edge hissed through the air as he leveled it at Halghast’s face. Rathann felt no fear. He could dimly sense his blood soaking through the light cotton robe he wore, but he felt no pain. His rage sustained him, filling his veins with fire.
“Hear me, captain!” he cried. “If you would deny me my right to wield this blade, then come and take it from me! I, who was raised in the iron towers of Naggarond and taught to kill by the Witch King’s greatest champions! I have been tested all of my life, and I have never been found wanting!” He gripped the halberd tightly. “I have earned this wargear with blood and broken bones. It is mine, and only Malekith himself can take it from me.”
Silence fell across the hall. Halghast turned, slowly, and lowered the point of his halberd. Rathann crouched, ready and willing to split the captain’s skull, even if it meant suffering a fatal wound himself. They could kill him, he resolved, but they would never defeat him.
Halghast’s smile widened. “Indeed,” he said. “I would expect no less from a warrior of the Black Guard.” He inclined his head to Rathann. “You have passed the final test, triumphing in the face of reason by virtue of your hate alone.” He raised his halberd. “We salute you, Rathann Darkmoon, and welcome you into our ranks.”
For a moment, Rathann was unsure what to think. Was this another trick? But then the ranks of Black Guard raised their halberds and let out a chilling war cry.
“Cast aside those blood-stained robes and don your wargear,” Halghast declared. “The time has come for you to join the fight against our hated kin.” His eyes glittered like a serpent’s. “The Witch King himself has a special task in mind for you.”
Chapter Two - No Mercy, No Surrender ►
2008 Nov 20 11:51 GMT