The Misenchanted Sword Online - Lawrence Watt-Evans

Chapter One

The marsh stank, with a sharp, briny stench that seemed to fill Valder’s head. He stared out across the maze of tall grass and shallow water for a long moment and then reluctantly marched onward, into it. The ground gave beneath him; his boot sank past the ankle in gray-brown muck. He hissed an obscenity, then smiled weakly at his own annoyance and slogged forward.

The enemy, he knew, was no more than an hour behind him. The marsh was nothing but a minor inconvenience by comparison.

To his left lay the open sea, and to his right was endless empty forest that was probably full of northern patrols and sentinels, human or otherwise. Behind him somewhere were the three northerners who had been pursuing him for the past four days. Ahead of him, wet and green and stinking, lay the coastal marshes.

He could, he supposed, have turned to the right and avoided the marshes, tried to lose his pursuers in the forest, but he had been running through forests for four days without being able to shake them off his trail. At least the marshes would be different.

After half a dozen long slow steps through the mud he struck a patch of solid ground and hauled himself up onto it; dirty seawater poured from his boots, which had not been water-tight in more than a sixnight. The marsh-grass rustled loudly as he pushed his way across the little hummock; he froze, peered back over his shoulder, and, seeing nothing but the unbroken line of pine trees, sank to the ground for a moment’s rest.

The marsh was probably a mistake, he told himself as the foul smell saturated his nostrils. He could not move through it without making noise, it seemed—the rustling grass was far more audible than the crunch of pine needles, and the suck of mud wasn’t much better—and the enemy sorcerer almost certainly had some sort of spell or talisman that augmented his hearing. Even the other two northerners might have hearing more than normally acute; from what he had seen of their movements, Valder was quite certain that at least one of them was shatra—half man, half demon, though human in appearance. That eerily smooth, flowing motion was unmistakable.

All three might be shatra; the demon warriors could disguise their movements if they chose. One of his pursuers was a sorcerer, but he had heard it said around the barracks that some sorcerers were shatra. It seemed grossly unfair for a single enemy soldier to have both advantages, but life, he knew, was sometimes very unfair.

Nobody knew exactly what shatra were capable of, but it was generally assumed that they possessed magically-acute senses—though not, probably, up to the level a good sorcerer could achieve. Valder had to assume that the northerners chasing him could see and hear and smell far better than he could.

He had managed to stay ahead of the enemy patrol for four days now, but it had been due to luck as much as to anything else. He had exhausted his last few prepared spells in diverting the pursuit, but none of the diversions had lasted very long, and his company’s wizard had not provided him with anything useful for actual combat. Valder was supposed to be a scout, after all; his job, if he encountered the enemy, had been to run back to base camp to warn his superiors, not to fight. He was not interested in a glorious death in combat. He was just another of Ethshar’s three million conscript soldiers trying to survive, and for an ordinary human against shatra, that meant flight.

He had been able to travel at night as he fled because the greater moon had been almost full when the chase began, but the wizard-sight he had been given when he first went out on his routine solo patrol had worn off sixnights ago.

Thick morning fogs had helped him, as much as the moon had; he was running blind to begin with, with no intended destination, and therefore was not concerned about losing his way in the mist, so long as he didn’t walk off a cliff. His pursuers, however, had had to grope carefully along his trail, using their sorcerous tracking a few steps at a time. They did not seem to have any unnatural means of penetrating the fog, either sorcerous or demonic.

And of course, the enemy had stopped for meals every so often, or for water, while he had had no need of food or drink. That