Down the rocky hillside along the western side of Stryker Pass, Clovis dodged from stunted tree to rock to bush. A Black Wolf, named Watcher, belly-crawled at his side. He didn’t know why the wolf joined him, but was grateful for the company.
The Cappelstoke Mountains divided the Kingdom of Galdona in half, with Stryker Pass the only way to travel from one to the other. Both ends of the pass, north and south, mirrored one another. Each had an oval, grass-covered valley holding the tents of an army: The enemy Halurdow to the south, the remnants of the Kalieri Kingdom of Galdona’s army to the North. Hills and tree stumps bordered each of the valleys’ sides.
Below Clovis, on the northern Kalieri end of the pass, sentries patrolled the perimeter of the valley, barring his path to the Galdonan camp. He touched the Wolf Clan Pendant hanging from his neck. It flared with a blue spark. An answering flicker, pinpointing the person he sought, appeared near the center of the massed tents in the valley below. A frustrated whoosh escaped. Could nothing be easy? He had to reach that spot and his uncle, Guardian Mage Glason Telmar. He could gain access by openly walking into the camp and giving his name. But the wolves had made it clear that the Twin Goddess wished his identity to remain secret from the army below. He would follow her wishes.
Less than a month past the biggest worry in his life had been what pranks his brothers and kinsmen would play on him during the upcoming celebration of his thirteenth natal-day. Clovis chewed his cheek. Since then his life had taken a more serious course.
Clovis shook his head and stopped the thought. Wishful thinking solved naught. The wolves proved very cryptic presenting the Goddess’ instructions, but he was Wolf Clan born, Guardian born. He would do his duty, even if he didn’t understand all that entailed. Things were as they were.
Nor did he understand why at least a hundred Black Wolves waited nearby for he knew not what. He sensed their presence and it worried him.
He and the wolf sat beneath the limbs of a gnarled cedar. Clovis chewed a koblisk leaf from the handful he had picked earlier lower on the hill, hoping it would quiet his rumbling stomach. The woody taste reminded him of the smell of moldy leaves. He swallowed quickly, before he lost his nerve.
The tents of the Galdonan army clustered near the western side of the valley and within a candlemark’s march of the bottleneck in the pass. The guards remained vigilant. No paths would allow him to pass them—at least not in daylight.
“Not enough.” Clovis muttered. “There aren’t enough Kalieri.”
Watcher stared at him. You’re right. The Halurdow outnumber the Kalieri three-to-one. And another Halurdow army approaches from the south.
There is always hope. The Halurdow can be stopped here, if two-legs are clever.
Clovis considered the wolf’s words while he pictured today’s battle in his mind. His stomach gurgled. This time not from hunger, but from the memory of the blood, and screams, and killing of the fighting he’d watched from his perch. He’d ridden patrols in the mountains before, but never witnessed such slaughter. Even more upsetting than the deaths and pain had been the ineffectiveness of the Liheiren Mages, while the enemy’s dark magic slaughtered infantry and mages alike.
The shamans play on the restrictions of our magic. Many Liheiren Kalieri mages had died, burning in raging purple flames, while the shamans remained untouched because they had bound their lives to those of captive Kalieri. If they died, so too did the prisoners. Liheiren magic, Kalieri magic, could not be used to harm those faithful to the Twin Gods. So the fire bolts and spells cast by the Galdonans and his uncle, Glason, had split and gone off to each side, leaving the targeted shaman uninjured. Besides the imminent arrival of another Halurdow army, he had to tell Glason why they couldn’t kill the shamans.
The darker shade of early night touched the sky before Clovis deserted his hiding place. The presence of a Black Wolf at his side would reveal his clan to everyone. “Will you wait here and guard, four-foot brother?” Clovis mindsent to the wolf.
The animal met his gaze and sank to its haunches.
Stashing his bedroll beneath the low-hanging branches of a koblisk bush, he counted on the inch-long thorns and the wolves to keep it safe. Clovis used his pendant to verify the location of his uncle before he tucked it beneath his tunic and crept down the hillside.
He tugged his cloak close and raised the hood, wiping sweaty palms on his trousers. Gliding through shadows near the cliff’s base, Clovis edged along the rocky hillside ’til midway between two guard posts. Heart pounding, he scuttled across the trail and dashed to the deeper darkness thrown by the nearest tent.
Clovis crept forward, cursing the detours required to avoid brighter areas surrounding cook fires. He angled toward the center of the camp. A tent peg snagged his foot. He stumbled, and caught himself on a nearby crate. A startled snort and change of breathing from those slumbering inside the shelter froze him in place. Three tents away a pacing guard stopped and stared in his direction. He held his breath, tucking shaking hands beneath his arms to still them until the guard continued his pacing. He moved once again through the darkness, his steps soft as the wolves.
He crept through the shadows, mindful of guy-ropes and avoiding patrols until a well-guarded, large gray tent stood before him. He had reached his destination, but sensed his uncle was not inside. The pendant couldn’t be used here without revealing his identity, nor could he waste time skulking around the camp searching.
Clovis huddled against the chill night air. Messengers came and went in a steady stream. Command Tent then. What to do? The musters of fighters from the Guardian Clans and the Njae would arrive near dawn. According to the wolves, time was running out for a successful defense of the Pass. Clovis’ breath escaped, but softly and quieter than the snores from the tent beside him. The wind changed and the rich aroma of stew simmering on the cook fire to his left wafted past. His mouth watered. He’d run out of trail rations the day before. Even the wolves were hard pressed to find food. Another sigh and he stepped from the shadows.