Legacy of Ash is an epic tale of war and revolution, packed with vicious intrigue, ancient magic and a host of memorable characters – an unmissable fantasy debut from an exciting new British talent.
Wind howled along the marcher road. Icy rain swirled behind.
Katya hung low over her horse’s neck. Galloping strides jolted weary bones and set the fire in her side blazing anew. Sodden reins sawed at her palms. She blotted out the pain. Closed her ears to the harsh raven-song and ominous thunder. There was only the road, the dark silhouette of Eskavord’s rampart, and the anger. Anger at the Council, for forcing her hand. At herself for thinking there’d ever been a chance.
Lightning split grey skies. Katya glanced behind. Josiri was a dark shape, his steed straining to keep pace with hers. That eased the burden. She’d lost so much when the phoenix banner had fallen. But she’d not lose her son.
Nor her daughter.
Eskavord’s gate guard scattered without challenge. Had they recognised her, or simply fled the naked steel in her hand? Katya didn’t care. The way was open.
In the shadow of jettied houses, sodden men and women loaded sparse possessions onto cart and dray. Children wailed in confusion. Dogs fought for scraps in the gutter. Of course word had reached Eskavord. Grim tidings ever outpaced the good.
You did this.
Katya stifled her conscience and spurred on through the tangled streets of Highgate.
Her horse forced a path through the crowds. The threat of her sword held the desperate at bay. Yesterday, she’d have felt safe within Eskavord’s walls. Today she was a commodity to be traded for survival, if any had the wit to realise the prize within their grasp.
Thankfully, such wits were absent in Eskavord. That, or else no one recognised Katya as the dowager duchess Trelan. The Phoenix of prophecy.
No, not that. Katya was free of that delusion. It had cost too many lives, but she was free of it. She was not the Phoenix whose fires would cleanse the Southshires. She’d believed – Lumestra, how she’d believed – but belief alone did not change the world. Only deeds did that, and hers had fallen short.
The cottage came into view. Firestone lanterns shone upon its gable. Elda had kept the faith. Even at the end of the world, friends remained true.
Katya slid from the saddle and landed heavily on cobbles. Chainmail’s broken links gouged her bloodied flesh.
Josiri brought his steed to a halt in a spray of water. His hood was back, his blond hair plastered to his scalp.
She shook her head, hand warding away scrutiny. “It’s nothing. Stay here. I’ll not be long.”
He nodded. Concern remained, but he knew better than to question. He’d grown into a dependable young man. Obedient. Loyal. Katya wished his father could have seen him thus. The two were so much alike. Josiri would make a fine duke, if he lived to see his seventeenth year.
She sheathed her sword and marched for the front door. Timbers shuddered under her gauntleted fist. “Elda? Elda! It’s me.”
A key turned. The door opened. Elda Savka stood on the threshold, her face sagging with relief. “My lady. When the rider came from Zanya, I feared the worst.”
“The army is gone.”
Elda paled. “Lumestra preserve us.”
“The Council emptied the chapterhouses against us.”
“I thought the masters of the orders had sworn to take no side.”
“A knight’s promise is not what it was, and the Council nothing if not persuasive.” Katya closed her eyes, lost in the shuddering ground and brash clarions of recent memory. And the screams, most of all. “One charge, and we were lost.”
“What of Josiri? Taymor?”
“Josiri is with me. My brother is taken. He may already be dead.” Either way, he was beyond help. “Is Calenne here?”
“Yes, and ready to travel. I knew you’d come.”
“I have no choice. The Council . . . ”
She fell silent as a girl appeared at the head of the staircase, her sapphire eyes alive with suspicion. Barely six years old, and she had the wit to know something was amiss. “Elda, what’s happening?”
“Your mother is here, Calenne,” said Elda. “You must go with her.”
“Are you coming?”
The first sorrow touched Elda’s brow. “No.”
Calenne descended the stairs, expression still heavy with distrust. Katya stooped to embrace her daughter. She hoped Calenne’s thin body stiffened at the cold and wet, and not revulsion for a woman she barely knew. From the first, Katya had thought it necessary to send Calenne away, to live shielded from the Council’s sight. So many years lost. All for nothing.
Katya released Calenne from her embrace and turned wearily to Elda. “Thank you. For everything.”
The other woman forced a wintery smile. “Take care of her.”
Katya caught a glint of something darker beneath the smile. It lingered in Elda’s eyes. A hardness. Another friendship soured by folly? Perhaps. It no longer mattered. “Until my last breath. Calenne?”
The girl flung her arms around Elda. She said nothing, but the tears on her cheeks told a tale all their own.
Elda pushed her gently away. “You must go, dear heart.”
A clarion sounded, its brash notes cleaving through the clamour of the storm. An icy hand closed around Katya’s heart. She’d run out of time.
Elda met her gaze. Urgency replaced sorrow. “Go! While you still can!”
Katya stooped and gathered Calenne. The girl’s chest shook with thin sobs, but she offered no resistance. With a last glance at Elda, Katya set out into the rain once more. The clarion sounded again as she reached Josiri. His eyes were more watchful than ever, his sword ready in his hands.
“They’re here,” he said.
Katya heaved Calenne up to sit in front of her brother. She looked like a doll beside him, every day of the decade that separated them on full display.
“Look after your sister. If we’re separated, ride hard for the border.”
His brow furrowed. “To the Hadari? Mother . . . ”
“The Hadari will treat you better than the Council.” He still had so much to learn, and she no more time in which to teach him. “When enemies are your only recourse, choose the one with the least to gain. Promise me.”
She received a reluctant nod in reply.
Satisfied, Katya clambered into her saddle and spurred west along the broad cobbles of Highgate. They’d expect her to take refuge in Branghall Manor, or at least strip it of anything valuable ahead of the inevitable looting. But the western gateway might still be clear.
The first cry rang out as they rejoined the road. “She’s here!”
A blue-garbed wayfarer cantered through the crowd, rain scattering from leather pauldrons. Behind, another set a buccina to his lips. A brash rising triad hammered out through the rain and found answer in the streets beyond. The pursuit’s vanguard had reached Eskavord. Lightly armoured riders to harry and delay while heavy knights closed the distance. Katya drew her sword and wheeled her horse about. “Make for the west gate!”
Josiri hesitated, then lashed his horse to motion. “Yah!”
Katya caught one last glimpse of Calenne’s pale, dispassionate face. Then they were gone, and the horseman upon her.
The wayfarer was half her age, little more than a boy and eager for the glory that might earn a knight’s crest. Townsfolk scattered from his path. He goaded his horse to the gallop, sword held high in anticipation of the killing blow to come. He’d not yet learned that the first blow seldom mattered as much as the last.
Katya’s parry sent a shiver down her arm. The wayfarer’s blade scraped clear, the momentum of his charge already carrying him past. Then he was behind, hauling on the reins. The sword came about, the killing stroke aimed at Katya’s neck.
Her thrust took the younger man in the chest. Desperate strength drove the blade between his ribs. The hawk of the Tressian Council turned dark as the first blood stained the rider’s woollen tabard. Then he slipped from his saddle, sword clanging against cobbles. With one last, defiant glare at the buccinator, Katya turned her steed about, and galloped through the narrow streets after her children.
She caught them at the bridge, where the waters of the Grelyt River fell away into the boiling millrace. They were not alone.
One wayfarer held the narrow bridge, blocking Josiri’s path. A second closed from behind him, sword drawn. A third lay dead on the cobbles, horse already vanished into the rain.
Josiri turned his steed in a circle. He had one arm tight about his sister. The other hand held a bloody sword. The point trembled as it swept back and forth between his foes, daring them to approach.
Katya thrust back her heels. Her steed sprang forward.
Her sword bit into the nearest wayfarer’s spine. Heels jerked as he fell back. His steed sprang away into the streets. The corpse, one booted foot tangled in its stirrups, dragged along behind.
Katya rode on past Josiri. Steel clashed, once, twice, and then the last wayfarer was gone. His body tipped over the low stone parapet and into the rushing waters below.
Josiri trotted close, his face studiously calm. Katya knew better. He’d not taken a life before today.
Pain stemmed Katya’s denial. A glance revealed rainwater running red across her left hand. She also felt a wound high on her shoulder. The last wayfarer’s parting gift, lost in the desperation of the moment.
The clarion came yet again. A dozen wayfarers spurred down the street. A plate-clad knight rode at their head, his destrier caparisoned in silver- flecked black. Not the heraldry of a knightly chapterhouse, but a family of the first rank. His sword – a heavy, fennlander’s claymore – rested in its scabbard. A circular shield sat slung across his back.
The greys of the rain-sodden town lost their focus. Katya tightened her grip on the reins. She flexed the fingers of her left hand. They felt distant, as if belonging to someone else. Her shoulder ached, fit company for the dull roar in her side – a memento of the sword-thrust she’d taken on the ridge at Zanya. Weariness crowded in, the faces of the dead close behind.
The world lurched. Katya grasped at the bridle with her good hand. Focus returned at the cost of her sword, which fell onto the narrow roadway.
So that was how the matter lay?
So be it.
“Go,” she breathed. “See to your sister’s safety. I’ll hold them.”
Josiri spurred closer, the false calm giving way to horror. “Mother, no!”
Calenne looked on with impassive eyes.
“I can’t ride.” Katya dropped awkwardly from her saddle and stooped to reclaim her sword. The feel of the grips beneath her fingers awoke new determination. “Leave me.”
“No. We’re getting out of here. All of us.” He reached out. “You can ride with me.”
The tremor beneath his tone revealed the truth. His horse was already weary. What stamina remained would not long serve two riders, let alone three.
Katya glanced down the street. There’d soon be nothing left to argue over. She understood Josiri’s reluctance, for it mirrored her own. To face a parting now, with so much unsaid . . . ? But a lifetime would not be enough to express her pride, nor to warn against repeating her mistakes. He’d have to find his own way now.
“Do you love me so little that you’d make me beg?” She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Accept this last gift and remember me well. Go.”
Josiri gave a sharp nod, his lips a pale sliver. His throat bobbed. Then he turned his horse.
Katya dared not watch as her children galloped away, fearful that Josiri would read the gesture as a change of heart.
“Lumestra’s light shine for you, my son,” she whispered.
A slap to her horse’s haunch sent it whinnying into the oncoming wayfarers. They scattered, fighting for control over startled steeds.
Katya took up position at the bridge’s narrow crest, her sword point-down at her feet in challenge. She’d no illusions about holding the wayfarers. It would cost them little effort to ride straight over her, had they the stomach for it. But the tightness of the approach offered a slim chance.
The knight raised a mailed fist. The pursuers halted a dozen yards from the bridge’s mouth. Two more padded out from the surrounding alleys. Not horsemen, but the Council’s simarka – bronze constructs forged in the likeness of lions and given life by a spark of magic. Prowling statues that hunted the Council’s enemies. Katya swore under her breath. Her sword was useless against such creatures. A blacksmith’s hammer would have served her better. She’d lost too many friends to those claws to believe otherwise.
“Lady Trelan.” The knight’s greeting boomed like thunder. “The Council demands your surrender.”
“Viktor Akadra.” Katya made no attempt to hide her bitterness. “Did your father not tell you? I do not recognise the Council’s authority.”
The knight dismounted, the hem of his jet- black surcoat trailing in the rain. He removed his helm. Swarthy, chiselled features stared out from beneath a thatch of black hair. A young face, though one already confident far beyond its years.
He’d every reason to be so. Even without the armour, without the entourage of weary wayfarers – without her wounds – Akadra would have been more than her match. He stood a full head taller than she – half a head taller than any man she’d known.
“There has been enough suffering today.” His tone matched his expression perfectly. Calm. Confident. Unyielding. He gestured, and the simarka sat, one to either side. Motionless. Watchful. “Let’s not add to the tally.”
“Then turn around, Lord Akadra. Leave me be.”
Lips parted in something not entirely a smile. “You will stand before the Council and submit to judgement.”
Katya knew what that meant. The humiliation of a show trial, arraigned as warning to any who’d follow in her footsteps and dare seek freedom for the Southshires. Then they’d parade her through the streets, her last dignity stripped away long before the gallows took her final breath. She’d lost a husband to that form of justice. She’d not suffer it herself.
“I’ll die first.”
Again, that damnable confidence. But her duty was clear.
Katya let the anger rise, as she had on the road. Its fire drove back the weariness, the pain, the fear for her children. Those problems belonged to the future, not the moment at hand. She was a daughter of the Southshires, the dowager duchess Trelan. She would not yield. The wound in Katya’s side blazed as she surged forward. The alchemy of rage transmuted agony to strength and lent killing weight to the two-handed blow.
Akadra’s sword scraped free of its scabbard. Blades clashed with a banshee screech. Lips parted in a snarl of surprise, he gave ground through the hissing rain.
Katya kept pace, right hand clamped over the failing left to give it purpose and guide it true. She hammered at Akadra’s guard, summoning forth the lessons of girlhood to the bleak present. The forms of the sword her father had drilled into her until they flowed with the grace of a thrush’s song and the power of a mountain river. Those lessons had kept her alive on the ridge at Zanya. They would not fail her now.
The wayfarers made no move to interfere.
But Akadra was done retreating.
Boots planted on the cobbles like the roots of some venerable, weather-worn oak, he checked each strike with grace that betrayed tutelage no less exacting than Katya’s own. The claymore blurred across grey skies and battered her longsword aside.
The fire in Katya’s veins turned sluggish. Cold and failing flesh sapped her purpose. Too late, she recognised the game Akadra had played. She’d wearied herself on his defences, and all the while her body had betrayed her.
Summoning her last strength, Katya hurled herself forward. A cry born of pain and desperation ripped free of her lips.
Again the claymore blurred to parry. The longsword’s tip scraped past the larger blade, ripping into Akadra’s cheek. He twisted away with a roar of pain.
Hooves sounded on cobbles. The leading wayfarers spurred forward, swords drawn to avenge their master’s humiliation. The simarka, given no leave to advance, simply watched unfolding events with feline curiosity.
Katya’s hands tightened on her sword. She’d held longer than she’d believed possible. She hoped Josiri had used the time well.
Akadra checked the wayfarers’ advance with a single bellow. The left side of his face masked in blood, he turned his attention on Katya once more. He clasped a closed fist to his chest. Darkness gathered about his fingers like living shadow.
Katya’s world blurred, its colours swirling away into an unseen void.
Her knee cracked against the cobbles. A hand slipped from her sword, fingers splayed to arrest her fall. Wisps of blood curled through pooling rainwater. She knelt there, gasping for breath, one ineluctable truth screaming for attention.
The rumours about Akadra were true.
The shadow dispersed as Akadra strode closer. The wayfarers had seen none of it, Katya realised – or had at least missed the significance. Otherwise, Akadra would have been as doomed as she. The Council would tolerate much from its loyal sons, but not witchcraft.
Colour flooded back. Akadra’s sword dipped to the cobbles. His bloodied face held no triumph. Somehow that was worse.
“It’s over.” For the first time, his expression softened. “This is not the way, Katya. It never was. Surrender. Your wounds will be tended. You’ll be treated with honour.”
“Honour?” The word was ash on Katya’s tongue. “Your father knows nothing of honour.”
“It is not my father who makes the offer.” He knelt, one gauntleted hand extended. “Please. Give me your sword.”
Katya stared down at the cobbles, at her life’s blood swirling away into the gutter. Could she trust him? A lifetime of emissaries and missives from the north had bled her people dry to feed a pointless war. Viktor’s family was part of that, and so he was part of it. If his promise was genuine, he’d no power to keep it. The Council would never let it stand. The shame of the gallows path beckoned.
“You want my sword?” she growled.
Katya rose from her knees, her last effort channelled into one final blow.
Akadra’s hand, so lately extended in conciliation, wrenched the sluggish blade from her grasp. He let his own fall alongside. Tugged off balance, Katya fell to her hands and knees. Defenceless. Helpless.
No. Not helpless. Never that.
She forced herself upright. There was no pain. No weariness. Just calm. Was this how Kevor had felt at the end? Before the creak of the deadman’s drop had set her husband swinging? Trembling fingers closed around a dagger’s hilt.
“My son will finish what I started.”
The dagger rasped free, Katya’s right hand again closing over her left.
“No!” Akadra dived forward. His hands reached for hers, his sudden alarm lending weight to his promises.
Katya rammed the dagger home. Chain links parted. She felt no pain as the blade slipped between her ribs. There was only a sudden giddiness as the last of her burdens fell away into mist.
* * *
Josiri held Calenne close through the clamour. Screams. Buccina calls. Galloping hooves. Barked orders. Josiri longed for the thunder’s return. Bravery came easier in moments when the angry sky drowned all else.
The church spire passed away to his left. Desperate townsfolk crowded its lychpath, seeking sanctuary behind stone walls. People filled the streets beyond. Some wore council blue, most the sea-grey of Eskavord’s guard, and too many the garb of ordinary folk caught in between.
Ravens scattered before Josiri’s straining horse. He glanced down at the girl in his charge. His sister she may have been, but Calenne was a stranger. She sat in silence, not a tear on her cheeks. He didn’t know how she held herself together so. It was all he could do not to fall apart.
A pair of wayfarers emerged from an alleyway, their approach masked by the booming skies. Howling with courage he didn’t feel, Josiri hacked at the nearest. The woman slumped across her horse’s neck. Josiri rowelled his mare, leaving the outpaced survivor snarling at the rain.
More wayfarers waited at the next junction, their horses arrayed in a loose line beneath overhanging eaves. The town wall loomed through the rain. The west gate was so close. Two streets away, no more.
A glance behind revealed a wayfarer galloping in pursuit. A pair of simarka loped alongside. Verdigrised claws struck sparks from the cobbles.
To turn back was to be taken, a rat in a trap. The certainty of it left Josiri no room for doubt. Onward was the only course.
“Hold tight to me,” he told Calenne, “and don’t let go.”
Thin arms redoubled their grip. Josiri drove back his heels.
Time slowed, marked out by the pounding of hooves and the beat of a fearful heart. Steel glinted. Horses whinnied as wayfarers hauled on their reins.
“For the Southshires!”
The battle cry fed Josiri’s resolve. The widening of the nearest wayfarer’s eyes gave him more. They were as afraid of him as he of them. Maybe more, for was his mother not the Phoenix of prophecy?
Time quickened. Josiri’s sword blurred. A wayfarer spun away in a bloody spray. And then Josiri was through the line, his horse’s greedy stride gobbling the last distance to the west gate. The mare barely slowed at the next corner. Her hooves skidded on the rain-slicked cobbles.
Calenne screamed – not with terror, but in wild joy – and then the danger was past, and the west gate was in sight.
The portcullis was down, its iron teeth sunk deep. A line of tabarded soldiery blocked the roadway and the branching alleyways to either side. Halberds lowered. Shields locked tight together, a flock of white hawk blazons on a wall of rich king’s blue. Wayfarers filled the street behind.
Thunder roared, its fury echoing through the hole where Josiri’s heart should have been. He’d failed. Perhaps he’d never had a chance.
“Everything will be all right.” He hoped the words sounded more convincing to Calenne than they did to him. “Mother will come.”
Calenne stared up at him with all the earnestness of youth. “Mother’s already dead.”
Spears pressed in. An officer’s voice bellowed orders through the rain. Josiri gazed down into his sister’s cold, unblinking eyes, and felt more alone than ever.