There was screaming, and burning, and all manner of horrible racket before Teo’s carriage lurched forward. The sudden jolt as the horses surged ahead slammed Teo into his seat and cracked the icy cocoon of fear that immobilized him. As the din of combat receded into the distance, Teo waited for his nerves to steady themselves. An inner voice that sounded like the Duke’s told him that he should feel relieved that he was safe once again, and that the attack had been redirected. Instead his hands shook.
There was no one else in the carriage, a fact for which Teo was miserably grateful. Running away from the battle was bad enough, but the fear that lingered would have been unbearable if anyone had seen it.
A thousand, million, lessons as a boy taught him that brave men leapt out of carriages and crushed their enemies for daring to assault them in situations like the one he’d been in. Only weaklings cowered when they were threatened. Teo didn’t want to believe that he was a coward but he hadn’t jumped out to fight beside Officer Kor. He could have. The door wasn’t locked, despite his being “under arrest”. He could have, but he hadn’t. And he hadn’t wanted to.
Struggling with the paralysis that was still sending shivers down his body, Teo drew his knees to his chest and curled into as small a space as he could. The first arrows that were fired hadn’t reached him but if the assassins were working with enchanted arrow heads, then they might have any manner of unpleasant tools to employ against him.
In time, as they rode steadily on, the flames of the arrows that transfixed the side of the carriage fizzled away and the metal heads cooled so that their bright orange heat dulled to a dim red. For longer than Teo could count, the carriage raced as fast as the horses could pull it and the sounds of the battle faded to silence as the fight fell miles behind them.
With the passing of the hours, Teo’s stomach grumbled, the needs of the body not wholly suppressed by the turmoil of the mind. He hugged his knees tighter to his chest and tried not to think of how long it had been since he’d last fed.
Ren’s life force was bright and strong. After a feeding, he seemed barely diminished outwardly, but in Teo’s eyes the spark within the Duke’s son was noticeably dimmer for days afterwards. It was why Teo insisted that they wait so long between “nibbles” as Ren called their blood giving sessions.
They hadn’t been nibbling when the Duke “caught” them together, though it might have been better if they were. That would have solidified Teo’s claim that his “vampiric nature” overwhelmed him and perhaps allowed Ren to return to his father’s good graces.
The more Teo ran that horrible day over in his mind though, the less sure he was that anything about his relationship with Ren was really at fault for the Duke’s reaction. On the surface the Duke’s ranting and verbal abuse had been directed at a commoner who presumed above his station.
To the Duke, his children were little more than resources to use in the private wars noblemen were always waging against each other. Ren was a second son, and the youngest born which left him as a pawn of lesser worth than his siblings but still potentially useful to secure an alliance with another house or sell to a faction which needed a noble figurehead. His relationship with Teo was problematic on a number of levels, with the two biggest being the severe lapse in judgment he showed involving himself with someone so far below his station and the second, and less forgivable one, being the fact that Teo was a vampire.
Few people knew about the feeding requirements of Teo’s bloodline, and fewer cared. What most saw was an undead monster that drew its strength from the blood of the living and, when properly fed, was a match for even a Pact Warrior. Where most Pact Warriors could only maintain their transformation for a limited time though, vampires were effectively transformed permanently and were believed to be less-than-sane as a result. This belief wasn’t unfounded either. There were many who took the transformation poorly, and some bloodlines that were composed primarily of monsters. Teo himself knew that in certain areas he was no longer capable of acting with reasonable self-control. Only physical restraint and direct pleas from Ren had held Teo back from taking the lives of a pair of noblemen who disparaged Ren’s character within Teo’s earshot a week after he was first turned.
That incident, and others like it, couldn’t have escaped the Duke’s attention, but he hadn’t deigned to notice or comment on any of them before the night he barged into Ren’s bed chamber. Something about the fear that Teo felt then, helped him navigate the fear he felt while curled up in the back of the carriage.
Then he’d lost the person he loved most in the world. Then he’d been beaten and cast out of the only home he had. Then he’d been left starving in a ravine. Compared to that, his current fear was still miserable, but it was a misery that he could survive.
Reflecting on himself, Teo felt his fear yield to shame and then to absurd and shallow mirth. Vampires were supposed to be unholy terrors. Creatures of power and mystery who were untouchable and unkillable. Teo knew that none of those things were true. Without blood, and the life force it carried, he was weaker than he’d been even as a boy. The Duke’s assault had been well timed in that sense. Teo had gone so long not feeding from Ren that he’d lacked anything like the strength to fight back.
The Duke could have killed Teo in front of his son, and was possibly intending to, but Ren’s pleading had caused the nobleman to stay his hand. The death sentence was converted to banishment on pain of Ren following every one of his father’s directives and Teo never again seeing Ren.
In many senses a death sentence would have been a kinder fate for Teo, but it would have hurt Ren more and Teo couldn’t bear the thought of that.
The carriage slowed to a halt and Teo felt a fresh stab of fear lance through him. They’d left Officer Kor far behind them. If there was another ambush, no unexpected savior was going to spring up to fight for him.
“What’s happened?” he asked, calling out more softly than he meant to.
“We’re far enough away from the fray and the horses need a rest,” the driver said. “No good hiding spots here either, so we can wait a bit and see if the captain catches up with us.”
“The captain?” Teo asked.
“You call her ‘Officer Kor’,” the driver said. Teo heard him get down off the front seat and walk forward.
“Do you need any help with the horses?” Teo asked, raising his voice so the driver could hear him.
“Sure, if you know how to set a harness,” the driver said.
“I do,” Teo said and pushed himself through the last vestiges of icy fear that froze him to the seat.
Outside, he saw that the carriage was resting in a large sloping field. The driver had moved them over to a well trampled area near a small stream that ran beside the road. Beyond that, short blue and yellow and green grasses swayed in the breeze.
Here and there flocks of sheep wandered about, kept together by grey elven shepherds and their canine companions. The other side of the road was much the same, but without the stream and with the added presence of small, sparsely placed houses woven together from isolated stands of trees. Ambushers might hide in the tree houses but even from there they would face a long gap to get to their targets on the road.
“We had a hard run, make sure none of the leathers come loose,” the driver said.
Teo took the horse the driver wasn’t working on and began to inspect the harness and gear that tied it to the carriage as he had done countless times with the Telli horses. Pages didn’t normally have duties like that, but Teo was so inseparable from Ren, that he would up attending to a variety of duties to buy them more time together.
“Why do you call Officer Kor ‘the Captain’?” Teo asked as he worked on the horse.
“Whatever rank she holds, she’ll always be my Captain,” the driver said.
“You’ve served with her before?” Teo asked.
“Served under,” the driver said. “She was our leader at Star’s Watch Keep when it fell.”
“What happened to Star’s Watch Keep?” Teo asked. Beyond the fact that his life had been focused on Ren for the last few years, Teo had never been one to pay much attention to the various skirmishes his adopted kingdom became embroiled in. Aside from a brief period six years previous when a bloody civil war had flared across the kingdom, Teo’s life had been untouched by the ravages of armed conflict.
“Paxmer,” the driver said. “Paxmer happened to Star’s Watch Keep.”
Pieces of overheard information fell into place, enough for Teo to hazard a guess at what had occurred.
“Star’s Watch was a border keep wasn’t it?” Teo asked. “It was one of the ones lost during the Unification War.”
“Unification War, heh. That’s what people call it now,” the driver said. “The war we fought was never about unification though.”
The driver spit the word “unification” out like it was formed of toxic bile.
“I don’t mean to pry, but I gather that Officer Kor deserves more recognition for the role she played than she’s received?” Teo asked.
“She’d disagree with that notion, but I don’t.” the driver said.
“What did she do there?” Teo asked, trying to picture what a conflict on the border between Gallagrin and its neighboring country to the south would look like.
“I could you tell you stories, lot’s of stories, but the big thing is what she didn’t do,” the driver said.
“I think I’d like to hear those stories,” Teo said. “Unless I miss my guess they’re the kind of stories more people should know about than do.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” the driver said. “What’s your name vampire?”
“Joe,” Teo said, thinking of the advice he’d received. “Though if you’re a friend Officer Kor’s then it would be more accurate to call me Teo.”
The driver smiled, a twinkle in his eye suggesting that he recognized Teo’s reference.
“Well you can call me Joe too,” the driver said, “Or if you want to be accurate then you could go with Sol.”
“So what was it that your Captain didn’t do that stands out for you Sol?” Teo asked.
“She didn’t run,” Sol said.
“That’s an admirable quality in a leader, but Star’s Watch was destroyed anyways wasn’t it?” Teo asked.
“It was burned,” Sol said.
“Why?” Teo asked. “I thought, when border keeps were captured, the invading army tried to keep them intact to use against the enemy side?”
“That’s the standard doctrine,” Sol said. “It’s how changes in the boundaries are made to stick, and in Gallagrin’s case, if you don’t have a stronghold to work from, the mountains will kill you.”
“I’m confused then, why take the town only to destroy it?” Teo asked. “Especially when we wound up as allies with Paxmer by the end of the war. The attackers had to know that was coming, didn’t they?”
“I’m sure they knew that was one of the plans,” Sol said. “But in the early days of the civil war, it wasn’t clear who was going to win, so when Paxmer decided to join into the little duskup we were having, they came with the main purpose of destroying our ability to invade them, just in case the wrong side won. I think they didn’t care about claiming territory at that point because it might have united us all against them instead of letting us fight each other..”
“Oh yes, that’s what started the whole civil war wasn’t it?” Teo asked. “The Butcher King wanted to invade Paxmer.”
“Sure, that’s one of the stories they put out,” Sol said. “But we didn’t hear about that until after the war was done. All we knew was that one morning we were in the clear and then next there were forty thousand troops advancing on our gates.”
“That’s a big army isn’t it?” Teo asked.
“Big enough,” Sol said. “Star’s Watch was designed to hold the pass it sat in against any army Paxmer could assault the place with, but that was before people knew about the kind of siege weapons you could make by binding pact spirits to catapults and trebuchets.”
“They smashed through the walls?” Teo asked, guessing at why the keep had fallen.
“They could have, but the Captain led a night raid out and burned all the ones they’d moved up to the front lines,” Sol said.
“That sounds incredibly dangerous,” Teo said picturing a raiding party fighting into a camp of forty thousand soldiers to destroy heavy machinery.
“It was,” Sol said. “The Captain fights like a damn demon, but even that only got half the raid party back to the keep.”
“You said she burned all the siege weapons, so how did the keep fall?” Teo asked.
“After they lost the siege machines, the Paxers called one of their Dragon Generals to the front lines,” Sol said.
“Dragon General?” Teo asked. “Is that like a Pact Knight?”
“Yes and no,” Sol said. “Dragon Generals are as tough as our Pact Knights, so about ten times better than your standard Pact Warrior, but they don’t bind themselves to a pact spirit.”
“Ten times better than a Pact Warrior?” Teo asked. “Who can stand against something like that?”
Even well fed, and driven by the deepest blood compulsion, Teo wasn’t sure he would be able to fight something as powerful as what Sol described.
“The Captain, for one,” Sol said. “That’s why she took his challenge when he issued it.”
“What was the challenge for?” Teo asked.
“The terms were single combat, between the two of them,” Sol said. “The prize was the loser’s life.”
“Why would your Captain take a fight on terms like that?” Teo asked.
“Because when it came to a battle, the General was going to be able to kill a lot of us regular troops before she was able to join with him,” Sol said. “She could do the same to their side but they had a lot more troops to spend on a fight than we did.”
“So dueling with him was her best chance to end the threat that he posed.”
“It was,” Sol said. “Or it should have been.”
“They met outside the gate to the Keep, just the two of them,” Sol said. “We were all watching from the keep’s walls but the Captain told us she would personally flay us alive if we interfered in the fight.”
“Did she win?” Teo asked. “I mean she’s still alive so she must have right?”
“She should have won,” Sol said. “Watching them two of them fight was like nothing I’d ever seen, and to be honest I have no idea which of the two was better, but by all that’s holy, the Captain should have won.”
“But she didn’t?” Teo said.
“She didn’t,” Sol said. “She was doing well, but then the General called in his trump and everything fell apart.”
Teo tried to put together what Sol had told him so far and came up with one horrifying possibility.
“You said he was a Dragon General?” Teo said.
“Yes, and I’m betting you can guess what that means,” Sol said.
“He called in a dragon,” Teo said, blinking in disbelief at the idea.
“One of the Ancients. Like I said Star’s Watch didn’t fall.”
Teo saw tears well up in the older man’s eyes as the memories drew Sol back to that day six years prior.