Read the beginning of Blood Song by Anthony Ryan – from the publishers of David Gemmell, a powerful epic fantasy debut in that same tradition from an exciting new British talent!
He had many names. Although yet to reach his thirtieth year, history had seen fit to bestow upon him titles aplenty: Sword of the Realm to the mad king who sent him to plague us, the Young Hawk to the men who followed him through the trials of war, Darkblade to his Cumbraelin enemies and, as I was to learn much later, Beral Shak Ur to the enigmatic tribes of the Great Northern Forest—the Shadow of the Raven.
But my people knew him by only one name and it was this that sang in my head continually the morning they brought him to the docks: Hope Killer. Soon you will die and I will see it. Hope Killer.
Although he was certainly taller than most men, I was surprised to find that, contrary to the tales I had heard, he was no giant, and whilst his features were strong they could hardly be called handsome. His frame was muscular but not possessed of the massive thews described so vividly by the storytellers. The only aspect of his appearance to match his legend was his eyes: black as jet and piercing as a hawk’s. They said his eyes could strip a man’s soul bare, that no secret could be hidden if he met your gaze. I had never believed it but seeing him now, I could see why others would.
The prisoner was accompanied by a full company of the Imperial Guard, riding in close escort, lances ready, hard eyes scanning the watching crowd for trouble. The crowd, however, were silent. They stopped to stare at him as he rode through, but there were no shouts, no insults or missiles hurled. I recalled that they knew this man, for a brief time he had ruled their city and commanded a foreign army within its walls, yet I saw no hate in their faces, no desire for vengeance. Mostly they seemed curious. Why was he here? Why was he alive at all?
The company reined in on the wharf, the prisoner dismounting to be led to the waiting vessel. I put my notes away and rose from my resting place atop a spice barrel, nodding at the captain. “Honour to you, sir.”
The captain, a veteran Guards officer with a pale scar running along his jawline and the ebony skin of the southern Empire, returned the nod with practised formality. “Lord Verniers.”
“I trust you had an untroubled journey?”
The captain shrugged. “A few threats here and there. Had to crack a few heads in Jesseria, the locals wanted to hang the Hope Killer’s carcass from their temple spire.”
I bridled at the disloyalty. The Emperor’s Edict had been read in all towns through which the prisoner would travel, its meaning plain: no harm will come to the Hope Killer. “The Emperor will hear of it,” I said.
“As you wish, but it was a small matter.” He turned to the prisoner. “Lord Verniers, I present the Imperial prisoner Vaelin Al Sorna.”
I nodded formally to the tall man, the name a steady refrain in my head. Hope Killer, Hope Killer . . . “Honour to you, sir,” I forced the greeting out.
His black eyes met mine for a second, piercing, enquiring. For a moment I wondered if the more outlandish stories were true, if there was magic in the gaze of this savage. Could he truly strip the truth from a man’s soul? Since the war, stories had abounded of the Hope Killer’s mysterious powers. He could talk to animals, command the Nameless and shape the weather to his will. His steel was tempered with the blood of fallen enemies and would never break in battle. And worst of all, he and his people worshipped the dead, communing with the shades of their forebears to conjure forth all manner of foulness. I gave little credence to such folly, reasoning that if the Northmen’s magics were so powerful, how had they contrived to suffer such a crushing defeat at our hands?
“My lord.” Vaelin Al Sorna’s voice was harsh and thickly accented, his Alpiran had been learned in a dungeon and his tones were no doubt coarsened by years of shouting above the clash of weapons and screams of the fallen to win victory in a hundred battles, one of which had cost me my closest friend and the future of this Empire.
I turned to the captain. “Why is he shackled? The Emperor ordered he be treated with respect.”
“The people didn’t like seeing him riding unfettered,” the captain explained. “The prisoner suggested we shackle him to avoid trouble.” He moved to Al Sorna and unlocked the restraints. The big man massaged his wrists with scarred hands.
“My lord!” A shout from the crowd. I turned to see a portly man in a white robe hurrying towards us, face wet with unaccustomed exertion. “A moment, please!”
The captain’s hand inched closer to his sabre but Al Sorna was unconcerned, smiling as the portly man approached. “Governor Aruan.”
The portly man halted, wiping sweat from his face with a lace scarf. In his left hand he carried a long bundle wrapped in cloth. He nodded at the captain and myself but addressed himself to the prisoner. “My lord. I never thought to see you again. Are you well?”
“I am, Governor. And you?”
The portly man spread his right hand, lace scarf dangling from his thumb, jewelled rings on every finger. “Governor no longer. Merely a poor merchant these days. Trade is not what it was, but we make our way.”
“Lord Verniers.” Vaelin Al Sorna gestured at me. “This is Holus Nester Aruan, former Governor of the City of Linesh.”
“Honoured Sir.” Aruan greeted me with a short bow.
“Honoured Sir,” I replied formally. So this was the man from whom the Hope Killer had seized the city. Aruan’s failure to take his own life in dishonour had been widely remarked upon in the aftermath of the war but the Emperor (Gods preserve him in his wisdom and mercy) had granted clemency in light of the extraordinary circumstances of the Hope Killer’s occupation. Clemency, however, had not extended to a continuance of his Governorship.
Aruan turned back to Al Sorna. “It pleases me to find you well. I wrote to the Emperor begging mercy.”
“I know, your letter was read at my trial.”
I knew from the trial records that Aruan’s letter, written at no small risk to his life, had formed part of the evidence describing curiously uncharacteristic acts of generosity and mercy by the Hope Killer during the war. The Emperor had listened patiently to it all before ruling that the prisoner was on trial for his crimes, not his virtues.
“Your daughter is well?” the prisoner asked Aruan.
“Very, she weds this summer. A feckless son of a shipbuilder, but what can a poor father do? Thanks to you, at least she is alive to break my heart.”
“I am glad. About the wedding, not your broken heart. I can offer no gift except my best wishes.”
“Actually, my lord, I come with a gift of my own.”
Aruan lifted the long, cloth-covered bundle in both hands, presenting it to the Hope Killer with a strangely grave expression. “I hear you will have need of this again soon.”
There was a definite hesitation in the Northman’s demeanour before he reached out to take the bundle, undoing the ties with his scarred hands. The cloth came away to reveal a sword of unfamiliar design, the scabbard-clad blade was a yard or so in the length and straight, unlike the curved sabres favoured by Alpiran soldiery. A single tine arched around the hilt to form a guard and the only ornamentation to the weapon was a plain steel pommel. The hilt and the scabbard bore many small nicks and scratches that spoke of years of hard use. This was no ceremonial weapon and I realised with a sickening rush that it was his sword. The sword he had carried to our shores. The sword that made him the Hope Killer.
“You kept that?” I sputtered at Aruan, appalled.
The portly man’s expression grew cold as he turned to me. “My honour demanded no less, my lord.”
“My thanks,” Al Sorna said, before any further outrage could spill from my lips. He hefted the sword and I saw the Guard Captain stiffen as Al Sorna drew the blade an inch or so from the scabbard, testing the edge with his thumb. “Still sharp.”
“It’s been well cared for. Oiled and sharpened regularly. I also have another small token.” Aruan extended his hand. In his palm sat a single ruby, a well-cut stone of medium weight, no doubt one of the more valued gems in the family collection. I knew the story behind Aruan’s gratitude, but his evident regard for this savage and the sickening presence of the sword still irked me greatly.
Al Sorna seemed at a loss, shaking his head. “Governor, I cannot . . .”
I moved closer, speaking softly. “He does you a greater honour than you deserve, Northman. Refusing will insult him and dishonour you.”
He flicked his black eyes over me briefly before smiling at Aruan, “I cannot refuse such generosity.” He took the gem. “I’ll keep it always.”
“I hope not,” Aruan responded with a laugh. “A man only keeps a jewel when he has no need to sell it.”
“You there!” A voice came from the vessel moored a short distance along the quay, a sizeable Meldenean galley, the number of oars and the width of the hull showing it to be a freighter rather than one of their fabled warships. A stocky man with an extensive black beard, marked as the captain by the red scarf on his head, was waving from the bow. “Bring the Hope Killer aboard, you Alpiran dogs!” he shouted with customary Meldenean civility. “Any more dithering and we’ll miss the tide.”
“Our passage to the Islands awaits,” I told the prisoner, gathering my possessions. “We’d best avoid the ire of our captain.”
“So it’s true then,” Aruan said. “You go to the Islands to fight for the lady?” I found myself disliking the tone in his voice, it sounded uncomfortably like awe.
“It’s true.” He clasped hands briefly with Aruan and nodded at the captain of his guard before turning to me. “My lord. Shall we?”
“You may be one of the first in line to lick your Emperor’s feet, scribbler”—the ship’s captain stabbed a finger into my chest—“but this ship is my kingdom. You berth here or you can spend the voyage roped to the mainmast.”
He had shown us to our quarters, a curtained-off section of the hold near the prow of the ship. The hold stank of brine, bilge water and the intermingled odour of the cargo, a sickly, cloying mélange of fruit, dried fish and the myriad spices for which the Empire was famous. It was all I could do to keep from gagging.
“I am Lord Verniers Alishe Someren, Imperial Chronicler, First of the Learned and honoured servant of the Emperor,” I responded, the handkerchief over my mouth muffling my words somewhat. “I am emissary to the Ship Lords and official escort to the Imperial prisoner. You will treat me with respect, pirate, or I’ll have twenty guardsmen aboard in a trice to flog you infront of your crew.”
The captain leaned closer; incredibly his breath smelt worse than the hold. “Then I’ll have twenty-one bodies to feed to the orcas when we leave the harbour, scribbler.”
Al Sorna prodded one of the bedrolls on the deck with his foot and glanced around briefly. “This’ll do. We’ll need food and water.”
I bristled. “You seriously suggest we sleep in this rat-hole? It’s disgusting.”
“You should try a dungeon. Plenty of rats there too.” He turned to the captain. “The water barrel is on the foredeck?”
The captain ran a stubby finger through the mass of his beard, contemplating the tall man, no doubt wondering if he was being mocked and calculating if he could kill him if he had to. They have a saying on the northern Alpiran coast: turn your back on a cobra but never a Meldenean. “So you’re the one who’s going to cross swords with the Shield? They’re offering twenty to one against you in Ildera. Think I should risk a copper on you? The Shield is the keenest blade in the Islands, can slice a fly in half with a sabre.”
“Such renown does him credit.” Vaelin Al Sorna smiled. “The water barrel?”
“It’s there. You can have one gourd a day each, no more. My crew won’t go short for the likes of you two. You can get food from the galley, if you don’t mind eating with scum like us.”
“No doubt I’ve eaten with worse. If you need an extra man at the oars, I am at your disposal.”
“Rowed before have you?”
The captain grunted, “We’ll manage.” He turned to go, muttering over his shoulder, “We sail within the hour, stay out of the way until we clear the harbour.”
“Island savage!” I fumed, unpacking my belongings, laying out my quills and ink. I checked there were no rats lurking under my bedroll before sitting down to compose a letter to the Emperor. I intended to let him know the full extent of this insult. “He’ll find no berth in an Alpiran harbour again, mark you.”
Vaelin Al Sorna sat down, resting his back against the hull. “You speak my language?” he asked, slipping into the Northern tongue.
“I study languages,” I replied in kind. “I can speak the seven major tongues of the Empire fluently and communicate in five more.”
“Impressive. Do you know the Seordah language?”
I looked up from my parchment. “Seordah?”
“The Seordah Sil of the Great Northern Forest. You’ve heard of them?”
“My knowledge of northern savages is far from comprehensive. As yet I see little reason to complete it.”
“For a learned man you seem happy with your ignorance.”
“I feel I speak for my entire nation when I say I wish we had all remained in ignorance of you.”
He tilted his head, studying me. “That’s hate in your voice.”
I ignored him, my quill moving rapidly over the parchment, setting out the formal opening for Imperial correspondence.
“You knew him, didn’t you?” Vaelin Al Sorna went on.
My quill stopped. I refused to meet his eye.
“You knew the Hope.”
I put my quill aside and rose. Suddenly the stench of the hold and the proximity of this savage were unbearable. “Yes, I knew him,” I grated. “I knew him to be the best of us. I knew he would be the greatest Emperor this land has ever seen. But that’s not the reason for my hate, Northman. I hate you because I knew the Hope as my friend, and you killed him.”
I stalked away, climbing the steps to the main deck, wishing for the first time in my life that I could be a warrior, that my arms were thick with muscle and my heart hard as stone, that I could wield a sword and take bloody vengeance. But such things were beyond me. My body was trim but not strong, my wits quick but not ruthless. I was no warrior. So there would be no vengeance for me. All I could do for my friend was witness the death of his killer and write the formal end to his story for the pleasure of my Emperor and the eternal truth of our archive.
I stayed on the deck for hours, leaning on the rail, watching the green-tinged waters of the north Alpiran coast deepen into the blue of the inner Erinean Sea as the ship’s bosun beat the drum for the oarsmen and our journey began. Once clear of the coast the captain ordered the mainsail unfurled and our speed increased, the sharp prow of the vessel cutting through the gentle swell, the figurehead, a traditional Meldenean carving of the winged serpent, one of their innumerable sea gods, dipping its many-toothed head amidst a haze of spume. The oarsmen rowed for two hours before the bosun called a rest and they shipped oars, trooping off to their meal. The day watch stayed on deck, running the rigging and undertaking the never-ending chores of ship life. A few favoured me with a customary glare or two, but none attempted to converse, a mercy for which I was grateful.
We were several leagues from the harbour when they came into view, black fins knifing through the swell, heralded by a cheerful shout from the crow’s nest. “Orcas!”
I couldn’t tell how many there were, they moved too fast and too fluidly through the sea, occasionally breaking the surface to spout a cloud of steam before diving below. It was only when they came closer that I fully realised their size, over twenty feet from nose to tail. I had seen dolphins before in the southern seas, silvery, playful creatures that could be taught simple tricks. These were different, their size and the dark, flickering shadows they traced through the water seemed ominous to me, threatening shades of nature’s indifferent cruelty. My shipmates clearly felt differently, yelling greetings from the rigging as if hailing old friends. Even the captain’s habitual scowl seemed to have softened somewhat.
One of the orcas broke the surface in a spectacular display of foam, twisting in midair before crashing into the sea with a boom that shook the ship. The Meldeneans roared their appreciation. Oh Seliesen, I thought. The poem you would have written to honour such a sight.
“They think of them as sacred.” I turned to find that the Hope Killer had joined me at the rail. “They say when a Meldenean dies at sea the orcas will carry his spirit to the endless ocean beyond the edge of the world.”
“Superstition,” I sniffed.
“Your people have their gods, do they not?”
“My people do, I do not. Gods are a myth, a comforting story for children.”
“Such words would make you welcome in my homeland.”
“We are not in your homeland, Northman. Nor would I ever wish to be.”
Another orca rose from the sea, rising fully ten feet into the air before plunging back down. “It’s strange,” Al Sorna mused. “When our ships came across this sea the orcas ignored them and made only for the Meldeneans. Perhaps they share the same belief.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “Or perhaps they appreciate a free meal.” I nodded at the prow, where the captain was throwing salmon into the sea, the orcas swooping on them faster than I could follow.
“Why are you here, Lord Verniers?” Al Sorna asked. “Why did the Emperor send you? You’re no gaoler.”
“The Emperor graciously consented to my request to witness your upcoming duel. And to accompany the Lady Emeren home of course.”
“You came to see me die.”
“I came to write an account of this event for the Imperial Archive. I am the Imperial Chronicler after all.”
“So they told me. Gerish, my gaoler, was a great admirer of your history of the war with my people, considered it the finest work in Alpiran literature. He knew a lot for a man who spends his life in a dungeon. He would sit outside my cell for hours reading out page after page, especially the battles, he liked those.”
“Accurate research is the key to the historian’s art.”
“Then it’s a pity you got it so wrong.”
Once again I found myself wishing for a warrior’s strength. “Wrong?”
“I see. Perhaps if you work your savage’s brain, you could tell me which sections were so very wrong.”
“Oh, you got the small things right, mostly. Except you said my command was the Legion of the Wolf. In fact it was the Thirty-fifth Regiment of Foot, known amongst the Realm Guard as the Wolfrunners.”
“I’ll be sure to rush out a revised edition on my return to the capital,” I said dryly.
He closed his eyes, remembering. “ ‘King Janus’s invasion of the northern coast was but the first step in pursuance of his greater ambition, the annexation of the entire Empire.’ ”
It was a verbatim recitation. I was impressed by his memory, but was damned if I’d say so. “A simple statement of fact. You came here to steal the Empire. Janus was a madman to think such a scheme could succeed.”
Al Sorna shook his head. “We came for the northern coastal ports. Janus wanted the trade routes through the Erinean. And he was no madman. He was old and desperate, but not mad.”
I was surprised at the sympathy evident in his voice; Janus was the great betrayer after all, it was part of the Hope Killer’s legend. “And how do you know the man’s mind so well?”
“He told me.”
“Told you?” I laughed. “I wrote a thousand letters of enquiry to every ambassador and Realm official I could think of. The few who bothered to reply all agreed on one thing: Janus never confided his plans to anyone, not even his family.”
“And yet you claim he wanted to conquer your whole Empire.”
“A reasonable deduction based on the available evidence.”
“Reasonable, maybe, but wrong. Janus had a king’s heart, hard and cold when he needed it to be. But he wasn’t greedy and he was no dreamer. He knew the Realm could never muster the men and treasure needed to conquer your Empire. We came for the ports. He said it was the only way we could secure our future.”
“Why would he confide such intelligence to you?”
“We had . . . an arrangement. He told me many things he would tell no other. Some of his commands required an explanation before I would obey them. But sometimes I think he just needed to talk to someone. Even kings get lonely.”
I felt a curious sense of seduction; the Northman knew I hungered for the information he could give me. My respect for him grew, as did my dislike. He was using me, he wanted me to write the story he had to tell. Quite why I had no idea. I knew it was something to do with Janus and the duel he would fight in the Islands. Perhaps he needed to unburden himself before his end, leave a legacy of truth so he would be known to history as more than just the Hope Killer. A final attempt to redeem both his spirit and that of his dead king.
I let the silence string out, watching the orcas until they had eaten their fill of free fish and departed to the east. Finally, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon and the shadows grew long, I said, “So tell me.”