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When the capital is sacked,
Luc is called on to pursue their enemies and an artifact of great power.

Read a few pages. - Enjoy! - BOOK ONE

Prologue - Reunion

When the world was young and the bitter, grinding weight of the ages was an ever-present shadow vilifying and corrupting the hearts of men, a cloudburst hammered the Shoulder of Peyennar, an imposing outpost hidden on the doorstep of the Mournful Peaks in the heights of the northern Pentharan mountain range, south of the Forlorn Wood and east of the Plains of Power. The stronghold’s twin banners rippled in the fury: a single sparrow perched atop a lone branch; a silver spear, silent on a battle-torn field. Together the two ensigns danced in tandem above the hold’s apex and the tower that stretched from the base of the foundation—empty now but with a menacing watchfulness that was there even when not whipped by the wind and rain. For the third of three consecutive days and nights the rain continued to beat at the hold, a jet black structure carved in the rock face that would have appeared a part of the Peaks to anyone gazing eastward towards Peyennar. Few knew a fortress was hidden in the midst of the storm. Silent. Brooding.

Watchful.

Westward under the shadow of the hold a strange settlement bore the wind and rain in an outcrop hidden beneath tall evergreens. There, a cluster of roofed buildings lined an orderly lane. The village green stood proudly at the heart, balancing the line of solid homes and modest establishments, the village inn, butcher, cobbler, and seamstress. With fewer than a hundred residents, everything in Peyennar appeared to have a purpose, none more important perhaps than to collectively stand against the fury of the Peaks and the isolation from the plains below.

Near the edge of the village not far from the green a boy was attempting to shield himself from the elements. Although he found it next to impossible to penetrate the misty spray ahead through the downpour, he still found his gaze pulled to the firmament and the currents circling the world without end. The ominous airstream held the memories of thousands, some claimed, but it was from somewhere infinitely remote within that the voices of eternity and memory heralded the unfolding history of Man.

The sound of thunder above the Pentharan mainland to the west brought him out of the reverie. Remembering himself, he quickened his steps, crossing the settlement’s outskirts along a narrow lane the Oathbound used for transferring supplies to the hold. Although no one saw him passing under the trees, there was a safety to Peyennar that at times felt disarming. Rumor from the far west did not often reach the village, but what word came, when it came, spoke of ruin: bands of Ardan and Earthbound sweeping through the countryside sowing bedlam. Here, though, they had been untouched by it. Safe. The thought should not have troubled him, but it did.

Struggling through the tempest, Luc Anaris pressed on. At his location near the western edge of the village, Peyennar sat concealed in the heart of the ancient wood, trees that seemed almost timeless—the spruce, mingled with the maple, willow, pine, and evergreen; what little light penetrated the forest was lost in the heart of the wood even a stone’s throw from the nearest window. But caught up in the surging celestial forces, he hardly noticed. That was not to say the unsettling undertones were lost on him. The world was changing and war was the device driving these people to flee their homeland for the mountain haven. Any other time he would have grieved for them, with them. Now he had a sense of duty and purpose to drive him forward.

From the heart of the village a man in his prime would have found the hike to the western escarpment a considerable distance, but Luc’s strides were nowhere near as deliberate or even. Already he had been on the trail roughly half again that time and had hardly reached the midway point. The biting wind did not help matters and the speed with which night was falling shocked him. Still he made efforts to keep moving. He supposed if it came to it he could always turn aside and make for the Acriel farm as he had originally intended. You must not fear the night, his father often maintained. Do this and welcome your kin as you were meant to, Luc’s brother,Far, had added with a smile and a nod of encouragement.

Absently he stepped over a hooked branch nearly a foot thick that must have broken off sometime during the storm. As he carefully made his way, he considered the welcome he would receive when he returned with the news. Generally the village residents were a selfless lot who did not spare the notion of fame or fortune a second thought, both of which Peyennar had in short supply anyway. Oh, those in the hold were a separate, secretive lot. They were sworn to the will of Alingdor. Luc, on the other hand, had never quite fit in. He was not apprenticed as the few other village youths were. He had no skill uniquely his own. He sometimes wondered if his father and mother had given the matter any serious thought. Reason enough to see this through, he thought. Either that or announce his intention to leave. The mere mention would have unhinged the village Elders and the Oathbound both. No one left Peyennar, let alone a boy not ten years past his name day. No one.

Pausing under the cover of an especially bulky spruce, Luc attempted to ignore the hissing air gusting through the wood. Somewhere along the way he’d picked up a rock in his right boot. Wiping the rain out of his face, for the first time he realized he was not feeling the chill precisely, and hardly seemed to feel anything at all. After removing the pesky stone, he tried moving his toes but thought it best to work the warmth into his hands first. Though the waning autumn season had not yet turned to winter, the crisp air speeding in from off the Peaks was taking a toll. For some reason he almost thought he smelled the fresh scent of bread baking in Gam’s brick oven and not the earthen odor of evergreens. Rubbing his hands together seemed to help a little, but he could do nothing for his sodden clothes. While he caught his breath he seriously considered abandoning the entire effort, but the way back was almost as far and it was as if forces beyond his ability to control were compelling him onward. Alone, he tried to get his bearings, but his vision was obscured by the downward spray and he felt a little light-headed whenever he moved too fast. Straining, he managed to lean himself into an upright position against the base of the tree, waiting for a lull in the storm. There were others coming. He was certain of it. Now if only he could summon the will and belief to continue.

For the rangers of Atan Martyre, Pentharan autumns, which were not by nature especially cold, might seem a romp in a springtime garden, but the untamed Pentharan wild amidst the Peaks was no place for the timid, especially one used to the comfort of the hearth and a warm glass of milk before bed. At this hour with the rain beating down on him and the sky darkening by the minute, he had no way to pinpoint where he was precisely and could only follow the path blindly. Should he turn back? he wondered. Make for the Acriel’s? Considerable distances either way, he knew. And no less risky than going forward.

Just standing was an exercise that sent his raw senses reeling. Silently pleading his father did not thrash him when he learned of his son’s foolhardiness, he took a hesitant first step, difficult as it was. Numb, he stumbled forward. The rough path’s gradual rise peaked at the edge of Peyennar where it descended sharply and eventually gave way to the plains northeast of Alingdor. Grueling for him to attempt it in the harsh conditions, but with what felt a second strength and a streak of obstinacy he clawed his way along the trail at a rate that would have been the wonder of the village had anyone been there to witness it. For his pains he earned himself a skinned knee but eventually crested the rise where his first full view of Penthar awaited. Even by nightfall the sight from Peyennar was gripping. Stretching beyond the limits of normal sight, he envisioned the plains caressing the sea to the west, giving birth to vast groves in the north and south, and engraving the landscape with gentle rolling hills and cool streams. Its crowning feature was the walled capital of the Penthar, Alingdor, city of House Viamar and birthplace of her kings. A pity the twilight veil impaired much of the view. Even so he drank in the sight, but just as before found his eyes drawn most forcefully to the upper reaches of the globe, as he always did.

“What do you see, boy? Is it the afterimage of the Eternal City in its glory? Or perhaps the twisted columns painted in blood and ash?”

Luc froze.

“You were angry. But not because the world nearly burned at your hand, your whim. You were prideful. You painted each stroke painstakingly—no matter the canvas had been ripped to shreds. Well, you did not face me then. You were too busy destroying. You thought to chain the innocent and those you deemed responsible. You chose Ruin over the Dream. Do you remember?”

The voice was distant, distant but somehow present. Jarring. Images blurred. A past incomprehensible, a present sorely misunderstand, and a future where only the storm existed. Luc urgently sought to make sense of the oppressive memories, so fast and furious they blotted out the ire of the gale, but the images were too daunting. There had been a city. A city where the Wind ruled. He thought he could almost remember, but the pressure built at his temples and everything in his field of view seemed to emanate a blinding white light. Was he on his knees? The wind and rain could not cleanse the memory of the rage, and the remorse.

“You cannot hide. I will come for you. Soon. Then it ends, for all time.”

*****

Luc gasped. Something—no, someone had a hold of him. Not roughly exactly, and he even thought he heard the whisper of his name. No indication of the time, but the storm seemed to have yielded to slightly warmer westward winds. It was still cold, though, unbearably cold, and he was soaked to the skin. Elbow deep in the mud, he managed to roll over. By the time he was semi-coherent he realized he had crossed the entire settlement and stood now—or had been sprawled out—on the western edge of Peyennar in the thickest part of the night with no idea of how he would ever make it home. There had been a voice, he realized. Hate-filled and intent. Someone had—

“Anaris?” Luc caught the pale outline of a hooded form looming over him. “By Altris’s eye, how—?” Riven, he realized in relief. It was Harridan Riven. The plain-faced man glanced up at the sky before stroking his face vigorously, perhaps in worry, working the other hand around the shaft of his spear. Shaking his head as if to dismiss the disbelief, he straightened. “Our law is death to anyone who leaves Peyennar and crosses this mark, lad. How did you manage it alone?” The solidly built young man bent at the knee. Since his arrival in Peyennar almost a year prior, Riven had been something of a fixture in the wild, appearing and disappearing at will. But he had not distanced himself from the villagers as the other Oathbound typically did and had even stopped by to visit Luc and his family a time or two. “Does your father know you’re here, lad? Surely you didn’t make it this far on your own.”

Luc struggled to answer. He was not sure how to answer and still shake aside the memory and the hanging fear of that terrible moment when instinct, understanding, and awareness had almost come into focus. But he was just a fool boy and what man among the Oathbound would believe him if he told them a voice out of the darkness had singled him out, completely and utterly aware of him down to his most closely guarded thoughts?

Still shaking from the cold, he focused his thoughts on his father. Everything would be all right when he was with his father again. In the end the thought proved the one that allowed him to wring free of the moment and work his dry mouth enough to speak. He decided to settle for telling the man the truth, some of it anyway, leaving out the voice.

“T-there’s a company . . . a large company . . . making for the Shoulder, Master Riven,” he barely finished.

Riven saw his hesitation when he did not add how he knew and shifted uncomfortably. At last he said, “Well, my thanks for the warning. The rest of it can wait,” he added, noting the shivering youth was about to keel over again from the effort of reaching the summit. Short-cropped hair strewn in the wind and cloak dripping, he still managed a smile and offered Luc a reassuring squeeze of the arm. “I was about to get a meal and something warm to wash it down with,” he said. “Best get you home on the way.”

With a quick-raised hand to his lips, Riven sounded a sharp whistle. It was less than minute before a second sentry emerged from the darkness further down the slope. When he did, there appeared no need to explain the full tale; Luc standing there in the cold was explanation enough. “We’d better see him to his father, Angar,” Riven said. “Can’t get anything else out of him here and it’s likely best we don’t try now.” Riven patted Luc on the shoulder. “This is Angar, lad. Angar Urian. Don’t worry about his looks and the rough edge of his tongue. He means well.”

The second sentry frowned thoughtfully, a marked contrast to his coarse appearance—slant-eyed, rough-faced, and with a greasy sheen about his features that made Luc uncertain about his sanity. Sharing a puzzled look with his companion, Urian struck a lantern shielded from the elements—more for Luc’s benefit, he was sure—and approached him. Luc could only comply uneasily when the crooked-eyed man ushered him back toward the path. For the boy of not yet ten, the unshaven, wild-like guardsman frightened him to the bone.

“Well, let’s have it,” Angar Urian said in a curt tone, fingering the shaft of an arrow while he scanned the darkness around them as if able to pierce the shadows with a simple look. Squaring his shoulders, he glanced at Luc with a toothless look that made the boy want to jump out of arm’s reach. Sensing his discomfort, the man sniffed and muttered darkly. “Hmph. I’ll be damned if he doesn’t soil himself. Wouldn’t have a night’s peace if we didn’t maintain the watch. And how do they repay us the effort? Teaching their brats to fear us. Why I ought to bloody . . .” 

Squeezing his eyes shut, Luc shuddered. He was about to break down and tell them the full truth when Riven slapped the butt of his spear against the heel of Angar Urian’s boot. “You’re insane,” Riven snapped. “You’ve been here three weeks and you think you know them? Like any of us ever could. This is the Warden’s son, Angar. You know what that means. Watch yourself and come.”

Grimacing, Urian gave way and fell silent. With the two men striding alongside him he was able to keep his footing along the trail, but they still only managed a sluggish pace. He was sorry to trouble them with the task, but something about Riven’s movements seemed almost instinctive, deferent, his strides matching Luc’s protectively, short as they were. A mist was on the horizon and Peyennar was still. Unusually so.

It was not long before the two men were forced to concede something was slightly off. Something neither man could pinpoint. That was when Luc forced himself to speak. Staring at him with vacant looks, they appeared to take him at his word when he told them outsiders were making for the village and that something pressing must have been occurring for them to attempt the passage at this hour in the middle of the storm. Only two sorts of visitors ever made for Peyennar: the exiled—that was what village residents called themselves, though in a sense they were all exiles of choice—or the Oathbound, others like Riven and Urian. The third alternative was what the Oathbound tirelessly maintained the watch against: Servants of the Earthbound. Luc’s mother did not count, of course. He did not know if she was among those on the move now, but could usually place her arrival within the span of an hour or two. At the moment he missed her desperately, and not only because she was one of the few capable of tempering his father’s moods. 

By the time he finished the tale the guardsmen were exchanging oaths. They were at odds over retreating to the hold for reinforcements or returning to their posts. That left them no time to act when the shadows on either side of the lane closed in on them abruptly. Had there been the time they could have struck for the shelter of one of the outlying orchards, but in the momentary confusion that followed Urian and Riven were both taken unaware. Sensing their alarm, Luc nearly fled. He had to plant both feet firmly into the ground and grip his coat with both hands to resist the impulse, but seeing Urian disarmed with such an effortlessness made him gape. Riven had taken a step back, spear positioned as if to block; of course the effort would have done little to save him from the blade already poised against his throat. Instead of reacting in panic, though, he drew in a shaky breath, hanging his head.

“Welcome to Peyennar, my Lords,” he whispered, his voice barely a whisper. “We yield.”

That drew a snort from Luc’s left. He blinked and took in the roadside again, counting at least three more men. Three very tall, very intimidating men.

One of them approached the pair deliberately, sparing Luc only a passing glance. He was old but still moved with remarkable dexterity. He worked his jaw a moment before bending to retrieve Urian’s discarded bow. Holding it firmly as if judging its weight, he returned it to the Oathbound. “You told me this posting would toughen them up some, Vandil,” the older man said to one of his companions. He had an even tone that held little room for foolishness, Luc thought. “And I had come to believe this one,” he gestured at Urian, “had the eyes of a stalking cat. Seems your little exercise proved otherwise.”

A younger man with hair a lighter shade and heavy shoulders nodded blankly. “We may have been mistaken, Lord Draiden,” he said. “Perhaps another post would suit them better. The mines west of Anneth? What do you say, Imrail?”

The third newcomer had been regarding Riven and Urian silently. Finally, he shrugged. “Not sure if they’d work out there either. We could always try them out as horse handlers, I suppose.” Riven and Urian exchanged looks. They might have believed the man were it not for the grin and wink he shot the two others.

With some of the tension having left the watchmen Riven opened his mouth to speak. A moment later, though, a fourth figure appeared a little further down the lane. This one walked with an air of ease and openness that made it appear he was strolling down the green; he was humming a forgotten tune that made the hackles on Luc’s neck rise. It was almost as if they were witnessing the arrival of men of more import than the lords of the hold. Grooms and handlers leading impressive steeds pulled up behind him. Caught up for once in affairs worthy of note, Luc found himself brimming with anticipation. Drawing his coat close, he looked over the most recent arrival. The newcomer was wearing only a light cloak to ward against the damp chill. Lowering his hood revealed a wizened face and pair of focused eyes. Stiff, sinewy fingers were wrapped around the top of a knee-high staff, but it was the eyes, gleaming with sudden insight, that struck Luc. Though the skin around them was wrinkled and weary from the journey in the wild, he felt he should know those eyes.

“Well met,” the stranger said, his voice light and hypnotic. He waved the staff around them. “Peyennar? Interesting the mainlanders haven’t learned of her existence. Remarkable in fact.”

“Some introductions appear in order, Master Anaris,” one of the others indicated with a glance at Luc.

“Indeed,” the man agreed, “though our business would be too long a tale to share here, I’m afraid, and the lad looks as though he’d be better served by getting him out of the weather straightway. Tell me, though,” he said, leaning forward, revealing a strangely familiar square chin and a neatly trimmed gray beard around the upper and lower lips only, “how do things fare here? Have there been any recent tidings? Hints of the Earthbound?”

Riven relaxed slightly. “Nothing of note, Master . . . Master Anaris.” There was the faintest hint of a question in the response. “What word?”

 “Little I can share. And we mustn’t tarry. Come here, Luc.” Surprised at the familiar usage of his name, Luc glanced at Riven. Taking in the towering men he almost wished he had stayed behind the safety of the hearth and the doors of home. Noting his reluctance, the man who called himself Anaris reached out and draped his cloak over Luc’s shoulders. Sensing the boy’s uncertainty, he winked and clasped his hands over each of Luc’s. Either it was his imagination or some of the warmth returned to him then, enough of it anyway that he managed to get a firm hold of himself.

“W-who are you?” Luc asked, a touch breathless. “I think I know you.”

“That so? Then you must use your wits, my boy, for I will not tell.”

Luc caught himself smiling. The ancient-eyed outlander had a spell-binding tone that held a secret power; it actually seemed to slash at the night and set those native to the village at ease. Without any further debate, he gathered Luc in tow and started towards Peyennar. Along the way the newcomers questioned Luc on lighter matters. What kind of work did Luc plan to do? He was not sure, he responded. He had no trade. Had he ever been apprenticed to anyone? No? Then where did he live in the village, and in what capacity did his father work?

“This I find strange,” the man who called himself Anaris said. Odd that it was Luc’s father’s surname, he thought. His own surname. “Strange. A young lad from a small town filled with numerous craftsmen, craftswomen too, in these strange times. How is it they expect you will fit in?”

Luc was just about to respond when the heavy gallop of horse hooves echoed in the dense wood. That made the boy truly start. Few residents in Peyennar owned a horse, much less a heavily muscled steed. Those in the hold did, of course, but. . . .

Father had driven the horse hard—hard enough that it was steaming in the night chill. He drew rein just short of them, slapping the reins into Urian’s hands and tossing a leather pouch at Luc’s feet. “Before I ask how my pipe and leaf went missing,” he growled, “perhaps you’d care to explain why both were discarded on the downs or why the Acriel boy was waiting for you in his father’s barn?” Father was a terrifying presence when moved to wrath, but sensing something odd in his son’s expression, he shifted abruptly. “What holds you?” he demanded. He had not as of yet acknowledged the others. “Well?”

Mortified, Luc swallowed hard. He was wise enough not to mince words. Even Gamry Renfather, mayor, yielded to his father. Strangers from distant nations sometimes arrived only to be rebuffed by the man. He was far and away the most dominating fixture in all of Peyennar, raven haired, powerfully built, and still in his prime, with an intellect to match his stature. There was nothing for it but to answer truthfully, if haltingly. Hard to say if his father even heard him. He was scanning the horizon and had clenched his hands, lips twisting into a snarl. A shaft of lightning highlighted the irises of the man’s eyes, dark now but compelling. Mother always claimed Luc shared his father’s silent tongue, his brooding moods too. He never understood why she always laughed when she said that.

Finally, Luc blurted, “I took your pipe . . . But then I thought . . . I knew . . . others were coming. I felt them.” The lingering doubt on the faces of the assembled brought a flush to his face that had nothing to do with biting conditions. The newcomer Master Riven had referred to as Anaris saw it and smiled, bobbing his head.

“Quite correct, lad,” he said. “And quite apt. This is a sharp one, my lords.” Turning back to Luc’s father, he added, a touch more serious, even grim, “The main party is still several hours out. We intended to find shelter, but some of us thought it best to send word first rather than risk it. Call it a hunch. Something in the air, you might say. Your wife is nearly here, though. A few others. Unaided, the main body should be here by morning. I strongly urge you to send assistance. These are strange times after all and there is much to discuss.”

“Then it means . . .” A whisper. An omen. His father straightened. “Too soon,” he muttered. “I had thought there was time yet.” He said it with an ashen edge the wind and rain could not cloak.

“Let’s get the lad home first, Ivon.”

Luc’s father nodded, this time sharply. Extending his arms, he seized Luc by the waist and propelled him into the saddle. It was another first for Luc, actually riding. The saddle was too big for him and his feet dangled high above the stirrups, but the stallion, Jael, nuzzled against his father and attempted to look around at Luc. The steed knew him well enough from Luc’s chores around the barn, often watching his father rub him down and work the tack, and seemed pleased to obey both his master and new rider alike.

In the company of his father and what were some indelibly formidable men, the remainder of the journey home was free of fear, if subdued. A handful of Oathbound from the hold caught them prior to reaching their home on the eastern edge of Peyennar. Riven and Urian left with them with instructions to send a dispatch to intercept the company making its way to the mountain village. Once home Luc tore off his coat and hastened to change his clothes; no doubt in part to punish him his father told him to bathe and tasked him with heating the water himself and leaving the soiled apparel hanging to be washed in the morning. He also ensured Luc used a gritty bar of soap until he was clean down to the last speck of dirt. By the time he was dry and had finished lacing up his nightshirt a fire was blazing at the hearth and his father had filled one of three bowls with a thick stew. The giant of a man let the matter of his pipe and leaf drop, looking deep into his son’s eyes. That look acknowledged their kinship, proud, silent, strong as the bowels of the earth, but also troubled. 

Throwing back the door, two of the newcomers stepped in, one with a muttered, “Wonderful weather” while he unshouldered a cask of ale likely procured from the Brendar inn. He had broad shoulders and hair a lighter shade for a Pentharan. Unsheathing a dangerous-looking blade from a thick belt with a myriad of strange pouches and devices, he gestured at the cask questioningly. Seeing Father’s nod of assent, the man disappeared and rummaged through the pantry before reappearing with four mugs. Returning to the cask, he filled each with an earthy ale and distributed one to each man. Hardly waiting to drain his own before refilling it, he threw off his wet cloak. When he realized Luc had been watching him, he nodded in greeting.

“Feeling better, boy?” he asked. Not waiting for a response, he went on. “The name is Armenis Vandil. Seems you gave some folk quite the scare. Best you remember it’s best to think things through before you act. It’s one of the few things you have control of—how well you prepare before you respond or react. Remember it.”

Luc nodded, though he was not quite sure he agreed. Moving to make room on the narrow bench, Luc watched while his father and the stranger with the neatly trimmed beard and staff joined him. The sound of voices outside confirmed a gathering unheard of was taking place.

“Well, Amreal?” his father asked, ale untouched. “What passes?”

“The Val Moran peninsula,” the man with the learned eyes answered. Holding his father’s attention, he added, “Your wife should be here within the hour to explain, or confirm, the news.” With a glance at Luc, he said, “Yes, your grandfather, too, lad.” Luc glanced at his father in surprise. It was rare the two left the family business without one of them to supervise. This was momentous and meant that for the first time in more than a year they would all be together. But what had passed in the far off country of the unyielding?

The second stranger, a man named Jerad Draiden, said, “You should come with us. The . . . others would be bolstered by your return. Things have grown difficult. It is not enough to know the last—”

Father clenched his hands and leaned forward. The sudden movement made the others stiffen, though the iron-faced man realized it quickly and let the tension leave his shoulders with an apologetic sigh. Instead of answering directly, he held Luc’s eye and said, “Remember, we are bound. We three. You are my son. This is my brother, Amreal Anaris.” Luc’s mouth fell open and the man with the trimmed beard smiled, giving him a half bow while seated.

“Your brother?” He could hardly believe it.

“That’s right,” his father said quietly. “My brother. And also your uncle. Seems he is here to take my place.” Luc sat up straight. Suddenly alarmed, he let the whispers of the wind and rain return to him. Sometimes they spoke to him. Sometimes he almost thought he was one with them.

Thunder echoed distantly.

“Of course there is time yet,” Amreal said quietly. “There must be time. You said so yourself.”

 Father did not respond. “Any engagements with the Earthbound, Jerad?” he asked.

“Things go well enough at present for Penthar, though there are those among us ready to see a sword in the lad’s hand. My lord grows . . . impatient.” With a glance at Luc, he said, “He doesn’t know, does he?” Luc blinked. He had held a sword on any number of occasions. True, he preferred pen and ink and the reports his grandfather had him transcribe. The sword just never felt right. Father saw his distaste and muttered something under his breath, rising. Leaving them for a few moments, he strode to the rear of the cottage where two rooms were separated on the left and right by a slim door leading into the morning room. Disappearing for a few seconds, he reappeared wrapped in a cloak free of any dampness, giving them a glance that indicated he would return soon. Not the first time his father had disappeared during the late evening hour, but to leave him in the company of outsiders in the middle of the night. . . .

The minutes stretched. Waiting anxiously, he folded his hands in front of him. He could feel her coming now. How long had it been? Months? Longer? A quarter hour passed and there was no word. The idle chitchat of the newcomers became rhythmic. Finally just as his head began to nod movement outside announced her arrival. Luc felt his breath catch when two figures entered, a man with distinguished streaks of gray hair at the roots guiding a woman through the door who had always been a tad overly protective of him.

Mother.

Pulling back her hood, she let her long, lustrous hair come free with a shiver for the cold but a warm smile for her son. She was tall, with piercing gray eyes wiser than her years. As always, something about that did not seem right. Letting her father take her cloak—Luc’s grandfather—she moved in enough to allow his entry, taller than his daughter and with a thoughtful but careworn face. Luc stood to greet them. He did not know it, but they were settling in for what might prove to be the last time they would ever gather together here. Crushing Luc to him, his grandfather commented idly that he was getting too big to enfold. His mother’s embrace was longer. She never quite let go.

Others entered he did not know, carrying tightly wrapped bundles they opened and quickly served on trays out of the cupboards an outsider would have thought a trifle too elegant for the simple cottage. There were sweetbreads, cured meats, and wedges of cheese. Grandfather showed him the documents he would have Luc transcribe, checking with a pair of men looming in the shadows on a point or two needing clarification. The first he called Imrail, the other Ingram. Reports were mostly about supply movements for men stationed in the south, some going, some coming. The company was doing well, he said, but the reports showed otherwise. Men were growing restless. Strange rumors of raids out of the south spoke of the resurgence of the Eris Ardan. A desperate request from Val Mora addressed to the Sparrow caught his eye. This one was for supplies and men. The king had answered favorably but in doing so was leaving Penthar’s defenses stretched dangerously thin. Grandfather shook his head when Luc moved to retrieve his quill pen and ink.

“Not tonight, lad,” he said. “Time enough for that later. It’s well past your bedtime.”

Luc nodded. Of course. For the present they spoke of events outside Peyennar and how the nation fared. Trouble was looming, Amreal maintained, though he indicated he had been absent for some time and did not know all that had passed. His grandfather shared a chuckle over men who thought he was losing control of the company. Guild men, Luc thought. The king was slipping into his dotage, he added, not helping matters. That brought a smile to his mother’s lips. No one commented that father had not reappeared. Slowly Luc felt his eyes grow heavy once more. His mother noticed and guided him to his feet. When he was securely under the covers in his room, she gave him a love-filled look but did not leave the bedside.

“I am with you, my little Windmaster,” she said. Though she sometimes teased him over his fondness for the elements, this night it was said with love. Minutes stretched into nearly a full hour. He was asleep long before his father reappeared.

*****

“You were followed,” Ivon announced, entering the room.

“Ardan?” his wife asked, turning from their son and glancing absently at Armenis who moved to bring in an extra pallet.

Ivon shrugged. “Perhaps. Perhaps worse. There was a residue of it in the village itself. Something that must have overtaken you. Riven and Urian are uniquely skilled. I spoke with them at length. There is no doubt.”

She flinched, paling and gripping Luc’s hand, though he did not stir. “What will you do?”

He did not hesitate. “The Shoulder of Peyennar must not fall. Not now. Not yet. I cannot . . .” He stalked the space between the three pallets. “I’ve had nearly seven years, love. The Giver has given me that much. A pardon. An amnesty. But the Earthbound have not been idle. I am the last.” Silence shrouded the room. The others gathered near, feeling the weight of their cares more keenly than at any other time since their Last Stand, when the hosts of all the lands had nearly proven themselves faithless and Ardil had been shattered. As the pain of those days returned, the man regarded his son. My son. He crushed the agony and let the awareness of the assembled wash over him. His wife. His son. There was only one response, only one declaration. Val Mora in shambles. Rumors of the Furies arising. The balance shifting. All of the signs heralded their impending ruin. He would meet it head on. The world demanded it, deserved it—a savior, a shepherd, a hammer. But they would need years yet and he knew he was not the one. Yet his return would bolster the hope of some and give them that time; others would curse it, but he would not have the enemy dictate the terms, the when and where. Still, he could not bear to leave, not without the consent of all gathered. He had made war before and lived to bear the price, and the pain.

Locking eyes with his wife’s father, he said, “What do you say?”

“He shies away from bloodshed, from conflict. Sheltered. . . . If you stay, you would leave him a birthright of twisted ruin. Jerad and I agree. Years of safety here, true, but little to pass on—war, death, and the end of all things. Val Mora is nearly spent. There is no choice in it for you, Son. Come, we will do it as we were meant to, together. The choice is long past. He knows this, or will. I know this. It will bind him to our cause and bring men to our banner. We will feed the refugees in the east and bring our swords to ease their plight. Your only other choice is to remain idle while the slaughter continues. Were all the enemies of the Unmaker to stay put behind walls of such false hope, what would we do? That would only make our ending the more certain. We have had our respite. Come. Do not mourn what cannot be mended.”

“You would orphan my son so quickly? Father, I will not leave if this . . . design is seen to.” She was cradling the boy to her.

Viamar’s eyes hardened. “You must. You will.”

“Then it will be the death of me and the end of all things.”

“So be it.”

*****

Luc awoke the next morning to an unfamiliar sound that made him bristle upright. When he left his room, he found the stranger his father claimed shared their blood, Amreal Anaris, seated at the table humming a low tune.

“Where is everyone?” Luc asked.

“Gone away for a short time, lad. I’m to mind you ‘till they return.”

“Gone . . . All of them? Father, Mother. Brother too?”

Amreal leaned forward. The man’s lined features appeared to pale in the dim light. “Luc,” he began carefully, “it will take some time to explain. Much time. But . . . You have no brother.”

 

Read a few pages. - Enjoy! - BOOK TWO

sword

Prologue - MEMORY

 

In a remote part of the ancient world, when the winds of the globe were alive and at one with the pulse of the earth, the land trembled as it inhaled and exhaled, preparing perhaps for the return of forces absent now for three or four millennia. A hush hung over the horizon, a silence in the bowels of the earth that carried from the pits of the Mountains of Memory to the far reaches of the Forlorn Wood.


That hush brought to mind the moment when the fabric of the Making had been shattered. The upheaval had been cataclysmic, opposing aspects elemental in nature colliding. It was an ending. And a beginning. And a significantly changed world had been forced to limp onward.


That afternoon the autumn air was particularly moist and pulsing with memory. As he surveyed the far north, Luc Viamar-Ellandor felt certain the reawakening of those forces had not gone unnoticed across the Nations. He imagined rangers and anchorites as far as the Martyren forests felt it. In Gintara, the Handmaidens would be looking for ways to stay neutral while truth-seekers and academics considered the signs. In Bevronail, the dregs of the lost nation were likely huddled together wondering what spirit of malevolence was moving to seize the mastery of the world. Black skies over Ancaida carried word of doom, swell after swell without relief. A beginning, or an ending. What the people of Tolmar and Val Mora were doing to prepare to meet it troubled him, gnawed at him.


Ancaida first, he reminded himself, beads of sweat collecting along his spine.


Silently absorbed in the ebb and flow of the Tides, he searched the distance a second time, forced himself to see beyond memory. Sword unsheathed, he felt the wind touch him. Not so long ago he would have felt uncomfortable in anything other than trousers, a plain coat, and padded cloak. Now he wore a thick belt with a series of pouches and devices and a sword that at one time had belonged to the master of Penthar. He did not know it, but to those near him he appeared frightfully raw on the plains, dark scale armor and gauntlets a seamless match, an untapped fount of power. His cloak was clasped loosely. A mere month had seen the transformation become permanent and the trimmings a necessary acknowledgement of the truth. Not necessarily for him: for the men that had ridden to the ends of the known world with him, for him.


Clicking his teeth, Luc had to shake off the feel of the wind and shrug aside the memories the airstream conveyed. Beside him, Imrail gripped a spear in hand; on the other, Rew and Ayden were armed with weapons likely unique to the two of them among the entire host, the younger wielding a pair of white daggers and the grizzled elder a two-handed broadsword that was cumbersome at best on horse. Behind them, two dozen of Vandil’s best men waited, bows drawn and swords at the ready.


“When did that happen?”


Luc pulled his eyes down to the hilt of his sword where Imrail’s attention was directed. Above the grip a pale sphere stood enclosed in the claws of some mythic creature. Luc felt a sudden intake rise up in his throat when he caught what Imrail was referring to. The gem had changed. Now it was a flawless representation of the Mark. An ancient symbol of power. . . . And fear. The creature grasping it was no longer mythic. It was the claw of a hawk. When had that happened?


How?


Rew cleared his throat. “You two had better watch,” he muttered. “They’re almost on us.”


Imrail eyed him somewhat callously before raising a hand. Instantly two dozen arrows left their bowstrings with a deafening twang. The approaching Angrats—a handful, but still dangerous even in small packs—staggered. A second volley saw them hurtled backwards, dead or maimed beyond any healing. Nasty creatures, those. Luc wondered what Fury had spawned them in the mists of time. He had a score to settle with that one. At least for the moment the danger had passed.
After a few minutes watching the grim company finish off any still showing signs of life and attempting to stay clear of the shifting breeze and the stench the beasts gave off, Luc reluctantly followed Imrail and turned his bay south. Hours of searching and only two or three scattered packs of Angrats. He almost wished they had found one of the Ardan or a company of Earthbound of some significance.


Grimacing, he dug his heels into the bay. He was growing more and more reckless by the minute. Remember your roots, you lout. A few dozen Angrats would have given even a significant company reason to pause. One of the Ardan by itself was much more serious.


Almost two full days now and no sign of either the Earthbound or the Companions and General Vandil. Now he was running out of time. He owed Altaer and Urian too much to just simply pick up and walk away without doing something. Along with Riven, the pair were among the handful of Companions the Lord Viamar had sent to Peyennar to ensure Luc lived long enough to play a role in the titanic events to come.


“Don’t think any of them would have been taken easily, my Lord,” Waylor Ayden said. “Besides, Vandil wouldn’t risk Urian or Altaer.” The man rubbed a hand over his bald scalp. “I say it’s time we turn our thoughts to Alingdor and—”


Imrail silenced him with a meaningful look. Luc did not miss the exchange; he simply chose not to comment. Two days. Two days to find himself, to remember himself. Such hopes were proving vain, though. At the moment he wanted nothing more than to be Luc Viamar-Ellandor, son of the Warden and the White Rose. Of course there were the itching memories of forgotten times to contend with, but surprisingly for the moment he was able to force them beyond conscious thought.


What happened when he slept was another matter.


Today he wanted to simply imagine he was Luc Viamar-Ellandor. He mulled the thought over. He hardly knew what even that meant to him. The village Elders, Oathbound, and Sons of Thunder—aptly named, he now realized—knew he was something more. A being out of time and memory. Something to fear. Or to attach oneself to.


Just prior to sunset they reached their basecamp about eight hours north of the hills leading to Peyennar. After two days in the saddle he was surprised to find a sprawling compound with runners entering and leaving even at this hour. Tents dotted the horizon and the hearty aroma of camp fare was only slightly marred by a recent light rain. Judging by the sky and the feel in the air only one native to these parts could gauge, it was only a matter of time before the stronger penetrating autumn rains came.


Making his way through the compound on the gritty bay, Luc met the nods and bows of men manning the perimeter. Some he knew and conversed with briefly, Imrail and Ayden moving off to consult with their aides. Like the waiting earth, the company appeared expectant, some perhaps eager to be rid of the far north, others for an indication of what he would do now that they had returned without General Vandil and the others.


After taking his time crossing to the camp’s interior, Luc dismounted and handed a waiting groom the reins. Rew had left some time before muttering something about washing off the dust of the journey with a little brandy. Ayden paused his consultation with the others to check the mid-sized tent they had erected for Luc. The old veteran had shaved the wisps of his scraggily hair. With iron bands at the wrists and a two or three day growth of stubble on his face, he had a determined look that reminded Luc of Vandil. Nodding that it was clear, Luc ducked inside.


Following his departure two days prior, someone had taken the time to carpet the tent floor with soft furs and cushions. He hated the extra attention and ached for the days when he and Master Ingram had spent weeks in the wild with no more comfort than they could find in the hills.


Still with his sword belted on, he sat with his legs crossed, attempting to reconcile the rather whimsical desire for simpler times. Breathing evenly, he gripped his knees and squeezed his eyes shut. As sure as night was falling, Luc Anaris had died the day he had climbed the Shoulder of Peyennar. The memory of white light and the Fallen lingered. That had been the day his past had burned beyond recollection. The day Amreal had saved him and Luc Viamar-Ellandor had been re-forged into something entirely unknown to any of them.


Perhaps a quarter hour later the suggestion of activity outside the tent made him look up. Something about Razmoen still worried him. Had he done the right thing? Luc had no time to puzzle out the answer. Rew pushed back the tent flap and entered, halting in front of a polished brazier. Its glowing embers filled the tent with a surprising amount of heat.


Before either one of them could speak, one of the men poked his head in. The soldier had a pair of steaming bowls covered with white cloths. Rew took his with a muttered thanks and blew on it before taking a tentative mouthful. It was a stew of some sort. Luc left his where the man set it.


Rew Acriel was a reminder of the past he had been contemplating out on the plains. Luc’s earliest memories outside of his folks and Amreal always involved the Acriels. He and Rew had trooped through all parts of the hidden mountain retreat, going further than was likely prudent in hindsight. Never one to pay close attention to their tutors, Rew had chosen to go his own way, preferring to play the part of the vagrant. Master Acriel had worked tirelessly to instill a residue of discipline into his son, but for all his efforts the saucy-eyed, rough-cut brown-haired young man was always one step ahead of his father and the other Elders—eager to be off and see the world when the opportunity presented itself.


Well, the time had come.  


Before either one of them spoke, Imrail threw back the tent flap. Ayden entered on his heels.


“You want to talk about it?” the captain asked unceremoniously. The man hardly waited before seizing the opportunity to go on. “Time to face up to it. We’ve done what we can here. If Vandil is out there, he must have had good reason for not having made straight for Peyennar. We’ve had scouts combing the area right up to where you found the king. There’s no indication they’re dead and no reason to assume so. I suspect the Earthbound forced them north. We’ll have to trust in his skill to outmaneuver them. We can’t spare any more time. We have to discuss our next steps. Are you still intent on moving south?”


Luc ran a hand through his hair. Still reeling from recent events, he had begun experiencing moments of lightheadedness. Trying not to betray any hint of discomfort, he tugged off his gauntlets and reached for the covered bowl.


“There’s other news,” Ayden said. “Your mother and father reached Peyennar.”


Luc whipped his up. “When?” he demanded.


“Last night,” Ayden told him. “Runners brought the word. If you don’t make for Peyennar, they’ll be on their way here. I suggest we turn in and get an early start.”
Luc held back a response. Here? He felt a sudden upsurge of emotion, consuming him. Ayden went on.


“We’ve had word of the Third Company,” the sword master said. “The missing men,” he explained. “Riven found them. Seems they were pinned down north of the First City. They’ve had a time of it. It appears Peyennar wasn’t the only place hit. Hit hard. Guess the Earthbound had its eye on Alingdor this entire time.”


Imrail shot the old veteran a look that silenced him. “The Lord Viamar is asking for you, my Lord,” the captain whispered. “He insists.”


Rew had been smacking his lips around a mouthful, but paused to glance at the two men. “Insists?” he scoffed. “You’re insane. No one insists on anything anymore. We’re done. That sword means something. Those people mean something. What we’re doing means something.”


Luc studied his friend, surprised by the rough edge to his tone. Clearly the lanky youth had been changed by their encounter with the Legion. Luc himself was troubled, even unhinged by the news his folks were here. The Ancaidans did mean something, though. But how would it look to his people if he left Penthar now?


“Tell me again,” he said softly.


Imrail drew in a steadying intake, jaw rippling. “I’ve told you three times, boy.” Muttering under his breath, he paced the tent, gloved hands folded behind his back. “Ingram’s scouts found ample indication of their passage. They’re making no secret of it. He suspects they’ll skirt the Landing and continue south. From there it’s anyone’s guess what this Ansifer means to do. If Isar issued orders—”


“It’s Naeleis, not Isar,” Luc said. He felt his hands began to clench. “I know it.”


Silence. Rew let his spoon drop and Ayden shifted uncomfortably. If Imrail was troubled by Luc’s seemingly intimate knowledge of the Furies, he did not show it. His face only hardened. “Even if I was the last of the Companions I would still have a duty to House Viamar,” he said. “Your mother is there with the king. The king commands it.”


Looking away, Luc exhaled. He had never been one to chafe at oaths or bonds of duty, not since the day he had been bonded to the Oathbound, but the memories were too grating. They were thorns piercing the skull. The urgency to find Vandil had been mitigated in part by the urgency to find the Sword of Ardil and stop the Furies from tearing the Nations apart. That was his duty. There were reasons. Reasons that should make him weep, he thought. He expected to die in the attempt. He deserved to die. He was not meant for this, to live like this. He should have been bound and chained.


Finally, he met Imrail’s eye and nodded with a finality that made the captain relax noticeably. “I’ll come,” he said quietly. “I want the search to continue, though, and an advance party to make for Edgewood. I’ll risk one night in Peyennar. Not one second more.”


Imrail bowed slightly. “Good. Then I’ll point out you’d best turn in early. Tomorrow is likely going to be a long day.” Imrail motioned to Ayden. “You have your men inform me if he tries to leave during the night. I wouldn’t put it past him.”


“I will, my Lord Imrail.” Ayden did not quite grin, but came close to it.


Both men looked noticeably pleased when they left. Rew saw that, if anything, Luc was far from it.


“What’s the problem?” Rew asked bluntly. “I thought you’d be happy they’re—”


“Rew, listen to me”—for once he needed someone just to listen—“there’s something you need to know, something the others may already. I did something . . . before. Something terrible. Something beyond anything I can begin to fathom. Some of them must know about it. If we were to stroll into Ancaida I doubt I’d even be welcome. And that’s if we even make it. How can I face them—face my parents—knowing the truth? Some of it anyway.


“This war with the Legion. I think I’m to blame. It nearly cost us Peyennar. It may cost us Penthar.” Riven pinned down north of the city. The news shook him. At least the man was safe, safer than Urian and Altaer. “Seems we’re all to pay for it now.”


Rew pursed his lips, arms folded. Odd his friend seemed so undisturbed by recent events, or his reluctant admission. “I’d have told you if I heard anything odd,” Rew said finally. “But if you’re afraid of seeing your folks, we can go off on our own way. The Giver knows I’m ready. I told you from the start there was something off about this. I’m telling you again, I don’t care. You say there’s an Earthbound city in the north. They want us dead. That’s certain. You say this . . . these Furies have some hold on Ancaida. That’s certain, too. We stay, we lose. We leave, we lose. I stay, I lose.” He drew in a long breath, face tight with emotion. “I have to go.”


He did not sound pleased about it. Not one bit.


Luc thought about it. He looked at his friend and hardly knew how to respond. A part of him seriously considered staying. He was bound to Peyennar and likely would be for all time, but bonds of duty, friendship, and loyalty had been broken before. Still perhaps Rew was right. Trian was still in Peyennar and would likely weigh in on the matter. His mother and father would, too.


“I need to stretch out my legs,” he said. “I think I’ve decided. We’ll talk about it.”


Rew nodded. “Good. I’m going to finish the rest of this and then get something to drink. One of the men has a flagon he offered to share before I turn in.”


Leaving Rew in the suddenly uncomfortably warm tent, the air hit him like a sudden burst. No sign of Imrail or Ayden at the moment. Hireland was off in the distance. Thumbing the back of his ear, he felt something nag at him. Almost as if. . . . He shrugged it aside and tried to let the open air sheathe him. His thoughts were outpacing him and he thought a brisk walk around the compound might clear his head enough to allow him to sleep for a few hours. Since arriving in Peyennar sleep had for the most part come in short stretches. Now with the weight of the future pressing on him, almost as if Altris herself was attempting to hound him, he had reached a crossroads. Either move on or wait and continue to worry. Sometimes just taking decisive action was enough.


He lost count of the number of times he circled the camp. Two, maybe three times. That itch was still there. No, not an itch. A pressing weight. The compound had grown still, aside from the guards posted around the perimeter. Luc had just decided to make for his tent when Rew caught up to him.


“Odd,” the Acriel son muttered, “do you feel that? I thought you might be . . . I mean, that you had . . .”


Luc shook his head, grimacing. Lately his wiry friend seemed to sometimes look at him as if he had the answers to address every one of their fears. Sometimes it was difficult to remember sitting beside him in front of Amreal learning about some little known fact or forgotten legend. Now the legends had come to life. He did not want Rew to walk this road with him, but he was the only one who actually still saw him, thought of him, as Luc. The other “stuff” he somehow ignored or sidestepped.


“I’d say it’s a warning,” Luc answered. “They know we’re here. High time we left, but the chains are still there. Get some sleep if you can, Rew. Tomorrow we tell our folks we mean make for Ancaida.”


Not waiting to see his friend’s response or reaction, he purposefully moved off. For once his strides felt light. Even Shaiar seemed a distant memory. Ignoring the few men still awake, he made his way back to his tent and gripped the hilt of his sword before entering. Useless that, now, against what was likely waiting inside.
Steeling himself, he went in, prepared to face the end if that was what the Giver intended. Much to his surprise, though, the tent was empty. The sense of that other presence was still there, but perhaps he had been wrong. Confused, he scanned the spacious quarters. Someone had left an oval pitcher filled with wine. Taking off his sword belt, he paused just to breathe. His nerves were getting the best of him. He wished Trian was here now, but that would have only made it that much harder to find focus. Work the problem through with reason, Amreal had always said. Thoughts of Amreal brought a bitter pang to his lips. Sighing, he reached for the wine and filled a vessel, blowing out the lamps.


Two days and what did he have to show for it? Fumbling for the blankets in the darkness, memories of white light and a storm of chaos brought him no comfort. Something inside told him that storm could no longer risk being hidden in the remote Pentharan north. The Nations needed to rally now. The first War of the Furies had torn the known world apart, leaving the Earthbound forgotten in the distant corners of the world.


Now their enemies were back and poised to finish it.


Now it was time for the storm to answer.