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Authors: Greg Keyes

The Briar King

BOOK: The Briar King
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ONE OF THE FALL 2003
BOOK SENSE 76 SCIENCE FICTION
AND FANTASY TOP TEN

ONE OF THE PALM DIGITAL MEDIA
TOP TEN BESTSELLING EBOOKS
FOR 2003

“ENJOYABLE, PAGE-TURNING, AND AT TIMES BREATHTAKING …

Keyes does a remarkable job shifting from scene to scene, always leaving the reader at the edge of his or her seat.… Sword fights a-plenty, other brutal hand-to-hand combat sequences and man-against-monster matches that are enough to raise the hair on the back of the reader's neck…. [A] constant state of suspense.”

—Fort Wayne Herald (IN)

“A wonderful epic fantasy story … This book hooked me with the first ten pages…. I look forward to more from this author.”

—Pages magazine (Bookseller Picks)

“Here is a high fantasy novel that has the grit of secular combat and the heart of one of the great Romances, but it hasn't forgotten one of the main reasons we turn to fantasy: a sense of wonder.”

—Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine

“Splendid … Keyes mixes cultures, religions, institutions and languages with rare skill…. The rewards [are] enormously worthwhile.”

“MARVELOUS … A HEADY BLEND OF LEGEND AND HISTORY,

—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

spiced up with great action, a poignant love story, and a tart twist of humor…. Keyes's writing springs from the very tap root of our most cherished mythology.”

—SFRevu

“This is not just another brilliant novel by Greg Keyes. It is
the
brilliant novel of his career thus far, a gorgeous work of deep intrigues and exciting characters, and action to leave the reader breathless.
The Briar King
belongs in every fantasy collection.”

—Melanie Rawn Bestselling author of the Dragon Prince and Exiles series

“[Keyes's] cliffhanger style of ending chapters keeps the reader hanging on and wanting to know what happens next…. [This series] could be one of the best I've come across in several years.”

—Monroe News-Star

“Lord, how the man can use the English language. [Greg Keyes] can really spin out images—and he's given some really clever twists to tried-and-true premises…. Definitely left me turning the page late.”

—Katherine Kurtz New York Times bestselling author of the Deryni Chronicles

“An epic and richly imagined fantasy novel that will keep fans of David Eddings or Robert Jordan engrossed…. [Keyes's] narrative pace, complex plot, and expert character development make this one of the better novels of its kind.”

—The Age (Melbourne, Australia)

“ACTION-PACKED FANTASY RIFE WITH HUMOR AND SENSUALITY …

Keyes takes all the genre's conventions and, while never overstepping their boundaries, breathes new life into them…. The start of a simply smashing new four-part series.”

—Kirkus Reviews


The Briar King
by Greg Keyes offers fantasy painted onto a canvas both wider and darker than the reader might expect. An excellent choice for the person who enjoys a character-driven tale where human nature and intrigue are as compelling as the fantasy elements.”

—Robin Hobb Author of Assassin's Apprentice

“In
The Briar King
, Greg Keyes proves once again that he is a master of his form. With a large cast of genuine human beings (and some not so human), he has crafted a story that combines action and romance in a world of magic and conflict. Superb entertainment that leaves the reader longing for more.”

—John Maddox Roberts Author of The King's Gambit and Hannibal's Children

“Recommended … Keyes's talent for world crafting and storytelling makes this series opener a strong addition to fantasy collections.”

—Library Journal

“In the end, the best recommendation I can give is that if you are sick to death of fantasy, read
The Briar King
. Remember why you used to love it.”

—SFcrowsnest.com

The Chosen of the Changeling

THE WATERBORN

THE BLACKGOD

The Age of Unreason

NEWTON'S CANNON

A CALCULUS OF ANGELS

EMPIRE OF UNREASON

THE SHADOWS OF GOD

The Psi Corps Trilogy

BABYLON 5: DARK GENESIS

BABYLON 5: DEADLY RELATIONS

BABYLON 5: FINAL RECKONING

Star Wars®: The New Jedi Order

EDGE OF VICTORY
:
CONQUEST

EDGE OF VICTORY
:
REBIRTH

THE FINAL PROPHECY

The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone

THE BRIAR KING

THE CHARNEL PRINCE

Books published by the Random House Publishing Group are available at quantity on bulk purchases for premium, education, fund-raising, and special sales use. For detials, please call 1-800-733-3000.

For my brother,
Timothy Howard Keyes

Know, O Proud Heart of Fear, that in those days there were no kings and queens, no lords and vassals. In the countless millennia before Everon, known also as the Age of Man, there were only masters and slaves. The masters were ancient, as practiced at cruelty as the stars at shining. They were more powerful than gods, and they were not men.

Their slaves were innumerable, but all of our mothers and fathers were among them. Humans were their cattle and their playthings. But even slaves of a thousand generations may be born with hearts bright enough to hope and dark enough to do what must be done. Even a slave may rise from the dust, and whet his gaze into a knife, and tell his master, “You will never own me.”

—THE TESTIMONY OF SAINT ANEMLEN AT THE COURT OF THE
BLACK JESTER, SHORTLY BEFORE THE
COMMENCEMENT OF HIS TORTURES

PRELUDE
THE BORN QUEEN

THE SKY CRACKED AND LIGHTNING fell through its crooked seams. With it came a black sleet tasting of smoke, copper, and brimstone. With it came a howling like a gale from hell.

Carsek drew himself up, clutching his bloody bandages, hoping they would keep his guts in until he saw the end of this, one way or another.

“She must order the charge soon,” he grunted, pushing himself to his feet with the butt of his spear.

A hand jerked at Carsek's ankle. “Get back down, you fool, if you want to live until the charge.”

Carsek spared a glance at his companion, a man in torn chain mail and no helm, blue eyes pleading through the dark mat of his wet hair.


You
crouch, Thaniel,” Carsek muttered. “I've done enough crouching. Fourteen days we've been squatting in these pig holes, sleeping in our own shit and blood. Can't you hear? They're fighting up front, and I'll see it, I will.” He peered through the driving rain, trying to make out what was happening.

“You'll see death waving hello,” Thaniel said. “That's what you'll see. Our time will come soon enough.”

“I'm sick of crawling on my belly in this filth. I was trained to fight on my feet. I want an opponent, one with blood I can spill, with bones I can break. I'm a warrior, by Taranos! I was promised a war, not this slaughter, not wounds given by specters we never see, by ghost-needles and winds of iron.”

“Wish you may and might. I wish for a plump girl named Alis or Favor or How-May-I-Please-You to sit on my lap and feed me plums. I wish for ten pints of ale. I wish for a bed stuffed with swandown. Yet here I am still stuck in the mud, with
you
. What's your wishing getting you? Do you see your enemy?”

“I see fields smoking to the horizon, even in this pissing rain. I see these trench graves we dug for ourselves. I see the damned keep, as big as a mountain. I see—” He saw a wall of black, growing larger with impossible speed.

“Slitwind!” he shouted, hurling himself back into the trench. In his haste he landed face first in mud that reeked of ammonia and gangrene.

“What?” Thaniel said, but then even the smoke-gray sun above them was gone, and a sound like a thousand thousand swords on a thousand thousand whetstones scraped at the insides of their skulls. Two men who hadn't ducked swiftly enough flopped into the mud, headless, blood jetting from their necks.

“Another damned Skasloi magick,” Thaniel said. “I told you.”

Carsek howled in rage and frustration, and the rain fell even harder. Thaniel gripped his arm. “Hold on, Carsek. Wait. It won't be long, now. When
she
comes, the magicks of the Skasloi will be as nothing.”

“So you say. I've seen nothing to prove it.”

“She has the power.”

Carsek brushed Thaniel's hand from his shoulder. “You're one of her own, a Bornman. She's your queen, your witch. Of course you believe in her.”

“Oh, of course,” Thaniel said. “We believe whatever we're told, we Bornmen. We're stupid like that. But you believe in her, too, Carsek, or you wouldn't be here.”

“She had all the right words. But where is the steel? Your Born Queen has talked us all right into death.”

“Wouldn't death be better than slavery?”

Carsek tasted blood in his mouth. He spit, and saw that his spittle was black. “Seven sevens of the generations of my fathers
have lived and died slaved to the Skasloi lords,” he sneered. “I don't even know all of their names. You Bornmen have been here for only twenty years. Most of you were whelped otherwhere, without the whip, without the masters. What do you know of slavery? You or your redheaded witch?”

Thaniel didn't answer for a moment, and when he did, it was without his usual bantering tone. “Carsek, I've not known you long, but together we slaughtered the Vhomar giants at the Ford of Silence. We killed so many we made a bridge of their bodies. You and I, we marched across the Gorgon plain, where a quarter of our company fell to dust. I've seen you fight. I know your passion. You can't fool me. Your people have been slaves longer, yes, but it's all the same. A slave is a slave. And we
will
win, Carsek, you bloody-handed monster. So drink this, and count your blessings we got this far.”

He passed Carsek a flask. It had something in it that tasted like fire, but it dulled the pain.

“Thanks,” Carsek grunted, handing it back. He paused, then went on. “I'm sorry. It's just the damned waiting. It's like being in my cage, before the master sent me out to fight.”

Thaniel nodded, took a swig from the flask himself, then stoppered it. Nearby, Findos the Half-Handed, deep in a fever, shrieked at some memory or nightmare.

“I've always wondered, but never asked,”Thaniel said pensively. “Why do you
Vhiri Croatani
call us the Bornmen, anyway?”

Carsek wiped the rain from his eyes with the back of his hand. “That's a strange question. It's what you call yourselves, isn't it?
Vhiri Genian,
yes? And your queen, the firstborn of your people in this place, isn't she named Genia, ‘the Born’?”

Thaniel blinked at him, then threw back his head and laughed.

“What's so funny?”

Thaniel shook his head. “I see now. In your language that's how it sounds. But really—” He stopped, for a sudden exclamation had gone up among the men, a mass cry of fear and horror that moved down from the front.

Carsek put his hand down to push himself up, and found the mud strangely warm. A viscous, sweet-smelling fluid was flowing down the trench, two fingers deep.

“By all that's holy,” Thaniel swore.

It was blood, a river of it.

With an inarticulate cry, Carsek came back to his feet.

“No more of this. No more!”

He started to clamber out of the trench.

“Stop, warrior,” a voice commanded.

A woman's voice, and it halted him as certainly as the spectral whip of a master.

He turned and saw
her
.

She wore black mail, and her face above it was whiter than bone. Her long auburn hair hung lank, soaked by the pestilent rain, but she was beautiful as no earthly woman could be. Her eyes sparked like lightning in the heart of a black cloud.

Behind her stood her champions, clad much as she, bared feyswords gleaming like hot brass. Tall and unafraid, they stood. They looked like gods.

“Great queen!” Carsek stammered.

“You are ready to fight, warrior?” she asked.

“I am, Majesty. By Taranos, I am!”

“Pick fifty men and follow me.”

The forward trenches were filled with milled meat, with few pieces still recognizable as human. Carsek tried to ignore the sucking his feet made, somehow different from walking in ordinary mud. He had less success ignoring the stench of opened bowels and fresh offal. What had killed them? A demon? A spell? He didn't care. They were gone, but he was going to
fight
, by the Twin and the Bull.

When they halted in the foremost trench, which was half again as deep as Carsek was tall, he could see the black walls of the fortress looming above. This was what nearly a month and two thousand or more sacrifices had gained them—a hole at the foot of the fortress.

“Now it's just a brisk walk to the wall that can't be broken
and the gate that can't be breached,” Thaniel said. “The bat-tle's nearly won!”

“Now who's the skeptic? Here's a chance for glory, and to die on my feet,” Carsek said. “It's all I ask.”

“Hah,” Thaniel said. “Myself, I intend not only to cover myself in glory, but to have a drink when it's all done.” He held out his palm. “Take my hand, Carsek. Let's agree—we'll meet for a drink when it's over. Overlooking the arena where once you fought. And there we shall account who has more glory. And it shall be me!”

Carsek took his hand. “In the very seat of the master.” The two men clenched a mutual fist.

“It's done, then,” Thaniel said. “You won't break a promise, and I won't, so surely we'll both live.”

“Surely,” Carsek said.

Planks were brought and laid so they might scale their own trench. Then Genia Dare, the queen, gave them all a fierce smile.

“When this sun sets we shall all be free or all dead,” she said. “I do not intend to die.” With that, she drew her fey-sword and turned to Carsek. “I must reach the gate. Do you understand? Until the gate falls, five thousand is no better than fifty, for I can protect no greater number than two score and ten from Skasloi slaughter-spelling if they have us 'neath their fatal eyes, and if we can do naught but stand in their gaze. Once the gate is sundered, we can sweep through too quickly for them to strike down. This will be a hard charge, my heroes—but no spell will touch you, that I swear. It's only sword and shaft, flesh and bone you must fight.”

“Flesh and bone are grass, and I am a sickle,” Carsek said. “I will get you to the gate, Majesty.”

“Then go and do it.”

Carsek hardly felt his wounds anymore. His belly was light and his head full of fire. He was the first up the plank, first to set his feet on the black soil.

Lightning wrenched at him, and slitwinds, but this time they parted, passed to left and right of him, Thaniel, and all
his men. He heard Thaniel hoot with joy as the deadly magicks passed them by, impotent as a eunuch's ghost.

They charged across the smoking earth, howling, and Carsek saw, through rage-reddened vision, that he at last had a real enemy in front of his spear.

“It's Vhomar, lads!” he shouted. “Nothing but Vhomar!”

Thaniel laughed. “And just a few of them!” he added.

A few, indeed. A few hundred, ranged six ranks deep before the gate. Each stood head and shoulders taller than the tallest man in Carsek's band. Carsek had fought many a Vhomar in the arena, and respected them there, as much as any worthy foe deserved. Now he hated them as he hated nothing mortal. Of all of the slaves of the Skasloi, only the Vhomar had chosen to remain slaves, to fight those who rose against the masters.

A hundred Vhomar bows thrummed together, and black-winged shafts hummed and thudded amongst his men, so that every third one of them fell.

A second flight melted in the rain and did not touch them at all, and then Carsek was at the front rank of the enemy, facing a wall of giants in iron cuirasses, shouting up at their brutish, unhuman faces.

The moment stretched out, slow and silent in Carsek's mind. Plenty of time to notice details, the spears and shields bossed with spikes, the very grain of the wood, black rain dripping from the brows of the creature looming in front of him, the scar on its cheek, its one blue eye and one black eye, the mole above the black one …

Then sound came back, a hammer strike as Carsek feinted. He made as if to thrust his spear into the giant's face but dropped instead, coming up beneath the huge shield as it lifted, driving his manslayer under the overlapping plates of the armor, skirling at the top of his lungs as leather and fabric and flesh parted. He wrenched at his weapon as the warrior toppled, but the haft snapped.

Carsek drew his ax. The press of bodies closed as the Vhomar surged forward, and Carsek's own men, eager for killing, slammed into him from behind. He found himself suffocating
in the sweaty stench, caught between shield and armored belly, and no room to swing his ax. Something hit his helm so hard it rang, and then the steel cap was torn from his head. Thick fingers knotted in Carsek's hair, and suddenly his feet were no longer on the ground.

He kicked in the air as the monster drew him up by the scalp, dangled him so it was staring into his eyes. The Vhomar drew back the massive sword it gripped in its other hand, bent on decapitating him.

“You damned fool!” Carsek shouted at it, shattering the gi-ant's teeth with the edge of his ax, then savaged its neck with his second blow. Bellowing, the Vhomar dropped him, trying to staunch its lifeblood with its own hands. Carsek hamstrung it and went on.

The work stayed close and bloody, he knew not for how long. For each Vhomar Carsek killed, there was always another, if not two or three. He had actually forgotten his goal was the gate, when there it was before him. Through the press he saw feyswords glittering, glimpsed auburn hair and sparks of pale viridian. Then he was pushed back, until the gate receded from view and thought.

The rain stopped, but the sky grew darker. All Carsek could hear was his own wheezing breath; all he could see was blood and the rise and fall of iron, like the lips of sea waves breaking above him. His arm could hardly hold itself up for more killing, and of his fifty men he now stood in a circle with the eight who remained, Thaniel among them. And still the giants came on, wave on wave of them.

But then there was a sound like all the gods screaming. A new tide swept up from behind him, a wall of shouting men, hundreds pouring out of the trenches, crushing into the ranks of their enemies, and for the first time Carsek looked up from death and witnessed the impossible.

The massive steel portals of the citadel hung from their hinges, twisted almost beyond recognizing, and below them, white light blazed.

The battle swept past them, and as Carsek's legs gave way, Thaniel caught him.

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