Tag Archives: epic fantasy

Last Day for a Free Book!

Echo of the High Kings, Book I of the Eoriel Saga

This is the last day for my free promotion of Echo of the High Kings!  Tell your friends, tell your spouse, tell your kids!  (Or just buy it yourself)

Get the first book of the Eoriel Saga for free!

Wrath of the Usurper Coming Soon!

Wrath of the Usurper, Book II of the Eoriel Saga, will be coming at the end of the month to Amazon and in July to Audible.com and Itunes as an audiobook.

Civilization is dying.

The lands of the Five Duchies are in chaos. They are leaderless and each land stands alone. Besieged by barbarians, savages, fell beasts, and infighting, few doubt that the end times are upon them.

Yet all is not lost. In the East, Lady Katarina Emberhill has begun an uprising against the Usurper and those who follow her carry relics from the time of the High Kings. In Boir, Lord Admiral Christoffer Tarken forges alliances and defend his lands. And in the Eastwood, powers that have been silent for eons are stirring and turning their eyes to the outside world.

But the key is the Usurper Duke, a man drawn to savagery and battle. His victories in his personal war against the Armen have swelled the ranks of his army. Who will draw the wrath of the Usurper: will he turn it against his own rebellious people or levy his forces against the threats to all civilized men?

Check back here soon for samples/snippets, cover art and more!

Echo of the High Kings Audiobook, Rerelease, and Giveaway

Good morning everyone.  I’m happy to say that progress on the Echo of the High Kings audio book is well underway.  To celebrate the audiobook release, I’m having a new cover produced for the paperback and ebook versions and running something of a contest and giveaway as well as a book bomb.

The book bomb will be timed to coincide with (roughly) the day of the audiobook release on Audible and (hopefully) Amazon.  Since there’s a delay of 3-7 days from when the audiobook is approved to when it goes live, I’m going to arbitrarily set a day now for a book bomb.  That will be the 11th of October.

On to the part that people get excited about: giving stuff away.  I’m going to do a contest as part of the book bomb.  For all reviews written on Echo of the High Kings to verified purchasers, I’ll do an entry into a drawing.  On the 15th of November, I’ll post the winners on my blog, they can then contact me afterward.  Now, for first place, I’m giving away a signed paperback copy of Echo of the High Kings (currently a $28 value).  For second place, I’m giving away an audiobook code (winner’s choice) good for either The Fallen Race or Echo of the High Kings.  Third place, you don’t get a book, but you do get put in a book as a character… no guarantees about survival, of course.  This is a random drawing, so the reviews, good or bad, that win will be the winner, also if there’s no way to identify the particular winner, (IE, no name posted with the review or no one steps forward), I’ll draw for a new winner.  Also, while the book bomb is on the 11th, I’ve no way to tell when a particular reviewer actually bought the book, so I’ll draw from all reviews posted until the 15th of November.   For those of you who take a bit longer, that’s 2 months to do some reading and write up a review.

Echo of the High Kings

Thanks everyone for reading and enjoy!

 

Echo of the High Kings is Live!

Echo of the High Kings by Kal Spriggs
Echo of the High Kings by Kal Spriggs

Echo of the High Kings is now live!  You can pick it up at Amazon (exclusively) in digital format.  The paperback is coming soon.  Echo of the High Kings is the first book of a new epic fantasy series, The Eoriel Saga, with complex characters, difficult decisions, a magic system that follows the principles of physics, and most importantly: ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

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 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.

***

Echo of the High Kings Fourth Sample

A map of the Duchy of Masov
A map of the Duchy of Masov

Here’s the fourth sample of Echo of the High Kings, you can find the first sample here, the second here, and the third here.  Echo of the High Kings will be published on 1 August, 2014 on Amazon.

Lord Hector

City of Longhaven, Longhaven Barony, Duchy of Masov

Twenty-Ninth of Idran, Cycle 993 Post Sundering

The sun had just set when Hector dismounted from his horse and passed the reins to one of his men. He had made his preparations at East Reach and ridden the remainder of the afternoon and early evening to arrive at Longhaven in time. Hector glanced up at the well-lit manor house, then back at the dimly lit town. It was just like Estrel to display his wealth while the rest of his Barony didn’t have the money for lamp oil. “You have your orders,” he said. They stared at him for a long moment in silence. He saw Sergeant Steffan 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 and prevent anyone from leaving the grounds until I return.”

The fifteen men dispersed, all except Sergeants Grel and Steffan, the two men whose loyalty and competence had most impressed him so far. 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, Lady Rinata” Hector said. He forced himself to smile, though he knew the expression would look wooden. “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. She was one of the few that had treated him with respect rather than as the by-blow of the Duke’s younger brother. Not for the first time, Hector wondered what the strong, confident, and kind woman saw in self-absorbed Baron Estrel. Then again, she might just see it as her duty to stand by him, arranged marriage or no, he thought. “I must speak with your husband.” He glanced at Sergeant Steffan, “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. Some part of Hector wished that he could trust her, that she might see reason, but he couldn’t risk that she would side with her husband. Hector gave a single nod to Sergeant Steffan as she turned her back. The sergeant nodded back, nervously.

Hector just hoped that Steffan wouldn’t give the whole thing away. Lady Rinata was well known for her perception, she might see through his nervousness and figure out Hector’s true purpose here tonight before he did the deed.

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 Estrel’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, first. That route 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, 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. The Starborn had brought other books, books on agriculture, medicine, chemistry–at least those had some use. Not for the first time, Hector wished that his cousin’s fascination had lain with books of science or even magic, rather than social progress. “My lord, I’ve just returned from meeting with my spymaster. The Armen intend to invade this next summer. I have come to ask that our latest shipment of tribute be retained and used to bolster our forces.”

“What?” Estrel 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 angrily rose from his chair.

“Sit down, shut your mouth and listen!” Hector shouted. He saw his cousin’s jaw drop and he dropped back to his seat in shock. He doubted that any man had dared even raise his voice in his presence since his father’s death. “You have bankrupted our Barony and 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 Estrel said. “And I–”

“Those tributes increase every cycle. And no matter what, we will be unable to pay them next cycle,” Hector said. “Which even the Armen realize, and so they intend to raid us and take what is left by force. They’ll carve your heart out in front of your wife and give your soul to one of their dark spirits. They’ll rape and torture your wife until she wishes they did the same to her.” 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.” Baron Estrel’s face took on a nasty smirk, “You’re just his dead little brother’s bastard, little more than an embarrassment, whatever your skills.”

Hector ignored the jibe, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard the like before, “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, undercut their loyalty every time you cut their pay, and treated them as little more than servants, I have trained them, shaped them, and given them my respect and loyalty.”

Baron 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 held his old friend as he died, and some part of Hector died when he felt the last quiver go through Grayson’s body.

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 solid nod. His calm under the circumstances gave Hector pause and made him note that the sergeant might prove useful for other circumstances.

Hector drew the armsman’s sword. He retraced his steps to the foyer, and found Sergeant Steffan 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. Hector saw realization flash through her eyes.

She reacted without hesitation. Sergeant Steffan’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 and 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.

He stumbled away from the bodies and took a seat on one of the chairs. A moment later, several of his own guards swept in, followed by servants and more armsmen. “Captain Grayson and the two guards on duty went mad,” Hector said. He clutched at the cut on his face. “They attacked Lady Rinata, and when I went upstairs, I found they’d killed Baron Estrel.”

His own men stood silent, while the remaining armsmen stood in shock. Several of the servants gave out wails, and Hector saw Lady Rinata’s maids rush to her side.

“There can be no doubt of Captain Grayson’s guilt,” Hector said. “He left his sword planted in her.”

Sergeant Tunel, Grayson’s second in command stared between the bodies and Hector. “My lord… this is impossible. Captain Grayson would never hurt them.”

“I came here to confront him,” Hector said. “I found paperwork that suggested he had debts to a criminal, and he had sold information to the Armen to pay off those debts. I never expected his betrayal ran so deep.”

“This…” Tunel looked between Hector and the bodies of his men. “Lord Hector, you are the senior ranking man on the scene. However, I must request that you send for one of Duke Peter’s officers to investigate and magistrates to take down sworn statements.”

“Of course,” Hector said. “I will dispatch a messenger at once.” He looked over at his guards, who stood unobtrusively at the doors. “Secure the area, and send a runner to Magistrate Helman. Tell him we need him here to take statements and collect evidence. Also, send for a courier and I’ll write up a message for him to deliver to Duke Peter, along with a request for his assistance in this matter.”

Sergeant Tunel nodded and Hector saw him relax slightly. Even so, the armsman continued to look suspicious. Hector made note of that. He would have to make sure that some evidence implicated the armsman… and that he suffered a fatal wound when he resisted arrest. It pained him to kill another good fighting man, but armsmen were loyal to their charges first and foremost.

He did not expect for the story to last or even for most to believe it. But it would serve as a polite fiction. Magistrate Helman would find the evidence which would uphold Hector’s story. Whatever officer arrived from Duke Peter, he would have only Hector’s men as witnesses and evidence collected by Helman would support their story.

In the meantime, Hector would take his cousin’s position, as both the senior military officer and the nearest blood relation. He knew that some others might have claims to the once-wealthy barony, but few would want to press those given the Armen threat and the state of disrepair.

Hector glanced around the room. “Let us hope that this is the end of any treasonous plot,” he said. He spoke the truth, for he wanted no more bloodshed. Let this be the end, he thought, let Duke Peter accept this, despite whatever suspicions arise.

***

Echo of the High Kings Third Sample

Here’s the third sample of Echo of the High Kings.  In this section, we see the consequences of Lord Hector’s discussion with his son.  Echo of the High Kings is an epic fantasy that comes out 1 August 2014.  You can find the first sample here and the second one here.

Lord Hector

City of Longhaven, Longhaven Barony, Duchy of Masov

Twenty-Ninth of Idran, Cycle 993 Post Sundering

The sun had just set when Hector dismounted from his horse and passed the reins to one of his men. He had made his preparations at East Reach and ridden the remainder of the afternoon and early evening to arrive at Longhaven in time. Hector glanced up at the well-lit manor house, then back at the dimly lit town. It was just like Estrel to display his wealth while the rest of his Barony didn’t have the money for lamp oil. “You have your orders,” he said. They stared at him for a long moment in silence. He saw Sergeant Steffan 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 and prevent anyone from leaving the grounds until I return.”

The fifteen men dispersed, all except Sergeants Grel and Steffan, the two men whose loyalty and competence had most impressed him so far. 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, Lady Rinata” Hector said. He forced himself to smile, though he knew the expression would look wooden. “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. She was one of the few that had treated him with respect rather than as the by-blow of the Duke’s younger brother. Not for the first time, Hector wondered what the strong, confident, and kind woman saw in self-absorbed Baron Estrel. Then again, she might just see it as her duty to stand by him, arranged marriage or no, he thought. “I must speak with your husband.” He glanced at Sergeant Steffan, “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. Some part of Hector wished that he could trust her, that she might see reason, but he couldn’t risk that she would side with her husband. Hector gave a single nod to Sergeant Steffan as she turned her back. The sergeant nodded back, nervously.

Hector just hoped that Steffan wouldn’t give the whole thing away. Lady Rinata was well known for her perception, she might see through his nervousness and figure out Hector’s true purpose here tonight before he did the deed.

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 Estrel’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, first. That route 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, 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. The Starborn had brought other books, books on agriculture, medicine, chemistry–at least those had some use. Not for the first time, Hector wished that his cousin’s fascination had lain with books of science or even magic, rather than social progress. “My lord, I’ve just returned from meeting with my spymaster. The Armen intend to invade this next summer. I have come to ask that our latest shipment of tribute be retained and used to bolster our forces.”

“What?” Estrel 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 angrily rose from his chair.

“Sit down, shut your mouth and listen!” Hector shouted. He saw his cousin’s jaw drop and he dropped back to his seat in shock. He doubted that any man had dared even raise his voice in his presence since his father’s death. “You have bankrupted our Barony and 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 Estrel said. “And I–”

“Those tributes increase every cycle. And no matter what, we will be unable to pay them next cycle,” Hector said. “Which even the Armen realize, and so they intend to raid us and take what is left by force. They’ll carve your heart out in front of your wife and give your soul to one of their dark spirits. They’ll rape and torture your wife until she wishes they did the same to her.” 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.” Baron Estrel’s face took on a nasty smirk, “You’re just his dead little brother’s bastard, little more than an embarrassment, whatever your skills.”

Hector ignored the jibe, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard the like before, “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, undercut their loyalty every time you cut their pay, and treated them as little more than servants, I have trained them, shaped them, and given them my respect and loyalty.”

Baron 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 held his old friend as he died, and some part of Hector died when he felt the last quiver go through Grayson’s body.

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 solid nod. His calm under the circumstances gave Hector pause and made him note that the sergeant might prove useful for other circumstances.

Hector drew the armsman’s sword. He retraced his steps to the foyer, and found Sergeant Steffan 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. Hector saw realization flash through her eyes.

She reacted without hesitation. Sergeant Steffan’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 and 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.

He stumbled away from the bodies and took a seat on one of the chairs. A moment later, several of his own guards swept in, followed by servants and more armsmen. “Captain Grayson and the two guards on duty went mad,” Hector said. He clutched at the cut on his face. “They attacked Lady Rinata, and when I went upstairs, I found they’d killed Baron Estrel.”

His own men stood silent, while the remaining armsmen stood in shock. Several of the servants gave out wails, and Hector saw Lady Rinata’s maids rush to her side.

“There can be no doubt of Captain Grayson’s guilt,” Hector said. “He left his sword planted in her.”

Sergeant Tunel, Grayson’s second in command stared between the bodies and Hector. “My lord… this is impossible. Captain Grayson would never hurt them.”

“I came here to confront him,” Hector said. “I found paperwork that suggested he had debts to a criminal, and he had sold information to the Armen to pay off those debts. I never expected his betrayal ran so deep.”

“This…” Tunel looked between Hector and the bodies of his men. “Lord Hector, you are the senior ranking man on the scene. However, I must request that you send for one of Duke Peter’s officers to investigate and magistrates to take down sworn statements.”

“Of course,” Hector said. “I will dispatch a messenger at once.” He looked over at his guards, who stood unobtrusively at the doors. “Secure the area, and send a runner to Magistrate Helman. Tell him we need him here to take statements and collect evidence. Also, send for a courier and I’ll write up a message for him to deliver to Duke Peter, along with a request for his assistance in this matter.”

Sergeant Tunel nodded and Hector saw him relax slightly. Even so, the armsman continued to look suspicious. Hector made note of that. He would have to make sure that some evidence implicated the armsman… and that he suffered a fatal wound when he resisted arrest. It pained him to kill another good fighting man, but armsmen were loyal to their charges first and foremost.

He did not expect for the story to last or even for most to believe it. But it would serve as a polite fiction. Magistrate Helman would find the evidence which would uphold Hector’s story. Whatever officer arrived from Duke Peter, he would have only Hector’s men as witnesses and evidence collected by Helman would support their story.

In the meantime, Hector would take his cousin’s position, as both the senior military officer and the nearest blood relation. He knew that some others might have claims to the once-wealthy barony, but few would want to press those given the Armen threat and the state of disrepair.

Hector glanced around the room. “Let us hope that this is the end of any treasonous plot,” he said. He spoke the truth, for he wanted no more bloodshed. Let this be the end, he thought, let Duke Peter accept this, despite whatever suspicions arise.

***

 

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.