Free Stuff: Preview from Echo of the High Kings

I’m travelling for the next week, but in the meantime, here’s a section from Echo of the High Kings, my upcoming Epic Fantasy.  I’ll post a few sections here over the next few weeks, once a week.  These sections are not consectutive, but will cover a fair portion of the overall story.  This section is from the perspective of the antagonist, Lord Hector, who later becomes known as Duke Hector the Usurper…

Hector dismounted from his horse and passed the reins to one of his men.  “You have your orders,” he said.  They stared at him for a long moment in silence.  He saw Sergeant Grel open his mouth to speak, and then close it again.

Hector gave them a stern glare.  “I will not repeat myself, go to your assigned posts.  Prevent anyone from leaving the grounds until I return.”

The fifteen men dispersed, all except Sergeants Grel and Campbell.  Hector turned back towards the door of the manor house and took a deep breath.  He walked past the pair of guards outside unchallenged.  Inside, out of the dark night, the house seemed warm and cheerful.  He heard his cousin’s wife before he saw her.  She swept into the foyer, a plump, cheerful woman who always seemed happy to see guests.  “Hector, so good to see you,” she said.  “What brings you here tonight?  Hopefully not any more of that dreary business?”

“More work, I’m afraid,” Hector said.  He forced himself to smile.  “Lord Estrel and I will need to discuss it for a few hours, I think.”

She shook her head, “Always so serious.  I can tell whatever news has you here so late worries you.  Do not take the world’s burdens on your shoulders, Hector, or it will send you to your grave early, a bitter man.”

Hector stared at her for a long moment, “I am the master of the guard, and Baron Estrel’s military captain.  It is my duty to worry, and to guard these lands for Lord Estrel, and his and your duties to defend the people of Longhaven as the Baron and Baroness.”

She rolled her eyes, “I agree, and you’ll not hear me say otherwise.  If you’ll remember, I have backed every one of your arguments with my husband.  But worry and fear will drag you down, weigh down your spirit, and will age you.  Do not forget to find time for friendship, love and even a family,” Lady Rinata said.

“Thank you for your concern,” Hector said, and felt a surge of guilt as he forced himself to meet her eyes.  “But I must speak with your husband.” He glanced at Sergeant Campbell, “The Sergeant here is from the town of Western Reach.  He’s just returned from visiting family there, I wonder if you’d care to discuss the latest from your home?”

“Why, certainly,” Lady Rinata said.  She immediately turned to the Sergeant.

Hector brushed past her, followed by Sergeant Grel.  They ascended the stairs, and then walked down the hall to the library.  As expected, he saw Captain Grayson, Baron Estrel’s personal armsman outside.  “Evening Robert,” he said in greeting.

“Lord Hector,” the armsman nodded, “Good to see you back, the Baron had not expected your return so soon.  I take it you have news about the Armen?”

“He won’t like it,” Hector said.

Grayson gave him a sad nod.  Hector knew that of all the people privy to the entire picture, Baron Estel’s personal armsman understood best the precarious state of their defenses.  Under other circumstances, Hector knew he could count on the man to provide more weight to his own arguments.

“Well, there may be some shouting,” Hector said.  “I’ll ask that you let him get over his anger without interruption.”

“More like you shout at him to get some sense in his head about this,” Grayson said with a smile.  “But I’ll take your meaning.  Sergeant Grel and I will wait out here and have a good chat while you talk with the Baron.”

Hector could not force himself to meet his friend’s eyes as he stepped past him into the library.

He found his cousin seated at the table, back to the door.  For a moment, a cowardly part of Hector wanted to do the deed then, but he had to at least try to get his cousin to see reason, one last time..

It would prove better in the long run.

“My lord,” Hector said.  His cousin waved a hand for him to circle around the other side of the table.  Baron Estrel did not look up from his book.

Hector glanced at the pile of books as he passed, and he grimaced.  He did not know how such drivel had survived since the Starborn’s arrival.  They included social programs for the poor, and extensive taxation of the wealthy merchant class to fund programs that turned productive members of society into useless drones.  Worst of the ideology, Hector thought of how he gelded the military and his policy of bribery and appeasement of enemies and barbarians.

Hector had no grasp over the history of those books, but he saw the effects on the Barony of Longhaven.  He had no desire to see the end of this particular experiment.  “My lord, I’ve just returned from meeting with my spymaster.  The Armen intend to invade with this next summer.  I have come to ask that our latest shipment of tribute be retained and used to bolster our forces.”

“What?” Estel looked up from his books.  “Hector, you can’t be serious.  I just spoke with the emissary of one of the Semat clans, who assured me that they’ve no intention to resort to military violence as long as we pay them their rightful share of wealth.  We have extorted their lands for too long, and their anger is just something that occurs naturally due to the difference in wealth between their lands and ours.”

Hector took a deep breath, “Whatever the cause, cousin, the effect will result in the destruction of the city of Longhaven and the enslavement of our people.  Hold back the tribute, and send for troops from Duke Peter, else we will face raids which my men cannot hold back.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” Baron Estrel shook his head.  “You always see so much of a threat from these people.  I don’t understand your bigotry.  You even took one of their women as a mistress!”

“I have seen what they will do, you idiot, and I am trying my best to prevent that,” Hector snapped.

“You can’t talk to me like that,” Baron Estrel rose from his chair.

“Sit down and shut your mouth and listen,” Hector shouted.  He saw his cousin’s jaw drop in shock.  He doubted that any man had dared even raise his voice in his presence.  “You have bankrupted our Barony, turned one of the most prosperous cities in the Duchy of Masov into paupers.  The Duke has requested his taxes, and I know that we’ll barely be able to pay our own debts, much less pay our dues to him.  Your father’s military program has fallen into disarray, which is why Duke Peter sent me here in the first place, to prevent Armen raids.”

“Which I have prevented.  Since we began the tribute program, no Armen have raided our lands!” Baron Estel said.  “And I-”

“Those tributes increase every year.  And no matter what, we will be unable to pay them next year,” Hector said.  “Which even the Armen realize, and so they intend to raid us and take what is left by force.”  Hector leaned over the table.  “I refuse to allow that, cousin.  I will do everything in my power to prevent it… even if it means removing you.”

“But…” His cousin paled, then he shook his head and sat up straight, “You don’t have that authority, only the Duke does, and he would not listen to you.”

“No… he wouldn’t, not with how you’ve downplayed my reports.  He doesn’t have the full picture.  I don’t have that authority… but I have that power, as your military commander.  While you have constantly belittled your guard, and undercut their loyalty to you by cutting their pay and treating them as little more than servants.”

Duke Estrel went ghostly white.  He hunched forward in his chair, almost as if he expected a blow.  “You would not dare…”

“I do not want to,” Hector said softly.  “You are my cousin, and whatever your faults, I do not wish to see you dead, much less do the deed myself.  But I will, if you force my hand.”  He met his cousin’s gaze, and for a moment, he thought he saw the man realize Hector’s own seriousness.

Then Baron Estrel sat up straight, “No, I call your bluff.  You won’t do it, not with how Duke Peter will react.  You would face execution, or worse, the Traitor’s Death.  No, I relieve you of command, Hector.  You will place yourself under house arrest, and await my judgment.  I understand the pressures you are under, and I will be lenient when I take that into consideration.”

Hector closed his eyes, “Very well, cousin.”

He drew his sword and swung it in one swift motion.  The blade slashed across his cousin’s throat, and a spray of blood fanned out across his books.  Baron Estrel fell back in his chair, and his hands grasped at his ripped throat.

“I am sorry,” Lord Hector said.  “But you left me no choice.”

He walked past the table, and to the door.  He took a deep breath, then opened it.

He saw Robert Grayson turn.  The old armsman had a moment to see Hector in the doorway, bloodied sword drawn.  Hector did not give him time to react.  He stepped forward and drove his blade into the armsman’s chest, all the way to the hilt, then caught him as he slumped.

“Why…” Grayson whispered.

“Because there was no other way,” Hector said.

He lowered his dead friend to the floor, and glanced at Sergeant Grel.  “Secure the room.  No one enters without my word.”

The sergeant gave him a somewhat shaky nod.

Hector drew the armsman’s sword.  He retraced his steps to the foyer, and found Sergeant Campbell and Lady Rinata had paused their conversation.  Estrel’s wife looked up at him with a look of confusion.  “Hector, I thought I heard something…”  Her eyes dropped to the sword in his hand.

She reacted without hesitation.  Sergeant Campbell’s hand had dropped to his own blade, but Lady Rinata whipped a hidden knife from her sleeve and drove it into his throat before he could react.

Hector gave a curse, and ran towards her.  She ran for the door.

Hector leapt off the stairs and felt something pop in his ankle as he landed in a stumble, between her and the doors.

She tried to skid to a stop, but the smooth stone tiles made her slide towards him.

Hector brought the sword up in a lunge.  She twisted to the side at the last instant, and his strike caught her through the side rather than cleanly through the heart.  She let out a shrill scream of pain, even as she whipped her blade at his face.

Hector dropped the sword and stumbled back.  He clutched at his face in pain.  He heard the doors open behind him.

He turned to find the two armsmen from outside.  They stared between him and the wounded Lady Rinata in shock for a second.  Hector used their hesitation.  He reached down and ripped the sword out of her, and spun to attack the nearest.  His sword caught the younger man before he could get his own blade out.  The other leapt to attack with a shout of alarm.

Hector blocked the strike, then lunged to run the guard through.

He looked down and saw Rinata clutch at her side.  “Why, we loved you like a brother, why would you-”

Hector thrust down with the sword.  He left it planted in her heart.

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