Here’s the second sample from Echo of the High Kings. Once again, Echo of the High Kings will be published on 1 August 2014. For the first sample, check here.
Town of East Reach, Longhaven Barony, Duchy of Masov
Twenty-Ninth of Idran, Cycle 993 Post Sundering
Lord Hector pulled his cloak tighter against the damp air of the tavern as he read through the scout’s report. He wasn’t certain if the cool, damp fall air or the dire news laid out in the precise handwriting on the parchment that made the gooseflesh rise on his arms.
“You need to kill him tonight,” his spy said, his voice tight with strain.
Hector’s head snapped up and he met the blue eyed gaze of the source of the reports. “You seem eager for me to commit treason based on the Armen threat.” For a moment, he almost forgot that the dusky-skinned man across from him wasn’t one of the barbarians from the north. He had seen many such faces, often marked with ritual tattoos or brands, often blood-spattered from their work. Most of what he saw at little better than arms reach as they tried to take his life and he theirs.
Hector didn’t realize that his hand had dropped to his sword until the other man reached out and put his hand atop Hector’s, “I do not seek to drive you to treason… I seek to save these lands from the savagery that we both know awaits. You raised me to be your spy amongst the Armen and your scout on campaign. Believe me, father, the Armen will come with the spring.”
Hector failed to hide a wince. It wasn’t that he didn’t have pride, of a sort, in his bastard son’s accomplishments. Yet, the truth remained, his boy was a halfblood… and while half his blood came from Hector, the other half of that blood came from the enemy. Hector shot a glance around the all-but-empty tavern, but it looked like the old drunks at the bar had little interest in their conversation. Hector’s eyes lingered on a hooded man in the corner, but the hunched figure in the shadows looked to be too far away to overhear their conversation. Even so, Hector pitched his voice low so it would not carry, “I sent you to gather information. You brought back rumors and vague warnings, talk of sorcerers and the mutterings of Armen holy men. I can’t bypass Baron Estrel and go to the Duke with this, not without hard numbers.”
“Do not allow your hate for me to blind you to the truth, father,” his son said. For a second, he looked so much like is mother that Hector had to look away. His chest ached with a long-remembered pain and Hector’s left hand stroked a scar that ran along his left thigh.
“I don’t hate you,” Hector managed to mutter. “But as you said, if this is all I have, then I am left one option: kill the rightful Baron of Longhaven and take his place. Otherwise, there isn’t time to prevent his next tribute shipment.”
Hector’s son nodded, “You can’t go to the Duke without solid proof, or Baron Estrel will undercut anything you say. The barony will fall without a strong leader. Your cousin has whored away his father’s gains. The talk amongst the Armen is that his lands are ripe for raiding.”
Hector nodded despite himself. He had arrived two cycles earlier, sent by the Duke with direction to try to repair some of the damage Baron Estrel had done to his defenses. What he had found had made the most pessimistic reports of the Barony’s readiness look far understated. Little remained of Baron Estrel’s forces. Most of his soldiers were unfit for duty, and his Master of Arms was an old drunk. Hector had done what he could, but the truth remained that the Barony was in a state of disarray… a fact that the Armen raiders knew quite well. Estrel had held them off until now with bribes and tribute, but even the Armen knew that soon he couldn’t afford any more. Soon the Armen would descend along the coast. They would rape, enslave, pillage and burn, and Hector had seen what they left behind often enough to feel sick at the thought.
Hector’s mouth twisted in a grimace, “I know what I have to do, yes… and I know the cost. If even a whisper of this gets out, the Duke will demand justice. My head will be the one that rolls for this.” Hector looked down and noticed that his wine sat untouched. He took a sip of his wine and the liquid burned in his throat. He shook his head as his vision flared for a moment. His head felt a little light.
“You need not face that,” his son shook his head. “Have me do it, father. It will look like an Armen raid, I’ll even hire a few Armen to launch a distraction. Even if I fail, the worst anyone will think is that I’ve betrayed you.”
Hector heard the words as if through a tunnel. He shook his head again, and he heard his own response as if it came from someone else, “You think I lack the stomach for it, do you?” He hadn’t realized that he stood until he heard his chair hit the floor behind him. Some part of him wondered at his own reaction, yet it was a disconnected thought, one he barely noticed.
His son stretched out an arm, “No! I merely think that this is the best way to do this! Please, sit. I did not mean to anger you, father–”
Hector seemed to rush back into himself and his head cleared. Forgotten was the lightheaded feeling, replaced by a spike of rage, “Do not dare to try to placate me!” Hector shouted. “You think me too cowardly to do the business myself, you seek to make me skulk behind you and then you seek to insinuate that I’m unreasonable?!” Incandescent rage filled him, and only the shreds of his self control allowed him to rip his hand away from the hilt of his sword. “Begone,” Hector snarled.
He saw his son’s face go slack with shock and then firm with rage of his own. Even so, he tried to reason with him, “Please, do not do this. You need some cut out or this will all be for naught–”
Hector saw some movement behind his son, the cloaked man in the corner. For a moment, Hector met the other man’s dark eyes. Hector thought he saw the slightest twist of a smile on the other man’s shadowed face. He laughs at me, just as my son always has… The smile was the last straw, the catalyst that sent his rage to boil over.
Hector leaned across the table and struck his son twice, once across each cheek. “You are no son of mine. You’ve done your task, now begone, and let a man of honor do his duty.”
Hector righted his chair as his son turned away without a word. He saw that the drunks had given him their attention, but a glare from him sent them back to their drinks. Hector sat and stared down at the reports and ignored the sound of the inn’s door as his son walked out into the cold fall rain. Hector pushed the wine goblet away and stared down at the reports. A part of him wanted to get up, to go after his son.
Yet his pride and his anger kept him in his chair and his duty forced him to examine what he had to do. He knew how to do it and he knew exactly what it would cost him to do it right. He was right to tell his son that he must do the deed himself. Hector was sent by the Duke to fix things, and so it fell to him to make it right. If nothing else, he owed it to his cousin to kill him in person.
Hector rolled up the parchment report and his gaze went distant as he began to make plans. He went past the immediate deed and had begun to plan his campaign against the Armen for the spring within a few minutes. He never noticed the hooded man from the corner as he slipped out of the tavern, just as the tavern maid hadn’t noticed when he slipped a vial of amber liquid in Hector’s wine when he’d entered.
In Eoriel, the High Kings are legend: rulers who once stood against the darkness and ruled the world for two thousand turns of peace and prosperity. In the long turns since their fall during the Sundering, Eoriel’s civilization has faded. Dark men and darker beings have torn down and destroyed the old works. While some have held out against the grind of history, other places have been reduced to primitive tribes of savages, worshiping dark spirits and demons as their gods.
Yet, a spark of hope remains: some still believe in the old legends, some still fight to restore the old ways, and some will stand against the darkness, in an echo of the High Kings.
Echo of the High Kings will be published on 1 August 2014
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