Friends and strangers, welcome to my (other) novel.
Duality was born from a desire to write something other than Aelan, my other story. That is not to say I do not enjoy Aelan. It has become very much part of my life that I feel losing the several moleskines I have filled with writing would tear me apart more than any other possession.
A similar vein of writing – still Fantasy – Duality is aiming to become a bigger, broader world than Aelan ever could be. Warfare stands centre-stage as usual, this time with the inclusion of costly magic (or ‘magecraft‘).
Do try and enjoy.
© Richard Ford
“Magecraft comes in twos. A person born with magecraft will share his (or her) magecraft with another. They might live in the same city, they might abide in different lands. They may be friends, they may be mortal enemies. Yet they will be connected. For better or for worse.”
His gambeson was damp, the dew from the long grass creeping steadily through the quilted fabric. An unpleasant and uncomfortable experience, yet not a new one for Quickdraw. It was a sad fact of his army career that he found himself sliding along on his belly a good portion of the time. Through mud, through grass, even over stone. His legs, at least, were saved from the cold damp. The weight of his greaves was a small price to pay for comfort. For half his body, at least.
An arrow was already notched to his bowstring, just in case an over-eager scout stumbled upon his hiding place. Years of practice left him as an invaluable asset to the county, a position he revered and hated in equal measure. There was a lot of trust placed on his own eyes. Hundreds – potentially thousands – of lives depended on his accurate information and careful studying. Slowly he stole forwards, using his elbows like crutches to reach the edge of the hill.
The enemy’s camp was in the valley below him. A quick look told him it was well dug in. A longer study gave the impression it was well fortified. A further evaluation brought him to the conclusion that an all-out assault would be suicide. It was a mini fortress, complete with palisades and trenches, surrounding makeshift barricades built out of felled trees. Ideas formulated, visualised, and fell apart in swift cognitive patterns lasting mere moments. From where he was, there was no weak spot in their defences. They could pepper the encampment from up on the hills to either side. A few might find their targets but at some point they would run out of arrows. At some point they would have to advance upon the base. And that’s when the defenders would bring forth arrows of their own, revealing themselves from the copious hiding spots Quickdraw could see even from this far away.
He shook his head, cursing to himself. This was a fool’s errand, guaranteed to put a swift end to their skirmish if an assault was attempted. Marshall Galro may not be a fool, but some members of the war council were. Quickdraw could just imagine Kadlow sneering at his report when he advised against an assault. The upstart would dismiss it as false intelligence. ‘A quick and decisive victory is what we need!’ seemed to be Kadlow’s favourite, and only, input during the campaign. Two months of his snide comments, of his sordid claims of negligence. What did nobles know of war? Quickdraw had to resist the urge to spit in the mud. Kadlow was the worst, but far from the only one. Eldest sons of loyal Adels and Adaelles to the Pral, sent on their first command for the glory of their household names. War was not the place for egotistical upstarts. War was the place for the hardy, for the brave. For those willing to die.
Men like Quickdraw. Men like those below him. Men like the sentries patrolling the encampment, unaware that their deaths could be seconds away. All Quickdraw had to do was raise his bow and let fly. He wouldn’t, of course, but he knew he could. To hold a man’s life in your hands like that … it was a feeling Quickdraw never got used to. He would kill, he had killed, but it never got easy. You don’t think as it happens. You watch the arrow sail, or feel the blade puncture flesh and it feels as natural as getting out of bed in the morning. Then it hits you later. The guilt, the remorse. Funny thing, feeling remorse for a man you never knew. For a man who fights for the opposite of what you do. Against you. Guilt shatters all barriers of race and beliefs. Makes you question if your cause is just. Which, of course, it wasn’t. Quickdraw knew that. Killing could never be a just cause. But duty came before justice to him, and that was all that mattered. His duty was to report on the enemy’s activity, and that was what he planned to do.
With one last, sweeping look over the encampment, Quickdraw slunk back down the hill, the damp still clinging to his now sodden gambeson.
Arms raised, bow slung across his shoulder. There was no way he could appear less threatening. Yet his appearance prompted warning cries each time he re-entered camp.
“Hold! Hands above your head!”
“They already are, Kampa.”
“Oh, it’s you. False alarm, guys – it’s only Quickdraw!”
He supposed he couldn’t fault Kampa. He was only doing his job, after all. It was a testament to his hard work that no enemy had managed to surprise them. Yet. Their location had been well chosen: there was only one direction for the enemy to attack from, unless they fancied scaling the steep cliffs on either side of them. Much of the credit should go to Quickdraw for finding it, but he was sure the nobles would claim it as their own.
“What news you got for us?”
Quickdraw shook his head. “You know the drill. Council first, then the troops. It’d be my head if gossip reached them before I did.”
Kampa gave a gruff laugh. “Kadlow would love that, I’m sure.” He spat at his feet. “Dusk was looking for you earlier.”
“Aye, sounds like her.” With a nod of thanks, Quickdraw made his way through the outskirts of the camp, greeting those who cared about his reappearance. Respect was hard-earned in a company that war brought together. Mercenaries fought for gold; patriots, such as Quickdraw, fought for their countries. Then there were the conscripts, dragged into fields of muddy hell by their liege-lords, who fought out of demand, not out of choice. Those men Quickdraw pitied. Maybe they saw it in his face. They always had a greeting for him. Not cheery, but recognition. That was the respect he thought he needed, and deserved.
As always, Dusk had a way of creeping up on him just like her namesake. None padded as softly as she, nor as covertly. It was just a shame brashness overcame tactical sense for the most part. She would’ve made a great leader otherwise.
“Aye, as I always am.” She was so young. Couldn’t be past her teenage years yet. Far too young for war and death.
“One day you won’t be. Then what? What becomes of us?”
“Not this again.” It came out as a growl. Dusk at least had the sense to look sheepish. As always, though, it didn’t stop her from blundering on.
“We respect you, Quickdraw. I respect you. But you won’t always be here. The Shades need a second-in-command, for when our captain doesn’t return.”
“Whip’s been with me the longest; if I don’t come back then you follow him.”
“Whip? The man’s a prick. We’d be at each other’s throats by the end of the second day.” Dusk’s unsaid nomination was written across her face, in her body language. The same as it always was.
“You’re too young, Dusk. You think the men wouldn’t follow Whip? How do you think they’d feel if they had to follow a teenager? And a girl at that.” Quickdraw shook his head. “Thinking like that is what gets men killed.”
“But if we need—”
“Enough, kid. You’re good, but your ego needs to be tamed. That’ll be your downfall, mark my words.
“Now, I need to report to the council. Other difficult children need to hear what I have to say.” Harsh, yet necessary. Soft words did little to dissuade Dusk’s desire for greatness. At least when he added weight to them she learnt modesty. For a while, at least.
The Shades were his responsibility. His men, his scouts. As immodest as it was, there was no Shades without him. He had always led them right. Towards the danger, that much was true, but what other option was there during war? No, he always led them out afterwards. Calculated risks that ended in success were the defining characteristics of a leader. With Dusk in charge, or even Whip, the Shades would lose the respect and reliability that Quickdraw had spent nigh on ten years of his life to achieve. It would be better for them all if – more likely when, with the way things were going – he fell, that the group disbanded. Legacies were important in war. A fervent belief of Quickdraw’s was that a legacy was the founding stone for greatness. It could be built upon, increased, expanded. Joining more to your cause, filling the ranks, letting them swell for all to gaze at in awe. But there needed to be a starting point, a reason for popularity. Even within the Shades such could be said.
Quickdraw was the forefather, the first. Then came Whip, whom he took on as his apprentice. Ten years on and Whip was a man with countless missions of experience under his belt. The others had cropped up throughout their long years together. Snake, Sharpeye, Feline. The promising recruits. Each had earned the rank of the Named – reputable scouts, yet far from leaders. Each one had their roles, their responsibilities. And Quickdraw governed them, the anchor that kept them from drowning; the shield that kept death at bay. It was cocky for him to think it, yet he knew it to be true. The others knew it, too. The Shades would be incomplete without Quickdraw, as Quickdraw would be lost without them. Faults and all.
The anticipation grew as he neared the tent, as it always did. Tent was a loose term to use. Pavilion seemed more appropriate. Obtuse and garish, the muddy red canvas was as noticeable as an angry mob. The council – those elevated to states of command through a variety of mediums – lived, argued and dictated inside. A centre room held the map of the area, numerous chairs surrounding it. Branching off in each direction were the pathways to the accommodations and food halls. It was comfort away from home. Whilst the rest of the soldiers were left to shelter where they could, the ones lucky enough to afford tents were given that luxury. Anger rose with the anticipation, as it always did. Not only did the Generals and the nobles languish in comfort, letting the little people, their pawns, suffer in mud and death, but also did they have no sense of discretion? An enemy scout could spot their position, high upon the hill as it was, from a mile off. Quickdraw had no doubt the enemy knew where they were already. How long would it be before the enemy acted? They were well-placed, that was true, but if an attack was launched, if it did indeed end up being them on the defensive, then what? They had nowhere to run, save for a thirty foot drop on to the rocks below. They were entrenched as best they could be, but would it be enough? Such was the burden Quickdraw was faced with every day.
“Ho, Quickdraw,” one of the guards at the entrance to the tent said. His helm shadowed his face but Quickdraw knew his voice and could imagine the grin underneath.
“Lieutenant Zarav, surprised to find you on guard duty.”
Zarav shrugged, his great armour rattling as he did. “S’not so bad. We get to share in the food, even have a fire next to our beds. Plus I have Riordan here for company.” He jerked his head towards the guard adjacent to him.
Quickdraw looked into his helmet and could feel the eyes staring back. Steely, cold, almost emotionless. It made him feel uncomfortable. Quickdraw nodded, but received nothing in return.
“The council in?” he asked, turning his attention back to Zarav.
“Dah. Squawking like little chicks, as always. You got to report?”
“Aye, sadly I do. Let’s grab a drink when your duties are done.”
“Aye,” Zarav said, mocking the use of the word. “Riordan will join us as well, won’t you, friend?” Riordan didn’t respond.
Shaking his head but not quite hiding his smile, Quickdraw entered the tent. Zarav came from across the sea; no one knew where, he was secretive about that. But his accent and complexion made it impossible to hide his origins entirely. Even without speech, the knight’s armour he wore could not entirely hide it. Small mannerisms, different to their own culture, made Zarav stand out. The common belief was he came from the Western Isles, before regicide had turned it into a bloodbath. Oddly there was no nicer man in their whole company. Always smiling, that one. It was a strange change from the grim faces that were usually worn around the camp.
Quickdraw could hear the bickering as soon as the flaps closed behind him. It grew progressively louder, more irate, grinding against him. How could men with so much power act like children when it came to plans? Silence yielded more results than arguing could. Quickdraw himself was proof of that.
The arguing stopped as he entered the room. There were only four in the room – such loud noises for such a small contingent. Three he knew; the fourth was a stranger to him. The mystery woman looked at him with suspicion. Maybe a touch of fear, too. Who could blame her? Quickdraw was slight, not much to look at. But he wore his scars with pride. Scars he’d earned fighting for his country, for saving the lives of his men. If they brought fear into the hearts of lesser men or women, then war was not the place for them.
“Quickdraw, what news do you bring?”
He had always liked Marshall Galro. Pleasant enough, with a mind constantly analysing, planning. Just as a leader should be. He wore a thin, strained smile, yet Quickdraw knew it was not directed at him. Time spent with Kadlow would do that to any man.
“Marshall,” Quickdraw said with a smart half-nod and bow. He turned his attention towards General Kadlow. Mutual disdain passed between them. “General, sir.” Kadlow grunted in response.
Quickdraw turned again. “A surprise to see you here, too, General Tardinaut. Things go well in the west?”
“Victory is close,” Tardinaut said. “My liege thought I would be better utilised out here.” Quickdraw could not fault that. Tardinaut was known to lead a fine contingent, their loyalty unwavering, their courage never failing. A welcome addition, in Quickdraw’s opinion.
“Report, soldier,” Kadlow all but snarled.
Quickdraw ignored him. “Forgive me, Marshall, yet I do not know our final guest.”
“You dare!” the woman said, fear and suspicion replaced by anger. “Marshall Galro, you allow your men to address me such?!”
“Ease, my Sera. He meant no offence. Caution is why Quickdraw stands before us still. He is the leader of the Shades.” The woman’s eyes widened at that. Some anger abated, but not all. Quickdraw had a feeling he had just made another enemy. “Quickdraw,” the Marshall continued, “this is Sera Mausfiend, an emissary from the Eastern King. She comes to lend us strength.”
Quickdraw bowed low. Not low enough to symbolise deep respect, but enough to be polite. “It is an honour, Sera Mausfiend. I apologise for my callous suspicion. We welcome any help King Jaramiar can provide.” He was always proud that he could sound eloquent when the moment required.
“The fault is mine,” Mausfiend said, with a minute bow of her own. Polite, yet with underlying hostility. A bow befitting Quickdraw’s station of a common soldier. “Caution saves lives; I cannot fault you for that.”
“Well, Quickdraw?” Marshall Galro asked. “What of our enemy? What does the South have planned?”
“They are well-fortified. They’re dug deep into the valley, watchers patrolling at all times. Deep trenches dug, palisades up with more coming. They aim to stay.”
Galro grunted, as though he had been waiting for such news. “What course of action would you recommend?”
“At the moment, sir, none. We know where they are; guaranteed they know where we are, too. No doubt if we moved word would reach their encampment before we arrived. Give them plenty of time to bulk their defences more.”
“Preposterous!” Quickdraw had been expecting it, but it did not stop the resentment from boiling up inside him. “It is false intel,” Kadlow continued, even rising from his seat in a misaligned sense of passion. “A quick and decisive victory is what we need! We must march with our full force and smash their puny defences!”
“Did you not hear what Quickdraw just said?” Galro’s voice was strained. “I understand your position and I assure you we all share your desire for a swift victory. But we cannot risk the lives of our men on all-out charge when the odds are stacked against us.”
Kadlow spluttered in protest, before withdrawing under the fiery looks the others gave him.
“I, for one, will not risk my countrymen on an adolescent whim.” Respect for Sera Mausfiend bloomed in Quickdraw as he watched General Kadlow visibly shrink.
“Quickdraw is right,” Tardinaut said, nodding in the scout’s direction. “Your words are courageous, General Kadlow, and certainly there are times when boldness is favoured. A trait you have inherited from your father. Adel Kadlar was a bold and effective leader. We do not doubt your strategic mind but in this case it would do more harm than good to assault the enemy’s position. Your time for glory will come, do not forget that. We’ll be counting on you.”
Tardinaut was a diplomat if there ever was one. It had been a brutal dismissal, disguised as high praise. It worked wonders at quelling, even if it came with the heavy price of bolstering Kadlow’s ego.
“Yes, sir!” Kadlow said, snapping into rigidness, bowing in Tardinaut’s direction. Equal in rank, yet the difference in class was staggering. Tardinaut had seen endless warfare, countless victories. Kadlow was green, an inexperienced whelp in well over his head. Quickdraw had to hide his smile.
“Is there anyone else here with a less … reckless plan?” Galro addressed the company at large.
“How much harm could you and your men do?” Mausfiend asked Quickdraw. It sounded like a challenge.
“Not as much as I would like,” Quickdraw admitted. There was a thin line between self-confidence and cockiness, with one major difference: cockiness led to unnecessary death. “We could pick their sentries off from a distance but there’s no way of stealing entry into that camp. It’s built more like a fort. A temporary one, but just as unassailable.”
“We need a closer look,” Mausfiend declared. “Quickdraw, you will lead to your vantage point so I can survey the area for myself.” It was not a request. The hierarchy left Quickdraw with little room for manoeuvre. Alliances had been lost over smaller things.
“I am yours to command, my Sera,” Quickdraw said, bowing once more. “I will bring two of my Shades, too. That way the path ahead will be kept clear.”
“I’ll come, too,” Galro said. “Perhaps seeing it will spark some plan in my aging mind.”
“Then I shall accompany you as we—”
“No,” Quickdraw said, cutting across Tardinaut before he could finish. “Forgive me, General, but five is already a greater risk than I would like to take. I would advise staying here with General Kadlow, in an attempt to formulate a plan of your own.”
Tardinaut’s composure spoke volumes of the respect between the two of them. They had fought together on multiple occasions, Tardinaut finding a useful tool in Quickdraw’s covert team. In turn, Quickdraw admired Tardinaut’s patriotism and tactics. He was more than willing to follow that man, to the death, if necessary.
Quickdraw’s gaze flicked towards Kadlow and Tardinaut’s eyes widened ever so slightly. Unspoken understanding passed between them. If one General went, then the other would insist on coming, too. Having Kadlow blundering through the overgrowth was the last thing any of them needed.
“Very well, Quickdraw,” Tardinaut said with a nod. “We shall await your report here when you return.”
There were only two Shades with better eyes than Quickdraw. Both appropriately Named, too.
Eagle scouted ahead, unperturbed by the dew still clinging to the long grass. He had been the third man Quickdraw had recruited when the Shades first formed. A man of few words, he kept his thoughts and feelings closeted. A difficult man to read, but a remarkable scout. Quickdraw liked to think a bond had grown between them but, in truth, he had no idea what Eagle thought of him. He still followed him, though, did he not, even after their long years together? That had to count for something.
Dusk scouted around them, in sweeping circles. It was a tactic Quickdraw utilised, especially when he had to guide the uninitiated. Eagle would find a safe path for them, whilst Dusk made sure their trail had not picked up any unwanted attention. Quickdraw’s job was to guide their guests as quietly as he could, along the path laid out by Eagle.
To Mausfiend’s credit, she left little imprint with her footing. A little sloppy here and there, but Quickdraw could tell she had been trained in stealth. Mayhaps a long time ago, but some things you never forgot.
Marshal Galro on the other hand, was a lost cause. An excellent leader of men but an atrocious scout. Quickdraw had signalled Dusk to widen her circle fairly early on. Sound travelled, particularly in woods that housed no locals. Galro’s footsteps crunched leaves and twigs, squelched in mud, even the occasional curse escaping his lips. Their whole operation could be compromised, yet Galro was the Marshal. He instructed, and Quickdraw followed, more or less without resistance. Sure, he could advise and make suggestions, but ultimately when the Marshal made a decision, that decision was final. It was a lesson any soldier knew, regardless of rank.
And so they made slow progress, Quickdraw keeping their pace to a minimum, in an attempt to reduce the noise from Galro’s booted missteps. Tedious would be a kind word for their progress. It was not even midday and Quickdraw could feel the tension from the two uninitiated. The Marshal infuriated with his own clumsiness; Sera Mausfiend at the clumsiness of her ally. Quickdraw worried what affect this experience would have on their two countries.
He was not sure how much influence Mausfiend held with the Eastern King, but he was sure that somewhere in her report, she would include how the leader of their army lacked the appropriate discretion when called upon.
It would be unfair to expect the Marshal to have some innate ability for scouting. That wasn’t his role. He had people, like Quickdraw, to fill those roles for him. A Marshal could not be expected to be seen wading through wet grass. It was preposterous for a leader to be sneaking around. Quickdraw knew Galro had seen plenty of action, heard tales of his spectacular deeds and rise to leadership. He was a soldier, a man feared with sword and shield, revered as a leader of armies. Not a scout. It still did not stop Quickdraw’s patience from wearing thin.
Eagle signalled for them to stop, and they dropped into a low stance. “Ten twelve,” Eagle said, coming back to join them. Quickdraw nodded, his heart beating faster. Eagle set off again, and a few seconds later, their group set off, too. If Mausfiend or Galro were expecting an explanation, they didn’t voice it. The less they knew the better, in Quickdraw’s opinion. He crept forwards, hand tight around his bow, fingers flexing. He licked his lips in anticipation. Then Eagle whistled.
There was a reason Quickdraw was Named so. He had earned it a long time ago, first meant in jest. Now it was his, his birth name forgotten but to a few.
He drew, notched, swivelled and released in two seconds flat, sharp eyes locking on in an instant. The arrow sailed. Its target didn’t even have time to react. The arrow lodged itself in the neck, cutting off any cry for alarm. Quickdraw remained crouched, listening, searching, in case there were more in the overgrowth. It didn’t seem so. With a nod, Eagle confirmed his suspicions. Their whole group visibly relaxed.
“A notable feat,” Mausfiend said quietly. She almost even looked impressed. “Some sort of code?”
Quickdraw nodded, drawing a circle in the wet grass. “Imagine a sundial and twelve markers. As we’re heading now, ten twelve would make the direction that way.” He pointed north-west, towards the dead scout that Eagle was now examining. “All Shades have been trained in this way. It leaves the enemy unsuspecting until the last minute.”
Eagle whistled again, beckoning them over.
The enemy looked almost peaceful in death, if not for the fear that had reached his eyes in the last second of his life. It never got easy, ending a life. Especially not one so young. The boy barely had hair on his chin. Quickdraw wondered what his name was, what he fought for. A patriot? Or a conscript? You could never tell.
Not that it made any difference. War was war. Corpses were inevitable. It would do them no good to get caught up on the death of one young boy.
“They’re watching this area,” Quickdraw murmured. “Five was too big of a risk. Let’s make our way to the viewpoint quickly. I don’t want to linger with the dead when we could soon be following.”
He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but the Marshal’s footfalls seemed lighter than before. Perhaps the ease at which they had been spotted had scared him into watching where his feet went.
Quickdraw recalled Dusk as they neared the hill with the encampment below it. “Eagle will be our safety net,” he said, nodding to Eagle as he did. “I want you to survey the camp with us. Call it a learning experience, if you wish.” Dusk only nodded in response but Quickdraw could tell she was excited. It was in her eyes, the one thing she found impossible to mask.
Together, they slid along their bellies towards the edge. None of them complained, though the discomfort of sodden clothes was felt by all, Quickdraw was sure.
There was a sharp intake of breath from Galro when they reached the edge. They’d been busy. Men flocked in and out of the camp, preparing for what Quickdraw could not guess. Wagons laden with provisions trundled into the camp. More followed, men pouring out of them once stopped.
“Well, Dusk?” Quickdraw whispered. “What would you suggest?”
She swallowed but gave no reply.
“We need to bolster our own defences,” Galro said. “A hundred gold says those wagons contain weapons. We don’t stand a chance if they assault our camp.”
“What of siege weapons?” Mausfiend asked. “What can we use?”
“Little that would be effective,” Quickdraw said, eyes still watching the valley below. “Trebuchets would be best, but they can’t navigate through this terrain.”
They all lay there for a while longer, watching, staring, a sense of foreboding stealing over Quickdraw. The enemy was gearing up for something, and they were powerless to stop it.
“We could waylay one of those wagons and disguise ourselves,” Dusk suggested, without much conviction.
“Aye, we could. Risky, though, and no guarantee it would work.”
“There’s never a guarantee anything will work,” Galro said, shifting in the grass. “Let’s return to camp. There’s nothing more to see here.”
“Wait, who’s that?”
Heads turned to the camp again. A lone figure on a horse was riding up to the encampment. Men seemed to shrink away from him, as though he was cleaving a path towards the entrance.
“We must leave.” It was Eagle’s voice that caught them unawares. Galro jumped; even Quickdraw felt his heart flutter. There was a sense of urgency to the Shade’s voice that he was not used to. “We must away. Away!”
“Aye,” Quickdraw muttered. “Let’s go.”
Marshal Galro was the first to move. He raised himself from the ground and with it a great pressure filled the air. It pressed against Quickdraw’s skull, a sense of dread swallowing him up. He closed his eyes and bit against his knuckles. It was all he could do to stop from crying out. He shrank into himself, curling his body, making himself as small as possible. Nothing helped.
The pressure abated as soon as it had come. The air felt empty without it, a void filled with anticipation. Quickdraw uncurled his body, his vision blurred, but through it, he saw something spitting towards them from below. It crackled and sparkled as it came, hissing its displeasure.
It struck Galro dead in the chest, blew him back, head cracking against a nearby tree. The smell of burning flesh overwhelmed Quickdraw’s senses. He was stunned, could not move. Even Eagle seemed frozen, staring down at the Marshal.
With a huge effort of will, Quickdraw crawled towards the slumped figure. His body felt weak, unable to function as it should.
A splatter of blood marked where the Marshal’s head had hit the tree. Blood trickled down the nape of his neck, eyes wide and unseeing. His skin still bubbled and boiled where the bolt had hit. A wave of nausea filled Quickdraw but he could not look away. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. He reached a hand out to touch it.
“Magecraft,” came the fearful whisper from behind him. He turned to see Lord Mausfiend staring at the blistering mass of flesh, white as a sheet, her whole figure quaking. “That was Magecraft. Magecraft. God’s Blood, we’re fighting a Weaver.”