Today I am belatedly joining the Escapists Tour for Warrior of Light by William Heinzen with an extract to whet your appetite and a chance to win a copy for yourself. I will also have a full review up on the blog as soon as life gets a bit more settled because I really enjoyed this one!
Please do check out the other stops on the tour.
Tim Matthias has only ever known the peace of the South, but that peace is shattered when a group of mysterious creatures destroys his home. In search of answers, Tim discovers the poisoned wastelands of the North, where the Dark Lord Zadinn Kanas rules over all. It is here that Tim joins forces with a band of freedom fighters on a quest to find the Army of Kah’lash, a mythical force destined to serve those in need. At the same time, Tim must learn to use the magic of the Lifesource, for he is the Warrior of Light. As Tim struggles to accept his destiny, those around him must battle their way across the North, seeking a means to wage one last, desperate stand against Zadinn and his armies…
Boblin Kule shivered. Around him, the icy wind whipped through the confines of the Kaltu Pass without mercy. That was fitting, for the North was not a merciful place.
“What do you think, Kule?” Wayne asked him.
“Fresh,” Boblin said, crouching down and running his hands over the markings on the stony ground before him. Malichons had been this way only hours ago. That wasn’t unusual; malichon patrols often roamed the Kaltu Pass, and by now Boblin and his fellow elion scouts had traveled several miles from the safety of the Fort of Pellen. The scouts had no reason to think these malichons in particular were planning an attack on the Fort. More than likely they were just making their presence known to harass the elions, to keep them on their toes.
It didn’t mean Boblin had to like any of it.
Another burst of wind whipped up a swirl of dust from the ground in front of them. On either side of the two elions, the sparse clusters of shrub vegetation rocked from the gust’s onslaught. Yes, if nothing else, one could at least count on malichons and wind out here. Boblin wasn’t exactly a fan of either.
“What do you suppose Desh will make of it?” Wayne asked.
“I don’t particularly care what Hedro Desh makes of it,” Boblin replied quietly. As it so happened, he cared for Hedro Desh even less than he cared for malichons or wind.
Wayne replied with a tight smile. “He’s not that bad, Kule. He means well. And he’s quite handy in a fight.”
“He doesn’t win by fighting,” Boblin said. “He stands on a nearby rock, and the radiance of his insufferable ego turns everything around him to stone.”
Wayne choked back a laugh.
Boblin stood up, dusting off his kneecaps and adjusting the sword at his belt. The hilt had been digging into his side, sort of like the way Hedro’s personality dug at him.
Still, after two years in the Patrol—eligible elions were allowed in at sixteen years of age—Boblin had to admit that Hedro was quite capable with a sword. And with a quarterstaff. And with a bow. And with female elions.
In fact, Hedro was quite capable at just about everything.
An impartial observer might have called Boblin’s sentiments jealousy. An impartial observer would have been partially correct. Boblin wasn’t in the business of lying to himself, after all. But his dislike stretched back much earlier than their days in the Patrol. It stretched back to—
“Well?” Hedro asked. He had come from beyond the ridge to their west, clambering first up the far side and then down into the narrow gulley where Boblin and Wayne now stood. He wore his sword strapped across his back, presumably because it allowed him to puff out his sizable chest and flex his not inconsiderable biceps while remaining ready for an inevitable clash with enemy troops.
“Malichons,” Wayne said.
“Obviously,” Hedro replied.
“They were probably here this morning,” Boblin said. “I assume they traveled north. They weren’t making for the Fort. They’re just letting us know they’re here.”
Hedro looked at the tracks. “We’ll have to report it.”
Boblin imitated Hedro’s tone. “Obviously.”
“Settle, gentlemen,” Wayne murmured.
They often dispensed with the regular formalities of rank when on patrol. Hedro was technically in charge here, and should it come to actual combat, Boblin and Wayne would obey him without hesitation or question, but in the meantime, the three had conducted patrols like this together for long enough that they could get away with throwing around a few figurative punches to ease the pressure of an arduous and unforgiving duty.
“What do you suppose Commander Jend will say?” Boblin asked.
Hedro shrugged. “‘Stand fast.’ ‘Keep the watch.’ Those sorts of things.”
“It’s about five hours until sunset,” Wayne said. “Any reason to think they’ll come back this way?”
“I’d rather not stick around and find out,” Boblin said.
“Scared?” Hedro asked, a faint smirk hanging on his lips.
“I like being alive,” Boblin shot back.
“Fine then,” Hedro said. “Circle up.”
The Kaltu Pass stretched west to east for two miles, serving as the gateway to the Fertile Lands, a small delta of vegetation fed by the waters of the Pel River and the only area in the North that had escaped the blight of Dark Lord Zadinn’s presence.
The Fort of Pellen, the last free dwelling in the North, sat nestled in the stone peaks at the western end of the Pass. But freedom had a price, as the soldiers of the Frontier Patrol knew. Zadinn did not let them live unmolested. The only things keeping the elions safe were the Fort’s walls and the skill of its defenders. The Frontier Patrol scoured the Pass day and night without pause, always vigilant.
However, every elion also knew that Zadinn had never fully committed to destroying their home. If the Dark Lord were to send the full might of his malichon army to their doorstep, the elions of the Fort were doomed. But the Fort stood far south of the Deathlands, and Zadinn didn’t find the elions worth the effort. The Fort housed a mere three hundred citizens—hardly a pressing matter to the Dark Lord.
Of course, the members of the Fort still fought their battles. The North’s grim lifestyle required an elion to give up much if he wanted to remain free. Boblin had killed his first malichon at only twelve years old. On that day, he’d been playing with other children just outside the Fort’s walls when a pair of malichons managed to slip past the guards and capture the children. Boblin and a few others fought back.
Every elion in the Fort grew up with one rule ingrained in his or her mind: A malichon will show you no mercy, so you must show it none. If a malichon attacks you, you must kill it. You must kill to survive.
Boblin had feigned unconsciousness. Then as one malichon was binding him, he surprised his captor by stealing the creature’s knife. Boblin stabbed the malichon in the heart, and his friend Celia killed the other.
He killed his second time four years later, within his first weeks of training with the Patrol. Boblin and his fellow recruits, Hedro and Wayne among them, encountered a malichon division surprisingly close to the Fort. It had very nearly been a fight for their lives, and Boblin took no shame in admitting that only the arrival of Commander Jend and the more seasoned fighters had saved them from that predicament.
During two years since, in many long days and nights on the Patrol, Boblin had encountered more malichons than he cared to admit, and the scars of his very first kill were replaced by the ability to do what was necessary. Skirmishes with malichons were by no means frequent, but even an encounter once every ten patrols added up over time.
He didn’t like any of it, but it was the law of the North. You must kill to survive.
The remainder of the patrol passed uneventfully, and at the close of day, the scouts returned to the Fort of Pellen, which stood against the base of a stone peak at the head of a narrow path. The trail to the main gates could fit three or four elions abreast at most, thereby forming the Fort’s first and most basic line of defense. No matter the size of the army, the Fort’s enemies would have to approach the gates in small groups, leaving them to the mercy of archers on the battlements.
As the Fort came into view, Boblin felt a glow of comfort at the sight of its stone walls. Those walls were home. Stout and unyielding, they held back not only enemy troops, but also wind, rain, and snow. Behind the Fort, the land sloped upward at a steep angle, reaching its summit far above their heads. The Fort wasn’t just home. It was a bastion of hope set against a stark backdrop of gray rock and cloudless sky.
As they reached a nearby summit, Boblin saw the wooded expanse of the Fertile Lands west of the Kaltu Pass, where the fresh waters of the Pel River and the wildlife of the forest sustained the Fort’s livelihood. If he turned, he could see the Durin Plains to the east and the dead Erdrar Forest to the south, both bare in contrast to the Fertile Lands, offering nothing but emptiness.
The current peak on which the three elions stood sloped down to the main path, which then led back uphill to the Fort’s main gates. Boblin recognized Hugo and Ken Rindar standing atop the battlements in the distance. Second in command to Jend Argul, the Rindar brothers were the Fort’s most highly respected soldiers next to the Commander himself.
The sun slipped down into the west as Hedro led Boblin and Wayne back to the Fort. As they dipped into the narrow path toward the front gates, they gained shelter from the ever-present wind, traveling the last stretch in silence, footsore and ready for the day to end. When they reached the portcullis, Ken saluted them from atop the battlements, and each of the three elions returned with a modified salute, left hand instead of right, the standard code to let the guards on the battlements know all was clear in the Pass. After they gave the signal, the portcullis in front of them rose, gears creaking and grinding as the spiked gate lifted high enough to allow them entrance to the grounds within.
“You’re up for ailar training today, Kule,” Hedro said. “Wayne, you’re free for the evening.”
Wayne gave Boblin an apologetic glance before nodding and splitting away from the group. Most likely Hedro just wanted an opportunity to drop somebody to the ground ten or twelve times so he could work up an appetite for dinner. But Hedro was good with ailar, and Boblin would grudgingly admit he could learn a few things from the other elion.
Besides, Boblin was sure Celia Alcion would be training in the court as well. That would not disappoint him in the least, as long as he could prevent himself from an outright embarrassing defeat underneath Hedro’s instruction. Of course, Hedro probably had the same inclinations as Boblin where Celia was concerned, meaning it wasn’t at all coincidental that he wanted to conduct a training session at this time.
Boblin acknowledged Hedro with a nod, and the two stepped into the Fort together. In all, five buildings stood inside the grounds, one in each of the four corners and a tower in the center. The building closest to the gatehouse was the barracks for the Frontier Patrol, two other corner buildings served as housing for families in the Fort, and the last was a ward for the sick and injured.
The tower in the grassy center of the Fort’s lawn soared above the heights of the surrounding battlements, a lone bell tower at its peak. Pellen Yuzhar’s private chambers were in this tower, along with the Council’s meeting rooms and the Floor of History, which preserved memories of the North as it had been over two hundred years ago before the Dark Lord came to power. The tower’s floor held a large dining hall for community gatherings and feasts. The elions committed to celebrating seasonal festivals to remind themselves that remaining free meant more than just keeping malichons at bay. Freedom was about living, about enjoying the crisp night air and celebrating their right to smile and laugh.
A smaller courtyard, surrounded by low wooden walls, stood in front of the barracks. There the Patrol members practiced not only with swords, bows, and quarterstaves, but also ailar, the art of hand-to-hand combat that Commander Jend stressed above all else. The Commander’s creed held that, when deprived of every other weapon, every member of the Patrol would still have his or her hands and feet available, and would therefore be able to continue fighting until the last breath.
Only elions lived at the Fort. Humans and dwerions had once lived with them, but according to the histories in Pellen’s archives, a vicious plague swept through the Fort a century ago. The sickness did not afflict any elions, but every human and dwerion at the Fort had died.
Boblin read as much as possible about the other races. Scholars speculated that humans, dwerions, and elions were initially all one species, but that over time their descendants split into three distinct groups. Boblin thought it a sun-baked idea, but scholars frequently held such notions. He supposed humans had enough in common with the other races, but elions and dwerions bore practically no resemblance to one another. Elions were tall and slender—Boblin himself stood over six feet, and there was nothing extraordinary about his height—but dwerions were short and stocky. One might as well compare a willow to a stump. Dwerions were respected for their brute force, but elions were known for nimble agility and speed.
“Care to wager a pint before we start?” Hedro asked.
Boblin would have rather poked himself in the eye with a rusted nail than buy Hedro ale, but vocalizing such sentiments would be counterproductive at best, so he simply shrugged. “Why not two?”
“Indeed, why not?” Hedro agreed. “Very well then. Let’s head inside.”
“Defend your flank,” Celia Alcion said to Ana, who stood in front of her. Ana was a good recruit, and two years ago Celia herself had been in her shoes. Sixteen, fresh to the Frontier Patrol, Ana was eager to make a good impression. Tough, but inexperienced. Again, no different than Celia had been at that age.
The North would change that soon enough. It changed everyone once they left the safety of these walls and ventured out into the Pass, where malichons were much less forgiving than training instructors.
Ana stood in a traditional ailar stance, hips square and forward, a diagonal line from her left foot in the back to her right foot in the front, fists up in front of her face. Left forearm to block, right fist to strike. Basic, fundamental ailar—if one’s opponent was attacking from the front.
“You need to be able to shift your stance,” Celia said. “Malichons are trained to attack in groups of three. One keeps you occupied, while the other two attack your flank. So you need to defend it.” Celia assumed a stance. “Like so.” Instantly centering her gravity, she turned ninety degrees, striking with her right arm in a diagonal block while her left hand remained ready for the attack. “See?”
Ana nodded and followed suit by repeating Celia’s movements. Ana was an elion of few words, and Celia appreciated and admired her attention to detail. She would make a fine soldier. This was good, for the Patrol had precious few to guard against the ever-encroaching malichon army.
Without warning, Celia struck. She ducked in low and fast, coming beneath Ana’s guard and seizing her wrist in a fluid motion. Celia dropped to her left knee, swinging her right hand in a counterclockwise motion and bringing Ana with her. The momentum carried Ana forward, flipping her onto her back and to the ground.
Celia allowed herself a taut smile. The maneuver hadn’t been fair, but this war wasn’t fair. Besides, Celia had lost count of the times Jend Argul or the Rindar brothers had sprung such tricks on her when she was in training. There were lessons to be learned here. To survive, one must expect the unexpected and adapt to the unadaptable. It wasn’t easy, but it was the way of the land.
“You got me on that one,” Ana said.
“It works on everybody the first time,” Celia replied. She released Ana, who rose to her feet and beat the dirt off her training pants.
“I don’t intend to let it work a second time,” Ana said, favoring Celia with a smile of her own.
“Good,” Celia said, rising off her knee and brushing her own pants as well.
“What’s it like out there?” Ana asked. “On patrol?”
“Hopeless,” Celia said, “but that’s not the point.”
“What is the point?” Ana asked.
Celia turned to the recruit, arching an eyebrow. “I think you should know the answer to that. Otherwise, you don’t belong out there.”
“It’s what we have to do,” Ana said, shrugging. “If we didn’t fight, we wouldn’t be who we are. It’s the answer that’s always worked for me. I wanted to know what answer works for you.”
It was a fair enough question, and one that deserved an honest response. “We won’t win this war,” Celia said. “Not by ourselves, not in this generation. But if we can buy the next generation enough time, then maybe they can.” She clapped a hand on Ana’s shoulder. “That will be all. Hedro Desh has the training grounds next. You did well.”
Celia led Ana across the training yard. The grass underfoot was mostly brown and lifeless, with just a hint of green here and there. The wind cut across them as they walked. This was the Fort of Pellen, and as Ana had said, this was what they did. They trained every day, constantly honing skills to defend their homes. It was the only life they had ever known, the only one they expected to know.
Celia stopped on her way out of the grounds and into the Fort proper. Boblin Kule knelt in the entryway to the training area, lacing up his boots before entering the grounds within. On the far side, Hedro Desh was shedding his chain mail patrol shirt for a lighter leather jerkin.
“Hello, Boblin,” Celia replied. “Ailar training?”
“My favorite,” Boblin said, in a tone of voice indicating it was decidedly not his favorite. “Explain this. How, when a malichon attacks you, is it practical to attempt a flying kick as the primary means of defense?”
Celia couldn’t help but smile. Humor, the ever-present defense mechanism of the one and only Boblin Kule. “It’s about the principle, Boblin. Did you skip that lecture?”
“I skipped a lot of lectures,” Boblin said.
“I know,” Celia said. “I was there.”
“In the lectures, you mean,” Boblin said, “not skipping with me.”
“No,” Celia said, “not skipping with you. I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.”
From behind Boblin, Hedro Desh entered the training grounds. The big elion towered over both Boblin and Celia, his face set in its typical glower. He was likely upset about something and ready to take it out on Boblin. Nothing unusual about that; Hedro was always upset about something, and Boblin was always a good target.
Hedro handed Boblin a second leather jerkin. “Kule, training pattern twelve. Okay?”
Boblin gave a wry smile. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Okay indeed.” Before passing into the training ground, he turned back to Celia and nodded. “Have a nice day, Celia.” As he said it, a faint flush crept into his cheeks, barely perceptible unless one knew to look for it—and Celia did.
She smiled back at him, seeing his flush deepen as she did so. “You, too, Boblin.”
She turned and left the training grounds. She called it the “Boblin blush.” It was as reliable as clockwork, and she knew exactly what it meant. She wasn’t ignorant. But she’d let Boblin Kule work that out on his own time—no need to do that for him.
It was the principle, after all.
Muscles aching, considering the pros and cons of pounding his head against the nearest wall in a form of self-induced punishment, Boblin climbed the battlements at the western edge of the Fort. Unsurprisingly he now found himself indebted to Hedro Desh in the form of two pints of ale, payable at Hedro’s discretion.
Boblin didn’t over- or underestimate his own abilities. He knew enough ailar to train any recruit on his own, but Hedro was simply bigger and faster than him. He had managed to land a few blows of his own, no doubt about that, but Hedro gained the upper hand by spinning him through the air and dropping him on his back once, twice, and thrice. Not being inclined to meet the Maker this evening, Boblin conceded the duel.
He now climbed the battlements, enjoying the subtle sensation of the lengthening evening before him. Sitting atop this wall and watching the sunset always soothed him. He could see the Fertile Lands from the western edge of the battlements. In the distance, beyond the Lands, the sun’s fiery orb turned from orange to blood red, tingeing the treetops with its dusky hue. It was a breathtaking sight. Even the North, a wasteland of stone and rocky outcrops, had a certain beauty when the multihued rays of evening light touched it. Boblin raised his face to the sky, feeling the sunset’s warmth.
“A sight in which even the young can find solace,” a voice said.
Boblin started and turned as Pellen Yuzhar took a seat beside him. The Fort’s ancient, white-haired leader was the best elion Boblin knew. He was the reason the Fort continued to exist, the reason they remained free. No one else had his wisdom and charisma. Sometimes it seemed Pellen’s willpower alone held the malichons at bay. No one knew how old Pellen was. Boblin’s late grandfather had claimed Pellen was old even when Boblin’s grandfather was young. As for Pellen, he simply said he was much too old to die.
“Good evening, sir,” Boblin said. He removed his cloak and put it around Pellen’s shoulders, but the elion shrugged it away.
“You will need that more than I,” Pellen said. “Your bones have more to lose than mine from these frigid elements.”
“Sir, you’ll become ill.”
“The last time I became sickly, I was your age,” Pellen replied. “That, I assure you, was quite a long time ago. I believe I will last for one more night.”
“Very well, sir.” The two sat in silence for a while, enjoying the last hour of warmth. Nights in the North were exceptionally cool.
“You served on patrol today, outside the Fort,” Pellen said.
“Yes, sir,” Boblin answered.
“Did the day meet your expectations?”
“It was rather uneventful, sir,” Boblin replied.
Pellen turned to him. “Do you wish for adventure on these excursions?”
Boblin shook his head. “No, sir. There is no adventure here—only freedom and those who wish to protect it.”
Pellen fell silent again. Then he said, “Well put, Boblin Kule.”
For a compliment from Pellen, Boblin would willingly suffer a thousand insults from Hedro. “Thank you, sir,” he replied.
They did not speak again until the sun had set. Then, as the sky darkened and the stars began to shine, Pellen stood. He turned and pointed north.
“Do you know what lies in that direction?” he asked.
“An ugly rock,” Boblin replied.
“The Deathlands, my son. And who dwells there?”
“The Dark Lord,” Boblin said.
“Yes,” Pellen said. “My son, that man’s soul is the most evil thing to ever touch our land. We have lived free of him thus far, but the time will come when he arrives and breaks these walls. When that happens, our people will survive only through unity. He will not care what arguments exist between you and an elion named Hedro Desh. And on that day, neither will you.”
Without another word, Pellen turned and left the battlements, leaving Boblin sitting alone as night fell.
William Heinzen is the author of the epic fantasy novels Warrior of Light and City of Darkness, as well as the short stories Malichon Manor, Nightfall, and Shadows in the Snow. He has been a guest at FanExpo New Orleans, Tampa Bay Comic Convention, ValleyCon, and iMagicon. He has also presented at North Dakota State University’s Creative Writing Camp. William lives in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he works as a cybersecurity professional by day and writes by night. In 2018 he was named to Prairie Business Magazine’s “40 Under 40” list.
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