Winter Wolves

Winter is fast approaching. For the men of the Queen’s Own, that means the war is winding down for the year and the opposing armies are retiring to winter quarters.

That is until the beautiful, mysterious Lady Jana arrives, bringing news of enemy where there should be none, and of a missing professor, Halir Ashford.

Tasked with tracking down the enemy and locating the Professor, the Queen’s Own, under their new Captain, Aenan, have to venture into the southern wilds as winter closes in.

They face no normal enemy though, for the enemy is led by a ruthless, driven man, Colonel Amukhet, who will stop at nothing to accomplish his mission, a mission that could change the fate of the world.

One man among the Queen’s Own, Harry Ban, may hold the key to stopping him. He holds a secret that could save them, but one that may in the end destroy him.

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The following is a sample from Winter Wolves, being from the opening chapter of the novel.

Notes: The events of Winter Wolves take place around twenty years after Tears of the Mountain.

WINTER WOLVES

Chapter One

The raven winged its way through the gloom of the pre-dawn forest, as silent as a shadow.  The sun had yet to climb above the far-flung, darkened hills that rolled across the eastern horizon, yet already its first bronzed touch of light had begun to seep across the sky.  Fragile wisps of royal stained cloud clung low over the hills.

The bird ghosted on between tall, straight limbed trees, a dark shadow among the skeins of mist that drifted over a slow flowing stream.  The mists threaded their way between the trees, and on through a small camp that had been establish in a clearing in woodlands beside the stream.

The camp that flickered beneath the raven as it flew onwards was no great affair, being a simple collection of a dozen dirty grey tents that were heavy with dew, clustered around the clearing alongside the gurgling brook.  A fire pit stood in the middle of the camp, surrounded by smooth stones, the fire burnt down to just a few last smouldering embers.

A dark haired man sat in front of the remnants of the fire, with his back to the trunk of a fallen tree.  A blanket was pulled around his shoulders.  He had long since succumbed to sleep and his head had slumped forward against his chest.

The nearby stream flowed gently across a bed of smooth grey stones and rocks, traces of mist dancing among the reeds that clustered along its banks.  A single horse and a handful of mules were tethered down near the stream.  The land gradually sloped up from the stream to an embankment that overlooked the camp.  The trees in their riot of autumn finery grew thicker the further away from the stream that they stood.

Beyond the camp the raven flew, plunging on into the trees.  It alighted upon a bare branch, its head tilted as it listened intently.  There were alien noises to be heard in the forest, above that of what was normal, the sound of many feet and horses hooves, of jangling harnesses and scabbards.  The raven let out a long, drawn out cry and lifted away from the branch, disappearing off into the trees and mists.

Captain Antronios gripped tightly at the hilt of his curved sabre, a reflex action as the bird burst from the trees, giving throat to its melancholy cry.  All around him soldiers in pale blue coats swung muskets up to their shoulders in startled response, a visual indication of the nerves that were affecting them all, nerves that Antronios shared.  It was just as well that they were marching with unloaded muskets, Antronios reflected; else all surprise could just have been lost to one stray bird.  The men he commanded were all veterans, but it was a morning that could unnerve even the bravest.  The air was utterly still, not a breath of a breeze disturbing the trees, and the mists that lay light about twisted in unsettling, silent ways.

He released the tight grip he had taken on his sabre, a cold shiver running through him.  It had nothing to do with the cool of the late autumn but all to do with the bird.  It had been a raven, a bird that to his people was a harbinger of doom, and its appearance that morning could only spell trouble lying ahead.  Worse still, he knew that for his foes the bird was seen in an entirely different light, one far more positive than his own.  It was well that the men remained unaware of such things.

Pushing aside such morbid thoughts, he motioned with silent gestures for his men to resume their advance.  Despite their efforts at silence, their boots sounded unnaturally loud in the still of the morning as they walked over fallen twigs and leaves, as did his raspy, misting breath.  The only sounds that could be heard were the ones that they made.

They arrived at the embankment that looked down through the trees to the gurgling stream and the small camp that still slumbered in the dim light, their objective that morning.  Only one man could be spotted in it, and he appeared to be asleep before a burnt out fire.  The men halted their advance at a signal from Antronios, grounding their muskets as they waited for further instruction.  A faint murmur of voices from somewhere within the company was quickly cut off by a hissed warning from a sergeant.

Antronios was still studying the camp when an aide from the Colonel arrived, coming from further back where the main body of men still waited.  His pale blue jacket was tight and elegantly cut, trimmed with golden thread and with another tailored jacket hanging from one shoulder like a cape, a hopelessly redundant yet highly fashionable item.  His white trousers were pristine and his high black boots were polished to a mirror gleam.  The scabbard at his side and the hilt of the sabre it held were heavily gilded.  Despite their journey and the difficulties on it, the man’s dark moustache was somehow still trimmed and waxed.  The man was more courtier than soldier, a minor noble who had risen not by virtue of arms but rather influence, personally appointed to the mission by the Emperor himself.  Rather than risk allowing him to lead real soldiers into battle, the Colonel had made the man an aide, running messages and errands for him.  The aide was pompous about it, not realising just what a snub it was and the low regard the other officers held him in.

“Captain Antronios,” the aide said in a faint whisper, even he understanding the value of surprise, “The Colonel’s compliments and he wishes to advice you that the cavalry are in position.  You may commence the attack at your pleasure.”

Antronios drew his sabre in one fluid motion.  The edge of the blade was dull, needing to be sharpened.  There had been no chance of late to have it done.  If all went as planned it would not be needed that morning though.

“Very well,” he told the aide.  “We shall begin the attack now, if you would be so kind as to inform the Colonel.”  The aide saluted and headed back up the slope through the trees, almost slipping on damp leaves as he clambered up.

“Fix bayonets,” Antronios hissed.  Along the line of men, the whisper of steel rang out as the blades were drawn from their scabbards.  The bayonets were clipped to the smooth bore muskets they carried before being lowered to present a formidable wall of gleaning steel.  Very few fights, unless they were truly desperate, came down to the bayonet.  It was the fear of those dreadful blades that more often than not did the trick, the fear of them that had long driven the foes of the Emperor before them.  Nation by nation they had fallen to the bayonets until at last the Empire had turned its sights on the far south, on the hills and mountains that were home to the Tirhanites and Shekanites, and the tribes that formed those nations.  There too the bayonets had proved victorious; at first.  From across the seas had came the old foe, the Maedari Commonwealth, and blunted the advance of the Empire.

Now the bayonets advanced no more, and the expectance of victory had given way to despair.  That despair had brought them to this place, by long and dangerous roads.  The Colonel had promised the Emperor that he knew of a secret that would once more turn the tide of the war back in their favour, a secret that would lead the bayonets to the victory that was theirs by right.  Antronios was sceptical about the existence of such a secret, yet he had followed the Colonel for too long to express such views publically.

Antronios raised his sabre high over his head and then swept it down, signalling the advance to commence.  Silently the men crested the embankment and began to march down the slope in tight ranks, shoulder to shoulder, their advance broken up only by trees that grew in their path.  Not a word was spoken and the only sounds came from the crunch of their boots on the leaves, and the jangle of gear as it rattled about their bodies.  First one rank of the company came and then another crested the embankment, spilling down to descend towards the camp, their bright bayonets levelled before them.

The sleeping guard at last began to stir, his head drowsily rising from his chest, sleep interrupted by unfamiliar sounds.  The element of surprise about to be lost, Antronios levelled his sabre and bellowed out a command.

“Charge!”  Released from their bonds, the soldiers loosed their shouts and began to run forward, surging down into the camp.  From both the north and the south there came the sound of pounding horse hooves.  Cavalrymen thundered along the banks of the stream, men in dark green uniforms and tall, polished brass helms that were crested with great tails of black horsehair.  Their sabres were drawn as they urged their mounts towards the camp, sweeping around to encircle it.

The sleeping man in the camp came fully awake at the shouts and the horses.  He rose unsteadily to his feet, the blanket slipping from his shoulders as he did.  It took some seconds for his sleep addled brain to make some sense of what it was he was witnessing, of men in pale blue coats and red cross-belts streaming down from the embankment with muskets and bayonets levelled, in a place where there should be none.

He finally gave a startled yell, but it was too late.  The enemy was already in the camp.


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