So I have this new book going on pre-order on Amazon in a few days and I was thinking that maybe some of you out there would like to see a few chapters of it ahead of time. You know, see if you like it. It’s called Stone Bound and it’s epic fantasy. It will be on sale in mid-July. Book 2 will come out in August and Book 3 in September, so buckle up!
The man stumbled unseeing down the cobblestone street. The pains were worse today, the worst they’d ever been. Every step was agony. His bones were on fire. His joints felt like they were full of glass. His greatest fear was not that he would die—he’d long since accepted the inevitability of that—but that he would not be able to make it home. If he was going to die today, he wanted only to see his wife and son one last time.
The buildings on this street were built of stone, four or more stories tall and jammed tightly together. This late in the day the street was completely in the shade. Horse-drawn carts moved down the middle of the street. Along the edges hurried people on foot, none of them paying any attention to the man. To the casual observer he was merely another drunk, and drunks were not uncommon in this part of the city.
A new wave of pain hit the man and he staggered, bumping into a woman who was carrying a large basket filled with loaves of bread. “Watch where you’re going!” she snapped at him.
Falling, the man instinctively put out his hand to catch himself. When his hand made contact with the wall of one of the buildings there was a cracking sound and the stone split suddenly. The concussion knocked the man back and he fell down.
The woman looked from the crack in the wall to the man and her eyes widened. She gripped the basket tighter and hurried away. Other passersby noticed him for the first time, and began veering around the man, careful to stay out of his reach. It had been years since the red plague last struck the city of Samkara, but people remembered it readily enough. The sweating, wild-eyed man lying on the ground could be infected with it.
The man crawled to the side of the street. He looked at his hand, where he’d touched the wall. The skin was slate-gray and when he tried to flex his fingers they were stiff and he could barely curl them.
The changes were accelerating.
He had to get home.
Careful to avoid touching the wall with his bare skin, he climbed to his feet. Heedless of those around him, he began half-running, half-staggering down the street. People cursed at him as he bumped into them and when he cut across the street to turn down a smaller one he was almost hit by a wagon drawn by a team of horses, the driver snapping his whip near his face.
The smaller street had less traffic and the man made it all the way to his building without running into anyone else. This street was poorer than the one he’d left, narrow and lined with wooden tenements. Gone were the cobblestones, replaced by rutted dirt and garbage.
The man tried to opened the door of the building he lived in with his right hand, the one he’d touched the stone wall with, but he couldn’t get his fingers to move at all now and he had to give up and use the other hand. He stumbled through the door, not bothering to close it behind him. He dragged himself up two flights of stairs, every step fresh agony.
He reached the door of his home, made it through, and collapsed on the floor.
His wife gave a little cry, dropped her sewing, and hurried to him. Taking his arm, she helped him to his feet and over to the room’s sole bed.
Sitting on the floor by the iron cook stove was a small boy, only a few years old, playing with some broken pieces of colored tile. He stared up at his parents with wide eyes, old enough to know something was wrong, but too young to understand what it was.
Not that either of his parents understood it either. In the months since the strange pains started, they’d gone to every healer and priest they could afford, trying to find out what was wrong, and none of them had any answers.
“I knew you shouldn’t have tried to go to work,” she told him, gently stroking his forehead.
“It’s…it’s happening faster,” he gasped and held up his right hand.
Her breath caught in her throat as she stared at his hand. She touched it gingerly. “How did it happen?”
“I touched a stone wall. The stone split.” A spasm of pain hit him and he winced. When it had passed he looked up at her and what she saw in his eyes made her gasp.
“Your eyes,” she said. “They’re red, like a fire burns in them.”
“What’s happening to me?” he moaned, closing his eyes.
She hesitated only a moment before wrapping him in her arms and holding him close.
“I’m losing the feeling in my arm,” he said. He pushed his sleeve up and she saw that his forearm was streaked with gray. Even more unusual—she bent closer to get a better look—there seemed to be chips of stone embedded in his flesh.
He went rigid suddenly and his head arched back. His mouth stretched open, so wide that his jaw popped. For a long moment he froze like this, more a statue than a man, then he began spasming. Shivers ran up and down his limbs. His eyes rolled back in his head and spittle drained from his mouth.
He began thrashing violently. She tried to hold him still but the seizure was too strong for her. He bucked and she was thrown off the bed onto the floor. She got back up and went to him, but there was nothing she could do.
Then the building began to shudder, as if it were caught in a earthquake. She pitched sideways and almost fell down. A small crack appeared in the ceiling and plaster dust sifted down. The little boy wailed and crawled over to his mother, wrapping his little arms around her leg.
After a minute, his seizure ended and a few seconds later the earthquake stopped as well. She looked at her husband and what she saw made her scream.
He was lying on his back, unmoving, his eyes wide and staring. His eyes glowed like lava. His skin had turned completely gray. All of his hair had fallen out.
At first she was sure he was dead and she stood there, one hand over her mouth, frozen by fear and grief. Then, slowly, his head turned. Gray flakes chipped and broke off his neck as he did so. The molten eyes fixed on her.
“Please…” His voice grated like stone sliding over stone. More flakes broke off around his mouth and fell to the blanket he lay on.
Her paralysis broke and she hurried to him. Her hands hovered over him for a moment as she wrestled with her fear, but love won out and she placed them on his cheeks. His face was cold and lifeless.
“Oh, my love,” she moaned.
“Hold Fen up,” he said in his broken voice. “I want to see him…one more time.”
Tears pouring down her cheeks, she lifted the small boy and set him next to his father on the bed. Fen showed no fear, only curiosity as he leaned forward and touched his father’s face.
His father tried to touch him but his arm froze in place halfway. A last tremor shook him.
The fire in his eyes faded and went out.
Netra was in her cottage, bundling herbs for drying, when she heard the cries of alarm. At first she thought someone had been injured, perhaps one of the workers in the quarry in the hills outside the village where she lived. If that was the case, they would be coming to her, carrying the wounded man to the village’s healer. In her mind she was already preparing, mentally reviewing her inventory of bandages, needles, catgut and so on.
But a minute later she realized she was wrong. This was no injury. There would be no bleeding patient hustled into her cottage by concerned friends. The cries of alarm were not drawing closer, but they were spreading.
Perplexed, she put down the herbs, crossed the room, and opened the door. It was only an hour or so after dawn and the sun had not yet broken through the thick clouds that had rolled in from the sea overnight. A brisk wind whipped her simple, cotton dress about her ankles and tugged at her long braid. In the air she could feel the rain that would likely come later in the day.
Her cottage stood on the outskirts of a small village. It was a quiet place, far removed from the excitement and activity of Qarath, the nearest city. A place where the most that ever happened was an occasional injury and the usual ailments that people suffered from. Which made it perfect for Netra. After all that she’d already been through in her life, the last thing she wanted was more excitement.
Her cottage was on the landward side of a small hill, where it got partial protection from the winds that blew in off the sea, so when she looked down into the village, all she saw at first was people milling around, talking and exclaiming loudly to each other. Then she realized that all of them were turned toward the sea, and a number were pointing.
She hesitated, wondering if she should bring her bag filled with healing herbs, ointments and salves with her, then decided not to. It didn’t sound like anyone was hurt, and she could always send someone running to fetch it if she needed it.
She headed down the path toward the village and as it wound around the hillside, she saw for the first time what had everyone so excited.
Just offshore was an island.
An island where there had never been one before.
Besides the impossibility of an island simply appearing out of nowhere, there was something clearly unusual about this island. It had a yellowish hue to it and the plants that grew from its surface were of a variety and vibrancy of colors not seen anywhere on land.
Netra stopped, struck by the appearance of this thing she’d thought never to see again.
For this thing that appeared to be an island wasn’t. It was a living creature, though not in any normal sense.
She began hurrying down the hill. Her heart was filled with foreboding as she went. The appearance of ki’Loren, and the Lementh’kal who lived within it, could not but bode ill. Something bad was happening or was about to happen and they were here to seek her out.
She didn’t want to know why the Lementh’kal had come. She wanted to go back into her cottage, close the door, and bury herself in her work. She’d been through enough in her life. She’d earned the right to peace and tranquility.
But at the same time she knew that she could not avoid this. Whatever it was, it would have to be faced head on.
By the time she got down the hill, every villager was standing on the beach, staring up in awe at the island, which towered several hundred feet in the air. For the adults, it was not the first time they had seen the floating island. The other time they had seen it was during the war, when it had saved their lives. Which did not mean they were happy to see it now. Questions were asked and more than one accusing look was thrown Netra’s way as she passed through their midst. They did not know what, exactly, their healer’s role had been during the war, and Netra never talked about it, but they knew she had played an instrumental part in it. If ki’Loren was showing up again, it must have something to do with her.
Netra did not reply to their questions. She made her way to the edge of the surf and stood there waiting.
The island was only a dozen yards offshore when an opening appeared in its side about halfway up. A figure appeared in the opening. It appeared to be male, though it was difficult to be sure. He was about the height of a human, but built much more slightly. He was hairless, his skin yellow. His eyes were very large and set somewhat on the sides of his head. He carried no weapons and wore only a thin shift made of some kind of shimmery, almost translucent material.
The villagers went very quiet and took several steps back. Some still carried the implements of their trade—spades, pitchforks, hammers, brooms—and they held these up as if to fend off this strange invader.
The figure saw Netra and his wide, lipless mouth stretched in something approximating a smile. But it wasn’t really a smile, more like something he’d seen humans do and was trying to copy. The nervous villagers took another step back.
He waved. “Hi, Netra!” He started down the side of the island but didn’t make it very far before he tripped. He bounced and rolled clear down the side and then plopped into the water.
Netra sighed. She’d seen all this before.
He thrashed around in the water for a minute before emerging, spluttering and dripping.
“Hello, Ya’Shi,” she said.
“You remember me!” he exclaimed. Up close she could see the white spots and streaks mixed in with the natural yellow coloring of his skin, signs of his advanced age. She didn’t know exactly how old he was, only that his age was counted in centuries. Even amongst a people who lived very long lives, Ya’Shi was unusual.
“As if I could forget you,” she said. She saw movement in the opening as a new figure emerged and made its way down the side of ki’Loren and she smiled. She remembered Jenett fondly. Jenett was carrying a bundle wrapped in cloth and unlike Ya’Shi she didn’t stumble. Rather, she moved with the same eerie, almost supernatural fluidity and grace that marked her people.
Ya’Shi turned, following her gaze. “Oh, that’s Jenett,” he said offhandedly. “You probably don’t remember her. She wasn’t nearly as important as me in our last adventure.”
“That’s what it was to you?” Netra asked. “An adventure? Because it felt like the end of the world to me.”
“When you’re young, like you are, everything seems like the end of the world, I suppose,” he said. His voice was strange, missing normal human inflections that lend words so much of their meaning, yet somehow he managed to convey an exaggerated condescension.
“Especially the actual end of the world,” she replied.
Ya’Shi flicked a grain of sand off his arm. “There was never any actual danger.”
Netra gave up trying to argue with him and crossed her arms. “What brings you here, Ya’Shi? Is there a purpose or is this just more of your old foolishness?”
“What’s that you say?” he asked, cupping his hand around where his ear would have been, had he actually had one. He peered at her, blinking in confusion. “Who are you again? You seem familiar, but I can’t quite place you.” The transformation was astonishing. Almost instantly he’d become old and bent, with barely the strength to stand, his mind nearly gone.
Netra sighed again. Being around Ya’Shi was tiring. He flitted through moods rapidly, went from clowning to serious in the blink of an eye, constantly blending profundities with sheer foolishness. Being around him meant being always off-balance, never quite knowing where things were going next.
“I really don’t feel like playing your games today. Can you tell me why you’re here? I have things to do.”
Ya’Shi began nodding as she spoke. “Oh, yes. Things. Very important things, I’m sure.” He rubbed his hands together briskly and all his feigned age and weariness disappeared. “We must get to business. Vital events are afoot. Huge, cataclysmic, earth-shaking events. We mustn’t waste a moment. If ever there was a time that called for great haste—”
“Just tell me already!” Netra snapped. She thought of Shorn then, how angry Ya’Shi had always made him, and wished her old friend were there with her.
Ya’Shi blinked at her, his eyelids sliding up from underneath his eyes, then back down. Quite slowly. “Why, it’s the end of the world, of course. I wouldn’t waste your time otherwise.”
Netra waited for him to continue, to give her more details, but he stood there staring at her, his head cocked slightly to one side. “Well? Aren’t you going to tell me any more?”
He frowned. “About what?”
Netra bit off the angry words she wanted to shout at him. “This is why Shorn always wanted to choke you,” she said.
He shook his head. “No. Shorn and I understood each other. We were very close. Anyway, here’s Jenett. She has something for you.”
Jenett was emerging from the water. She looked much like Ya’Shi but was more slightly built and her yellow skin was tinged with green streaks here and there, a sign of her youth. She smiled when she approached Netra—showing the bristles that lined the inside of her mouth instead of teeth—and on her the smile looked more natural, more inviting than Ya’Shi’s.
“It is very much my pleasure to see you again, Netra.” Her voice was soft, whispering past the ear like a gentle breeze. “Though I wish it were under happier circumstances.”
The bundle she was carrying moved, drawing Netra’s eye.
“Hurry, hurry! Give it to her!” Ya’Shi was bouncing from one foot to another like an excited child. He clapped his hands together. “I can’t wait to see what she thinks of our gift!”
“He hasn’t changed,” Netra said to Jenett.
“He is Ya’Shi,” Jenett replied. “The currents that move him are inscrutable to the rest of us.”
“Or maybe he’s just crazy.”
Jenett frowned. “I understand what you mean by the word, but it has no real meaning among my people. The Lementh’kal are the People of the Way, and it is not for us to judge where someone’s way takes them.”
She stepped closer to Netra and pulled back the cloth from one end of the bundle.
Netra thought she wouldn’t be surprised at anything the Lementh’kal gave her, but she was wrong.
Tiny hands, pink cheeks, and wide, green eyes that stared up at her.
Neta swallowed and tried again. “A baby? You brought me a baby?”
Ya’Shi held up one finger. “Not just any baby. A special baby.”
“Why…why…?” Netra couldn’t seem to get the words out.
“There’s no need to thank us.”
“It’s a human baby,” Netra said.
“Yes and no,” Ya’Shi said. “There is more to her. Listen.”
Netra stilled the question she’d been about to ask and listened. Not with her ears, but with her inner senses, inside where LifeSong could be heard.
“You’re right,” she breathed. “Mixed in with LifeSong, I can hear the Sea as well.” She looked at the two of them, then back at the baby. “How is this possible?”
“When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much…” Ya’Shi trailed off. “Sorry. It wasn’t like that at all. But how it happened isn’t what’s important.”
All his silliness disappeared and his tone grew serious. “A storm is coming. A terrible storm. Nothing you or I, or any of us, can do will stop it.” He set his fingers on the baby’s forehead.
“But she might. She and two others.”
Jenett held out the baby and Netra took her. The green eyes had stayed fixed on her the entire time. They were the green of the deep sea and there were flecks of white in there like whitecaps on a windy day.
“One from each of the spheres, Stone, Sea and Sky,” Ya’Shi continued. “Only the three of them, working together, have any chance in what is to come.”
“I’m sorry,” Jenett said. “Truly I am. You of all people know what a burden it can be, saving the world.”
“But that’s why you’re the right person to raise her,” Ya’Shi said. “Well, enough idle chat. We must be going so you can get back to your important things.” He took hold of Jenett’s arm and began to guide her back into the surf.
“Wait!” Netra called after them. “What’s going to happen? Where are these other children?”
“One is to the north,” Ya’Shi said over his shoulder. “Another is across the sea. Don’t look for them. When the time is right they will be drawn together.”
“You have to tell me more than that,” Netra pleaded.
“Goodbye!” Ya’Shi called, still holding onto Jenett and propelling her firmly in front of him. “Good luck!”
They walked through the surf, then up the side of ki’Loren. They passed through the opening, it closed behind them, and the floating island began to move away.
Leaving Netra with a baby.
The wind was crazy the day the baby was born. It shrieked around the hide yurt where the expectant mother lay, attended by Spotted Elk Clan’s midwife and two other women. It scratched and clawed like a wild thing trying to get in, tearing at the flap, trying to get under the edge of the yurt and send it flying across the high steppes where the Sertithian people lived their nomadic lives.
But the Sertithians were familiar with the ways of the wind and the yurt was strongly constructed and tightly staked down so it stayed intact and in place, though the hide it was made of thrummed and vibrated steadily.
“It will be over soon,” the midwife said, as one of the other women bathed the expectant mother’s forehead with a damp cloth. “One more long push should do it.” The yurt was lit by a pair of oil-burning clay lamps. There were two small wicker baskets containing clothes and another filled with tools and sewing implements. A sheathed sword leaned against the wall of the yurt, along with an unstrung bow and a quiver of arrows.
“For months this child has fought and kicked, as though he could not bear his captivity another moment. Now the time comes and he won’t budge. Will he always be this difficult?” The expectant mother spoke in a light tone, but her face was pale with pain. The furs she lay on were wet with her sweat. She was a young woman and this was her second child but she had been half a day trying to deliver the child already.
“Just breathe, Munkhe,” the midwife said. “It will all be over soon.”
“The tlacti told me it would be a son,” Munkhe said. The tlacti was the clan’s shaman. “He said the wind told him so.” The other women already knew this. Such things became common knowledge quickly in such a tightly-knit community. They also knew she spoke to take her mind off the pain.
“If Ihbarha said it will be a boy, then it will be a boy,” the midwife replied calmly.
Munkhe grimaced as another contraction came on. She gritted her teeth and pushed.
“I can see the top of his head,” the midwife said. As if to punctuate her words a fresh gust of wind shook the yurt.
“The wind is also anxious for your child to be born,” the fourth woman in the yurt said. Henta was elderly, with a severe expression and a downturned mouth that said she rarely smiled. “Perhaps this means he will be touched by it.”
“Pray to the four winds it is so,” Munkhe said through gritted teeth. She wasn’t sure she wanted her son to be the next tlacti, but Ihbarha was old. It was past time for a wind-touched child to be born to the Spotted Elk Clan.
“One more push and it will all be over,” the midwife said.
Munkhe’s back arched as she gave another, mighty push. A cry came from her as the pain increased but she did not let up and a few moments later the baby slid forth into the world.
At that same instant a new shriek arose from the wind as it buffeted the yurt. The wooden pins holding the door flap of the yurt closed snapped under the strain and the flap blew open.
The wind raced into the yurt like a wild animal, whining in its eagerness. It seemed to focus on the child, whirling around it with such strength that for a moment the midwife feared it would be snatched from her and she clutched it tightly to her breast. The other women cried out and Henta made a sign against evil.
Then, as fast as it appeared, the wind was gone. The women stared at each other, shaken and confused.
“Never have I seen such a thing,” Henta said.
“My baby!” Munkhe cried, struggling to sit up and see. “How is my baby?”
The midwife brushed the baby’s mouth and nose clear. “He is healthy.”
“It’s a boy?” Munkhe asked.
But the midwife didn’t answer right away. She was looking at the baby, a strange expression on her face.
The other women bent close. “Most peculiar,” Henta said.
“What’s wrong with him?” Munkhe said, fighting against the furs which seemed determined to wrap around her. “Is something wrong with him?”
“It’s nothing,” the midwife said soothingly. “Help her sit up,” she told the others, and when they had done so she handed Munkhe her child.
“Oh,” Munkhe said. “I see.”
The baby’s eyes were wide open, which was unusual by itself. But even more startling was the color of those eyes. They were the blue of a summer sky and blue eyes were extremely rare amongst the Sertithians.
Not only were the baby boy’s eyes wide open, but he had a huge smile on his face. He looked like he was laughing at some secret jest.
“I think it is time to fetch the tlacti,” the midwife said, and the younger of the two women bustled out of the yurt to summon him.
“So long as he is healthy. That is all that matters,” Munkhe said stoutly. The midwife and Henta nodded their agreement, but neither of them spoke. Munkhe looked from them to her baby and clutched him close, murmuring to him.
When the tlacti arrived he swept into the yurt without a word or look for any of them. The furs Ihbarha was dressed in were old and ratty. He had a piece of felt wrapped around his head like a turban. On each cheek was tattooed an arcane symbol. His white hair was long and twisted into twin braids, into which were tied a number of small bones, colorful stones, and clay discs. Around his neck, on a leather thong, hung his krysala, the relic he used to summon and control the spirits in the wind.
He went straight to the baby and took him from Munkhe’s arms, who gave him up without complaint. He held the baby up and closed his eyes. He stayed that way for a minute, then lowered the child and pressed his ear to the baby’s chest. He listened for another minute, then raised his head.
“He’s touched by the wind, isn’t he?” Henta said. She tried to keep the unhappiness out of her voice but didn’t quite succeed.
The old shaman shook his head. He looked down at the tiny infant, his creased and weathered face betraying his awe and surprise.
“The wind has not marked him. The wind has made its home inside him.”
Chapter 1: Fen
Fen and his mother were heading home when the pounding started.
Fen’s mother froze, listening. It was a heavy, dull pounding, something Fen felt in his chest as much as heard with his ears. It seemed to reverberate in the ground under his feet and pulse from the walls of the stone buildings around them. The pounding was rhythmic, like the heartbeat of some vast beast deep underground.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
“They made it to the gates,” Fen’s mother said. Looking up, Fen saw her put her hand over her mouth as if to keep from crying out.
She reached for his hand. “We have to go.”
“I don’t need to hold your hand,” Fen grumbled, pulling his hand away. “I’m not a little boy. I can walk on my own.”
Fen’s mother didn’t argue with him, just grabbed his wrist in a death grip and started walking as fast as she could, so fast that he had to practically run to keep from falling down. He stole a look at her face as they walked and saw that her lips were compressed into a white line.
She was afraid. More afraid than he’d ever seen her. That got through to him more than the pounding did, made his heart pick up and beat faster. Was the pounding the battering ram he’d heard people speak of? he wondered. Did it mean the invaders were about to break into the city? He looked over his shoulder, down the cobblestone street, afraid he would see enemy soldiers right then, weapons drawn, chasing after them.
Except for other citizens of the city of Samkara, all of them hurrying like they were, the street was empty. And Fen was smart enough to know the enemy wouldn’t come from that direction anyway. They’d come from the direction of the city gates, the same direction he and his mother were hurrying.
Fen and his mother lived near the main gates of the city. He could see them from the roof of the building. He’d been up there several times since the siege started, because from there he could also see the enemy soldiers, spread all over the hills and farms outside the city, thousands and thousands of them. They’d been there for weeks now, attacking the walls every day.
At first it was exciting, and he stole up onto the roof whenever he could to watch. It seemed like some kind of great game, a holiday that never ended. In the first few days people laughed about it, and talked about how there was nothing to fear, how the walls would never fall to the Maradi.
But then the great stones started falling out of the sky. They were as big as the wagons the farmers used to bring their crops into the city. Wherever they struck they caused terrible damage. Fen’s mother cleaned taverns for a living, and one morning he and his mother went to one of them only to find it gone, nothing left but a pile of rubble. It was like Hentu, god of storms, reached down out of the sky and smashed it with his giant fist.
The catapults threw more than stones. They also flung balls of flaming pitch. Whole sections of the city—usually the poorer parts, where the buildings were made of wood—had already burned. Smoke was always in the air now.
Once the siege started in earnest it stopped being exciting and started to become frightening. The laughter stopped and was replaced by tight lips and fear. Fen saw fights in the streets, some of them bloody. He heard his mother crying during the night.
A few days ago Fen had seen his mother talking with a neighbor woman, an old woman named Elace. He heard Elace telling his mother that when she was a little girl the city she’d lived in was conquered and sacked. He didn’t know what “sacked” meant, and before he could find out, his mother saw him and sent him back inside their apartment. Later, when he asked her about it she shook her head and refused to tell him.
Now he wondered if Samkara was about to be sacked.
The sun had gone down a few minutes earlier and the street was getting darker by the minute. Fen wasn’t sure where, exactly, their home was, but he knew it was still at least several blocks away. The pounding of the ram was getting louder with every step. Everyone else on the street seemed to be going the opposite way, away from the sound.
All at once there was a terrible cracking sound. His mother came to an abrupt stop—everyone on the street did—and stared off into the distance. More cracking sounds and then the crash of something heavy falling to the ground.
Hard after that sound came a loud and terrible cheer, then the ringing of steel on steel.
Screams of pain and death echoed down the street.
“It’s too late,” his mother whispered. Her face had gone ashen. She looked down at Fen. “We can’t make it home. We have to find somewhere to hide.”
Now Fen was glad she was holding his hand. Now he wished she would pick him up and carry him. More than anything he wanted his mother’s arms around him. He wanted her to hold him close and tell him everything was going to be okay.
Except that he had a terrible feeling nothing would ever be okay again.
His mother was still carrying the basket of food they’d just bought at the market, but now she dropped it and looked around desperately. Somehow that made Fen even more afraid. His mother never, ever wasted food, even if it was starting to mold. The coins she earned were too precious, too hard to come by, to waste food.
Around them people were running. A man carrying a chicken under his arm crashed into Fen’s mother so hard he nearly knocked her down. He cursed her and ran off down the street.
“We’ll go to Victory Square,” she said suddenly. “Marki will take us in.” Marki was one of his mother’s friends. She had a daughter only a little older than Fen.
She took off running, pulling Fen behind her. They ran down one street and cut through a market. A few of the vendors were trying to pack up their goods, but most were fleeing. Several of the carts had been overturned and the two of them ran through spilled turnips, potatoes and other vegetables. Leaving the market, they turned onto a smaller street that was less crowded. They were both breathing hard by the time they made it to Victory Square, which was almost empty.
It was a small square, with only two streets leading into it. The buildings surrounding the square were all three or four stories tall and built together. In the center of the square was a statue of some forgotten general holding up a sword. The statue was mostly covered by bird droppings.
Fen’s mother led them to a door in one of the buildings fronting the square. It was a thick wooden door with no window. She grabbed the handle and pulled.
It was locked.
She stepped back, craning her neck to look at the upper stories. “Marki! Marki! Let us in!”
Fen saw a face appear at one of the windows—he couldn’t see if it was Marki or not—but the person pulled the shutters closed without saying anything. The rest were already closed.
Fen’s mother began banging on the door, yelling Marki’s name over and over. But no footsteps sounded from the other side. Desperately, Fen’s mother went to the next door and tried it. It was also locked. She tried several more doors and every one of them was locked. There were no windows on the bottom floor of any of the buildings, and so they had no way in.
Fen’s mother turned to him and grabbed his shoulders, pulling him close to look into his eyes. “We’ll have to find another place. That’s all. We just have to find somewhere to get off the street. It’s okay. Trust me, it’s okay.” Tears were running down her face and she seemed to be trying to will him to believe her.
Fen knew she didn’t believe her own words. More than ever he wanted her to pick him up. His legs were shaking so badly he could barely stand. He realized he was crying too, the tears blurring his vision.
There was a sudden clatter of armor and harsh men’s voices. Fen turned, saw soldiers streaming into the square.
It was too late.
The soldiers pouring into the square showed a white star on their shields and surcoats and at first Fen was relieved. These were Samkaran soldiers. They were going to be safe.
But then behind them he saw a mass of soldiers wearing the emblem of Maradi, a charging bull. The Maradis killed a few of the Samkaran soldiers in the rear and the rest turned, raising shields and weapons, trying to make a stand.
“We have to go, Fen!” his mother cried. “Run!”
She grabbed his hand and they ran for the other exit from the square. But they had gone only a few steps when soldiers appeared there too.
Fen and his mother skidded to a halt. His mother’s head swiveled side to side, looking for an escape.
But there was none.
Whirling, she dragged Fen back to the first doorway she’d tried and began kicking and pounding on it, screaming, “Let us in! Let us in!” over and over.
Fen stood pressed close to his mother, watching wide-eyed as the slaughter commenced.
For it was a slaughter. There was no other word for it. The Samkaran soldiers were outnumbered two-to-one and the Maradi wore better armor, had better weapons.
The Samkarans clustered in a tight knot around the statue and fought with the desperate ferocity of doomed men, hacking and stabbing wildly at the enemy. Fen’s eyes were drawn to one of the Samkaran soldiers, a tall, thick-shouldered man wearing plate armor and wielding a huge, two-handed sword. He fought like a madman, screaming curses at his enemies, cutting down men with every swing. Blood poured from a dozen wounds, but none of them seemed to slow him down.
Despite his terror, Fen couldn’t take his eyes off him. There was something about the man, something fascinating. He was a force of nature, like a storm. For a time it seemed he might single-handedly stem the tide and Fen found himself clenching his fists, willing the man to victory.
Then a new wave of Maradi poured in. They swept up and over the remaining Samkarans, burying them. The big man screamed with impotent rage and broke free of the wave, once, twice. Then he went down a third time and disappeared.
Fen’s mother had given up banging on the door and was edging along the stone wall, pulling Fen along with her. Maybe in the chaos they could escape unnoticed. They might still survive this nightmarish scene.
They made it to the corner of the square when one of the Maradi soldiers spotted them.
“Hey!” he yelled, and ran at them, a bloody short sword in his hand.
Fen’s mother screamed and tried to run, dragging Fen behind her in her panic. It wasn’t that far to the exit. If they could just reach it, maybe they could get away, maybe they could find somewhere to hide.
But Fen tripped and went down. With a cry, his mother turned back to snatch him up. She jerked him to his feet, but before they could run again, the soldier caught them.
He grabbed hold of her wrist with his free hand, and with his other, the one holding the sword, he backhanded Fen, knocking him sprawling.
“What do we have here?” he snarled. He was wearing leather armor and a boiled leather cap. There was blood on his face and his features were twisted in a bestial snarl. “Looks like I found myself a sweet.”
He jerked Fen’s mother closer, grabbed her dress and tore it partway off. Fen watched in horror, wishing there was something, anything he could do.
What happened next seemed like it was in slow motion.
Fen’s mother reached into the pocket of her torn dress, retrieving the short-bladed kitchen knife she always carried when they went out into the streets. Fen had seen her use it to drive off a thief once, cutting the man’s hand so he howled and ran off, cursing her.
The soldier didn’t see it. He was staring at her breasts, his mouth partway open.
She stabbed him in the forearm, the little blade sinking in all the way to the hilt.
The soldier yelled and jerked his arm back. “You stabbed me!” he yelled. He seemed to be having trouble believing it.
Fen’s mother took advantage of the opportunity and reached for Fen—
The soldier swung the bloody short sword. The blade inscribed a short, wicked arc. Fen tried to cry out, to do something, anything, but it was already too late and he was too slow.
The blade caught Fen’s mother in the side, cutting deep. She collapsed in a spray of blood and Fen screamed. Something inside him snapped, something that would never mend, never heal, and he threw himself at the soldier in a frenzy.
The soldier put his foot on her corpse and jerked the blade free. As he straightened up, Fen hit him, his fists swinging, howling like a wild animal.
The soldier threw him off, hard enough that Fen slammed into the stone wall of the building behind him. The wind was knocked out of him by the impact and he fell to his knees.
He straightened up in time to see the soldier looming over him.
“Miserable little rat,” the soldier said.
He swung his sword. As if from far away Fen watched the blade descend, noted the drops of blood—his mother’s blood—flying from it.
The sword hit him in the chest, there was a burst of pain, and everything went dark.
Fen opened his eyes. He sat up, blinking. Smoke filled the air and at first he had no idea where he was or what had happened. Confused, he looked on a scene from a nightmare, bodies piled in heaps, blood splashed everywhere, all of it lit by the lurid glow of a city burning in the background.
Then it all came crashing back on him. He turned and saw his mother lying nearby. Her eyes were open, unseeing. Blood soaked the cobblestones around her. An animal sound came from him and he crawled over to her. He grabbed her shoulder and turned her on her back. Her head lolled lifelessly.
Weeping uncontrollably, Fen grabbed her and held her close. “You’re not dead, Mama. You’re not dead.” He kept saying it over and over, as if repetition might make it come true.
How long he stayed that way he didn’t know. He lost track of time. His life was horror and grief. He wanted to be dead too. He wanted to be with his mother.
At length a new thought penetrated his brain. He pushed it away, but it kept coming back.
Why am I still alive?
He pulled away from his mother and sat up. In the flickering light from the fires, he could see that his tunic was slit open across his chest. He pulled the slit open and looked at his skin. There was blood smeared everywhere, but none of it was his. There was no wound, only a faint, reddish line to mark where the sword had struck him.
There was a sound and movement in the center of the square. Fen stared as one of the piles of bodies moved. Part of him yelled that he should get up, that he should run and hide before it was too late. But he stayed there, watching in horrified fascination.
The pile of bodies shifted again, and a man’s gauntleted hand covered in blood emerged. The bodies moved some more and the rest of the arm came free, along with the head and shoulders.
It was the big soldier. He made it slowly to his feet. For a moment he stood there, swaying. He was spattered everywhere with blood. His armor was badly scored and dented. Reaching up, he took off his helmet, let it fall to the ground. Underneath, he was bald, hairless except for the long mustache that curled down past his jaw.
Slowly he turned, surveying the destruction around him. Other than he and Fen, there was no one else alive in the little square. His gaze lifted to the city beyond. Screams of pain echoed in the distance. Flames leapt into the sky. Huge clouds of smoke billowed skyward.
He raised his fists and tilted his head back, screaming rage and sorrow and defiance at the night sky.
“Blood!” he screamed. “Blood and death! Ten times what you have done to us this night, I will return to you, Marad! Ten times! This I vow, this I swear my life to!”
As he said this, Fen saw something strange, something he would wonder about for years.
A shadow appeared behind the bald soldier, growing thicker and darker with each passing second. Soon it was as tall as he was, like a rip in the night.
Pale, emaciated hands reached out of the shadow. The hands settled on top of the bald soldier’s head. Strangely, the bald soldier didn’t seem to notice, but simply stood there with his head bowed, his chest rising and falling with each breath.
What looked like black smoke, tinged slightly with purple light, flowed out of the fingertips of the pale hands. The smoke entered through the eyes, nose and mouth of the bald soldier.
The hands withdrew and disappeared into the shadow, which faded and was gone, as if it had never been there.
Fen rubbed his eyes, wondering if he’d just imagined it all. Had he? The soldier seemed unchanged, and he hadn’t noticed anything.
The bald soldier bent over and dug around in the pile of bodies. A moment later he found what he was looking for and pulled his sword free of the mass. He wiped it on one of the bodies and made his way out of the pile.
As he was leaving the square, his eyes fell on Fen, huddled there, staring up at him. He paused, his gaze going to the body of Fen’s mother, lying sprawled beside him. New rage flickered in his eyes.
“Come,” he said to Fen, holding out his mailed hand.
“She’s my mother,” Fen said, turning his head and looking at her. The sight sent fresh stabs of pain through him.
“Not anymore,” the soldier said grimly.
“I can’t leave her.”
“There’s nothing to leave, lad. Only the past.” He pointed out into the city with his sword. “Out there is the future. Come with me and we’ll make the bastards pay for this. We’ll make every one of them pay.”
With one last glance at his mother, Fen rose and walked over to the man.
“I’m Fen,” he said.
The man set his hand on Fen’s shoulder for a moment. “Barik.” Fen looked at his hand. There was so much blood that the gauntlet was completely red. The other hand was the same.
Barik pointed at the body of a fallen soldier. “Take a weapon, Fen, and follow me.”
Fen started to pick up the soldier’s sword, but realized it was too big for him. In a sheath at the soldier’s side was a dagger. He tugged it free and held it up for Barik to see. The blade was longer than his forearm.
“That’ll do,” Barik said.
They passed out into the city then, from a smaller nightmare into a larger one. Fires burned everywhere. Bodies lay sprawled in the streets. Doors had been kicked in, whole families dragged out, the men and boys killed, the women and girls raped, then killed. Shops had been looted. Smashed dishes and glassware were strewn over the ground.
Here and there wandered survivors, staring around them with dull, dead eyes and blank faces. Some lay curled up on the ground in the fetal position, crying and moaning to themselves.
They were making their way down one wide street when an elderly woman lurched out of the shadows of an alley and threw herself at Barik.
“Where were you?” she screamed, clawing and spitting at him. “Where were you? How could you let this happen?”
Barik said nothing, nor did he try to defend himself. He simply stood there and let her wear herself out, until at last she sagged back, weeping bitterly, her energy spent. But Fen saw the grim, angry look settling deeper into Barik’s features as the woman raged, and he knew that Barik was storing this all away, fuel for the fires of his vengeance on their enemies.
Fen clung to that look. His world was threatening to spin out of control, but that look of doom and promise on Barik’s face gave him something to hang onto. It gave him something to reach for, shining darkly in a future that otherwise held nothing.
The night was old, dawn only a couple hours away, which meant that the Maradi army had had hours to slake its thirst for violence and looting. It seemed that the Maradi army had withdrawn from the city for they came upon no enemy soldiers, no living ones anyway. To Fen it was as if a tornado had blown through the city, leaving a path of destruction and death and disappearing just as quickly.
They did find Samkaran soldiers, though, in ones and twos throughout the city. Every soldier they met took one look at the fell figure of Barik, stained with blood and death, and fell in behind him. As Barik and Fen moved through the city, more and more of them joined until when Fen looked over his shoulder, he could no longer tell how many there were.
It was nearing dawn, light just showing in the east, when Barik and Fen came upon the first living Maradi soldiers they’d seen all night.
There were a couple dozen of them. They’d dragged a long table out into the street and covered it with food—haunches of beef, smoked hams, olives, loaves of bread and wheels of cheese—and bottles of wine and liquor. They were sitting at the table, drinking and stuffing themselves, telling wild stories of the battle and laughing.
They had no chance.
As soon as Barik saw them, he launched himself at them. He made no sound, no war cry or battle yell, just ran at them with his sword upraised. Behind him poured the rest of his makeshift army.
One of the enemy soldiers looked up blearily right before they got there. His eyes widened and he started to stand. Other heads turned.
The Samkaran soldiers smashed into them, all the ache and self-hatred and fear of the night pouring out at once. Barik’s first swing nearly cut a man in half as he turned and tried to raise one arm. He was thrown back into the table, knocking it over, spilling food and drink everywhere.
His next swing took off the head of the man next to him. Then the rest of the Samkaran soldiers got there. They hacked at the enemy soldiers grimly, savagely.
By the time Fen got there, the brief battle was over. Every Maradi was down, their blood draining out into a city that had seen far too much of it already. Then he saw one of them off to the side, trying to crawl away.
With a cry of hatred he ran at the wounded soldier and jumped on his back. Once, twice, he stabbed with the dagger, but the man’s armor deflected both blows. The man rolled onto his side and shoved Fen away.
Fen scrambled back to his feet and charged again. Again the armor defeated him, but by then Barik was there and he killed the man with one blow from the gore-stained sword. With the blade of his weapon he pointed to the joints in the man’s armor.
“Aim here, and here. That’s where your blade will find its way in.”
Fen stabbed into one of the joints, felt the blade sink into yielding flesh. He looked up at Barik to see if he’d done it right. When he did, he saw something in Barik’s eyes, something he could cling to: Approval.
For a boy who couldn’t remember his own father, who’d lost the only family he had in the world just a few hours before, it was everything.
More than anything, he wanted to see that look again.