Eighteen Years Ago

The air was heavy with the smell of moss and blood. Rylar Greyhart stepped into the clearing, saw the pale bodies strewn about like mismatched puzzle pieces, coated red against the bed of green upon which they lay. The leaves overhead cast their frozen features into shadows between streaks of sunlight, and not a blade of grass stirred, as if the land itself held its breath.

Time stopped as the young captain surveyed the slaughter. The men, some armed, most not, their green eyes full of fear, confusion, pain. The women, their hair splayed out like flaming kites. The elderly, blood smeared across the wrinkled valleys of their skin. The young, their tiny bodies never to grow, skinny arms reaching out for help that would never come. Rylar’s gaze settled on the lieutenant under his command.

He was built like a lance wrapped in muscle, sharp and strong. His goatee was immaculate, as were his closely-cropped curls the color of oil. Through eyes as cold as winter midnight, he sneered down at Rylar with detached contempt.

“Your orders were to secure the Vaelenites, not to butcher them,” Rylar said. If only his half of the patrol had found them first.

“They attacked us.”

“I count twoscore bodies and half a dozen weapons.”

“A beast doesn't need weapons to attack.”

“And the women? The children?”

“Does the size of the wolf matter, or does the shepherd defend himself all the same?”

Rylar stared at his underling. He wanted to strike the dispassionate smirk from his features, wanted to beat the truth out of him. Instead, he addressed the rest of the gathered Vanguard, the elite soldiers of Corbryn. “Is this true? Did they attack your patrol?”

Many nodded in silence or looked away. None dared contradict the eldest son of such a powerful lord. At Rylar’s side, Dakstaan, his closest friend, knelt beside a young girl’s corpse and closed her eyes with a giant paw of a hand. He rustled through the grass, repeating the gesture with a surprisingly gentle touch for such a large man. Rylar could see the sorrow on his features beneath his great, golden mane.

“You'll make your full report to the High Commander, then,” Rylar said. “Tell him how women and children and babes nursing at their mother’s breasts threatened the safety of your men.”

“Pardon me, Captain Greyhart, but is that doubt I hear in your voice?”

“It’s not my place to doubt one from such an esteemed family as yours. But it is my place to command. Take your men and ride back to Castle Elhan to make your report. We’ll follow once we've buried the dead.”

“You want to bury these goat-fucking savages? It's not as if they'll make it to the Perpetual Dawn. Let the crows have their feast.”

Rylar leaned forward, speaking through his teeth. “You're wearing my patience thin, lieutenant. Make for the capital. Now.”

His subordinate exited the clearing with false deference, his men trailing in his wake. Rylar watched him go with a disgusted scowl upon his sharp features. It wasn't the first time Tiberius Khan had tested him. Nor would it be the last.