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Read a sample from THE FREE by Brian Ruckley

From the bestselling author of Winterbirth comes a magnificent new epic fantasy about the Free – the most feared and revered band of mercenaries the kingdom has ever known . . .

1
When Drann Was Seven

When Drann was seven, his grandmother Emmin – they called her, out of her earshot, Old Emmin to distinguish her from Drann’s similarly named sister – sat him down and told him a story. He liked it when she did that. She had more learning, and better words, than the rest of them. The family had come upon thinner times since Old Emmin’s youth, and none of them had matched her schooling. She often whispered to him that he was smarter than the rest of them, which naturally pleased the young him no end.

The story she told him was, more or less, this:

When I was young (Old Emmin said) the Empire, those makers and keepers and lovers of orphans, thought they might have for themselves the Tormond Valley, that’s just three hills over from here. It was as green a stretch of land as you could imagine, back then. Full of fat cattle and fat folk. And gold to be panned from some of the hillside streams, too, which made it a place any lord’d like to call his own.

So the Emperor thought he’d have it, since our Regent Queen, Amyllis, was young and this Hommetic Kingdom she ruled even younger. Perhaps a bit soft, a bit weak. That’s the way emperors and their like think. They’d have come sooner, if they’d not been busy with a thirty-year war a thousand miles away. A lucky thirty years for us.

Anyhap, the Emperor sent two hundred Orphanidons – all feathers and plate and lances, those fierce boys – and an army, and called the valley a part of his landright. Done, and done, you might think. But not.

The Regent Queen came to the top of Haut Law, to a place where a stream sprang and ran on down into the Tormond. She brought with her a thing that nobody knew then, but which we call the Bereaved now. A Permanence. A terrible thing. It sat in the grass, at the very spot where the brook was born from the ground. The Queen bade a Schoolman whisper into its ear, and he did.

The Bereaved wept. Black tears. Stinking tears. They trickled down its face and fell, one by one, into the water. That done, Amyllis took the Bereaved back to the palace by the lake and had the School hide it away in their keep, where it hides still.

And the Bereaved’s tears flowed down from the Haut Law into the valley, and plague took all the lands of the Tormond. The grass withered, the trees broke, the soil sickened. The people died, with their guts bleeding and their skin boiling and the nails rotting out of their fingers. When they tried to flee into our lands, they found the Queen’s men barring their way with arrow and sword.

So they ran, instead, alongside the Emperor’s proud army back whence it had come, and carried the plague with them into the lands of the Orphans. Thousands upon thousands died. More folk than you’ve ever seen, or ever will see. They went down like scythed grain. You could smell their dying and their burning even here, for weeks. Made me ill, like I’d not been before.

When the dying was done, the Regent Queen sent word to the Emperor, and said: “I have done this thing that you might know, and remember: set but one finger upon us, or that which is now ours, and we shall have away your entire arm, unto the very gristle of your shoulder joint.”

And that’s why, little Drann, even now it’s those thieving, shit-hearted Hommetic bastards who rule over the Tor mond – wasteland that it is – and over us, and not the mad Empire of Orphans.

Drann always enjoyed the stories Old Emmin told him. They were much more interesting than anything his parents let him hear. They fed his dreams and his fancies.

– – –

2
Late To The War

Seventeen-year-old Drann blinked. At first his vision was messy, as if water was running over his open eyes. He blinked again and it cleared. He found he was looking at an ant, clambering on the stem of a drooping flower, only a finger or two from his face. It was brandishing its hair-thin front legs in search of something else to climb. To hold on to. A tiny black ant. Drann watched it, and wondered why he was lying here with his face resting on grass, down with the ants and the flowers. It felt a good place to be – comfortable – but also strange.

There were indistinct sounds coming to him, he could not tell whether through the air or from the soft ground beneath his ear. Thumps and bumps; voices that though oddly dulled and muffled carried alarm and anger. He frowned at that, still watching the ant. And the frown set loose heavy pulses of pain in his head, and cleared his hearing.

“Get up, you dung-bred shirker!’ someone was shouting at him.

Drann rolled on to his shoulder, struggling to lift his lead-heavy head. He was in a wood. There was a man standing over him, shouting at him. A man flushed with fury, spittle at his lips. Stocky, pepper-haired, pepper-bearded. Older than Drann’s father.

“Take up your spear and fight or I’ll gut you myself.”

The man had a sword in hand, a shield on his arm. He flourished the blade in the direction of Drann’s stomach. This was Creel of Mondoon, Drann thought dreamily as he stared at the dancing point of the sword. Why would a lord – a famed, fierce lord at that – be talking to him? That was a thing that had no place in the world.

“Wipe the blood from your brow and get on your feet, farm boy,” Creel snarled and swept away, stamping amongst the trees, shouting over his shoulder. “They’ll be on us again, and if I’m dying today it’ll not be because you’re too bone-frit to stand up.”

Blood? Drann thought numbly. He touched a fingertip to his forehead. It came away wet. Sticky. Blood, right enough. And the sight of it snapped him back to his senses, to his memories. To the awareness that he, and Creel, and all of them, were indeed well set to die today.

“I’m not afraid,” Drann muttered as he staggered up, though the lord of Mondoon was already gone. “I hit my head, that’s all. I’m not afraid.”

Drann had come late to the war, and thought he would have no great part in it because of that. He found himself upon the winning side, yet he had killed no one, fought in no battles. He could not decide whether he should regret that or not. It felt a cowardly kind of vengeance to have exacted upon the tyrant and his legions of taxers, usurers, confiscators. By the time Drann finally took up his father’s spear, and walked away from the village in search of an army to join, others had – it turned out – already bought his revenge for him with their lives, and all but won his freedom from the Hommetic yoke. He had paid no price save bruises and blisters.

Creel of Mondoon was not Drann’s lord, but his motley army had been the closest to hand when Drann finally went in search of the war, and amidst the chaos few people cared about such niceties as fealties and duties. Certainly Drann did not. He cared only that someone – anyone – gave him the chance to let loose some part of the angers that had gathered themselves in him. If they were not given some channel to flow down, he felt they might burst him.

So he had marched south, one more insignificant pair of feet amongst the many following Creel, and realised that the war was melting away even as he thought himself walking into it. The armies of the King crumbled, their vigour spent in battles fought before Drann had even left his home. The rebels – Creel’s great column and all the others – roamed freely, widely, and found nothing to oppose them save a few stubborn towns with desperate garrisons, a hundred little bands of warriors-turned-bandits. And not once had Drann needed his father’s spear for anything other than leaning on, or rapping against his feet to knock mud or manure from his boots.

Until today. Until he had the misfortune to be one of the two dozen levymen sent out from the camp with Creel and his guards to climb a hill a quarter-day’s march away. At the time, it had seemed like a piece of good luck, not ill. He had spent the previous half a day and half a night pounding stakes around Creel of Mondoon’s camp – to guard against an attack that no one actually believed would come – and had nothing to look forward to but more of the same hand-blistering work. Anything was more appealing than that prospect.

Why that particular hill needed climbing, Drann had no idea, of course, though one of the other levies said that on a clear day you might see Armadell-on-Lake from there. Perhaps Creel just wanted to see the King’s city, and know there was no longer any King within its walls. All Drann cared about was that, as far as he knew, no one in his village had ever set eyes upon Armadell-on-Lake. It would give him a small tale to tell upon his return, though not quite of the glorious sort he had imagined himself recounting.

Not to be, it seemed. Not even that small tale, of climbing a hill.

Back on his feet, Drann found his legs soft and loose. He had to press one hand against a tree trunk to avoid a prompt return to the grass and the company of ants. He had been running, he remembered. They all had. Even Creel and those of his household warriors still alive, since their horses had been watering along the stream when the attack began and were all dead or taken or scattered. Running up through the sparse, dry woodlands fringing the valley.

There had been a scream, back down the slope, and Drann had turned his head to look. Seen nothing but the silent trees, and turned back just in time to run into a low branch. A thick, solid branch gnarled with knots and burrs. He remembered the blow, and then the ant climbing the flower right there in front of his blinking eyes.

Drann did not know who the attackers were. One of those thousand little bands of bandits, most likely, except that there was nothing little about this band. They had come flooding down the hillside, churning and splashing their way across the stream, howling like dogs. Some of Creel’s stern warriors had stood and fought, cutting down the first ten, dozen, of the raiders as they breasted the near bank of the watercourse, but there were too many.

It had been the lord of Mondoon himself who roared: “Into the woods, into the woods!”

And in the woods, it had been worse. Creel and his trained men – those still alive – stayed close together, climbing up and away from the killing ground by the stream. Drann’s fellow levymen scattered. He saw some of them casting aside their weapons to unburden their flight. He saw others, not far behind him, overrun by their ragged pursuers, pulled down and speared or beaten. His heart punched hard and fast against his ribs. He heard the scream, turned to look, and ran into the branch.

Now, he staggered after Creel’s disappearing form. With legs enfeebled, and a dizzying throb in his head, the slope seemed steeper than ever. There was, at least, not much undergrowth. Just thin open woodland stretching up towards the higher ground. He had lied to Creel, Drann realised: he was afraid. He must be, for there was nothing in his mind but the anticipation of a hard, sharp blow to his back. He did not know quite what it would feel like, to be speared, but he knew he would fall, and that was what he expected, and imagined, as he laboured up towards the end of the woods. The vision of that fall, with a spear point in his back, crowded everything else out from his thoughts. That must be fear.

When the trees at last gave way and Drann came blundering out into brighter light and open ground, he dared for a moment to pause and to look around him. Creel and his guards were pounding on and up over the thin grass, making for a rocky knoll at the summit. Over to Drann’s left another couple of levymen – not much older than him – spilled out of the trees. One of them fell; the second stopped and made to help him to his feet but then thought better of it and turned away again. Too late, for their pursuers came rushing up, yelping and hollering, and hacked them both down.

Drann felt sick, from exhaustion, from horror or terror; he did not know which. There was shouting close behind him, in the woods. He fled from it, making for the lord of Mondoon and that jagged, ragged hump of bare rock upon which he was arraying his last ten or so defenders. It was the only place that looked even remotely like sanctuary, for a farm boy who knew he could not run much further.

“Set your feet to these rocks and yield not a pace,” Creel was growling as Drann fell amongst the grim-faced warriors of the lord’s household. “Running’ll not save you now. Only thing that might is finding some iron in your heart.”

The last remnants of Creel’s former escort company were emerging from the trees, scattered in ones and twos all along the edge. Dying in those ones and twos, many of them, as they were shot down with arrows or impaled on hungry spears. The bandits, or king’s loyalists or whatever they were, streamed out on to the high ground. They came without order or rank, a chaotic flock of carrion birds jostling and calling in their haste. More and more of them, until Drann realised that it was not sanctuary he had found but the place where he would die.

He scrambled to get to his feet once more, but one of Creel’s men pushed past him and knocked him on to his backside. He was the only one of the levies to have reached the lord’s side, and the warriors seemed entirely uninterested in his presence. Contemptuous of it, he thought.

“I’m not running,” he heard himself shouting as he stood up.

He had no idea why he would say such a thing, or think it wise. But then wisdom had never been his greatest attribute, to hear his mother talk.

“I can see that,” Creel muttered at his side, startling him.

“You want some sort of reward, boy?”

“No,” Drann stammered. “No, sire.”

“Good. There’s none coming here today. Fight and perhaps you get to live. That’ll have to be enough for you.”

Drann tightened his hands about his spear. He realised with surprise that his heartbeat was slowing. His mouth was dry, but he did not feel sick any more. He looked out between Creel’s warriors and saw a great crowd of men rushing up the hillside, meaning to kill him and strip his corpse, and he was not afraid. It seemed too late for fear.

He glanced up. The sky was blue, flecked with delicate white strands of high cloud that drifted slowly westward. It looked peaceful up there.

Arrows came first, clattering and pattering down on rocks and into the grass all around. They were poorly aimed. Creel’s warriors hunched behind their shields in any case. Drann heard the dull thunk of arrow striking wood once or twice. He had no shield himself, so folded down into the shadow of one of those big men as best he could.

The knoll was too rugged and too boulder-strewn to allow for the sort of shield line Drann had seen Creel’s well-trained men practising since he joined the army. All they could do was to each find a piece of ground that gave them a sure footing and fight upon it. Their attackers were too impatient, or too short of arrows, to hold back. They surged on, and Drann and the rest rose to meet them.

It was not as he had imagined fighting to be. It was faster, and more confused. More desperate. A mass of flailing, lurching figures. Gasps and grunts and the rattle of spears, of swords. It was hard to tell who was friend and who foe, and his body acted before he had time to sort one from another. He lunged with his spear, felt it hit something – perhaps flesh – once or twice, the impacts shivering up the shaft and jarring his hands.

His feet slipped over slick rock; he stumbled. A wild-eyed man with a thick black beard loomed over him, an axe raised above his head. Drann’s spear was tangled in his legs. He started to close his eyes, but a dark blur of movement swept across in front of him and his assailant was down, knocked from his feet by two men reeling around, locked together in violent embrace. Drann hauled his spear free and thrust it at the axeman’s face. It was only a glancing blow, carving open the man’s cheek, but it was enough. The man rolled away, bloodied, and first crawled then staggered back down the slope.

They all did. Drann watched them go in disbelief, his chest heaving, that feeling of sickness back in his throat. It all seemed too easy, too fast, and so it was. The retreat did not last. As Creel himself dragged a wounded man back over the rocks, and propped him up against a boulder, Drann watched their enemies gathering, bickering, and then spreading themselves out, thinning and reaching to encompass half the knoll with their ragged line. He could have wept then, at the brief flowering and instant withering of hope. It would have been better never to have caught its scent. All the weakness, that he had thought gone, was back in his legs.

It began again, the surge up towards the few men atop the rocks, the reaching for their blood and lives. This time, to Drann’s puzzlement, it seemed that in amongst the footfalls and the cries of fury, there was the pounding of hoofs too. That could not be right, he thought. For a moment, it seemed it must be his heart, thudding inside him, but then as blade met shield once more and the struggle was renewed, a horse came bursting across the shoulder of the knoll, and atop it a great and terrible rider.

He was tall and his skin brown-tinted, this newcomer, with a scalp clean-shaven and smooth as polished stone, save for a single thick length of black hair folded and pinned into a knot atop his head. A heavy leather waistcoat, with plates of metal, encased his chest. A long sword was in his hand, and it moved as fast and free as swirling water. The horse cast men aside as it ploughed through the throng. The blade carved them away from its flanks.

So sudden and so fierce was the charge, like an eagle plunging through a flock of lambs, that horse and rider burst through and out on to open ground, and there they wheeled, the horse rearing up and gouging the air with its forelegs. Already, their arrival had spread enough alarm to scatter some of the bandits, who were tumbling and bounding back down towards the edge of the woods. And there amongst them Drann saw another horseman. Another southerner, to judge by the hue of his skin, whose horse danced and jinked around as he flicked arrow after arrow, absurdly fast, in amongst the fleeing men. The reins hung loose and limp across the animal’s shoulders, yet the archer barely swayed and it seemed that almost every arrow found its intended home.

Only then did Drann realise that there were those amongst their attackers who did not know, or did not care, what was happening behind them, and had not yet had their fill of slaughter. They pressed in against the last of Creel’s guardians, and clambered over the rocks that kept them from the lord. Creel himself fought like a wounded boar, crying out in incoherent rage as he slashed at those who tried to reach him. Drann pushed away a corpse that had fallen across his legs, pinning him against a boulder. It was far heavier than he ever would have imagined. He took a few steps closer to Creel, trying to keep his spear up, not knowing what else to do. He was near when Creel went down, thrown backwards by a man who rushed him with only a shield, punching the metal boss into the lord’s chest.

Drann acted without thought. He thrust his spear at a flash of exposed skin, and it drove into the man’s neck, knocking him sideways. In the urgent moment, it seemed a small, unremarkable thing. Then the blood came, as Drann was dragged forward, falling across Creel himself, and his spear tore free of flesh. He kept hold of it somehow, but could not easily rise as Creel struggled beneath him. He managed to twist on to his side, in time to see a lean, hard-featured man clad in tattered hides rushing towards him and the lord of Mondoon, vaulting over a hump of rock, a knife almost as long as Drann’s forearm ready for the fatal blow. Leaping at them, to put all the weight and force the world could offer into the blade.

And there was a flash, and a strange sound unlike anything Drann had heard before, and the man’s head was apart from his body, springing away as if on a string. Making a dull noise as it landed and rolled. The decapitated corpse crumpled and curled and fell at Drann’s feet, spitting blood out across his boots. He looked up, into the face of a woman, who stood between him and the sun so that he had to narrow his eyes to make out her features. They might have been cut from stone, so impassive were they. She stared at him with cold eyes, much as if she was regarding some entirely unremarkable hummock in the ground. Her fair hair was tied back. Her sword, clad in the dead man’s blood, came slowly down. Drann suddenly realised that she might, in those moments, have been deciding whether or not she should kill him. He probably did not look much like the defender of a landed lord.

Apparently satisfied, though nothing in her expression gave so much as a whisper of her thoughts, that blade descended to her side. She shook the notched shield on her other arm and resettled her hold upon it. She looked away.

Drann rolled off Creel of Mondoon, and found that the fighting was done. Dead and wounded littered the ground around the rocky knoll, and stretched back towards the silent, still trees below. Here and there, a few survivors were limping, or running, or staggering back towards the safety of those woods. The two southerners, swordsman and archer, had dismounted and came striding up to stand beside the woman, all three of them staring down at Creel, who was grunting and muttering but did not seem injured. They paid no heed to Drann, sitting there in a state of amazement at the way his heart kept beating, the air kept easing in and out of his chest, and he kept living.

The tallest of these three, the first to have come, leaned and extended a big hand to Creel.

“Can I help you to your feet, lord of Mondoon?” he asked, with just the faintest hint of mirth in his voice.

Creel glowered at him, but reached to clasp hands. Drann glimpsed a fleck of movement in the sky, over the southerner’s shoulder. A dark scratch against the blue, skimming down towards them.

“Arrow . . . ” he started to say, hoarsely, but he need not have spoken.

The woman was already glancing up and casually lifting her shield arm. No other part of her moved. She simply caught the arrow upon the wooden circle. The loud, sharp crack of it smacking in made Drann blink. No one else gave the smallest sign of surprise or alarm. The archer sniffed, and took an arrow from his own quiver.

“You want me to do something about that?” he asked, staring back along the path of the offending shaft, at some target Drann could not see from where he sat.

“Is he going to try again?” the swordsman asked, still bent over and holding Creel’s hand in his.

“Not likely,” the archer reported. “Running like a hare now.”

“Let him go, then,” the swordsman said, and hauled Creel, one-handed, to his feet.

“You’re a sight-boon,” Creel grunted as he wiped the flat of his sword across his breeches.

“I imagine so.”

“Where’re the rest of you?”

“Coming along. We three thought it best to hurry when we caught the sound of the hunt.”

“Well and good,” Creel muttered. “You can follow us back. Make your own camp. Outside, mind. Keep a little ground between us, yes?” He shot a sharp, meaningful glance at the southerner, who said nothing. “Come and find me in my tent tomorrow morning.”

“I will.”

The lord of Mondoon sheathed his sword, flexed his wrist and rolled his hand around.

“I’m not dying today, then,” he mused. “That’s something of a surprise.”

“Of course you’re not dying,” the bald-headed warrior smiled. “You’ve not paid us yet.”

And with those words Drann belatedly understood what, and who, these people were. And realised that he would, after all, have a story worth the telling if he ever got back to his village.

About the Author

Brian Ruckley was born and raised in Scotland. After studying at Edinburgh and Stirling Universities, he worked for a series of organizations dealing with environmental, nature conservation and youth development issues. He lives in Edinburgh.