the Ukinhan Wilds
Book One of the Warder Trilogy
Not all terrors can be cowed with a blade . . .
Assassin. Rogue. Demon’s bane. Dragon-slayer. Kylac Kronus has been called many names, and earned every one of them. Months shy of his seventeenth spring, he is already the deadliest man alive. Nothing—be it man or beast—has been able to prove otherwise.
Uncomfortable with his newfound fame following the War of the Demon Queen, Kylac seeks fresh adventure overseas, recruited by a band of outlanders under royal commission to escort a kidnapped princess back to her father, King Kendarrion, ruler of the Sundered Isle. They warn him that, to do so, he will brave tempest seas full of raging leviathans while seeking to evade those responsible for the princess’s abduction—including a terrifying mutant left over from the days of the Mage Wars.
Kylac readily agrees.
But when the mutant proves as cunning as it is savage, the perilous voyage gives way to an even deadlier trek across a poisoned wilderness once home to the ancient Gorrethrehn—”Breeders”—a sect of magi known for their foul creation practices. Stalked by bestial denizens, treacherous companions, and horrors that his blades cannot touch, Kylac finds himself embattled as never before. For the mutant is relentless in its hunt, the island’s terrors do not rest, and not even the deadliest man alive can hope to emerge unscathed.
Cover Art: Daren Horley
First Edition: August 28, 2018
the Ukinhan Wilds
Book One of the Warder Trilogy
The darkness moved, and Ledron’s hackles pricked in alarm.
By then, he was already too late.
The blackness grew limbs, springing from the invisible depths of the open cargo hold. A clawed swipe struck Demin, beside him. Ledron sprawled backward, down against the decking. A severed sword arm—Demin’s—hit the planks near his feet.
His lungs drew breath, bellowed a warning. “Groll!”
Demin’s cries were muffled as the mutant’s teeth ravaged his throat. Blood sprayed, black in the mooncast dark. Ledron felt its warm splatter upon his face and brow. He searched for his sword, found it still gripped in his palm. As he looked up again, Demin’s body was thrust aside, and the groll’s baleful eyes fixed on him.
He’d have been dead before he could rise, but the others were already there, converging on the creature with ready blades. The groll hissed at them. It flared, seeming twice their size, then shrank into shadow as the swords began to bite. It was there, and yet it wasn’t, a constantly shifting form almost too quick for the eye to follow.
Ledron scrambled to his feet, heart hammering. He tried not to look too closely at the flayed ruin of Demin’s neck, the horror in his paralyzed gaze . . .
Another of his soldiers fell with a sharp cry. Otho. The Blackfist dropped his weapon to hunker over his bloody wrist. Bite marks pierced his flesh. Already, the venom sizzled through his veins, crawling toward his heart in darkening streams. His death would be painful, yet quick.
“New moon!” Ledron commanded, and his Shadowguard responded with the desired formation. “Pin it to the forecastle!”
Their execution was flawless. Endless hours of drill had forged movements instinctive and precise. Their courage and discipline would not waver.
But the mutant recognized the tightening noose. It slashed and lunged and circled with increasing desperation. Another Blackfist crumpled, splintered leg bones protruding below the knee. The groll pressed the breach. When a fellow guardian stepped forward to fill it, the groll suddenly reversed direction, slipping instead toward the starboard flank. Nethreal stood his ground, scoring a hit on the mutant’s shoulder.
The groll screeched, but tore its way free.
The Shadowguard shifted as one, mending the broken formation. But they no longer had the shelf of the forecastle to serve as their base wall. The groll backed across the ship’s decking, gaining space.
“Redirect! Full press!”
Ledron himself anchored the charge. Already, the mutant’s wound was healing, its blood filling the gash and curing like mortar. Virgin scales would cover the wound by daybreak. Were it to survive the week, it would not even bear a scar.
Ledron was determined not to allow that. The mutant had surprised them, yes, but his regiment had been prepared for the possibility. The mercenary’s report had proven correct on all counts. And though the creature before him represented his worst fears, he wasn’t about to let it plague his sleep another night.
The Blackfist to his left stumbled, gargling blood. Another, to his right, pitched forward with a grunt. But his men were landing blows now, as well. Ledron heard the hacks and pricks against the mutant’s scaled flesh, and relished the groll’s snarling cries. It was difficult to tell which of them held the upper hand.
Ledron feinted, then executed another thrust. The groll met his strike, slapping down against his blade. Ledron ducked, felt the swish of a clawed hand graze his naked skull, then drove forward with his dagger, plunging deep into meaty flesh.
The groll shrieked, bringing a fierce grin to Ledron’s face.
His grin vanished as the mutant plucked the dagger from its gut and flung it back at its assailants. The blade found Fuldor’s thigh and, smeared with the groll’s venomous blood, marked the man’s end.
Ledron growled and cursed. His muscles burned with exertion. His lungs strained. It was all he could to do hold his position, to refrain from flinching whenever the groll lashed out at him. If the creature was tiring, it showed no signs.
Finally, they pressed it from the shadows and into a patch of moonlight, where its mottled hide seemed to shimmer. Another step, and it was backed against the starboard rail. The ring of his remaining Shadowguard was at least three deep. The creature had nowhere to go.
It tossed its head, wailing in fury. A harpoon that must have come from the ship’s own lockers pierced its side. The groll seized the shaft and tried to yank it free, but the barbed head hooked against its ribs. A pair of arrows, fired from atop the wheelhouse, struck it in the chest.
Again the groll roared, its all-too-human cries curdling Ledron’s blood.
The first man to try had his arm snapped at the elbow and his body snatched forward to be used as a shield. An arrow pierced his stomach, while a friendly sword bit deep into his neck. The remaining Shadowguard hesitated but a breath—all the time that was needed for the groll to lean backward sharply over the rail.
Flinging Errahn’s body overboard like an anchor, the mutant held fast, catapulting itself over the gunwale.
Ledron rushed forward, his Shadowguard beside him. The black waters rippled and sloshed, reflecting the dim gleam of starlight. He searched a moment longer, jaw clenched, then spun away in disgust.
“First team, all eyes! If it surfaces, kill it!”
He marched back across the deck, careful not to tread on the bodies of the slain. He took note: Demin, Otho, Hamric, Thoros, Fuldor, Errahn. And Inmon wasn’t going anywhere on that splintered stump. Seven lost. Seven of his king’s best, against a single adversary. If battle belowdecks had gone as poorly . . .
He caught sight of Jahant, emerging sweaty and winded from the central stair. Ledron lengthened his stride.
His lieutenant saluted. “Fourteen renegades slain, Captain. All aboard, save our mole.”
“Merrec put their number at a score.”
“The weasel tells me Ulflund and four others went ashore already.”
Ledron cursed. “And the princess?”
“Drugged, but whole. Trajan wards her now.”
Jahant inspected a gash on his forearm, as if seeing it for the first time. “Three dead, sir, though Haeg is too stubborn to count himself among them. Half a dozen wounded, but not badly enough to slow us.”
Ledron breathed deep, and his stomach roiled. It might have been the smell of carnage mingling with the fetor of the sea. Or it might have been that he had lost half a score—an entire squad—of the king’s Shadowguard without achieving his full objective. Until Ulflund and his fellow renegades were brought to heel, they would remain a thorn underfoot. Had he at least been able to finish off the groll . . .
“Too many frayed edges,” Ledron muttered.
There were shouts now from the docks. The clamor of their struggle would soon raise an alarm within the city—if it hadn’t already. Though he had prepaid Wingport’s authorities to have their watch turn a blind eye to this night’s incursion, the wharf would soon be crawling with human vultures, come to catch a glimpse of the disturbance. Patrols would be dispatched to restore order. Ledron wished to be well away by then.
Percel approached. “Colven sends report. No trace of the Ukinh, sir.”
If only that meant it were dead. His heart still drumming, Ledron took one last look around the moored vessel. “Form up. Three squads. Divergent routes through the city. We sail on the Sparrow’s Hour. I want the dawn’s light riding our wake.”
* * *
Ledron’s gaze swept the rutted street as he trudged along, senses alert to any approach. His hand gripped the pommel of his sword. The dockside roadway appeared empty in its westerly course. But then, so had the deck of Ulflund’s ship, once they had shot the lone sentry hunkered in its crow’s nest.
He did not relish having to report to his king that Ulflund had eluded him. And he could only imagine His Majesty’s ire when it was confirmed that the rogue company that had made off with his daughter had consorted with a Ukinh. The king tolerated the mutants better than most, but only insofar as they kept to themselves.
Behind him, Nara moaned softly. Ledron turned at once, but found her still unconscious, bundled in her cloak and draped over Trajan’s shoulder. The towering Blackfist gave a reassuring nod without breaking stride, which was good enough for Ledron. He cast a quick glance over the rest of his encircling squad. Their vigilant stares probed the night, weapons at the ready.
He reflected momentarily on the missing faces of Haeg and Inmon. As their captain, it had been his personal duty to dismiss them from service. Haeg had been defiant at first, but was eventually persuaded to let his wounds bleed out. Better that than waiting for the rot to claim him. Inmon stood a chance, given a successful amputation, but how long could a proud soldier bear life as a crippled outlander? A dagger across the throat had been the kinder end.
They knew the perils, Ledron thought, but with their final expressions etched in his mind, the sentiment rang hollow.
Ships in the harbor creaked and groaned as the slumbering ocean rose and fell in steady breaths. A nightbird cried as it dove from its roost, toward a flash of sea life in the waves below. Ledron could not wait to be away from this foreign land. A small continent, no larger than their own, yet said to bear forty times the population. To the north, climbing the slopes that overlooked the southside harbor, watchfires burned in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of windows and streetlamps. Hearthfire smoke sullied the skies, like a permanent stain of soot. In the heavens above this sprawling city, he could scarcely see the stars.
His focus shifted as they approached an alley between a pair of shops shuttered for the night. A diminutive figure, fully hooded, emerged from the shadowed crease. The stranger took two steps before flashing a quick light signal from a tiny mirror. He took two more steps, paused to hold both arms out wide, then crossed them over his chest. Percel, serving point on the near flank, signaled in return. Bows were lowered, and their man approached.
“I was wondering when you meant to rejoin us,” Ledron extended grimly, nodding for the newcomer to fall into place. “You’ve disappointed me, Sallun.”
The fresh-faced youth looked up in surprise. “Sir?”
“Tell him, Merrec.”
Merrec grinned his gold-toothed smile. “Seems a handful of rats slipped right under your nose . . . led by Ulflund himself.”
Ledron frowned at Merrec’s smugness. Did the betrayer fancy himself a hero in this?
Sallun turned to Ledron in horror.
“Did you know of this?” Ledron asked him.
“No! Sir, no. I . . . I sent word as soon as they arrived, and kept sharp watch—”
“A blind lookout, then,” Merrec snickered.
Ledron bristled, but would deal with that one later. “You are only as good to me as your eyes,” he admonished Sallun, all but affirming Merrec’s assessment. “Fail me again, and I’ll have them plucked from your skull by a flock of starving crows.”
The youth fell back, a step behind Trajan in the center of their company. In truth, Ledron wasn’t as sore as he pretended. Ulflund was a snake, when he needed to be. It was said he could slither through a cornfield without bending a stalk. An exaggeration, surely, but one who failed to learn stealth did not long serve as Ulflund had in his earliest patrol days, hunting Ukinha along the borders of their wilderness. Had he wanted to go ashore unseen, then he—and those who followed him—would have done so, no matter how many eyes Ledron had set upon them.
Thankfully, the former Shadowguard captain had chosen not to take the princess with him, else Ledron and his men would still be hunting for her now. Most likely, Ulflund had scouted ahead to secure whatever arrangements he had plotted for her ashore. Ledron wondered if, by now, Ulflund had returned to his vessel to learn that his prize was gone.
“How much farther is our ship?” Merrec asked.
Ledron hissed at him to be silent—if only because it grated on him to hear the conspirator’s voice. Our ship? The rat’s greed had aided them in their rescue of the princess, yes. But Ledron was a lifelong soldier, and didn’t like sharing air with those he knew he couldn’t trust.
“I was to receive payment the moment the princess was safely in hand,” Merrec groused.
“You’re fortunate the king’s command wasn’t to flay you on sight.” Had the scoundrel truly wished to serve, he’d have given word of the plot before Nara had departed their shores. Instead, he had left his warning via courier, selling out Ulflund’s crew after the fact. He had claimed in his message that it was too late to marshal a proper pursuit, and that he was setting sail with the other renegades in order to oversee the princess’s safety. But if that were so, why demand payment for his service? “You’ll have your gold,” Ledron promised, “because His Majesty is a man of his word. But not before I deem Her Highness to be safe.”
Merrec scowled, yet must have realized what little room he had to argue. Indeed, this opportunistic parlay of his would never have worked with a less honorable lord—or if His Majesty Kendarrion hadn’t wished to interrogate the mercenary about these dealings personally. Merrec had to know that he would be relieved of his commission in the king’s army and made outcast the moment he collected his reward. But even that was better than he deserved.
The mercenary’s sullen silence caused Ledron to brighten inwardly. Despite their losses, the many loose ends, and the long voyage that lay ahead, they had in fact achieved the first phase of their mission. With Nara’s safe retrieval, they had what was most important to their king. All else, he assured himself, was mere seasoning.
The winds shifted, blowing into their faces from the west. Briny gusts gave way to a thickening taste of smoke. Ledron coughed and spat. He could not leave these polluted shores quickly enough. He hastened pace. Without command, his Shadowguard did so alongside.
A strange crackle grew in his ears, overtaking the murmurs of the sea. To the west, around a rugged promontory, an orange light began to rise. Without quite knowing why, Ledron felt his confidence slip.
There were shouts now, as well, echoing from the area of their destination. The unknown crackle grew louder, and with it, the reddish orange halo strengthened, risen up from where an evening sun would normally set.
At last, their road rounded the promontory, bending northward. Through curtains of black smoke, Ledron gazed down upon the wharf with sickening realization.
The harbor before them was astir, its docks swarming with men. Flames lit the sky, devouring sails and rigging and racing with an angry roar up the masts of a clutch of moored ships. At the heart of the blaze, a great bark listed to one side. Its masthead—an image of his queen riding a pod of dolphins—shimmered in a veil of heat.
Despite the efforts of the harbor patrols, the ship would not be saved. Nor did Ledron need to see the bodies to know that all left aboard had been killed. The groll had wasted no time in striking back at them. Else Ulflund and his rogues, Ledron thought, but did not believe that to be possible. Only the Ukinh could have sniffed out their vessel this quickly, and wrought such destruction upon it.
It scarcely mattered, the one or the other. The result was the same. Without their ship, they were stranded.
“What now, Captain?” Trajan prompted.
Ledron only shook his head, eyes tearing amid the smoke and cinders as he watched his king’s ship burn to its hull upon the shoreline of this forsaken land.
the Ukinhan Wilds
Book One of the Warder Trilogy
Publishers Weekly August 7, 2020
Thompson (The Sundered Isle) kicks off his Warder series with this adrenaline-charged fantasy adventure. While searching for a passage at sea, rogue swordsman Kylac Kronus chances upon a promising quest when he rescues sailor Sallun from a traitorous band of Addaran Shadowguards. In exchange for saving his life, Sallun introduces Kylac to his crew, who were tasked with finding and safely returning the abducted Princess Denariel to her father. Their captain, Ledron, taps Kylac to serve as their mission’s defense against an intelligent mutant called the Ukinh. They rescue the princess with little fuss, but their long sea voyage back to her kingdom brings them first to treacherous waters, then through the Ukinhan Wilds, the “homeland to the mutants.” And when they finally arrive in Denariel’s home kingdom, Kylac realizes that there is more to the story of her abduction than first meets the eye. Though the plot is electrifying, Kylac himself remains an enigma, which will frustrate some readers. Still, Thompson’s dense, atmospheric worldbuilding and cinematic fight scenes will keep the pages turning. Fantasy fans won’t want to put this down.
the Blackmoon Shards
Book Two of the Warder Trilogy
Let the oceans run red . . .
Having foiled a ransom payment that would have delivered an innocent princess to ocean raiders, rogue bladesman Kylac Kronus finds himself in the middle of a generations-old dispute between the land-dwelling Addarans and seafaring Grenarr—with enemies on both sides. To win the trust of Addaran King Kendarrion and atone for his own recklessness, Kylac has vowed to seek and retrieve the king’s abducted heir, Prince Dethaniel.
A vow that proves easier to make than to keep.
Aboard a stolen Grenarr warship, crewed by a mistrustful regiment of Kendarrion’s hand-picked sailors and soldiers, Kylac ventures forth into enemy-controlled seas. Lacking direction to an already uncertain destination, his company is forced to make a desperate call upon the Sea Scribe, a mad Elementer and ancient relic of the Mage Wars, if they are to have any hope of finding their way to the archipelago wherein they believe Dethaniel to be hidden.
But for every prospective ally, Kylac finds only new adversaries, and for every minor victory, a new snare is laid. While harried by vengeful Grenarr, primitive island natives, and bloodthirsty marauders, Kylac’s perilous voyage is made even more treacherous by sabotage, betrayals, and secret alliances that care nothing for his skills with a blade, and endeavor to undermine everything he means to achieve.
Cover Art: Daren Horley
First Edition: October 30, 2018
the Blackmoon Shards
Book Two of the Warder Trilogy
The shrike peered back at him with unmistakable bloodlust, its eye a crimson garnet burning with reflected torchlight and gleaming with primal hunger. Matching red markings painted its breast, its pinion feathers, the tips of its ashen talons and the scimitar curve of its ebony beak. Stark against an otherwise obsidian sheen, the vivid splashes of color seemed to pulse with the rapid ebb and flow of its breath. The magnificent raptor knew that it had once again served its purpose with unerring strength and efficiency. All that remained was to collect its reward.
The morgrats caged along the far wall of the rookery could sense it as well, mewling as they clambered anxiously about their kennel, fleshy forms writhing over and around one another in search of escape. Once plucked from their prison, the amphibious rodents would be given to make a mad dash down the broken hillside, racing to find a crack or crevice in the pitted slope in which to burrow their way to freedom—a jagged, coal-hued ground littered with the splintered bones of those who had made similar attempt before.
The only salvation lay in continued captivity.
“Well?” Temerius asked.
The harsh edge in his voice caused the shrike to rear back on its open perch, puffing in challenge. He might have reached out to stroke its nape or crop in reassurance, but not before the unsettled bird had sated its hunger. To do so sooner might cost him a finger.
Kriehl failed to respond. Sensing his hesitation, Temerius rounded with an asp-like turn, gaze kindling a fire of its own. Far below, the surf crashed against the razor-edged shoreline, echoing a dull roar while shooting skyward to form a briny, windborne spray that reached clear to their position near the open cave mouth.
He found the wizened shrikemaster hunched over his stone lectern, worrying still over the piece of lambskin the great bird had delivered. Rare, that it should take him so long to decipher an incoming dispatch. Perhaps his already compromised eyesight had finally failed him.
Nonetheless, he wisely spoke before being prompted again to do so. “Fell news, my lord.”
Temerius grimaced. He had sensed as much the moment his lookout had alerted him to the shrike’s imminent arrival. His intuition had formed at once a cold dread in the pit of his stomach that churned like rancid meat. He had not hastened from his ship’s cabin in the cove below, abandoning Lehmyra’s ebon-skinned warmth and braving the rookery’s perilous stair in the dead of night, to hear a shriveled scow such as Kriehl prattle a general misgiving.
“Are you to determine for me now but the nature of this writ? Or is it within my province to know the content?”
The shrikemaster gave a cursory bow, gesturing vaguely for his liege captain’s forgiveness. Too old to observe propriety, it seemed. Else too certain of the status he enjoyed as one of Grendavan’s favorites. Temerius wondered briefly what that status might be worth if he were to pop Kriehl’s remaining eye from that petulant, leather-wrapped skull of his.
Kriehl straightened. A laborious effort. As if encumbered suddenly by an invisible yoke draped over his bony shoulders. The seawind gusted, sending a shiver through his gnarled, whipcord frame. “We have been betrayed. Your great father is slain.”
An abrupt tightness seized Temerius’s chest, like an invisible fist clenched around his heart. His lungs fought the sudden pressure, while a gushing warmth flooded his veins. His mind filled with images of his not-too-distant boyhood, while his thoughts sputtered a denial that struggled desperately for release. But he found his tongue trapped behind gritted teeth, and the cords of his voice strung taut with pain and fury.
The lie echoed as he felt himself plummeting.
Your great father is slain.
“They bade him welcome, led him and his party into their cathedral, conducted the ceremony, and . . .”
The shrikemaster trailed off as Temerius strode forward, a swift, certain movement of unconscious command. He reached out as Kriehl withered in reflex, and snatched the lambskin writ from the interpreter’s gnarled, age-spotted grasp.
He looked at the figures scrawled there, searching. Though he could not read them, he recognized the hand. Sabrynne. The Stormweaver. Which meant there could be no mistake, no error in the interpretation of events. Unless . . .
He whirled on the cringing Kriehl, who withdrew another step. The recently returned shrike let loose a shriek of impatience. The members of its cast, locked in their various cages around the limestone chamber, echoed in sharp chorus.
“You err, old man,” he heard himself rasp. “The Pretender had neither the strength nor the will to oppose my father.”
“ ’Twas not by his hand,” Kriehl admitted. “An outlander. Some rogue assassin dredged up from foreign shores. Nara’s doing, not Darr’s. A mere youth, by the account you hold, but formidable, unpredictable, treacherous. ’Twas his hand that came to Nara’s defense, his blade that—”
“Assassin.” The word reverberated amid the pulse of hammer strokes raging in his skull. “A mere youth, you say.” His gaze blurred as he strained to read the unfamiliar markings inked upon the lambskin, to decipher for himself the story they revealed. Liege captain, he was, of the Kraken’s Reach. Chief steward of this outpost atoll, Rannuthrok—the Ravaged Maiden. Yet it was not given to him to know the arcane language by which a dispatch of this magnitude was communicated. That privilege belonged only to the Core—a handful of elevated shrikemasters and arc captains sworn to the Great Grendavan.
His father. His father could have read this. But not him. He had not yet earned the right to—
A drop of water hit the lambskin. Not water, he realized. A tear.
The neglected shrike squawked another reminder, its call filled this time with mockery.
Kriehl frowned a similar disapproval. “We foresaw this possibility. Your father, chief among all, understood that it—”
“This rogue. Assassin. Has he a name?”
“That and more. He has made off with the Vengeance, profaning its decks with a crew of the Pretender’s landsnakes. He means to rescue Thane.”
The shrike squawked again, insistent, and again its surrounding cast carried the cry. The morgrats whimpered and writhed in their kennel. The patch-eyed Kriehl scowled. “Kronus, it is written there. Kylac Kronus.”
“A name I shall carve in my bowsprit, once I have carved my father’s in his flesh.” He crumpled the lambskin in his fist, and turned back to tend to the shrike.
“That is not your reigning order,” Kriehl argued, shuffling after him as if to retrieve the message. “Yours is to make for Pammelthrok.”
There to join Arc Captains Irravius and Cortrus in the mobilization of an armada that would proceed upon command to the mouth of the Gorrethrian Sound. Temerius stopped as he came eye-to-eye once more with the starving shrike and its livid bloodlust. A mere candle now, compared to his own. “And these orders hail from whom, when our overlord, the Great Grendavan, is dead?”
Behind him, Kriehl stiffened at the derision in his tone. “ ’Ware your tongue, Temerius, and the treason it would sow. Your father may be gone, but this changes noth—”
“It changes everything,” Temerius snapped, as the shrike’s gaze pierced him. Softly, he repeated, “Everything.”
He lashed out, gripping the shrike about the neck. The great seabird screeched, a shrill cry taken up by its cast. It thrashed and beat its powerful wings, and Temerius shook it in turn. While blood-dipped talons tore furrows in his forearm, he held fast, squeezing.
“My lord!” Kriehl gasped. “Temerius!”
The morgrats mewled and whined as if it were they being strangled. The meaty wings of the other shrikes slapped against the iron bars of their cages. Far below, breaking waves surged and crashed, bellowing their dull roar.
A sharp crack, and he felt the bones give beneath his jerking fist. The shrike’s head fell limp, even as its body shuddered through a final series of violent convulsions. Its talons raked at him once, twice more, then ceased to struggle. Triple eyelids sagged, half-drawn shutters against the reflected torchlight.
Hoping the impertinent creature could yet feel a measure of pain, Temerius shoved the lambskin dispatch clear down into its crop, drawing blood across his hand where it scraped against the shrike’s beak.
“What have you done?” Kriehl asked breathlessly.
Temerius released the carcass, watching it tumble from its perch to lie in a feathered heap upon the stone of the cavern floor. Its wizened master rushed forward, stooping to cradle its broken form, while the cries of its kin sang of fury and accusation.
“Fool!” Kriehl hissed. “This bird was worth more than mine own life!”
Temerius Seahammer reached for the dagger sheathed at his waist—a long, bone-handled blade of steel gifted him by his father. As dark rivulets streamed from the riven flesh of his forearm, he wondered if, with only one good eye, the shrikemaster of Rannuthrok could see the flaming bloodthirst that consumed his own.
“To that,” the captain growled, “we are agreed.”
* * *
Darkness engulfed her.
Her head spun. Her stomach churned. She clenched her eyes, her jaw, gritting her teeth in a determined effort to hold the expulsive forces in check. But the lightless void in which she found herself rose and fell, rose and fell, rocking at the same time from side to side in ceaseless rhythm. A roiling pressure mounted from within. Building . . . squeezing . . .
She lurched forward, vomiting in the blackness, cringing at the sound of her wretched heaving and the splash of half-digested food chunks spilling into the bilgewater at her feet. The stench of her own sickness washed over her, summoning another wave. She gave it vent, having no choice now, succumbing to her body’s urgent need.
She gasped for breath before retching again, and again. When a subsequent spasm produced only empty sputtering, she spat and rolled back against the coarse-grained wall, gripping her knees in surrender and self-loathing, allowing her dizziness to take her.
To the depths, she hoped. This entire cursed ship, and me with it.
The mere thought ignited a fire in her belly, a coursing warmth set to greedily consume pain and weakness. Nara grimaced, shivering there in the dank blackness of the cramped bilge while scathed from within by the flames of self-reproach. A mere two days had they been at sea, by her estimation, though it felt like weeks, and may in truth have only been hours. Whichever, too soon to be praying for death or elsewise relinquishing commitment to her purpose.
Would you let them win? Would you see them go unpunished?
Their faces paraded through her mind’s eye, as if to remind her of her course. Thane, her brother. Ulflund, her faithful shadow. Abinama, her love’s light and devoted companion. Pain stabbed at her with the memory of each, and new faces emerged—vile, disgusting. Grendavan, the Grenarr overlord, dark and imposing as he leered at her from across the altar. Ledron, her father’s mindless lapdog, expressionless and bull-headed in the execution of his assigned orders. And Kylac, the impertinent mercenary, so reckless and cocksure. Undaunted. Undisciplined. A marvel in action, true, but those actions had cost her everything.
Not everything, came the inner voice, as her brother’s face pushed to the fore. A plea, it seemed, as she envisioned again his dismembered ring finger—presented to her in Wingport. If she would see him returned by the Grenarr unkilled, they had said, she must forfeit all resistance and return to Avenell to seal the accord with their hated enemies. This, she had done, never truly believing that it would come to pass as her father or Ledron had planned, knowing that her light roamed free, trusting that he would find a way to liberate her.
Her heart clenched in concert with her stomach. She bucked forward and offered another involuntary heave. Liberate her, he would have, save for Kylac. For it was the rogue alone that had made Abi wary. Barring his presence, her Ukinh love would have made short-enough work of Ledron’s tattered company, likely before she had ever been led from Kuurian shores. She would have yet had a chance to put her request before the Imperial Council, to beseech her father’s aged cousin, Emperor Derreg, for aid against the treacherous Grenarr. The voyage home, the trek across the Harrows, the confrontation within the Ukinhan birthing warrens—
None of it would have transpired.
Nara spat again and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, permitting herself a voiceless, shuddering sob in the undulating void of her prison. Her broken thumb throbbed within its splint, an unnecessary reminder of the conflict in those subterranean caverns. Would that Abi had confronted Kylac sooner. Would that any number of the natural perils inhabiting the Ukinhan Wilds had done so for him. His very presence, shadowing hers, had kept a swarm of rival predators at bay. Kept her safe. But doing so had also served to shield Kylac from untold hazards, to make possible their continued trek, their pursuit underground in search of the lifesaving sageryst, into the domain of the merciless jaggeruunt . . .
Bilgewater soured by stomach fluids lapped at her feet as the ship continued to rise and fall in relentless rhythm. As unrelenting as the truth she kept fighting to deny. It stalked her even in her dreams, cold and implacable. He had claimed ignorance, the rogue, and genuine it seemed, not feigned. He had even tried to apologize, in his own rash and clumsy way. Far too little. Far too late. The attempt itself, though a blow to her enemies, had likely only made matters worse. While she might bear grudging respect for his refusal to cow to authority, and for his seemingly matchless skills, she could not abide his cavalier approach, or trust that he had truly taken her or Thane’s interests to heart. A mercenary, for all his professed aims to set matters right. And even if he followed through in all that he claimed, achieved all that he intended, the most grievous harm inflicted upon her could not be undone.
Her precious Abinama would remain to her forever lost.
The ship rose beneath her, buoyed by a particularly large swell, increasing her lightheadedness. Her intestines knotted, but managed to hold onto whatever contents they had not already rejected. Vomit burned in her throat. She resisted the desire to quench the sensation, understanding that her freshwater supplies were limited. Only when convinced that her retching was finished would she wash the foul flavor from her mouth. Emptying her skins too soon would force her in search of more, greatly increasing the chances that she would be discovered. Be discovered too soon, and she was liable to be returned right back home to her father, who would no doubt shackle her in rusty irons, if need be, to prevent her from repeating this course.
She would have suspected him clever enough to do so before, had he not demonstrated elsewise. He had certainly kept a tight leash in the hours leading to her would-be wedding ceremony. But the chaos that had ensued, and the mad scramble with which the king and his inner circle had reacted afterward, had evidently chased such considerations from his mind. She had been all but forgotten, it seemed, once her protestations at being denied a berth aboard had been rejected. Shuttered in her chambers with a Blackfist to ward the door, cocooned in her own disappointment, had been caution enough, her father must have assumed.
The notion brought a smirk of grim pleasure to her lips, which even another abrupt heave from her stomach could not curtail. It wasn’t the first time her royal father had underestimated her. Defying his refusal, she had stolen out the window and down into the bowels of the castle, there to treat with one who she believed would be sensitive to her wishes. He, too, had denied her at first, echoing many of the same driveling protests coughed up by the others, and adding to them the fear that his life would be forfeit should it be discovered that he willingly aided her in an act bordering on treason. But she knew that he himself had volunteered to join this mission solely out of his love for Thane, and that he had only done so to ensure to the best of his limited abilities that the endeavor met with success. For that, he would need all the help to be mustered. Once she had persuaded him of the value of having her present to oversee any negotiations with the Grenarr—and of vowing to carry the secret of his involvement in her stowaway effort to the grave—he had capitulated and reluctantly agreed to see her smuggled aboard.
A fact she now had ample cause to regret. She knew not how long she might have to endure these torturous conditions, secreted away in the deepest recesses of the ship’s bowels, punished by thirst and hunger and seasickness. She knew not how long she could. Eventually, her presence would be discovered, or she would be forced to emerge of her own volition. But she had sworn to herself that it would not be until they had crossed a point of no return, when reversing along their own wake would no longer be a tenable option. Before then, she would accept whatever pain, whatever illness, whatever horrendous discomfort could inflict itself upon her. Recalling Abinama’s face and the certain agony of his final moments, she determined that she would feast on rats and roaches if she had to, choke down vomit and bilgewater, shiver and soak amid the dank, briny darkness until her bones cracked and the skin sloughed from her feet, ere she yielded to her enemies.
She owed it to her brother, her people, her Ukinh consort. She would see Thane rescued, delivered from his abductors without further harm. She would see the Grenarr punished, their ill-begotten attempts to invade her homeland foiled. Kylac, mercenary and self-assumed warder, would be her weapon, a willing instrument used to achieve these ends.
And when he had, when her brother and her people were safe, she would see him flayed and gutted, obtaining her vengeance with the song of his screams in her ears, and the taste of his blood upon her lips.
the Sundered Isle
Book Three of the Warder Trilogy
Let chaos reign . . .
Thwarted by a string of treacheries in his quest to retrieve the abducted Crown Prince Dethaniel, rogue bladesman Kylac Kronus is returned to the Sundered Isle of Addaranth in shackles aboard a Grenarr colony ship. There he finds the worst come to pass: the capitol city of Avenell overrun, King Kendarrion and his armies chased into the wilderness, and the secret Grenarr overlord still very much alive—spared by Kylac’s own hand. To make use of his talents in hunting down and eliminating the final dregs of Addaran resistance, this so-called Stormweaver offers him his life for but a single act of allegiance.
Slay his longtime ward, the hateful, half-blooded Princess Denariel.
Unwilling to do so, Kylac looks to escape, help Denariel track down her vanquished father, and lead her scattered troops in the fight to reclaim their lands. More easily imagined than accomplished. For defeat has left the survivors pitted against one another—wary of spies, and divided in what their response should be. Without aid from foreign shores, any attempt to safeguard their remaining strongholds or retake Avenell would seem doomed to failure.
But with the Grenarr pressing their advantage, there is no time to send forth missives—and no one to receive them. The realization leads Denariel to propose a desperate new course: a trek into the savage heart of the dreaded Harrows, in search of an ancient creature who might yet summon a force capable of driving the invaders from their lands. A force unlikely to distinguish ally from enemy. And if unleashed, sure to consume all.
Cover Art: Daren Horley
First Edition: December 25, 2018
the Sundered Isle
Book Three of the Warder Trilogy
The screams intensified as she descended along the scabrous corridor. A chorus of agony and desperation. Of mewling pleas punctuated by shrill howls and spine-rattling shrieks. Echoes clawed at the tunnel walls as they scrabbled past. Flush with despair. Urgent with need. Seeking escape, only to wither in the coring void.
A song of torment.
Succulent to the ear.
She turned the corner at the base of a crude stair. Dathus and Horvus, together serving sentry, stiffened as she entered their view, sable faces gleaming in the torchlight like burnished blackwood. Horvus moved to open the ironbound door they warded. Dathus flattened himself to one side. Both clapped fist to heart and dipped chin to chest as she brushed by, her brisk passage stirring the flames ensconced along the walls.
Through the door, a stench assailed her. Of burning hair and seared flesh. Of sweat and blood and entrails. Of rancid hopes and festering fears. Deeply, she inhaled.
The aroma of conquest.
As she neared the bank of cells, the song reached its crescendo. Wails and bellows underscored now by plaintive moans and pitiful whimpers. Amid these chords of frailty and cowardice, the means of their suffering. The snap of bone. The hiss of hot iron. The clangor of spikes and chains. The wrench and squeak of rope and pulley. Harsh, discordant, yet all part of the same tune. Strains of a melody that hailed her triumph, that sent chills of victory worming through her flesh.
In a cavernous chamber to her right, Baccus and Pirrus were tending their garden of human wreaths—Addaran landsnakes lashed naked to spinning wheels, struck by hammer until their broken limbs were mashed and twisted in grotesque angles amid the spokes, then left to writhe and moan in a withering torment meant to endure for days.
At this particular moment, Baccus carried the hammer, while Pirrus inspected the wilted victims. Watering those in need. Sussing out the dead by slapping at mangled appendages or tugging at their hair. Few resembled human form.
“This one’s dead,” he announced, when a senseless wretch, unspeakably gnarled and knotted, failed to respond.
“Ivory fist says he’s breath in there yet,” Baccus argued.
She paused, observing as Pirrus withdrew from the tangled ruin, and Baccus hefted his hammer. The strike splintered an already pulverized forearm—and raised a ragged yowl from the victim.
Baccus grinned fiercely, while Pirrus frowned and shook his head. In doing so, he caught sight of her—quickly nodding and thumping a sharp salute. Baccus rounded and did the same.
“You owe him a fist,” she said.
Pirrus bowed again. “Yes, my kiros.”
“Half pay for dead wreathes,” she reminded them, and left them to their work.
“Overlord,” they replied in unison, offering a parting salute.
Venturing forward along the central hall, she found more of the same. Chambers to either side filled with Addarans put to various forms of torture. Some were being actively tended with saws, peelers, screws, or vices. Others had been abandoned to cradles or collars, some of which teased the victim with survival so long as their own stamina held. Still others had been encased with insects, crabs, or agitated vermin, to be slowly stung, torn, or gnawed to death.
Several were being actively interrogated. Others lay beyond questioning, their horror persisting merely to be witnessed by others. Regardless, each treatment seemed crueler than the last, the agony of each victim more severe. As she had commanded. A menagerie of pain. One to fill this hole with every conceivable stench and ear-splitting cry. Burns, bruises, lacerations. Shattered bones and severed appendages. Men awash in one another’s blood, bowels, and vomit, or slathered in their own.
But it was their gazes she sought, from which she derived a richer pleasure. Red-veined eyes shuttered by bruising or swollen with tears. Where she could peer past the carnage and into that purer well of raw anguish. Where their prayers for death burned with increasing fervor.
And went unanswered.
Deeper within the den, she found at last her chief inquisitor, overseeing Samrus’s application of a knee splitter. The landsnake strapped to the chair dared look to her arrival in hope.
“Thrassus,” she said. “I would see the general.”
“Overlord,” he acknowledged, and rose to lead the way.
“Proceed,” she bade Samrus, and smiled as the pathetic hope curdled upon the snake’s pale face.
Overwrought. Petty. Unnecessary. She cared not how others might describe this effort. A long time had she and her people sought retribution against their Addaran betrayers. Generation after generation, over the course of one hundred and ninety-two years. Here at last, victory. The annals would record that it was she, Sabrynne Stormweaver, Great Grendavan the Eighth, who had finally restored the Grenarr to their ancestral homeland. How she had conceived and then executed a daring, multifaceted plan that had repaid the landsnakes’ treachery and seen them driven from their stolen nest. The city of Avenell was now hers, and with it, the heart of the isle of Grenah.
As such, she had no intention of repeating the mistake the Addarans had made by merely driving her people from the isle’s shores. Her forces had held the city for more than two weeks now. But not two hours had marked its fall before she had turned eye to those who might later rally against her.
Determined not merely to supplant her hated enemies, but to eradicate them.
“Have we gleaned nothing of value?” she asked of Thrassus, as he plucked a lantern from the wall and led her even deeper into the torture grounds.
“Only chaff,” her hulking inquisitor huffed. “Kernels aplenty, but naught more than empty husks.”
Sabrynne nodded, seeing no reason to question his assessment. She hadn’t charged him with oversight of this task for either his stomach or imagination—formidable as they were—but for his uncanny ability to measure and sift truth from lie. His previous reports had established already the relative ease with which these landsnake tongues were loosened. But the whole of their hissing and wagging had thus far proved contradictory and disjointed. Most of these rags and wretches simply lacked the information she required, and so offered up tales in the desperate hope of appeasing their tormentors.
“Word from Grenathrok?” Thrassus asked.
“East of rudder. Barkavius and the fleet are en route.” Having overcome some minor complications, she might have added, as detailed in the steward’s message. Regrettable, in some respects. But the overall gains would seem to far outstrip their losses. Either way, her faithful inquisitor need not be troubled, for all the bearing such dealings had upon his task.
Thrassus swelled with the news, turning his head—spattered in Addaran blood—to offer her a grateful smile. His wives and children would be among the arriving colonists. To be reunited after nearly a year’s separation. Because of her foresight and tenacity.
Their stroll through the blood-soaked warren ended at another ironbound door. The rusty latch bolt shrieked a lament as Thrassus wrenched it free of its housing. The door squealed a similar protest, but relented to his powerful shove.
His lantern pushed back the veil of shadows to reveal the lone figure housed within. The figure stirred. General Ohrma. A man for whom her father had borne a grudging respect. A once-worthy adversary who had repelled countless Grenarr landing attempts over his decades of service to the Addaran crown—including the ill-fated spring invasion hailed as the Blood Tide, now more than twenty years past, in the One Hundred Sixty-Seventh Year of Exile.
Of stark humiliation to her proud people, as most of the blood that season had been their own.
It had culminated not long after in her father being deposed by the Clamcrusher, Uruthus, who had seen his great vessel burned to cinders, her elder siblings butchered, and herself, a mere waif, escaped with her infant brother to become outcasts. The tribulations that had followed . . .
To think on them now caused her to smile. So long ago.
She admired her father to this day through the foolish eyes of a devoted young daughter. Nonetheless, she found it difficult to reconcile his description of the Addaran general with the decaying remnant of a man before her. Immersed in a tub to his shoulders. Force-fed milk and honey, until steeped in a stagnant stew of his own liquid excrement. His face lathered with the excess, to draw the mask of flies he now wore—a nest to maggots and their larvae. A breeding ground he was, for filth and disease, taking root in every orifice. Another rag who prayed vainly for death.
“Raise him,” she commanded.
Hanging his lantern on a hook, Thrassus circuited the tub, loosing the cords whose cinched lengths—attached to a neck collar—anchored the former general in place. The inquisitor then worked his way to a whim at the back of the chamber and wound it in a steady circle, reeling in a length of chain looped through an overhead ring, which in turn drew Ohrma skyward by a set of cuffs binding his wrists.
Sabrynne snorted at the putrid stench given rein as the general was hefted from the foul soup. Clouds of flies, disturbed by the unfamiliar tremors, flew free, buzzing their distress. A handful found their way to her. Brushing them aside, she stepped closer, defying her own disgust.
Ohrma scarcely stirred. Stripped and pale. Riddled with worms and rot. Seeming more than half dead, if not completely so.
“Softened, was my command,” she said, filling her voice with irritation.
With all but the general’s feet pulled from the tub, Thrassus latched the whim and took a nearby spear in hand. Exuding a cheerless confidence, he raked the spearhead against the top of Ohrma’s shins, just below the knee. Sagging skin tore away in strips under its own swollen weight, sloughing from the exposed meat and bone. The general twitched. Then coughed. Then roused, bucking and kicking as if his legs had been set afire.
“Feeble will, overlord,” Thrassus muttered, his own tone lacking apology.
The general opened his eyes, blinking against the sweet paste that had soured there, and against the maggots clinging to it. His kicking steadied. Not for lack of pain, given the rictus of his face, but for a lack of sustainable strength. Beneath leathery skin that had taken on the shriveled texture of rotting plums, the fruit of aged muscles had gone slack.
Sabrynne smirked. “He fought lustily enough when seeking to repel our incursion.” She titled her head, angling her gaze to meet his. “Or is it that he overtaxed himself, having expended so much strength already in the course of his own revolt?”
She had triggered her long-brewing assault with a fleet of her warships, sent south through the Gorrethrian Sound. A retaliatory strike, it had seemed, for the Addarans’ murder of a decoy they had believed to be the Grenarr overlord, Great Grendavan. In truth, a feint that had served to lure the bulk of King Kendarrion’s forces north to reinforce the city of Indranell—thereby depleting those forces dedicated to defending the home city of Avenell.
Those who remained? Divided from within. Portraying herself as the Grenarr emissary assigned to oversee Kendarrion’s adherence to the accord that would see his abducted heir returned unharmed, she had won open admission to the Pretender’s court. A lamb among wolves, it would seem, were she not the one stalking them. Teasing, taunting, and otherwise flaunting herself among them, she had plowed a field of disgust and opposition in which to sow the seeds of civil discord. While the king himself protected her from those dissidents who would sooner see her killed or used for sport, her seeds had taken root, casting irrefutable light upon Kendarrion’s incapacity to lead during this personal crisis involving his royal children.
Spurring his critics toward insurrection.
Once Avenell had been weakened by the deployment of the bulk of its military, an uprising was sprung by the opposing “Loyalists”—those who would see a stronger leader raised in Kendarrion’s stead. A leader who would refuse the Grenarrian accord, built as it was upon an act of ransom. Who would sacrifice Prince Dethaniel and whomever else if it would deny the loathsome tar-skins so much as a toehold upon Addaran shores.
Ohrma, the retired general retained as Kendarrion’s chief advisor, had served as that leader.
“Are you savoring your treatment?” she asked him, coaxing in her tone.
The faithless general fought to raise his head. A loll, he managed, as he swayed there in his shackles. Twice his mouth twitched as if to speak before words finally worked themselves free. “It is . . . no more . . . than I deserve.”
Sabrynne scowled. For his sorrow and self-loathing, she brooked no sympathy. This, they had discussed already. “I asked you not to weep at me over the injustice wrought by your own hand. You might have quashed any attempt to betray your king, yet chose to spearhead the rebellion against him instead. That much was not my doing. Nor is it why you are here.”
He tensed, shifted. An understanding, stripped from something she had said, emboldened him, lending him a spark of will. It glinted in his eyes and caused his lips to tighten with the barest hint of a mad smile. “My lord . . . is yet . . . beyond your reach.”
“Nothing is beyond my reach. Time is all I require. The only thing your stubbornness serves is to prolong this ordeal.” She flicked a knife from the sheath at her wrist, and used it to remove a leech from his thigh. “Where is Darr?”
Ohrma blinked, then looked away, clinging to his silence.
“You should know I’ve received word that your Princess Denariel is en route.” The general’s gaze lifted again, reflexive concern shaded by suspicion. “Captured by my chief steward,” she explained. “If you will but inform me of your king’s whereabouts, I will not only end your suffering, but I will spare her—his daughter and only surviving child—a torture less pleasant than your own.”
“His Highness . . . Prince Dethaniel—”
“Dead. Slain upon my order, given wing the moment the city fell.”
A penetrating sorrow crept across the general’s brow, even as he strained to ward it off with desperate denial. A vein emerged along his reddening temple. His lower lip quivered.
“If you have any love for your king or his bloodline, you will do this.”
She believed that love genuine, inasmuch as a treacherous landsnake was capable of it. By all accounts, Ohrma—keenly aware of the internal outcry to which his king was unwilling to listen—had been opposed to her people’s ransom proposal from the outset, and advised Darr against it. Yet his personal loyalty had led him to stubbornly resist the notion of taking the crown by force, even as those within his city’s hierarchy increasingly demanded it. It had taken considerable goading to realign his thinking, as she’d heard it. And that bolstered in no small measure by a professed belief that he might at some point restore power to Darr once the conflict had settled.
While this last may have been but a lie to assuage his guilty conscience, she believed—from his lips and others—that it was only with a heavy heart that he had, in the end, succumbed to their mounting pressure. His justification for personally advising Kendarrion to send the bulk of Avenell’s garrison north? Not only to defend against the Grenarr landing at Indranell, but to execute his own takeover with minimal struggle and loss of life.
Convinced he was acting in his people’s best interests.
She could see him struggling with a similar decision now. If her claims were true, did he owe it to his ruler and longtime friend to do what he could to spare the last of Darr’s royal progeny some measure of pain? Surely, his confusion was bolstered by the effects of his own torment. As glimpsed in the gazes of his abused countrymen, she sensed the weaker part of him grasping at any thread of hope for ending his present anguish.
After a long moment of teary-eyed distress, his expression smoothed, a sheen of clarity overcoming his addled senses. “What drop of venom . . . from your tarred lips . . . can I take as truth?” He managed at last to heft his chin from his chest. “I will be no pawn . . . in your games. The best I can serve . . . is to die in His Majesty’s stead . . . and greet my grave . . . knowing my people . . . still had a chance.”
Vexing, truthful as it was. The Loyalist uprising had served well its primary purpose. During the mass confusion of the revolt, the city effectively torn in two, Sabrynne had sent a small, secret force to infiltrate and sabotage the Seagate. A battery of Grenarr ships, standing by and teeming with warriors, had thus been able to enter the bay and assault Avenell from within. Making possible her victory, where so many other forays by her people had failed.
But the attack had foundered in its secondary objective: to capture Kendarrion himself. Upon recognizing the Grenarr sneak attack through the bay, Ohrma had released the freshly deposed king with his deepest apologies, and mobilized instead a rearguard defense while Darr and a sizable contingent of city soldiers fled north. The fickle general’s feeble rally had scarcely slowed the Grenarr invasion, but had succeeded in buying the Pretender’s escape.
Scouts sent to track them had returned in failure or not at all. While fighting to secure the city, she had lacked numbers sufficient to the task. Bolstering those numbers in the days since had made no difference. Hers were warriors of the sea. Masters of wind and swell. Men and women who speared fish and wrestled sharks. Yet ill-equipped to scale mountain, meander through canyon, or slog through jungle while seeking sign of cowering landsnakes.
She had patrols scouring the main roads, of course, but had fully expected Darr to avoid those—to slink instead along some series of back trails like a harried animal. Well known as an enthusiastic explorer in his youth, he would seek in this hour of defeat to grasp at every perceived advantage, his knowledge of the surrounding landscape being chief among them.
Even now, with reinforcements pouring in, she was loath to spend Grenarr lives by sending them thrashing into the wilderness in vain pursuit. Like casting seeds into the wind and expecting them to take root. She had other tasks for which her warriors would be needed, and so had focused from the outset on a more targeted approach. With Ohrma and a host of fellow captives delivered to Thrassus and his inquisitors, she had expected to mine the information necessary to locate Darr and his flock. To pinpoint the royal rebel before he could reunite with his northern army at Indranell. To decapitate the most likely source of resistance and thereby strengthen her as-yet tenuous hold upon these shores.
Unable to sustain its weight, the general lowered his head. A crawling maggot fell from his matted white hair, only to join those infesting his beard. Sabrynne eyed its wriggling struggle, and considered. By now, she might be too late. It might be that the Pretender had already slipped through her loose net and found his way to that bastion of his in the north. And once empowered with his reserve army . . . A pitiless ruler. An aggrieved parent. Army? Were Darr more a man, a stick in hand would be sufficient with which to seek his revenge.
Her armada in the sound would continue to demand their attention, of course. Should the bulk remain at Indranell, she was inclined to let them rot, rather than waste lives trying to flush them out. But she harbored little doubt that they would mount a return. She knew too well what a dispossessed people, driven by a sense of vengeance, was capable of. Whomever their leader, they would at some point rally southward in an attempt to retake the capital. She could press to take some of the land between them now, but those who resisted would be experienced ground fighters who outnumbered her, knew the terrain better than she, and who would fight her every step of the way. Better to let them come to her so that she could ambush them at a time and place of her choosing.
To that end, the more she could learn about their movements and intent, the better prepared she would be to receive them. Unfortunately, her few spies amid that army were all but useless, with no easy means of contacting her from the field—and, more critically, no way to receive payment. For this and other reasons, she had placed the bulk of her confidence in Ohrma.
Quickly proving a wasted effort.
Sabrynne tapped her blade, still in hand, against her lip. Perhaps mistaking it as a sign of hostility, the general summoned another defiant breath.
“My pain . . . is well earned,” he rasped. “Your torments . . . just punishment . . . for my foolish treachery.”
A muted whisper of the same, tired refrain. As irksome as the persistent buzzing of flies or the pervasive stench of his bowels. Sabrynne had scoffed at his attempt at nobility in the beginning, and was unimpressed by it now. “An honorable man does not absolve himself. Nor laden his deeds with justification as you have.”
“Honor . . . or not . . . you will kill me . . . before I betray my king . . . a second time.”
Sabrynne eyed him dispassionately, as again his momentary strength failed. How much more could his wasted form tolerate? What chance that he might be swayed?
She glanced at Thrassus. Sensing her question, he shook his head.
It chafed her, the thought of his suffering gone numb. She had half a mind to have him hauled fully from that tub and nursed back to health, that she might begin again. But that could take weeks, time better spent devising a new plan. There were others she might use to track the craven king and his rebels. Others of a heartier constitution and more willing persuasion. None as well trusted by Darr, perhaps. But with Denariel set to be delivered . . . that would seem to open any number of possibilities. And Kronus . . . Kronus had proven malleable, and would be put to use, one way or another.
If her thickening patrols hunting along the northern road could continue to wall the Pretender off from his army, she might yet achieve her aims sooner rather than later, the fleshy pustule before her be damned.
She marked the blood dripping down his shins, as distant screams raked at the wells of her ears. A rivulet tracing a ridge of exposed bone spurred her decision.
“Thrassus. Deliver this festering sack to Baccus and Pirrus. Let us weave another wreath with which to welcome the princess’s return.”
* * *
With the day bending toward dusk, she returned to her royal quarters. Wending from dungeon bowels toward the palace’s hilltop pinnacle. Ascending through cramped, windless tunnels rank with squalor; through broad, windowed halls stark in function; and finally through expansive, cushioned corridors perfumed and appointed for royal comfort. Arriving ultimately at a suite of chambers occupied just over a fortnight ago by the Pretender, but belonging now—like the rest of his stolen possessions—to her.
Along the way, she sent for Trathem.
She did not find him waiting, and so poured herself a wine to soften her thirst. Cup in hand, she retreated to a balcony to escape the mild din of craftsmen at work—chamberlain and stewards attended by draftsmen, stonemasons, carpenters, weavers, sculptors, jewelers, and other artisans, all laboring in some fashion to remove the stain of Darr’s presence and remake the space more to her liking.
Facing south, she gazed down along the city’s terraced hillsides and twisting roadways. Quiet, with a fair size of its former populace fled. The rest of the cornered landsnakes hunkered indoors, else risked the wrathful whims of her warriors. Only a handful of fires burned. Buildings wherein her forces had trapped rebel elements, or heaps of bodies caught out and slaughtered for their resistance. Fewer than the day before, she observed. Among the conquered civilians, grim acceptance was taking root.
Farther south, the descending sun cast a shimmering layer of molten gold upon the inner bay. So long closed to her, its inner shores were now being traced in slow, steady circuit by a handful of Grenarr Prowlers. At dock were four Marauders and a dozen Reavers. A meager fleet of Addaran ships had been completely destroyed—six in battle, and numerous others razed in their berths. Large craft and small. Royal and private. Too feeble to be of any meritable use, the vessels had served better as another sign of her superiority and will.
Another four Marauders, along with ten more Reavers and nearly a score of Prowlers, sailed the ocean waters nearby, most within a day’s reach. Some had deposited a portion of their crews before taking up patrol routes along the lands beyond the Seagate. Others were still en route, not yet arrived. The latter included her colony ships, of course, along with the warships serving escort. Still two weeks out, or more, depending on the winds—and on how long it took for them to gather the Grenarr populations of the various atolls dotting the seas between Grenathrok, to the east, and Grenah, here in the west.
A voyage long-awaited. And, for all her eagerness, worth savoring. As, for many of her people, she intended it to be their last.
With the thought came a strange ache. An underlying pang reminding her that, triumphant as it might be, this momentous event marked a shift in the Grenarr way of life. After nearly two centuries of hard-fought lessons, the last thing she wanted was for her people to relinquish their dominion over the seas. Now that they had reclaimed their homeland, would they become complacent? Would they begin to neglect or forsake the skills that had made them who they were today?
Not under my rule, she determined, and cast the thought like an oath into the wind. The world she had won for them would bolster them, empower them. She would not let it consume them. If it meant bringing down a mountain or capturing a thunderbolt, she would—
“Overlord,” Tonlynne announced at her back, “the snake you summoned has arrived.”
“Have Wrakus send him in. See the others out.”
“As commanded, my kiros.”
The distaste was thick in her chamberlain’s voice, but Sabrynne chose not to address it. Truth unleashed, her expectation of what must likely follow made her queasy in a way she had never felt at sea. Before, the necessity had been clear. Now . . .
She had hoped for another way.
Draining the last of her wine, she turned and refilled her cup. By then, the sitting room had nearly emptied, laborers funneling dutifully toward the door, leaving behind their tools and materials. A few turned to bow and salute in departure, only to sneer or grimace on their way out at the pale-faced Addaran stopped just beyond the portal by Wrakus’s halberd.
Like any good shepherd, Tonlynne made certain the flock had cleared before taking her own leave. She regarded the visitor with a critical gaze of revulsion as Wrakus—with a threatening expression—let him enter.
“The door,” Sabrynne said.
Glaring from beneath her brow, the chamberlain obeyed.
“I daresay your watchdogs would sooner gut me than admit me,” Trathem groused.
Sabrynne poured a second cup. “Fret not, my sweet. They’d not dare upset me so.” She extended his drink. “Not for the influence I hold with our overlord.”
He did not yet know that she was Grendavan. Nor would he discover it, she had determined, until she no longer had need of him. The truth might make her too inviting a target.
Not that she couldn’t defend herself. But he was of no potential use to her dead.
And useful he had proven. A highly regarded sergeant of the Stonewatch—Kendarrion’s land-based military force. Ranking high enough to be of influence, but not so high as to merit constant suspicion or accusation from political rivals. A man who’d been serving capably as an informant for her people for more than a year now—ever since his precious young daughter had been abducted in a Grenarr raid on the eastern shores of the Gorrethrian Sound.
Upon coming as an emissary to the Addaran court, hated and alone, she had sought him out and threatened to expose him to his superiors. A ransom of information had he paid already, to keep his stolen daughter safe. How merciful might his king be to learn of this?
Fear, for himself and his daughter, had made him impressionable and compliant from the outset. To serving as her eyes and ears within the palace. To listening in on Darr and his counselors as they debated their response to the accord proposed by her kind. To helping her determine whether they meant to follow through with their side of the forced arrangement as they professed to her.
Then the princess Denariel had gone missing, and everything was thrown into doubt. Doubt as to whether the king was being truthful with her. Doubt as to whether Trathem was. Desperate to prove his loyalty, the sergeant had worked that much harder to uncover and persuade her of the truth of things. That Nara had slipped away of her own volition. That she refused to abide by the terms of the accord to which her father cowed, and had sailed off to seek reinforcement from cousins occupying some distant land. That Darr, furious, had set a sizable contingent of Shadowguard to retrieve her . . .
All just so much distraction, welcomed by Sabrynne as a suitable diversion to her greater purpose. Amid the turmoil, she had found Trathem willing to take on additional responsibilities. To stir the pot and season the brew. To campaign among favorable ears—however quietly, at first—for Darr’s incapacitation and removal from office. Should he have been caught or reprimanded, no terrible loss to her. But he hadn’t. He had again served admirably, doing much to spark the flames of civil unrest by expressing his disgust toward her. Admitting that, after a lifetime of battling their dark kind, her mere presence served as an affront to his senses. As it should to theirs. How they should consider killing her. Against His Majesty’s wishes? To the swells with His Majesty’s wishes. Was His Majesty even fit to rule when he placed his son’s welfare above that of the Addaran people?
The sentiment had quickly gained favor and acceptance. A groundswell rising like a king’s tide. From Trathem, Sabrynne had learned who was most likely to revolt—those unafraid to match deeds to words—and worked in her own ways to fluster and frustrate them in passing. All while coaching her pet sergeant on how to bring them to action.
It was also around this time that she had begun to ply him with other forms of persuasion. With prompts and challenges of a more enticing nature. Raising possibilities that stoked a man’s deeper yearning for acceptance and fulfillment. However the Addaran power struggle played out, how high could he hope to rise under Darr? How high under a Loyalist regime led by General Ohrma? The Great Grendavan was pleased with his work. In addition to reuniting him with his daughter, her overlord could raise him to a station of wealth and comfort unlike anything an Addaran soldier could hope to earn.
Why would he do this? Trathem had naturally wondered. To which she had confessed her attraction to him. A forbidden fantasy, he had become to her. Could she ever be the same to him? The world she envisioned denied no man his desires simply because others said it could not be. She could take him as her lover, her husband even. When the Grenarr were restored to power, his would be a position of great esteem—of both honor and envy.
A song of temptation, sung with the perfect blend of earnestness and vulnerability. An ageless seduction, but one to which she had found him susceptible. Serving to strengthen her influence upon him. To deepen his belief in her and what she hoped to achieve. To make her more intimate plans known to him. To make them his.
And himself a willing instrument in bringing them about.
But as she watched him now, she saw an old uncertainty resurfaced in his eyes. A deep mistrust held at bay only by foolish hope. She forced herself to smile sweetly, and again lifted his cup to him.
“Come,” she beckoned, and drank from her own.
Trathem hesitated, then crept forward and accepted her offering. Timid. As he had been in the beginning of their acquaintance. “I’ve asked for you.”
Sabrynne added a tinge of weariness to her smile. “Your pardon, my sweet. I’ve been otherwise engaged.”
Slowly, so as not to startle him, she raised her empty hand to cup his bearded cheek. He was not an ugly man, by Addaran standards, yet small and weak compared to her own. Wrapped in that damnably pale skin—tanned and freckled, but otherwise unfinished by the sun.
He warmed a measure at her touch. Self-consciously, he looked to his wine, and drank.
“Any word as to your lord’s arrival?” he asked.
“On schedule. It will please me for you to meet him at last.”
“Should I survive that long,” Trathem scoffed. He did so with a lighthearted tone, but his genuine concern was palpable. Doubtless, her fellow Grenarr had done all they could over the past couple weeks to make him feel unwelcome—short of stripping him from his skin. Permitted to bark and growl, but ordered not to bite. She felt no pity for him. For how long had she tolerated similar conditions?
But she could tell they had taken a toll on him. His eyes moved quickly, warily, almost feral in their gleam. For more than a week had she separated herself from him. Long enough to stir his suspicion. Now that her kind had taken the city, what place did he have in their world? Did she mean to cast him aside? Just how much sway did she truly have with the unknown master who would ultimately determine his fate?
The questions went unasked. He understood them to be irrelevant. He had cast his lot already, risking everything for the promise of his daughter’s return. Much as Darr had for his child.
The royal fool.
She itched to tell him as much. To see his expression crumble and his trusting hopes dashed.
Instead, she slid close, and pressed her mouth against his, kissing him hard. Reminding herself that he had earned better. For his efforts in spurring the Loyalist opposition. For sheltering her after she had fled the wedding massacre—when she had reassured him that the slain Grendavan was an imposter, and that her real master would yet deliver all that she had promised. For leading the pack of soldiers that had sabotaged the Seagate once Ohrma’s uprising had been triggered, allowing her ships to enter the bay.
But acknowledging the extent to which she owed him only kindled her disgust. That she might in any way be beholden to a landsnake . . .
She broke the kiss, smiling sweetly and offering her hand. He took it, seeming mildly assuaged. She looked to the nearest furnishings, covered in the detritus of unfinished labors, and drew him instead toward her bedchamber.
A potpourri of flowers and spices couldn’t quite drive out the stale mustiness of castle stone, or the strong hint of smoke carried by the breeze. It made her yearn for the deck of her ship—or even one of her balconies. Yet she hesitated to share with him the views from her quarters, where he might be reminded of the destructive chaos by which his countrymen had so recently been consumed.
She seated herself at the foot of her bed, and peered up at him imploringly. “I trust our time apart has not weakened your devotion to me.”
A lie. He merely feared to speak the truth.
She pulled at his hand, until he sat down beside her.
“My sweet pearl. You’ve done all that I begged, and more. Kept me from assassination. Furthered my lord’s aims. But when I lie awake, alone, I cannot fool myself that any of it was truly done for me.”
She turned her head, as if dreading his lack of denial.
“Not so,” he insisted, and squeezed her hand in emphasis. “I . . . I worry for Kesha, yes. I long to see her again. As I long to see you when forced to endure such absence.”
She declined to meet his gaze. “You have plotted against and betrayed your people. Shed their blood. Listened to their screams. Heavy must be your regret.”
“What you told me in the beginning was true. My people would have abandoned my baby girl, imprisoned me on the mere suspicion of conspiracy, had they believed her taken and not killed in that raid.” He nudged her chin toward him. “What we have done here, we have done together. For our future.”
She hid her laughter with a hopeful smile. Why seek to reassure him, when it was so easy to spin the blade and force him to reassure her?
She eyed him gratefully, then pressed her head to his shoulder in a gesture of intimacy. After a moment of silence, she stiffened and withdrew. Sighing. Wearing a pained expression.
“You’re troubled,” he observed.
“My sweet. There’s something else I must ask of you.”
Again the flicker of doubt, fueled by a sense of self-preservation he was too deaf to listen to.
“A task unfinished. The one to ensure our peace is a lasting one.”
“Darr. You’ve found him?”
“No. But I believe I know how we might do so.”
She told him, then, of Denariel’s anticipated arrival. Of her plan to imprison the princess with some of the other Addaran captives—only to let this brood of prisoners escape.
“That they might find their way to Darr,” Trathem surmised.
“And with Nara among them, be welcomed into his midst.” She paused. “I would have you join them.”
Her pet snake scowled. “Why not simply hold her hostage?”
“For what? Your king’s surrender? He has already shown a willingness to spend her as currency.”
“He might feel differently, if your lord means to kill Thane as you’ve indicated.”
One of the half-truths she had confided in him, as a means of furthering his trust. Admitting that Grendavan did not intend to let Thane live. “See?” she said, seeing no reason to inform him that the sentence had already been carried out. “The treachery has gone too far for there to be any faithful bartering. And there is too much dissent within Darr’s camp—as already proven—to trust that his objectors would allow him to make any foolish pacts.”
She rubbed the side of his face, inwardly cringing at the scratch of his close-cropped beard against her palm. “I need someone I can trust to infiltrate their ranks. A reliable agent within their camp to apprise me of their movements. Nara will get you there. She has proven already to be a fighter. The rebels will trust her.”
“And me? My countrymen may be suspicious of my late entry to the prisons, given their fear of spies.”
“So we spin a tale by which you eluded us thus far, spearheading an underground resistance only recently rooted out.”
“My word alone, as there are none to back the claim.”
She envisioned her nails digging like talons into his ear, and ripping it from his head. “Suspicion is easily deflected,” she assured him. “If they wish to see shadows? We’ll give them one.”
Already, she had the man in mind. A captain of the Pretender’s so-called Shadowguard, taken captive by her warriors when discovered bound by his own people. Rendered useless to her, it had seemed, by his disgraced status. Easily bought, perhaps, but clearly unreliable, likely to switch sides or desert at the first sign of trouble. But as a diversion . . .
“What is the name of that greasy wretch who failed to ward your king? The flamebeard.”
“Ruhklyn, yes.” Offer him the chance to prove himself valuable by informing against his own. Reposition him within the dungeons in a manner in which he might do so. A man such as him would be agreeable to this—to whatever he must say or do to gain favor. Dependable in his unreliability. Set him to play mole in order to draw attention from her real one.
Deceit within layers, using false aims nonetheless believable in order to mask her true intentions. Thus had her kingdom been won.
She smiled as his confusion smoothed with a rough understanding. Not entirely daft, this pawn of hers. At times, when not blinded by need, he could be downright clever.
“We’ve still no evidence of my own defense,” he said.
Again she kissed him, warm and deep. Imagined tearing off his tongue and swallowing it. Replacing the void in his mouth with another piece of his body, pared from his trunk with a rusty blade.
She settled for biting his lip, sharply enough to draw blood. Off his pained grunt, she withdrew, and slapped him. Hard.
“A few bruises should help tell the tale,” she said, and smiled seductively. “I can make sure you enjoy them.”
Eyes glittering with hunger, he did not protest.