Tag Archives: Anthanic

Free Sample: The First Five Chapters of Kinless

Kinless Cover ebookDrustan left his homeland in disgrace but now he is back to fight for his people against vicious invaders, while hoping to avoid the woman who betrayed him. The woman he still loves.

 

Chapter 1

Drustan desainCoid wiped another man’s blood from his eyes.  Gods, it was hot. Not yet noon and still the sun beat down  upon the ragged shieldwall holding the ridge. The grass in front of the Karisae line was churned up, muddy, lubricated by blood and other bodily fluids, despite the baking heat of summer.

He gazed at the broken stub of his sword, which had snapped close to the hilt against the edge of a Vascanar shield. He should have stayed away from this land. Another summer day, Marisa’s body against his… He snarled and threw the useless hilt over the edge of the ridge.

It tumbled in the air, twisting, falling towards the Vascanar infantry disengaging from the battle line.

They would be back.

He lowered his shield to the ground, released his arm from the straps, and shook out the ache in his shoulder. One more Vascanar attack repelled, so the Karisae defenders would live a little while longer. He should have stayed away, away from… No, no more of that; he had chosen this fight.

The slope of the ridge fell away sharply here, but still the Vascanar had driven their infantry assault up into the line. Thereby, they pinned the bulk of the Karisae army in place, while other units attacked the shieldmen in the valley on the left flank.

Dust caked Drustan’s lips. Sweat trickled through the blood and dirt plastered across his face. His breathing calmed and his heartbeat slowed as he recovered his composure after the ferocious fighting. Her eyes on his in the sunlight. Her body arched. Her—

‘Water,’ a wounded Vascanar begged from the pile of dead and dying enemy in front of Drustan.

Prayer scars ripped across the wounded man’s face, cut with his own hand in a brutal act of religious devotion. The long-healed scar on Drustan’s face, slashing from above his right eye, across the bridge of his nose and on into his left cheekbone, was an injury received on the field of honour — when he still believed in such things — not a self-inflicted wound to worship rapacious gods. Marisa weaving her magic with the others, healing his face and weeping as she did so. Drustan’s jaw tightened until his teeth ached.

‘Water,’ the Vascanar begged again. His bloody hands cradled his stomach, holding his bowels inside a gaping wound.

‘Here, Dru,’ Cullain said.

Drustan took the offered spear, hefted it, nodded satisfaction at its balance, and drove it down through the Vascanar’s throat.

‘He should’ve stayed home.’ Cullain looked down at the twitching corpse.

‘Vascanar don’t have a home.’ Drustan jerked the spear free and the corpse slackened into death. The Vascanar never settled, never took a homeland; like locusts they simply arrived, devastated a land, and left. Drustan stretched his neck. ‘Damn, it’s hot.’

‘Rain’d be nice. Best keep hold of that spear.’ Cullain rolled his massive shoulders and gestured down the slope. ‘It’ll take ‘em a while to regroup, but they’ll be back.’

Lifting a hand to shade his eyes, Drustan studied the Vascanar formations on the coastal plain below the ridge. The enemy’s red and black tower shields lay upon the ground in front of the shattered remnants of Barstow town, while the Vascanar infantry knelt and drank from bowls the priests held up to their lips, praying to their foul gods.

Barstow was destroyed, all of its people fled or tortured to death when the Vascanar landed on the Island of the Lake. The shield hall, temple to Vulcas, god of war, caster of the spear Deathbringer, burned within the tumbled palisade at the centre of the town.

Beyond the town, Drustan could see the tangled trees of Mornas Marsh. More a wetland forest than a marsh, but still enough to force the Vascanar along this route, along the Shrine Road towards the centre of the Island of the Lake; and so they had to take this ridge.

The Karisae had prayed, too, but their gods had not come. The heroes from the Sunlit Land, who did the gods’ bidding, had not come. The kingdom of Symcani stood alone against the predatory Vascanar and their voracious gods. The King and his priests had not succeeded in their prayers.

Ships smouldered on the beach beyond the devastated town. Drustan dropped his hand to his side and balled it into a fist. ‘Burning their ships was stupid.’

‘Aye, so you said.’ Cullain chewed his beard, looked at the ships, and shrugged. ‘King wanted vengeance for Barstow. Figured it might call forth Vulcas Deathbringer.’

‘It cost him a quarter of his force for bugger-all gain.’

‘Burned the ships.’

‘Vulcas, god of battle, did not come. Scepteras, king of the gods, did not come. Even Henath, judger of the dead, did not come. So all he did was trap the damn Vascanar here. Now we have to kill every last one of the whoresons.’

Cullain grinned. ‘Gotta hold ‘em first.’ He nodded to the Vascanar cavalry milling around opposite the left flank. There was no point sending horses up against the defended ridgeline, but the men on the flat of the valley were taking a battering.

Drustan returned his old comrade’s grin. Could the Karisae defenders hold against the Vascanar? Did it matter? There would always be wars to fight and money to be made. This wasn’t his homeland anymore. Marisa had made sure of that. His hands tightened around the spear. Because of her betrayal, they’d broken his sword and cast him out. Now the sword he’d bought to replace it had broken too. An omen? He shivered. ‘Why in all the hells did we come back?’ he asked.

‘For the gold.’

‘We’re earning every damn piece.’ Drustan spat dust-caked saliva onto the ground. They had made him a mercenary, a sell-sword, when they broke his sword on the altar of Vulcas. Marisa’s betrayal had torn him from this land and still he returned. What kind of fool was he? He spat again and sneered. ‘We should have stayed in that tavern across the Salt.’

‘Aye,’ Cullain agreed. The old warrior stretched his back, looked along the shieldwall and bellowed, ‘Clear out the dead, lads!’ His face so battered and scarred that his original features were barely discernible beneath his heavy beard, his powerful body clad in leather and chainmail, and his dark, dangerous eyes, were all the authority he required. ‘Throw ‘em down the slope.’

The soldiers — who had been farmers, fishermen, labourers, and woodsmen before the call to duty came — grumbled, but did as they were told. Dropping the large round Karisae shields upon the ground, they worked in pairs, throwing the dead down the slope to bounce and tangle upon rocks and bushes, creating an extra obstacle to the next Vascanar attack.

‘Water!’ a boyish voice yelled. ‘Who wants water?’

‘Over here, boy!’ Drustan drove his spear into the ground, undid his helm, attached it to the hook on his belt, and pushed back the chainmail coif covering his scalp. He wrenched off the padded arming cap and stuffed it into his belt next to the helm. The breeze was cool across his sweat-soaked hair.

Staggering under the weight of waterskins slung across his shoulders, the boy, who looked about twelve, picked his way between the wounded and dead.

‘Here, milord,’ said the boy, handing him a full waterskin.

‘Don’t call me that,’ Drustan snapped.

‘But them boots.’ The boy pointed at Drustan’s feet. ‘Them’s noble’s boots.’

Damn boots. He should have thrown them out with the rest of his gear, but good boots were so hard to come by — like good women. Drustan poured water over his head and face. He swilled out his mouth. The clean, cold taste of the spring water washed away the stench of battle for a moment. Spitting the cleansing water across a discarded Vascanar shield emblazoned with a red and gold flame upon a black background, he lifted the waterskin again and drank deeply.

‘That there’s Drustan,’ Cullain said. A murmur swept through the men near enough to hear; they hadn’t known who fought beside them.

‘Drustan the—’ The boy caught his words behind his teeth. ‘Drustan the Bright Blade.’

Drustan poured the last of the water over his arms, shoulders and neck, washing away the worst of the battle grime from his steel vambraces, leather cuirass, and the chainmail mantle across his shoulders. ‘Drustan the Kinless,’ he said and threw the empty waterskin into the boy’s chest. The boy caught it. ‘I mostly kill for gold these days, but I’ll make an exception if you’re still here when I open my eyes.’ He smiled at the boy and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, the boy was dodging away between the wounded and the dead.

‘Could’ve done with some water,’ Cullain said.

‘You gossip like a baker’s wife.’ Drustan glanced at the men around him, farmers made into soldiers with heirloom weapons and rough-cut shields. Some of the men met his gaze and nodded their respect, but others would not look at him; would not look at the noble who had lost his place and left the isles in disgrace.

‘You should’ve thrown away them boots,’ Cullain said.

‘Get the men sorted.’ Drustan ran a hand through his wet hair. ‘Their armsman died in the last assault so they’re ours now. I’ll send you water.’ He picked up his shield, yanked his spear from the ground, and walked away from the line.

He could hear Cullain behind him as he clambered up the rise to where he could see the entire battlefield. ‘Right then, lads, stop gawping. Aye, that’s Drustan desainCoid all right. The Bright Blade. And I’m Cullain Strongarm. Ah, you’ve heard of me too, ain’t you? Good. Let’s see if you can learn to act like soldiers then, instead of like farm boys fresh from tickling your mothers’ teats. When those Vascanar whoresons come again, close up the damn line. There’s more god-cursed holes than in your mothers’ skirts. You … aye, you. On the next attack, don’t wave your spear around like your wife’s darning needle. Stick it in, twist it, pull it out, keep on doing it ‘till the whoreson falls. Don’t stab the man in front of you, stab the man to your right. Them damn tower shields of theirs ain’t no use if’n you stab ‘em in the swordside. Use your shields as sommat more’n sommat to quiver behind. Protect the man on your left, coz them Vascanar know about shieldside and swordside too. And aim low — if’n you can’t kill the whoreson, at least stop him bloody breeding.’

Drustan grinned as Cullain’s voice faded away into the general noise of an army preparing to defend its line. He spotted a different water-boy and told him where to find Cullain, before climbing the hill to look out over the battlefield.

Chapter 2

This high above the battlefield, the wind blew the clean salt smell of the sea into Drustan’s nostrils. He breathed in deeply. This was where King Radolf should have set his standard, here where he could see the entire field of battle. Not over on the right flank, where tradition said he should stand. Poor King Radolf: better suited to the drinking hall than the battlefield, but none of his sycophants would ever tell him that.

If the old King, Brantin the Wise, still breathed, if Drustan were still a member of the Hundrin, if King Radolf’s military advisors had backbones to match their pretty armour, what then? Drustan shrugged. Not his problem anymore. He was a sell-sword now, a mercenary; all he cared about was getting paid.

She had smiled and taken his hand, led him in the dance, her body against his, her eyes upon his, such a long time ago. Marisa… Oh dear gods, Marisa, don’t be here. Be far away from here.

He snarled at his weakness, threw his weapons upon the grass and sat beside them.

The music piped around them, but he hardly heard the melody, the beat; the thrust of her heart against his was all he understood as they danced at the turning of the winter. Five long years ago. May Brominii guard you, Marisa, because we cannot stop the Vascanar here upon this ridge.

His jaw tightened, his anger flared, but he did not curse her, not even in his mind; he would never do that. So, he surveyed the battlefield instead. The ridge swooped down into the valley on the left flank of the Karisae line, a flank anchored in the tangled edges of Barstow Wood, which swept around behind the ridge. A flank commanded by Earl Haren desainAbavin of Ramagon Hall, named Duke by the King because this was his demesne; a battle commander whose battles lay decades in the past.

The Vascanar would attack the left flank again. Their cavalry would—

‘Resting, warrior?’ an avalor asked. Clad in the red robes of his order, the priest of Vulcas smiled down at Drustan.

Drustan looked up at the corpulent priest in his fine silk robes, noting the greasy sweat coating his cheeks and balding scalp, the ceremonial sword of his order in his hand — a sword covered in jewels, with gold wire around the hilt and a blade as blunt as the man’s honour.

Drustan touched his fist to his forehead in the salute to Vulcas. ‘I wanted to see the battlefield, avalor.’

The avalor nodded, looked Drustan in the eye, and said, ‘I am named Maran Willemson, Avalor of Vulcas.’

Drustan looked away, looked at the battlefield, and clenched his jaw. Through gritted teeth he replied, as honour required, ‘I’m named Drustan desainCoid.’

Maran sucked air through his teeth. ‘You returned to fight for the land that cast you out?’

Drustan grinned. ‘I fight for gold. I’m a sell-sword now.’ He met Maran’s gaze, still grinning. ‘Lord Lanier desainGran is paying me. So take it up with him … avalor.’

Maran dropped his gaze first. ‘May Vulcas guide your arm, Drustan the Bright Blade. The land needs you this day.’

‘If you say so, priest. Is old Pikechucker gonna turn up, do you reckon? Or is he still sleeping off his last drink?’

‘You throw away my blessing.’

‘One of you broke my sword in front of the King.’

‘That could not be helped.’

‘I still bear a grudge, though.’ Drustan laid his hand upon the spear. ‘On your way, priest. Go bless some other fool.’

Maran paused. ‘I will go, but since you are the Bright Blade, and must needs fight for this land that cast you aside, I will tell you this. The Korga blessed the ships that brought the Vascanar here.’

‘The Korga! Are you sure?’

‘Without the blessing of the sea goddess those ships would have foundered, so over-laden, so low to the waterline. They carried horses and far too many men. Yes, the Korga blessed them.’

‘Why would she do that?’

‘The Korgena sea-witches delight in gold. No doubt the Vascanar paid them to intercede with the goddess Korga on their behalf.’

Drustan rubbed at his forehead. ‘So where are our gods, Maran? Where are the gods we sacrifice to at every turn of the seasons?’

Maran’s voice dropped to a whisper. ‘I don’t know.’ The fat old priest stumbled away.

Drustan watched him go and returned to surveying the battlefield. The Korga. He shook his head. It did not bode well for the isles if a goddess of the deep sea had taken the Vascanar side.

He looked up into the cloudless summer sky. Cullain was right. A bit of rain would be nice, to limit the effectiveness of the cavalry and the archers, and make the battle more even. He remembered a storm, caught out in the forest, Marisa’s dress stuck to her body, his hand in hers, as they sheltered from the rain.

He ground his teeth against the memory and looked to the battlefield. The Vascanar cavalry mustered for another charge against the fatigued shieldwall in the dip between the ridge and the forest. How many attacks had the men in that shieldwall withstood since the battle began with the dawn?

Sunlight glinted on the harnesses of the powerful Vascanar warhorses, tall of wither, wide of chest, their flanks spotted with flecks of sweat, snorting and stamping under riders chivvying them into position.

Behind them, the Erisyan archers stepped up to their marks. How had the Vascanar paid for their services? The Erisyan clans were famously fussy about whose gold they took. They could afford to be; they were among the best skirmishers in the known world. Their warbows could throw an armour-piercing shaft nearly five hundred paces, and they could loose three such arrows before the first one struck.

The Vascanar had secured the service of a whole Erisyan clan by the look of it, at least two thousand men. Why would they fight for the Vascanar? How much gold did it take to persuade such men to fight for foul cultist scum? More gold than the King held in his treasury. Drustan shook his head again. And the Korgena, the sea-witches — the Vascanar had paid the servants of the Korga too. So much gold spent on this campaign.

But why? What did the Vascanar want upon the isles? What did they seek? They spent years of plunder just to take a land that they would abandon when they were done with it.

It made no sense.

Drustan closed his hands into fists. Why should he care? For long moments he stared at nothing, his eyes unfocused, his mind held by the sound of a blade breaking against an anvil.

The moment passed.

Consciously he loosened his fists, rolled his neck, stretched one leg and then the other. Nothing to do with him. Not his land anymore. All he had to worry about was getting out of this cesspit alive. His fingers brushed across the grass, Marisa beside him in the tall grass, stroking his face, as… Let her be safe, let her flee, let her—

The slow, heavy rhythm of Vascanar war drums beat out against the heated summer air. That would be the infantry advancing again. He had to get back to the line, but he still had time to watch the cavalry attack. It took a while for the Vascanar infantry to clamber up the slope before the ridge under the hurled spears and rocks of the Karisae defenders.

The Erisyans loosed the first volley of the next attack. The arrows hissed as they rose, dark against the sky. Another cloud of arrows followed the first as it tipped downwards towards the targets. And yet another before the first arrows struck with devastating speed and accuracy.

The best Karisae archers, with the best Karisae bows, could hit a mark at maybe three hundred and fifty paces and that with a following wind. Damn near useless against the Erisyans. Another cloud of Erisyan arrows rose. And another. And another. A constant stream of death arcing through the sky.

Horns blared amongst the Vascanar cavalry. They started to move. Four waves of brutal men upon the backs of powerful warhorses. From walk to trot, to canter, to gallop, keeping their formation, not allowing any horse to surge ahead of the perfect lines across the battlefield. Building the pace, keeping the cohesion, creating the shocking momentum of man and horse in perfect unity. The Vascanar cavalry was a glorious sight — if you didn’t have to stand against it.

Up on the ridgeline it was infantry against infantry, sword against shield, axe against helm, spears stabbing, bodies shoving, blood mingling. But down in the valley…

Sunlight glinted on chainmail and steel. Cloaks the colour of dried blood streamed out behind the charging cavalry. Kite-shaped shields, red and black and gold, held tight to bodies. Spears ready to throw or stab, riders controlling their mounts by knee pressure alone. Hooves thundered. Battle cries screamed from a thousand throats.

And still the Erisyan arrow-storm hissed down upon the shieldwall. The Karisae infantrymen held their shields high to protect against those plunging arrows, waiting for the order to drop the shields to their front, to brace for the impact of the horses.

The Karisae archers loosed their first ragged volley against the charging Vascanar cavalry. Some horsemen fell, but not many.

Drustan spotted Vascanar infantry running behind the cavalry charge. He looked right. The Vascanar general had pulled men from before the shieldwall. Only half the infantry now climbed that slope. Karisae spears fell amongst them, but still they plodded uphill with their tall shields overlapped to protect them.

Good tactics: wear down the defenders in the valley with repeated attacks, then — when the time was right — launch an all-out assault, while still leaving the Karisae forces on the ridgeline pinned by a more limited but still dangerous frontal assault. The Vascanar general knew his business and chose this moment to throw everything against the battered left flank. Against the poor beleaguered fools in the valley.

Drustan glanced back at the men of the Karisae reserve. They were readying their shields, stretching, preparing to rush to bolster the line. Good. They would be needed.

Onward the Vascanar infantry raced. Onward the Vascanar cavalry charged. When horses fell to Karisae arrows, those behind simply leapt over the fallen beast and charged through their fallen comrades, rising in their stirrups, throwing spears at the front of the Karisae lines.

And still the Erisyan arrow-storm slammed into upraised Karisae shields. Those arrows weren’t going to stop, Drustan realised. The Vascanar were going to charge into their own arrow-storm. He admired the brutality of the tactic even as he dreaded its effect.

The defenders couldn’t drop their shields from overhead to their front. Couldn’t set themselves to meet the horses. Perhaps trained troops, professional troops, troops like the Vascanar, could have dropped their shields to defend themselves in the instant before the horses clattered into their lines. But these were not trained troops, these were not professional killers; these were Karisae villagers pressed into service to protect their land. Their training was hurried, inadequate to create the discipline of soldiers and foster the instincts of warriors.

The Vascanar cavalry smashed into the disorganised Karisae shieldwall and the Erisyan archers shifted their arrow-storm away from the point of impact along the line of defenders, softening up that part of the shieldwall for the charging Vascanar infantry.

‘Hold,’ Drustan whispered. ‘Hold.’

Vascanar horses plunged, hooves stamping down upon their enemies. Vascanar swords rose and fell, slashing at the poor fools trapped by the weight of their fellows. Vascanar spears stabbed downwards, skewering the Karisae as they started to panic and break, pushing away from the breach in the shieldwall.

But the line held, the ranks behind surging forward to plug the gaps.

Then the Vascanar infantry threw itself upon the shocked defenders and the line buckled, but the arrow-storm faded away as the Erisyans advanced to bring more of the Karisae line into range.

This was the moment.

‘Use the reserves,’ Drustan muttered. ‘Use them now.’

But Earl desainAbavin hesitated too long, and the battle was lost.

 

Chapter 3

The Vascanar drove a wedge through the shieldwall, pushing the Karisae away from the forest, losing the left flank its anchor. Once the shield-men were driven away from the tangled trees their cohesion was broken, and nothing could stop the defeat.

Too late did desainAbavin commit his reserves, and to the wrong part of the battle. He sent them to attack the cavalry directly, head-on, rather than bolstering the anchoring force hard up against the forest. Wasted effort. Wasted men.

‘Incompetent fool.’ Drustan reached for his shield and spear. It was time to disengage, to withdraw, to prepare to fight another day. The troops on the ridgeline could retreat in good order and fade away into the forest. Ambush and raid would slow the Vascanar advance. They would pay in blood for every mile covered until the Karisae were ready to face them again in open battle.

Maybe the King would listen to his soldiers now rather than aging warhorses like desainAbavin.

Drustan stood, stretched his back. He’d look for Cullain in the forest. No point going anywhere near the ridgeline; an old warrior like Cullain wouldn’t wait for the order to withdraw. Maybe swing by the House of Falas, make sure the healers were safely out of the line of advance.

Karisae horns blared.

Drustan turned back to the battlefield, barely believing his eyes. ‘What’s the fool doing?’

Men hastily formed up on the slope of the ridgeline in columns… Columns? They could not be serious. The battle was lost. Any fool could see that. The battle…

Vascanar horses stamped and reared; flashes of light glinted from the upraised swords and spears of the riders. The Vascanar infantrymen pushed forward, butchering any who stood in their path. More enemy infantry streamed across the battlefield to exploit the breach. Erisyan arrows again arced through the air, holding back any possible aid to the battered shieldwall.

DesainAbavin was going to send reinforcements into that? He thought he could close the gap by sending disorganised infantry against cavalry through a hail of arrows? He was only weakening the defensive line on the ridge and making any kind of disciplined withdrawal impossible.

‘You bloody fool.’ Drustan could not believe his eyes. ‘You’re going to destroy the entire army.’

The Karisae line finally broke under the pressure. The rout started near the breach. Men threw down their weapons and fled towards the forest that curved around behind the ridge. Drustan willed them to make it to the trees, to leave their dead and dying behind; they had no other choices now.

‘Run,’ he whispered. ‘Run.’

A bull-throated voice, a voice he knew well, raised above the clamour of battle, above the clash of steel upon steel and the screams of horses and men. It was the Earl Haren desainAbavin of Ramagon yelling, ‘Kill them! Kill those faithless cowards.’

A pause.

The command repeated.

And Karisae archers loosed upon their fleeing comrades. Arrows cut down men running for their lives.

Drustan growled deep in his throat. Enough was enough. He threw aside his spear and shield; too heavy, too unwieldy. He needed to run now and he could always find another shield and spear if he had need of them. There were plenty lying around.

He sprinted down the slope towards the standard of the Earl of Ramagon, towards the battle-leader butchering his own men. Streams of terrified soldiers fleeing for the forest cut across Drustan’s path. He dodged, ducked, slammed through some, knocking them sprawling and leaping over their fallen forms.

Still the roaring voice of the Earl: ‘Kill them! Kill them all!’

‘Stop!’ Drustan yelled as he ran. ‘Stop, you damn fools!’

He broke clear of the escaping masses; the common soldiers avoided the group of noblemen clustered around the Earl’s standard.

A man stepped away from that group, an unsheathed longsword held across his shoulders like a dairy-maid’s yoke. He stretched his neck from side to side, his chainmail-covered stomach exposed, inviting a foolhardy attack. He grinned.

Drustan skidded to a halt. The scar on his face burned in memory. The scar this man had given him at a tournament on the turn of a season years before — when Drustan still had his honour, before they broke his sword. A foul blow, dishonourable and sly, the measure of the man who struck it. How Marisa had wept when she looked upon the ruin of his face.

‘Always wanted to kill you,’ Erik desainAbavin said. ‘Drustan the…’

‘Let me pass, Erik.’

‘…half-breed.’

Drustan sighed, let his right hand fall to the dagger at the back of his belt, and glanced across at the bloody, screaming chaos below. The Vascanar cavalry was rolling up the line along the shallow slope from the valley floor, as Vascanar infantry assaulted the shieldwall from the front. The Karisae defenders were pinned, unable to turn, doomed. The hastily formed columns shattered under the weight of the Vascanar cavalry and the slashing rain of Erisyan arrows.

Those men should have been pulled back into the forest to rearguard the retreat of the rest of the army. It was a rout now, a panicked flight. Men did not easily recover from such a disgrace. The army’s spirit had been broken here, along with its shieldwall.

Erik took advantage of Drustan’s seeming inattention. His longsword swept around and down in a fast, powerful stroke.

Drustan leapt backwards. The tip of the longsword skidded across his armour, scoring a long, narrow line in the leather. He lunged forward after it passed and knocked aside Erik’s returning cut with the vambrace around his left forearm, drawing his dagger with his right. Now he was inside the arc of the sword.

Erik, off balance, tried to step back, but Drustan’s left arm snaked around his neck as their bodies slammed together. He bent Erik backwards, drove the needle-pointed dagger through the chainmail into his enemy’s back in swift punching strikes, and kept stabbing until he heard the sigh from Erik’s lips, the sigh that told him the man was done.

‘You forgot who I am,’ Drustan snarled into the dying man’s ear. He let him fall.

‘Murderer,’ the Earl screeched, as his son fell to the ground in front of Drustan. ‘Mercenary vagabond. Scum. Unclean spawn of an Anthanic bitch.’

Hesitantly, the archers lowered their bows, glancing at each other and at the scene behind them. The Earl’s cruel orders had stopped and they didn’t really want to kill their own people. A few began to loose at the enemy cavalry cutting a path up the slope towards them, but many more ran away towards the woods.

Drustan cut a strip of cloth from Erik’s tabard and used it to clean Erik’s blood from the blade of his dagger. The longer he held the Earl’s attention, the more men would get away. He kept a careful gaze upon the approaching Vascanar.

‘Coward,’ the Earl yelled.

‘Are you blind, old man?’ Drustan studied the dagger carefully. He should have thrown the dagger away, bought another, but he would not be parted from it. A lock of Marisa’s hair lay coiled within the hilt. Satisfied that not a speck of blood remained to tarnish the blade, he sheathed it at the back of his belt.

‘Kill this man,’ the Earl ordered his retainers.

None of them moved.

‘Kill him. Kill him now. I command you.’ The Earl pushed at the armoured shoulder of one of his men.

The man shrugged his hand away.

‘I need a horse.’ Drustan picked up Erik’s longsword and tested its balance. He jerked his chin at the Earl’s grey gelding, held a hundred paces behind the line by a terrified groom. ‘Yours will do nicely.’

‘Half-breed.’ The Earl scrabbled at his sword.

Drustan politely waited for him to set his stance. A good stance for a duel; not so good for uneven ground. Too narrow, too unbalanced, too weak.

‘I am Haren desainAbavin, Earl of Ramagon, Duke of the—’

Drustan’s new longsword swept upwards and clove desainAbavin’s face from chin to brow. ‘Nice blade.’ He grinned savagely at the Earl’s retainers as the Earl’s corpse bled at his feet.

‘Go on your way, Dru,’ one of the men said. ‘You have saved the army here today.’

‘You mean to stay, Lasac?’ Drustan cleaned the tip of the longsword with a piece of cloth cut from the Earl’s tunic.

‘Tis my duty and my honour.’

‘You’ll die here and the King will run.’

‘My honour is not tied to his.’

Drustan knew that mantra well.

Lasac said, ‘They shouldn’t have broken your sword.’

‘Love is the swordbreaker.’ Drustan removed the sword-belt from Erik’s corpse.

‘You’ll be hunted by both sides.’

‘Only one side left standing, brother.’ Drustan slid the longsword into the scabbard and looped the sword-belt diagonally from his right shoulder to his left hip. He gripped the bottom of the scabbard with his left hand.

Lasac said, ‘You still call me brother of the blade.’

‘We shed blood together, Lasac desainMortan. I’ll leave an offering for you when I pass a shrine.’

‘Fare thee well, Drustan desainCoid.’ Lasac placed a hand over his heart and bowed.

Drustan returned the gesture, then turned and jogged towards the groom holding the Earl’s grey horse.

The groom looked at the scarred face of the warrior running towards him, looked at his master and his master’s son lying dead upon the hillside, and looked at the horse he held.

‘Wait!’ Drustan bellowed and started to sprint. ‘I mean you no…’

The groom leapt into the canted saddle and put his heels to the horse’s flanks.

‘…harm.’ Drustan watched the horse gallop away. ‘Looks like I’m afoot then.’ He loped towards the forest, away from the sounds of a battle lost.

 

Chapter 4

Jerem lay in a pit in the ground with his own sword piercing his  body. The pain of the blade tore at his guts but more terrifying  was the lack of pain from his legs, the lack of any feeling at all. Done for, dying, here in Barstow Wood, with the merciless enemy hard on his heels.

A ravenous fear rose to his throat. He had seen what the Vascanar did to those they captured: the bodies contorted in agony, the wounds, the blistered skin. And he had laughed then. A soldier about his trade, making dark jokes about the horrors he saw, and then using that repressed rage to tear apart a Vascanar raiding party in the Trassac Mountains across the Salt.

The sound of running feet in the forest to his left. Terror clawed at Jerem, the terror that had ripped his honour apart upon the battlefield. He was Jerem, called Iceblood, a man who never quailed, whatever the odds. He had fought his way into the temple of the Vascanar when the King ordered his stupid raid upon their ships. With his brother beside him he had slaughtered any who stood against him on that bloody night. He had scooped up the gold and jewels from the very altar of the Vascanar and taken it as his due.

He was not some levied farmer called to duty, not knowing one end of his spear from the other. His trade was war and he was a craftsman of death.

And yet, the fear froze his bones, his blood, upon the field below the ridgeline. Iceblood indeed, only now the ice broke his honour. The arrows singing, the horses charging, his brother… Poor Ballun. Jerem’s brother was a farmer, but not levied to war by royal proclamation; Ballun chose to stand in the line beside the brother he admired, stood when the cavalry charged, did not falter, protecting Jerem while Jerem pissed his pants in terror.

Ballun’s voice crying out behind Jerem, crying out from the line when Jerem dropped his shield, picked up his pack, and fled. A coward. A false-oathed coward, leaving his brother to die behind him as he fled with the loot they had gathered together from the Vascanar ships.

More feet running in the forest. The Vascanar! They were coming for him. Jerem did not breathe, did not make a sound. Let them run on, let them pass him by; let them take some other fool. Let him die here, alone and untouched.

‘Call to him,’ a voice sang in his ears. It sounded like his wife Ruth, calling the children in for supper. Torac, Kavin, Jerem the younger — his children would know their father to be a coward. Somebody would tell them before the Vascanar took their souls. ‘Call to him.’ The voice pierced his soul as the blade of his sword pierced his body and shattered his spine. ‘Call to him.’

****

Drustan jogged through the trees.

‘Help me!’ The cry came from his left. ‘Help me!’ A Karisae voice.

Drustan stopped, sighed, and pushed his way through the undergrowth. A great elm had fallen here, its roots a tangled wall at the end of the round-sided depression. A soldier lay slouched against the crumbled edge of the pit, with blood on his breeches.

He saw Drustan. ‘Help me,’ he begged.

Drustan looked at the man and then glanced at the edge of the forest not two hundred paces distant. The Vascanar were a bare half-mile away. He should flee through the forest, be gone from this place, but the man needed his help. He was Karisae. But the Vascanar — Drustan snarled. The Vascanar would spend all this night celebrating with wine and torture. There were hours yet until dark fell. He had plenty of time to see to this man and still be away from this place.

‘Please,’ the man said.

Drustan clambered down into the pit.

‘Thank you.’

‘Can you walk?’ Drustan asked.

‘That’s not the help I need.’

Drustan pulled aside the man’s cloak and wrinkled his nose at the stench of faeces. Two-thirds of a broad-bladed shortsword pierced through the man’s brigandine armour and on into his abdomen. The angle of the sword told its own story: this man would never walk again.

‘I’m named Jerem,’ the man said. ‘Jerem of Solglen.’ His eyes darted from Drustan’s face to the woods, to the edges of the pit, the eyes of a man gripped by terror but trying not to show it.

‘I’m named Drustan desainCoid.’

Jerem grinned; there was blood on his teeth. His eyes settled on Drustan’s, no longer darting around like a frightened deer’s. ‘I saw you fight that duel against Arold Holearse and give him his name.’

‘He deserved it,’ Drustan snapped. Arold desainForas had placed his hands upon Marisa…

Oh dear gods, Marisa, be at home on the StormMarch, don’t be at the House of Falas, don’t have come here to see to the wounded.

He knew it was a foolish wish.

‘I don’t doubt it.’ Jerem coughed. His eyelids flickered for a moment, but he shook his head — an old soldier fighting off unconsciousness by strength of will. ‘I should’ve known better than to run through a forest with a sword in me hand.’

‘Yes,’ Drustan said. ‘You should.’ He reached a hand towards the sword.

‘Leave it, it’s stuck in bone.’ Only Jerem’s spine lay in the path of that blade.

Drustan withdrew his hand. ‘It plugs the hole anyway.’

‘There’s wine in me pack.’ Jerem gestured weakly at the bag lying under the tangled roots of the fallen tree.

Drustan scrambled under the roots to retrieve the pack. He lifted it with a grunt of effort. ‘You ran with this weight? No wonder you fell.’ He untied the string and upended the bag. A wineskin fell out, some food wrapped in clean linen from the supply carts — and a rattling deluge of gold, silver, and jewels.

A sound in the forest. Drustan jerked his head around. Vascanar? No, of course not. It was just a bloody fox, or some other poor fool fleeing the battle.

‘From the … the raid … the raid on the ships.’ Jerem coughed up blood. ‘Not much … not much…’ He breathed heavily through his nose. The coughing subsided. ‘Not much use to me now.’

Drustan lifted the wineskin and drank deeply. Harsh wine, barely given time to mature, a soldier’s wine. He shivered as the liquid hit his stomach. Hairs tickled at the back of his neck. Sudden goosebumps on his arms. He tensed, took one step away from Jerem.

‘I’d like a taste of that,’ Jerem said.

The Vascanar would be coming. They would … What in all the hells was wrong with him? Drustan licked his lips. ‘Your … your gut is pierced.’ What was that? That noise? His hand dropped to the dagger. Fear tore a hole through his gut. He had to leave. Now.

‘Does it matter?’

‘What?’

‘Does it matter that my … gut … is pierced.’ Jerem coughed and sighed, turning his head against the dirt.

A deep breath in. A deep breath out. Honour is an action not a birthright. ‘There’s a House of Doves at the Falas Bridge.’ Marisa, torn and brutalised, blood pooled around her, her golden hair sticky with it.

‘The sword’s severed my spine. No healer can fix that.’

Drustan took another swig of wine to wipe away the image of Marisa lying dead and broken. Blood thudded in his temples. He could barely see for the terror raging through his mind. ‘I … I can carry you.’ He gritted out the words.

‘I’ll not survive the journey.’

Drustan blinked. The man was going to die anyway. Leave him here, run … and break his honour as they broke his sword. Prove them right.

No!

He would not leave this man behind to die in agony. Not like this. Let the whoresons come. He was Drustan desainCoid and he would not cast his honour away so cheaply. A single harsh breath. ‘No,’ he said, his voice calm again, under his control. ‘I don’t suppose you would.’ He knelt beside Jerem, lifted his head, and trickled a little wine between the dying soldier’s lips.

Jerem coughed. ‘I’ll … I’ll linger a long time like this.’

‘Aye.’

‘I went across the Salt with the King.’ Jerem spoke of King Radolf’s attempt to take some land from the broken remnants of the Maebazray Empire.

‘So did I,’ Drustan said. He had been Hundrin then. ‘A stupid war.’

‘I ran.’ Tears leaked from Jerem’s eyes. ‘Today, I ran. The horses. The arrows. I fled. I broke the line.’

Drustan looked away from the man’s distress. ‘A lot of men fled today.’

‘I’m an armsman. I’m a soldier. I fought for coin across the Salt. They named me Iceblood.’ A coughing fit overcame Jerem. He clawed at Drustan’s arm. ‘I … I ran … sword still in my hand … such terror… I pissed myself, I… Men died today … because I…’ Jerem stopped, stared at the ground.

Drustan gripped the man’s hand. ‘I’ve heard of you, Jerem Iceblood. You have a name to be proud of.’

Jerem’s face calmed. He looked puzzled, embarrassed by his outburst. He spoke quietly. ‘I might last ’til morning.’

‘You might.’

‘You know what these Vascanar animals do to—’ Jerem shook his head. ‘Not a good way to die.’

‘No.’ Drustan drew the needle-pointed dagger. ‘Close your eyes, Jerem of Solglen.’

‘Wait.’

‘Tis best it is done quickly, brother.’

‘The sword.’ Jerem touched the hilt of the blade that pierced him. He coughed. ‘It’s … been in … my family … generations.’

‘I thought the blade too broad for modern steel.’

The coughing fit subsided. ‘Made the old way. It’ll cleave through the branch of an oak without damage.’

‘What is it you want, Jerem?’

‘I’ve sons.’

‘I may never meet them.’

‘You know your way to Solglen, Drustan desainCoid.’

‘I do.’ Drustan nodded. ‘Very well, Jerem of Solglen, named Iceblood for your honour. I, Drustan desainCoid, will carry this blade that killed you. I swear to give it to one of your blood if ever I meet such. I shall not sell it or give it to any other, but if it breaks, or is lost and cannot be recovered, then this oath is considered satisfied. I swear it true, with heart-blood and breath, with mind and soul, until the dirt claims me.’

‘Thank you, Bright Blade.’

‘I’m naught but a sell-sword, Jerem. My honour is bought and sold these days.’

‘I doubt that.’ Jerem smiled through blood-flecked lips. ‘But if’n it be so, then take what you like of the baubles I stole.’

Drustan returned the smile. ‘I shall, brother. Now turn your head to the side and close your eyes.’

‘An old oath.’ Jerem closed his eyes. ‘The old gods’ll hold you to that.’ He turned his head to one side.

A single thrust under the ear ended Jerem’s pain.

Drustan pulled the shortsword free of the corpse and tossed it to one side before removing Jerem’s sword-belt. He sliced a scrap of cloth from the cloak to clean the blade of the shortsword and wrapped the man in what was left, tying it tight with a length of twine from the pack. As gently as he could, Drustan pushed Jerem into the deep shadows beneath the roots of the fallen elm. Stepping back, he bowed his head and recited the death prayer:

‘Formed of blood and guts and steel

Made to die but never yield

Born of woman

Born of man

Born upon this shimmering land

Throw the mud and dirt and clay

Freeman born until this day

Dead to woman

Dead to man

Dying for this shimmering land.’

Drustan bowed his head for a moment. ‘This will have to do, brother. I have no time to bury you deep.’ He swigged at the wine. The deep beat of the Vascanar war-drums echoed through the trees, a wild rhythm, the rhythm of victory. The battle was over, lost; the Vascanar would be here soon, they would—

Deliberately, Drustan closed down the fear. It would not command him.

He adjusted Jerem’s sword belt to fit his narrower waist, cleaning the shortsword slowly, carefully, fighting the urge to flee with every stroke of the cloth, before he slipped the sword into its scabbard on the left side of his waist. The food — bread and cheese by the smell and feel of the bundle — he stuffed back into the sack. Finally, he sorted through the looted treasure, choosing the finer, smaller, lighter items.

The fear flared, hot, urgent, making his fingers tremble, his bowels twist, but he focused on the task and pushed the jewellery into his belt pouch. To a sell-sword loot was part of the pay, and he was damned if he was going to leave it behind.

Breathing deeply, calming his mind, he hurled the heavier loot away into the trees; perhaps that would keep two-legged scavengers away from the body.

Drustan saluted Jerem’s corpse with the wineskin, poured a libation to the gods, and said, ‘May Henath judge you worthy, brother of the shield.’ He drank a long, slow swallow of wine.

Terror blazed, hot and bright. With nothing else left to do, no other task to occupy his thoughts, Drustan’s courage broke. He fled heedless through the forest, away from the sound of the Vascanar drums and the keening screams of the dead and dying.

 

Chapter 5

The Erisyan archer Jarl Bearclaw fought the urge to vomit at the stench rising from the Vascanar torture pits. The acid taste was part of his penance for another’s mistake, a penance that forced him to gaze upon men ripped asunder and to listen to their agonised screams, to smell their flesh burning, to feel the heat upon his skin… Gods above and below, the suffering tore through his soul in a scalding torrent of anguish. His empathic talent was a dol, a gift of fate, but here…

Hundreds of heat-stones glowing red-hot beneath the tormented bodies of men and boys, shards of pain burrowing into his soul. No military reason for this slaughter; the Vascanar would gain no information from these men. They simply offered this sacrifice to their gods to call them forth to feast upon this land.

They fed them pain and named it sacrament.

These rituals of agony were the reason why the Vascanar were hated and reviled across the breadth of the world. Jarl’s caedi, his clan, the Caedi Haroa — the people of the high valleys — were sworn to the Vascanar by a blood-oath harsh and binding.

No amount of gold was worth this. The Erisyans were a diminished people; taking money for such oaths would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. A blood oath! For money! Jarl held back tears of shame and gazed across the torment before him.

As every life bawled out its pain, the vicious gods of the Vascanar became visible. Dark, pendulous shadows took shape above the glowing heat-stones and screaming victims.

Gluttons at a feast in their honour.

These gods needed a pathway through the salt-forged barriers around the Islands of Symcani, a pathway constructed from the souls of tormented men. The seas protected these lands and to obtain their power the gods first needed their warriors to crush the inhabitants. Jarl knew his histories; he knew that the Karisae had faced the same problem two and a half centuries earlier. But they hadn’t solved it like this, because they weren’t a cult of torture and bloody misery.

Why had Gorak, his hwlman, the war-leader of the caedi — and Jarl’s uncle — signed a pact with these monstrous Vascanar? Screams echoed in the footsteps of these animals. Wherever they trod, the land turned red and the spirit realm darkened.

No payment was worth this. The Caedi Haroa would be reviled amongst the Erisyans. Livia, Jarl’s wife, would cast out his bow and leave him divorced and alone. His daughters would find no husbands, for no caedi would allow such tainted bloodlines into their own, and his sons would find no wives, for no caedi would send their daughters to marry those who signed a blood-oath with the Vascanar. The Haroa would become crydi, wanderers without a homeland.

Thus, Jarl stood witness to the fall of his dreams.

A swaggering Vascanar horse warrior named Torquesten approached through the shimmering heat. Jarl could taste the vicious brutality of Torquesten’s mind. The Vascanar called such as him Akalac, knights of the blood, but Torquesten was worse even than that; a creature steeped in darkness and evil, he commanded the hounds, those poor benighted slaves forced by mystical bindings to sniff out magic for the Vascanar.

Torquesten thrust a jug of Arambra brandy into Jarl’s hand. ‘Drink, bowman Jarl. Drink with victory.’ Torquesten’s harshly accented Maebaz, the trade-tongue of every place that fallen empire had touched, made his words hard to understand.

‘I’m not thirsty,’ Jarl said in impeccable Maebaz. Linguistics were easy for an empath; the sense of the word came along with its sound. ‘And it is pronounced Yarl’.

‘You drink, bowman,’ Torquesten demanded. ‘Drink.’

Jarl accepted the jug. ‘The term is archer,’ he said, before he let the fiery liquid swill around his mouth, feigned swallowing, and then spat the brandy back into the jug along with his unspoken curse.

‘Dead empire, dead tongue, soon all will speak the language of the gods.’ Torquesten snatched back the jug and almost overbalanced into a nearby pit filled with glowing heat-stones, where a man was being broiled alive.

Jarl resisted the urge to trip the drunken Vascanar.

Torquesten regained his balance and laughed. ‘I like you, bowman. I keep you as pet, yes?’ He staggered away.

Jarl closed his eyes. Gorak, what have you done to your people? He spat the sour flavour of the brandy onto the ground and opened his eyes to bear witness.

The dark forms of the Vascanar gods solidified above the sacrifices, dripping secretions that crackled upon the heat-stones, splattered upon the ground, and hissed upon the pathetic flesh of the sacrifices. Slaves rushed forward with delicate pottery bowls to collect this precious fluid, reaching across the heat to save the sacred harvest from exploding on contact with the heat of the stones, taking great care to collect the fluid that etched acid lines of pain upon the skins of men screaming out their last breaths.

Too much; Jarl could bear no more. He turned away from the repulsive sight; but he had stayed too long. Long enough for a Vascanar god to notice him. ‘You are mine.’ The rancid, domineering mental voice of the god crawled into his soul. ‘You will serve me.’ Such longing in that voice, such hatred.

Jarl took a step back from the thrust of that seductive hate, but only one step; then he cast off the bloody dreams rampant in his mind, cast off the temptation to become a monstrous beast raging upon the surface of the world, and cast the discordance at the centre of his soul back into the gaze of the god.

He was Jarl Bearclaw of the Caedi Haroa. He was archer and warrior, father and lover, man of faith, of truth, of worth. He was Erisyan.

The god screamed.

Jarl drove empathy, truth, clarity, the essential chaotic randomness of humanity into the breach of that glare. They may have noticed him, but he’d suffered with every cry of every soul torn open for their greed; they wouldn’t turn him to their ways. He would die before that happened — and he wouldn’t die alone.

The scrape of swords on scabbards as the Vascanar readied their blades.

Jarl, with a smile upon his lips, opened his mind fully and thrust out with all that he had, letting his soul slash at every dark form floating above the pain of men. ‘Take me, then,’ he said, his voice soft in the sudden silence. ‘If you have the nerve for it.’

He drew his own sword, the famous syrthae blade of the Erisyans, with its distinctive inward-curving cutting-edge, its heavy point to add weight to any cut, and its blade as long as his arm. It shimmered in the light of the glowing heat-stones.

Every god cried out its rage. The screech tore the world open and for a moment, a moment of synchronicity, of information given and received, the gods and Jarl connected in the realm of the spirit.

Jarl staggered. Demons! The Vascanar gods were demons. Demons who sought to become gods. Oh, how they coveted that ascension. And these islands, largely untouched by newer faiths, held the power they needed to achieve it.

Demons, not gods — not yet. Just foul creatures loosed upon the world by the tormented cries of dying men. Jarl tried to drag his gaze away from the demon’s eyes, tried to pull his soul out of the connection, but this one was tenacious; he thrust deeper into Jarl’s soul, into his mind, skewering the very heart of him. Jarl struggled, his fists tight, his face rigid, dragging back his soul, his mind, his heart. In that instant more information flooded through the link.

‘We will tear apart your soul,’ the demons cried into Jarl’s mind — and closed the doors to their own thoughts, freeing him from their hooks.

‘Will ain’t killed,’ Jarl said, and broke the corrosive gaze. He had learned what he needed to know: the Vascanar had sold their souls to demons. Nothing more than that. He almost pitied them, even as he feared for his own people.

Torquesten, at the forefront of the Vascanar, with a longsword above his head, charged towards Jarl.

‘Hold!’ The bellow came from Gorak, Jarl’s hwlman and uncle; the Erisyans had come rushing to Jarl’s aid from the shattered stones of the broken town.

With his warbow held at full draw, arrow nocked and pointed at Torquesten, Gorak lifted his chin. ‘Spill one drop of Erisyan blood and the pact is broken.’ The rest of the caedi stood by Gorak’s side, bows drawn, ready to loose upon his command.

The Vascanar skidded to a halt. Jarl flinched at the crackling viciousness of the Demon-tongue, a language that burned across the souls of those who heard it, blazing between the hovering demons and the fools who worshipped them.

Torquesten said, ‘The gods say he shall live to suffer. They say you must take him from this place.’

‘Your accent’s improved,’ Jarl commented.

‘Quiet now, Jarl,’ Gorak said. Like all users of the Erisyan warbow, Gorak was broad across shoulders and back; but even his bull neck bulged at the mounting effort of keeping a powerful bow at full draw. He smiled at Torquesten and said, ‘We’ll leave now, then.’

‘Go,’ Torquesten snapped.

Gorak lowered his bow. ‘Come along, Jarl. You’ve seen enough excitement this night.’

As they made their way back to the Erisyan tents, Gorak asked, ‘What possessed you to stand there like that?’

‘To bear witness,’ Jarl said. ‘You’ve no idea what you’ve done.’

****

‘Where is it?’ the demon demanded of Bihkat. ‘Where is the Xarnac?’ It loomed above the fading heat of the Xantian stone.

A circle of priests crooned their fear while Bihkat, high priest of all the Vascanar existent in the world, lifted his scar-wracked arms in supplication. ‘It—’

‘You promised us, priest. You promised that it would be recovered at the battle.’ The words ripped into Bihkat’s soul like the tips of a scourge, scalding and sharp. ‘You promised us the recovery of the Xarnac, the amulet, the lodestone of our realisation.’

‘It will be found.’ Bihkat threw himself upon the ground in misery. ‘The terror it inspires will unman any that bear it. No one can resist its effect.’

‘The amulet was at the battle, priest. And now it is gone. Its power brought terror to the enemy and broke their lines. We tasted its perfume upon the souls of the sacrifices. It was there and now it is not. Where is it?’

‘The enemy fled. They took it with them.’

‘We gave you the ukinak of Pyran, the best of our regiments, to take this island. We made our deals with the sea-ruling Korga to bring your ships here. We allowed you to employ mercenaries not of the faith to winnow the enemy. All this we did to secure our fulfilment. This land is the gateway to our godhood.’ The demon struggled to hold itself present in this realm; its agony sang through Bihkat’s soul. ‘Where is the lodestone of our completion?’

‘It will be found.’

‘You allowed it to be taken. You allowed it to be stolen. And you did not tell us of its loss. We had to discover its absence in the scent of the dead souls passing to our realm, the dead who saw the treasure ship burn. And now you fail to recover it as promised?’

‘We didn’t know!’ Bihkat cried out from the ground. ‘It must have been taken during the raid. We don’t know by whom or how. We thought it safe. We thought it hidden.’

‘Fool. Without it all is for naught. The Xarnac guides us through the Tangled Realms to the gate between the worlds, through the gateway into this place, this island of power. The Xarnac burns the souls of men with fear. One has fallen: find his body, rend it clean, bring us the bones that we may taste them. Find the one who holds it now. Already the Xarnac feeds upon his manhood, swallows his courage, burns away all that he is and sanctifies him for our needs. Find him. Find the Xarnac. Unleash the hounds and find it.’

The darkness retreated into the Tangled Realms between worlds, seeping away from Bihkat’s soul, freeing him to act once more. He lifted the sharp little dagger on a thong about his neck and cut new lines of supplication through the torn scars of his face.

As the blood flowed, his spirit calmed. He walked away from the place of audience, where the demonic lords spoke and only the priesthood might approach.

Uka Pyran, general and war-leader, knelt upon the freshly stripped skin of a sacrifice. ‘What do the lords say, Bihkat, Ukalac, priest of the Way?’

Bihkat replied, ‘Fetch me Torquesten. Fetch me the Master of the Hounds.’

 

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