By Shannon Waller
CHAPTER 1: HAVOC
The waxing moon shone brightly in the sky[i]. Havoc peered through the thick forest, then motioned to his Alpha Squad to follow quietly. The insurgent camp ahead was sloppy. Their guards were too few and too far apart, and all the sentries on the north side now lay with their throats slit. As he crept forward he could see their campfires, and the stench from the open latrines made his eyes water. As he drew closer, he heard a raspy voice ahead.[ii]
“Next time, I want to hear you make some noise. I like my women loud, and I’ve been patient with you long enough.” There was the sound of a fist hitting flesh, and an intake of breath. “One way or the other, I’m going to make you scream.” [iii]
Havoc crept closer. Just past the tree line, there was a wooden post in the ground about eight feet high. A small, naked woman was tied to it, her arms stretched above her head. A short, wiry man was tucking himself back into his trousers. Havoc calculated how far away the main camp was. It was far enough.
He ran swiftly and silently[iv] behind the man, his short sword out. He was in the woman’s direct line of sight, and he hoped she had the sense not to betray his presence. With his free hand, he put a forefinger in front of his lips in the universal ‘shhhh’ sign.
Her eyes flickered briefly before focusing on the ground.
Havoc covered the man’s mouth with his large, calloused hand and drew his sword cleanly through the man’s windpipe. A hiss and a gurgle was the only sound. Havoc forced his victim’s head to face the woman, and drove his sword into the man’s groin. He felt him flinch and shudder.
Through dry and cracked lips, the woman smiled.
Havoc held[v] the man until the life left his body. Then he lowered him to the ground and cut the woman free. In the dark he couldn’t tell much about her, other than that she looked undernourished and filthy. He took off his tunic and helped her put it on. Her hands were clumsy at first, but seemed to regain their dexterity quickly. He saw her glance appraisingly at his heavily muscled bare torso, which was crisscrossed with scars.
Havoc whispered, “Can you understand my language?”
Havoc gestured towards the forest where his squad was barely visible through the trees. “Go back there and wait. We’ll get you to safety, but first we have some business to attend to.”
She shook her head firmly. She mouthed the words ‘Follow me’ and gestured towards the camp. Then she turned and glided towards the western edge of the encampment. Surprised, Havoc grabbed for her, catching her wrist. She deftly twisted out of his grip and continued towards the camp. Havoc’s jaw dropped in shock, then he started after her, motioning behind him for his squad to follow.
She crept through the tents at the outskirts of the camp, moving confidently and quietly. About thirty yards in, she stopped, motioning to a tent that looked like all the others. She made a cutting motion and pointed to his sword. Havoc obliged.
As soon as the slit in the tent was large enough, the woman scurried through. Havoc enlarged the rupture enough[vi] to fit his two hundred and twenty pounds through, and followed.
He looked around. Enough light filtered through the fabric of the tent for him to make out piles of weapons, stacked haphazardly. The woman stood next to a stack of longbows, flipping through them quickly like cards. She stopped, held one up and bounced like a child receiving Solstice gifts[vii]. The unstrung bow was almost as tall as she was. She strung the bow expertly and slung it over her shoulder, grabbed a quiver and started searching for arrows.
Most of the weapons looked worthless, but Havoc figured he had time to check if there were any items of power among the piles. Havoc[viii] concentrated, spreading his arms wide. He made a quiet grunting sound, earning a quick glare from the woman. With altered vision, he saw a purple glow coming from the bow on her shoulder and the quiver now on her back, and some faint glows scattered among the weapons. He focused on the strongest glow coming from the piles.
He dug through rusted sickles, dented helmets, and worn greaves. He paused when he reached to toss aside some non-descript leather boots. They pulsed with a blue light.
Havoc took off his worn footwear and slipped on the leather boots. They looked small, but they fit easily and comfortably around his feet. He had hiked for six hours in the dark, and more in days before, and he had a few blisters and aches. He hadn’t really noticed the discomfort until his new boots eradicated all traces of weariness and injury. He smiled with satisfaction and placed his old boots on the pile.
He looked around. The gently glowing heat from the magic was fading from his sight. Most of it was centered on the woman. In addition to her bow and quiver, a small woven pouch at her side had an odd green glow. It was magic, but not the kind he was used to seeing.
He gestured towards the slit in the tent, and she nodded. She crept through, and he followed. Rather than head back to where the rest of his squad lay in wait, she pulled three arrows out of the quiver and nocked them as though she would shoot all three at once. She started to move towards the center of camp.
Havoc put a hand on her shoulder – just to get her attention, not to force her to stop. She paused and looked at him, impatiently tossing her head forward.
“I get it. You want revenge,” Havoc whispered. “Fall back with me to the rest of the squad, and we’ll do a tactical assault in formation. I don’t want you shooting any of my soldiers by mistake.”
She hesitated, then nodded.
“Do you know where the command tent is?” he asked quietly as they moved back to join the assault team. She nodded and pointed in the direction she had been heading before they started to back track.
Havoc positioned himself where he knew he would be visible to all of his unit leaders and most of his squad. He used hand signals to indicate the change of plan. They would begin the assault on the command tent, thanks to the intel provided by the former prisoner.
He motioned several of the soldiers forward, and they approached. Havoc pointed out the similarities in their garments – not distinctive enough to be a recognizable uniform, but enough to tell friend from foe in combat if you knew what you were looking for. The woman nodded.[ix]
“OK” Havoc whispered. “You lead us to their captain’s quarters, and then let my soldiers do their job. They are going to try to take out as many as possible without raising the alarm. You and I are going to watch their backs and silence anyone who tries to rouse the camp.”
The woman frowned, a recalcitrant expression in her eyes.
“Work with me on this, and I promise I’ll help you deal with anyone in particular you want to have a crack at.” Her face lit up and she smiled a lovely smile, with even white teeth visible in the moonlight. Her expression made Havoc slightly uncomfortable, knowing what she was looking forward to. He himself found satisfaction in killing his enemies, but the look on her face was pure pleasure, without a trace of fear.
[i] This is a terrible first sentence. No characters, no action, not even a setting – only the information that it’s night. Why should anyone keep reading? The next sentence would have been a better opening line.
[ii] Too much passive voice in this paragraph. The active voice is much more engaging. The passive voice is endemic to the whole document, I fear.
[iii] This paragraph is more effective: it gives an inciting event by showing, not telling.
[iv] Adverbs are a red flag for weak verbs. Instead of qualifying the verb “ran,” it would be better to use “sprinted,” “glided,” “dashed” or “raced.” No, none of these verbs translate exactly to “ran swiftly and silently,” but they make for better prose and take nothing away from the impact of the sentence. I’ve learned to always have a thesaurus handy when I’m composing. You’ll see way too many adverbs in The Horde.
[v] Should have used “gripped”
[vi] I repeated the word “enough” in back to back sentences. I could have used “sufficient,” but it would be even better to delete that qualifier entirely. The sentence doesn’t need it.
[vii] Not bad. The simile is one everyone should recognize while in keeping with the sword & sorcery setting.
[viii] Don’t use a proper noun when you can use a pronoun. I should have said “He concentrated.” I make this mistake over and over.
[ix] She nods too much. Even for a mute.