Echo of the High Kings Fifth and Final Sample

Here’s the fifth and final sample of Echo of the High Kings.  The first sample is available here, second here, third here, and fourth here.  Echo of the High Kings will be available on Amazon on August 1st, 2014.

Lord Hector

City of Longhaven, Longhaven Barony

Twelfth of Inkar cycle 994 Post Sundering

Lord Hector leaned back in his chair and met the gaze of his guest. “Welcome Master Chanrana.” He still felt somewhat uneasy with his new chair. It was a large, comfortable thing that Baron Estrel had custom built. He forced himself to set in it mostly because it forced others to view him as the Baron. Yet with the benefits of such things, he had gained even more weight of responsibility.

That responsibility led him to his guest.

His guest smiled. Chanrana’s sharpened teeth as much as his yellow complexion made him seem alien and strange. His cloying perfume and his oiled and elaborately curled lengthy black hair added to his oddness. Lord Hector disguised his own distaste with the other man, however. “Please, Lord Hector, you need not be so formal with a mere merchant such as I, you may call me Brahma.”

“Very well, Master Chanrana,” Hector said. He knew that the ‘merchant’ spoke falsely. Brahma Chanrana was one of the more powerful scions of House Ranjuputar. But he’d come here quietly, so perhaps he wanted to keep up appearances. Hector forced a smile in return. “I understand that you have a trade proposal.”

“More than that, Lord Hector, I have an offer of trade from House Ranjuputar itself,” Brahma Chanrana smiled. “They wish to open Longhaven to their trade, and in return, they offer five thousand Rajputs a cycle.”

“Five thousand?” Hector asked. That amounted to over five hundred Solars, which would go a long distance to expanding the forces of the Longhaven Barony. He could equip a soldier for two gold Solars or hire a mercenary with one. “That’s quite a bargain.”

“Indeed…” Brahma all but purred, “But we feel that a friend such as you makes it a good bargain, on both our parts.” He opened his leather folder and extended a parchment document, stamped with several wax seals, and above it the symbol of House Ranjuputar’s god Kaliva.

Hector barely kept a look of distaste off his face at that. Too much of what he knew of the Vendakar and their twin gods reminded him of the Armen raiders he fought. “I am surprised that my barony has attracted the attention of House Ranjuputar.”

“Oh, you might say that we’ve had our eye on this area for some time,” Brahma said. “Actually, we tried to open your ports before, but Baron Estrel proved recalcitrant to such trade.”

“Duke Peter has his doubts as to the trustworthiness of the Vendakar,” Hector said. He kept his voice level, so as to neither encourage or discourage Chanrana on his own perspective.

“Very understandable. During the time of the High Kings, many of the Houses fought what they saw as an unfair balance of power. I think, however, that in these times, your Duchy needs friends.” Brahma shrugged. “My House can open those friendships. And if you open to our House, I am told that other Great Houses of Vendakar similarly wish to open trade.”

“Oh?” Lord Hector asked. He had heard that the Great Houses of Vendakar schemed and plotted against each other in every move they made. It made some sense that where one House might gain a foothold for trade and income, the others would follow.

Yet even so, he frowned. His Barony lay distant from Vendakar, a voyage down the Ryft or around the length of the Duchy of Masov along the treacherous waters of the Shrouded Coast.

“Yes, In particular, I have heard that an Envoy from House Rajpakopol has just left Vendakar. And another Envoy from House Rajdahar has just arrived, though he awaits your permission before he sets foot on your lands,” Brahma Chanrana smiled.

Hector felt his blood chill at those words. Rumors of House Rajpakopol made them out to be hedonists of the worst sort, their elite partook in orgies, cannibalism, and bestial rites to please their own base urges and to sate their god Kaliva. Their behavior in other civilized lands made them unwelcome at best. Duke Peter had a standing order to arrest their slavers if caught in his lands.

The stories of House Rajdahar seemed worse by far, however. The goddess Shivenkaru represented death and emptiness as much as Kaliva represented bestial life. Her followers sacrificed scores of men, women, and children to her on a daily basis, and rumors suggested that House Rajdahar had risen to its current preeminence among the Vendakar through a cult of death-worshiping assassins. Whatever the truth, the House lay under a banishment on pain of death from all the Duchies of the Five Duchies.

Yet… both Houses had great wealth. More importantly, Lord Hector knew that their mercenaries had a solid reputation of toughness and relative loyalty. He had began to rebuild the Longhaven Barony’s forces, yet that took time. He had already hired a number of mercenary companies, yet the Vendakar had entire battalions of mercenaries they could hire out. A battalion might well turn the tide of the fight he faced when the Armen raiders came in force in the spring.

And I may well need assassins if the rumors from Castle Emberhill portray Duke Peter’s actual intentions about my fate, Hector thought darkly.

“I shall have to consider this offer, Brahma,” Hector said. He saw the other man’s eyes light up at the use of his first name. “And I must consult with my advisers to gain a better perspective on this trade offer.”

“Of course, Lord Hector,” Brahma Chanrana said. “I shall await your decision.”

***

Lord Hector stepped into the library. His dark gaze went first to the desk where he had killed his cousin, Baron Estrel and then to the man who sat at his ease, book in hand, before the fireplace. His guest rose and gave him a florid bow, “Baron, as always, it is my pleasure to be of service.” He wore a finely tailored tunic and hose and the jeweled hilt of his sword sparkled in the light from the fireplace. The tall blonde man had a wide jaw and wore a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache in the fashion of the Duchy of Boir. Not much of a surprise since he’d spent the past couple cycles there in exile. And for damned good reason, Hector thought, if I were the Duke, I’d have had him executed for what he all but demanded as his ‘due.’ The man’s face was handsome, but the superior sneer that lurked under his every expression ruined that.

“Covle Darkbit,” Hector said. He restrained a sigh at the other man’s theatrics. Yet in a way, he understood them. They came from similar backgrounds, both the bastard born sons of noblemen, unclaimed, yet established in places of trust. It’s just that I never wanted any of the trappings of power, but Covle yearns for them, Hector thought. “What news from the court of Duke Peter?”

“Oh, there is much gossip, especially in regards to you, my lord,” Covle said. “All of it very interesting indeed.” He smiled and sat back. Hector saw the other man stroke the spine of the book he held. “There are some that say that Duke Peter ordered you to kill his nephew Estrel in order to supplant him, and others who say that you did it in the first step to replace the Duke. There are some who whisper about how the Baron of Zielona Gora has volunteered a battalion of his house troops and militia to march on Longhaven, and that the Baron of Olzstyn has secretly marshaled a force of his own.”

“I see,” Hector said. “Very interesting… yet not what we discussed previously. You said you knew someone who could give me the truth, not just rumors. If necessary, you spoke of putting your own particular skills to use and that you knew of other men who would be of equal use.”

“I did,” Covle said. His smile vanished, and a look of absolute hunger appeared on his face. “And you also had offers. You have yet to make any of them reality. I am somehow aware of the fate of other men who called you friend… one of them died in this room, did he not?”

“He did,” Hector said. “And I killed him because he left me no choice. Remember that.” Hector forced himself to take a deep breath. “You ask for a great deal, particularly with your desire to marry the girl. In light of what will happen to the rest of her family, that will put you in a unique position to… challenge my own position as it were.”

“Pay off my debts, grant me control over the lands I requested… and in particular, make certain my father survives, and I’ll give you the information you want. The girl… well, I’ll admit that could be awkward for you,” Covle Darkbit said. “But look at it from my perspective. They spat upon my service, and my father makes jokes at what happened to me, even as he arranged for his acknowledged son to marry the girl. I deserve that, just as you deserve to be hailed as a hero for doing the necessary deed.”

“I’m no hero,” Hector snapped. “But I understand your position. Very well, I’ll grant your other conditions, all but the marriage. That will require your other services… if necessary from your news.”

Covle set his book aside and drew a sealed letter from inside his coat. “This came from Duke Peter’s study… acquired at great risk to myself, you understand. Unfortunately, it seems some clumsy servant knocked over a candle and set the desk afire. The Duke will not realize I took it, and the servant… well you need not worry that he’ll tell tales.”

Hector took the letter, but he kept his eyes on Covle, as he would a dangerous snake, “And what does it say?”

“Duke Peter has become unhappy with the situation. In particular, he worries it sets a bad precedent. There’s also the fear that you may seek to take a bit more power… perhaps even capture Castle Emberhill. For all that he understands your actions, he has ordered his Hound to prepare an investigation, procure witnesses, and in particular, find the proof necessary to convict you. He wants a quiet execution, more to dissuade any younger sons from emulating your own behavior than anything else.”

“The Duke’s Hound?” Hector winced. Of all the men to send against him, Hector had hoped that his mentor would not be the one. The Duke’s Hound was almost two centuries old, and had served both the Duke and his father. The old man would be fiercely loyal, and Hector had no doubts as to who he would side with. The position was the Duke’s highest investigator, a man who sometimes served as judge, jury, and executioner of the Duke’s Justice. “Any timeline on it?”

“After this cycle’s spring campaign,” Covle said. “Duke Peter does not want to further destabilize the Barony before the Armen raiders come, especially not with the closely fought battles of last cycle. And he’s had rumors that your forces will contain a number of mercenaries, so he hopes that you will pay them off after the campaign and leave fewer armed men to worry about if it comes to a fight.”

Lord Hector closed his eyes. “Has he taken any actions against my mother- that is Miss Kail?”

“Your father’s mistress remains unharmed, though I understand she has tried to gain audience with the Duke,” Covle said. “It might have gone better if your father hadn’t died last cycle. Then again, since he never acknowledged you, you might well be thrown to the wolves anyway.” He spoke truly enough. Lord Mihkel spent most of his days drinking and carousing, he never had cared for any of his illegitimate offspring. Hector only rose as high as he had because Duke Peter had heard his mother’s story and brought him back to Castle Emberhill.

“Very well,” Hector sighed. “Duke Peter’s left me no choice.” It pained him, to turn on the man, yet Duke Peter had set the circumstances of this betrayal. Hector had seen how the other man had continued to fail to rein in the various noblemen. He’d allowed Estrel to go unchecked for decades… no, Duke Peter had allowed the Duchy of Masov to moulder and this was what came of it. I gave him my loyalty, Hector thought, and he turns upon me in the end.

“So my services will be required?” Covle said.

“Yes. And your last price… the girl will be yours. As her guardian until she reaches the age of consent… and your bride after that,” Hector shivered a bit at the look of pleasure that flashed across Covle’s face. It would, he decided, be a mercy if the girl died, if only to spare her the misery of Covle’s companionship. “But you must deliver. My men will need a clear path into Castle Emberhill, and this strike must succeed. The alternative is to provoke a civil war. While I might win that… the Armen raiders will do too much damage. I will surrender to avoid that… and if I must do so, you can guarantee that you will not survive.”

“My lord… please, who better than a former Ducal Guardsman to get you inside the Castle? Just be certain your men can do the job,” Covle grinned. “Though I would like the opportunity to kill the Duke himself.”

“A little awkward for you to become his daughter’s guardian then, isn’t it?” Hector asked. “No, I have… men for the task. Captain Grel will lead the attack on Duke Peter. Captain Vanikir will lead the team against his son and his guards. Can you procure a group of men to capture his daughter Katarina?”

“Of course,” Covle said. He frowned, “I dealt with a mercenary, Rasev Ironhelm. He’s a company of men hard enough, though a long term contract might go some way towards sweetening the deal.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” Hector said. He frowned, for in truth, he dreaded what Duke Peter had forced him to do. He had already seen the danger in any army from Duke Peter’s reign. It would become necessary to defend the lands with men loyal to Hector either from duty, reward, or payment in coin. Most likely, he would have many positions for mercenaries such as Ironhelm.

Covle gave him an unpleasant grin, “Excellent, my good Baron… or should I call you Duke?”

***

Lady Katarina

Castle Emberhill (Ducal Seat), Duchy of Masov

Seventh of Ravin, Cycle 995 Post Sundering

Katarina moved with quiet feet down the dusty passage. She hiked up her dress as much as she could, even as she worried that the hem would catch the dust. She also worried that the dust and cobwebs might catch in her black hair, which would be even harder to clean. It was thick enough that if she tried to wash it, it would still be damp by the time she went to bed. Not that she cared too much what she looked like or even what the tutor would say about her missing her afternoon classes. I’m a pariah here, she thought, only my brother even bother’s to speak to me now.

She felt no remorse that she’d eluded her newly assigned armsman. Bulmor had arrived only a week before and he had followed her almost constantly, a sharp break from her previous armsmen, most of whom had given her plenty of time to herself. Those others had viewed their task of guarding the Duke’s wayward daughter as a punishment detail.

Her mother had become more and more withdrawn over the past couple years. Her father had ceased to even pretend to care what she did. She’d been so isolated over the past year, so she did what she could to find happiness. Of late, she felt a little better when she could go and explore the hidden passages below the castle. The explorations would also give her the opportunity to slip into the children’s wing and apologize to her little brother.

As if on cue, she came to the intersection of the hidden passages. One way led deeper into the maze of corridors and the other led up to a door that opened into the corridor near her brother’s room. “Best to talk to my brother, first,” Katarina muttered to herself. She gave a slight sigh, though, before she started up the corridor.

She hadn’t meant to hurt his feelings. She knew that, for some reason, he looked upon her with some envy. As the eldest, she had some privileges that he must think marvelous. In truth, however, she envied him. For the past two years he had trained in the martial chamber. The Master of Arms had already begun his training and as a boy, he would train every day until combat became something of reflex and muscle memory. He had already begun to learn sufficient runic magic to operate various relics and weapons of the Ducal House.

As a girl, even a nobly born girl of almost eight cycles, the Duke allowed her only the basic arts of self defense and studies of runic magic sufficient to operate only the most basic runic items. I’m not the heir, and I’m still only a female, and little Peter doesn’t realize how much I envy him, she thought.

That still didn’t excuse her mistreatment of him earlier in the day. She’d no cause for her words, despite her frustration. She dearly loved her little brother and her recent movement from the children’s wing to Estera Tower had only made her realize how much. Her father, always so distant, spoke with her only in passing. Her mother had seemed to withdraw into herself even more after her father’s failed betrothal plan… and had ceased to take any visitors not long after Katarina moved into the women’s quarters at Estera Tower.

Little Peter was the only one who cared for her and she knew that her angry words had hurt him more than his childish petulance deserved. So Katarina would make it right.

She reached the hidden door and paused a moment to listen. This one opened into the small storage room at the end of the corridor, she knew. Katarina had discovered it first when she’d needed some place to hide from her tutors. Her explorations had led her deep beneath Castle Emberhill in the five cycles since.

She paused as she heard what sounded like a muffled cry. Katarina frowned, and her fingers dropped to the two wands tucked inside her dress skirts. Technically, they were her mother’s, but Katarina had learned to use the two wands last cycle, and her mother had never realized that Katarina had kept them rather than putting them back.

She’d practiced with them too, though she’d had to find a quiet spot out in the countryside to do so, and timed it with thunderstorms so that it didn’t attract attention. Well, other than the time I missed, she thought sheepishly, and it’s not like the entire forest would have burned down.

She shook her head and pushed the concealed door open. Whatever the noise she’d heard, she didn’t hear anything else. She set her lantern to the side and moved through the small storage room. She paused again at the heavy wooden door. She opened it just a bit, and then froze when she saw movement.

Her fear at discovery turned to something else as she felt the blood freeze in her veins. A tall man stood with drawn blade just outside the door, his back to her. At his feet lay Maran, the old nurse who had changed her diapers and brought her her meals. Her mouth and eyes were wide and she lay still in death, her face twisted into an expression of pain. The broad spill of bright red blood and the red stains across her simple dress made it clear how she died.

Two of her father’s armsmen lay face down, further down the corridor. Katarina bit into her knuckle to hold back a shriek when she saw several more armed men. All of them wore strange scale armor, and the cut of their clothes seemed odd to her, as did their golden skin and strangely curved blades.

Then she saw one of the men step out of the open door to her brother’s room. He grunted something in an odd language even as he wiped blood from his sword with what looked like a stained boy’s tunic.

The cold ice in her blood flashed into white hot heat in a heartbeat. Her light body could not have kicked the heavy wooden door hard enough to knock down the warrior beyond. Yet a moment later she stood over his prone body and leveled her wand with a scream.

A wave of fire and destruction swept down the narrow corridor. For a moment, the image lay seared into her brain, burned into the back of her eyelids as her brother’s murderers burned to ash. The moment passed and Katarina blinked away tears as her eyes tried to adjust.

She felt an iron-hard hand clamp around her mouth. Her hand went to her second wand, but her attacker’s other hand grasped it and held her still. The man I knocked down, he must have captured me, she thought. Still, she struggled, she would not let this assassin kill her, not without a fight.

“Hold still, damn you, girl,” a gravelly voice spoke. “I’m not one of them, I’m here to help!” The voice teased at her memory, until she recognized it as her new armsman. She hadn’t heard Bulmor speak more than twice in the past week, but it sounded like him.

She froze and when she ceased to fight, the hands pulled her back into the storage room. The hand over her mouth let go long enough to pull the door closed.

“What’s happening? Is… Is my brother dead?” Katarina asked. She hated how her voice broke, yet in her mind she saw Peter still and cold in a pool of blood like poor old Maran.

“I think so, lass,” Bulmor grated. He released her and she turned to face him. “Those were Vendakar, probably paid mercenaries.” His face, when she looked at him in the small dark room, looked to have been carved of stone. “Do you know a passage that leads out?” He took up her lantern in one hand.

“Yes…” Katarina frowned. “Shouldn’t we head up, though? Find my father… my mother!” She turned back towards the door, ready to run to warn her mother, but his iron strong hands locked on her shoulders. “Let me go! I have to warn them!”

“Stop and think, lass- my Lady, I beg you, think!” For a moment his voice broke from the gravel strength and some raw emotion leaked through. Katarina realized then that Bulmor feared for her. All of a week on the job, and her new armsman already viewed her survival as essential.

That realization bored through her and forced her to stop and consider. The nursery lay at the center of the keep itself. It was the most heavily defended area and any attackers would have to fight their way through the other living areas to get here first. Any warriors who had arrived here must have already fought through her father’s armsmen…

“No…” Katarina froze. “That can’t be, it’s not possible.”

“My lady, until we know more, we have to assume they’ve already overrun the entire castle. We must leave. You seem to know these passages… how do we exit?”

Katarina felt an icy hand clench on her heart. Her brother was dead… and her last words to him had been cruel and childish. Her parents were dead… everyone she had ever known, Erik, her father’s armsman, Tomus, her mother’s armsman… had the old scholar Mattews been murdered as well? Had they killed him as he dozed in the library, surrounded by his old books and scrolls?

Why had they died… and why did she still live?

She felt Bulmor’s hand on her shoulder. He pulled her along, down into the dusty passages. She heard his voice, heard him ask her questions as they walked. She couldn’t understand him over the roar in her ears. Katarina couldn’t bother to care over the ache as she realized everyone she loved had died.

They moved through the passages for what felt like an eternity. Now and again, Bulmor would pause at some intersection and slowly Katarina came back to herself. She noticed the moisture that lined the walls first. That bothered her, for some reason, until she remembered that she’d heard that the deeper tunnels wound under the river… and that those old tunnels were thought to be dangerous.

Danger… she thought, what danger need I fear now?

Bulmor froze. Over the drip of water, Katarina heard the soft scuff of leather on stone. A moment later, Bulmor pushed her in front of him and spun to face the rear.

“Hold, armsman, I’m not your enemy,” A light voice spoke.

“Oh?” Bulmor asked. His squat body tensed, and Katarina saw him loosen his sword in its sheath. “Then you’re some random stranger who happens to be out for a stroll… through the hidden passages of a castle under attack by mercenary assassins?”

“No,” the voice spoke. “I came here to warn the Duke… and for my troubles he had me thrown in the dungeon. I broke out in the chaos of the attack and I stumbled across your tracks on my way out.” Katarina could barely make out his shadowy form against the darkness of the tunnel.

“How did you know of the attack?” Bulmor asked.

“I’m a scout,” The other man answered. “I came across the tracks of several dozen Vendakar and followed them to their camp. From its location, I guessed their target and came here.”

“So why wouldn’t the Duke trust you?” Bulmor asked. “Show yourself.”

The other man gave a sigh, “Very well.” He stepped forward into the light. For a moment, Katarina thought her eyes played tricks on her. The man’s dark skin almost seemed to blend into the darkness of the passage. His smooth shaven scalp shined slightly under the light from the lantern. His blue eyes, however, caught the light and sparkled. He wore a stained undyed tunic of wool and a dirty leather vest.

“Armen, no wonder the Duke distrusted you,” Bulmor grunted.

Armen, Katarina thought, how did an Armen scout come so far south?

“Halfblood,” the other man corrected automatically. “I was raised here in the south. I’m as loyal to the Duchy as anyone.”

Bulmor grunted. Katarina marveled at his ability to put derision, distrust, and a sense of hostility into a mere grunt.

“Look, unless I’m tragically mistaken, you’ve got Lady Katarina, Duke Peter’s daughter. You have to know that you’re alone. You need help, and I’m offering that.”

“For a price?” Bulmor grunted.

“Not that I’d protest some kind of reward,” the halfblood answered. “But this is the right thing to do. Those bastards up there want her alive… and I’m sure you have heard of what the Vendakar do to their prisoners.”

Katarina saw the muscles on the sides of Bulmor’s jaw stand out as he clenched his teeth. “How do you know that?”

“I heard some of them talking. They’ve killed Duke Peter and Lady Alexia as well as their son Peter. There are some other mercenaries, not Vendakar, who want Katarina alive. And those ones mentioned their employer: Lord Hector.”

“Hector?” Bulmor asked. “Isn’t he the bastard son of Duke Peter’s brother?”

“Do I look like I pay much attention to lineage?” the other man asked and gestured down at his stained tunic and his dirty leather vest.

“Point,” Bulmor nodded.

“Why would Hector kill my family?” Katarina asked. She barely remembered the man, though she’d heard he’d taken over the Longhaven Barony after Baron Estrel died.

Both men looked at her as if they’d forgotten about her presence.

“We’re wasting time,” the halfblood said. “If I could find your tracks, I’m certain others can. You need all the help you can get. You’ve plans to get the girl to safety? Maybe to some of her family?”

“None to trust,” Bulmor grunted. “Her mother is from Marovingia. They might welcome her.”

“The Empire?” the scout nodded. “You can’t risk the main roads, not if Hector has men elsewhere. So you’ll have to take the back roads. I can scout your way and provide another sword for her defense.”

Bulmor grunted. Finally he extended his hand, “Bulmor.”

The scout smiled slightly, and clasped hands with her armsman, “Gerlin.”

“Very well, scout, get out front.” Bulmor said.

***

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