The Knight Marshal (The Silk & Steel Saga)

BOOK: The Knight Marshal (The Silk & Steel Saga)
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THE KNIGHT MARSHAL

 

 

BOOK FIVE OF

 

THE SILK & STEEL SAGA

 

 

 

Karen L. Azinger

 

 

The
Silk & Steel Saga

Book
One: 
The Steel Queen

Book
Two: 
The Flame Priest

Book
Three: 
The Skeleton King

Book
Four: 
The Poison Priestess

Book
Five: 
The Knight Marshal

 

Forthcoming
books by Karen L Azinger

Book
Six: 
The Battle Immortal

 

Additional
books by Karen L Azinger

The
Assassin’s Tear

Published by Kiralynn Epics L.P. 2013

Copyright © Karen L. Azinger 2013

First published in the United States of America by
Kiralynn Epics 2013

Front Cover Artwork Copyright Greg Bridges © 2013

Celtic Lettering used with permission of Alfred M
Graphics Art Studio

The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as
the author of this work

All characters in this publication are fictitious and
any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

PRINT ISBN
 978-0-9910297-0-9

 

e-book ISBN
978-0-9910297-1-6

 

Library of
Congress Control Number:
2013918756

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may
be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by
any means,

electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

 

 

 

For Rick

 

Prologue

 

Fear stowed aboard his ship, like an enemy waiting to
strike. Lord Askal prowled the deck, noting the signs. His men scuttled away,
avoiding his sharp-eyed stare, yet he saw their furtive glances and the way
they fingered handmade charms to ward against evil. Fear stalked his crew till
they saw ill omens in every creak of the deck, in every luff of the sail, in
every screaming seagull. Offerings to Naff dangled from the prow, bits of
jewelry and gold, claimed now and then by a gray wave’s angry slap, but his
crew’s alms to the sea god were for naught. The gnawing unease festered and
grew, arguments erupting over the smallest insult. Already he’d lost three men
to knife fights and two to careless missteps, including one swept away by a
rogue wave. Fear at sea was something a MerChanter lord rarely experienced, yet
he recognized the signs, like a dry rot eating his ship’s soul. Lord Askal
strode to the helm, cursing his orders, knowing the only remedy was speed.

“Come two points to starboard. Keep
the lines taut and the sails full, I’ll not waste a breath of wind till we
reach the south.”

“Aye, captain.” The helmsman
adjusted the tiller and the
Dark Fin
surged forward like a hungry
shark. 

Braced upon the deck, Lord Askal
took pride in his ship’s brisk response. Square sails snapped overhead while a hundred-and-seventy
oars plowed the foam-flecked sea. The mighty trireme cruised south, slicing
through a dark ocean with all the dread of her namesake. A hull painted black
as pitch, her proud sails blood-red, her bronze ram fashioned like a shark’s
toothy snout, she cut a fearsome figure. A coastal raider, the
Dark Fin
was
built to be fast and lethal, the pride of the MerChanter fleet, yet for all her
speed, his ship could not outrun the fear ripening in the captain’s cabin.

It crept aboard with their passengers.
By order of the Miral himself, they’d docked at the Dark Citadel, taking on a
young fair-haired lord and twenty of his retainers. The lord was accorded a
rare honor, given sole occupancy of the captain’s cabin, while the retainers
berthed among the crew. Setting sail under stormy skies, they carved a path
through wintery seas, running for a port in the distant south.

At first, the stowaway went
unnoticed, the fear masquerading as miasma. The young lord remained in his
cabin, and his retainers kept to themselves, but all too soon the rumors began.
It started with small things, a keg of wine gone sour, a side of beef spoiled,
an albatross following in the ship’s wake. And then the nightmares started.
Evil dreams plagued his crew. Some swore they heard claws raking the ship’s
hull while others dreamt of a cavern weeping bloody teardrops. Exhausted and
edgy, his crew turned sullen, looking for something to blame. Whispers
circulated about a strange red light in the captain’s cabin, an otherworldly glow,
like crimson hellfire summoned by a sorcerer. Some said the hellfire would burn
a hole clean through the hull, condemning the
Dark Fin
to a watery
grave. Determined to quell the doubt, the lord ordered a double guard placed on
his cabin, and he himself kept watch on more than one night. Rumors of the
strange red light proved true, but there were no demons in the night, no claw
marks on the deck, and no holes in his ship. Lord Askal kept a tight rein on
his men, ordering quick discipline for any infractions, but superstition and
dread were not so easily quelled. His ship sailed south with fear growing in
its hold.

He moved to the railing, staring
down at the wind-tossed sea.
Still too dark,
a good sailor judged his
ship’s reckoning by the sea’s color. Waves the color of gray-green slate lapped
against the hull, proving the
Dark Fin
was still in the grip of colder
climes. Dark and forbidding, the ocean stretched to every horizon. They needed
more speed.

A rogue wave slapped the hull,
sending a salty spray across the railing. Kissed by the sea, Lord Askal licked
his lips and laughed, relishing the briny taste. Born on a ship, forever at
home in stormy weather or glassy calm, he reveled in the slap of wave and wind,
the sway of the deck beneath his boots, the beat of canvas overhead, but for
once he wished for land, for a reason to put his passengers ashore. Fear mired
with superstition proved hard to kill. He gripped the hilt of his cutlass,
preferring a clean fight to the filthy murk of dark magic.

“Lord Captain.” It was his second,
Tormund, a swarthy man with plundered gold lining his teeth and an eight-armed
octopus tattooed around his right eye. “Can I have a word?”

“Aye.”

Tormund joined him at the railing.
“It ain’t right.”

Lord Askal waited. Tormund was a
good man but he always crabbed sideways around an argument.

“We’re sea wolves, meant to be
raiding the southern shores not hauling passengers to distant ports.” He shook
his shaggy head, gold beads clattering amongst his braids. “It ain’t right, and
the men know it.”

“We sail under the Miral’s orders.”
Tormund growled like a kicked dog, but the captain pressed the point. “The
Miral
himself ordered safe conduct for the passenger and his men. Not a man among us
will gainsay the Miral.” He held his second’s gaze, but what he didn’t tell
him, was that the Miral’s orders said the young lord was to be obeyed.
Obeyed!
Since when did a MerChanter Sea Lord
obey
a landlocked lord! The
mere thought made his blood run cold as seawater. Grinding his teeth, he
swallowed his anger. “Keep the sails full and the rowers at quick-time. The
sooner we reach the south, the sooner we’ll see the backside of our passengers,
and then we’ll sharpen our tridents and ransack the southern cities. Tell the
crew their share of plunder will be doubled.”

“Aye, captain, that’ll give the
lads something to crow about.” Tormund tugged on his beard, “But the young lord
is asking fer ya.”

“For me?” He gave his second a
sideways glance. “What for?”

“Damned if I know.” He flashed a
crooked grin gleaming of stolen gold. “But he’s got landsickness. Your cabin
reeks of it.”

A faint hope flickered within the
lord. “Perhaps he’s had enough of the sea.” He sent a quick prayer to Naff,
offering half a year’s worth of plunder if the sea god would take the strange
lord off his hands. “Mind the sails and I’ll see what this land-lord wants.”

Lord Askal took his time,
sauntering across the aftdeck and down the stairs. He paused to check the trim
of the sails and watched the top tier rowers for a dozen drum beats before
turning to knock on the cabin door.

The door creaked open and a stunted
man with a barrel chest dressed all in black peered out. A voice from behind
said, “Let him pass, Dolf.”

The servant bowed, opening the door
wide, and the captain entered his own cabin for the first time in a fortnight.
His nose rankled at the sour smell. Portholes gaped open but the nasty stench
of landsickness prevailed. He glanced around his cabin, noting the changes.
Chests were stacked along one wall, probably filled with flippant finery. His
bunk was disheveled and his chart table littered with thick, musty tomes. The
fair-haired lord sat in the only chair, swathed in a thick black robe, his
blond hair straggled, his face ghost-pale. Lord Askal hid a smile; the sea had
a way of exacting its own vengeance. He offered the Mordant the barest of nods.
The young land-lord carried a fearsome title, but his face was too young for
the dread deeds ascribed to his name. Clearly he’d inherited the title from
another. “The sea does not agree with you?”

The Mordant met his stare. “The sea
was never my domain.”

Such an odd answer, yet everything
about this young land-lord struck the captain as odd. “You asked to see me?”

“I have a request.”

“A request?”

The Mordant smiled, but his blue
eyes remained cold as polar ice. “More of an order.” The black-clad servant
moved to stand behind his master. Small in stature yet he conveyed a feral
threat, a baldric of nine throwing knives strung across his muscled chest.

Lord Askal kept his hand resting on
his cutlass. “I’m listening.”

“I have a need for certain
ingredients.”

“Ingredients?”

“A sea bird, whole and uninjured.
And two of your men.”

“Two of my men?”

“Yes, my plans have changed. An old
enemy grows bold.” For half a heartbeat, rage flashed across the Mordant’s
face, but then it was gone, hidden beneath glacial ice. “I have need of a
courier. A sea bird and two of your men will suffice.”

Lord Askal narrowed his gaze,
outrage boiling in his voice. “I’ve orders to carry you south, nothing more.”

The Mordant flashed a snake’s
smile. “You’ve orders to
obey
.”

The words struck like a slap, yet
Lord Askal remained statue-still. “Why use my men when you have plenty of your
own?”

“I need their souls.”

So the rumors prove true
.
Lord Askal retreated a step.
“Dark magic!”
He made the words a curse.

“Yes.”

A sudden chill gripped the cabin,
like standing in the teeth of a winter storm. “You brought fear aboard my
ship.”

“Superstition is a sign of
weakness. It does not change my needs.” The Mordant smiled like a shark certain
of a meal.

Sweat broke across the lord’s brow.
Granting the Mordant’s request was unthinkable, yet the Miral charged him to
obey. Caught between a rock and a wave, Lord Askal stalled, seeking another
tack. “But I thought you needed to reach the south with all speed?”

“True.”

 “If my crew mutinies you’ll never
see land.”

“Then you best keep them in hand.”

“Then you best leave my men alone.”

The servant reached for a dagger
but the Mordant raised a pale hand. “No.”

A cold stalemate settled across the
cabin.

“Your ship is built for raiding.”

Lord Askal nodded.

“It matters not where the men come
from, only that they are whole and hearty.” The Mordant grinned, his eyes like
chips of ice. “You have till sunset tomorrow to supply my needs.” His words
reeked of dismissal.

 Anger warred with abhorrence. The
captain locked stares with the Mordant, fighting the urge to run his sword
through the landsick lord and offer his body to Naff, but the law of the Miral
stayed his hand. Gripping the hilt of his cutlass, he slowly backed toward the
door, not daring to turn his back. Reaching the door, he fled his cabin for the
clear light of day, shivering in the pale sunshine. He strode to the railing,
gulping deep breaths of crisp, clean sea air, needing to clear his head and his
heart. Setting his face in a stern mask, he climbed to the aftdeck. “I need the
sea charts.” 

Men leaped to obey, unrolling the
chart on the helmsman’s table.

Tormund joined him, a thousand
questions in his stare.

Lord Askal studied the chart,
noting their position. His finger traced a line to the nearest island.
“Helmsman, come ten points to the larboard side and double the beat, we sail
for the Orcnoth Islands.”

Orders rang out and his men sprang
to life. Canvas snapped overhead and timbers creaked as the ship heaved to
port. The drumbeat in the hold quickened. Oars bit deep in the swirling sea and
the
Dark Fin
leaped forward like a shark scenting blood.

Beside him, Tormund growled, “Why?
There’s not but sheep and herders on those rocks.”

“Exactly.” The lord gave him a
sharp look, dispelling further questions. “And summon the net men to the
aftdeck. I want the albatross captured whole and unharmed.”

“Unharmed?”

“Aye, you heard me, whole and
unharmed.” His anger brewed to a storm. “Now snap to, or you’ll find yourself
chained to an oar!”

Tormund’s face paled, his eyes
growing wide, but he did not argue. “Aye, sir!”

Men scuttled across the aftdeck,
anxious to obey. Lord Askal paced the
Dark Fin
, barking orders to trim
sails and tighten sheets, pressing for speed. Prowling the deck, he studied
every detail of wind and wave, sail and oar, using every scrap of seaman’s lore
to hasten his ship. Under his touch, the
Dark Fin
responded like an
eager lover, slicing through the slate-gray sea, but he worried it was not
enough. Even with a favorable wind, they’d be lucky to reach the small isles
before sunset tomorrow.

All through the afternoon and into
the night, he stood watch, coaxing every drop of speed from his ship. A pale
moon rose and set and still they sailed. The
Dark Fin
cut the sea like a
knife, cleaving a sparkle of luminescence in her wake. The captain breathed
deep the salty scent, the ocean thrumming in his veins. This was what he was
meant to do, to pilot a mighty ship and plunder the coast, not dabble in dark
magic, yet he could not gainsay the Miral, so he sailed on, desperate to save
his crew.

The sun rose red and bloody.

Bleary-eyed, the night crew sought
their bunks while the day crew claimed their duties. Tormund came to relieve
him but he waved him away. “Not yet.”

The wind shifted, adding extra
speed to his sails, as if the sea god heard his pleas. Dark oars flashed and
dipped, cleaving the water with an urgent rhythm. A pair of dolphins rode the bow,
an escort from Naff, but it did not dispel the tension riding his shoulders. He
paced the deck, anxious for the first glimpse of land. The sun reached the noon
zenith and still they sailed. Sweat beaded his brow.


Land ho!
” The bow lookout
sang the sighting.

Lord Askal gripped the railings in
relief. “We did it.” Pride rushed through him, certain there was not a faster
ship in all the oceans. He turned to the helmsman. “Make for the nearest rock.”

“Aye, captain.”

The
Dark Fin
raced towards
the island. Like hungry teeth the outer Orcnoths rose from a wave-tossed ocean,
white foam breaking on a jagged shore. Sharp craggy rocks and tenacious green
grass, the remote islands were good for nothing but sheepherders and fisher
folk.

BOOK: The Knight Marshal (The Silk & Steel Saga)
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