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There are no more kings on Sturma. The Thief King, Roskel Farinder, remains the Lord Protector of the country, but he is no king.
The Hierarchy is amassing on Sturman borders...it is left to true heroes to save Sturma and Rythe herself. But this is a battle that cannot be won with the blade and bow. Yet there are still witches...still those that have power, that hold to the old ways. In the face of overwhelming odds, only a woman's magic can save the world and a woman's magic is a terrible thing.
Selana, the head of the Witches' Covenant, knows this only too well. To stand a chance of defeating the Hierophant and his forces, she must call forth the most terrible magic of all.
She must show the world the power of The Queen of Thieves.
Rena cradled her baby in her arms. The child was a year old. He was a grasping, crawling, babe, his first words gurgled two months ago. He had since fallen silent, as though those first few words had tired the child out.
Rena named the child Tarn, after the boy's father; the last of the line of Sturman kings.
The child would never know his father.
Rena's mother, Mia, bustled by the fire in the middle of their shared hut.
Mia stopped and wiped her hands on a cloth, cleaning off the bright yellow pollen of a carmillion blossom she used in a potion.
'Someone's coming,' said Mia, putting down the stained cloth and stirring the mixture over the peat fire in the circular hearth.
'Who?' asked Rena.
'I don't know...strange...'
Rena heard the footsteps crunching through the snow to the door of the hut. She half-rose to answer the late night call.
'No, tend the child,' said Mia. 'I'll go.'
Mia opened the door before the visitors could knock. A flurry of snow blew in through the front door.
'Who is it?' Rena called from beside the fire, but before Mia could utter a word, a sword ran her through, bursting from her back with a spray of blood.
She had no breath to cry out.
Rena screamed, laid the babe down.
She did not panic. She was a witch. A young witch, still, but a witch, nonetheless.
The closest thing to her with which she could protect herself and her babe was the cauldron. It was a big, heavy thing. She took up the cauldron from the fire, burning hot on her unprotected hands but she did not notice the pain or the weight. For a moment she was blind to emotion and feeling. Blind to everything but the sudden threat to her child.
With a great cry she ran to her mother as a warrior clad in some dark material pulled his sword free of her mother's chest. Mia toppled to the floor, dead before she hit the dirt.
As the warrior, the assassin, drew his sword back to strike again, Rena flung the burning mixture into his face. Her cried out, his skin steaming, and fell back.
With all her strength Rena swung the cauldron, her own hands burning, and caved in the man's skull.
Only then did she look up.
Five more men in dark garb stood before the door to the hut, weapons drawn, faces masked.
'Kill her,' said one, 'and kill the child.'
'No!' she shouted. 'No!'
The first man advanced, faceless behind his mask but with cold alien eyes. He did not make it any further. With a soft sound breaking the night, an arrow thudded into the killer's neck. The missile travelled in and through, the steel arrowhead protruding. The assassin - surely no man - fell to the ground. Breath gurgled for a second then the assassin was silent.
There was a space of no more than a moment when nobody moved. The moment broke and everything seemed to happen at once.
Another of the assassins turned to the new threat, and was taken with an arrow through his eye. In the time it took for Rena to take up a dead man's sword in her burned right hand, another two fell quickly. One remained, and he made the fatal error of looking for the bowman and forgetting the witch behind him.
With a grunt Rena swung the heavy blade up over her head and down into the last killer's skull.
The blade stuck fast and was torn from her grasp when the assassin fell. She stood defenceless, facing the night, blind in the dark and the snow, looking into the blackness for the archer.
'Easy now,' said a man from the forest. She heard his footsteps through the high snow before she saw him.
A long man, holding a curved horn bow. On his back a quiver with two arrows. At his hip he wore a short sword and a dagger.
He bowed before her, then knelt, taking one knee in the blood-stained snow.
'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I was too late.'
Rena, too, fell to her knees and began sobbing.
She sobbed for a time, then stood and wiped her eyes. The man still knelt, head bowed, his hair crusted with snowfall and the grime of the road.
Turning, she saw her mother's form, and her babe crying beside the fire, swaddled in a blanket.
'I'm sorry, my lady, but you must come with me. There is no more time for mourning.'
'The ground is hard and she is dead,' said the bowman, but softly.
'You know me?'
'Only by name,' he said, 'A mutual friend sends me to bring you forth. We have need of you. Need of your kind...need of the babe...'
'Who?' she asked, as she pulled her mother's body in from the cold.
The thief, she thought. The thief her husband had told her of.
The bowman laughed softly, despite the grim situation.
'No longer, lady,' he said. 'People call him Steward, Lord Protector of Sturma, now. There are some of us that know him as the Thief King.'
Rena shook her head. 'King?'
'Since your husband fell, Lady. The Thief King is a...nickname...nothing more.'
She shook her head again. 'I must see to my mother,' she said shortly.
'There is no time. There is danger at every turn.'
'Make time,' she told him.
He bowed his head once more. 'How can I help?'
'Watch the night. This is my business,' she told him.
'As you wish,' he said. He turned at the door as she called out to him.
'I should know your name,' she said.
'Lady, my name is Asram Fell, and I am your servant.'
Rena nodded. 'Thank you, Asram Fell,' she said, then turned to her business, that of a witch in mourning, as she closed the door he stood out into the falling snow with no complaint.
Lights in the Sky
The bald man, Roskel Farinder, sat in a seedy tavern called The Badger nursing a mug full of frothing ale. The tavern was in a dark corner of the docker's quarter. A dangerous place for a man like Roskel, who was not much of a fighter, but he was not concerned. Sometimes the right look could fend off the wrong kind of attention, and Roskel Farinder had the look of the hawk about him.
All around the room drunken sailors and soldiers, maids and wives, old men and young men eyed the Thief King in the corner table, sitting alone. Roskel's shaved head shone in the firelight. He stroked his long moustache and turned his eyes to his cup and his ears to the conversation around the tavern.
Two older men - old, but with teeth still in their heads - were the most interesting of the patrons. One old man was missing four fingers of one hand. Roskel noted this from the corner of his eye, without seeming to turn his head to stare.
No one recognised Roskel with his new shaved scalp, for the last most people had seen of him he had been a dandy, with fine barber cut hair and finer garb. He was largely ignored, but where once the Thief King had been a soft man, responsibility, incarceration, and killing had changed him to a man to match his look.
No longer a dandy. Not quite a warrior...not by a long shot...but dangerous seeming enough to give people pause should they think to accost him along his route back to the castle.
'I saw the suns burning from behind the mountains, I tell you, and it was night.'
'Goat's balls, Mange,' said the old man with the missing fingers.
Roskel wiped the ale from his lips and pulled his cloak tighter against the long winter that was surely coming.
The same tale passed many lips this last autumn, of the suns burning bright, or a great firelight over the mountains, when the silver moons should have ruled the night sky.
'Goat's balls, my arse,' said six-finger's friend with a laugh. Roskel would have loved to have sat for longer. The accents within the tavern, the atmosphere, the ale - he enjoyed all of it. Too long had he sat in the seat of power, growing lax.
But he had not forgotten. Power meant he was responsible for these people. Meant he was responsible for the safety of this country, his Sturma.
Roskel had heard enough. He downed the last of his ale and left his mug on the table and pushed himself up. He didn't need to look to see his protectors rise as he did.
Winter was coming hard, and it was bringing something else from the North, too. A fire that burned in the night. Something else was coming right along with winter. Of that he was sure. He was sure, too, that it would be down to him to deal with whatever may come. He was Lord Protector of Sturma and Steward of the Crown of Kings. He never forgot. It weighed heavily upon his shoulders every single day.
The fey light north of the mountains stank of magic, and the only magic on Rythe belonged to the enemies of Sturma.
The Hierarchy, the dark-hearted bastards from across the ocean.
Some days the burden of leadership weighed more heavily than others, and this was such a day. Roskel thought hard as he walked to the castle with two bodyguards behind him in the shadows. He felt the burden of all the souls he was responsible for. His shoulders were sore as he walked, as though from a real weight. Shoulders slumped, he walked to find his brother protectors and prepare for...
He nodded to himself.
'Yes,' he said softly. 'Yes.'
And he knew he was right.
The Skald, Rualanon Mar’ganathis Mar’ganathor Am’belain, Blade Singer of the Draymar nation, First Knight of Sturma and friend to Roskel Farinder, watched the strange lights in the northern sky. A fire seemed to burn in the distant north behind the mountains known as Thaxamalan's Saw.
For three nights now the Drayman watched the lights. He sat with his legs crossed, his curved blade laid across his knees. Under the meagre shelter of a tree, he would sit all day, until nightfall and the coming of the lights. He could feel the taint of dark magic even this many miles south of the source. Ruan the Skald was attuned to magic and all its guises as few others on the land of Sturma.
There was no magic on these shores, save for witches and the Blade Singers of the Draymen.
Fey magic, foul magic, drifted south on the cold winter winds.
They were coming, he knew. The Hierarchy. An enemy of which the Sturmen knew far too little.
Too little, and too late, because they were coming in force and there were none left in these lands to oppose such an army that would surely be massing in the freezing wastes of the northlands, the uncharted territory of ice and snow.
No one on these lands could oppose such a force...but just maybe, thought the Drayman...
Just maybe he could make a difference, because his people were different. He was a Blade Singer. He was not defenceless against foul magics. He was not without power himself.
He was from a different people to the Sturmen. A powerful man, yes. An exile from his own clan, but also a man who had won back his honour, not with his blade, but with his heart. In his own eyes, he was whole again. But in the eyes of his people?
He was just one man.
A man with honour among the Sturmen, but an exile, still.
But you are not the last of your kind, thought Ruan.
Gods, he hated that voice, that voice of reason, reminding him of his shame.
For all his shame, could he return to his own people and leave this foreign land that he now called home to beg for their aid? An outcast, asking his people to send forth an army against an unstoppable tide, all to save their hated neighbouring country?
Could it be done?
Ruan did not know. But there was little choice. Without the Draymen, this land, his adopted people, would perish in the flames of the hierarchs that would march. The Hierarchy would scour Sturma of all life with their dark magic and their force of arms.
Why, he did not know. Why this strange race were so bent on destroying Sturma was a mystery to him. Yet it was his fight. It became so when Roskel Farinder, the Thief King and his truest friend became his liege Lord.
Could he face his people again?
You're a man of honour, he thought. And that was ever his undoing.
Did he have a choice?
Ruan bowed his head, humming a soulful tune to himself, with the cold wind blowing in soft snows and the strange light dancing all along the horizon.
He stared into the dark behind him, his new country laid out there. He looked to the west, where the Draymar nation waited. And in the north, those dancing lights.
The Drayman thought for a long time. Long into the night. While he though, he barely realised that he was plaiting his own beard, as was the custom of his people. Becoming Drayman in appearance, after so long trying to adopt the customs of the Sturmen.
He realised as his nimble fingers worked his beard into his native style, that he was decided.
He pushed himself to his feet. He sheathed his sword and mounted his patient horse. With a gentle nudge he heeled the mare, a gift from Farinder, called Minstrel, and set out for the west.
His people would come, or he would not return. He could not bear the shame that had made him take his own tongue. Once, he had made a fateful decision to save the people of a village and in turn caused their deaths. This was his shame. It would not have been forgotten.
But he had to try. Because he was a man of honour. Always, always, honour before self.
He hummed softly again. This time a different tune. The mare responded to the magic and the will in Ruan's song and picked up speed. She continued to run, tireless, across the northern plains, faster and faster toward the mountains and the borders of Ruan's homeland. Minstrel's breath frosted the air, and snowfall melted against her flanks, as Ruan rode her through Sturma's early winter, onward, toward Draymar.