Excerpt for The Queen of Death and Darkness by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Queen of Death and Darkness

Sharp Steel and High Adventure: Volume 1


William A. Webb


Dingbat Publishing

THE QUEEN OF DEATH AND DARKNESS: Sharp Steel and High Adventure, Volume 2

Copyright © 2017 William Alan Webb

ISBN 978-1-940520-89-6



Published by Dingbat Publishing

Humble, Texas


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without written consent, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.

eBooks cannot be sold, shared, uploaded to Torrent sites, or given away because that’s an infringement on the copyright of this work.

This book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of International Copyright Law, subject to criminal prosecution and upon conviction, fines and/or imprisonment. No part of this e-book can be reproduced or sold by any person or business without the express permission of the publisher.

Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are entirely the produce of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to persons living or dead, actual locations, events, or organizations is coincidental.

In a city by the sea, there lived a man who could walk on the waters. The people were so amazed by this that they came to worship the man as their god, paying him homage and offering him food and wine. One day a giant shark came into their waters and began eating the fishermen, driving the boats to shore. With no fish to eat, the people began to starve. In despair they called on their new god to save them, as gods are supposed to do.

The man heard their cries and set out to slay the beast. After all, if the people had no food they could not give him offerings. And if he could walk on the water, what should he fear from an insignificant shark? With the villagers gathered to watch, the man walked onto the ocean to save his flock.

Now, the shark saw him, and wondered what sort of man could walk on the water. He had never seen such a thing before and certainly had never eaten such a man. But the shark decided one man was as good as another and jumped out of the water, swallowing the man whole.

The people went back to their village and debated what to do about their god being eaten by the shark. Finally, after much arguing, they decided to worship the shark and become farmers…

After traversing the cavern leading south under the mountains from Askandria, Alden and Dexter found that most of the gold they carried away had returned to base metal upon Torgid’s death. They still possessed a prince’s ransom, but it wasn’t a king’s, and it was nowhere near enough to fund Alden’s bid for a dukedom of his own back home in Corland. And so they found themselves in the rich farmlands beyond the Black River in the Midalean Eastmarch.

Chapter 1


Wazid sul Yulla couldn’t stand still. Puffy red eyes reflected the terror of his nightmare. The last flickers of the dying fire distorted the shadows of his sleeping family, and for an instant his tired brain thought them grotesque demons. He grabbed his sword and ducked into a crouch, panting, until the lingering traces of his dream faded.

Strong, long-fingered hands wiped the sweat running down his cheeks. For a while he sat in the gloom, listening to the sounds of sleeping Azid, his city. Frogs croaked at the nearby well in his courtyard. A dray clattered down some rutted alley. A sand owl on the hunt screeched in the distance. Closer at hand were the rhythmic snores of his wives and children. But what he heard loudest were the whispers of his nightmare, calling him back to the dreamworld.

Rising from his blankets, Wazid wrapped a robe around his strong frame and slipped on sandals. As he stepped over his family, a gleam on the floor caught his eye, a sparkle in the darkness that shouldn’t have been there. Fear made him step back. His powerful hands trembled. After a few seconds of gathering himself, he approached the roundel of gold and picked it up.

The coin was large and heavy, yet soft. Solid gold, tempered with no alloy. Stamped on the side facing up was the image of a mace standing erect, with a mountain in the background. With great care, as if handling delicate glasswork, Wazid flipped the coin.

His breath caught. His heart pounded. Graven into the metal was his own image. Holding the token at arms’ length, he stared in revulsion. Wazid had the warrior’s disgust of sorcery, and this could be nothing else, but he hadn’t become chief by cowardice. At the least sign of weakness his men would tear him apart, so Wazid steeled himself to seek the advice of the man he trusted least among his people.

He felt like a coward taking his sword to walk the dark streets of the city he ruled, yet he took it anyway. A waxing gibbous moon lit the byways in blue light. Several times the night watch challenged him, only to shrink away at the sound of their chief’s voice. Behind its ramparts, Azid was not a large city, so Wazid’s long stride carried him to the house near the oasis in a few short minutes.

He pounded on the wooden door with the pommel of his sword until a sleepy servant’s voice challenged him.

“Stop that at once! Who dares wake the master of this house?”

“The master of this city, that’s who,” Wazid said. “Now open, Tazmin, or I’ll cut your tongue out.”

Bowing and touching his nose to the floor, the house slave ushered Wazid down a narrow hallway into a large, round common room strewn with pillows.

“Would the great chief like wine?” Tazmin stammered.

“Fetch your master, you dimwitted dolt, and then bring beer and bread.”

The slave brought him a large goblet of beer and several loaves of the round bread his people cooked in deep pits over open flames. Wazid broke off bits of bread and dunked them in his beer, chewing without tasting the food. He was deep in reverie when Zalu yul Subanna appeared in the doorway. Wazid let the shaman believe he hadn’t noticed his arrival, but kept his jaws grinding the soft bread.

“Good evening, my chief,” Zalu said at last. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit, at such a time of night?”

Wazid’s dark eyes inspected him. “I had a dream. I need you to interpret it for me.”

Zalu sat cross-legged on a thick pillow and ordered lamps brought in. “A dream, you say, and you want my help? Whatever my chief needs, I will obviously endeavor to supply. But the timing does seem odd, Wazid.”

“I didn’t want to chance forgetting any of the details. It… it may have been a vision. Or a nightmare, I don’t know.”

“A vision? Well, have you changed your opinion on visions now that you’ve had one?”

As the tribe’s shaman, Zalu had had many visions over the years, all scoffed at by Wazid. Most of them had seemed too convenient to Zalu’s wishes to be anything more than manipulation, but Wazid eyed Zalu’s every move as he poured water into his beer and drank deep.

“Would you believe me if I said yes, I’ve changed my mind?”

Zalu stared back at him, unblinking. “I would.”

“Will you believe the dream I tell about was real, if I say it was?”

“Of course.” He still hadn’t blinked.

“Because you’ve also had visions, right?”

For an instant Zalu’s eyes flicked up and to the left, then returned to meeting his gaze. “Yes, I’ve had visions. You know this, and you have doubted me. But I’m happy to see that my chief seeks the path of knowledge.”

“Your chief seeks your counsel,” Wazid said. His tone was terse. “We have had our differences in the past, but I have always thought you a wise man, Zalu. We both love our people and I would have us allies in the coming days, not enemies. The Yulla deserve it.”

Zalu narrowed his gaze and raked fingers through his beard, actions Wazid had seen many times when the shaman was deep in thought. At length he nodded. “Our people come before all else,” he said. “Tell me your vision, Wazid. Let us see if I can help.”

“The hunting season begins tomorrow. I cannot ask the hunters to follow me north unless I’m sure that Blessed Ullu spoke to me in a vision.”

“Ullu? All blessings be upon her. You saw the Queen of Death and Darkness in a dream?”

“That’s what I’m asking you.”

“Speak of what happened. Leave nothing out.”

“From a great height I saw a battle. I was an eagle, soaring above men who killed each other for some reason I couldn’t fathom. A fast flowing river split the battlefield, with many rocks and foaming water. The men on the west side of the river crossed the swift water under a cloud of arrows, and there was fierce fighting on the eastern bank. I could tell they came from the desert… they were Sedanni, but in huge numbers. Leading the attackers was a woman mounted on a magnificent stallion, with hair so black it seemed to absorb light. In her hand was a great mace, just as black. None could stand before her.

“Along the river was a sandy bank, which gave way to sheer mountains rising up and up. Several roads led to large openings in the mountainside. The defenders were hard pressed. Wherever the woman came, they fled or died and the battle seemed won for the attackers.

“But then, when all seemed lost for the defenders, a man strode down the road from one of the caves. He was a great warrior too… I knew this, somehow. He and the woman wielding the mace fought and she struck him with her dire weapon, but instead of falling before her, he swung a sword of white fire and knocked the mace from her grasp. It fell into the rushing water and she was undone. A black hole seemed to open before her and she stepped through, after which the hole vanished.

“Abandoned by their leader, the Sedanni army fled, losing many men to arrows as they struggled back across the river. They rode away west, while the surviving defenders built great cairns to cover the dead. The great warrior who disarmed the woman picked up the mace. He used his own sword so as not to touch it. He carried it back up a road into one of the caves. I awoke, and that’s when I found this.”

In his palm gleamed the golden coin.

“May I?” Zalu reached for it. Wazid nodded.

The shaman’s gaze lingered on the side with the mace and mountain. When he turned it over, however, he had to suppress a gasp.

“What do you see on this side?” he asked.

“What do I see?” Wazid said, confused. “I see my own face.”

“As do I,” Zalu said. What he saw was his face, not Wazid’s, but the cagey shaman recognized at once the power at work. He handed the slug back to Wazid and then rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, as if massaging them. When finished he blinked several times.

Wazid spied him for signs of deception but couldn’t tell with all the movement. “So what does it all mean?”

Zalu drained his beer and motioned for more. Wazid focused on his face again, to judge the truth of his answer. The shaman rose and fetched a small pouch from a chest of drawers against one wall. He sprinkled a yellow powder into the refilled goblet and drained the liquid in one gulp. Leaning back, he closed his eyes and swayed.

“Ullu has given you a vision and a path. What you saw was the Battle of Miner’s Ford, when the tribes of the Sedanni united behind Ullu’s champion, Besta, to retake our lost lands in the Eastmarch. They desperately wanted out of the desert into a more settled life based on the land, but the Midaleans opposed them.

“Ullu personally gave Besta the mace named Mallaza Amwat, into which she poured some of her own power to use in the war. It was… is, an artifact of the gods, a Sharu. It is how they aided men without putting themselves in personal danger. In return, the Sedanni promised to worship the Queen of Death and Darkness as their primary goddess. This should have given our ancestors the victory.

“Instead, the Midaleans had their own champion. His name was Sevas Saggo and he was a Warder of the White Flame. They are a powerful conclave of sorcerers who protect regions from enemies, for their own unknown reasons. The word Saggo means Protector in their ancient language. With the power of a goddess in her hand, Besta should have won the duel with Sevas Saggo, but was taken by surprise by his powers.

“The Sharu was hidden by Saggo and never found. With the return of her weapon, Ullu would be restored to full power. She could again come to Reven. The coin represents her choice of you to be her new champion in returning the mace to her, while the gold is her promise of the reward for doing so.”

The great chief crossed his arms. Creases in his forehead formed a V as he scowled, thinking the problem through. “I thought the Warder of the Eastmarch was Addis Saggo.”

“Sevas Saggo came before him. This was many lives of men ago.”

“If I do as blessed Ullu wishes, what actions would I take?”

“You must lead the tribe north to find the Cairns at Miner’s Ford. Once there, you will have to search for the Sharu somewhere in the mines by the river. It will not be easy. Powerful spells protect that place; it is said you cannot even see it unless you are descended from the men who fought there. But a powerful shaman with the right incantations may reveal them, which is why I will accompany you.”

“The winter stores are gone and we don’t have food enough for such a journey.”

“Raid the Eastmarch. Let my magic protect us from the glyphs of the Warder.”

“You can do this?”

“I can.”

“You’re certain? If we fail, it could be a disaster for our people.”

“You’re our chief, Wazid. I do not tell you how to lead the Yulla, but in matters of sorcery I have no equal. I have studied the ancient texts and I am beloved of the goddess. If I tell you I can do something regarding sorcery, I can.”

“Very well, Zalu. We will ride east, and we will cross the Black River again. But not as raiders. If we go, we go to reclaim our heritage. Can you still protect us?”

“I can, after we gather for the appropriate sacrifice.”

“Then so be it. The time has come for Sedanni to once again rule our ancestral lands.”

#

Chapter 2


Kossos, the Red Moon of Reven, hung alone in the night sky over the barren savannahs of the Yiku-Kas desert. The Blue Moon, Blendari, had set and wouldn’t reappear for three nights. Without Blendari’s balancing light, the landscape glowed deep crimson. It was the time of the Blood Moon, when sorcery ruled.

Alden Havenwulf peered over the crest of a sandy dune at a bonfire, blazing in the center of a small depression in the powdery soil. Seated around the fire was a tribe of Sedanni, the desert men of the Yiku-Kas, watching enrapt as a shaman wearing a snakeskin shirt and hawk feathers danced in the light of the flames. The blade of a knife glinted in one hand, and a large bowl in the other. He pranced with knees pumping high and head tilted back, chanting in a language Alden had never heard.

Taking a brand from the fire, he danced into the darkness and illuminated a man tied to a stake. Even at such a distance, Alden could see the terror in the man’s face; the instant he saw the prisoner, it became obvious what the knife was for. Alden slid away from the crest and rolled over on his back.

Dexter Reedman lay beside him, bathed in red moonlight. “I’m guessing they don’t look friendly.”

“It’s some primitive desert ritual… with a human sacrifice. There’s a man tied to a post and he’s terrified.”

“Don’t tell me you want to try and rescue him.” Dexter squinted in the wan light, inspecting Alden’s face. “That didn’t work out so well last time.”

“Anili was different, but no. There’s at least thirty desert men down there. We couldn’t save him even if we wanted to, poor devil. But they must live around here somewhere, so we need to veer north before we try to cross the river. Once across we should be safe in Midalea.”

“That suits me. I have a rule of life about this kind of thing… ride until you find a tavern.”

Zalu yul Subanna danced and didn’t feel the sweat pouring down his chest and legs. The snake-leather shirt stuck to his skin. The skulls of desert adders woven into his tangled black hair smacked his cheeks as he gyrated around the bonfire, but he didn’t feel that, either.

Chanting in a louder and louder voice, he stopped and faced the dead man pinioned by ropes to the heavy stake. Blood dripped from the man’s heart in his left hand and the knife in his right. Tilting his head, Zalu stared at the blood moon and stopped chanting. Instead, he made a strange warbling sound. It took the mesmerized Sedanni a moment to realize the sounds were words.

Ullupenthu nullulikka, ullupenthu nullulikka…

He repeated the words ten times and abruptly stopped. With great force he thrust the heart back through the gaping hole in the prisoner’s chest.

Ullupenthu nullulikka!

The surrounding tribesmen leaned forward. Firelight picked out deep creases in their wind-burned faces. As they stared, enrapt, the dead man’s heart began beating again. His eyes opened and he looked up.

“Behold the wonder of Ullu, Queen of Death and Darkness!” Zalu said in a quavering voice. Spreading his hands, he knelt before the re-animated corpse. “We are your humble slaves, O Goddess.”

Flames sprang from the corpse’s feet and hands. As they spread upward, consuming the body in a growing fire, a deep voice, unmistakably female, intoned strange words in a language only the shaman understood.

Zalu threw himself prostrate in the dust and the other Sedanni followed his example. The voice of the goddess rose in pitch as the body melted away. When all flesh and hair was burned away from the skull, the empty jaws still clacked. Only when the muscles holding the lower jaw in place snapped and the mandible fell did the voice stop.

Zalu rose first. Embers still swirled into the night from the charred corpse. He gaped at what his sorcery had caused to happen. Only when Wazid shook his shoulder did he realize the tribe stared at him with newfound respect, and perhaps fear.

“Was that the goddess?” the large man said, awe in his voice.

“It was her, Wazid. It was really her.”

“I’ll admit I didn’t believe you capable of summoning her, Zalu. You have impressed your chief this night. What did she say?”

The two men locked eyes. “She said the time of her return is near. For now, we are to raid one of the villages near the river. And…”

“And what?”

“We are required to leave a dead Sedanni behind.”

“I cannot do that! These men are my brothers. How can you ask me to do such a thing?”

“It is not me who is asking, Wazid. Nor was it a request.”

“But why?”

“She didn’t say, my chief,” Zalu said. “And I didn’t ask. When a goddess bids you do something, you do it.”

#

Chapter 3


Addis Saggo leaned forward in his saddle. Breezes from the southwest carried the reek of burnt timbers from far down the valley, and tears welled in his eyes.

They were too late.

“What do you see, Master?” Coaner said. The huge warrior had experienced too many scenes of destruction not to know what the smell meant.

Saggo focused his mind on using Long Sight. The spell sought any birds passing over the area he wanted to see, projecting what they saw into his mind. He found a circling vulture over the village. The single-minded nature of a desert vulture served his purpose well, but it also sickened him. The carrion the bird intended to devour was more than his friends; Saggo considered them his children. He had vowed to protect them and failed.

And yet the bird sensed life below. Someone had lived through the fighting, someone badly wounded and in need of his help.

Saggo nudged his horse into a gallop. Coaner’s massive steed matched the smaller horse stride for stride as the two thundered over the farmland.

The village lay atop a small hill overlooking the Black River, a mile to the west. A narrow road led up the hill from the east, lined with stones plowed up from the rocky fields. On this road they found the first body, more than half a mile from the village.

A young man lay face down with an arrow in one shoulder and sword slashes across his back. Saggo reined in his horse and inspected the body. To his horror he recognized Liffa, son of Liffa, a thirteen-year-old boy apprenticed to the blacksmith. During his last visit to the village, Liffa had showed Saggo a new type of plow he was trying to forge, with his master’s help.

Dismounting, Saggo turned Liffa over. He pushed matted hair out of the young man’s face and saw the grimace of pain still twisting his features. There could be no mistaking the teenager for a grown man, despite his muscular right arm.

“Why would they kill him?” he said. Despite the experiences of his long life, his mystification was genuine. Why murder a child for no reason?

“Killing amuses some people,” Coaner said, without realizing the question had been rhetorical. Like most barbarians he took words literally. “I knew men who preferred killing to eating, and the more helpless the victim, the better they liked it.”

“That was a brutal world I took you from.”

“All worlds are brutal. I was born on a battlefield, in the midst of gore. My mother was a warrior because she had to be. She never thought about it; it was the only way to survive. These were gentle folk because they could be. When I was that boy’s age, I had already been on raids against our mortal enemies. Under your protection, he never had to learn those skills.”

“Under my protection… and I failed them.”

“You cannot stop all evil in the world, Addis.”

“My mission isn’t to stop all evil in the world, just in the Eastmarch. Other Wards are responsible for other places.”

“You told me there are no other Wards, not any more.”

“We don’t actually know that… let’s get to the village.”

Trees shaded the entire hilltop. The village had stood for centuries. The road led through a collection of homes on both sides, their foundations laid deep in the dark soil and their walls built of thick field stones. Generations of families had lived in the same houses, enlarging and improving them at need. Heavy timber roofs and shutters proofed them against rain and cold. Fuel for the fireplaces came from peat bogs on the eastern side of the river.

Most of the fires had burned themselves out. Smoldering embers timed the attack to the previous night. Coaner drew his sword and circled the village, just in case one of the raiders might still be there, but all he found was the dead.

Saggo’s experienced eyes followed the progress of the attack by observing hoofprints, bootprints, blood patterns, and the positions of the bodies left behind. More than two hundred people had lived in the village. The raiders had come from the west, most likely having crossed the wide river downstream at Falls Ford. Most villagers on the western end of the village had died in their beds, stabbed while sleeping. What puzzled Saggo were the dogs; they’d also died without fighting back. In his experience, bandits whooped and screamed to scare their victims into flight. But not here. Why not?

Near the eastern edge, the village folk had poured out of their homes, some to fight back, most to flee. In the end it hadn’t mattered. Mothers with infants had been cut down, both in their homes and on the road. Men armed with shovels, hammers, and hoes had died in the street or by their bed. Nothing had been left alive, neither man nor beast.

Yet Saggo sensed life. Astride the road, he closed his eyes and spread his arms, palms up. He cleared his mind and let the energy of the living spirit find him. It did. And when Saggo realized whose spirit it was, he groaned.

“No!” He ran for a nearby barn and stepped over a slaughtered cow in the double doorway. Someone had carved a huge slab from the animal, and from the amount of blood Saggo knew it had still been alive when they did it.

The dim interior receded as a tall flame sprang from the tip of his index finger. This one building hadn’t burned, even though dry hay lay everywhere. More cows lay dead next to their milking stools. Against the back wall lay the young girl whose energy he had felt — Siffa, younger sister of Liffa.

“My poor child.” He knelt beside her. He spoke one word, karizka, and the flame lifted from the tip of his finger and floated beside him, providing light. His deft touch sought her wounds and found them.

Siffa sat in a puddle of blood. She had been raped by many men. Her blouse hung loose from the cut of a sharp blade, and the skin beneath was coated by blood pouring from a long neck wound. Someone had cut her throat with a dull blade that hadn’t quite cut deep enough. He commanded no spell to repair such grievous wounds, and he knew she didn’t have long to live.

“Siffa, can you hear me?” he said. “It’s Saggo, child. I’m here now.”

Siffa tried to smile. Her head lolled to one side. “I knew you would come.” As she spoke, bloody bubbles slid from the slit in her throat.

Saggo smiled back, hiding the anguish tearing him apart. This is my fault. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here before.”

Once again the child tried to move her head, to see him. Then, closing her eyes, she died.

Coaner found Saggo sitting cross-legged beside her body, weeping. Tears stuck his long brown hair to his cheeks. He didn’t scream, or flail; he just cried for what had been lost in the village. All of the dead villagers, who’d harmed no one. The dead animals, the destroyed houses, and he wept for himself.

“I found one of the bandits dead,” Coaner said. “He fell into a pig sty and the pigs have been feasting.”

Saggo nodded. “All in due time. We have other work first.”

It took them all of that day and much of the next to dig a mass grave and bury the hundreds of villagers. Saggo had magic that could have helped but he didn’t use it.

“Why not?” Coaner asked him.

“I need to feel pain as they did. My powers failed to protect them. Let them not now aid me.”

Once the cairn was raised, Saggo bowed his head in respect. He wasn’t a priest and said no prayers. “Do you wish to say a prayer?” he asked, turning to Coaner.

“My god sits on top of a mountain and doesn’t care what happens to people. And I don’t care what happens to him. It’s enough that we remember they were good people.”

“Is it? And how will we let others know of their value?”

“You’re the wizard.”

“So I am.”

Saggo stroked his short beard, thinking of the proper words. He hadn’t cast such a spell in eons. Using his right hand, he began making gestures, as if drawing in the air. “Zusto kalinzy istar shu…” The chant went on for several minutes. When he finished, Saggo turned to Coaner. “Ask who these people were.”

The barbarian inspected the pile of rocks with his deep blue eyes. “You want me to ask the rocks?”

“Yes.”

“I feel like a fool… tell me, rocks, who is buried beneath you.”

The apparition of Siffa appeared, filled with the joy of youth. Her black hair matched his and she wore a simple white gown. In all respects, she seemed alive and standing before him. “Thank you for asking, good traveler, and let me tell the tale of my people, who lie entombed here by the wicked deeds of terrible men.”

Coaner listened as the wraith spoke. When she finished, the ghost-like figure bowed her head, thanked him again for his interest, and vanished.

“When I die,” he said, “don’t do that for me. I want my shade with those of my ancestors, in the Great Hall.”

Saggo patted him on the shoulder. “That’s not her shade; that’s sorcery.”

“I don’t care. Promise me you won’t do it.”

“You have my word. But now show me this dead bandit you found.”

“There can’t be much left by now.”

“All the worse for him.”

The pigs’ pen extended over more than an acre, fenced off with stones. Some had died in the assault, killed out of spite and left to rot, but not all. Near the gate lay the skeletal remains of a bandit. A skull with empty eye sockets stared up at them. The flesh of his lips, nose, and cheeks had been eaten, along with the eyes, tongue, and ears. The torso was partially devoured, but tight-fitting leather pants and jerkin still covered much of the chest, waist, and legs.

“Bring him out of there,” Saggo said.

The stench was no worse than the thousand battlefields Coaner had trod, but that didn’t mean he liked it, so he tied a cloth around his nose and mouth. With a sidelong glance of disgust, he stepped into the muck and grabbed the swollen ankles. Flies buzzed off the corpse in black clouds as he dragged it beyond the gate.

Saggo bent and peered into the empty eye sockets. He ignored the maggots crawling in the empty mouth. Reaching out, he hovered his hands a foot over the body. “Your name is unknown, but I, Addis Saggo of the Brotherhood of Warders, Wielder of the White Flame, summon you to return from hell into this mortal form.”

From his hands a reddish glow bathed the half-eaten body. Sweat ran into his eyes and his hands trembled from the effort. His own energy inundated the body and called its soul from beyond the land of the dead.

A black glow spread from the empty eye sockets, lit at the edges by crackling fire. The lower jaw began champing, as if the mangled corpse spoke, and a keening wail emanated from the ruined throat. Coaner stepped back two paces and leaned against a tree. In all their years together, he had never seen anything like this before.

“Silence!” Saggo said.

“It hurts,” the corpse said, writhing on the ground despite its ruined muscles. “Who forces Kiyuk back to the world of the living? It burns, it burns; make it stop!”

Saggo stood and clapped his hands together, hard. A loud boom exploded like the crack of a falling tree. “I said be silent, foul dead thing!”

Silence fell over the hilltop, as even the birds stopped singing. The corpse twitched and twisted in agony.

“Answer my questions and the pain will stop. Do you understand me? I’ll send you back.”

“Yes, Kiyuk understands.” The dead man’s voice was thin and raspy.

“Who are your people?”

“Sedanni.”

“Which clan?”

“Yulla.”

“What is your leader’s name?”

Kiyuk started to answer and then let out a scream of terror and pain. The body flopped in the dirt and flipped over. It took Saggo a second to realize what was happening. When he did, he extended his hands again, as he had before, and the same reddish black radiance poured over Kiyuk’s body. But this time, as he tried to drag the Sedanni’s soul back to the world of the living, something fought against him to keep it in the world of the dead. He strained but the force fighting him was stronger. In all of his long years, Saggo had never felt such power.

It became a test of wills. There had been no time to summon the aid of the White Flame, but never before had he needed it. Saggo was the greatest sorcerer on Reven and should have won any such battle with ease. He poured more and more of his energy into the struggle.

He breathed deeply and started to pant. Sweat drenched his body and his knees weakened. His hands shook and he closed his eyes, forcing every bit of his strength into the effort. As he strained, when he was totally focused on his effort, he felt something enter him, something evil that spun orange flames into his brain.

And then, without warning, it was over. The corpse lay stiff and still again. Nothing filled the eye sockets, either light or black.

Saggo had lost.

He collapsed to his knees and leaned back, gulping deep breaths. Racing heartbeats kept him from speaking for long seconds. When he finally did, amazement and despair tainted his voice. “It beat me.”

“What did?” Coaner said. “The dead guy?”

“No… I found his soul without trouble and brought it here. You heard that part. Holding him was easy; his soul was weak. But then something, some… force, pulled him back. We had a battle for his soul, and I lost. Never in all my life have I felt such power.”

“Who on Reven has the power to do that?”

Saggo met his gaze and held it. “No one.”

They released the pigs. Saggo put a charm of attack on the village, just in case the raiders returned. He felt ill. His shoulders slumped and his head hurt from the effort, but something else troubled him, something he couldn’t put into words. They mounted up and headed home.

#

Chapter 4


Saggo’s keep stood atop a sharp crag at the northern end of the broad delta flanking both sides of the Black River. A chain of jagged mountains formed the western boundary of what the Midaleans considered the Kingdom proper. Beyond the Black Mountains was the frontier. The king would fight to keep it, but not to keep its natives safe from pillage.

Three days of riding through the fertile farmlands had given Saggo time to brood over recent failures. In the past, the mile after mile of green shoots sprouting from the black loam would have brought a smile to his youthful countenance. But not now.

Farmers waved at their beloved guardian and were perplexed when he didn’t stop to speak with them, as was his wont. Coaner tried to prod him back into his usual confident self, but Saggo was having none of it. He didn’t respond to Coaner’s barbs, so on the second day Coaner gave up and they rode north in silence.

On the morning of the fourth day, they crossed the stone bridge over the Forked Deer River and clattered up the wide stone road at the perimeter of Aegilperche, Saggo’s home. Powerful enchantments kept others from seeing it.

The sides of the peak on which it stood were sheer, a spiked spur of the Black Mountains. The castle itself soared upward. Eight turreted towers watched over the land. At the center of this octagonal compound, the keep itself rose into the clouds. No one who laid eyes on Aegilperche could visualize how such a structure might have been built in such a place.

The castle had no defenses other than a stout main gate. No portcullis or arrow slots defended the entrance. Indeed, Aegilperche had no warriors. As long as Saggo was in residence, none were needed.

They rode through the gate to the cheers and waves of the gatekeepers, into the main courtyard. Servants approached them with cries of welcome, but then noted their master’s foul mood and fell silent.

The top battlement of the keep rose five hundred feet above the valley floor. Saggo ascended the spiral stone staircase and sat in the heavy oaken chair placed at the top for his benefit. Cold winds off the Black Mountains whipped him like an invisible lash. He tightened his robes and hunched over as a scowl folded his narrow face inward.

He sat atop the tower for three days without sleeping. Servants brought wine and food and begged him to come inside and sleep, but Saggo refused. A thunderstorm swept over the peak, but still he sat there. Sorcery could have kept him dry, but instead he endured the stinging rain and the shivering when the storm passed. He left only for necessary ablutions.

At noon on the overcast third day, with another storm gathering in the west, Saggo rose and shook back his sleeves. Concentrating, he wove a complex symbol in the air before him. Where his finger traced, it left a glowing silver line, which hung there without dissipating. When finished, he touched the tips of his index fingers and barked one word: Nai!

A tall man materialized next to him. Clad in a white robe, the man’s white hair and eyebrows belied his youthful bearing. His face at once appeared both young and ancient. The skin was tight, but lines cut the cheeks and forehead like deep scars. His eyes were silver.

“Saggo!” the newcomer said. “I am delighted to see you again, my friend. To what do I owe the honor of your summons?”

“Greetings to you, Sofos. I am in need of your counsel. May I offer you food and drink?”

“When have I said no to such an offer? But let’s find your hearth first. I don’t favor these chill winds.”

Before a crackling fire in the keep’s great hall, the two wizards ate steaming pork roast, potatoes, and the final pots from the bottom of the barrel of last year’s beer, dark and thick with foam. Dried apples cooked in butter made for a delicious dessert. Sofos smacked his lips and enjoyed every bite, whereas Saggo ate without apparent pleasure, as if it were no more than an unpleasant duty.

“A fine meal and better company!” Sofos said. “What more can a man ask?”

Saggo leaned on the table and rubbed his bearded chin. He fixed his gaze on the rug covering the stone floor. “I’m ashamed, Sofos. Ashamed and disappointed in myself. I am no longer worthy to command the White Flame.”

“I see. And why do you say this?”

“My soul is tired. I have lived too long and seen too much sorrow, endured too much pain. Regardless of my powers, I am still only a man. I feel pain the same as any other man does, but my pain has had fifty generations to accumulate and it fills me until I can endure no more. I can no longer protect those I swore to protect. It is time for me to leave the Warders.”


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-18 show above.)