Read Three Coins for Confession Online

Authors: Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Historical

Three Coins for Confession

 

 

A year and a half has passed since the dark road that
took Chriani across the Clearwater Way and back, at the side of the princess he
once loved. Despite the anger and ambivalence to duty that once held him back, rank
and commission have taken him to the frontier of the Greatwood and riding with
the rangers, Kathlan at his side to help him focus on the challenges of a
soldier’s life.

 

But when Chriani finds himself targeted by Ilvani
hunters tied to an ancient prophecy that might upset the balance of power in
the Ilmar, it forces him back to the unresolved pact that binds him to the
Prince High Chanist — and down a new road whose secrets might destroy the
life Chriani and Kathlan hope to build.

 

From behind him came a low hiss. A sharp exhalation, a sound of
fury and frustration that carried even over the thud of hoofbeats and the
horses’ rasping breath.

“Laóith irnash!”

The hissing turned to words that rang out behind him. One of the
Ilvani, his voice twisted by rage as he screamed an oath.
We hunt the vile,
we hunt the hateful. We hunt the Ilmari.
The Valnirata’s hatred of the
Ilmari and their homelands ran deep, and gave their epithet
laóith
a
dozen subtle meanings. Chriani didn’t understand the warrior as he shouted
again, though.

“Lóech arnala irch niir! Lóech niir!”

He risked a look behind him. The Ilvani warriors always fought in
silence. No battle cries, no orders ever heard.

He saw the rider three lengths back, snaking through the thinning
screen of trees. His hair was long streaks of grey and gold, tied tight and
flowing fast behind him, his eyes flashing molten gold in the half-light. His
leather was cut away at the shoulder for ease of shooting, his bow up and a
black arrow at the string, set dead on Chriani. On the wrist of the Ilvani’s
bow arm, a blood-red light was flaring.

“Chriani irnash! Lóech arnala irch niir!”

 

It happened slowly, as it always did.

 

Chriani heard his name hang across the gulf of shadow and the
screen of leaves that wrapped them both. His name, shouted by an Ilvani warrior
he’d never seen before. He felt his reflexes slow, felt a chill twist through
him as the black arrow snapped from the bow…

 

 

A Novel of the Endlands

by

Scott Fitzgerald Gray

 

 

Cover, Design, and Typography
by (studio)Effigy

 

Published by Insane Angel Studios

insaneangel.com

 

 

 

 

For Colleen

Cal lun tau seryan ede to maynd…

 

 

 

Not the power to remember,
but its very opposite, the power to forget,
is a necessary condition of our existence.

 

 

— Sholem Asch

Downloadable color map available free at

http://insaneangel.com/insaneangel/Fiction/Extras.html

 

 

“GREEN SCOUT MARKED!”

Like the crack of a whip, the distant shout of one of the
first-squad rangers split the shadowed stillness of the forest, a following of
echo-sound hanging for a moment before it was swallowed by the stifling air.
The faint hiss of arrows sang out an instant behind, and Chriani marked the
shift and shimmer of the sound to count three distinct shots, far off and
unseen.

His hearing was better than the other rangers of second squad,
who reacted only to the voice sounding out a measured distance ahead of them.
All of them listened now for the faint thud of hoofbeats to mark the movement
of the rangers of first squad, and of the trouble pursuing them.

A flash of hand signals passed between Sergeant Thelaur and
second squad, Chriani and his five fellow rangers drawing to a quick halt in
response. The sergeant was a dour veteran half a head shorter than any of the
soldiers under her command. But in the five months that command had included
Chriani, he had come to recognize that her instincts were sharp and her hearing
even sharper. Nearly as sharp as his own, in fact, to judge by her quick sign
of three fingers to mark the count of the Ilvani archers. They were somewhere
ahead in the green shadow of the Greatwood, spreading to all sides as a deep
and impenetrable gloom.

“Green scout marked!” the voice came again, farther off now.

“East!” Thelaur hissed to Chriani and the rest. “Three and three.
Stay low.” At a touch from the sergeant’s boots, her horse slipped forward,
Chriani in the first rank of three rangers close behind her.

When a ranger called a warning,
green
was code for moving
east — named for the green of the Greatwood that rose like a wall
along Brandishear’s eastern frontier.
Blue
meant a scout was moving
north, for the vast expanse of the Clearwater Sea that spread beyond the
headlands of Rheran, the great capital and Chriani’s former home, five months
behind him now.
Gold
and
grey,
west and south, for the grasslands
that marked much of Brandishear’s border with the Greatwood, and for the bare
slopes of the Analatia Mountains that Chriani had never seen.

In the complex series of call signs he had learned over his five
months on the frontier, there were codes for rangers under attack, codes for
rangers wounded, codes for tracks found and followed. There were codes for
signs of a war camp, or for predators of the four-legged variety prowling the
twisting switchback trails that the Ilvani and their sure-footed horses marked
out between the great trees.

There were codes for rangers down, and for rangers
captured — special call signs meant to warn allies that you were
caught and compromised, meant to sound like calls for help in the event that an
Ilvani warrior of the Valnirata held a long-knife to your throat. In five
months of scouting and skirmishes along the edge of the Greatwood and pushing
within it, the rangers of Chriani’s company hadn’t had to use either of those.
Not yet.

Their horses moved at a jog to hold their strength, silk ties
wrapping off bit joints and stirrups, muffling any clink of metal as they
moved. Chriani and the other rangers hunched low, cloaked in green and brown.
The forest around them was a perpetual haze of emerald twilight that seemed to
mask all movement — shadow and mist slashed through by the twisting
strokes of great tree trunks rising up to shroud the sun. Their branches were
set with unnaturally broad and scaled evergreen leaves, glimmering gold to jade
green depending on their age. These were the great limni of the Greatwood, home
to the Ilvani who called that forest
Muiraìden
.

Chriani flicked his horse to the right to skirt a gnarled trunk,
and a fall of blood ivy dropping from a twisted branch the thickness of his
leg. The shower of serrated leaves was pale and wan in the faint light, but it
wasn’t the plant’s toxic touch that made him wary. As they made their way along
the twisting trails behind the sergeant, the rangers of the squad had stopped
and doubled back five times already. It was a common happenstance when
following the Ilvani, whose trails were crossed and crossed again with dead
ends and false starts. The scattered formation in which the rangers rode while
within the forest served double duty, lowering the risk of an entire group
falling to ambush even as those in the middle and back ranks could seek out clear
paths while the lead rider repositioned.

The silence in the forest hung over all their patrols like an
ever-present shroud, dampening the sound of their horses’ hooves even as it
seemed to make the breathing of mounts and riders louder. Today, though, that
silence was tinged with a feeling that set Chriani’s nerves on
edge — and all the more so because he had no idea as to its source.

Chriani and the rest of the rangers had been scouting in pursuit
of an Ilvani raiding band since first light. They all had bows drawn and arrows
nocked, scanning the shadows intently. However, Chriani was the only one who
knew they were alone for the moment, the gloom shifting and shimmering like
ever-fading fog against the sharp sight of his eyes.

He had his father’s black hair, the same steel-grey eyes. He
never spoke of the sight that was the gift of those eyes and his father, who
had once called the Greatwood home. The sight had saved his life on more than
one occasion, even as hiding the fact of that sight had saved his life more
often. He wore his hair tied back and low, always covering his ears, concealing
the faint peak at their tip.

Of the rangers ranked around Chriani now — his squad
mates, sworn to service with him — he judged three that he suspected
would never speak to him again if they were to see his ears. One for certain
who would try to kill him on the spot if the secret of Chriani’s sight or the
parentage that had bestowed it on him were ever known.

The five who rode beside and behind him under Thelaur’s command
were new-made rangers as he was, all of them freshly commissioned in the
prince’s guard and on their first field assignments. They were younger than
him, as were most members of the troop as a rule. Two years or more for most of
them, and with at least a quarter of the troop’s guards barely broken out to
breast or beard. Those years were the length of time it had taken Chriani to
make rank. The cost of a lack of ambition, and an anger he carried with him
still.

The circumstances under which he’d make rank had become a tale
told quietly and with no small amount of animosity throughout the prince’s
guard, preceding even his arrival to ranger duty. He had made rank as squire,
then been granted his commission to guard in the space of two
weeks — a promotion whose quickness made it unusual enough. But then
came the rumors that gave his sudden advancement a sense of dark secrecy and
bright notoriety all at once. Notoriety for the story of how Chriani had helped
deliver the Princess Lauresa to Aerach as the only survivor of a ranger squad
ambushed by the Valnirata. Secret for the real truth behind those rumors, which
none of the folk of Brandishear or the soldiers of the Bastion knew.

Chriani’s first night in the ranger camp, bunking with his
assigned squad, they had replaced his bedroll with silk sheets. Fate only knows
where they’d come from.
For the Prince’s Whore,
the note tacked to them
read. If Chriani had held out any hope that the anger always holding him back
was a thing he’d left behind when he left Rheran, the feeling as he crumpled
the note erased it.

When he left Rheran, when he had taken the assignment with the
rangers that he’d been wanting for far longer than he could ever admit, Chriani
hoped that things would change. Hoped that things had changed. But like the
secret of his sight, like the reason for his promotion, his relationship with
the Prince High Chanist of Brandishear was a thing Chriani kept secret. And as
long as that was the case, he suspected that nothing would ever change enough.

 

As the troop rode its patrol, its three squads were scattered by
design, with first squad riding ahead of Sergeant Thelaur and her rangers,
third squad behind. Standard formation and assembly for forest patrols, where
the noise of a full troop would call down an Ilvani ambush in short order.

The ambitions of the rangers’ forays into the Greatwood were
modest. They stayed clear of the deep wood, rarely ranging more than half a
league within the perimeter of the forest. That frontier of the Valnirata was
an empty expanse of trees that mirrored the Ilmari’s own frontier —
the empty belt of wild grassland kept cleared of settlement for fear of Ilvani
raiding, and of incursions by the beasts that dwelled in the Greatwood and were
found nowhere else in the principalities of the Ilmar. Fell wolves and drakes,
trolls and wyverns. The Ilvani drove them from the forest and against the
farmsteads that dotted the frontier, it was said. They trained them to the
taste of Ilmari flesh by feeding them on captured scouts and errant
woodcutters, and on children plucked from their beds in the dead of night.

They were good tales, as tales went.

The Ilvani patrols that shadowed the movements of the Ilmari
along the frontier were the
carontir
 — the elite ranger
scouts of the Greatwood. Only rarely, however, would those scouts slip out to
harass the Ilmari farmsteads nearest to the Greatwood’s twisting wall of trees.
More common by far were rogue Valnirata riders slipping past their own patrols
to do the same. It was likely those rogue Ilvani that the troop was pursuing
now — raiders that had crossed the boundary of the forest for two
weeks past, harassing the close-standing farmsteads by dark of night. No
casualties had been reported, but barns had been burned, flocks sniped and
scattered by bowshot.

Three days before, the troop of Guard Sergeant Thelaur had been
ordered to end it.

Chriani’s sight, his hearing, even his sense of scent were things
he had learned to trust long ago. Even so, no threat came to eye or ear now,
the air close and thick with the forest’s familiar musk of rot and loam. He was
already slowing, though, wary, when another hand signal from Thelaur ahead of
him made all the rangers rein up sharply. She stood at a fork in the path, both
branches twisting out into shadow that made it impossible to read their
direction for more than a dozen paces.

As Thelaur considered their course, Chriani tapped two fingers to
his thumb. The faint pulse of sound was a signal among the rangers, used
whenever calling out by voice might bring a Valnirata arrow from the shadows.
He got Thelaur’s attention, but then raised her ire when he spurred forward to
get within whispering distance.

“Something’s wrong,” he hissed.

“An attempt at specificity would be welcome, master Chriani. Or
should I strike a guess?” The sergeant’s whisper carried a sharpness like steel
scratching glass. Chriani had heard her offer honest commendations that left
people shaking. Other people, at any rate. Even after five months in her squad,
Chriani’s performance had given Thelaur precious little to commend so far.

“Just a feeling. There’s something…” Chriani began, but Thelaur
stopped him with a chopping motion of hand over hand. She made no attempt to
hide her anger as she signaled him to fall back, motioning Ettroch in the third
rank to take his place behind her. Chriani’s horse slipped back and was turning
even before he spurred it, as if it recognized the command more clearly than he
did.

He had trouble following orders. That’s what his first report
from Sergeant Thelaur had said. Also, his second and third. It was an echo of
every inspection, every presentation, every assignment he had ever taken at the
Bastion — the castle of the Prince High Chanist in Rheran. The
Bastion had been Chriani’s home for more than ten years, since the day Barien
had taken him in. Barien who was a sergeant of the prince’s guard, and who had
been friend and confidante to Prince Chanist. Barien who was dead now, and
whose death had been the point at which Chriani’s life changed.

For ten years in the Bastion, Chriani had learned and grown at
Barien’s side. The initial quickness and determination he had shown was shaped
by the veteran warrior to a skill with the bow that few other tyros of the
guard could match. However, in all that time of shaping, Chriani had never
learned to care about the official strata of rank and title on which life in
the Bastion was based. More importantly — and more frustratingly for
Barien — he had seemingly taken great delight in actively fighting
against the even more important strata of seniority and experience.

If it were ever possible to aggravate a person in a position of
authority over him, Chriani would do so. As an unranked tyro, he had enraged
other tyros, ranked squires, and guards alike. Sergeants and other officers.
Barien had watched it happen. Had laughed about it as often as not. But he’d
been steadfast in reminding Chriani that when the anger was done, those squires
and sergeants and captains would remain his peers and superiors. And he would
find himself stuck where he was unless things changed.

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