Sample of The Ironwood Staff
Here is a sample from my first book, The Ironwood Staff
It was springtime, at the end of the ninth month, when Tomas first saw action. In the small hours of morning, they were roused from their thin pallets by the strangely melodious shouts of Ethenceldo
Cordun, the leader-of-120. Men came tumbling out of their huts, some still tying up sandals, or with cloaks in hand. The Ethenceldo
just sighed and shook his head. When all were gathered together, they were given a briefing: the regular guards had had to go to take part in operations up the river, and the Militia was required to set up a perimeter at the west end of the settled forest, in case any enemy units got through.
‘This is your chance for some strokes against the Fouls, O Men!’ bellowed the Ethenceldo, looking far too young and refined to be the martinet that the humans knew him to be. A hard elado he was, but scrupulously fair. ‘Perform this task well, and ye shall be trusted with greater things!’
He struck the right note with that, thought Tomas. There was cheering and a clashing of staves on shields. Tomas felt his stomach twist with tension, but reminded himself of Hunter’s Wells and checked his bowstring. He had twenty-four arrows, and each one had a kchaban name on it. He loosened his short, elegant equet in its sheath. This was it!
In short order, the humans had formed up into their deployment groups, the largest of enctostari or spearmen, one of econstari or javelin-throwers, another of quenstari or bowmen. There were around a hundred all together. In the moonless, dead cold of early morning, with no-one to mark their passing, the tawny-cloaked figures jogged along the high road eastwards, a bloodthirsty eladon song rising in the steam of their breath as they went. They passed a hallows in the dark, and moved out of the settled forest and down into a shallow, wooded valley. Here during summer ran a tributary of the Green River, but at this time of year the stream was little more than a muddy gully. At the crest of the rise above the watercourse, they were separated into groups of four to six, each with at least two spearmen and one bowman. Then they took a long run in a wide arc, and one group was left at regular points along it, each within shouting distance of the next. The forest was thick in places.
Tomas’ group consisted of himself, two enctostari who he knew only as Ben and Andy, and an econstar from Hunter’s Wells called Simon. Their station was at a place where a faint track led down the short, steep slope to the gully, passing through thick undergrowth on the near side, but not crossing the watercourse. The far side was much more open, with a gentler slope.
After the Ethenceldo had left, taking the torch with him, Tomas could at first see little. After a minute or less, his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and he found himself able to see surprisingly well. The budding stinkwood trees formed eerie, scrag-fingered shapes against the starlit sky. Time dragged on, and Tomas began to feel cold, as the heat of his run began to dissipate through his cloak. For some time, the men crouched quiet and alert in the shadows. Eventually though, the two enctostari, who were old friends, started talking to each other in quiet whispers. Their voices gradually became louder, and Tomas shushed them as he sat shivering in the cluster of stinkwood trunks where he hid. From their positions below him on the track, they looked up at him, then at each other, and started talking again, only not quite as loud. Tomas looked back at Simon. He sat quietly in the dry leaf-litter further up the track, his three javelins leaning against a tree-trunk.
Tomas was surprised by a strange feeling of being watched: he could see only vague shapes across the gully, but there was a faint rustle in the darkness ahead. He gave a quiet hiss, and nocked an arrow on his bow, looking for the source of the sound.
The men below him jumped to the alert, readying weapons. They adopted combat poses without even thinking. For a time they all stood still, as the tension grew, then slowly dissipated. Then, as the men started to relax, Tomas’ sense of threat suddenly increased. One of the spearmen said quietly, ‘Must be a bird,’ but as he said that, there was a crackling and a thumping in the dead undergrowth on the far side, and a party of kchabani moved out into the gully, bristling weaponry.
Time seemed to slow down for Tomas, but he just couldn’t seem to move fast enough. Gritting his teeth in concentration, he drew the bow, sighted and loosed an arrow at the nearest kchaban. The missile whooshed lethally as it flew, then clanged as it ricocheted off the thing’s helmet. The kchaban reaction was frighteningly fast: they ducked, bounding like monkeys back towards the sparse cover of the trees. Tomas loosed another arrow after the last of them, and was rewarded by a short, sharp scream. He was just nocking a third, when an arrow, shorter than his, thudded into one of his sheltering tree-trunks, just in front of him. He jerked back, slamming into another trunk. There wasn’t enough space to dodge in here, he thought.
‘How many are there?’ called one of the spearmen in a hoarse whisper.
‘More than us!’ Tomas replied. Another arrow thwacked into another tree-trunk, spraying wood-splinters. There was a whiff of the tree’s pungent bark. He peeped out quickly. He couldn’t see a thing. ‘They can see in the dark!’
‘To me, Militia!’ bellowed the other spearman. There was no response, but Tomas knew the other groups must have heard. There was a hoarse shout from the other side, and about ten kchabani charged down into the watercourse, pelting for the track where the humans were. Tomas saw a javelin from Simon soar down the track, transfixing the hide shield of the biggest kchaban in front. Disregarding it completely, the big one came on and engaged one of the enctostari. Tomas readied another arrow, and fired it neatly into the crotch of another kchaban. The target collapsed with an incredibly high-pitched shriek. Tomas, exulting at finding his mark, exposed himself too much: an arrow, fired by a night-eyed kchaban, found its way between the trunks, hitting him in his left hip. Bellowing with pain like a bull, Tomas was knocked back. He saw the archer-kchaban break cover across the gully, moving to fire at him again, but it was a fatal mistake: Simon’s last javelin arced over, embedding itself in the kchaban’s ribcage.
As Tomas battled in agony to right himself, the enctostari were overrun. Ben fell, slashed by kchaban machetes. Andy, realising he was alone, made a break for it, but was shot in the lower back by another arrow which found its way past the panels of his armour as he ran. Simon, to his everlasting credit, stood his ground. Standing over Andy, he drew his equet and put it through the face of the big kchaban, before he too was beaten down. Tomas managed to nock another arrow, but he panicked. His shot went wide, as three kchabani came at him in his hiding place at once. Tomas drew his equet, but as he did so, there was the whipping sound of eladon arrows, and most of the remaining kchabani fell. Reinforcements had arrived! Tomas’ assailants knew nothing of it though, and one lunged at him with a great spear. The heavy head hit him below his right collarbone, punching right through his armour, and he reeled in shock. He fell screaming, waiting for the death blow – but it never came. Instead, he was seized by friendly hands. The kchabani attacking him were killed or taken. Human and eladon figures whirled in the dark above him, and he heard the words, ‘... stuck like a pig, but still alive!’ For some minutes he lay sobbing in agony, coughing up blood, until some eladi came. One held him still, while the other deliberately broke the arrow in his hip. Tomas was engulfed in a wave of pain, and he fell into darkness.