CHAPTER ONE

Lightning flashed across a blue-black sky. Sheets of icy rain lashed the ground with an almost ferocious intent, as though the weather were trying to purge the land of some past sin.

A lone rider braved the storm and pushed his horse further into the night. Across the rain soddened heathland plunged rider and steed, each of them soaked to the bone and chilled by the constant onslaught of freezing water. The hooves of the powerful mount threw great chunks of grass and soil into the air which came back to earth to form a muddy track leading to the animal. The rider was aware of this and knew that his enemies would soon be within sight of him.

As they reached the brow of a hill, the rider saw his objective. The forest edge, dark and forbidding beckoned to him. A place where men had once feared to tread at night had become a place of refuge to some. For in these troubled times, the old enemy, night, had become a powerful ally to the men and women who struggled against the forces of a more sinister darkness.

The horse paused for a moment at the top of the hill and the rider risked a quick, furtive glance backwards. Although he could not see them, he knew that his foes were following him. Unseen in the enveloping blackness of the storm, he could hear them coming. Spurring on his mount, they plunged down the hill towards the black line of trees.

The rider could now hear his enemies' approach above the storm. A strange growling, whining that filled the air, drowning out the hissing of the rain. Only the massive bursts of thunder were of equal intensity.

"Come on, Darak," said the rider to himself. "Not much farther to go."

The trees were only a few hundred metres from the rider when the first of his pursuers cleared the ridge behind him. Hovering several metres above the soggy heath, the great, black ship resembled some titanic prehistoric insect about to pounce upon some lesser, more insignificant prey. With rivulets of cold water streaming down its hull, the craft waited until two more of its kind came roaring to its side. Then, with a primordial roar, the three ships headed after the single horseman.

Hearing the approach of his enemy, Darak urged his horse on. He knew that if he failed in his mission, his entire world would succumb to the terrifying darkness of these devil sent invaders.

With a deafening whoosh and a flash like a million lanterns, the ground ahead of them erupted in a shower of dirt and grass. The rider thought that lightning had struck the before him, but then another blast sent more earth flying into the air.

With the forest only metres away, Darak dared to look back. His jaw dropped in terror. Three massive fighting ships were bearing down upon him. Bolts of pure energy rained down from their bodies and the ground shook under the onslaught of the alien fire.

Then, just when he thought that he was going to surely die, his horse carried him into the forest. The whine of the fighters and the roar of their weapons faded as the rider dove deeper into the protective canopy of trees, their mighty forms concealing him from the monsters above.

Only when he could no longer hear the invaders did Darak slow his horse and breathe a huge sigh of relief. All he wanted to do was rest. Both he and the horse were completely exhausted, almost to breaking point. But he knew that he could not rest until he reached his destination, which lay somewhere in the forest around him.

Beast and man continued further into the bowels of the forest. Several times, the rider dozed, only to be awakened abruptly when a branched or fern brushed against his face. The horse did not care if the man slept or not. It knew where it was going.

Slowly, the rain began to abate and the storm moved on to ravage another part of the land. By the time dawn broke, the sky was cloudless and the moon could be seen clearly against the brightening sky. The rider's spirits began to rise and soon he was whistling. Even the horse seemed to pick up the tempo of its gait, keeping time with Darak's tune. He was whistling the Song Of Victory, which had been sung in the Great Hall of his father's village when a battle had been won. That seemed like a thousand years ago to Darak.

He clearly remembered the last time he had sung the Song Of Victory. The noblest warriors of his clan had been gathered in the Great Hall. A fine victory against their enemies to the north had gained new pastures for their cattle and flocks. So, spread around the mighty banqueting table, the warriors had begun to sing the song:

   "Let God smile upon us,
   For we are victorious,
   Our foes are crushed beneath our
   Horses hooves.
   "Our enemies lie broken in the fields,
   By God's hand we are indestructible,
   We vanquish our foes in His name,
   And he will protect us."

With the last line of the song still hanging in the air, the massive oak doors had burst open and the invaders came pouring in. Warriors leapt to their feet and drew deadly, glimmering swords.

Expecting the intruders to brandish hand weapons of their own, several men rushed to meet them. Pulling strange, black metal devices from their equally black armour, the invaders brought down the first wave of warriors with an ear-splitting whine and an ungodly crimson flash.

Seeing their comrades felled so easily, many men panicked and fled the hall out of the small door at the side. However, the enemy was waiting for them there. They died as quickly as their friends.

Throughout all of this, Darak had stood in awestruck horror, his sword still sheathed. Then from his side, he saw his father, the chief, leap forward to engage the invaders. His great double-edged axe whistled above his head and before they knew what had happened, two of the enemy had been decapitated. Their twitching bodies slumped to the ground as the chief rushed past into the stunned group of raiders. The rider gasped at the bodies of the two fallen foes and gasped in amazement. The blood pumping from their bodies was black. As black as the weapons they bore and the armour they were encased in.

Spurred on by their leader's success, the remaining warriors plunged into the knot of aliens, driving them back out of the Great Hall. Darak drew his sword and followed them out into the daylight.

The invaders had retreated to a huge, squat building that had appeared in the centre of the dusty village square. It was like no construction that Darak had ever seen. Its walls were like no brick he had ever seen used; sunlight glinted off its massive, black frame, which resembled a gigantic swarthy reptile more than a dwelling.

As he gazed up at this magnificent construction, the invaders formed a perimeter around the beast. An unbroken cordon of black-garbed demons each with its weapon directed outwards at the charging warriors. Then they began firing.

The smell of sulphur filled the air as crackling bolts of vermilion lightning issued from the aliens' weapons. Warrior after warrior fell to the ground as blackened, charred corpses. Darak saw his father struck in the arm by an energy bolt and rushed to his side. Two other warriors also came to their chief's aid and together they pulled him to safety inside the hall.

The sounds of battle echoed outside the hall as the three men tried desperately to stem the flow of blood from the wounded chief's arm. Suddenly, a single intruder appeared at the side door and fired a shot, striking Darak's father in the chest. The young man reacted swiftly, pulling out his dagger and sending it streaking into the alien's neck. With a gurgle and a final gasp, the creature fell lifeless to the floor.

Turning back to his father, Darak and his comrades tried furiously to save the chief. It soon became apparent, however, that his wounds were fatal. The old man lifted his trembling hand and took hold of his son's arm.

"You must avenge us, my son," he whispered. "These invaders are devil-sent spawn and cannot be stopped by mere men. Escape, Darak."

"No, father. I will not leave you here!" screamed the desolated youth.

"You must, boy. Go!" He coughed, flecks of blood appearing on his smooth chin. "Take as many of my men as you can. Flee to the forest and plan my revenge."

The chief stiffened, his breath coming in short, laboured gasps. The three warriors looked to each other, not one of them knowing what to do to ease their leader's suffering. The chief seemed to relax momentarily and beckoned for his son to move closer.

"My son," he rasped. "You must go to the great southern forest. Seek out the Seer. He knows of many things; maybe he knows of a way to defeat these demons. seek him out or all is lost. Take my horse, Jeran. He knows the way." The chief stiffened again, his breathing becoming more erratic. "My son  I love you." After a final spasm of agony, he slumped back and died.

Darak rose to his feet, the whine of energy bolts still reverberating outside. He looked to his two friends, masks of grief for their dead leader.

"Keras, what do I do?" he asked. The taller of the two warriors stood up and took Darak's shoulders in his powerful hands. His face was as unlike Darak's as any could be. Where the younger man had smooth, clean shaven features, Keras wore a heavy, ginger beard and moustache. The clear portions of his face bore scars from the many battles he had fought alongside his chief, but his eyes were kindly, gentle orbs which now looked deep into his new leader's own unsteady gaze.

"My lord, you are now chief," he said in a voice as deep as the village well. "We follow you now. I suggest we do as your father wished and find this Seer."

Darak sighed and gazed down helplessly at his father's breathless body. He then looked to the doors of the Great Hall. The terrible sound of the aliens' death fire mingled with the high-pitched screams of men in their final moments to create a terrifying, hellish cacophony. He drew himself up, gathering every ounce of honour that remained in his young frame and stared straight at Keras.

"Very well, Keras," he said with a new determination in his voice. "Lochar, call back the men outside who still live. We will escape through the tunnels to the forest camp."

"But, my lord," replied the younger soldier. "What of the women and children? We can't leave them behind."

A pained expression washed across Darak's face. "I'm afraid that is what we must do. We will try to think of a way to get them away from the demons, but in the meantime, we must leave them behind and regroup our forces."

Keras glanced at the doors. The screams of the dying were gradually becoming less constant. "Lochar, go call our men," he ordered. "We must leave now, while we still have some warriors left to fight with!"

The warrior crossed to the door and peered out into the square. All across the ground lay the bodies of the dead and dying. Blood soaked into the dirt, mixing red and black to form a morass of purple death.

"EVERYBODY!" he yelled. "RETREAT! COME BACK TO THE HALL!"

The remaining handful of warriors broke from their respective fights and dashed towards the Great Hall. Flashing bolts of fire whooshed over their heads, but all of them made it inside. Outside, the invaders began advancing upon the building.

Keras pulled back one of the huge drapes at the back of the room to reveal a low doorway. Steps lead down into impenetrable darkness.

The surviving warriors saw their chief lying dead on the floor and looked to Darak. Keras saw their reluctance to follow such a young man. Many of them had fought in battles before this boy had been born, but Keras knew where his loyalties lay.

"The chief is dead!" he rumbled to the knot of weary soldiers. "We now follow his son and heir. Come, we must go now."

Darak saw the look of distrust upon the faces of the warriors. He was aware that the demons would be advancing on the Hall and time was limited. He crossed the room to the body of the dead alien and pulled his dagger from its neck. He wiped its blood on his sleeve and sheathed the weapon on his belt. Returning to face his men, he took hold of the foremost warrior's shoulders.

"We must leave now, Selec. All depends on us few escaping to fight again."

"But what of out wives and children?" demanded the sullen fighter.

"We can only hope to God that those monsters do not harm them until we can find a way to rescue them." He released Selec, crossed to the tunnel entrance and grabbed a torch and set off down the passage. The other men looked to one another, then, taking torches of their own, shuffled after their new leader.

The tunnel's dark, damp course took it a few metres down a fairly steep gradient before levelling off and widening to allow three or four men to walk side by side comfortably. After a few minutes, the group of warriors came to a junction where the tunnel split into two directions. One passage led into darkness, but from the other tunnel, the faint glow of sunlight could be seen. The men headed down this second passage until they came to a thick wall of vegetation hanging before them.

Pulling aside the dangling vines, Keras took a furtive glance outside. Nearby stood a number of horses, standing patiently in their paddock. Beyond the animals stood an ominous line of trees, their trunks growing so close to each other that they formed a natural stockade around the clearing.

"The horses are alright, my lord," he hissed. "The invaders have not been here."

Darak nodded and crossed the cavern to a set of stalls where bridles and saddles of various sizes and designs were hanging. The other soldiers followed him and began choosing their own equipment with professional deftness.

"Keras," said Darak as the grizzled warrior unhooked his saddle from the wall. "Check the storeroom."

He nodded and strode across the cave to a small, wooden door set into the stone wall. Pulling it open and stooping to enter, Keras found himself inside a small antechamber, roughly hewn from the hard rock. All around him were hanging weapons of all types: swords of numerous sizes and conditions were stacked in large barrels; crossbows hung on the walls, their bolts piled neatly on the table below them; large, heavily-worn shields were stacked against the far wall, their outer surfaces showing signs of mildew. It was obvious that these weapons had not been utilised for many years. This was an emergency storeroom, the weapons kept here not maintained regularly and therefore not much use when they were needed. So much for forward thinking, thought Keras.

Behind him, in the tunnel, the warrior could hear activity. He went to the door and peered out. His comrades were leading the horses down the tunnel, enveloping darkness soon obscuring their forms. Keras left the storeroom and walked out into the sunlight. The vines fell back behind him, concealing the tunnel entrance once more. He saw his chief saddling up a handsome dappled grey charger and crossed to join him.

"My lord, the storeroom is fully laden with weapons," he reported. "Unfortunately, most of them are rusted and useless."

Darak turned when he had finished fastening the last of his saddle's leather straps and Keras could see that all evidence of the frightened young man had vanished. A true leader stood before him now. A leader that would ensure victory for his kinsmen against the black, demon warriors.

"Salvage what you can, Keras," said Darak. "I've checked the wagon, it seems usable. I'll join the others in the tunnel, you catch up when the wagon's loaded." The chief led his horse through the vines and disappeared from view.

Keras rushed across the paddock to where a small, two-wheeled cart was sitting patiently. Giving it a quick examination, he then returned to the stalls in the cavern. Grabbing a wagon harness, he exited to the paddock and took one of the horses. He led it to the wagon and fastened the beast to the straps, making certain that all was secure. Then he led the animal into the cavern and stopped by the storeroom door.

Flickering torchlight splashed grotesque shadows onto the walls of the tunnel as the warriors led their horses towards an uncertain future. The men walked in silence, only their footsteps and the hooves of their steeds echoed in the distant reaches of the passageway.

A few of them were reflecting upon their situation, trying futilely to comprehend their predicament. The enormity of the events of the past couple of hours had overwhelmed them. Their village had been overrun in a matter of minutes and most of their finest warriors had been massacred by a seemingly invincible foe.

Lochar was confused and afraid. Only yesterday, they had been victorious against their most feared enemy, the savage Ebor tribesmen of the northern plains. He wondered if their entire land had been conquered by the demons. Or even the whole world! Such a task seemed impossible to Lochar, but seeing the creatures' terrible weapons in action made the impossible seem a whole lot more probable. He glanced across at the man beside him.

It was Folcar, an experienced and extremely able warrior. He had seen more battles and killed more men than Lochar had seen sunrises, but now in the flickering light of the torches, this tough, veteran of countless skirmishes was crying. Tears of grief slid down his scarred cheeks and fell like melancholy dewdrops onto his leather armour. Lochar had never seen Folcar weep before and when the soldier's face turned to his, the younger warrior quickly snapped his head forward and concentrated furiously on the tunnel ahead.

Folcar saw Lochar's reaction and a wan smile touched his lips. A strong warrior should not be seen to cry, he thought. It was a clear sign of weakness. But Folcar had a wife and five children. They had abandoned them, left them behind at the mercy of the diabolical invaders. Had they been murdered by the dark demons? Had they been enslaved by the master of those terrible creatures? He should have been killed trying to save them, not running away. He did not want to flee into the forest. He did not want to follow the weakling son of their dead chief. Folcar could not understand why Keras, the most feared warrior in the village, had chosen to be led by this boy who had never been into battle. When he had been Darak's age, Folcar had killed a dozen men and fathered two children. But this boy was still without a wife after twenty years and had never taken a life until today.

Before the battle against the Ebor, the chief had ordered his son to stay in the village while the others went to fight. All credit to the boy, however, he had objected strongly to his father, as had Keras. The chief had waved them both aside and stated that his decision was final.

Now they were following this usurper, taking orders from this pretender. It should be Keras leading us, thought Folcar. Or maybe even me.

The small group of men and horses continued further into the tunnel with Darak leading the way.

Guiding his horse and wagon from the ground, Keras soon caught up with the others and fell in line beside the last man. It was Boran, the blacksmith for the chief's fighting horses. The smith saw his friend beside him and gently touched the warrior's arm.

"Keras," he whispered, although in the still confines of the tunnel, his words were clearly audible to those around him. "I don't understand you! You are the finest soldier in the village. Why must we follow this boy on some cowardly trek away from our families? You have more of a right to lead us. Have done with this child and help us free our people."

At this, the column of men and horses stopped and all eyes fell upon the two soldiers. Keras saw their reaction and knew in that instant that Darak's leadership was in doubt. A chief without the loyalty of his men was no leader. Grabbing Boran by the tunic, he thrust him against the tunnel wall.

"The chief is dead!" he hissed at the terrified blacksmith. "By right of succession, his son should lead our people. He is Darak, son of Aran and he is our new chief, whether you like it or not. Do you understand, Boran?"

The purple face of the smith bobbed up and down as though his very life depended on it. Keras released him and returned to the wagon. Darak had seen the fracas from the front of the group and now all eyes were upon him.

"All right, men. Let's keep going," he ordered.

As the tiny army marched into the darkness, Darak could almost feel the eyes of his men boring into the back of his head. Suddenly he felt very unsure of himself. How can I lead these men if they don't trust me? he thought. I must be strong. I have a duty to perform. I cannot depend on Keras all the time when the men step out of line. I must earn their respect and their loyalty.

From the back of the column, Keras could almost feel Darak's self doubt. as though it were some physical force that exuded from within the boy's body. I must protect the lad, he mused. I saw him handle himself with great courage against the invaders. He has a quick hand with the knife and I taught him sword technique myself. But behind all of that potential lies a scared child with far too much responsibility to burden. The others will come trust him, of that I have no doubt. He will become a great leader. Perhaps the mightiest leader our people have ever known.

After about an hour of steady marching, a faint glimmer could be seen in the distance; a diamond of sunlight that increased its magnitude with every step. Soon the group emerged from the hillside and saw the lush, green foliage of the Great Forest beckoning to them with multi-hued fingers that bobbed lightly in the fresh breeze. The warriors climbed onto their horses and set off at a gallop for the treeline. As the last man, Keras, entered the protective canopy of the woods, a high-pitched whine filled the air. Darak ordered his men to dismount and take cover while he and Keras investigated the mysterious sound. For once the men did not grumble as they vanished silently into the undergrowth. Their horses stood placidly, awaiting the return of their masters with inhuman patience.

Darak and Keras made their way to the edge of the ocean of trees and peered out from the concealing scrub at its shore. The whining grew in intensity until the soldiers thought that it would split their very souls wide open. Then from out of the low cloud cover appeared something that their wildest nightmares could never have even conceived of. A squat, metallic monstrosity whooshed down from the skies and came to hover barely fifty metres above the ground frighteningly close to the two terrified humans.

Darak and Keras gaped in amazement, their fear soon overcome by wonder. This was the same kind of thing that they had seen sitting in the centre of their village when the invaders had attacked. Somehow Darak knew that the creatures were searching for his men. He also knew that they were not safe this close to the forest's perimeter. These demons had machines that could fly! Was there nothing they could not accomplish? thought the young chief with a sigh of battle-weary fatigue. Signalling to Keras, Darak slipped back into the safety of the trees, with the older warrior a second behind him. Upon reaching their horses, Keras whistled and the rest of the group emerged from their hiding places.

"We must go deeper into the woods," stated Darak. "These invaders have machines that fly. We will be safer with more trees between us and them." The chief nodded to Keras, who bobbed his head in return.

"All right, men. Let's mount up and get out of here!" ordered the old warrior.

By nightfall, the group had set up camp deep within the forest. Tying up their horses and erecting bivouacs for shelter, the party soon had a fire burning with wood rats roasting on an improvised spit. Darak feared that the enemy would be able to detect the fire, that it would be a flickering beacon in the darkness of the forest. he voiced his concerns to Keras, but the more experienced soldier calmed his fears. He pointed to the branches spread out above them. They were completely invisible from the air, the blanket of leaves even prevented the smoke from their fire from escaping into the sky.

With full bellies, the weary soldiers' spirits rose slightly and within minutes they were singing songs of the battles they had fought. Only Folcar sat away from the group, eating his meal in silent contemplation. Darak saw the warrior's downcast reflections and moved to join him, squatting down beside the gloomy fighting man. The chief offered him a drink from his canteen.

"I do not wish to be disrespectful, my lord, but please leave me be."

"You share Boran's opinion that I am unworthy to lead our people." It was more of a statement than a question.

Folcar looked across at the young chief, his smooth, unblemished face so different from his own, battle-scarred features. "Sir, I "

"I understand the way you feel, Folcar." Darak stood and faced the whole group. "I understand the way you all feel. I would much prefer it if my father were still alive to lead us out of this dark time. But he is not and it falls to me to try and save our people from this hideous enemy. I realise that all of you have fought many battles for Aran and that your loyalties still lie with him. Now those loyalties must be transferred to me. You may not think me worthy, but that is irrelevant. My father charged me to save out people and that is what I must try to do. Even if I die in the attempt. Keras has sworn his allegiance to me - I would like the rest of you to trust me as he does." He pulled his dagger from its sheath and held it aloft for all to see, enacting a ritual that reached back to the earliest days of his race. "Anyone who wishes to challenge me for the right to be chief should do so now." Sweat beaded across the young man's brow and his arm began to ache from holding the small but heavy knife above his head.

The other warriors looked to one another, uncertain as to a course of action. Keras looked on on from the edge of the group, his arms folded across his deep chest. He had not expected Darak to do something like this, open the field to challengers, and he was concerned about the young chief's safety. His hand fell to his own dagger, ready to act if his leader's life became threatened. If the entire troupe should turn on Darak, he knew that he would be unable to fight them all off, but at least he would die honourably. Every muscle in his thick-set frame tensed.

Eventually, all eyes fell on Folcar, the man closest to Darak and, in their eyes, the instigator of this current crisis. The veteran soldier stood and faced Darak, drawing his own knife. Darak stiffened and prepared to defend himself, fully aware that he would stand little chance against a warrior as experienced as the man before him. Then Folcar raised his left hand, palm up, and drew his blade across it, drawing a line of dark blood. He looked to Darak, who after a moment's stunned silence, copied the older man's actions. Folcar approached the young chief and grasped his hand so tightly that Darak thought that he would crush it. He struggled to keep the pain from showing on his face.

"My blood flows with your blood and your blood joins with mine!" declared Folcar. "We are now brothers. No man can come between our bond of blood. I would give my life for you, but you must also be prepared to give yours for me or anybody else among us."

"Folcar, I would readily give my life for any of my people. This ceremony was unnecessary."

Folcar drew closer to Darak and whispered, "The others needed this ritual. With Keras and I following you, nobody will dare challenge you now."

Still holding Darak's hand, the old warrior raised his own high above their heads, forcing the chief to stand on his tip-toes. "THE CHIEF IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE CHIEF!" he cried.

"LONG LIVE THE CHIEF!" echoed the other warriors, punching the air with their fists

Darak glanced across at Keras, his bleeding hand still locked with Folcar's. The older man had a smile etched onto his face that threatened to break it in two. He gave his young leader the thumb's up and joined with the others in celebration.

After the cheers and backslapping had died down, they all gathered around the campfire and gazed at Darak, waiting eagerly for his orders. Suddenly conscious of his own importance, Darak felt a tide of fear wash over him. For the first time, he truly felt like the chief, the leader of his people. Now those people expected him to deliver them from their lethal foe. His eyes locked with Keras' and his friend nodded in encouragement.

"Now," said Darak after a prolonged silence only broken by the calls of numerous, nocturnal woodland creatures. "We must plan our strategy. This is what I propose - and if any of you disagree with it, I want to know. I may be the chief, but your opinions count as well." He waited until he was certain that they all understood the meaning of his words. Darak would not allow himself to be remembered as a tyrant. "My father said that the only way to defeat the demons was to seek the advice of the Seer. His shrine is many days ride from here and I propose to go alone while the rest of you wait here for my return." A roar of dissent erupted from the group. Darak silenced them by raising his hand. "We cannot risk all of us on such a long trip. Should the demons have anticipated our actions, we would all be slaughtered upon reaching the Seer's temple and then who would be left to save our loved ones." He crossed to his horse, once his father's horse, and climbed into the saddle. "I will return in four days, a week at the most. If I do not return, Keras will lead you to victory."

He spurred the animal to life and bolted away from the group and into the dark, cold forest. His last memory of his men as he left was the mighty roar of their  Song of Victory' as it echoed through the forest as he urged his horse deeper into the woods.

Three days later, Darak was whistling the song to himself as he rode beneath the leafy canopy of another, equally green, forest. He felt as though he had been riding for weeks, that the events of the past few days had been nothing but a hideous dream sent by some perverse devil to haunt him in the night. He had not seen another human soul since leaving his warriors a hundred years earlier.

A day and a half ago, he had trotted into the village of Chief Erchmal, an ally of his father's. The hamlet was deserted, as though the entire population had suddenly jumped up and fled the village. Darak could not understand it. Then something caught his eye. A small pool of black liquid, easily discerned against the light brown earth. He brought his horse to a halt and dismounted, crossing the ground to the puddle. The liquid lay in a shallow depression where it was obvious that somebody had fallen. Darak remembered the vile events in his own village when the demons had attacked and the disgusting fluids that oozed from their bodies when they died. So, thought the young chief. The invaders have been here, too. Kneeling down and dipping his forefinger into the pool, he rubbed the blood between his finger and thumb. His experience as a hunter told him that the blood had been stagnating there for at least a full day. That meant that the monsters had attacked all the settlements in the land simultaneously. There must be thousands of them, he thought.

Standing back up, Darak surveyed the village. "IS ANYONE HERE?" he yelled. Only silence answered him. Returning to his horse, he took the reins and led the beast through the devastated community.

It soon became apparent that the invaders had attacked this place with far more ferocious intent than they had his own village. From virtually every dwelling emanated ribbons of twisting, blue smoke. In the still air, the translucent tendrils of ashen death rose straight up above the village, like the souls of the dead rising to paradise. Above the houses, the gentle breeze whisked them away, but the smell remained as a stark reminder of those snuffed-out candles of life.

As Darak trudged through the burning remains of the village, he became aware that the smell of burning meat was growing stronger the closer he came to the far side of the settlement. As the houses fell behind him, he found the source of that horrible odour.

In a ditch that measured twenty metres long by four metres deep were the smouldering remains of at least fifty men. Darak gagged at the sight. Even the horse pulled on the reins, anxious to be away from this terrible place. These were Erchmal's warriors, killed by the invaders, dumped unceremoniously into this mass grave and set alight. The young soldier wondered what had happened to the women and children of the village. Had they been taken away like the women and children of his own village? What would the demons want with them? What was their fate?

Tearing himself away from the grisly scene before him, Darak remounted the horse and set off at a gallop across the heathland as the first drops of rain touched his face.
 

Now, a day and a half later, Darak could still smell the stench of those burning corpses in his nostrils. But then another aroma intruded, eclipsing the first with its infinitely more pleasurable fragrance. It was the smell of woodsmoke. He dug his heels into his steed's flanks and man and beast darted towards the source of the redolent smell.

Soon the wall of trees in front of him parted and he found himself in a small break in the forest canopy. Sunlight bathed the clearing with rich, yellow light and in its rays stood a small hut of mud and branches. From a hole in its steepled roof puffed the smoke which was the source of the aroma they had followed. Darak was a little underwhelmed.

"Is this the temple of the Seer?" he said to himself. He had expected something a little grander, not this unassuming wattle and daub hovel.

He came to a stop by a small trough to the side of the untidy dwelling and climbed down from the horse, making his way round to the front of the building. The horse began drinking from the trough as though he had done so a hundred times before. Darak approached the rickety entrance and was just about to rap lightly on the door when a voice issued from within.

"Enter, Darak son of Aran."

Darak stepped back in astonishment. Then, recomposing himself, he pushed open the rough-hewn door and stepped inside the dimly-lit hut. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the gloomy interior of the Seer's home. The first thing that he did notice, apart from the small fire in the stone hearth in the centre of the room,  was the great double-edged axe hanging on the wall furthest from the door. Looking around, Darak could not find the Seer, but he knew that the oracle was here somewhere. Sitting down on one of the many straw-filled cushions that were scattered about the place, he decided to wait for the Seer to show himself. After a few minutes, the Seer made his presence known.

S Johnson 2000-2003

 

Updated 11th March 2012