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First came the layers of heavy, indigo-hued woolen robes and steel-toed leather boots, then a reinforced kheitan made of quilted fabric and tanned human hide. Over the kheitan went a hauberk of blackened steel mail, with long sleeves and a broad skirt that hung down to mid-calf. The weight of the steel rings rested heavily on Rathann’s strong shoulders, aggravating the pain of the many bruises and shallow cuts that marked his arms and torso. The druchii scarcely noticed. He’d suffered worse on a daily basis during his years of training.
The audience hall was silent once more as Rathann laced up the front of the chain hauberk and reached for the gleaming black breastplate hanging from the wooden arming stand. The long ranks of Black Guards lining the chamber were silent and still once more, watching the Dark Elf’s every move. Buckling on the complicated layers of armor was normally a task for one or more trained slaves, but the Black Guard were trained to do without such luxuries. Rathann’s bloodstained fingers worked swiftly and surely, cinching the straps and setting the hooks with deft, practiced movements.
He slid on the steel-reinforced leather gauntlets, then buckled a set of barbed vambraces over his forearms using a combination of fingers and teeth. Within minutes his transformation was complete. The torn and bloodstained sleeping robe at his feet was all that remained of the druchii’s former life.
Beyond the now-empty arming stand rose the steps of a stone dais, where Halghast, the captain of the Black Guard aboard the Fortress of Malice, watched Rathann with cold, pitiless eyes. When the druchii had finished arming himself, Halghast nodded and descended the polished steps. In a single, smooth motion the captain lowered his halberd and placed its razor-sharp tip in the hollow of Rathann’s throat.
“Kneel,” the captain commanded.
Rathann sank carefully to his knees, his throat bared and his head upright, as custom demanded. Then, in a rolling, ominous voice, Halghast intoned the Dragon Oath, the ritual that would bind Rathann into Malekith’s service forevermore. It began with a recitation of his lineage, back to the ancient houses of lost Nagarythe, then formally separated Rathann from all hereditary ties to his family and the Dark Elf people as a whole. From this moment forward, he would be bound by no law, nor bow his head to any lord save Malekith himself.
“You have been forged as a weapon for the Witch King himself,” Halghast declared. “An instrument of his will and the murderous touch of his wrath.”
The halberd’s point sank a fraction of an inch into Rathann’s throat. A trickle of dark blood ran down its curved edge.
“Do you accept this oath, Rathann Darkmoon,” Halghast said, “until the moment of your death?”
Rathann bared his teeth in a feral grin. “Without mercy and without fail, until the moment of death,” he answered. “This I swear, in Khaine’s holy name.”
The halberd was drawn away. “Then rise, kinsman,” Halghast growled, “and never kneel again, save in the Witch King’s presence.”
Once again, the assembled Black Guard raised their voices in a fierce shout, the sound echoing sharply from the walls. Halghast lowered the point of his polearm and nodded curtly to the warriors, who turned sharply about and filed swiftly from the hall. The captain waited until the last of the Black Guard had gone before turning once more to Rathann.
“You’ll be leaving for the Shadowlands at once,” Halghast said without preamble.
“A wyvern will carry you to the coast within the hour. You’ll find a pack and provisions waiting for you at the top of the tower.”
The urgency of the mission surprised Rathann, but he was careful not to let it show to the captain. “What is my task?” he said curtly.
“You are bound for the Mournwood,” Halghast replied, “to the ruins of a citadel called Tor Agral. No doubt you have heard of it.”
Rathann stiffened. With a conscious effort he kept his hands from curling into fists. “I know the name, but nothing more,” he answered.
Halghast gave Rathann a long, searching look, clearly dubious of the young Dark Elf’s claim, but chose not to press the issue further. “Our master believes the Ring of Athan is hidden somewhere in the ruins,” he said after a moment.
“The Ring of Athan was lost during the Sundering,” Rathann said, a little too quickly.
“So the legends claim,” the captain agreed. “But legends are often just artful lies, are they not?” Halghast paused, waiting for Rathann’s reaction, but the young druchii merely watched and waited, his expression carefully neutral. When the captain saw that Rathann wasn’t going to rise to the bait, he waved his hand dismissively. “In any case, the truth of what happened isn’t important. The Witch King has reason to think that the ring was hidden in the tower on the eve of the Sundering. You’re going to find it, and quickly, before the enemy does.”
Rathann frowned. He was beginning to see why Malekith had chosen him specifically for this task. “The sons of Aenarion are searching for the ring? Why?”
Halghast shrugged. “Who knows? I’ve never been able to understand how those degenerates think,” he growled. “What we do know is that a large enemy force has moved into the Mournwood recently, and their efforts are focused around Tor Agral. If the ring is anywhere in those ruins, they’re sure to find it sooner or later – and that must not happen. Do you understand?”
“Of course,” Rathann said. “If the ring lies in Tor Agral, I’ll find it. Nothing shall stand in my way.”
“The Witch King expects no less,” Halghast replied coldly. “When you reach the Shadowlands, make for the Mournwood with all haste. You’ll find Lord Sathras, one of Ulthorin’s sons, camped with his warband to the southwest.” The captain’s thin lips curled in distaste. “They’ve been trying to drive the enemy out of the region for some time now. A breakthrough there will open the way to Tor Agral, but all they’ve managed so far is a bloody stalemate.”
Rathann knelt and picked up his halberd, inspecting its curved edge. The weapon was clean and unscarred, fresh from the black ark’s forge. A predatory smile spread across his face as he imagined the cruel blade shearing through steel, flesh and bone. The agonized screams of dying Elves echoed in his mind.
“Then I shall have to carve a path to my goal,” Rathann said, his hands tightening on the haft of the weapon.
Rathann came upon the war camp late in the afternoon, set atop a bare, rocky hill just a half-mile west of the mountainous western border of the Mournwood. He could see the narrow purple banners of Lord Ulthorin’s household silhouetted against the bleak, iron-gray sky, rising above the curved arms of bolt-throwers set to protect the two narrow approaches to the camp. There were no patrols he could see, nor could he hear much in the way of activity as he loped through the skeletal ruins of a small forest just northwest of the hill. Even at a distance, Rathann could feel the pall of defeat hanging over the encampment.
The Black Guard circled around to the western side of the hill, his boots kicking up feathery plumes of ash with each step. A dry, crackling wind, smelling of burnt metal and magic, shifted aimlessly amid the scorched trees. The air was tense and unsettled, prickling his skin and setting his hair on end. No matter where he went in the Shadowlands, the atmosphere of the place was always the same, as though the devastation of the Sundering had occurred only moments before. Sometimes Rathann swore that he could still hear the death screams of his ancestors echoing in the lunatic wind.
He approached the camp without challenge, passing a pair of exhausted sentries guarding the bolt throwers at the western entrance. The warriors stiffened to attention as he went by, their helmeted heads snapping up with a fearful jerk as they recognized the black armor that he wore. Rathann ignored them, heading deeper into the camp in search of Lord Sathras.
There were scores of weary Dark Elf warriors sitting on the rocky ground about the camp, their armor and weapons freshly-stained with blood and grime. A few of them tried to straighten as he passed, but most simply stared at him with sullen, predatory eyes. It was clear to Rathann that they had spent the day trying to break the enemy positions at the edge of the Mournwood, only to be driven back once again.
The leader of the warband was not to be found at his tent in the center of the camp; his slaves said only that he had ridden off to command the attack shortly before dawn. Biting back his irritation, Rathann continued eastward, to the far side of the camp, where the moans of the wounded rose from the chirurgeon’s tents.
By now word of his arrival had spread through the encampment, and Rathann found the lanes of the camp increasingly crowded as the warriors gathered to catch a glimpse of one of Malekith’s chosen. Many of them trailed along in his wake as he passed by, no doubt curious as to his sudden arrival.
Ulthorin’s son was not to be found among the wounded, either. Instead, Rathann found him just outside the eastern entrance to the camp, scourging his subordinates for their most recent failure. Four of his lieutenants had been stripped to the waist and lashed to poles in full view of the Dark Elf warriors still marching wearily back from the battlefield further east. Three of the lieutenants were unconscious, the flesh of their backs torn to ribbons by the scourge’s steel-tipped lashes. The young highborn was mercilessly savaging the fourth warrior while a tall, lithe Witch Elf looked on. She was standing close enough to the scourging to catch the red spray from the lash on her white skin as the highborn drew back his arm for another blow.
The Dark Elf warriors marching back to camp drew up short as Rathann appeared. The Witch Elf noticed the disturbance and glanced back over her shoulder. When she saw the Black Guard her almond-shaped eyes narrowed thoughtfully. As Sathras raised his arm for another stroke of the lash she reached out with a slim hand and grasped the noble’s wrist.
Snarling, the blood-spattered highborn rounded on the witch. When he caught sight of Rathann’s armored form, the Black Guard saw a brief flash of pure, unalloyed terror in the noble’s eyes.
A stir of anticipation went through the assembled Dark Elves. They sensed the highborn’s fear as well, and guessed at the reason. The Witch King had no patience for failure, and the Black Guard were the cruel implements he used to demonstrate his displeasure. Rathann could not help but notice the vindictive gleam in the warriors’ eyes.
Silence fell, broken only by the hissing wind and the tortured gasps of the flayed Dark Elf. The Witch Elf stepped languidly away from Lord Ulthorin’s son, pointedly distancing herself from him as she reached for a goblet of wine from a waiting slave.
Lord Sathras was thin even for a druchii, with sharp cheekbones and deep-set eyes. He was younger than Rathann, barely old enough to lead warriors in battle, and his armor was richly ornamented with gold and precious stones. His twin swords – the highborn badge of rank – were decorated with dark rubies, and the hilts had been polished until the metal glowed in the wan sunlight. His pale face was flecked with blood and tiny bits of flesh, but there wasn’t a single mark of battle on him.
Rathann gave the callow noble a forbidding stare. “How fares the battle, Lord Sathras?” he hissed.
With an effort, the young highborn tamped down his fear and tried to adopt a lordly mien. He tossed the bloody scourge onto the ground. “Who in the Dark Mother’s name are you?” he demanded.
“A servant of the Witch King,” Rathann answered coldly. “Keep that fact firmly in your mind as I repeat my question: how fares the battle?”
A trace of fear crept back into the highborn’s eyes. “It…well, the damned Asur hold the high ground at the mouth of the pass,” he stammered. “Their position is well-defended, and they outnumber us at least five to one.” He pointed a trembling finger at the Dark Elf hanging from the poles. “We might have broken through today, had these fools followed my orders! The fighting was at the foot of the enemy barricades and Lady Beltyr was about to unleash her sorceries when the wretches lost their nerve and retreated!” Sathras realized his voice was growing shrill with anger and stopped abruptly. When he regained his composure, he continued. “We’ll attack again tomorrow, once we’ve regained our strength and tended our injuries.”
“Giving the enemy ample opportunity to do the same,” Rathann snapped. He turned away from Sathras and scanned the area around the bloodstained poles. “How many are there?”
Sathras frowned. “How many High Elves? Why, a hundred at least, commanded by one of their princes. Their position is very strong…” the highborn paused, his expression bemused. “What are you doing?”
Rathann had knelt by the bundled robes and weapon belts of the flayed druchii. Searching through them quickly, he pulled half-a-dozen daggers from the pile and slipped them into his belt. “I’m heading for Tor Agral,” he said simply, then rose to his feet and headed down the hill, past the long line of druchii warriors.
Sathras didn’t reply at first. Rathann was halfway down the ashen slope when the highborn’s angry voice called after him. “Did you not hear a damned word I said?” the noble shouted. “I’ve lost half my warband trying to breach their lines! What can you possibly hope to achieve besides a quick death?”
But Rathann’s steps only quickened as he reached the base of the hill. He could just see the white and silver banners of the enemy war party, flying from the rocky foothills to the east. The prospect of battle sang through his veins.
“With hate, all things are possible,” he said with a savage grin, and the warriors within earshot howled in salute as the Black Guard broke into a run.
The High Elf position lay across a rocky ridge that covered the entrance to a narrow pass running between the crags bordering the western edge of the Mournwood. The slope had been cleared of dead trees to provide clear fields of fire for the war party’s bolt throwers and their contingent of archers. Dozens of Dark Elf bodies piled at the base of the incline attested to the lethality of their aim.
When Rathann arrived at the base of the ridge the High Elves were tossing still more bodies down the incline, clearing their barricade and removing their own wounded now that the day’s fighting was over. After a week of regular attacks they, like the Dark Elves, had fallen into a kind of routine, and so the High Elves didn’t react at first when they saw a lone enemy warrior charging up the stony track towards them. Their bewilderment bought Rathann a few precious seconds as he closed the distance between him and the barricade.
He was halfway up the slope when he heard a shout along the ridge line and the first white-shafted arrows went hissing past. The High Elven warriors at the barricade were galvanized by the warning cry, snatching up their spears and shields and hastily forming up behind the waist-high wall of charred tree stumps.
An arrow struck Rathann in the chest and glanced from his breastplate. Another hit his mail skirt, just above the knee, and stuck there, its arrowhead wedged into the steel rings. A third shaft tore a furrow across the back of his neck and sped on. The pain ignited the rage seething in his veins, and he let out a shriek of bestial fury as he raced up the last few yards to the foot of the barricade.
A hasty command was called out at the far end of the barricade, and as one the warriors lowered their silver-tipped spears, presenting a lethal thicket of bloodstained points to receive the Black Guard’s charge. It was the same deadly formation that had thrown back countless Dark Elf attacks, but Rathann’s headlong pace never faltered. When he was close enough to see the widening eyes of the Elves directly opposite him, the Black Guard plucked a needle-pointed dagger from his belt and hurled it in a single, fluid motion. The weapon buried itself to the hilt in a High Elf visor, and the warrior collapsed with a gurgling shriek, dropping his weapon and clawing at his face. For the briefest instant, a gap opened in the thicket of spears and Rathann leapt inside it, swinging his halberd in a wide, whistling cut. The keen edge chopped deeply into an enemy’s helm and slipped free, dropping another warrior to the stony ground.
Rathann drove himself ruthlessly onward, leaping lightly onto the top of the barricade and over the side. The enemy warriors to either side of him tried to draw back and make room to attack him with their spears. He howled a vicious war cry and brought his halberd down full-force onto the shield of an elf in his path, splitting the reinforced wood and slicing through the arm beneath.
A spear point thrust at him from the right and he dodged beneath it, sweeping his halberd in a tight arc and slicing through the warrior’s knee. Another silver point smashed into his back, its tip puncturing the black steel and sinking a few inches into Rathann’s back. He twisted around with a snarl and smashed the butt of his polearm into the Elf’s helm, then slashed down diagonally to sever the warrior’s spear haft and the right hand that gripped it.
Rathann didn’t pause to consider his options; he let his rage guide him, driving inexorably forward into the Elf camp. He could hear horns blowing ahead of him, and a chorus of shouted orders. A small cluster of archers stood a few yards distant with arrows nocked and ready, but they were hesitant of firing into the melee raging around him.
The Elves at the barricade had recovered from their initial shock and were pressing in from all sides now. Spears jabbed at him like striking snakes; one tore through his mail skirt and bit into his left leg, while another gouged a shallow wound along his right arm. He channeled the pain into his blows, slashing and thrusting in a wide arc around him. One Elf pressed too closely and had his throat torn out; another had his spear deflected and his right arm severed at the elbow. Screams of agony and shouts of fear shook the air and Rathann howled in reply, tasting the copper tang of blood on his tongue.
More horns sounded near the center of the enemy camp, and Rathann caught sight of a large force of High Elves charging towards the barricade. They were led by a resplendent warrior clad in gleaming silver mail and wielding an elegant rune-marked sword. The Black Guard stoked the fires of his rage as the reinforcements rushed closer and renewed his attack with increased fervor. His sweeping cuts severed spear-hafts and split helms, shattered shields and sliced through limbs. He was bleeding from a dozen minor wounds, but each one only managed to increase his ferocity.
Just when the Elven prince was only a few short yards away, Rathan heard the keening wail of druchii war-horns blowing at his back. Howling like fiends, warriors from Sathras’s warband surged over the enemy barricade and fell upon their foes, stabbing with sword and spear. The enemy warriors to either side of Rathann recoiled at the sudden attack. The Black Guard took advantage of the turn of events to behead the enemy warrior in front of him and then charge directly for the oncoming prince.
The enemy leader saw Rathann coming and yelled something to his bodyguard. The warriors gave the Black Guard a wide berth, running past to try and push the Dark Elves back from the barricade. Rathann paid them no mind, for at the same moment the prince was upon him.
He felt the point of his halberd swept aside by the prince’s shield, and it was all he could do to draw the weapon back and block the enemy’s sword-stroke with the halberd’s ebon haft. The Elf’s sword flickered like lightning; no sooner had be blocked the first blow than the sword drew back and struck again, hammering at his breastplate. Snarling, Rathann launched a counterattack at the prince’s head, but the stroke was easily stopped by the enemy’s shield.
Pain erupted at the Black Guard’s waist as the point of the prince’s sword slipped beneath the edge of his breastplate and stabbed through the mail links into his abdomen. Rathann howled in fury, knocking the sword aside with his halberd and then chopping deep into the edge of the enemy’s shield. The shield’s metal rim stopped the blade, but for a moment both it and the halberd were trapped. Rathann heard a muffled curse as the prince tried to chop through the ebon haft with his sword; as he did so, the Black Guard drew another dagger from his belt and hurled it point-blank into the prince’s neck. The needle-point sank through the High Elf’s leather gorget; he staggered, blood erupting from his mouth, while Rathann put his boot against the surface of the prince’s shield and yanked his halberd free. With a bubbling groan, the High Elf tried to raise his sword to block Rathann’s attack, but the Black Guard easily knocked the blade aside and decapitated the mortally-wounded prince.
A wail of shock and despair went up from the High Elves as their prince toppled to the ground, and the Dark Elves fell upon them with renewed ferocity. The enemy force held for a few moments longer, then one by one they turned and fled for the dubious safety of the Mournwood. Within seconds the defenders were in full retreat, pursued by the howling, vengeful druchii. Those High Elves whom they caught were quickly surrounded and captured, destined for the slave masters aboard the black arks.
Rathann paused long enough to wipe the blade of his halberd clean on the prince’s blue surcoat, then he reached down and picked up his foe’s head by its blood-soaked hair. He was hanging the trophy on a barbed hook at his belt when he heard a familiar voice behind him.
He turned to see Lord Sathras clambering over the barricade, his thin face pale with fury. The saw-edged sword he carried trembled in his hands. Beside him, Lady Beltyr leapt lightly over the piled tree trunks and paused for a moment, savoring the carnage. With scarcely a glance at Sathras, she glided over to Rathann and inclined her head appreciatively.
“Well done, kinsman,” she said, a faint note of amusement in her husky voice. “Though you might have waited a moment or two more before putting the enemy to flight; I have yet to offer up a worthy sacrifice to Khaine.”
Rathann shrugged. “That’s not my concern, maiden. If you want blood, it lies ahead of you, on the road to Tor Agral, but you’ll have to run if you want to catch it.”
To his surprise, Beltyr laughed and drew closer to him. “I think I shall stick close to you instead,” she replied softly, tracing a sharp fingernail through the blood spattered across his breastplate. “I have the feeling that you’ll provide me all the entertainment I could ask for. Provided you live to reach the ruins, of course.”
Rathann hefted his halberd. “Let the enemy try. So far they don’t impress me.”
Beltyr glanced down at the corpses scattered around Rathann and sniffed disdainfully. “I’m not concerned about them,” she said. As she spoke, Lord Sathras stalked past, his face a mask of hate. She watched him hurry off after his warriors.
“He’s the one you’ll have to watch,” she said, her full lips parting in a cruel smile. “You’ve accomplished in ten minutes what he couldn’t do in a week. From this point forward he will be looking for the first opportunity to stick a knife in your back.”
Chapter Three - Unto the Moment of Death ►
◄ Chapter One - By Hatred Alone
2008 Dec 02 00:23 GMT