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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

For the Killing of Kings

The Ring-Sworn Trilogy (Volume 1)

Howard Andrew Jones

St. Martin's Press

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1

The Numbered Day


Asrahn halted before the tall glass case with the long straight sword, withdrew a key from his pocket, and set it to the lock. As Squire Elenai shifted uncomfortably in the cavernous display hall behind him the stocky Master of Squires wondered again if he should have undertaken the matter alone.

No. He wouldn’t be furtive. He’d act before a witness, then tell the commander what he’d done.

He studied the sword as he turned the key. Even under dim light from high windows, obscured by a shameful coat of dust, N’lahr’s blade had a distinctive blue sheen. Irion’s only true ornament was an azure sapphire set in its hilt, and Asrahn well remembered that its former wielder had to be coaxed to permit that “useless ostentation.” N’lahr would have objected to the gaudy red velvet behind the weapon, let alone the gilt pegs supporting each guard arm, assuming he’d ever have consented to allowing the great sword decommissioned for display.

Even if he had, he’d never have allowed Irion neglected. Asrahn had repeatedly pressed that point with his commanding officer, but Denaven had insisted no one touch the blade until a worthy successor emerged from the ranks. As N’lahr had been a military genius, that was likely to be a very long time.

Thus, in the seven years since N’lahr’s death, the sword had grown more and more dingy. A ragged filament of spider silk languidly waved from the pommel to the cabinet’s lock as Asrahn removed the key. He’d resigned himself to the situation mostly by avoiding the oak-framed case, visiting it only under special circumstances. Because the annual celebration of N’lahr’s greatest victory would once again bring crushes of admiring citizens to the Hall of Heroes, today had been one of those times.

The veteran felt his blood rise as he looked again at the little teeth marks he’d noticed earlier this morning marring the old leather grip. Altenerai squires were forbidden to touch the weapon, but mice could nibble it with impunity? He’d served as Master of Squires under four commanders, a position demanding not only a thorough familiarity with the rules and traditions of the Altenerai Corps, but a commitment to instill those values in his charges by living them. He hadn’t disobeyed an order since his squire days. Yet this wanton neglect of a heroic icon was a stain upon the corps, and a blot upon the memory of N’lahr, his friend and finest pupil. It could no longer be endured.

He opened the door and reached for the hilt. The faint scent of old leather and a stale musty odor emanating from the velvet attended his intrusion.

Asrahn fully meant to lift the sword from its display pegs and immediately place it within the sheath Elenai had brought from storage. But as his fingers wrapped those weathered leathers he paused.

There would never be another opportunity like this. Maybe advancing age was making him incautious, but … Could there be any harm in hefting Irion for a few moments, before it was returned to those same pegs, probably forever?

The dusty steel caught in a slanting sunbeam as he raised it level in the lonely marble hall.

His voice, roughened through years of calling commands across drill fields, betrayed neither hesitation nor expectancy. “Give me space.”

Elenai backed off, eyes wide. Probably she wondered if he’d grown mad, or senile.

Perhaps he had. He grinned fiercely as he advanced into the opening stance of his favorite sword form.

As Master of Squires for thirty years, weapon forms were as natural to Asrahn as breathing. The click of his bootheels on the inlaid granite floor echoed from walls hung with storied weapons and tapestries of famous battles, and his own high-necked armored robe—the famed blue knee-length khalat of the Altenerai Corps—swayed with his steps. Hard-used knees creaked on his advance and shoulders strained to perform smoothly, but he was used to feeling that. What he didn’t feel was the joy.

He grew more and more curious as he stepped through the form. The blade was balanced, true, and light. Yet something was wrong.

A twinge of pain passed through his calf, and he drew to a stop after the final flourish, setting his hand against the cool blue-marbled wall.

Elenai stepped forward. “Are you all right, Alten?”

“I’m fine, Squire.” His voice was sharper than he intended. Again he lifted the blade and considered its length. Its heft. Its edge. It looked right, yes. Absolutely right. Every nick and stain that he remembered was visible in its metal.

Yet it wasn’t right. This wasn’t N’lahr’s sword.

His heart raced on, not with exertion but panic. What if the Naor had stolen the real one years ago and replaced it with a fake? No … putting aside the unlikelihood of enemies penetrating the heart of Darassus and the halls of the Altenerai, if they had the sword they’d have marched across the border. It was the one object their superstitious king feared—a prophet had foretold Mazakan would die only on that blade’s edge. Besides, Asrahn was fairly certain the Naor lacked the skill to produce such a duplicate.

Maybe this sword was an authorized copy, with the real one in protective storage.

Except that made no sense. Asrahn’s eyes swept upward to Alvor’s blackened axe. All of the other old weapons on display here were authentic. His gaze raked the bows, halberds, and blades meticulously placed around the hall between banners, paintings, and other illustrations of the realms’ defense. Why house Irion anywhere else? Why deceive not only the squires who tended this display, but the Altenerai themselves? Surely Commander Denaven had to have tired of Asrahn complaining about the sword’s condition. He could have confided the truth and avoided a half-dozen confrontations.

Unless Denaven didn’t know.

Asrahn swallowed, for his throat was suddenly dry. Suppose the Naor clans were to learn the weapon was missing? It might be all the inspiration they needed to swarm from their dismal outer lands and try again for the realms, weakened after seven years of neglect and misrule.

“Sir?” Elenai prompted.

He’d almost forgotten she was there.

Elenai was garbed in a calf-length hauberk, similar in shape to his own khalat but constructed of heavy interlocking plates beneath a gray surcoat.

He almost confided in her. A squire of the fifth rank, she was ready to test for the sixth, the final level before joining the champions of the Allied Realms, equals without peer. She had talent and drive and discipline. And compassion as well, evident in the concern visible in her wide gray eyes.

But he’d broken enough strictures today. He straightened, still favoring his right leg. He wouldn’t alarm her any more.

“The sheath, if you please.” He forced a respectable calm.

She passed it to him, watching as he slid the sword home. It was a fair fit, if a little wide. She blinked in surprise as he handed the weapon to her.

He’d planned to care for Irion himself, with her assisting. But it wasn’t Irion. He couldn’t very well return the sword just now, after the big show he’d put on; that would leave her with even more questions. There could be no harm in her repairing the wrong sword though. He exerted effort to sound steady.

“See that the weapon’s properly cared for,” he instructed. “Replace the leathers.” He bent to retrieve a slim brown cloth sack with handpicked materials he’d set down earlier. “You can use the table in the records room, but keep the work to yourself.”

“Yes, sir.”

Elenai took the sack but paid it no heed, for she fairly goggled at the weapon in her right hand, holding it out from her as though it were a fragile glass construct she feared to drop; then she sought his eyes once more.

“I’ll meet you back here before nine bells.”

“Yes, sir.” She looked once more down at the sword, then back at him. She seemed to want reassurance.

So did everyone. But at the moment he had none to give. “I’ve other duties to attend to. Farewell, Squire.” He turned and strode back to the case. As he closed and locked it, he heard her footsteps recede into the south corridor. He looked once to the massive cedar doors leading to the Hall of Remembrance, then turned into the west corridor, the polished gray and blue stone pillars sliding past regularly.

If Irion had been moved by someone in the court other than Denaven, there was one person who might know.

Sareel, the longtime Keeper of Keys, had given access to Irion’s case the previous hour with a quirked eyebrow of surprise. Asrahn guessed she’d have pressed with impertinent curiosity if she weren’t so busy. It took almost three-quarters of an hour to track her down this time. Like many in the palace complex, Sareel was harried and cross owing to the influx of visitors for the three-day celebration that began tomorrow. Her staff in particular was spread thin, for they were tasked with decorating rooms and passages normally kept empty or minimally adorned.

He found the woman in a rear parlor off the Grand Hall, bent over a book of inventories, holding it close to a large lamp while three of her assistants fussed with the top of a dusty wooden crate. It was strange to see her so gray and lined, a reminder of the long years they had held their posts. It seemed only yesterday that she had been a pretty, sharp-eyed thing that Tretton had courted.

She saw Asrahn as he approached, and straightened at her table, blinking. When he asked if Irion had a duplicate, she looked at him as though he were demented.

“No. Of course not. Why do you ask?” Her tone was more cutting than usual.

He would have to be careful how he proceeded. He didn’t want to spread alarm unduly. “Has Irion ever been stored anywhere else?”

Her brow furrowed. “What’s this about, Asrahn?

He thought quickly and pulled himself a bit higher. “That sword’s a national symbol, an inspiration. I simply want to ensure it’s been handled correctly.”

Sareel sighed and Asrahn realized she took his inquiry as a punctilious drill of some sort. “As you well know, the actual article’s been hanging on the wall, properly labeled, ever since N’lahr got dropped into his marble box.”

It was Asrahn’s turn to furrow his brow at her callous words as she continued.

“And I’m the Keeper of Keys, so I should know. All those artifacts are in order, unlike these damnable staircase urns.” She scowled down at her book to end the interaction, then looked up as Asrahn turned to go. “Do you have the key?”

“I’ll need to hold onto it a little longer. I can have it back to you before the night is out.”

“Well, I’ll apparently still be here,” she said testily, “I have a few dozen hallways left, and no one but gaping fools to aid me.” The assistants buzzed more intently as her voice rose in conclusion.

He left her, deeply troubled.

Was he imagining things? Maybe it was he who’d changed, not the sword. N’lahr was dead seven years, but Asrahn himself hadn’t held the blade for nearly nine. Maybe he’d forgotten what it felt like.

Asrahn wished he could sound out Melagar about the matter, but his husband was still making finishing touches to a frieze in the temple of Darassa. He wouldn’t be available for hours. And Tretton was on long patrol, helping to see to the safety of the pilgrims as they passed through the Shifting Lands. He’d be unlikely to know the answer, but it would be a comfort to confide in an old friend.

More than anything, he wanted Kalandra’s advice. Her nimble intellect had always pierced straight through to the heart of any matter. Yet he’d had to go without her input for as long as he’d gone without N’lahr’s.

His mouth tightened at the thought of her. So many now were dead and gone.

Resigned to no other possible solution, he turned his steps to the south palace wing, marked with less expensive but still skillfully arranged ceramic tiles, and stopped at Denaven’s office, only to find his commanding officer absent. The second ranker on duty suggested several likely locations, but Denaven wasn’t in any of them, so Asrahn returned before long. When the squire assured him the commander would check in prior to retiring for the evening, Asrahn drafted a terse note explaining his concern and requesting a meeting at eight bells, which gave him just over an hour. He sealed the message with wax and instructed the squire to pass it solely to the Altenerai commander.

The Gods only knew how Denaven would react. He’d probably be livid but Asrahn had expected a dressing down from the start. Hopefully, the commander would focus less on the insubordination and more on the greater matter at hand—but how would he weigh the unsolicited suspicions of an aging veteran? The commander seemed somewhat impatient with tradition of late. Not to mention oblivious to the precarious state of the borders. Yet surely the disappearance of Irion would alarm even him.

Lost in reflection, Asrahn slowly retraced his steps, traversing the length of the southern hall to return to the empty display.

He looked away from the darker pattern in the velvet where the blade had hung and considered the other treasures from centuries of Altenerai service: the arrow Kerwyn had plunged through the burning heart of a kobalin lord; the spear of Jessaymyr, bent with age though its blade remained sharp. Asrahn knew precisely how sharp, for as a squire he’d tended many of these weapons—just like today’s squires tended all but N’lahr’s. The black ax of Alvor remained mirror bright, and he paused to consider the broadened, shortened image of himself in its reflection.

He was old. Weighted with time. Perhaps Irion felt different because his strength had faded. Asrahn little resembled the heroic figure woven into a nearby tapestry. There he was, depicted beside blue-tinted Varama as she sank to her knees on the battlefield. Tall, broad shouldered, his short brown hair windblown, although in life he’d worn a helm that day. He, like the rest of the Altenerai, was artfully rendered in a dark blue khalat, belted at the waist, with a tiny bit of azure silk on his left hand to indicate the ring denoting his rank. All about the tableau were shattered lances and bodies of the slain, but the tapestry worker had placed these aspects in shadow, as though the Second Battle of Kanesh had taken place under stormy skies.

The work was titled The Fall of N’lahr, and it was long enough to have draped the great hero’s coffin twice over. On the tapestry N’lahr lay more handsome dead than he’d been in life. Kyrkenall cradled his friend’s head in his hands, his black eyes leaking linen tears, while other Altenerai and squires sat on horses in the background, their faces pale in exaggerated grief. N’lahr’s dead hands still clasped the great sword that had led him again and again to impossible victories.

His death hadn’t happened like that at all, but it made for an arresting picture. The wound that slew him had seemed a tiny thing.

But the lie to the scene didn’t trouble Asrahn so much as did the image of the sword.

He turned from the tapestry, bootheels echoing along the marble foyer, and pulled open the oversized and overembellished cedar doors in the north wall. There had to be a reasonable explanation about what had happened to Irion.

He just hadn’t thought of one yet.

He paused, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. He breathed deeply the stale incense that always lingered in that vast shrine. Light from the sinking sun starkly lit the narrow windows, burnishing metal shoulders on the regularly spaced statuary and striping the planks of the parquet floors.

In the lighter days of his youth, the bronze renderings of Altenerai heroes had intimidated him, seeming to look down in judgment from their cool stone pedestals to find him wanting. Even after he’d earned the sapphire ring, necessitating his own cast semblance join theirs, he never lingered. But as more and more of his colleagues left the living world he’d found himself drawn to the sterile exhibit more and more frequently. He craved the counsel of the people they represented. He missed their company.

His heels beat a hollow rhythm as he entered, scanning the faces. There was bold, cunning Renik, his hand raised in greeting, long since vanished on one of the queen’s mad errands. To his right was sad-eyed Rialla, dead the day after winning her ring, forgotten now by all but the few who’d risen through the ranks with her. How many of those were left?

He held off counting. As usual, he avoided consideration of his own simulacrum as he passed.

He had almost reached Kalandra, halfway down. Of all those lost to him, it was she whom he missed the most. Wise, capable, hers had always been a grounded, calming presence.

A man’s voice rang through the chamber. “‘Who dares to walk these halls while I yet live?’”

Asrahn’s heart sped and he pivoted, sun-wrinkled hands rising to a guard position, until he realized the words were quoted from the poet and playwright Selana, from her masterwork, The Rise of Myralon. And by that tone and timbre and certain exaggerated stage diction, the speaker could only be … A smile crept unbidden to Asrahn’s lips. One of the missing had returned. He looked left. “Kyrkenall?”

“Wrong way,” called the voice, a warm tenor.

“Kyrkenall the Eyeless,” Asrahn called. He strode automatically toward the Alternerai’s bronze likeness.

“Over here,” the voice drawled. “You have me confused with the sot in bronzed breeches. I’m only Kyrkenall the drunk.”

Asrahn willed his sapphire ring to light as he stepped past a solemn looking statue of a bearded ancient. A man in a familiar deep blue robe, mirror to his own, reclined against the wall.

Kyrkenall slouched beside the statue of a tall man with a long, angular face. N’lahr, of course. He raised a hand holding a bottle. “Asrahn! Join me.”

Kyrkenall; mad, brilliant, impossible Kyrkenall. Sweet gods but it was fine to see a friend once more, even if he profaned the hallowed hall with inebriation. “Hail! What are you doing here?”

“I think that should be obvious.”

“No, I mean why are you here, drinking?”

He hadn’t changed a day, Asrahn realized as he moved closer. Kyrkenall was beautiful as a young god, smooth skinned and even featured. He might as well have stepped from the past twelve years ago when he was still a reckless squire. Radiance from Asrahn’s ring stained the archer’s neck-length black hair and nut-brown skin shades of indigo. His “eyeless” orbs threw back an unearthly violet. Legend had granted him that sobriquet because the whole of those weird eyes, sclera and all, were midnight black, though, Asrahn knew, the lithe archer saw better than most men.

Asrahn waved away the offered bottle and crouched stiffly beside the smaller, scruffier warrior, noticing then the sword belt, the quiver, the curved end of the famed ebon bow poking out from behind Kyrkenall’s pack. Kyrkenall hadn’t even bothered to find a room after what had surely been a lengthy ride from some distant realm. He’d just taken up station here, with all his equipment and his wine bottles, two of which lay empty.

“You shouldn’t drink here.” Asrahn suppressed a wry grin, remembering his chiding never moved this former student.

“Pfft. I’ve been drunk with some of these. The people, I mean. Not the statues. Sit!” Kyrkenall patted the floor. “You were always so formal, even when you … even in the old days.”

“The Gods have blessed you.” Asrahn couldn’t quite conceal a note of envy. “You look exactly the same as when I saw you last. Six years ago? Six and a half?”

Kyrkenall neither agreed nor disagreed. “The Grandmothers have smiled on me. You look fit still.”

For an old man, perhaps. “I’m older, and rounder. Your blood holds true.”

“May mine hold as true when I’m your age. How have you been? And how’s…” Kyrkenall spun his fingers as if trying to unspool a memory.

“Melagar’s fine,” Asrahn said.

“Sorry. I forgot his name. Drunk.”

Asrahn doubted Kyrkenall would remember the name of his espoused when sober, no matter that Melagar was one of the finest sculptors in the realm.

Kyrkenall took another pull from his bottle. “How’s the court, and all the little squires? Are they an insufferable lot of yankers?”

“A few have shown real promise. Like you did, once. Before you crawled off to sulk.” He couldn’t keep the disappointment from his voice. Kyrkenall had abandoned the corps when he was needed most.

“Sulk?” Kyrkenall’s eyebrows rose and Asrahn was reminded of the early days of their acquintance, when rage oft lurked in the shadows of his eyes. “The city of Darassus,” Kyrkenall continued with the faintest of drunken slurs, “is a great, diseased canker that infects all who dwell within it—present company excepted—and tarnishes what it cannot rust. Pardon my mixed metaphor. As for what I’ve been doing, surely some word has reached the court. Righting wrongs, slaying monsters. Drinking. Fucking. A whole lot of fucking, actually. It never gets old, does it? Melagar good to you in bed?”

How like Kyrkenall to reduce the most complex and rewarding relationship of Asrahn’s life to a matter of sex. “We’re happy. And that’s private.”

Kyrkenall snorted. “You sound like N’lahr.” At that, he raised his wine toward the statue profiled before him and drank once more.

“I’ve heard about your doings, Kyrkenall,” Asrahn said seriously. “Some of the tales are a little troubling.”

He laughed. “Like what?”

“That you whipped a Kaneshi stablemaster half to death.”

“That guy? He had it coming. He was beating his horses. And his children.”

That held the ring of truth. Altenerai were entrusted with meting justice wherever the local constabulary was overstretched, like in Kanesh. And it would be unlike Kyrkenall to consider how his handling of an issue might reflect on the prestige of the corps.

Kyrkenall was apparently still thinking of N’lahr. “He would never have accepted that peace treaty,” he said, for the hundredth time. “We’d have been on the Naor doorstep in a few more months.”

It was the natural lead-in for a discussion about the sword, yet Asrahn delayed. He wasn’t certain why he hesitated. Kyrkenall was no Kalandra, true. Yet for all that he was an irresponsible egoist, the great bowman always spoke his mind. And it was a sharp mind whenever it occasionally turned from focus on self.

His own indecision was an irritant. It was mostly an unfamiliar sensation.

“Hey, who else is here?” Kyrkenall broke into the silence. “In Darassus. Altenerai, I mean.”

Asrahn named the old guard first. “Tretton, though he’s shepherding pilgrims. He’ll be back tomorrow. Decrin and Varama. Denaven—”

Kyrkenall made a face.

“And the newer ranked.”

Kyrkenall rolled his eyes. Perhaps rightly. To Asrahn’s mind, most of them had been promoted too soon. But it had been hard to argue with Denaven’s insistence that the upper ranks had grown thin.

“Kalandra?” Kyrkenall attempted to sound but mildly curious and didn’t quite succeed.

“No one’s heard from Kalandra. Still.” And then it was as though the words were torn from him. “I need her advice.”

His companion nodded very slowly. They sat there together in silence for a while, and Kyrkenall didn’t even raise the bottle to his lips.

“Did you…” Asrahn paused. “Did you ever examine N’lahr’s sword? After his death, I mean?”

“Sure.”

“I mean really look at it.”

The archer focused bleary eyes, and for a moment Asrahn sensed he had the full attention of that shrewd intellect. “What’s your aim?”

“The notches are the same. The pommel’s the same. But I swear it’s a different blade.” He shook his head, suddenly worried he was making a fool of himself. “The heft is wrong. Irion practically begged to be swung the moment you picked it up.”

“I never held it,” Kyrkenall admitted. “What were you doing with it? Isn’t it retired, on display?” He nodded his head toward the immense double doors through which Asrahn had entered.

“Vermin were chewing the hilt wrappings.” Asrahn couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice. “Someone needed to take care of it. Tomorrow’s the anniversary of his greatest victory. We’ll sell a hundred thousand mugs of mead but can’t be bothered to tend his weapon?”

“Mice have been eating at the soul of this city for years.”

Asrahn sighed. “I don’t want politics, Kyrkenall.” Even if he partly agreed with the sentiment, the last thing he needed was to encourage Kyrkenall, who had no compunctions about venting his vitriol on matters of state. “I just want an explanation. Where’s the real sword, and who has it?”

“Maybe the one on display’s an official copy.”

“No. Not according to Sareel’s records.”

“Is it there now?” Kyrkenall looked as though he might rise and go see for himself.

“No—the blade I removed is with Squire Elenai. I asked her to repair it. I didn’t want to draw attention to any irregularities. You know how rumors can start.”

“Rumors—you mean that the Naor have the sword and are coming for our heads?” Kyrkenall cursed colorfully. “Is that what you think’s happened?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Kyrkenall was starting to sound more sober. “If word gets out we don’t have the sword, it might be all the inspiration they need.”

Asrahn had worried the Naor would return to invade ever since N’lahr’s death, for the actual prophecy foretold Mazakan would be slain by the great general with the sword. Yet as the years had passed with only sporadic raids from “renegade Naor clans,” common sentiment held that the sword itself might be enough of a deterrent.

He cleared his throat. “We need answers, not angst. I want to know if you’ve any ideas where the real sword could be.”

“Have you asked Denaven? Pardon me. Commander Denaven?” Sarcasm dripped from Kyrkenall’s words.

“Not yet. I left a message for him, though.”

“He’s probably busy preening in the mirror or kissing the queen’s bony white ass.”

“Kyrkenall!”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

It was, from a coarse perspective, but Kyrkenall dishonored the corps by talking that way. “The queen rules us all, and Denaven’s your commander so long as you wear that sapphire.” Kyrkenall looked down at his own ring. “He’s kept you on the rolls, despite your long absences. He didn’t have to do that.”

Kyrkenall snorted, then took another sip, his finger rising as he did so, and Asrahn braced himself for one of Kyrkenall’s invectives against Denaven or the queen. But he returned instead to the topic of the sword. “Have you checked with Varama?”

It took a moment for Asrahn to unravel meaning from the question. “About the sword?”

“Yes.”

“No. Why ask her?”

“She was always on about measurements and ratios and all that. I think she weighed Irion once, or calculated a density or whatever else she does. Trying to figure out why Irion was so much better, even than my sword. You could have her compare the old measurements with the sword on the wall. That was on the wall. You know.”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

“You’ll notice it’s not a great idea.”

Asrahn felt a lightness in his chest as he stood. “Thank you, Kyrkenall. You’re wrong—it’s a far better direction than I had before now.”

“I’m occasionally useful.”

He had been far more than that, once.

“You need any help?”

“No.” The last thing he wanted was a half-drunken Kyrkenall indelicately agitating this evening. Especially when he spoke with Denaven. “I’ll look into it, then tell you what I find. Will you be there tomorrow then? At the parade?”

“I’ve been thinking about it.”

“You should go.”

“I’ll have to salute Denaven.”

“He respects you.”

“Sure he does.”

“Why not join me and Melagar for dinner afterward?”

Kyrkenall’s smile was refreshingly genuine. “That sounds nice, Asrahn. You still live in the suite over the Idris?”

Neither mentioned that it was near Kalandra’s long-empty flat.

“Yes.”

“All right then.”

Asrahn nodded once, turned to go, then considered his old charge. “Kyrkenall.”

“Yes?”

“You’re better than this.”

Kyrkenall shook his head. “The queen and the court never deserved you. Neither did I. Would that you lived in a better world.”

Bemused, Asrahn replied, “Would that we had the strength to make one. I’ll see you tomorrow. I hope you find a more comfortable place to sleep.”

Kyrkenall laughed. “Hail, Alten.”

“Hail and farewell.”

Asrahn left Kyrkenall in the darkness and departed the palace through the heliotrope garden. As he passed under a wisteria trellis and into the vast open grounds of the complex, the sun stretched a dark finger of shadow after him as it sank below the high hills west of the city.

Asrahn smiled as he saw smoke curling from the chimneys of Varama’s work buildings behind the Altenerai stables. His old comrade was working late, as usual. With her analysis, surely he’d be able to put his concerns to rest. But he’d have to hurry if he was to return to Denaven’s office by eight bells.

He heard his name called.

Asrahn turned to find a broad-shouldered figure approaching, trailed by a tall woman in an unflatteringly high-necked dress. After a moment he recognized the first as Cargen, one of the newest Altenerai. With him was that mage sometimes used as supplementary instructor for Altenerai squires—what was her name?

Cargen halted before him and raised his hand, his blue ring flashing in the dying light of sunset. “Hail, Alten.” His voice was low, clipped. His heavy, beard-fringed jaw was thrust forward truculently.

“Hail,” Asrahn replied, eyeing them both. The woman, light of hair and eye, was lean, clean featured, and moved with grace and confidence. He wished he could recall her name.

“I’ve been looking for you this evening,” Cargen said quietly. “Do you mind if we talk?”

“It’s not a good time.”

“We can walk with you if you’re in a hurry. This shouldn’t take long.”

“Very well.” Asrahn started forward.

Cargen fell in step and indicated the woman with a sweep of his hand. “This is M’lahna.”

Ah, now he remembered, and felt foolish. This was Gyldara’s sister; even if he’d only met her a few times M’lahna’s resemblance to the alten should have sparked recognition. She had covered focusing spells with mid rankers last month. There was a time when all martial mages were trained in Altenerai schools, but this one had never served under his direction. “Well met.” Asrahn tried not to sound brusque. “Come along then.” He picked up his pace toward the bridge that would take him to the workshops. It arched over a walled tributary of the river Idris winding its way down to the heart of the city.

“I’ll have M’lahna mask our conversation. I don’t want anyone else to hear.”

Asrahn halted in mid-stride and studied them both. The failing light caught Cargen’s dark eyes.

“What’s this about?” Asrahn asked.

Cargen answered softly. “The sword, Irion.”

He almost breathed a sigh of relief. “Did Denaven send you?”

“Yes. It’s all right, we can walk.”

Asrahn stepped forward, Cargen at his side.

“Does he know where the real sword is?”

Cargen raised a finger. “One moment. Did you talk to anyone else about the sword being missing?”

“One or two,” Asrahn answered. Cargen’s manner was unusually tense. Perhaps he was worried that his more senior comrade had been indiscreet. Asrahn sighed inwardly, and not for the first time in dealing with Cargen.

They reached the midpoint of the bridge, and Asrahn glanced over to the woman, whose face had the glassy-vacant expression of someone in the midst of sorcery. She rubbed a charm dangling from her necklace between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. Cargen stepped close enough that Asrahn could smell the mint he’d chewed, and the faint breath of a dry wine behind it. “It’s important I know, Asrahn. Was it one, or two, and who were they?”

“Sareel.” He paused, for some reason reticent. Owing to the oath that had been the lynchpin of his life, lies never made it past Asrahn’s lips, and even one of omission was a difficult prospect.

“What did you say to her?”

“I asked if Irion had ever been kept anywhere else.”

“And that’s it?”

He held back from mentioning Kyrkenall’s name, despite a strong compulsion to speak on.

“You didn’t mention anything to, say, Melagar?”

“No. I haven’t seen him since this morning.”

Cargen nodded. “What about the squire, Elenai?”

How did Cargen know about her involvement? Asrahn sensed that he should have been more worried, but he found himself strangely untroubled. “Not really.”

“So you said something to her? What was it?”

Why were his thoughts so muddled? There was something bothering him about this conversation, and he frowned as it came to him. “Cargen, you sound far more worried about who I spoke with than you are about the true sword. What if our enemies have it?”

“I’m worried about both. Believe me. We can’t have people thinking their hero’s sword has gone missing, can we? The day before his big celebration?”

Something was wrong. “It’s getting dark,” he said, and willed his ring to life.

Upon calling its power, the mazing M’lahna had woven around them loosened, though she still retained a sluggish hold upon his perceptions. Asrahn sensed her spell wrapped about his thoughts almost as though he’d blundered through a web in the deep woods. The strands stretched with the light of his ring, but still touched him.

He saw that he was not upon the bridge, but beneath it, beside the river itself in its stone channel. The bridge’s shadow was a black stripe across the water.

“His will’s strong,” M’lahna whispered, which wasn’t true. Asrahn had no mystical ability; likely the woman just wasn’t used to fighting the power of one of the sacred rings.

Asrahn wore no sword this evening. But he was Master of Squires. He had trained the last five generations of Altenerai. Asrahn took Cargen’s thick chin with a solid right that snapped the man’s head back, then advanced with a left to his liver. Cargen threw up a block, but Asrahn’s fist brushed past his arm and caught him with a blow to the cheek that staggered him. Cargen reached for his knife hilt.

“No marks on the body,” the woman hissed.

So that’s how it was. Did they think he’d go down easy?

He partly turned so he could see them, and M’lahna pressed at his will. His sapphire ring shone.

Cargen lowered his head and came in with his arms. Asrahn brought his knee into Cargen’s gut and tried to pivot for a side kick to set his assailant off-balance.

Unfortunately, the leg that would have been solid under him even two years before betrayed him. The muscle seized up, and what should have been a graceful pivot was more of an awkward slump. Before he could compensate, a bloody-faced Cargen slammed into him and they stumbled.

No amateur, the woman threw her next sorcery while Asrahn fought for balance. Cargen suddenly disappeared. She’d blocked sight of him from Asrahn’s view, an old trick. A good trick.

But a good spell couldn’t last if its caster were injured. He rushed her.

She was fast and limber and sidestepped one blow, ducked another, then slid in to deliver a rabbit punch to his ear.

It wasn’t a solid hit, but it was the one that decided his fate, for as he shrugged away Cargen grappled him from behind, pressing Asrahn’s arms to his sides.

No longer restricted to keeping Cargen invisible, the woman hammered him with all her best magics. The world twisted and tilted as if Asrahn had just spun a hundred times in some childhood game.

A cool hand dug at one of his pinioned arms, pried at the ring that gleamed on his finger.

Not the ring. If she took the ring, he knew he was through. It was the final chance, and he bent his fingers tightly even as the man put a knee to his back. He struggled, cast back his head to catch Cargen in the forehead, missed …

And then all was still and he had no cares. The dizziness ebbed, and he seemed to float in a cool, dark place. The troubles of the moment before were but the lap of distant ocean waves.

He heard voices.

M’lahna panted. “For an old guy, he’s pretty spry.”

Cargen’s response was sharp. “He’s Altenerai. Ask him. This has taken too long already.”

The woman’s voice was soothing, like cool water on a dry throat. “Asrahn, did you tell Sareel you were afraid the sword was a fake?”

“No. I didn’t want to alarm anyone.”

M’lahna spoke softly to her companion. “We can easily manage this. Asrahn, what did you say to the squire Elenai about the sword?”

Graceful gray-eyed Elenai. So much potential. “Nothing.”

Cargen sounded exasperated. “Nothing?”

“No.”

Asrahn heard her speak but knew that she didn’t address him. “I can see the memory—he speaks the truth. His manner might have confused the girl, but we should be able to manage it.” And then she spoke to him. “Alten, I regret this. You were a loyal servant to the queen, and the realms. You shouldn’t have asked questions.”

“Someone smarter wouldn’t have,” Cargen added. “Someone dumber wouldn’t have noticed.”

“Shut up, Cargen.” M’lahna’s voice was still soothing. “What of your husband, Asrahn? Did you say anything to him?

“Melagar,” Asrahn said tenderly. “I haven’t seen him all day. He doesn’t know.”

Again he sensed that the woman wasn’t talking to him. “I think Asrahn need be our only loss. I have one last question, Alten. Did you speak to anyone else about the missing sword?”

Asrahn had only a dim understanding about what he was experiencing, but something drew him up short before he could answer. A sense of lingering unease came to him.

“He’s fighting me,” M’lahna said.

“There’s someone else, then,” Cargen said. “Push it!”

M’lahna’s voice rose in anger. “I’m already masking and silencing us. My magic’s stretched—”

“Push!”

Asrahn gritted his teeth. He was Altenerai, one of the exalted champions of his people. He had served under bold Renik, and before him, brave, doomed, Anara, and he had trained some of the finest champions of the realms. He had sworn the oath and stood with his brothers and sisters before the enemies of Darassus. Confused as he was, his loyalty yet was a bulwark against the assault by a master sorceress.

“He’s thinking of a hand, holding a bottle,” M’lahna said. “It’s some-place dark.”

Asrahn snarled. They would know nothing more. There was one shield left him. “When comes my numbered day,” he said slowly, as if he had to tear each word from the muck of his muddled consciousness, “I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.”

Cargen’s voice rose in consternation. “Why’s he reciting the Altenerai pledge?”

“He’s using it to block me!”

“Make him stop. Push!”

But Asrahn would not stop. At the whispered words that formed the framework of his life, a spark flared within him and his speech grew easy. “I shall use my arms to shield the weak. I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.” That spark flared to flame and his voice strengthened. “I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind. Where I walk, the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands—”

He heard the woman’s warning cry and suddenly he saw them, dark shapes against the stones beneath the bridge, Cargen grasping at him.

They were too strong. He had to get away, warn Renik.…

But as he spun, stumbling as fast as he could manage, he remembered Renik was gone. N’lahr was dead. Kalandra was missing. He had to warn the few who were left, for it was too much for him alone. Asrahn had always been a lesser light, and he knew it. He served the state as best he could, to lift those with potential to greater heights than his. Though he was Altenerai, he’d known, even when young, that he’d never join the ranks of the legendary.

Cargen’s footsteps pounded behind him and M’lahna’s weavings reached again for his senses, thrusting him into blackness even as he dove into the dark waters of the Idris.

The water was cooler than he’d anticipated. A surprise.

Mages loved surprises. Anything that gave the mind something new to wrestle dropped your guard. So had Kalandra always warned. If he’d yet worn the ring, awarded him in sacred trust, he might still have brushed M’lahna’s spells aside.

She clamped down hard, and all went dim. His body fought, spasmodically, and then everything left him.


Copyright © 2019 by Howard Andrew Jones