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The Crier’s Sacrifice

Part I: Infiltration

Chapter Six: Border Crossings

Nathan Black
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A yard into the country of Wystarin, the High Wizard Wekain had to sit down and catch his breath. After his companion fell in, he had tried every spell in the book to lift him out, emitting enough magical energy to make his location known for three hundred miles.

How could he have been so thoughtless as to go first? Nilrid had no idea that the bridge was going to vanish, and besides, Wekain was more dispensable. The Chancellor of the Council of the Arcane might not think so, but he was an idiot anyway. No one but the High Wizard had recognized the boy’s talent as little short of divine, and realized that with perhaps a few months’ training, he would be the greatest wizard ever known. The Whitefire Spell that only the very best magic-users were able to exercise would be three times more powerful in Nilrid’s hands. Imagine, Wekain thought, what that would do to a troll party...

Well, there was no point in dwelling on it. The boy was gone—probably dead—and the only thing the High Wizard could do now was to go to his colleagues in Ulist and report the bad news. It would not sit well with her, or the King of Wystarin. If he was unlucky enough, he might even end up in prison for neglect.

Sighing, he stood and began a slow, grudging walk to the north. If his estimates were correct, he was about two miles east of the town of Wysia, but he was in no mood to contact civilization. So instead, he plodded through the quiet forest, trying to collect his thoughts.

It wasn’t as if he had never seen death before. A native of Ilsonne, he had been a cabin boy on a merchant ship before leaving the sea forever at Perisanta, and attending the University of the Arcane. In the cold, northern waters of the Great Ocean, pirates and Malthanian agents were commonplace. Though he had never faced one of the huge sea monsters that the Goddess of Night supposedly created before the Indimer War, he’d killed his share of cutthroats.

No, it wasn’t death that bothered him, or even the loss of someone on his own side. Many of his seafaring friends had wound up with a sword through their heart—such was the nature of the business. Perhaps it was that Nilrid had possessed a staggering potential, and could have roasted a dragon with proper instruction. And now that potential was lying somewhere along the bottom of the Wystarin River.

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a whizzing arrow, finding its resting place in a nearby tree. Frowning, Wekain picked up the note that was tied to the shaft. It was written on withered parchment, and had a small stain of blood in the upper right hand corner. As he unfolded the paper, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. Looking around, he saw a full circle of twenty people. Eighteen were ignorant-looking trolls, one was a tall, black-haired woman, and another was an old man. With a gasp, the High Wizard realized that he was looking at a battered, weary Morgan!

“Read it,” the woman ordered.

Trying to remain calm, Wekain finished unfolding the note. It was written in a flowing script, but only said one word.


The High Wizard’s breath caught. What was going to happen?

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the woman continued. “I am called Nyranne, when it is necessary to take a human name. And you, I suppose, are the Honorable Wekain of Yansor, the High Wizard of Querisia?”

“Answer the truth, Wekain, for the love of Gelz,” Morgan croaked in a broken voice. It was 125 miles from the wizard’s cottage to the Wystarinian border, and Wekain had no doubt that his captors had made the poor man walk every step. Malthanians rarely had any respect for elders, or authority besides their own.

“I am,” the High Wizard said quietly.

“Ah, good,” Nyranne replied smoothly. “It would be very embarrassing if we kidnapped... ah, recruited the wrong man. Now, if you’ll just come with us, everything will be fine.”

What was he to do? Reciting a silent prayer to the God of Daylight, Wekain allowed the trolls to surround him, and grind his freedom into small pieces.

Nilrid’s consciousness was in a haze of dim vision and dull pain. With much effort, he realized that he was lying on the bank of the Wystarin River, but he couldn’t even tell which side. What a shame—he had always wanted to go to another country besides Mallsey and Querisia, and now he couldn’t be sure if he had.

He hoped Wekain was all right. Of course, his magic could fry a troll at ten paces, but as the old man himself had said, a surprise attack could kill a lowly peasant, the King of Tanaveri, or the High Wizard of Querisia.

So what was he to do now? From the ache in his legs (and, in fact, his entire body), he was in no shape to travel. He could wait for a rescue, but hunger would probably find him faster than a passerby. Starvation was a painful and embarrassing death for a spy, but just as effective.

Closing his eyes, he drifted off into a restless, light sleep...

He was awakened by the pit-pat of small feet. It was night now, and the moon, still full, was high in the dark sky. A tiny surge of alarm went off in his miserable body when he saw that he was surrounded by at least a dozen tiny, purple midgets. Was this a rescue, or a kidnapping?

“He’s hurt!” a high-pitched voice announced. “Not fatally, but bad enough to keep him here for a while.”

“We can’t help him here,” a slightly lower voice said. “And the palace is nearly forty miles from here.”

“Then that’s where we’ll take him,” the first midget snapped. “We’ll have him there by the dawn after next. Pick him up! We’ll haul him across the river.”

And so it was that Nilrid didn’t cross the Querisia-Wystarin border on foot, or by magic, but at the hands of about twelve diminutive rescuers. The boy, groaning softly as he was lifted, wondered where this palace of theirs was, and more importantly, who was its ruler?

The morning of June 20 was foggy and dismal. Honir was the first to wake, as usual, and surveyed the forest surrounding their camp. It looked a great deal more pleasant than it had at eleven o’clock the previous night, when they had stumbled upon the clearing and decided it was a good enough place to stop. Before that, the party had been bent on reaching the Rogilia-Tanaveri border that night, and they were currently about three miles away. But an hour before midnight, after ten hours of constant walking, even the soft-spoken Forat was complaining.

This close to Tanaveri, there was always the risk of ambush, and being in the Osir Forest didn’t help. The leader had been uneasy about camping in an open area, but seeing the condition (or lack thereof) of his group, he decided it was worth the risk. His own legs were about to fall out from under him, but a good captain never complained; he just listened to the complaints of others.

Well, everyone seemed to be alive. Salintia looked so motionless that Honir almost bent down and checked her pulse, but playing dead was one of her specialties, and she was starting to do it all the time. Yiratam snored deeply in drunken slumber; the night before, whiskey was the only thing that kept him from falling down at every step. Only Forat appeared to be normal, but that was typical of most mornings. Sometimes, the leader wished his quiet charge would lighten up a bit, but he had to admit that it made life easier.

“Everybody up!” he yelled imperiously, and was answered by a multitude of groans. “Come on! We reach Tanaveri today.”

“If we can make it that far,” Yiratam muttered, sitting up and clutching his head. “I haven’t ached so terribly since...”

“Since the last hangover,” Honir interrupted. “Now get up, young man, and put some decent clothes on.” In fact, Yiratam was only five or six years younger than his leader, but Honir was a stickler for authority, and decided that he could call his followers whatever he wanted to.

“I had the strangest dream,” Salintia said softly. “I was walking through the streets of Indimer, and all of a sudden, there was Malthan herself, begging at a street corner! I walked up to her and asked, ‘Pardon me, madam, but shouldn’t you be hiding in your Palace?’ She said, ‘I just wanted a taste of humanity.’ Then, she opened her mouth to the size of a house, and...”

“Swallowed you whole?” the leader asked idly, putting a slab of salted meat over the dying fire.

The woman nodded, and failed to suppress a grin.

“And how are you, Forat?” Honir asked, knowing he would never speak unless spoken to.

“I’m well,” the spy replied, going through a personal checklist of sixteen knives, all hid in strategic and very clever places in his clothes. “Do you think there will be trouble at the border today?”

“If there is, you’ll be ready,” the leader smiled, trying to spot the daggers up his companion’s sleeves and almost driving himself mad. Verbal deception was more Salintia’s specialty, but a man like Forat could walk into Malthan’s secret palace, assassinate all of her top commanders, and walk back out before the troll guards even thought of sounding the alarm.

Tearing away half of one of the meat patties, Honir chewed vigorously as he walked over to the road. Inside Tanaveri, its name was infamous: the Pakil Highway. But in Rogilia, the patriotism hub of Derenda, it was simply known as the North Rogilia-Salaver Road.

No trolls were gracing the road at that point, but Honir had learned not to assume. Running his fingers across his belt, he realized that he had forgotten his sword. Turning on his heel, he walked slowly back to the camp and put on his weapon.

Everyone else had dressed, and was eating in silence. “Today’s the day,” their leader announced, as if they didn’t already know. “If we have to wade across the Tanaveri River holding our noses, we’ll be on the other side of the border by high noon.”

“But realistically, sir,” Salintia said tiredly, “how do you plan on getting us across?”

Honir shrugged. “We’ll figure that out when we get there. Haven’t we always found a way before?”

“Of course, sir,” Forat remarked. The others turned around to face him; his rare speeches were as respected as his typical silence. “But we were serving Morgan last time, not the King of Querisia. We mustn’t assume that some Malthanian cutthroat hasn’t found us out yet. The moment we approach the river, we run the risk of getting skewered before we can open our mouths.” Nodding awkwardly, the young man resumed his concentration on his dried breakfast.

“Well, I’ve heard that Tanaveri is recruiting women for its Malthanian Guard,” Yiratam remarked between forced, deliberate bites. He gave a mischievous grin that was known all too well in the group. “If there’s one of them standing on the other side of the border, we’ve...”

Grabbing a hardened piece of tree bark, Honir hurled it at his unscrupulous companion. It hit Yiratam in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him.

“Now, that’s quite enough of that,” the leader snapped. “Women die as easily as men, and if necessary, we must all be ready to drive a sword through one. If they’re Tanaverian, they certainly won’t be unwilling to kill us.”

“Who said anything about killing men?” Salintia asked sharply.

Honir sighed. “All right. Let’s put it this way. Salintia and Yiratam will talk their way across the border, Forat will play assassin, and I will make the call as to what, exactly, we’re going to do.”

“Brilliant, sir!” Yiratam cried. There was a tinge of sarcasm in his voice, but the leader ignored it.

“Now, come on. The earlier we get there, the better chance we’ve got.”

The foursome of spies walked in silence, always looking over their shoulders or at the underbrush on either side. It was a beautiful June morning, but this close to the world’s only Malthanian nation, that hardly counted for anything, except, of course, that it meant that the Goddess was happy, and not in the mood for sending down torrential floods.

A twig cracked, and the party froze. The poor, ignorant doe running across the road barely took a step before she was coated in short, throwing knives. Clearing his throat with embarrassment, Forat walked over and retrieved his weapons. Wiping them on some large leaves, he silently replaced the knives and returned to the back of the group.

An hour later, at around eight thirty in the morning, the trees parted to reveal a slow, meandering river over forty feet across. A small island sat in the middle, with foot-high grass, a single, scraggly tree, and a sign that read:

Malthanian Realm of

“We can cross it,” Honir said indifferently. “As long as it’s not too deep.”

Salintia studied the muddy water. “Couldn’t be more than five feet at the center,” she remarked.

“Then everybody grit your teeth, and step in. It’s going to be very, very cold.”

The leader couldn’t have been more correct. As each party member stepped in, they gave a small, involuntary gasp of surprise. They were in the northern third of the world, and if the weather was pleasant enough, the water could keep dead fish preserved for half a year.

They sauntered along silently, their boots catching in the muddy bottom of the river. Fortunately, Salintia had been right; Honir, who had taken the lead, had almost reached the island, and the water was only up to his waist.

“Is everybody all right?” he called back.

“Yes,” Yiratam and Salintia replied in unison. Looking behind him, the leader saw Forat nod, which was good enough for him.

With a grunt of relief, Honir lifted his soaked, muddy legs out of the water and stepped up onto the island. The morning, summer sun hit his lower half immediately, as the leader sat tiredly back against the tree. The official border was not two feet ahead of him.

The woman came next, trying in irritation to smooth her skirt. Why she wore ladies clothing on the day of an illegal border crossing was beyond her commander, but he had never understood ordinary women, much less one whose entire life was committed to verbal and visual deception.

Forat and Yiratam hardly seemed to have noticed the cold, or the soft mud that clung to their boots. The four spies gathered by the tree, and sat in silence for several minutes.

“Well,” Honir said finally. “Shall we finish?”

Yiratam nodded. “At once, sir. Now, who gets to break Tanaverian law first? It’s a very distinguished honor, and one we should have discussed back at our camp last night.”

The leader rolled his eyes, but was in a good enough mood to play along. “Shall we hold an election, then? I nominate the esteemed Forat.”

“Second the motion!” Salintia cried. The nominee, of course, said nothing. Whenever Honir tried to bring the quiet, sedate man into one of their ridiculous conversations, he ignored them completely.

“Forat, my lad, you’re elected!” the leader announced.

“Excuse me, sir, but we just got past the nomination,” Yiratam cut in.

“My dear Yiratam, have you ever wondered how the water would feel if you went in head first?” Honir’s question was met by silence. “Now, Forat, you get to lead us. Go on!”

Clearing his throat, the man stood, and with an almost comical flare—something the leader would never have expected—and took a giant step past the sign.

A huge head suddenly reared out of the water, accompanied by a slender, bluish neck at least ten feet long. The monster bared its teeth, emitted a deafening roar, and leaned forwards toward Forat.

In an instant, the beast had taken eleven knives in the face. With a howl, it shot back, and collapsed back into the river.

Forat turned around, with two more knives in his hand. Two more were edging their way down his sleeves, and the last was still wedged firmly in his boot. He looked irritated; eleven assassin-quality blades were more expensive than they used to be. “Well, the new King seems to have stepped up border patrol,” he muttered quietly, tucking his remaining weapons away.

Honir was the first to recover from the shock. He’d fought his share of trolls, and even a low-level necromancer in his prime, but he had never seen a creature that huge! It looked like something out of legend, or maybe one of those sailor’s tales that frequented cities like Ilsonne and Perisanta.

“You did well, Forat,” he congratulated quietly. “It’s obvious that Malthan is becoming active, and we must be more careful. Shall we stay here and make sure nobody else pops up?”

Yiratam shook his head gravely. “We’ll be safer moving than standing still. Whatever that was, it can’t attack us unless we’re near water.”

“Then come on.” Honir watched carefully as he walked across the border, but nothing happened. He took a deep breath as he descended into the water, in order to avoid an embarrassing outburst of agony. Part of leadership was encouragement, and making himself sound like a man under torture was hardly going to help in that area.

The others followed reluctantly; their clothes had just begun to really dry. The water didn’t get any deeper, thankfully, and in a few minutes, everyone was on the eastern side of the river.

A new sign was now visible:

Salaver: Half Mile
Osir: 78 Miles
PAKIL: 208 Miles

“I’m under the impression that we should avoid civilization until we reach the capital,” Salintia noted. “Perhaps we ought to start by straying very far from this Salaver town.”

“I agree,” Honir nodded, heading for the underbrush to the north of the road. “Come on, all of you. I haven’t fought my way through the Osir Forest for years.”

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Copyright ©Nathan Black, 1998
By the same author RSSThere are no more works at
Date of publicationDecember 1999
Collection RSSGlobal Fiction
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