Authors: Michael J Sullivan
This book is entirely dedicated to my wife, Robin Sullivan.
Some have asked how it is I write such strong women without resorting to putting swords in their hands. It is because of her.
She is Arista
She is Thrace
She is Modina
She is Amilia
And she is my Gwen.
This series has been a tribute to her.
This is your book, Robin.
I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.
Estrendor: Northern wastes
Erivan Empire: Elvenlands
Apeladorn: Nations of man
Ba Ran Archipelago: Islands of goblins
Westerlands: Western wastes
Dacca: Isle of south men
Avryn: Central wealthy kingdoms
Trent: Northern mountainous kingdoms
Calis: Southeastern tropical region ruled by warlords
Delgos: Southern republic
Ghent: Ecclesiastical holding of the Nyphron Church
Melengar: Small but old and respected kingdom
Warric: Most powerful of the kingdoms of Avryn
Dunmore: Youngest and least sophisticated kingdom
Alburn: Forested kingdom
Rhenydd: Poor kingdom
Maranon: Producer of food. Once part of Delgos, which was lost when Delgos became a republic
Galeannon: Lawless kingdom of barren hills, the site of several great battles
Erebus: Father of the gods
Ferrol: Eldest son, god of elves
Drome: Second son, god of dwarves
Maribor: Third son, god of men
Muriel: Only daughter, goddess of nature
Uberlin: Son of Muriel and Erebus, god of darkness
Imperialists: Those wishing to unite mankind under a single leader who is the direct descendant of the demigod Novron
Nationalists: Those wishing to be ruled by a leader chosen by the people
Royalists: Those wishing to perpetuate rule by individual, independent monarchs
ome people are skilled, and some are lucky, but at that moment Mince realized he was neither. Failing to cut the merchant’s purse strings, he froze with one hand still cupping the bag. He knew the pickpocket’s creed allowed for only a single touch, and he had dutifully slipped into the crowd after two earlier attempts. A third failure meant they would bar him from another meal. Mince was too hungry to let go.
With his hands still under the merchant’s cloak, he waited. The man remained oblivious.
Should I try again?
The thought was insane, but his empty stomach won the battle over reason. In a moment of desperation, Mince pushed caution aside. The leather seemed oddly thick. Sawing back and forth, he felt the purse come loose, but something was not right. It took only an instant for Mince to realize his mistake. Instead of purse strings, he had sliced through the merchant’s belt. Like a hissing snake, the leather strap slithered off the fat man’s belly, dragged to the cobblestones by the weight of his weapons.
Mince did not breathe or move as the entire span of his ten disappointing years flashed by.
the voice inside his head screamed as he realized there was a heartbeat, perhaps two, before his victim—
The merchant turned.
He was a large, soft man with saddlebag cheeks reddened by the cold. His eyes widened when he noticed the purse in Mince’s hand. “Hey, you!” The man reached for his dagger, and surprise filled his face when he found it missing. Groping for his other weapon, he spotted them both lying in the street.
Mince heeded the voice of his smarter self and bolted. Common sense told him the best way to escape a rampaging giant was to head for the smallest crack. He plunged beneath an ale cart outside The Blue Swan Inn and slid to the far side. Scrambling to his feet, he raced for the alley, clutching the knife and purse to his chest. The recent snow hampered his flight, and his small feet lost traction rounding a corner.
“Thief! Stop!” The shouts were not nearly as close as he had expected.
Mince continued to run. Finally reaching the stable, he ducked between the rails of the fence framing the manure pile. Exhausted, he crouched with his back against the far wall. The boy shoved the knife into his belt and stuffed the purse down his shirt, leaving a noticeable bulge. Panting amidst the steaming piles, he struggled to hear anything over the pounding in his ears.
“There you are!” Elbright shouted, skidding in the snow and catching himself on the fence. “What an idiot. You just stood there—waiting for the fat oaf to turn around. You’re a moron, Mince. That’s it—that’s all there is to it. I honestly don’t know why I bother trying to teach you.”
Mince and the other boys referred to thirteen-year-old Elbright as the Old Man. In their small band only he wore an actual cloak, which was dingy gray and secured with a tar
nished metal broach. Elbright was the smartest and most accomplished of their crew, and Mince hated to disappoint him.
Laughing, Brand arrived only moments later and joined Elbright at the fence.
“It’s not funny,” Elbright said.
“But—he—” Brand could not finish as laughter consumed him.
Like the other two, Brand was dirty, thin, and dressed in mismatched clothing of varying sizes. His pants were too long and snow gathered in the folds of the rolled-up bottoms. Only his tunic fit properly. Made from green brocade and trimmed with fine supple leather, it fastened down the front with intricately carved wooden toggles. A year younger than the Old Man, he was a tad taller and a bit broader. In the unspoken hierarchy of their gang, Brand came second—the muscle to Elbright’s brains. Kine, the remaining member of their group, ranked third, because he was the best pickpocket. This left Mince unquestionably at the bottom. His size matched his position, as he stood barely four feet tall and weighed little more than a wet cat.
“Stop it, will ya?” the Old Man snapped. “I’m trying to teach the kid a thing or two. He could have gotten himself killed. It was stupid—plain and simple.”
“I thought it was brilliant.” Brand paused to wipe his eyes. “I mean, sure it was dumb, but spectacular just the same. The way Mince just stood there blinking as the guy goes for his blades. But they ain’t there ’cuz the little imbecile done cut the git’s whole bloody belt off! Then…” Brand struggled against another bout of laughter. “The best part is that just after Mince runs, the fat bastard goes to chase him, and his breeches fall down. The guy toppled like a ruddy tree.
Right into the gutter. By Mar, that was hilarious.”
Elbright tried to remain stern, but Brand’s recounting soon had them all laughing.
“Okay, okay, quit it.” Elbright regained control and went straight to business. “Let’s see the take.”
Mince fished out the purse and handed it over with a wide grin. “Feels heavy,” he proudly stated.
Elbright drew open the top and scowled after examining the contents. “Just coppers.”
Brand and Elbright exchanged disappointed frowns and Mince’s momentary elation melted. “It felt heavy,” he repeated, mainly to himself.
“What now?” Brand asked. “Do we give him another go?”
Elbright shook his head. “No, and all of us will have to avoid Church Square for a while. Too many people saw Mince. We’ll move closer to the gates. We can watch for new arrivals and hope to get lucky.”
“Do ya want—” Mince started.
“No. Give me back my knife. Brand is up next.”
The boys jogged toward the palace walls, following the trail that morning patrols had made in the fresh snow. They circled east and entered Imperial Square. People from all over Avryn were arriving for Wintertide, and the central plaza bustled with likely prospects.
“There,” Elbright said, pointing toward the city gate. “Those two. See ’em? One tall, the other shorter.”
“They’re a sorry-looking pair,” Mince said.
“Exhausted,” Brand agreed.
“Probably been riding all night in the storm,” Elbright said with a hungry smile. “Go on, Brand, do the old helpful stableboy routine. Now, Mince, watch how this is done. It might be your only hope, as you’ve got no talent for purse cutting.”
Royce and Hadrian entered Imperial Square on ice-laden horses. Defending against the cold, the two appeared as ghosts shrouded in snowy blankets. Despite wearing all they had, they were ill-equipped for the winter roads, much less the mountain passes that lay between Ratibor and Aquesta. The all-night snowstorm had only added to their hardship. As the two drew their horses to a stop, Royce noticed Hadrian breathing into his cupped hands. Neither of them had winter gloves. Hadrian had wrapped his fingers in torn strips from his blanket, while Royce opted for pulling his hands into the shelter of his sleeves. The sight of his own handless arms disturbed Royce as they reminded him of the old wizard. The two had learned the details of his murder while passing through Ratibor. Assassinated late one night, Esrahaddon had been silenced forever.
They had meant to get gloves, but as soon as they had arrived in Ratibor, they saw announcements proclaiming the Nationalist leader’s upcoming execution. The empire planned to publicly burn Degan Gaunt in the imperial capital of Aquesta as part of the Wintertide celebrations. After Hadrian and Royce had spent months traversing high seas and dark jungles seeking Gaunt, to have found his whereabouts tacked up to every tavern door in the city was as much a blow as a blessing. Fearing some new calamity might arise to stop them from finally reaching him, they left early the next morning, long before the trade shops opened.
Unwrapping his scarf, Royce drew back his hood and looked around. The snow-covered palace took up the entire southern side of the square, while shops and vendors dominated the rest. Furriers displayed trimmed capes and hats. Shoemakers cajoled passers-by, offering to oil their boots.
Bakers tempted travelers with snowflake-shaped cookies and white-powdered pastries. And colorful banners were everywhere announcing the upcoming festival.
Royce had just dismounted when a boy ran up. “Take your horses, sirs? One night in a stable for just a silver each. I’ll brush them down myself and see they get good oats too.”
Dismounting and pulling back his own hood, Hadrian smiled at the boy. “Will you sing them a lullaby at night?”
“Certainly, sir,” the boy replied without losing a beat. “It will cost you two coppers more, but I do have a very fine voice, I does.”
“Any stable in the city will quarter a horse for five coppers,” Royce challenged.
“Not this month, sir. Wintertide pricing started three days back. Stables and rooms fill up fast. Especially this year. You’re lucky you got here early. In another two weeks, they’ll be stocking horses in the fields behind hunters’ blinds. The only lodgings will be on dirt floors, where people will be stacked like cordwood for five silvers each. I know the best places and the lowest costs in the city. A silver is a good price right now. In a few days it’ll cost you twice that.”
Royce eyed him closely. “What’s your name?”
“Brand the Bold they call me.” He straightened up, adjusting the collar of his tunic.
Hadrian chuckled and asked, “Why is that?”
“ ’Cuz I don’t never back down from a fight, sir.”
“Is that where you got your tunic?” Royce asked.
The boy looked down as if noticing the garment for the first time. “This old thing? I got five better ones at home. I’m just wearing this rag so I don’t get the good ones wet in the snow.”
“Well, Brand, do you think you can take these horses to The Bailey Inn at Hall and Coswall and stable them there?”
“I could indeed, sir. And a fine choice, I might add. It’s run by a reputable owner charging fair prices. I was just going to suggest that very place.”
Royce gave him a smirk. He turned his attention to two boys who stood at a distance, pretending not to know Brand. Royce waved for them to come over. The boys appeared hesitant, but when he repeated the gesture, they reluctantly obliged.
“What are your names?” he asked.
“Elbright, sir,” the taller of the two replied. This boy was older than Brand and had a knife concealed beneath his cloak. Royce guessed he was the real leader of their group and had sent Brand over to make the play.
“Mince, sir,” said the other, who looked to be the youngest and whose hair showed evidence of having recently been cut with a dull knife. The boy wore little more than rags of stained, worn wool. His shirt and pants exposed the bright pink skin of his wrists and shins. Of all his clothing, the item that fit best was a torn woven bag draped over his shoulders. The same material wrapped his feet, secured around his ankles by twine.
Hadrian checked through the gear on his horse, removed his spadone blade, and slid it into the sheath, which he wore on his back beneath his cloak.
Royce handed two silver tenents to the first boy, then, addressing all three, said, “Brand here is going to have our horses stabled at the Bailey and reserve us a room. While he’s gone, you two will stay here and answer some questions.”
“But, ah, sir, we can’t—” Elbright started, but Royce ignored him.
“When Brand returns with a receipt from the Bailey, I will pay
of you a silver. If he doesn’t return, if instead he runs off and sells the horses, I shall slit both of your throats and hang you on the palace gate by your feet. I’ll let your blood
drip into a pail, then paint a sign with it to notify the city that Brand the Bold is a horse thief. Then I’ll track him down, with the help of the imperial guard and
I have in this city, and see he gets the same treatment.” Royce glared at the boy. “Do we understand each other, Brand?”