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Renir Esyn has fought the Protectorate, the dark mage Klan Mard, the ragged men of the Draymar Plains...and still he lives. He is the man who found Caeus and set him free. Friend to killers and priests alike.
He is the man who would be king. But a King cannot rule alone...cannot gain the crown without allies. In the battle for Rythe, he'll need strength and passion, and friends.
On the side of light, the mercenaries Shorn and Bourninund, the Order of Sard, Tirielle A'm Dralorn, Reih and her bodyguard Perr. And Caeus, the Red Wizard, with millennia of power in his mad bones.
Heroes all, strong of heart. But heroes die. Wars can be lost.
Under red skies, the blight spreads. A new threat rises and an old foe returns. And while Renir Esyn and his allies fight for their lives and the fate of Rythe, darkness rises. There can be no other way...because when the Sun Destroyers return, Rythe will fall.
The darkness of the void spreads between worlds and moons and stars. Not a true void, but close enough to the purest blackness that man could ever know. Light was there, yes, but distant. Like the black was a room, and the light was nothing more substantial than cobwebs high up in the corners.
There was motion in the dark reaches of space, but on a scale of movement so slow that to a human it seemed eternal and utterly still.
The sun and stars, the constellations, the world, all were turning. The moons Hren and Gern spun, too, about Rythe. The sight of the moons alone was more than a man could bear.
Carious, the largest of the twin suns; unimaginable.
Even in the vast distances of space, the giant sun left the man who saw these sights breathless. But then, of course he was breathless. For here, looking out at the never-ending stars and down upon his world, there was no air.
It should, perhaps, have been cold, or hot, or he should feel something...but Renir Esyn was not uncomfortable. At least not physically. He was aware of no sensation in his battered body. He had no wounds, nor bruising. A man should hurt, after fighting a creature such as the Revenant, a beast that he'd thought beyond imagining...a man should know some kind of suffering, surely, after fighting his way through countless battles, across a continent, through snow higher than a man. And what strange creatures he had seen...the revenant itself, and the hath'ku'atch, and even the white beasts of the frozen wastes. Such sights...
Surely a man should break from wonder, if not pain?
But Renir could not move, weep, yell. His breath stuck in his chest, his heart unbroken and unbreakable. Suspended in a single moment in time, perhaps, where there was nothing but thought and the sight of the suns, the world, the moons, the stars like markers against the dark that went on forever into the yawing black void of time and space and...
Llike drowning in black oil with your eyes open.
Renir recognised that thought as his own.
He forced himself to think. He might not be able to close his eyes, but he could still think, could he not?
Renir remembered some of what passed before, though not all. But he did remember the thing they'd found within the beast at the heart of the volcano.
A man should be able to weep, surely, after finding the Red Wizard? A man should hurt, shouldn't he?
But he was barely aware of his body at all. He felt no hunger, no need to breathe. Still he found that his heart was not stopped, because his heart urged him to cry.
Should he even be able, here in this black vastness above the world, would his tears sit still on his face, unable to move from this...spell?
Is this magic, or am I dead?
He could not help but wonder.
There are times in most men's lives that they wonder if they died. In war, to feel a mace on a helm and wake, head pounding and confused. For a moment, might not that man wonder if he crossed through Madal's Gate into the unknown? Might he not wonder if death itself was no more than a gateway to more pain?
Sometimes, happiness, sadness, confusion...many things can make a man wonder if he died without even realising.
Renir Esyn was not a complicated man, but he imagined Madal's Gates to be imposing, impressive...perhaps even difficult for a man to pass through. A man like him? With blood on his hands? Might be such a feat as passing the Gates would be impossible.
Renir wondered these things while he hung, suspended, in the enormous blackness between the worlds.
How long have I been here, floating in black air?
Did it matter?
Carious, gold, Dow, the red of sweet-maple in the autumn, their colour and beauty unhindered by the clouds and shimmering air of his native Sturma.
I should burn to nothing before such glory, he thought. I should fry and smoke and char like a man on fire. My bones should roast, surely? My eyes should go blind...
But he did not look away.
Soon, he could see nothing but the sun, do nothing but float, and dream. Like a dead man, suspended in a single, endless moment of pure glory.
All the while, a silent shadow waited behind him. A harbinger or a herald, none but the creature who made all this possible could ever know. In the darkness behind the King the Red Wizard stood, just as he had for two thousand years.
Sturma, the land of Renir's forefathers, was a whole ocean distant from the land that Reih Refren A’e Eril called home.
Lianthre was a long, broad land. Long enough to know a different aspect of the suns. Far in the north of the Lianthrian continent (and now, far behind Reih) was the capital, and her home, the human symbol and seat of governance - the Kuh'taenium. Once, Reih had worn fine dresses and jewels and known power and strength and responsibility unrivalled. But her old home was a long way north, and many months behind.
Distant, time, the road, the fates...things change. Reih, once, had understood this. Perhaps only when she had been a girl, playing. Time was different, then. The suns' light, dust on her knees and in her hair. Summers that seemed endless and short, wet winters when the dust on her knees and in her hair would be mud.
Then she'd grown up, taken her birthright. Years inside, pale skin, the memory of the land all but forgotten and the suns a memory. Hours staring at scrawled messages upon parchment or fine paper. Cracking the wax seals of the wealthy or the important men and women of the world. She was Imperator of the Kuh'taenium...the most powerful woman in the land.
So she had thought. But power was fleeting. Power was...nothing.
She knew that now. All the while, they played at being lords and ladies. They feasted and drank wines and breathed the heady brews on the smoke wheels in beautifully ornamented rooms within the great building. They rode great horses that cost more than many villages. Ate meals of rare meats, while the people in those villages could have made a great horse last a season.
All the words she read and spoke, her proclamations and the law over which she presided, the years of quiet deals made in the shady corners of the Kuh'taenium...it had been merely the illusion of power. Nothing more than a trick, a shiny thing dangled before a kitten to distract it, amuse it.
The Protectorate were the power. They always had been. The Protectorate, creatures rather than men. All those hours of debates Reih had struggled through, long into the dark. Aching backbones and hips from standing in council, listening to fools blathering or the wise, it made no difference. The final argument would always be settled by the blade, and it was the Protectorate, not the humans, who held all the steel.
And while she and her kind had been blind to the true danger to the land, the Kuh'taenium, a living building, invested with thoughts, memories...a soul...was dying.
What she hadn't realised was that she had been dying right along with it. What can a councillor know of the land she serves if she never feels that land beneath her feet? Never feels the dirt of it under her nails?
She knelt in the dirt now. Reih had plenty of dirt on her. In the wrinkled skin at her knuckles. Under her nails. In her hair.
She wore trousers, now, rather than fine dresses. Carried a short knife rather than the sceptre of office. Had aching hips and back, yes, but it was a good ache. An honest one. The ache of miles on horseback and on foot. It felt, to her, like the ache of honest work.
She looked up from the dirt on her skin and clothes and parted the bushes and long, sharp grasses that hid her from the road ahead. Carefully, slowly, she looked at the dusty road, and there, atop his heavy warhorse, her guardian, Perr.
Perr did not shine, like a bauble made to distract kittens might. The man's armour was scuffed, scraped, dented. A simple message, conveying the kind of honesty that Reih was growing to enjoy more each day.
She watched the road ahead and behind her guard for treachery, but could see only the three bandits blocking the road. Dirty, hungry men...but with mean and hard faces.
Honest, too, she thought. Yes, those bandits, too, wore their intention right there in their clothes and weapons and faces. As she'd learned over the last few months, many people were honest. Many people were hungry, desperate. But sometimes, some people just needed killing and it wasn't pretty and it didn't sit nicely in a woman's guts, but there it was and there was no changing it.
These three weren't going to move, and Perr's armour spoke his intent well enough, even if he uttered no word.
If they didn't understand that, then there wasn't anything she could do to help them.
Perr understood what the outcome must be, just the same as Reih.
Some men fight like water flowing. Some, like an avalanche, all bluster and crushing speed.
There was a sense of the mountains about Perr. Rock, letting men tire on him. In a way, men fought Perr and broke themselves, just like trying to climb a tall peak in a wide mountain range. They'd be thinking they'd reached the top, tired, muscle-sore and panting, only to crest a tricky outcropping and see nothing but more mountain ahead.
A thing that like took the fight right out of a man.
Perr wasn't fast, or even particularly strong. He was just a big man with a strong arm encased in good steel. But more than that. He was a man who would never, ever, back down.
And he'd made his horse stand for long enough. Gently, with his steel-boots, he nudged his horse to motion.
'Whoa...hold on there, man-o'-steel. Three of us...'
The man talking was grinning. Across his lap he carried a long, heavy axe. An un-pretty thing, made for hitting men and making them dead.
And a poor weapon for a horseman.
The axe man, the talker, held his horse steady with his knees in the centre of the three robbers. He looked ready enough to take up the axe.
Perr's big horse began to trot, and while Perr rode, he figured the encounter in his head.
The man on the right side would break first. He had a bow, strung, already in his hands. Perr looked the man in the eye through the narrow slit in his helm. Bright eyes. Man was afraid, flexing his fingers. Might be good with a bow. Didn't matter.
Few were good enough, and the closer Perr got, the less it mattered.
Perr was riding slow, but closing. Fifty yards.
The man on the left had a heavy wooden shield strapped on his left arm, and a short, workman's axe in his right fist. Probably took the shield from some grave, looked old. Nicked and scarred wood, battered steel rim.
Probably took up the axe from his father, maybe. Old thing, too. Good for cutting wood and good enough for cutting men who weren't encased head-to-toe in steel. Wrong side, too. Shield wasn't going to do him much good. Axe would swing, probably. But Perr didn't worry about axes, overly, especially old wooden-hafted axes in the hands of untrained, unarmoured men.
'Don't want to talk, eh?' said the man in the centre. He spoke faster, now. Had too. Because Perr was closing faster. 'I can understand that. Hot as hells down here. 'Specially in steel. We'll go easy, you just...'
Perr wasn't talking, nor did he need to. His drew his sword, rasping, loud even over the pounding of horse hooves on dirt.
''Bout now'd be good, Green,' said the talker, who didn't seem quite so confident now Perr's longsword was in hand.
There was a sing-song twang of a taut string let free, a sharp ding of an arrow hitting steel and nothing else. Sudden thumping, then, Perr high in his stirrups, one hand on the reins, raised his sword to the sky. The talkative man brought his great, unwieldy axe to bear a little too late, then dropped it. A big, two-hander like that was only of use to a man with two hands.
The talking man would soon realise he wasn't that man any longer. He stared, dumb, uncomprehending, as his left arm and his great axe fell to the floor.
Perr ignored the speaker. He wasn't talking anymore. The man was done, or close enough.
By the time the one-armed man managed to hurl out a scream, the man with the heavy old shield was in the dirt, unhorsed. The shield was sheared through. The man wasn't trying to get up. Instead of trying to live, he lay down and watched his own blood being sucked into the dry dirt.
Perr could easily have let the bowman flee, but he didn't.
Because mercy today would mean a traveller's death in a week or two, or a month, but the bowman wasn't a thinker or a worker. He was a thief, a killer, and Perr knew it.
So did the bowman. His name was Green Othraine, and he was a good man with a bow. Could take down a rabbit or even a mir on the wing with a single shot. Didn't matter a damn, now. For a single moment, Green wished he had a sword.
He tried to heel his horse into a run, but Perr's sword and arm were more than long enough to swing over the top of the talker's horse and slice a neat little chunk from the bowman's neck.
As the bowman slid from his horse to the dirt, he wished, instead, that he'd stayed home, minded his sister. Wished he'd never seen bow or sword. But not for long.
Later that day, Perr and his lady Reih rode on, two good horses underneath them, three poor horses tied in a line behind to trade at Fort Iron Hill.
A small settlement, a village, perhaps. The last place of people before the swamplands began.
And in the swamps?
The mystical home that had once housed the Order of the Sard.
Sybremreyen, the temple was called. Sister-home to Reih's own Kuh'taenium. A place of power and mystery. And the last bastion, perhaps, in the war for Rythe itself.
A war, Reih knew, that had already begun.
Perr would not hide who or what he was, even if he could. A big man covered in steel is a difficult man to hide. Reih had to, though. She'd learned that well enough, since leaving her role as Imperator behind her in the dust. The best disguise, she'd found, wasn't in wearing different clothes, or changing her hair. After all, she no longer dressed like a Lady, or a Councillor. Nor, she thought, did she even look as though she had particularly good breeding.
The best disguise wasn't to look like a different person, but to be a different person. To live it. The way a woman acts, holds herself, the words she speaks.
Now, after months on the road, they looked more like mercenaries, or a hunter and a man for hire, perhaps adventurers. Not soft, but hard. Not bred, with learning and money, but like they'd been hatched from some dangerous beast's brood. Reih knew she looked rough enough to pass muster as a fighting woman herself.
I've killed men, too, haven't I?
She took a light cloak from her pack before she hit the settlement. Too hot for much else, but the cloak had a hood. She'd look a fool to put it up in this heat, but it was dirty and bright and distracting.
Besides, people won't be looking at my face much, will they?
Perr didn't talk often anyway, and Reih was almost born to talk, so she did the selling. Iron Hill was mostly a trading settlement with little of interest. Just, really, a collection of rough houses in differing styles. Wood, mud and sticks, little stone to be had. Plenty of iron, in the mines that ate into the hills thereabouts, but not much good stone at all.
Roofing was thatch, by and large. Reeds, from the waterways and swamplands further south. No roads but dirt tracks. People, too, mixed like the buildings. Southlanders, their hair dark and their skin tanned year round, but a fair few easterners, some in from nearer the coast. Miners with dirt ground into their skin. Trappers and skinners that smelled a little like animals, now, they'd been at their trade so long.
People look different, different places, but to Reih their eyes weren't that strange. Hungry men and women, tired, wary.
It wasn't a rowdy place. Too hot for rowdy, too poor for ale and wine.
Just...bored. Like the whole settlement did their work, ate their food, got into their beds and dreamed about doing the whole thing all over again.
Reih took three silver coins for the horses. She might have sold short, but blustering for more would've stood out - as would rolling over and taking less. So she haggled a little, but only to show willing. She was happy enough with three silver.
Maybe Iron Hill had soldiers, once. But like so many other places they'd passed along the road, the fort atop the hill looking down on the settlement was bereft of soldiers. Once, she knew, the Protectorate's armsmen would have patrolled these dirt streets. Maybe taken people in the night, maybe a killing here or there...to keep people in line.
But no more.
The Protectorate were busy. An idiot could see it. They'd gone...gone from the land. Tidy, clean, leaving little but lingering nightmares in the night.
Like their fort, empty, presiding over Iron Hill. Occasionally, Reih would see a settler glance up at the wooden palisade, at the tower. Wondering, perhaps, if it was some cruel joke. If the Protectorate would just come back on some moonless night and wipe them out on a whim.
Fear lives on, even when the evil has passed. It echoes.
Reih understood those looked. She had her own fears. Her own echoes.
But the looks the settlers gave that dark fort were mirrored across the land. All the way from the capital she'd fled, right down to here, in the southern reaches of her land...the Protectorate were gone.
Arram must be busting at the seams by now, thought Reih.
Reih nodded to Perr, and the travellers ducked into a wide, low, wooden store. Once again, Reih doing the talking, they bought fresh supplies for the journey. Reih had never travelled a swamp, didn't know what they'd need. A guide, most likely, but they couldn't risk interaction. People talk. They were prone to it. They couldn't help it.
Like the storekeeper. A garrulous man who she could have asked for help, for a guide, had she wanted the entire town, and the next few down the road, to know her business.
Fewer the better, though. Just the two of them, they couldn't be betrayed, could they?
All through the dirt streets, in each store they tried, there was little in the way of supplies. There was a small market, barely three travelling merchants and a couple of farmers selling from the backs of carts. Ready to head off, back to farms, neighbouring villages and hamlets, homesteads.
Everyone was hot and dusted and tired and miserable and thirsty and poor.
It's as though...the place is winding down.
No, she thought, a moment later. Not that. Like the whole country was winding down. Had the feel of the woods outside her capital before a heavy rain. Things fell still. The wind, the birds and the beasts and the insects, too.
Felt like that to her. Not just Iron Hill...but everywhere.