Legacy of Steel is the spectacular sequel to Matthew Ward’s acclaimed epic fantasy debut, Legacy of Ash – an unmissable tale of war and intrigue that combines the imagination of George R. R. Martin with the gritty historical realism of Bernard Cornwell.
The moon blazed in the field of stars and the royal city of Tregard reached up to embrace her. Filigree patterns laid into flagstone and wall glowed bright with whorl of root and branch, supplanting the blocky buildings of day with a silver forest whose limbs offered worship to regal Ashana.
A goddess who no longer spoke to Melanna Saranal as once she had. Melanna released her grip on the balcony and strove for joy amidst melancholy. No room for sorrow this night. By dawn, everything for which she’d striven would be hers. No longer a mere princessa of the Silver Kingdom of Rhaled, but recognised heir to the imperial throne – the first woman acclaimed so.
But the cost . . .
Storeys below, crowds gathered beneath skeletal birch trees. Tregard had emptied for this moment. Despite the hour. Despite winter’s lingering cold. Thousands upon thousands of citizens gathered beneath Mooncourt Temple’s alabaster walls, standing vigil until the toll of twelfth bell proclaimed a worthy soul had claimed the imperial crown.
Gentle hands bound the last black tress of Melanna’s hair with jewelled chain.
“Ashanal. The hour is upon us.”
“Thank you, Sera.” Melanna gazed out across the shining city to Ravenscourt Temple’s brooding spires. The black stone lay ever in shadow, unyielding as the promise of death, and implacable as the embrace of Otherworld’s mists. “I wanted to see the city one last time. We’ll never be quite the same, it and I.”
“You will bring it only prosperity, Ashanal.”
Ashanal. The title that marked her as a daughter of goddess as well as Emperor. Fit for one who’d walked with Ashana since her earliest years. But no more. Not since Melanna had allowed a scion of Dark to escape her grasp. She longed to hear Ashana’s voice. She’d begged. But the silence in her prayers had stretched through the turning of leaves and the harsh bite of winter.
Melanna set her back on Tregard’s splendour. Always so hard to read Sera’s expression behind the silver half-mask that left all but her eyes and the olive skin of her jaw concealed. Melanna couldn’t even be certain of the handmaiden’s age. Sera’s ready vigour spoke to youth, perhaps as brief a tally as Melanna’s own nineteen winters. Indeed, in complexion and build they were twins. But the poise Melanna envied belonged to a greater span.
What would Sera say if she knew the truth? She was lunassera, handmaiden to the Goddess, driven to serve Melanna by faith more than friendship. But Sera remained inscrutable, and Melanna found, once again, that she couldn’t raise herself to the confession.
A bright peal rang out. The eighth bell of coronation ritual, welcoming dignitaries into the temple’s heart. The ninth would call Melanna to her father’s side. The eleventh would invite the Goddess to grant her blessing. It had gone unanswered for decades out of mind.
Sera stepped aside in a swish of close-fitting white robes and drew aside the balcony’s drape with graceful precision.
“Come, Ashanal. Even for royalty, punctuality is politeness.”
Melanna returned Sera’s smile, though she shared little of its warmth. She crossed the threshold, exchanging the crisp silver of the midnight sky for the glow of torchlight. Sera followed with soundless tread, pulling closed the drapes and the etched glass door.
Two mannequins waited between hearth and changing screen. Melanna traced fingertips across the golden scales of the nearest, the scars of battle long since repaired. The armour alone was challenge to tradition, but not so much as the sword belt laid alongside. Though they were otherwise equal to men in all things, women did not fight wars. They did not bear swords – not even a divine gift, as was the Goddess’ silvered blade – and because of that, could not rule. On the second mannequin, the threads of a golden gown shone like sunlight – as different from the black cotton dress she currently wore as night from day. Armour of a different sort, worn to draw attention to the wearer’s body, and thus guard her thoughts.
The warrior or the courtier. Wearing armour to her father’s coronation would be affront to tradition and the pride of jealous men. The dress was conciliatory – proof that the upstart Saranal had not completely forgotten her place.
Her father would prefer she don the dress. Soothe the feathers of a Golden Court ruffled by his wary acceptance of peace overtures from the Tressian Republic. The panelled gown was entirely beautiful, crafted from Ithna’jîm silk, and radiant with a magic of a type not practised in the sprawling kingdoms of Empire.
The armour bore old memories of rash decisions poorly made. Its presence beneath the last night of full moon would sour events.
Chimes broke out high above. Ninth bell, calling the heir to the sanctum.
The warrior or the courtier. As Empress, she’d one day have to be both. Today, the path was clear. She reached for the gown.
* * *
Brash trumpets split the air. Melanna began her descent of the long, marble stair towards the grassy mound and the triad of birch trees. Anticipation shivered bare skin at the base of her neck, quickened by the air’s crisp, sweet scent. Only the stoniest heart roamed the cloister’s open skies and felt nothing.
Beneath the largest tree, a simple stone block sat bathed in moonlight. The first altar at which the Goddess’ praises were intoned, or so legend told. Simple too was the circlet atop it. The first Emperor, Hadar Saran, had died in the Sceadotha’s dungeons, but the crown endured. Flesh withered and blood faded, Emperors came and went, but the crown abided. It was the Empire.
And it was all Melanna had ever desired. The crown, and what it meant for her to wear it.
A knot of Immortals stood on the root- woven path to the sunken sanctum gate, resplendent in emerald silks and golden scales; swords drawn against those who would disturb the meditations of the Emperor-to-be. Nearer, on the shore of the pool that made an island of the sanctum mound, a ring of temple wardens, garbed in brilliant white, and their long spears held at guard.
Melanna pressed on, neither too hurriedly nor too slow. She strove to ignore the murmurs and widening eyes from balconies set in concentric tiers above the cloister. Kings, princes and clan chiefs called from across the league-strewn Empire to acclaim one among their number more equal than the rest. Men of Rhaled, Corvant, Britonis, Silsaria and others. Representatives of the Gwyraya Hadar, the great kingdoms of Empire, and the client realms under their sway. In garb and feature, they were as varied as fallen leaves in autumn. But women had no place here, save as servants or celebrants.
Certainly not as heir.
How many murmured with awe at her splendour? How many with disgust because she wore her sword at her back, the woven links of its belt crosswise at right shoulder to left hip? Melanna stifled a smile. She hadn’t left the warrior behind entirely. Better to remind her peers who she really was. That despite the soft promise offered by silk and the gossamer chains binding her hair, she was their equal. No, their better.
The chimes of tenth bell swept the courtyard. Conversation fell silent. The bare branches of the birch trees rippled gently in the cool breeze.
A second fanfare heralded Melanna’s arrival at the base of the stair. Head bowed in respect, she awaited the high priestess’ approach.
White robes brilliant in the moonlight, the old woman made stately procession over the narrow latticework bridge. Wardens crossed spears behind her, barring Melanna’s final approach to the sanctum mound.
“Why have you come?”
The priestess’ words were ritual. Scowl and unfavourable tone were not. Disgust that the heir was a woman, or because that woman bore a sword?
“To guide my Emperor out of Dark, and into Ashana’s light.” Melanna let her voice blossom, acoustics folding echoes beneath the words. “As a daughter will one day do for me.”
Fresh murmur broke out on the balconies. To the Golden Court, the Dark was ritual and history. An enemy overcome long ago, first by Ashana’s radiant sister, and once again – in the form of the Sceadotha – by Hadar Saran’s allies. But Melanna had walked within it. She’d carried the Goddess’ fire against it. And at the end, she’d failed.
None of the sourness left the priestess’ tone, but she persevered. “May the Goddess walk with you in the Dark.”
She stepped aside. Spears parted.
Melanna crossed the bridge. She gave ritual bow to the Immortals, and their golden wall split apart before her coming. Beyond, the stone pathway diverged, the upper fork arriving at altar and crown, the lower at the sanctum’s birchwood gate. Offering a bow to the former, Melanna took the latter, passing beneath the woven arch.
Once the double leaves of the gateway were behind, and Melanna deep in the sanctum’s gloom, she allowed the mask of unconcern to slip and her stride to quicken. The soft, damp fragrance of soil thickened as breathing shallowed. White crystals glimmered in the root- woven ceiling, shaping passageways and revealing shimmering insects scurrying across loose soil.
At last, the passageway widened into a broad chamber, dominated by a statue of Ashana – though the likeness little matched that of the Goddess who had guided Melanna since girlhood. Two Immortals flanked the Goddess. And before the statue, Kai Saran, Prince of the Silver Kingdom of Rhaled and scion of Emperors past, stood in silent contemplation, eyes closed and expression unreadable above a neat, greying beard.
Melanna knelt. “My prince. You are called to coronation.”
He spoke without turning. “And who calls me?”
“The one . . . ” She swallowed to ease a throat suddenly parched. “The one who will follow.”
Though the words were part of the ritual, they felt impudent. Presumptive. Had her father felt thus addressing her grandsire? How would she feel to one day be reminded that her fate was to die so that another might rule? Proud, or resentful? What governed her father’s humours? They’d argued too often about this day for Melanna to be sure. She was the one to break tradition, but he’d made it possible. He’d be as notorious as she if affairs went ill.
“And will you serve me until that day? Will you guard my life with your own?”
“To my dying breath, my prince.”
Dark robes whispered against emerald- set golden scales. Dark eyes met hers. Expression rigid, he bore down, a mountain to her willow. The slight limp, a reminder of wounds that should have taken his life, little besmirched his grandeur. He swept back the dark folds of his woollen cloak and drew Melanna to her feet. Cheeks the colour of weathered teak cracked a smile. Then, uncaring he did so in full view of his Immortals, he drew her into an embrace.
“I shan’t ask you to obey, for I know you won’t,” he whispered. “But wherever the path leads from here, know that I am proud.”
Melanna sighed as her worries melted away. “Thank you, Father.”
“My prince,” he corrected. “Ritual must be observed.”
She pulled free and bobbed a rare curtsey. “Yes, my prince.”
“Better.” His lips twitched a smile. “Dagan? I am called to coronation. Announce me.”
The leftmost Immortal offered a deep bow and strode towards the passageway.
“Tell me,” said Melanna’s father. “How appalled are my peers?”
“Does it matter?” she replied bitterly. “They’re swine. Those who sneered to see me with a sword would gladly have entertained me without my gown.”
He grunted. “There are honourable men among them. And you will have to find one you can at least tolerate if this day is to mean anything.”
Could he not enjoy the moment without borrowing strife from the future? “A discussion better left for another hour, my prince.”
A rolling boom shook the chamber.
“The gates!” Dagan broke into a run and vanished into the root-woven passageway.
Melanna grasped at racing thoughts. “Tell me again of the honourable men in your court, Father.”
“They’d dare?” Her father drew his sword. “In the heart of the temple? In the Goddess’ sight?”
“Why not? They believe they do her work. They believe—”
A new sound rose in crescendo beneath the roots – a chorus of screeching crow-voices and thundering wings, growing ever louder. A sound she’d first heard months before at Tevar Flood and almost died for the privilege.
Kernclaw. She’d not known the name then, but she’d taken the trouble to learn it. An assassin lured from the shadows of the civilised world.
“Dagan!” she shouted.
A wet, tearing sound and a bellow of agony from the passageway cut through the squalling. The thump of a falling body. Harsh voices redoubled in fury. The chamber drowned in a rush of talons and beating wings.
The second Immortal vanished, overcome by the shadowy flock. Fresh screams rang out.
Across the chamber, corvine fragments coalesced into a hooded figure. One steel-taloned hand at the Immortal’s ravaged throat. The other against the torn and bloodied armour about his waist. Green eyes blazed beneath the ragged hood.
Melanna drew her sword. The Goddess’ sword. White flames sprang to life along the silvered blade. The shadow- flock parted with strident cry. Crows peeled away in panic.
Her father bellowed in pain. Melanna lunged to his side, bringing him within the safety of the firelight. She ignored the talons ripping at her hair, blotted the shrieking voices from her thoughts. Steel glinted within shadow. Metal scraped on metal. The weight vanished from her sword. Melanna’s flailing hand found soil and tangled roots.
Should’ve worn the armour. Not that armour had done Dagan or his fellow much good. And for all Melanna’s bitterness, she’d believed the temple safe ground, and the quarrels over the succession settled.
Honourable men. She’d teach them honour.
“What’s the matter, kernclaw?” Melanna shouted. “Afraid?”
Cruel laughter shook the chamber. “What a lioness! We should have charged more.”
Teeming bodies swamped everything beyond the sword’s light. The kernclaw could have been three paces away, or fled entirely.
Melanna glanced behind. Her father stood with his shoulder against the chamber’s roots. His sword- hand shook. His other pressed against the mess of torn scales and rushing blood at his flank. Already his robes were dark with it. His face was pale above his beard, tinged with greyish-green.
“Go,” he breathed. “Leave me.”
Melanna’s throat tightened. “No.”
“You can’t best him. Save yourself.”
“I guard your life to my dying breath.” A booming chorus shuddered through the gloom. Fists and shoulders thumping against the timber gate. “Your Immortals are coming. We need only reach them.”
And if that wasn’t enough? Better to face the kernclaw in the cloister. The confines of the sanctum only made the shadow more oppressive and the clamour deafening. In the open, those advantages would fade. Theirs would grow, swollen by loyal blades.
Her father’s face twisted. He lurched into the passageway. Melanna gripped her sword tight and followed.
The sanctum gate emerged from shadow. Barred from within, and with two temple wardens crumpled at its foot.
Crow-voices blossomed anew.
Melanna spun about and lashed out at a shape half-seen. Talons gleamed. She struck them aside. Her wild backswing slashed at green eyes. The kernclaw shrieked. Eyes vanished into shadow.
She found him slumped against the wall, blood speckling his lips and the sword at his feet. Gasping for breath, he allowed Melanna to brace her shoulder beneath his, the mountain borne forth by the willow, stride by staggering stride.
The shadows of the passageway thickened with crow-voices.
The chorus of hammer-blows gave way to a crash of abused timber. A tide of Immortals trampled the ruined gates. They flooded past with swords drawn, plunging into shadow without hesitation. Screams vied with the thunder of wings.
Back arched beneath her father’s weight, Melanna lurched for the open air.
“Melanna . . . ”
He slid away as the first moonlight touched Melanna’s face. She lowered him beside the altar. His fingers slipped from hers, leaving bloodied trails on golden silk.
She knelt and clutched his hand. Skirts clung to her legs, warm with his blood.
Uproar overtook the balconies as kings and princes descended into confusion. Some scrambled for the stairs, swords drawn and outrage on their lips. Others stared, frozen by events. One alone, resplendent in scarlet silks and the serpent of Icansae, reached the far neck of the bridge, steel naked in his hand, and two of his own Immortals at his back. Too distant to offer aid. The priestess who had so meanly welcomed Melanna stood immobile a few paces beyond.
Eleventh bell tolled, the distant bell ringers unaware that the ritual of coronation lay savaged beyond repair.
The last scream faltered. The sanctum’s empty gateway filled with shadow.
“Is this how the line of Saran fades?” The kernclaw’s mockery billowed. “In desperate flight? With wounds behind to mark its cowardice?”
Melanna let her father’s hand fall. She stood, her sire’s shuddering breaths to her back and the Goddess’ sword steady in her hands.
“You will not take him.” Her body shook to the words. Not the cold of fear, but anger’s searing flame. “Not while I live.”
“The commission was always for both.”
There it was. A truth known from the first. Her father died for loving her more than tradition.
She levelled the sword. “Dead men claim no coins.”
“And slain princessas no crowns.” Was his breathing at last ragged, or did Melanna hear only her own wild hopes? “I am of death, and you are nothing but a girl who clings to moonlight.”
Melanna drew up to her full height. “I am a princessa who commands it.”
With a screech of triumph, the crow-flock spread like monstrous wings.
A horn sounded. Not a trumpet, but the deep, breathy notes of a hunter’s salute, strident and sonorous. Then hoofbeats, quickened to the gallop.
Mist spilled beneath bare branches, and a shape coalesced behind. A rider with an antlered helm, and a cloak streaming like smoke. The white stag he rode as steed was more suggestion that substance, flesh and blood only when moonlight brushed its flanks. The head of his long spear blazed with starlight.
Melanna’s heart skipped.
The crow-flock screeched, shadow scattering before starlight. The spear-point ripped into the kernclaw’s chest and pinned him screaming to the bloodied soil.
The rider released the spear and wheeled about. His eyes met Melanna’s, green as the kernclaw’s were green, but vibrant where those of the crow-born promised only death.
He winded his horn once more. The thickening mist blazed. A pale woman in a shimmering gown stood beneath the trees. Another, a stranger to Melanna, stood close attendance, her skin shining silver.
Eleventh bell had sounded, and the Goddess Ashana had come.
The sword slipped from Melanna’s hand. Fire faded as it struck the grass.
Moonlight ebbed. The cloister fell silent at a sight lost to living memory. Kings and princes who would have died rather than pay homage to a woman knelt in silent reverence.
The Huntsman twisted the spear in the kernclaw’s chest. Shadows parted at the accompanying scream. All was moonlight and mist.
Ashana strode past the corpse without a glance and enfolded Melanna in embrace.
“Forgive my lateness. I have been away too long.”
Shame and joy mingled in Melanna’s heart. Shame for what had driven them apart, and joy at beholding her once again. “I failed you. I’m sorry.”
Ashana stepped away and bowed her head, straw-blonde tresses falling to frame her face. “The failure was mine. I have been timid, too afraid of taking action. No more. Do they still call you my daughter?”
“Some do, Goddess.”
“Ashana.” She delivered the rebuke with a soft smile. “Always Ashana.”
Melanna scowled away discomfort. The Goddess seldom enjoyed being named such. Indeed, she sometimes claimed not to be a goddess at all. “I beg you, save my father.”
“Those who would rule should never beg.”
“Then I ask.”
The smile faded. “Elspeth?”
The attendant drew close. Lustrous silver complexion turned dull as she slipped into the shadow of the trees. A slender woman, she was in aspect no older than Melanna, and like to the Goddess in all ways save ash-blonde hair cropped close.
She leaned near, her cold grey eyes but inches away.
“You’d have done better to guard him closer,” she whispered. “Such a disappointment. How can my mother love a failure so?”
Elspeth knelt beside Melanna’s father, her fingers dancing briefly across his brow before she straightened. “His wounds are bitter with poison. I need silver. I need the crown. And soon.”
Ashana’s sapphire eyes bored into Melanna’s. “The choice is yours. What is more important? Your father’s life, or his crown? Your crown?”
Melanna stiffened and faced the altar. The imperial crown. The heart of Empire. Their family’s history. Everything for which her father had fought. Everything she’d thought to claim. Her past and future were bound to it.
She stared at the latticework bridge, where the Icansae prince knelt. He and his kind would never forgive. Her father would never forgive. If she sacrificed the crown, there could be no throne. She’d become the wrecker of tradition in truth, as well as jealous whisper.
Melanna tore her eyes from the bridge, her gaze touching briefly on Elspeth’s. Her eyes held only contempt, as one bored with a performance that had overstayed its due. Only the Huntsman offered any solace. Or she thought he did. A slight dip of the head that might have existed only in her imagination, urging her to make a decision.
“Take it.” Melanna raised the silver circlet from its bed of ivy and held it out. “No woman can be worthy of a crown she chooses over those she loves.”
“The correct answer.”
Melanna barely heard Ashana’s soft-spoken words. She felt sure no other had.
Elspeth snatched the crown. “About time.”
Corrosion crept outward from her fingers as patina and tarnish, faster and faster as the rot spread. Black dust rushed away, and the crown was gone, reduced to twisted fragments. White light danced about Elspeth’s fingers, her hands once again silver as they had been in moonlight. Rent armour crumbled at her touch, and she set her hands to Kai Saran’s wounds.
His scream echoed across the cloister. His body convulsed on shoulders and heels. Melanna clenched a fist – her one concession to weakness as her sire writhed.
At last, the screams faded. Elspeth stepped away. Her bare arms were black to the elbow with charred skin, her expression dark with caged pain. Melanna’s father lay motionless in the drifting mist, his tan skin no longer marred by poison’s taint.
“He will live,” Elspeth said tautly. Her blackened fingers scratched at a charred palm, scattering dark flecks and revealing pale skin beneath. “If he so chooses.”
A final spasm and a rasping cough brought Melanna’s father to a propped elbow. A welter of dark blood spilled across his lips and dribbled into the mists.
“Charming,” Elspeth murmured.
Melanna fell to her knees. “Father?”
Eyes cracked open. A breathy voice hailed from a distant place. “Melanna?”
Wary of the eyes upon her from around the cloister, Melanna forewent the embrace she longed to offer, and instead held out a hand.
“Can you stand, my prince?”
She stuttered the words, barely able to speak for contrary emotions. Those emotions soared as his hand closed about hers. Not yet the strength of the mountain, but better than she’d dared hope. His breathing rasped more than she liked, but such things would improve while life thrived.
He rose, and at once bowed his head as he realised in whose presence he stood.
“Goddess.” A flicker of eye and lip betrayed a nervousness Melanna had never before witnessed. “I owe you my life.”
“You owe your daughter, not I.” With some surprise, Melanna noted that Ashana didn’t quibble her father’s use of the title. “Her sacrifice saved you.”
“Sacrifice?” His eyes sought Melanna’s.
She glanced away. “The crown is gone.”
His face tightened. “Then there can be no coronation. I cannot be Emperor.”
For a heartbeat Melanna wished she could undo the decision already made. But only for a heartbeat. A corpse wore no crown. If her father hated her for what she’d done, he’d at least be alive to do so. She could bear that burden, even if she spent the rest of her life seeking to atone. A life that love for her father had cast far adrift.
“No coronation?” Ashana shook her head and spread her arms wide. “The bell chimed invitation, and I am here. If I’m a goddess, and the Goddess comes only for coronation, then a coronation there must be. You owe your daughter your life, Prince Kai, and I owe her a crown. Only one of us need make good on the debt today.”
Reaching high above the mists and into the rays of the moon, she wove the brilliant light like thread. A shape coalesced. A circlet of silver that was not silver, for it shone even when gathered down into the shadows beneath the trees. Ashana held it level with her waist and tilted her head, her lips moving silently as one struck by a failure of memory at an inopportune moment.
“Prince Kai,” she said at last. “This crown is for your daughter, who led you out of Dark and into moonlight.”
Though the words were spoken to Melanna’s father, the sudden force in Ashana’s voice made them plain for all to hear.
“But you may bear it, for her and for me, until I call you to the gardens of Evermoon and all ephemeral burdens fall away. Do you accept this responsibility? Will you be my hand upon this world?”
His eyes met Melanna’s in question. Her mouth was ashen, so she nodded instead. Eyes still averted, he knelt at Ashana’s feet.
Elspeth peeled another strip of charred skin from her arm and edged closer to Melanna. “A sword,” she hissed. “He cannot be crowned without a sword.”
And her father’s sword was lost in the sanctum. Melanna glanced at the trampled grass where her own had fallen. It caught light anew as she took it by the blade, but the moonfire made no mark upon her skin.
“For you, my prince.” She paused, savouring the words. “My Emperor.”
Melanna felt a pang as her father took the sword, as if she’d given up a piece of herself.
Ashana nodded. When she spoke, it was not with the wry warmth Melanna knew so well, but tones cold as ice and hard as glass. They carried across the cloister.
“I will not ask whose coin brought a vranakin to my temple. But from now on, a hand raised against the House of Saran is a hand raised against me. And among my many questionable virtues, patience cannot easily be found. You might seek it the rest of your brief lives and never catch a glimpse.”
She paused. The Huntsman ripped his spear free of the kernclaw’s corpse. The thud of its butt against the grassy mound was that of a stone casket falling closed.
The courtyard, already drowning in quiet, fell utterly silent.
“You name me Goddess, and as she I call upon you now! Dark is returning to this world! Will you bicker as it takes your children? Or will the Hadari Empire stand as one, and bring light to those who have squandered their own? The road ahead requires sacrifice and offers glory. Will you follow your Emperor to its end?”
Ashana’s expression shifted, the regal mask of an eternal goddess slipping to reveal a younger, unsteady soul beneath. But the moment passed, and Ashana was once again as unknowable and ageless as the heavens.
“Ashanael Brigantim! Saran Amhyrador!” The Icansae prince rose to one knee, his sword point-down on the bridge’s timbers. “For Goddess and Emperor!”
“For Goddess and Emperor!”
The cloister boomed with sound and fury as other voices took up the cry. Swords offered salute from balconies. The Huntsman watched unmoving, inscrutable; Elspeth with grey- eyed resentment. And Ashana, the Goddess who sometimes claimed not to be a goddess at all, set a circlet of moonsilver upon the brow of a man delivered from delirium to rule.
Thus Kai Saran – who had knelt a prince – rose an Emperor, and swept a sword swathed in moonfire to the heavens.
And Melanna Saranal, who had longed for this day all her life, wondered why she shivered.