Finally, the moment you have all been waiting for: the first part of the first chapter of the novel I’ve just started, called Exiles.
Rolf’s breath came in ragged gasps as he pelted through the forest, trying to get as far away from the battle as possible. The clash of swords, the neighing of horses, and the screams of the wounded rang out behind him like discordant music. Scurrying behind a tree, he leaned against it to catch his breath. His halberd dangled in his grip and he knew he might as well let it drop to the ground; he had a sword, and the halberd would only impede his escape. It was far too noticeable anyway, holding its proud, glittering head high in the air for all to see. And he was a man who must hold his head low from now on.
He heard a shout to his left and he whirled around. In the open field, only a few feet away, two knights were fighting on foot. He squinted, trying to make out the devices on their armor. One had a seahawk across the breastplate: a treaty-breaking Cimbrian knight. The other was marked by a white raven, the symbol of the Ilarian allies. The Cimbrian had just delivered a thundering blow with his mace to the shield of the Ilarian, shattering it into splinters and causing the knight to shout in pain and alarm. He scrambled back from the Cimbrian’s brandished mace and tried to respond with his sword. Rolf’s heart leapt into his throat as he saw the Ilarin knight’s heel get caught on a protruding root, toppling him to the ground. The Cimbrian came in for the kill.
Rolf charged with a roar, aiming the tip of his halberd right for the chink between the chest and the shoulder of the armor. The tip plunged through the mail and right into the Cimbrian’s heart. With a sickening gurgle, the knight collapsed to the ground, the halberd still stuck fast in his chest.
Rolf turned to the Ilarian knight. “Are you alright, My Lord?”
The knight grunted and tried to stand. Rolf grabbed him under his good arm and hauled him to his feet. “Are you alright?” he repeated.
Hands shaking a bit, the knight slid back his visor, revealing kind, blue eyes. “I’ll do, my good soldier, thanks to you.” He stretched out a gauntleted hand. “It is an honor to meet such a brave fellow as yourself among my Skopje allies.”
Rolf managed to squeeze out a half-hearted smile. “Thank you, My Lord. May I help you back to your camp? That arm should be tended to. Lean on me.”
Taking the offered arm, they went slowly toward the camp. Their way was up a gentle slope and, fortunately, the fighting had moved to the west of them.
“Please permit me to inquire after your name,” the knight said as they made their way slowly up the incline.
“Yes, sir: Soldier Rolf. I am not of noble birth and I belong to no one.”
The knight smiled a bit at that. “A freeman then?”
“What part of Skopje do you hail from?”
“Okau. I doubt Your Lordship has heard of it, it is a small province.”
To his surprise, the noble nodded. “That’s near the northern border, isn’t it? I was once up there on a hunting expedition; beautiful country, pure pastureland. Nothing but shepherds, goatherds, and wild pigs. Not much money in it, I suppose, but that’s what keeps it so wild and beautiful.”
“Yes, indeed, sir. But I have not been there in…a long time.”
After a pause, the knight said very frankly, “I saw you hiding in the forest. I thought at first you were deserting. But then you rushed out to save me. And you are helping me now.”
Rolf met his gaze squarely. “I am no coward, My Lord. Nor am I a deserter.”
They both looked up as the thunder of many hoofs drew near. A Skopje entourage was flooding over the ridge toward them, with King Tarki at the head of the column. Rolf’s heart sank with dread and he ducked his head, although he knew it was useless.
The retinue pulled to a stop in front of them, their horses pawing the ground. King Tarki leapt nimbly down from his horse and gave a short bow. “King Conall,” Tarki addressed the knight. “The Cimbri have surrendered and the battle is won. A peace council is to meet at the brook in an hour to discuss terms.”
“I will be there,” the knight, apparently a king, replied with a nod.
“But, of course, before we meet with the Cimbri, we must ourselves decide—” Just at that moment, the Skopje king’s eyes wandered just a bit and he noticed Rolf for the first time. “YOU!” he bellowed. He grabbed Rolf by the hair and yanked him to his knees. “It’s the traitor! Quick, men, seize him!”
In half a second, Rolf was surrounded by Tarki’s men; his hands were bound behind him, his sword was yanked from its scabbard, the shield was pulled from his arm, and he was half dragged toward the pack of horses.
“Stop!” King Conall’s voice cut the air like a dagger and they all froze. “Lord Tarki, what is the meaning of this?” His expression was calm, but his blue eyes were hard and stern.
“I beg your pardon, Lord Conall, but this is one of my own citizens and—”
“Yes, I know he is one of your citizens, Tarki,” Conall interrupted him. “I can see that by the device and armor he wears. He is also the man who saved my life. Therefore, you must explain yourself.”
Tarki’s jaw tightened as he struggled to remain diplomatic amidst his frustration. “Lord Conall, I do not know what falsehood this blackguard impressed upon you, but he is—”
“I said no lies,” Rolf broke in.
One of the dozen soldiers surrounding Rolf struck him across the face. His face stung and he could feel his lip bleeding.
“Do not touch him,” Conall said in a dangerous tone. “Proceed, Rolf.”
He spat the blood out of his mouth and continued. “My Lord, I am an exile. Ten months ago, I was banished from Skopje, meaning, of course, that I am forbidden from touching this blessed soil or serving in His Majesty’s army. Therefore, for me to be here, a few miles within the border, dressed for war and among the troops, is a grave violation of my sentence.”
“You were here scouting for the enemy against us, weren’t you?” growled Duke Pilka from atop his horse.
“No. I am no traitor.”
King Conall gazed at him for a few seconds then turned to Tarki. “My Lord, this young soldier saved my life. Hence, I am responsible for him as if he were kin. Still, I can not overrule your laws; only you can do that, which is why I ask you to release him to me. Annul his punishment and hand him over to me and I promise to keep him in my charge. On my honor, he will never set foot in Skopje again.”
Tarki sighed deeply and tapped his fingers on the pommel of his sword for what felt like an eternity. “Very well, Lord Conall. But I must impress upon you the serious detriment to diplomatic relations that could be incurred if I ever do catch him within the bounds of my kingdom again.”
“I understand and take this responsibility upon myself.”
Tarki nodded to his guards and they released him. Rolf snatched back his sword and, sheathing it, returned to Conall’s side.
“Come to my pavilion in less than a half-hour so that we may settle what terms we will present to the Cimbri. Good day, King Conall.” With that, King Tarki mounted his horse once again and the whole host wheeled and went thundering back the way they had come.
As soon as they were out of sight, Rolf turned to King Conall and knelt before him. “I owe you my thanks and my service, Your Majesty.”
“Then I accept both of them,” he replied, stretching his hand out to Rolf. Rolf took it and kissed it in fealty. The king actually laughed. “I meant to help you to your feet, but I see you are very old-fashioned— a typical Skopje soldier. Come, let’s not stand about in this field any longer; my arm is very impatient to be mended, it would seem.”
Rolf jumped to his feet and took the king’s good arm once again. They walked the rest of the way to the camp in silence, leaving Rolf on edge the entire time. Surely the king was going to ask him more about his exile?