Friday, February 19, 2021

Free Fiction Friday: The Shaldar's Pride


Drawn into a battle he had not sought, Fendreg, the Warrior of Senagra, lends his fighting skills to aid the plight of nomadic Kelvana against the deadly encroachments of the Shaldar. Bringing his knowledge to bear, the pilgrim warrior leads scores of the Kelvana against their enemies. Will they triumph?

“The Shaldar’s Pride,” by Shaun Kilgore, is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available as an ebook here.

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The Shaldar’s Pride
Shaun Kilgore

 

 The night was smeared red with firelight. Below in the canyon, Fendreg estimated there were twenty thousand of the Shaldar’s soldiers. He had come forward to scout the encampment and to gauge the enemy’s strength. Despite the cloud-choked skies, the numerous fires illuminated the camp very well. Fendreg’s keen eyes could make out the movements of the patrols; he could see the Shaldar’s enormous black tent posted near the center of the sprawling encampment. Sliding back down the slope he met up with the other outriders, Corba and Zene. The two men were shrouded in the murky night, but Fendreg, aided by his enchanted gaden-armor, could see their distinctive Kelvana dress, the long braided hair, the thin moustaches that drooped down their cheeks, and the knee-high boots they tucked their striped trousers into. They were horsemen through and through, more at home in their saddles than on the solid ground. Both were trusted scouts of the Kelvana chieftain, Rulrick. Fendreg had banded with the tribe after the Shaldar’s horde burned a Kelvana settlement to the ground. The men and boys had been slain, women raped and murdered, the younger girls taken as slaves. Fendreg had been traversing the Kelvana lands and found the settlement just after the Shaldar left it; he had rushed into the burning huts and rescued Rulrick’s father, the former chieftain. The gnarled old man was barely alive. He was the only survivor of the carnage.

Once the old man, Junar, had been reunited with the rest of the tribe, Rulrick declared before all that the Kelvana people were in his debt. Fendreg chose to stay and help them drive the Shaldar and his thousands from the plains.

“What did you see?” asked Corba.

“The Shaldar has many warriors, many horses, and more than enough steel. We must speak with Rulrick.”

“But how many, Lord Fendreg?” asked Zene. His voice still had a boy’s squeak. He was barely seventeen years old.

Fendreg’s expression was grim; neither could see him in the darkness. “At least twenty thousand.”

Fendreg moved to take the reins of his own brown stallion, Artress. The warhorse snorted and tried to nick his gauntlet. Once astride the beast, he spurred into motion. The Kelvana followed close behind trusting Fendreg to lead them down the right path. All of the Kelvana horsemen knew something of the powers granted by the gaden-armor—that with it he could see in the dark as well as a mountain cat.

The path was little more than a narrow trail that left the top of the ridge and angled downhill until it met the thin ribbon of water known as the Cormand. The terrain was rugged and dry with the summer heat. The rocks of the high country quickly gave way to the brittle grass of the plains. Down along the banks of the Cormand, Fendreg heeled Artress long enough for the animal to drink. Corba and Zene were there too, watering their horses. Both refreshed their water horns. Fendreg had barely touched his since they left the previous day.

Once they were ready, he led them parallel to the Cormand until he found a place to ford the small river. The water level was much lower due to the lack of rain, barely reaching the bellies of the horses. After they crossed, Fendreg led them up and away from the low-lying riverbed, and emerged up on the unbroken vistas of the plains—Themadra’s Plains, so the Kelvana called them. They were adherents the goddess’ religion and just another offshoot of the cults that dotted the broad expanses of the plains from the Dark Mountains to the Broken Sea. Out in the open, the horsemen let their horses rush forward, trusting in the familiar terrain as well as the keen eyes of the outsider to lead them home safely.

For a time, the only sounds were the steady pounding of hooves on the ground and the deep breaths of the horses. Fendreg bent low in the saddle, leaning forward to urge more speed from Artress. Corba and Zene followed only a pace behind. They were in their element. For what seemed like hours, they rode across the open plains, not pausing even when the first glimmers of sunlight spilled over the edge of the horizon. They were riding directly east, right into the reddish-golden blaze. The sun rose as a swollen and angry orb, pouring out heat to dispel the chill of night.

In time, the party slowed to rest their mounts. They were ten miles or more from the Shaldar’s encampment. Fendreg’s eyes were the first to sight the red banners of the Kelvana camps. The crimson cloth drooped against the stake, bereft of even a breeze to display the single eye, the mark of Rulrick’s clan.

Fendreg and the others carried on at an easy trot. He noted when the guards posted out away from the main camp noticed their approach. Word was spreading now. A half an hour’s ride later, they entered the camp amidst of flurry of questions and wolfish gazes. The Kelvana were ready to seek their revenge. Fendreg knew it was his job to temper their rage so they would not be cut down in droves. The Shaldar’s men were ruthless and well trained. They would need good planning on their side if they wanted to drive the horde off the plains.

Fendreg slowed further until heeling Artress to a halt before the chieftain. Rulrick was a broad-shouldered man. His long-braided hair was touched with streaks of gray, his moustaches reached the middle of his chest, and he wore a wicked curved blade at his hip. His face seemed to be chiseled from stone.

“We are grateful for your return, Fendreg. I trust you’ve discovered a few secrets about that murdering Shaldar? My warriors will have blood. We will strip him of his fine vestments and chase him naked from our lands. This I swear by the goddess, by the blessed name of Themadra.” The chieftain held up his right hand and those gathered shouted their pledges, filling the camp with their voices.

Fendreg remained silent. His warrior’s mind strived for calm and focus. Emotion had no place in such gruesome work. In his mind, he saw the fields damp with the blood of thousands. He could almost hear the cries of the mourners for the dead and the moans of the dying. He let the painful images play in his mind so they would be fixed there. It was a form of meditation and the way he prepared before every battle.

With vengeance within their grasp, Rulrick bellowed orders to his warriors. Somewhere near ten thousand Kelvana horsemen were ready to ride out to fight the Shaldar’s forces. The rallying cries sounded. The chieftain decided they would leave the camps later that afternoon. For now, a small feast was held to welcome back Fendreg and the others. The people had a reason to celebrate, though Rulrick put a restraining hand on the wine. The warriors would abstain.

Fendreg took his ease, retiring to his tent at first. At the threshold, he turned to the young Kelvana woman, named Iessa, who had been ordered to serve him.

“I wish to wash away the dust of the road. Bring me hot water.”

“Yes, honored one,” replied Iessa.

Fendreg caught a glimpse of the woman’s generous bosom when she bowed. Her eyes darted up to look at him. They were like pools of jade, a lovely and bright shade of green. She smiled then ran off to fulfill her duty. Fendreg wanted to laugh. The girl had some spirit.

Entering his tent, Fendreg began to remove his gaden-armor. The enchanted plates felt much lighter than steel should. Though its lightness said nothing about the unbreakable strength of the armor. With its protective aura removed, he felt the soreness and weariness of his body once again. Beneath the armor, he wore a thin quilted jacket and breeches. Fendreg sat on the camp chair and pulled off his boots and just enjoyed the quiet moment alone.

The soft sound of feet on the grass brought him up to his feet. A shadow hovered at the threshold.

“Honored one. I’ve returned with the water you requested and cloths to wash with.”

“You may enter Iessa.”

The woman parted the canvas and came in bearing a pot filled with steaming water. Across her shoulders, Iessa carried the cloths. Fendreg pointed to the floor directly in front of him.

“Set it there.”

Once she finished, Iessa bowed again and started to retreat out.

“You forgot the wash cloths,” said Fendreg.

Iessa blushed. “Forgive me, honored one.”

She handed him the clothes. Fendreg held on to her small, delicate hand, then grabbed her wrist. At first, Iessa resisted, struggling to get free. Then she let him draw her back. Iessa smiled as Fendreg pressed her breasts against his chest. She melted in his embrace and the warrior kissed her fiercely. The water forgotten, Fendreg carried Iessa to his bed, pulling at the bindings on her gown while she tried to pull off his coat. The two of them disrobed and slid beneath the blankets. Their bodies became entwined in passion and release.

When their lovemaking was over, Iessa stayed to wash Fendreg. The water was tepid but good enough to do the job. She was tender and slow with the ablations. Fendreg watched her work the cloth across his chest, his stomach, along his legs—his feet. She occasionally glanced up at him, her beautiful face shining even in the dim light of the tent. Finally, she finished attending him and made ready to leave. There was something in her manner that made Fendreg pay closer attention.

“May you have victory over the Shaldar and his armies, honored one.” Iessa scrubbed her face and made to go.

“You cry for me, woman,” said Fendreg.

Iessa stopped, her hand gripping the tent. “Yes, honored one. I weep for I fear for you. I fear for all of our men. I know the Shaldar’s men are fearsome fighters.”

Fendreg stood up, wearing only a loincloth. “Yes, but they have never faced me!”

“Yes, you do look fearsome yourself, especially wearing that tiny loin cloth. The sight of your sword alone would frighten them away.” Iessa could not disguise her amusement.

“Ha!” bellowed Fendreg. He continued laughing. “You do have spirit, don’t you Iessa.”

Fendreg grabbed for the woman but she danced out of reach.

“My lord, you must prepare for the feast. Are you not one of the guests of honor?”

“Hmm. I shall see you there. And I will find you when I return.”

Iessa bowed. “I shall await your return, honored one.”

Fendreg watched her leave. He turned back to the riding boots and his mystical gaden-armor. It called to him. It was time to wield them once again. The Shaldar would not be able to withstand the might of Fendreg of Senagra, High Guard of Everhold.

***

The previous night’s celebrations had been more subdued given the lack of wine and Fendreg had left early and returned to his tent. He spent the night with Iessa and rose from his bed just before sunrise to ready himself for the battle. In the light of the sun under clear blue skies, he joined the Kelvana horsemen. The snorting and stomping of the anxious mounts, the jangling of bridles, and rattling of armor and weaponry were clamorous sounds that disrupted the quiet of the plains. All were familiar sounds to Fendreg. They were reassuring sounds. He mentally reviewed the plan he had discussed with Rulrick during the feast.

The high thin sound of the ram’s horn blew across the encampment.

Rulrick was mounted on his painted horse dressed in the all of the regalia of the Kelvana war band. Beside him, Lutan blew the horn once again and much of the chatter ceased, even the horses seemed too quiet down to hear the chieftain speak.

“Listen to me, brothers. Listen well for soon we will fight the Shaldar and his thousands. On this day we shall shed their blood and scourge them. Then we will chase them into the endless sands of the Torecha deserts. They will pay for their crimes with their lives!”

The Kelvana erupted in shouts and war cries. Spears were struck against shields, short swords too. Sitting on Artress, Fendreg adjusted the gaden-armor and made sure his gauntlets were secured to his wrists. All of his weapons—the short sword at his hip, the dagger jammed into his boot, the bow slung across his back--were at the ready. With another cry, the Kelvana spurred their horses into motion and Fendreg surge with them, flowing into the thunderous maelstrom of ten thousand horses racing across the plains in one massive wave.

For some time, the Senagran’s concentration was given over to the running, guiding his horse over the terrain, steering the beast when necessary but generally just trying to keep up with Kelvana and their painted horses. They could ride much longer distances before tiring than Artress. As they turned towards the Shaldar’s camp, Fendreg urged the horse for more speed so he could ride up next to Rulrick. The sound of the hoof falls was a tremendous noise so he could only motion to the chieftain. Rulrick knew his intention and held up a hand, clenching the fist and pumping it up and down to signal the riders.

Fendreg veered off away from the main body of the Kelvana, taking a thousand horsemen with him. It was the first step in the plan. Fendreg had explained that he would take a small group and skirt the camp to the east and then approach them from the other side, making sure not to hide their intentions. They were a decoy and a distraction that would occupy the Shaldar’s forces just long enough, allowing the other nine thousand Kelvana to descend upon them in a fury from behind. It was a simple strategy but one that Fendreg hoped would be executed with enough force that the enemy would not have time to gather their strength. The delay would be timed so that Fendreg could sow enough chaos to make the other attack effective. Those men who had joined his ranks knew the risk they were putting themselves in by drawing the Shaldar out and doing their best to confuse them. Many would fall to the Shaldar’s arrows.

Fendreg had Artress running at a grueling pace. His senses were sharp and bright with the power of the gaden-armor coursing through him. He was in the lead and would be the first one into the camp. The terrain changed as the Kelvana left the grasslands and hit the drier, rocky soil. The Cormand came into view and Fendreg led them far around the ribbon of muddy water. Glancing over his shoulder, he caught a glimpse of the larger force as it slowed to a march that would put it at the camp at a slower pace to give them the lead.

Fendreg and his company continued to ride for some minutes. The land was broken by the jagged shapes of rocks that jutted up and the rise and falls of numerous ravines and small canyons. The Senagran squinted into the sunlight and noticed the faint wisps of smoke from the campfires. The Kelvana rode on Fendreg turned Artress in the direction of the camp. The pace ate away the ground and soon the forces rushed down a broad slope. His keen eyesight spotted the sentries hidden between the rocks and in one smooth motion, he pulled his bow free removed an arrow from the quiver and drew back. The man fell back into a crevasse with the arrow jutting from his ruined throat. The sound of a ram’s horn was cut off as another sentry went down from an arrow in the chest; the wretch toppled from one of the rock formations.

Below in the camps, the Shaldar’s forces were just beginning to be aware of the danger. They were struggling to rally as Fendreg entered the parameter. The other Kelvana followed suit, neatly trampling warriors just recently stirred from their pallets. The screams went up and the fighting began. Fendreg had his sword out swiping back and forth, the cut down the Shaldar’s men, Artress stepping on the corpses and kicking those who had not been struck by his blade. The warhorse was well trained. The carnage unfolded slowly in the confines of the camp. Tents collapsed as guidelines were cut and peg ripped from the ground. Slowly, a point of organization emerged close to the center where the Shaldar himself was rallying the buckling forces.

Fendreg pushed inward, breaking down the barriers between himself and the Shaldar. The Kelvana were meeting resistance and some of the warriors were falling. The chaos of battle had descended around him but the Senagran kept his calm, moved through the motions with a methodical, practiced ease. His motions were slightly faster, his blows rained down harder, and his reflexes were singing through the enchantment of his gaden-armor. Still, he missed the ax hurtling towards Artress’ leg.

The scream of the horse was a terrible sound. The beast went down swiftly catapulting Fendreg from the saddle. He sailed through the air, the sound of the fighting dulled in that extended moment in time. As the ground rushed towards him, Fendreg reacted, twisting his body preternaturally fast to recover. He landed in a roll and was up on his feet the next moment. Somehow he had retained his sword. Some distance away, Artress was crumpled on the ground, his leg severed, and an ugly spear protruding from his side.

“The Two Mothers take you!”

Fendreg ran towards the nearest enemy warriors. They were no matches for him. Bodies flew into the air, sometimes whole sometimes in pieces as he tore through the defense to get at the Shaldar. He caught his first glimpse of the leader just as the sound of dozens of ram’s horns echoed across the canyon. Rulrick had arrived.

Nine thousand Kelvana horsemen surged down the slopes and negotiated their way down into the shallow canyon. The Shaldar screamed orders to those surrounding him. The warriors formed a ring ten deep surrounding their leader. The rumbling of the horses’ hooves echoed loudly through the canyon and ground trembled slightly. For that brief moment everyone had seized fighting to watched the spectacle of the advancing Kelvana...everyone except Fendreg. The Senagran roared and charged the Shaldar’s men and brushed several aside, their armored bodied battering against his gaden-armor before they were flung away. His armored body parted through the wearied warriors like a horse. Arms were broken, necks snapped, ribs crushed. Fendreg grabbed one man bodily and threw him like a sack of grain.

He emerged inside the defensive wall. The Shaldar spun around just as he entered. The man was nearly seven feet tall, girded in a heavy armor plating, his face hidden behind a full helmet. Fendreg wore a simple, open helmet that protected his head from the worst of the blows. Now he smiled at the Shaldar.

Across the camp Rulrick’s men were making short work of the Shaldar’s remaining soldiers, crushing them under the hooves of their horses or skewering them with their spears. The sounds of the fighting were flagging in some places, dying in others. It would not be long now. Fendreg waited. The Shaldar glanced around, noting the tide of the battle. It was clear that it was over.

“Your men are finished,” yelled Fendreg.

The Shaldar seized his helmet and wrenched it off. The long flowing locks spilled out into the light, spreading in black luscious waves. Smooth cheeks, deep blue eyes, and soft lips.

Fendreg gaped.

The Shaldar was a woman.

Fendreg walked forward, sheathing his sword along the way. As he walked closer, he realized that the woman’s proportions were much larger than a normal woman’s. She stood nearly to head higher than he and she seemed to be all muscle. Shaldar had a savage look to her eye.

“And what would you do with me then?” she asked. Her voice was deep but certainly feminine.

Fendreg considered. Was she truly a warrior? How was she with a sword? He wondered if she was feigning passivity. Did she wait for the opportunity to strike?

“Rulrick wishes you beaten then driven from their lands naked.”

“I have little say in local matters.”

The Shaldar smiled then, the expression a slight twitch at the corners of her mouth. “You’re an outlander like me then. Why do you fight with these nomads? What common cause could you have with them?”

The battlefield had cooled. One every side, the Shaldar’s warriors were holding their hands up in surrender. The Kelvana were corralling them and taking away their weapons. The Shaldar paid little attention. She had her eyes on Fendreg.

“I take issue with anyone who makes their way across the land pillaging, burning, and raping those who happen to be in their path. You have Kelvana children and some of the younger women. You will be letting them go, but why did you take them in the first place?”

The Shaldar held out a hand. “My men were in want of women so I sought them out. The children I wished to take to my home in the south, along the Albaridian coast. My people lost their children to a plague.”

Her reasons were stated so remorselessly. She could have been recounting a supplies list she needed to replenish. Indeed, she may have seen her actions as such.

“And that gives you the right to steal from the Kelvana?”

The Shaldar laughed, a deep throaty laughter. “Right outlander. You speak of what is right? Shall you preach to me from the scrolls of Themadra too? Right is what I decide, what I take by force.”

The hoots and hollers of victory filled the canyon as the Kelvana approached the center of the encampment. The Shaldar waited. Fendreg watched. Soon the gathering Kelvana parted so Rulrick could get through. He walked up to Fendreg and clasped his forearm.

“I am grateful for your help, Lord Fendreg. You have helped us route these dogs.” He paused to glance at the Shaldar. Rulrick nodded.

“I had heard rumors you were a woman, but did not quite believe them. From your height and features, you must descend from the giants, eh Shaldar?”

“It is as you say, savage,” The Shaldar replied coolly.

Rulrick grinned. “Ah, you call us savages, when you are the invaders.” He motioned for two of the Kelvana. “You remove her armor. Leave her with nothing but the skin she was born with! The same with what remains of her army. Those men who remain uninjured will be stripped and sent away to the Torecha deserts.” He pointed to the west.

The Shaldar offered no resistance. They removed every piece of the heavy armor until she was wearing a padded jacket and breeches. Her womanly shape was evident, though Fendreg noted that her dark, brownish skin covered taut muscle. Finally the Kelvana removed everything and she stood there amidst the warriors unashamed by her nakedness. She seemed like a goddess among the men. Her supple body drenched in sweat.

Rulrick seemed unmoved by the Shaldar’s appearance. “Go now. We shall follow you to the edge of the deserts. Once there, we shall provide you a few small water skins. One hundred of my warriors shall guard stay there along the border for three days. May Themadra have mercy on you.”

The Shaldar snorted and started walking west. Fendreg watched as she walked away making her way every westward, the soldiers that remained followed her like obedient hounds. They never hesitated. Fendreg found himself admiring the woman in a strange way. She commanded loyalty and enforced her will on countless peoples. She felt certain that she would remain unchallenged. The Senagran could see it in the way she walked, the way she held her head up. She was facing certain death in the western deserts yet she still moved like she was the commander of a great army.

“God-cursed pride, woman. You lost your edge and let us roll over you like a wave in the ocean.”

Rulrick came up to him. “Lord Fendreg, come we must celebrate now.” He was smiling, giddy with victory.

Fendreg looked around him at the carnage. The moans of the injured and the dying drifted to his ears from every quarter. How many had perished? Was it worth the price?

The Senagran let the Kelvana lead him away. He was given a new horse. They retrieved the prisoners and looted the foodstuffs and carried other boons with them. The Shaldar’s thousands were left to rot beneath the hot sun.

When they arrived at the Kelvana camp, Fendreg found Iessa waiting in his tent. She said nothing but drew him to her. He let the woman remove the gaden-armor. They were together until the feast commenced later than night. The wine flowed richly and Fendreg drank until he wandered back to his tent and Iessa’s arms again.

***

The sun poured its heat out on the plains. Fendreg cinched the saddle straps on the brown mare tightly. The saddle pack was filled with fresh provision and his gaden-armor was attached in the ack. He wore a white shirt with blocky glyphs embroidered around the neck and on the sleeves. He worse the sword at his hip but the bow and quivers were handing from the pommel.

The Kelvana were gathered on the edge of their camp. Rulrick came forward. He had an ornate dagger in his hands.

“We give this to you as a token of our thanks. May Themadra bless you, Lord Fendreg and give you safe passage across the plains and to your home.”

“Thank you, Rulrick. You are an honorable people.”

A cheer went up, shouting Fendreg’s praises. The Senagran let his gaze roam until he found her. Iessa’s face was red and blotched from crying. But it was dry now. She merely watched him. There was no reason to say anything more. Iessa would not leave her people for an outlander no matter how much she might have come to care for him.

Fendreg sighed. It is time to leave.

He pulled himself onto the saddle and once more extended a hand to the chieftain. “The Two Mothers bless you, Rulrick.”

Wheeling the horse around, Fendreg set the animal at a slow trot. The cheers followed him a short distance before the Kelvana turned back. Only when the camp was lost behind a slight rise in the land did he turn back. There was nothing but the endless plains, the open skies, and the feeling of being alone in the whole world.

Fendreg looked north towards his homeland, where the summer celebrations would be echoing through the halls of the fortress, and the Vale of Everhold would be buoyant and joyful. The Senagran spurred the horse and galloped northward.

  

Copyright © 2019 Shaun Kilgore

Cover art copyright Dreamstime.com

Cover design copyright © 2019 Founders House Publishing, LLC

First published as an eBook single in 2012

Published by Founders House Publishing, LLC

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any semblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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