Heroes live by the sword.
Heroes die by the sword.
Cowards survive to die another day.
Kane used to be a hero. He was one of the Del Carpio, an honor-bound wanderer committed to keeping the peace in troubled times. He has lived his life as a protector of the weak and vulnerable. Now he doesn't know what he is. His world has been shattered. His sword brothers are dead, butchered at the funeral of the order's founder. Kane is the last man standing and he hates himself because he isn't dead alongside them. There is honor in death, there is no honor in survival because instead of mourning at the graveside he chose to wallow in self-pity and the bottle and it saved his life. There must have been a traitor in their number. That's the only way it could have happened. But who? And why?
Jenn is the Beggar King's puppet. She used to be a warrior, a Del Carpio like Kane, until with one stupid mistake she damned herself. Now she doesn't even recognise herself or the things she is capable of. She used to be a good person. So why is she breaking into a child's bedroom to commit murder?
Swann, the White Feather, is a legend. He's also a marked man. The Steel Man, the underworld kingpin, wants him dead and has initiated The Game of Dominion to see that it happens. The Game is a cull to weed out the weak and the old. Everyone is a target, no recriminations. Swann, though, has a gift for staying alive. Which might be a problem for the Steel Man.
This is the story of two soliders beaten down by the madness of war, trying to make their way home. This is the story of two sorcerers, one driven mad by the demands of raising the dead the other absolutely rational in his hatred for mankind and his quest for a lost magic.
This is the story of mad gods and beggar kings.
This is the story of the Ghosts of the Conquered...
Steven Savile is one of those authors I like to point to, "See what can happen if you listen to my advice and hang out with me?" Steve is a #1 bestselling author, prolific, with a career in major houses as well as in the independent market. He was also one of my students for Writers of the Future, and he likes to tell people that I burned his story shortly after I read it. (I was staying in a ski lodge, and I needed something to start a fire, no commentary on the quality of the work, honest.) – Kevin J. Anderson
"Savile has a flair for finding beauty in the macabre."– Guardian (UK)
"First-rate, stylish work from Mr. Nassise, with a steady escalation of the story's speed that makes it almost literally breath-taking."– Clive Barker
Kane stumbled down the slope in the gathering twilight with a heavy heart and weary limbs. Behind him, Blenkathra and her snow-capped peaks reared, reaching into the bruise purple sky. Before him lay Chapfallen, the white-laced leaves of the ancient forest rustling like living things while the north wind whispered fragments of the wood's darkest secrets through them; hints of the hearts it had stilled, the dreams it had buried in its rich soil. The nearness of the forest was oppressive.
Kane shook off the uncomfortable sensation of eyes watching him and resumed his laborious trudge down the mountainside, the wind crying traitor in his ear. He ignored its mocking voice, knowing that the whispers would be endless and unforgiving. It was the burden of being a survivor. You left ghosts behind you to whisper and taunt with the voice of your own guilt.
Ghosts that could never forgive you for being alive while they rotted in some unmarked grave.
Kane pushed on until he came to the edge of a frozen tarn, his thoughts introspective, jagged memories weighted down with the sorrows of a man who had turned his back on his friends when they needed him most.
"What good would it have done for me to die with you?" he yelled at the wind, finally sick of its taunting. His voice was thick, raw. Strained.
It's not about dying,the wind whispered,it's about living. You left us to die so you could go on living…
He might have stood there, frozen, for an hour or a day, listening to his guilt echo off the rocks. A man on a mountain being judged and found unworthy by the ghosts inside him.
"I could lie down now." He barely breathed the words, taking their silence as judgment. "I could close my eyes and let go at last. Sleep and never wake up. The cold would take me before dawn. Is that what you want?"
But the wind had stopped listening to the survivor's lies. It knew he could no more lie down and die than the sun could cease to shine or the seasons to stop turning. It was a survivor's nature to survive, to go on living no matter the costs to those around him. A survivor would find a way.
He wiped the sweat from his brow before it could freeze there and kept going. His lips were chapped from the wind's perpetual kiss. Kane didn't realize just how thirsty he was until he came upon the flat surface of a frozen lake. Kneeling, he brushed away the thin coating of snow from the surface and then used the wooden handle of his knife to chip a series of cracks in the ice, breaking a small slab free. He pulled his gloves off and pushed the ice under so he could scoop a handful of water to his lips. It tasted heavily of minerals and dirt but it could have been wine to the lips of a drunkard. He drank deeply, wiping at his beard where the water ran down his chin, and scooped up another mouthful.
When he lowered his cupped hands from his face, Kane faced a miracle reflected in the still water. Not one face but three looked back at him: his own drawn, exhausted reflection, and two faces he knew better than his own. Faces haunted by the death he had left them to back at Sahnglain. Could it really have been less than a week ago? Ethan's face, inked with tattoos that crawled up from his neck, around his ears and across the dome of his shaved head like some colorful infection stood in stark contrast to the simple innocence of Jacob's finely-boned features and tightly-drawn ponytail. The agony of betrayal drifted in the depths of the dead eyes that stared at him out of the water.
Ethan and Jacob. Fellow members of the Del Carpio. They were the closest Kane had ever come to knowing a family. Souls to whom he had sworn himself when he had taken up the blade offered by Gideon. Brothers in arms bonded by ties deeper and more lasting than blood. Ties like honor, duty, love.
"You are dead," he told them quietly, yet it sounded wrong in his ears. How could they be dead? They wereeternal. Their blades were like snakes of lightning on the battlefield, weaving a deadly magic as they danced. Kane's fingers moved toward the illusion painted so thinly on the water, wanting to reach out, not to comfort his friends or beg their forgiveness but to banish the illusion. To drive the dead away.
He plunged his fist into the icy water.
The image changed as it reformed around his fist. A sad smile now touched Ethan's ink-stained lips and the skin around them paled, blue veins of death rising to the surface. A wound opened in Jacob's temple, the tears of blood it wept hardening on his cheek like flakes of rust.
Kane swirled the water with his fist, dragging it around the small hole in the ice to drive the faces of the dead men away.
"The cold," he told himself even as his nostrils flared at the scent of death carried by the wind. "It's the cold making me jump at ghosts."
He pushed himself back to his feet, the last of the Del Carpio, and was about to continue his trek down the mountainside when he happened to glance back over his shoulder and caught motion out of the corner of his eye.
He paused, staring.
It was difficult to tell for sure with the sun almost set but Kane thought he saw two dark smudges cresting one of Blenkathra's lesser peaks. From a distance they looked like ants on a sugar heap but as he watched it became clear they weren't ants at all but horses churning up the snow with their haste. Kane wanted to believe that no sane rider would risk anything near a gallop on those treacherous slopes, and yet those twin black specks were taking on body and substance with alarming speed.
Two riders, pushing their horses hard.
That fetid aroma brushed his skin again, lingering around his nose long enough for him to be sure. Decay, death. The twin reeks of corruption. Kane knew them both well enough from the days spent walking through the fields of dead and wounded, looking for familiar faces among the fallen whilst the crows feasted on their bodies. Sahnglain had become a burial ground for good men. Men he buried with his own hands.
Hoofbeats echoed like distant thunder rolling down the mountainside.
Kane looked down at his hands as if he could still see the dirt and soil ingrained in them from the digging.
"Why?" he asked, already knowing the answer. They were betrayed. By who and how, he didn't know, but theywerebetrayed. Sahnglain had been a trap baited with a false funeral. Kane shook himself, unwilling to believe how easily they had allowed themselves to be fooled.
Word had come that Gideon had died, passed away in his sleep, a feeble-minded old man unable to raise so much as a spoon to his lips to feed himself in the months after the pox had driven the strength from his muscles. If ever the Del Carpio had a leader, the old man had been it. Mentor and motivator to the young men that came for shelter beneath his wing, he was both the eyes and ears of the sword arm he created, and the wisdom and safety of the shield to those he gathered to him. Gideon Frate was the will of the Del Carpio given flesh and blood. Hewasthe Del Carpio. The blood of fifty men flowed through his veins feeding him with their strength. So, it was only natural that those he left behind would gather to pay their final respects to the man they called Little Father.
They should have been able to smell the lie for what it was, but no. They walked as brothers to their deaths, drawn back to the streets of Sahnglain like sacrificial lambs clothed in the black of mourning. All bar one, and he was left to stand in the shadows and watch the slaughter like a coward as, one by one, the men he called his family were chased down and butchered in cold blood.
Kane's head ached with the maze of truths he lacked the strength to untangle: how well their betrayer knew their secrets, how well he understood their debt to Gideon, their need to say farewell to the man that forged and tempered them, even where they would choose to hold their final farewell. Who else knew of Sahnglain and what it had meant to them? No one outside the brotherhood. But if that were true, it would mean that their betrayer was buried alongside those he had betrayed, put there by Kane's own hands. It made no sense.
Trying to grasp the enormity of the betrayal set Kane's flesh crawling. That one of the Del Carpio could lead his brothers to their deaths… No. They were family.
Yet the thought teased a bitter laugh from Kane. Family. He'd sat at too many firesides wrapped in his travel-stained cloak listening to troubadours and minstrels embroider the night with their flimsy legends of the Del Carpio to believe that they had ever truly been a family. The minstrels were in love with the sheer romance of the sword and the long road; it was the stuff of ballads, meant for songs in the way real life never was. They forgot or simply ignored the truth: there was no room for friendships or love in the Del Carpio's wandering hearts. They were alone in a way the songs and their singers could never hope to understand. Alone until they could stand it no more and were forced to draw comfort from strangers.
"That way lies madness, my friend," he chided himself, enjoying the warmth of his breath as it chased up over his face.
The riders were nearing. Wisps of steam billowed from the horses flared nostrils as their hooves ate up the ground. Kane scanned the horizon, edge to edge. Something about the riders nagged at him. They were out of place in this snow-covered wilderness. No one came out here unless they wanted to lose themselves. So where could they be going?
Not where,he realized slowly.They are like dogs following a scent. Hunting. Hungry for the kill.The touch of fear brought by that thought was like a fast-acting poison, working its way into his bloodstream. For a heartbeat, two, he was locked in panic, unable to move in case that poison found its way into his heart and stilled it. And then he was running, skidding and tumbling through the snow in his desperation to get out of sight.
The air bit into his lungs, stabbing at their soft, inner tissue with icicles of cold. Tripping, his legs buckled and his hands dredged the snow, setting off a small avalanche. The snow fell away, its pitiful roar not enough to drown the thunder of hooves.
You said you wanted to die?His ghosts mocked as he stumbled again.Another lie from a coward's heart?
No. Somebody has to pay for Sahnglain. Then I can die.Kane promised them, pushing on, forcing his aching legs to run like they had never run before.
# # #
The sound of the hoofbeats drumming on the rocks was impossibly loud in Kane's ears, drowning out every other sound this white wasteland had to offer.
Run,he urged his legs as the screaming muscles began to knot up.Come on, come on!
A cruel wind drove the clouds through the sky, continually masking and unmasking the sickle moon, so that the trees of Chapfallen appeared to shamble like rows of gnarled corpses climbing slowly up the slope. Exhaustion burned like a searing fire within.
Got to reach the trees. Just reach the trees.
A bird startled, flying up before his face in a panic of blurred wings. Kane stumbled, slid and slithered on his knees ten feet farther down the slope before he lost his balance completely and began to tumble, a strangled cry torn from his lips by the suddenness of the slip. The world tilted crazily around him and his shoulder cracked against the edge of a boulder buried beneath the snow, pain shooting through his body with the impact. Then his face was pressed into the snow with all the force of the fall behind it. It was all he could manage to get his arms up to ward off the blows of the buried scree. The sharp-sided stones cut at him like hundreds of vindictive knives as he fell. Ten, fifteen, twenty feet, his body being mauled by the mountainside as it was twisted and tossed into the air like a girl's corn doll, until the cartwheeling gave way to sliding and the sliding finally stopped two hundred feet shy of the trees.
Kane lay on his back, gasping for air. He tried to move, to sit up, but every muscle, every bone, cried out in agony in response and he collapsed back into the snow, half-expecting to see the shape of a black rider loom over him, sword raised silver in the moonlight to strike him down.
The thought was enough to force him into trying again.
Biting back the simultaneous burns of ice and fire that screamed from his shoulder, Kane managed to twist around and get his hands underneath him so he could lever himself up into a crouch. His shield arm buckled. That was when Kane saw the blood that was spreading through the shoulder of his shirt. It stood in stark contrast to the simple white material.
"Maenner, no. Not now." Kane hissed, probing the wound tenderly. His fingers felt across the flat bones of his shoulder for the one he knew had to be broken. As they touched the edge of the splintered bone piercing the skin, a dizzy blackness surged out from the wound, threatening to overwhelm him.
He could stand; he had no choice. A backwards glance showed the riders cresting the highest rise of the slope he'd just fallen down. They were wearing the black of the Hounds, but when did the Hounds venture this far from Dominion?
The answer was obvious, of course.
When they were sent by their rabid master to tidy loose ends.
A shiver chased down Kane's spine. His only hope was the pale shelter offered by Chapfallen; a man on foot could move faster through the tangles of bramble and vine that choked the old wood than a rider ever could. Maybe he could lose them in there, or at least lead them a merry dance and make them work for the kill.
He would have to do it without resetting or splinting the broken bone; there was no time. Wincing, Kane drew his left arm across his chest and held his right shoulder. With his good hand, he applied steady pressure, trying to ease the bone beneath the skin. The movement ground the splintered edges of his scapulae against each other. The scream was torn from his lips before he could swallow it; Kane bit down on his lip hard, drawing blood in anger at his own stupidity. That scream would have carried across the mountains, and it had only one message to share with the riders who must have heard it: he was wounded.