The Lords of Midnight
by Mike Singleton
The Eye of the Moon
Comrades of the Prince: Chapter One:
The Shadows of the Forest
There was something strange whispering and skittering around it tonight, something dark but unseen. It was only a vague sense, nothing truly heard or felt, just an inquietude seeping and slipping through him. Dominykas closed his eyes and tried to ignore it. They were safe. It was safe. Mantas was guarding tonight so all would be well. The heaviness of sleep drifted down on him like soft thick snow.
The casket was nothing special, just a simple wooden box that would fit in your hand, with a brass keyhole where it locked but Asulgar sensed something of power pulsing within the plain casket, something that would surely please his master. There’s just five callow boys, he thought, and a dozen of us Hajeen, warriors of Qadim Haraj, the Shadows of the Forest. Four of the boys were sleeping. This would be over swiftly.
He stood slowly. We will honour them, he thought, they have respected the trees, but no one crosses Qasim Haraj unnoticed, no one crosses without rights of passage and still lives, even in times of peace and the times of peace were slipping away swiftly. Already there were rumours of war in the far north in the lands of fire and ice.
As Asulgar rose into the thin moonlight, so did eleven other shadows, the rest of his troop. They waited for Asulgar’s hand to drop. There would be no voice commands tonight, not until the first screams at least. But Asulgar froze as he felt a sliver of cold steel pressed lightly against his neck.
“Drop your hand old man and you will be dead before you can blink,” came a whisper, and that was all, no other touch or hold, no glimpse of his opponent, no clue as to which way to turn to meet him or escape him.
Asulgar noticed the boy guarding the camp was still standing there at the edge of the clearing, perfectly still, much too perfectly still. He smiled in admiration. A clever trick from one so young, setting a lifeless dummy as camp guard while he watched from an unexpected place.
“You cannot take all of us like this boy,” whispered Asulgar.
“You think not? Look at your men again old man,” whispered the boy.
With astonishment, Asulgar glimpsed at he Shadows of the Forest and saw that only seven of the eleven others were still standing, waiting for his signal. The edge of the knife gently caressed his neck. There was no tremble in the hand that held it.
“Save us some time and yourselves some blood. We would not harm you unless pressed to it,” said the boy.
There was such quiet assurance in the boy’s voice. In a soft calm voice Asulgar spoke aloud.
“Hold, men of Qadim Haraj, we strike not tonight. Lay down your weapons.”
A hesitation and then movement in the clearing and the sound of knives and heavier things dropping to the ground. Mantas knew that now was the time of greatest danger. All of these men would have at least one hidden weapon and be preparing himself mentally to use it. There would be a sign first, a voice change most likely.
“Now tell them to move slowly to the centre of the clearing, to gather at the fire,” whispered Mantas.
The knife edge no longer gently stroked Asulgar’s neck. Asulgar readied himself, then spoke slowly.
“Men of Qadim Haraj, slowly, we move to the centre, to the fire…”
The first cautious movements began and Asulgar stepped forward too.
“Now!” Asulgar added. The Shadows of the Forest heard the subtle change in tone, the shift from calmness to something more ruffled. No one would have called the tone urgent but the utter placidity was lost. It was their sign. But all of the boys heard it too and knew its meaning and each knew his part.
Asulgar turned as swiftly as death but his knife sliced through empty air. Mantas was already five paces away closing on another shadow and the boy’s hunting spear was already in flight, a flicker of gold in the glimmer of the campfire, straight to the heart of the shadows. Asulgar dropped like a cloak suddenly cut loose from the shoulders.
The campfire flared up, blazing like sunlight, and in the harsh white light the shadows became men whirling to face their enemies and slashing, stabbing as they span. Four of them slew their own comrades, bound, blindfolded and gagged and pushed stumbling towards them by the boys who had captured them but a minute or so earlier. The others, like Asulgar, struck at void.
Save for Mantas, none of the boys was visible but their throwing knives flashed through the air. Four more Hajeen twisted in death agony and fell writhing to the ground; Mantas took his man, killing him cleanly with a single thrust of his knife. The last two Hajeen tried to flee but were caught in a second volley of throwing knives.
It had taken perhaps twenty heartbeats. Mantas smiled to himself. Not bad. We’ll be swifter next time.
He walked over to where he had noticed Dominykas sprawl on the ground just before the mayhem began. He was pretending to sleep. Mantas nudged him gently with the toe of his boot.
“My Lord! Dominykas! Prince Dominykas!”
The other boys gathered round. Dominykas rubbed his eyes sleepily, then opened them.
“Is it morning already Mantas?” he said
“Stop pulling my leg Domse! You captured one and killed two. That wasn’t sleep-walking!”
Domse grinned up at his friend.
“Well, you pulled my leg first! I thought my toe was being severed!” he said with a gentle laugh. Mantas laughed with him
“But it worked didn’t it? And it was you idea in the first place Domse!”
“The fishing twine round our toes for silent alarm, yes, but not the amputation! That was just your idea Mantas!”