This story is continued from Swan Warrior Parts 1, 2 & 3.
For the Silver Sword's Backgroung please refer to Forging and the 1st Unworthy.
Swan Warrior Part 4
Let the praise of God be on their lips and a two-edged sword in their hand, to deal out vengeance to the nations and punishment on all the peoples.
Psalm 149: 6-7
Norin had chosen to spend much of his time in Tayad’s camp and was there when the guards announced the guest. Yet he took little notice of this announcement until Tayad tapped his shoulder.
When Norin turned, Tayad said, “Someone is here to see you.”
Past the last huts, Tayad indicated a blonde girl who stood with her back to them as she spoke to a guard. Even from the back Norin recognized her.
She turned, locking her bright blue eyes on him. Norin noticed one of Oathswine’s warriors standing behind her. No doubt he was her escort.
“Norin, I’ve come because I’m afraid you’re in danger,” said Elena stepping closer and taking Norin’s hand. “My father moved our clan to the south near the Sardi border. This spring we met a gypsy who wandered in Sardi for many years and knew the language of that country. The gypsy said that the emperor of Sardi is offering a huge reward for the capture of the warrior with the sword of white fire, which I know is what the slavers call you. According to the gypsy, the emperor wants you brought to the temple in Sardi’s capital to be sacrificed to his gods. The emperor believes that the offering of your blood will please the gods enough that they will strengthen and bless his own warriors.”
Norin stared at her, his expression blank as he took in this news.
“The loss of a great warrior like Norin might dishearten the clans enough that the emperor’s troops might seem strengthened by gods,” said Tayad who stood listening a little behind Norin.
Elena nodded hard then continued, “I recently heard of slavers capturing the clans of chieftains Akayen and Milarko. I knew that when the news reached the allied clans you would want to ride to their rescue. Norin, I beg you, don’t go south. It is too dangerous for you.”
“It would be selfish of me leave clans in danger to protect myself,” Norin replied.
“Your enemies know that is how you think and they will use it against you,” said Elena.
“The other chieftains and I can still rescue Akayen and Milarko,” added Tayad. “There is no reason you need to come with us. We will need guards for the campsites after all.”
“No, I still intend to join the rescue party,” said Norin. “I swore to fight for the clans and that is what I will do even if I must die for it. The risks have always been high but that never stopped me before and the same is true now.”
He pulled his hand out of Elena’s grasp and turned to walk away from her.
Tayad fell into step beside him and commented, “We will have to be on guard if what she says is true. Keth and Fin should arrive soon. A messenger told me that Utaria and Wiltor have chosen to supervise the warriors guarding the campsites. We must be sure all the warriors in our rescue party know of this new development.”
Just then Elena ran up beside them, grabbed Norin’s arm and spun him to face her.
“Have you been listening to what I’ve been telling you?” she snapped. “The capture of Akayen and Milarko is probably a trap and you’re walking right into it!”
“Trap or not those clans need my help,” Norin shot back.
“Just for once can you not be so noble!” Elena cried getting more upset with every word. “If they catch you it won’t be the same as if you died in battle. If you are taken to Sardi your death will be so horrible I won’t be able to bring myself to think about it and I would never see you again, even dead!”
Tears streamed down her face. She took an angry swipe at Norin’s chest but he caught her arm mid-blow. With a look of defeat Elena collapsed on Norin’s shoulder, sobbing. With an uncomfortable look Tayad turned away from them. Norin stroked Elena’s hair until she calmed a little.
“If I remain here will you stay with me?” Elena whispered.
Norin sighed. “You know I can’t. Besides, you should return to your father’s camp. Your clan may need you.”
“Very well, but you better come back safe.” She pushed away from Norin and wiped her eyes.
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
He took her hand and they turned back to Tayad.
“I suggest we let Lady Elena ride with us as we make our way south until we pass her clan’s camp,” said Norin.
“All right,” Tayad agreed glancing at Elena as though not sure what to make of her.
Not long afterward a group rode out from the hidden campsites. They passed through plains and over hills where new grass was springing up, dotted with flowers which gave off perfumes fragrant enough to tickle the noses of the riders. The leaf-bearing trees were covered in fresh buds unrolling to stretch toward the sun which warmed the air and skin. Near the encampment of Chieftain Oathswine, Elena and her guard broke away from the warriors to head home but not before Elena had repeated her words of warning to Norin.
As they reached the border of Sardi the group noticed smoke rising from campfires whose lights dotted the land in the night. In the day-time they spotted dark robed riders who could only be soldiers of Sardi.
“The emperor must truly fear us to put this many troops on his border,” Keth commented.
“I only hope border patrol really is their only duty,” said Norin.
“We must be careful to avoid them if at all possible,” added Tayad.
At last they spotted men clothed in more simple robes who were using whips to drive a long line of people before them. Several soldiers rode beside the slavers as guards, forcing Norin and the chieftains to follow at a distance.
As the sun set, the slavers pitched their camp at the base of a small hill. The chieftains and their warriors stopped and dismounted in a nearby copse of trees where they watched the tents until full darkness fell. Tayad waved Norin and the other chieftains over to hold a whispered conference.
“Chieftain Fin and I will take a handful of warriors, scout out the area and hopefully take out a few of their guards. When I think it is safe I’ll make an owl noise and Chieftain Keth and Norin can lead the rest of the warriors into the camp to free the prisoners.”
Fin added, “We should leave the horses here. We’ll be quieter and harder to spot without them.”
The others agreed. So Fin and Tayad chose a few warriors and crept toward the slavers’ campsite. Norin waited with the remaining warriors for several long agonizing minutes before he heard Tayad’s signal. He drew his sword and waved forward the warriors. A quick glance at Keth confirmed that the chieftain was doing the same.
The group slipped almost noiselessly between the tents. Everything was so quiet that the place seemed deserted. Wary of attack, Norin watched the dark landscape for movement and listened for a sound which would betray the presence of a watching slaver. By the time he reached the center of camp with the warriors there was still no sign of life. At last they saw the captive clans-people where they sat chained. As Norin approached with Keth close behind, a bound man looked up, took in the Silver Sword and raised his fearful eyes to Norin’s face.
“You should never have come,” the man said.
The soft rustle of fabric and a muffled groan as someone collapsed behind him alerted Norin to danger. He whirled just as a slaver charged him holding a scimitar. He raised the Silver Sword to catch the blow but it never came. The slaver reeled backward with an arrow imbedded in his chest. Norin turned to see Keth’s archer standing behind him, his bow still raised. As the archer reached for another arrow the rest of the slavers rose from their hiding places, ringing in the warriors. Norin’s heart pounded as he saw that they were completely surrounded. The archer fired again, hitting the arm of a slaver advancing on Keth. The slaver cursed in the Sardi language. One of his companions standing behind the archer raised an arm.
Norin cried a warning and leapt toward the slaver but he was not fast enough. With a gasp of surprise and pain the archer fell, his bow slipping from his hand and a throwing knife protruding from his back.
Norin leapt at the man who had thrown the knife and stabbed him before he could react. The remaining slavers closed in, making their ring around the warriors smaller. All around warriors fell, either killed or subdued by the slavers. Norin’s hands were now coated in cold sweat but he tightened his grip on his sword and forced himself to focus, swinging at his enemies every time they tried to come closer. The slavers danced away from the Silver Sword in fear, seeming reluctant to come too close to it.
Keth let out a cry that was half desperate howl and half plea for help. Norin turned just enough to see several slavers forcing the chieftain to his knees. A wave of panic washed over Norin. With the slavers threatening Keth his warriors would be forced to surrender. Thrusting his sword arm out to force his own attackers back several steps, Norin turned toward Keth then raised the Silver Sword to strike down the chieftain’s captors. Suddenly a whip snaked out and wrapped around Norin’s raised arm. The slaver holding it tugged, using Norin’s momentum against him. Norin’s feet slipped out from under him and he fell on his back at the feet of his enemies. His wrist was on fire with pain but he kept his grip on the Silver Sword.
As the slavers closed in on him Norin struggled to free his arm from the cords of the whip. He kicked away the arms of one man who reached for him and grasped at the Silver Sword with his left hand. One of the slavers kicked Norin’s jaw then grabbed his left arm and pinned it to the ground. The slaver holding the whip stepped forward and placed a foot on Norin’s right arm before untangling his whip. Norin writhed, trying in vain to swing his sword around and land a blow. With an evil grin the slaver shifted, resting his foot directly on Norin’s wrist which still stung from the whip. Norin gritted his teeth and tightened his hold on the Silver Sword. The slaver ground in his heel until Norin’s fingers opened and the sword slipped from his grasp. Norin gave a cry of despair as he saw it fall. The slaver stepped off of Norin’s arm, kicked the sword aside then jumped back as though it would bite him.
Norin swung his fist at the slaver. The man stepped back to avoid the blow then grabbed Norin’s arm and with the help of his companions forced Norin into a kneeling position. One of the slavers came forward with a pair of manacles. At the sight of them Norin renewed his struggles in a last desperate attempt to break free. One of the slavers hit the side of Norin’s head with the end of his scimitar just enough to throw him off balance. While Norin was still dazed from the blow, they succeeded in chaining his hands. One of the slavers removed his cloak and used it to pick up the Silver Sword, careful not to touch the weapon with his skin. He then nodded to his companions who moved to organize their prisoners.
Norin winced as loud commands were barked in the Sardi language. The slavers pulled him to his feet and forced him to walk at a hurried pace. All around the slavers brought the rest of the captives to their feet and herded them out of the campsite. Through his blurred vision Norin caught a brief glimpse of Keth chained with several of his warriors before the entire group made its way south at the urging of the slavers. Norin had just enough time to steal one last glance at the fallen warriors before he was pushed forward into a forced night march.
Norin’s body ached with exhaustion when the slavers called a halt. A slaver pushed him to a sitting position, produced a pair of shackles and fastened one end to Norin’s left ankle and the other to a sapling. Norin felt too weary to resist. Another man stepped forward with a bowl of water which he pressed to Norin’s lips, forcing him to drink. The liquid stung Norin’s parched throat. He coughed but managed to swallow most of it. As the slavers moved away he closed his eyes and leaned back against the tree. A sharp whisper caught his attention and ended any hope of dozing.
He opened his eyes and could just make out Keth straining against his chains to speak to him without drawing the attention of the slavers.
“Where do you suppose we are?” asked Keth.
Norin tried to decipher the hurried images of shapes he’d passed in the dark. He remembered a long line of campfires with soldiers patrolling between them and swallowed before replying, “We must have crossed the Sardi border nearly an hour ago.”
“I saw how the slavers feared your sword,” said Keth. “I’m surprised they brought it with them.”
“They probably need it to prove my identity to the emperor.”
An image of a bloody altar flashed into Norin’s mind. Please not like that, he silently prayed. He forced away the dark thought and balled his hands into fists to keep them from trembling.
Keth must have guessed at Norin’s thoughts for he said, “They still fear you too.”
Norin took a shaky breath then asked, “What do you think happened to Tayad and Fin?”
“I wish I knew. The signal was the last…”
There was a soft whistling sound and Keth gave a cry. A moment later the cord of a whip slapped Norin’s face leaving a burning sensation in its wake. A slaver barked something in the Sardi language. Though Norin and Keth did not understand the words the meaning was clear enough: no talking. Norin turned and glared at the man until he became uncomfortable and turned his back on them. Keth shifted closer to his warriors and the imprisoned clan members. Norin closed his eyes again. There was little chance of talking more that night.
Norin woke from a restless sleep to a rough kick in the side. A slaver stood over him holding another bowl of water. He bent and held it to Norin’s lips. Once Norin finished drinking the slaver dropped a small slice of bread before moving to the other prisoners. The bread tasted stale but Norin finished it anyway, unsure of when he would receive more nourishment.
Norin just swallowed the last bite when the slavers removed the chain from his ankle and pulled him to his feet. With cracks of their whips the slavers set their captives marching once more. As the day wore on the air became hot and heavy with humidity. The worn group entered a large tangled forest which seemed to stretch on without end. As the day moved toward its end and the shadows lengthened, Norin wondered how many days journey it was to Sardi’s capital from the border. Once darkness fell the slavers made camp following a similar pattern to the previous night. This time they watched Norin and Keth more closely, keeping them from speaking to each other.
Morning found the camp in chaos. Slavers ran here and there shouting at each other and turning out the contents of their tents. Norin watched them in silence without making out the reason for the confusion.
At last a slaver approached him and demanded, “Where sword of white fire?”
When Norin just stared at him in shock the slaver slammed his fist into his temple and yelled, “Where?”
“When have I had the chance to take it?” Norin snapped.
The slaver looked at him blankly.
“I don’t know.”
The slaver made a quick search of the area where Norin was chained as though he thought he might find the Silver Sword hidden there. After satisfying himself that Norin didn’t have it, he checked Norin’s bonds and moved away casting a nervous glance over his shoulder.
Taking advantage of the slavers confusion, Keth called, “Norin, if the sword went missing right under their noses it can only mean one thing.”
“What’s that?” Norin asked.
“Tayad is still alive.”
Norin thought of all the times he had watched Tayad slip silently into an enemy camp to raid their supplies and knew Keth was right. Who but Tayad could have stolen the Silver Sword with the slavers watching it? The hope this idea sparked set Norin’s body tingling with excitement. Perhaps all was not lost yet.
The slavers were on edge as they forced their captives farther south that day. Just before midday the group crossed paths with a number of soldiers. One of the slavers hailed them and spoke rapidly in the Sardi tongue. Though he could not understand what was said, Norin guessed that the slavers were explaining the disappearance of the Silver Sword and asking for the protection of the soldiers. The captain accepted with a few short words and his men joined the slavers’ guards and rode with the party for several hours.
Just as the path became lighter and the trees thinned, marking the edge of the forest, the captain of the soldiers gave a sharp cry. The soldiers and slavers’ guards drew their weapons. The slavers stared at them in confusion then cried out in fear as a man at the front of the group drew the Silver Sword from under his cloak. This soldier removed his helmet revealing the face of Chieftain Fin. Norin turned toward the captain and recognized him as Tayad.
Tayad dismounted and holding a black scimitar in a threatening position, stepped closer to a slaver.
“Give me your keys,” Tayad ordered.
The slaver stared at him in terror and confusion and babbled something Norin doubted
he would understand even if he spoke Sardi. Tayad stepped closer to one of Akayan’s men and pantomimed unlocking his chains.
“Keys,” he repeated.
Fin also dismounted and stepped forward, emphasizing Tayad’s command by placing the tip Silver Sword under the man’s chin. The other slavers stepped as far as they could away from Fin and one of them produced a ring of keys. Tayad nodded to one of his disguised warriors who took the keys and split them between several other warriors who worked to free the prisoners. The rest of the warriors moved to disarm the slavers. As the slow process of freeing the clansmen proceeded, several slavers fell to their knees, pleading with Tayad in their own language. Tayad snapped a sharp single word at them in Sardi and they quieted, cowering from him in fear.
Once Keth was freed from his chains he stepped toward Tayad glaring at the slavers in hate. Norin held out his arms as one of the warriors stepped toward him to test several keys on his chains before he found the right one.
“Let’s kill them and get out of this cursed empire,” Keth said.
Tayad drew a knife from his belt, handed it to the other chieftain and gestured at the kneeling slavers saying, “They’re all yours.”
“I have a better idea,” said Norin.
He picked up the manacles which fell from his own hands, stepped toward the nearest slaver and fastened them on the man’s wrists. Turning to the warriors who were freeing the few remaining prisoners, Norin commanded, “Bring those chains over here once you finish.”
Fin moved toward Norin, bowed his head and offered him the Silver Sword. As Norin closed his fingers around the hilt he felt relieved and whole again. Fin smiled and drew his own sword.
“What should we do with these?” asked a voice from behind them.
Norin turned to see the warriors holding the chains as he had instructed.
“Chain the slavers together,” he said. “Show them their own cruelty.”
Tayad smirked and nodded. The slavers tried to back away as the warriors moved to bind them. Norin stepped forward and used their fear of the Silver Sword to herd them into position.
Stepping close to stare directly into the face of one terrified slaver Norin said, “Give my regards to your emperor.”
Grabbing a whip from the pile of weapons at Tayad’s feet he gave it a loud crack sending the slavers tripping over each other in their hurry to get away from him.
“Everyone grab a weapon and find a horse,” Tayad ordered once the slavers were out of earshot. “We will need to ride north quickly before the emperor receives Norin’s message.”
Tayad and Fin had gathered all the warriors’ horses plus those of a group of Sardi soldiers they had defeated several days earlier. Much of the herd they left with a guard a few miles behind the slavers. Between these animals they were able to get the newcomers from Akayan and Milarko’s clans mounted though in several cases two people shared one horse. Most the other riders also carried a small child or two in the front of their saddles. They rode hard through the rest of the day and on into the night. The constant noise of pounding hooves filled their ears. They made only a few short stops to rest and water the horses.
At the northern border of Sardi Tayad and Fin ordered their warriors to dispose of the Sardi armor.
“It helped us get into the empire but I don’t want clansmen shooting us down thinking we are enemies,” said Tayad.
The unwanted gear was deposited in a ditch. After a moment’s hesitation, Tayad picked up a black scimitar and buckled its sheath to his belt.
Noticing Norin watching his actions with amusement, Tayad explained, “It’s a good weapon. I’d hate for it to go to waste.”
Several hours later as dawn lit up the world; Norin spotted the first of the pursuing soldiers as dark spots on the edge of the horizon. Though the clansmen never slowed their pace, the soldiers gained on them as the day progressed. By the afternoon Norin knew the pursuers would overtake them. He drew the Silver Sword in preparation for a fight and saw the chieftains and warriors do the same.
Before the soldiers came close enough to exchange blows with the warriors, a sudden hail of arrows rained down on them. Several men of Sardi fell under the shots while their horses reared and panicked. In the confusion that followed a new group of warriors rode out of the surrounding hills and dispatched the few remaining soldiers. Norin recognized Oathswine at their head. As the last soldier fell and everyone sheathed their weapons, Oathswine wheeled his horse around to ride at Norin’s side.
“Are there more of them?” Oathswine asked.
“These were the first, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the emperor’s army follows before long.”
Oathswine’s brow darkened and he said, “Utaria just sent word that a large army is advancing on the rest of the allied clans from Rovinien.”
“Then we must return to them as quickly as possible!” cried Norin.
Oathswine moved his horse to block Norin’s path and said, “I won’t let you ride yourself to death. Come back to my camp, rest, hear our news then continue your journey.”
“We should do as he says,” said Keth, who had overheard this conversation. “I know you must be as exhausted as I am and we won’t make it much farther in such a state. Besides, we have Akayan and Milarko’s clans to think of.”
Norin turned toward Tayad whose face wore a worried expression though he said nothing. Norin returned his attention to Oathswine and gave a slight nod.
“Come with me and hurry!” called Oathswine waving them after him.
Oathswine and his warriors led them over the hills and into a thin gulch where they were forced to ride single file. After a few short minutes they moved out of the gulch and into a wooded hollow which sheltered Oathswine’s camp. Norin thought about the advancing troops and realized he was the cause of their wrath. A sudden fear came over him that by fighting so hard to save the clans he had actually brought about their destruction.
Story continued in Swan Warrior Part 5.